Think of ‘structures’ as slow changing, repetitive or static functions

Purely repetitive and therefore structural” (Paul Klee)

Structures are ossified functions” (BG)

There have been disputes throughout the social sciences about structure versus function.  This has plagued social anthropology, sociology and psychology.  In psychology and linguistics, the famous case is of the structural grammar and linguistics of Chomsky ‘versus’ the functional linguistics of Firth, Skinner, Halliday and others.

In fact, there are many structures which have been proposed in the social sciences and most have at least some predictive research value for human behaviour if taken over large numbers of people.  These include:

  • class structures
  • race structures
  • gender structures
  • economic structures
  • social structures
  • family structures
  • personality structures
  • social norms
  • hereditary structures
  • cultural structures
  • linguistic structures
  • social roles
  • social rules

The way I view these is as my title says: If the outcomes of actions (the functions) are repetitive, static, or slow changing then they will be observed or measured as if they were object-like structures.  This has led to theorizing these structures as if they really were objects, which has been misleading in so many ways.  As soon as the functioning or outcomes of those events are changed, those ‘structures’ will change. (Ironically, ‘real’ objects can aso be viewed as slowly changing structures)

Rather than leading to theories of ‘objective structures’, what these observed ‘structures’ should really throw up for research are these questions:

  • Why are the outcomes or functions static or slow changing in the first place?
  • Where and when have these functions changed in the past or in other contexts?
  • How can we or something else change these static forms of functioning and thus change the ‘structures’ which have been observed?

The structural approaches can predict behaviours in the short term, especially with combined data from many individuals, but even then, such structural predictions only work if the environmental outcomes remain in place and are repetitive.  The functionality inherent in any ‘structures’ which are found therefore needs more analysis on the part of researchers, to show how these structures come to be observed in the first place. Much of real life escapes these social and societal ‘structures’ but is lost both in aggregate data and when structures are nominalized.


1. Grammar shows very consistent structures. Even when languages differ (English has a broad SVO structure and German has SOV) there is a strong consistency within a language. This seems to show a miraculous object-like structure which comes from nowhere (Chomsky said it was hard-wired) but really what we need to look at closer is the question of why the functionality is so static within linguistics communities.

The answer I think lies in the social importance for our lives of maintaining a strong, easily heard, and easily responded to pattern of language.  That is, grammar functions to allow us to easily respond to language, smoothly and with few mistakes.  Therefore, it is vitally important for all aspects of our lives that linguistics communities do not alter this in any way or else language use would slow down and have many more mistakes occurring.  Our lives would almost be ruined.

That is, we need to have purely repetitive outcomes (functions) from grammar or else the language becomes slow and difficult.  If English speakers began randomly to switch between SVO and SOV it would be a mess and our lives would therefore be messed up.  This is why it looks hard-wired but the strong structure comes from the social importance of maintaining a strong pattern of function outcomes.

2. In the ‘basic’ research of behaviour analysis we can easily show static structures of VI, FI, FR, and VR responding. But we do this by programming functional outcomes which are purely repetitive, and keeping the situation simple. This is not a problem and the behaviours are real.

A problem with this arises, however, when these structural patterns (VI, FI, FR, and VR responding) are therefore assumed to be some sort of ‘basic units’ of all behaviour and which occur ‘in the background’ or ‘underneath’ all the more complex responding.  As if all complex responding can be built out of VI, FI, FR, and VR responding.  These patterns of responding show a structure because the functions are made static, not because they are something like the basic building blocks of all responding.  They are not basic, they are just a result of statically programmed functions.

3. Societies show definite class and gender structures, with different groups in societies having different but predictable outcomes (functions) for the very same behaviours. But these are not ‘objective’ structures that must maintain; they only maintain because the functioning of those societies is static or slow changing. This is the crux of Marx’s analyses of class, that it is maintained because capitalism produces a fixed set of outcomes (functions) for the same behaviours but differing across groups.  This is not anything inherent in the people but about how capitalism has programmed what will be different outcomes for workers and properties owners, for example.  Marx’s vision was that it is therefore possible to change those functions which are programmed statically into the economic and social ‘structures’ of capitalism.

Similarly, for patriarchal ‘structures’; males and females get different but predictable outcomes for the very same behaviours but this is not about inherent male and female differences.  Our society has fixed or repetitive ways of making opportunities or privileges easy for some and this looks like a permanent, ‘objective’ structure’.  But it is just the way the environment is currently programmed for the outputs of behaviours and we can in principle change this (‘smash the patriarchy’).

4. When a person starts repeating a habitual pattern of responding we commonly talk about a ‘personality structure’. What this really means is that their environment or life worlds are static or only slowly changing, and so the output for what they do remains the same over time so they repeat those ‘habits’ over and over (like VI and FI really). If the behaviours thus shaped are dysfunctional in other ways then psychiatrists will even talk about ‘personality disorders’. But the ‘disorder’ is in the way the societal functioning is occurring and in the way it has becomes static or only slowly changing.

So ironically, ‘personality structures’ are external to the person.  If someone has a ‘strong personality’, whether good or bad, this means that they have a static life world.  If someone has a ‘borderline personality’ this means that they have been immersed in a ‘borderline set of functionalities’ produced by their society.

5. Structures of social groups or societies, in this approach, closely depend upon the ecology or the regularity of producing the resources needed for life. In ‘tribal’ life, the ecologies were tracked over generations and so clear social structures were produced–food ecology just kept on repeating the same way year by year.  Stable ecologies allowed stable social structures to remain in place, and so anthropologists could map the strongly patterned structures of community and family life easily.

In the modern world, the ecology of capitalism which now determines our outcomes of life resources has also set up some regularities, including differences between work done (the class ‘structures’ arising from the divisions of labour’), gender structures, race structures, etc.  Likewise, ‘social norms’ have been observed static for periods but regularly changing as western societies have changed.

Interventions for change

Going back, we need to approach ‘structures and functions’ in a combined way.  Rather than trying to change an ‘objective structure’ directly, we really should be analysing these questions first:

  • Why are the outcomes or functions static or slow changing in the first place?
  • Where and when have these functions changed in the past or in other contexts?
  • How can we or something else change these static forms of functioning and thus change the ‘structures’ which have been observed?

To change the structures, then, we need to change the way the person or group differentially get outcomes for how they act in the world.  Marxists and feminists are already doing this with class and gender ‘structures’, but we can learn from them in the other areas of where ‘structures’ have become dysfunctional.  Easily said, but difficult to do in many cases.



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