Friday, March 20, 2015

Structuralist Reformation

Sometimes, it can seem like we're living through the dullest age in the history of human civilization, that nothing going on matters, that we're just killing time. This bullshit is so stupid and boring that you might want to stab yourself in the spleen with a butterknife just to make sure you haven't slipped into a coma.

Most of the topics of today, like health care policy and gay rights, are not relevant in a grand sense, but we are living through a change that IS relevant. That change is:

Structuralism is dying.

Of all the changes you can point to in the modern world, I would argue that the most important is the death of structuralism, an idea that relates to individuals being part of a large, machine-like social structure, given form by institutions which largely shape individual identity. We now live in a post-structuralist* age.

I don't specifically mean structuralism in the modern sense, but the general ideas of social structure. Modern structuralism - which is to say, structural functionalism - was an analytical descendant of a perspective probably older than the written word, the thought at the core of Plato's Republic. It is a view of society as a deeply hierarchical body where norms and values are shared and identity through specialization was expected. Hindu society is predicated on the caste system, understood through the metaphor of society as one body with different parts, as told in the Rig Vedas. Somewhat more recent, Englishman Thomas Starkey made a very similar explanation for the structure of the English state in the Reign of King Henry the Eighth, written in 1534.

This is not to say that structural functionalism is the most developed or refined of the ideas in the same family; it just happens to be the last. Linked with political conservatism, everything about the structural view has been attacked over the last half century. Quite simply, the age of individuals being part of a greater body is over. Even in cultures like China, rich with traditions of respect and conformity, globalism is pushing people towards the natural enemy of structuralism: egalitarian individualism. That's a problem, because much of morality and the human experience only makes sense through the structuralist lens.

To understand why this is happening, we need to understand a few things about structuralism, and about the academic field of anthropology, where it rose and fell.


Anthropology was created by Franz Boas, a geographer, and an observer of indigenous culture and language. When Boas began his work in the late 1800's, cultural studies were dominated by the idea that societies followed a certain trajectory over time which moved from primitive to advanced cultures - orthogenesis - and this view celebrated Western culture as the peak level of social evolution. Darwin's work, new at the time, gave fuel to these ideas: "survival of the fittest" justified colonial behavior and racially-based social inequality.

Strongly opposed to this after living with supposedly primitive tribesmen, Boas looked at social change as less a deterministic process and more a historical one, filled with circumstantial chance and adaptation. Boas wanted his field to explain cultural variation, but in his own interpretation of scientific objectivity, he did not want them to judge the value of those variations.

If you're a pacifistic person, this is a tempting way to look at societies and the differences between them. Since a culture instills values in people in a fundamentally biased manner, it is plain arrogance for any foreigner to enter an unfamiliar society, ostensibly to learn, and criticize their ways by imposing values learned in their own very different and distant culture.

The anthropological view

You can see the above perspective at work today. It's spread far enough to practically be dogma at this point. For reference, one prime-time character on TV is an anthropologist, Temperance Brennan from Bones. She's constantly comparing social interactions and beliefs she sees around her to the norms and traditions of remote tribes she has studied, and doing so as if the two societies were comparable and equal. That's not an accident. It's exactly what the field demands.

Boas, extremely critical of any sort of racism or cultural prejudice, essentially created a field wherein evaluation was considered subjective, unscientific, and wrong. Today, he is celebrated as much for his social activism as much as for his scientific findings. He humanized people Western society had previously looked down upon.


You can see where this can go wrong, of course. For one thing, this is a perspective in and of itself, and by promoting it, Boas was placing it above the perspectives of his scientific peers and basically all humanity, displacing earlier, "indigenous" perspectives. In doing this, Boas didn't rise above ideology so much as become an ideologue in his own right.

People need to believe in something, and what they believe is the key to their belonging in a group. Anthropologists believe in something, but that "something" does not see itself as culture in the same way anthropologists look at other cultures, but rather it's a culture that believes itself beyond subjectivity. It sees itself as rational, and rationality is the new righteousness.

This way of doing things in search of cultural "objectivity" is littered with paradoxes, if not outright dishonesty, and contributed to an academic subculture bent on rationalizing whatever ethics they found likable.

For another thing, the idea that a tribe in the middle of a rain forest beset with high morality rates, no industry, and constant boredom is equal to a society which built a Boeing passenger jet and developed a cure for polio does not scan for most people, nor should it. That's not simply an opinion: every time some Amazon tribe makes contact with the rest of the world and hears about what modern society has to offer, huge numbers of tribesmen leave. UNESCO exists because indigenous cultures everywhere start dying as soon as they're exposed to air conditioning, so preserving those cultures has become the job of Western institutions. Many of the people who cry the loudest for greater material quality of life and individual freedom at home also tend to cry loudly for us to preserve cultures steeped in poverty and socially enforced conformity, but somehow, a people who fancies its values universal don't see how irrational this is.

