Blog #5: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The Good

Sewell WH. 1992. A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency and Transformation. American Journal of Sociology 98 (1): 1-29.

The idea of structure, or structuralism, is a contested yet necessary theoretical concept in the social sciences. Claude Levi-Strauss was the first to apply a structural approach to ethnographic research in Amazonia. Notwithstanding its use in anthropology, the concept of structure as a means to understand recursive, interdependent, and the interrelated nature of cultural constructs (i.e. the dimensions of human kinship, politics, economics, and our relationship with symbols) are extensively discussed in other social scientific faculties, particularly history.

Drawing on the theoretical works of Pierre Bourdieu and Anthony Giddens, Sewell (1992) delivers what I think to be the best representation (or definition) of structure, and how these structures evolve over time. His articulations are quick and to the point, opening his article with a clear definition of what he means by the term ‘structure’. His juxtaposition with Giddens’s tentative description of structure as a dualism (human agency is simultaneously confined and initiated by these structures) Sewell (1992) argued to be vacuous, giving the reader no objective variables to draw upon. To Sewell (1992), Giddens’s idea of ‘structuration’ (thought of as a process instead of an object) is intuited as a conflated abstraction with no measurable mode of operation in society to test.

OK, before I get too carried away with the details of the article, it is important to know two things about Sewell’s (1992) analysis: 1) That there is a problem with the idea of structure and how theoreticians have engaged this concept, and 2) that Sewell (1992) provides those modes of structural reproduction via tangible objects like material resources. From this, it is not hard to see why his approach is more convincing than that of Giddens (Bourdieu is another story altogether).

What was particularly useful to me as a reader was the structure of the paper itself. Sewell (1992) lays out his argument in a very convincing manner. He begins his analysis by defining, in simple terms, the meaning of structure as it applies to all areas of the social sciences. What follows are comprehensive theoretical/historical analyses that define the rules of structure in terms of schemas (abstract structures) and resources (material objects), and the relationships that exist between the two (a rudimentary form of semiotics). In his concluding sections, and instead of dismissing the theoretical approaches of Bourdieu’s habitus and Giddens’s dual structuralism, Sewell (1992) integrates his objective resource outline of the material with patterned behaviour (habits) and the agency-structural dualism of transformation. This attempt to define the complicated and poorly understood idea of ‘structural constructs’ is at worst unfinished and, at best, beautifully articulated.

The Bad and the Ugly

Maschner HD and Jordan JW. 2008. Catastrophic Events and Punctuated Culture Change: The Southern Bering Sea and North Pacific in a Dynamic Global System. Time and change: Archaeological and Anthropological Perspectives on the Long Term. Oxbow, Oxford, United Kingdom: 95-113.

Maschner and Jordan (2008) argue that environmental and material culture rapidly changed among the Aleut indigenous population of the North Pacific over a 5000-year period. They describe these rates of rapid technological and environmental change as ‘punctuated’ events, much like Niles Eldridge and Steven J. Gould interpreted evolutionary stasis followed by sudden speciation events in the fossil record as periods of punctuated equilibria. Counter to phyletic gradualism, an evolutionary extension of uniformitarianism, these punctuated changes were considered a product of widespread catastrophic change throughout the Aleutian Archipelago. Here they propose that catastrophic events (instead of gradual change) ultimately shaped the lifestyles and livelihood of the Aleut. I am not here to counter this argument; their evidence for such drastic change is founded on a considerable amount of evidence. I do however want to briefly mention how the structure of this chapter failed to capture the main point of their argument.

First, their introduction only briefly summarized previous archaeological research into the cultural transitions that took place over the span of the Holocene in this region. This is extremely problematic since serious archaeological excavations undertaken on the Aleutian Islands began more than half a century ago. By omitting this crucial bit of information, the authors were able to inject their rapidly evolving perspective pertaining to catastrophism, taking the form of inter-tidal and sea level changes, tsunamis, volcanism and earthquakes. Making matter worse they try to integrate these events with zooarchaeological data. All very confusing and complex, I know. Yet they managed to simplify all these environmental, ecological, and biological factors into eight short paragraphs amounting to a total of two pages. Furthermore, Maschner and Jorday (2008: 97) make ridiculous claims about ‘global dynamics’ (a little too broad of a term, in my opinion), stating that: “…the Aleutian Archipelago is indeed one of the most dynamic environments on earth.” If that does not tickle the wrong part of your nerve endings then this will: “…the diversity of resources and their seasonal variation that creates one of the richest littoral environments EVER occupied by hunter-gatherers (emphasis mine).” Really Maschner and Jordan (2008) (?) – ‘ever’ – as in the entire history of human hunting and gathering across the planet; you mean the planet which is apparently subject to this ‘global dynamism’ of momentary catastrophic change and subject to radical punctual periods of cataclysm across space and time? This is all very confusing to me.

