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John Levi Martin's "Social Structure"

John Levi Martin's "Social Structure"

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Published by Alberto Cottica
A review of the book "Social Structure" by John Levi Martin (2012)
A review of the book "Social Structure" by John Levi Martin (2012)

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Categories:Types, Reviews, Book
Published by: Alberto Cottica on Jun 23, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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03/10/2015

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From interaction to institutions and back again: JohnLevi Martin
ʼ
s
Social Structure 
Alberto Cottica – University of Alicante
This paper is part of the INSITE project: http://www.insiteproject.org 
John Levi Martin
ʼ
s book
Social Structure – 
despite its author
ʼ
s recurring disclaimers andunderstatements – sets out on an ambitious journey: deriving higher-level social structurefrom individual-level interaction. This is done, in principle, purely by formal analysis: non-interaction based rules that steer the behavior of social agents (like “culture”) should be anoutcome of formal analysis, not an exogenous constraint of the model.Throughout the book, Martin starts with relationships between individual agents thatinteract with each other and looks at what kind of social structure different kinds ofinteraction give rise to. For example, “is a friend of” turns out to be a transitive andsymmetric relationship: if A is a friend of B and B is a friend of C, it makes sense that A bealso a friend of C. Transitive and symmetric relationships give rise to cliques: if now Cbefriends a D, A, B and D are automatically expected to befriend each other as well.A special attention is paid to the aptitude of each type of relationship to generate simplesocial structures that scale well. For Martin, simple means “generated by
relationships ofthe same type”; scaling means that molecular structures generated by the interaction ofonly two or three individuals can be aggregated to give rise to stable structures involving ahigh number of individuals. It turns out that only two relationships, patronage (hierarchical,antitransitive) and command (hierarchical, transitive) fill the bill.At this level, the analysis can and does stay close to rigorous formality, that makes use ofgraph theory as its main mathematical tool. While simple structure does take the readersome way in underpinning the study of real-life social phenomena (the discussion of theevolution of feudal patronage structures and, from them, of modern armies is probably themost entertaining example in the book), for most such phenomena the researcher is forcedto expand his arsenal in two directions. Both are only briefly examined in the book.The first one is compound structures, that result from combining simple structures of twoor more different kinds: for example, a hierarchy of cliques. Individuals interact in a certainway, and from their interaction simple structures emerge. These simple structure, then,interact with each other according to rules that differ from those governing the lower-levelindividual interaction.The second one occurs from individuals that, after interacting with each other and havingseen their interaction give rise to some simple structure, come up with someconceptualization of the relationship and redeploy it, sometimes creatively. For example, afeudal vassal might suddenly realize that his lord is “like a father” to him. At this point, hemight realize that, if having a powerful figure dispensing protection is good, having two isbetter; and he might unmoor the rules of behavior governing that particular relationshipfrom it, using them to attempt to establish new ones with third parties. These free-floatingrules of behavior is what Martin calls institutions. This marks a stark difference: in simplestructure, roles such as patron or client result from the interaction patterns (recallcrystallized interaction patterns is precisely what Martin calls structure), in institutions,interaction patterns result from an intersubjective understanding of roles. In the author
ʼ
swords:

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