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.