The second problem hinges upon the first. In simplifying these processes they fail to include whole sections that should have been devoted to these patterns. Similarly, they should have included (or explained, rather) prior archaeological investigations that looked at material change implicated here. Instead, they label their next section in big bold lettering: CATASTROPHIC LANDSCAPE CHANGE AND SOCIAL RESPONSE, followed by incipient tertiary sub-headings labeled ‘Population redistribution and catastrophic eruptions’ and ‘Paleoseismicity, climate change, and the rise of Aleut towns’.  Two more sections pertaining to these events may have provided more foundation to their discussion.

This mysterious and dichotomous West-East Aleut archaeological tradition they keep mentioning in tandem with the processes listed above continue to make this already complex scenario into a catastrophe itself.

What are your thoughts concerning theory in anthropology? I’m posting this 1 minute or so link because I think Chomsky brings up a good point here. *Note* The title of this YouTube clip is not entirely accurate.

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15 thoughts on “Blog #5: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Hi Matt,

    Good article reviews! I was most interested reading why you thought your ‘bad’ article was bad, and I completely agree with your points. A good background section and context are important to any article, as is the structure.

    In the review of your ‘good’ article, you mention Swell (1992) “…argued to be vacuous, giving the reader no objective variables to draw upon…”, and I am a bit confused by this (because I really appreciate objectivity). Could you expand how Swell’s subjectivity is beneficial in his article and why you like it (or not)?

    • Hi Lia,
      Thanks for your comment. Yes, about Sewell’s analysis. I wrote that Sewell was arguing against Giddens’s interpretation of structure, which is essentially described as an abstraction and thus vacuous. Instead, Sewell’s description provided an objective means to think about structure. Mostly by analyzing objective data (he uses the term ‘resources’), such as wealth, power, status, networks, and so on.

  2. Hello again Matthew,
    Yet again a great post! You are particularly well-versed at theoretical approaches and I am happy that you were able to select one of your preferred “good” papers; I know you had been struggling to pick just one. As someone who is still coming to terms with which aspects of theory I gravitate towards, I am curious if you felt that this article was accessible? Did Sewell utilized jargon-heavy descriptions or did zhe break things down into concise explanations without the fluffy wordplay?
    I really enjoy your second interpretation. Articles like that one make me very frustrated and I feel that I am only compelled to finish reading based on a curiosity to see how ridiculous it actually gets.
    In terms of your video I think Chomsky has a very interesting interpretation. I do not think we need to utilize bigger words in order to get our point across in a similar matter as the ‘applied sciences’. A physics experiment that is explained using jargon or incomprehensible words is not accessible and is as incomprehensible as an anthropological theorist who utilizes the same approach. Not all theory is like this however, and I think this is definitely something that is garnering more support. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Kat,
      Thanks for stopping by! Yes, Sewell did lay the foundation in easy-to-read terms. And by easy-to-read I mean this relative to other social theorist who have written about structure, agency, and other forms of social patterning. As for Chomsky, well, he kind of has history with this sort of talk. I do agree with you with respect to the incomprehensibility of language in discourse. However, I think – and other than attacking the language of theory – Chomsky meant that ‘theory’ (a very well supported hypothesis, testable, verifiable every time) in the physical sciences is used to predict the outcome of physical systems, particularly natural ones. I suppose one example would be Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicting the existence of black holes before any where discovered. Social scientific theory does not have this sort of predictive power, but we talk about it as if we do, or can, make some far reaching conclusion on the subject of our data. So I think there is a difference here between how scientists use the term ‘theory’ and how we as anthropologists use ‘theory’ to explain (or attempt to unify, rather) patterns in human behaviour. Thanks for watching it though, I was hoping someone would (and make a comment on it!) – I knew you would comment on it :p

  3. Hello!

    Those are some interesting articles. I find the “bad” one has some great ideas but, as you point out, was not well written. I wonder if a part of this is because the authors wanted to be holistic in their approach but all these variables are individually incredibly complex. Good on them for being able to summarize the environmental, ecological, and biological factors into 2 pages but then I can’t imagine they accomplished this well and with any depth. Do you think, by selecting fewer variables but going more in-depth, their article would be much improved? I certainly appreciate the holistic approach but it works better in long book form than in an article unless you build it as a series of articles that are interlinked. Any thoughts?

