The concept of Social Structure in Anthropology

Social structure has been used in anthropology as a descriptor of a variety of conceptualizations of human organization. The term, wrote Claude Lévi-Strauss, “has nothing to do with empirical reality but with the models that are built from it.” The construction of such models was a central concern of anthropology in the mid-20th century. These theorists were based on an ancient conversation that dates back to Plato, Ibn Jaldún, and Vico and extended to the figures who laid the foundations for 20th century social theorizing: Freud, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. The models addressed social phenomena ranging from marriage rules to political forms. Several characteristics of this conversation in anthropology distinguished it from a similar one in sociology that took place during the same period in which topics such as class, norms, and inequality were emphasized. These included a concern with non-Western political organization and kinship structures and terminologies, which proved to be overlapping and in many ways mutually constitutive, and a comparative approach that emphasized providing as much data as possible from such sources. diverse as possible.

Comparative Anthropology

As structural-functionalists developed their theories of social structure in Britain, George Peter Murdock spearheaded the promotion of a comparative approach in the United States. In 1949 he published Social Structure, in which he proposed a model of human organization in which human social structures were considered in conformity with natural laws, as well as those recognized in the hard sciences. Murdock made his claims based on (what came to be called) the Archives of the Area of ​​Human Relations, a database he created in which characteristics of numerous cultures were coded and described. This allowed him, and many others since then, to compare structural features and to advance much in the comparative method in anthropology. Murdock argued, for example,

Lévi-Straussian structuralism

Claude Lévi-Strauss was known for his theories about the ultimate hold of culture and social organization in the structure of the human mind. He considered that the study of social structure involved the systematic investigation of an “order of elements” that included kinship and descent systems and matrimonial norms, and an “order of orders” in which “anthropology considered the entire social fabric as a network of different types of orders. ” In the latter category, it included “lived” orders such as economic and political, and “thought” orders that are “external to objective reality” such as myth and religion. He argued against the Radcliffe-Brown model, preferring not to see these orders as concrete but as based on cognition.

In Elementary Structures of Kinship (1969), Lévi-Strauss noted the universality of the incest taboo and theorized that the prohibition of incest had led to the initiation of marriage rules that dictated who could marry whom. Lineage groups encouraged or discouraged marriages between or within kinship groups for reasons that had to do with avoiding incest (no matter how the particular group defined it) and building alliances between groups through marriage. “The” alliance theory, “as it came to be called, challenged the theory of descent by arguing that intergroup dynamics was more socially constitutive than concern about bloodlines.

Interpretivism and Theory of Practice
Theory on “social structure” had vanished in anthropology in the late 1960s and gave way to what came to be called “interpretivism,” a movement associated primarily with Clifford Geertz, but promoted by many others. Interpretativeists strove to improve social structural models that had begun to appear static and baseless. Victor Turner, for example, attempted to portray “the social structure in action” in his work on Ndembu rituals and other social practices. Sherry Ortner, in a major study of trends in anthropological theory, stated that a new emphasis had emerged on “practice” in anthropology. He mentions structural Marxism, with its emphasis on “beliefs, values ​​[and] classifications”, as an early threat to social structure, but ultimately relegates it to those anthropologies that assumed “that human action and historical processes are almost entirely structurally or systematically determined.” With the theory of practice, however, came a new emphasis on the “agent, actor, person, self, individual [or] subject.” An actor, by definition, possessed agency, the ability to act. Practical theorists, also called “poststructuralists,” sought a balance between structure and agency. The main theorist in this line was Pierre Bourdieu, whose idea of ​​”habitus” offers a dialectical solution to the problem of reconciling structure and agency, an approach he calls “genetic structuralism”. A habit is a “system of acquired dispositions that function on a practical level as categories of perception and evaluation or as classifying principles, in addition to being the organizing principles of action”. Anthony Giddens’s theory of “structuring” achieves a similar purpose by offering a model that encompasses both structure and action and elaborates on their mutual constitution.

The social structure no longer occupies a central place in the dominant anthropology. However, the current emphasis on agents, which sought to correct the over-emphasis on structure, is beginning to lead to a revaluation of the structure, albeit in new ways and from new angles, in theorizing about the nature of individuals. and groups and how they shape each other. Interdisciplinary subfields, such as network analysis, have their origins in Radcliffe-Brown and his contemporaries. Social structure is a key idea in 20th century anthropology. Furthermore, his influence continues to be one of the main ideas that made poststructuralism possible, and as a precursor to subfields of social analysis that use new empirical methods never anticipated by their creators.


Various theorists, in what became known as “structural-functionalist” anthropology, also known as “British social anthropology,” addressed the question of social structure as part of their greatest interest in the interconnectedness of individuals and societies. Among them are EE Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, and AR Radcliffe-Brown. Each considered kinship as one of the main entrants in the social structure. His approach was strongly comparative. They sought to identify the “rules” of descent that governed the composition of kinship groups, such as patrilines, clans, and tribes, units that they portrayed as an integral part of political organization. Later Harris criticized structural-functionalists for drawing universalistic conclusions from historical data,

Radcliffe-Brown argued that social structures were “as real as living organisms” and that the social structure was “the set of really existing relationships, at any given time, that link human beings.” He differentiated between his own approach, in which the social structure encompassed “all social relations from person to person” and “the differentiation of individuals and classes by their social role”, and that of Evans-Pritchard, whom he considered who used the term “to refer only to persistent social groups” in his 1940 Nuer ethnography.

Evans-Pritchard’s ethnography was the best-known example of “descent theory,” in which structural-functionalists argued that segmental lineages formed the basis of societies, most of which were in Africa, presenting as examples. Lineages were shown to unite and divide along bloodlines. His argument, therefore, laid out linear foundations for kinship and political organization. What mattered to the individuals who were part of these systems, they argued, was related to the composition of the groups over time and not laterally, in the present.

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