    • Hi Anabelle,
      I’m not exactly sure how I might have written about such drastic change over such a long period of time. Perhaps, like you said, building their study in book form might have allowed space for more detailed explanations. In the end, it was just all too much to think about all at once. I mean it’s enough to wrap your brain around 5000+ years of archaeological change let alone every single environmental factor taking place at the same time. Since this piece was written as a book chapter, I do agree that the authors undoubtedly had enough ‘material’ to write a book of their own!

  4. Hello Matt!
    I enjoyed reading your beginning discussion on the theoretical approach of “structure.”Based on your discussion of the “bad and ugly”, I was curious whether you felt: 1) Maschner and Jordan’s (2008) article was strongly structured (why or why not, and; 2) how it could have been re-organized in order to provide clarity of the proposed topic? Any thoughts?

    • Hi Priscilla,
      Thanks for the comment! I don’t think the chapter was structured well enough to elaborate on some of the environmental issues raised in their study. I think if they had provided a bit more of a background with respect to the physical aspects of the landscape their argument would have been more convincing. Then again, I can see how it would be hard to integrate this type of information with data obtained archaeologically. They may have been pressed by some external force unknown to the reader. Cheers!

  5. Hi Luker,

    Thanks for the youtube clip- perhaps a little extreme but I think there might be a point to be made in there. Perhaps not, and im just not bright or experienced enough to unpack those types of discussions- although this class is certainly helping.

    It sounds like your ‘bad’ article was in need of a better editor! Do you think some drastic editing could have saved this article? We were chatting last class about the use of vacuous words, certainly seems like these authors were somewhat guilty of that.

    I believe that Gould’s interpretation and suggestions about punctuated equilibrium do not necessary require some sort of massive geological event, are these authors suggesting that this is necessary?

    Till next time JL

    • Hi Jonathan,
      I do think some editing would have saved the authors here. As far as punctuated equilibrium, I also do not think this form of diversification requires a major geological event to set things in motion. I do however think that a punctuated evolutionary event is in response to some environmental or biological factors acting on and within populations. See you today, Jon.

  6. Hi Matt,
    A couple of very nice summaries here. I like Sewell too, although I would caution us from a) taking aboard his view of structure without careful thought and b) writing off Gidden’s structuration as vacuous. There was a really important backlash to Sewell across the social sciences (I can send you references if you like).

    Your point about theoretical jargon is well-taken, although, again, I would suggest we not jump on this too quickly. Social theory has done an awful lot for us, and when it is used well, they are key tools of the trade. For instance, the debates surrounding structure and agency have really pushed many of the subdisciplines of Anthropology in important directions (see this, for instance, Just as specialized vocabularies help engineers or physicists push their fields forward, so does the conceptual language of Anthropology. To “code switch” well, you also need to know how to speak to questions about social and cultural variation. As our article by Errington and Gewertz for this week show, words are wrapped up in “taken-for-granteds”. Theoretical concepts can help us with that. More on this tomorrow…

    • Yes, I do take Chomsky’s perspective with a grain of salt. I also agree that ‘theory’ has done an awful lot to generate dialogue within and between social scientific disciplines. I look forward to talking more about this today.

  7. Hi Matt,

    Great posts! It sounds like the lack of background and context provided in Maschner and Jordan’s chapter was incredibly frustrating for you. I was just wondering if they tried to justify their simplification and brief coverage of contextual information in any way. I know that some authors will specify that a topic has been covered in more depth elsewhere, and provide a reference for such a more comprehensive review. Did the authors do this? If they had, would that have been acceptable, or do you think that in this situation it was necessary for them to provide this sort of overview themselves?

    • Hi Laura,
      Unfortunately they did not. And in any case I don’t think even if they did it would have justified their interpretation. I think re-working this chapter into a book might have helped get their point across a little better. See you today!

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