It's a bizarre way to look at the world if you actually are a part of any society, as opposed to seeing yourself as a somehow pure-minded observer. It's rooted in a very pure form of alienation. There are some elements to Boasian thinking that I strongly agree with: for example, I reject the idea that the West has developed anything resembling an objectively good moral system. In fact, I'd say that the West is radically overrated, unstable, even doomed as a society. I also respect the notion of cultural relativism, rightly understood (not misunderstood in the way that conservatives know it). But my reasons for thinking that way come from a very different place.


In this strange academic subculture where actual culture is studied, structuralism seemed like a fish out of water at times. It's not that advances weren't made: brilliant minds like Talcott Parsons and Jean Claude Levi-Strauss produced detailed theoretical insights, often in the kind of dense and unreadable prose that universities love so much, and which has polluted my own writing. Lots of garbage was created, but at times, the perspective made sense in ways no other study of society does.

Of real importance was the conflict between Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, not a personal conflict but rather a conflict between their visions of social structure. Malinowski proposed that the society existed to serve the needs of the individuals in it; obviously this perspective fits with Western orthodoxy and is widespread consensus today. Radcliffe-Brown, more exacting and less inclined to populism or being agreeable, rejected this and rejected the functionalist element of structuralism as it pertained to individuals. He posited that the individual and their needs were not the base units of society, but rather, the processes of interaction were core to anthropology: getting seriously esoteric, Radcliffe-Brown agreed with Emile Durkheim and Auguste Comte that society was a fundamentally higher "level" of reality, separate from the inorganic physical level and the biological level. Philosophers of science today call this supervenience.

I give you here the most important element of Radcliffe-Brown's perspective, one criticized precisely for its anti-individualism in the source, but simultaneously a beatific, sublime, and historically valid understanding of what a society is:
He argued that as long as a biological organism lives, it preserves the continuity of structure, but not preserve the unity of its constituent parts. That is, over a period of time, while the constituent cells do not remain the same, the structural arrangement of the constituent units remains similar. He suggested that human beings, as essential units, are connected by a set of social relations into an integrated whole. Like the biological organism, the continuity of the social structure is not destroyed by changes in the units. Although individuals may leave the society by death or other means, other individuals may enter it. Therefore, the continuity is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of individual human beings and of organized groups into which they are united. The social life of a community is the functioning of the social structure. The function of any recurrent activity is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and thereby, the contribution it makes to structural continuity (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:178).
Other conservatives who read my blogs might be tempted to vomit right about now, as American "conservatism" has attached itself to a particular ideal of individual freedom like a rabid pit bull. As Americans, they are most likely incapable of understanding what a conservative is. They've been duped into believing freedom, order, equality, and merit are compatible ideas.

These American pseudo-conservatives believe in the opposition of individualism and socialism. The reality points more towards individualist, egalitarian socialism versus identitarian, hierarchical fascism.

There is no need to make a dichotomy of individualism and structuralism, however. Placing the emphasis of governance on either the empowerment of the individual or on the preservation of the whole society are, 90% of the time, totally compatible. The other ten percent is where cultures find their identity, just as the information that separates an human from a microorganism is decided in only a single-digit percentage of your DNA's total code.


Odds are that if you're here reading this, and you know what I blog about, you can guess one topic which gave the structuralists issues: hierarchy. The most famous attempt to use structuralism to legitimize hierarchy was the Davis-Moore hypothesis, which asserted that inequality is justifiable because incentives are necessary to induce people to do difficult work, including investing their time in learning everything necessary for such work. Not all work is equally difficult, necessary, or rewarding, and thus the unequal importance of the position implied unequal compensation.

I disagree with much of this myself for a variety of reasons based on Nietzsche's power teleology, but the arguments against the hypothesis are some of the worst I have ever seen in academia. Many, like systematic scarcity being artificial and stratification being useful only for keeping the elite in power, rely mostly on Marxist theory. In response to the historical fact that egalitarian societies don't exist, we have this gem of reasoning:

 The universality of stratification does not mean it is necessarily beneficial or inevitable. Just because stratification is universal does not mean it is a vital aspect or system need of society. Stratification is not positively functionally for a society--it is dysfunctional.

This is the academic equivalent of simply saying "no" and crossing your arms, maybe whining for a juice box. There is no argument here besides saying that just because it doesn't exist and never has existed -  despite thousands of hugely diverse societies having existed and competed, despite the obvious desirability of not having a hierarchy for the vast majority of society which has to obey one currently - doesn't mean that it can't happen.

People who view other cultures through the supposedly rational lens of Western academia might be arrogant enough to believe something like this. I find it far more likely that freedom and individualism are addictive ideas that have created their own mythos, and that no matter how badly egalitarian ideas fail, the narrative of a paradise for every individual on Earth will continue.


When I say that structuralism is dying, what I mean is that this perspective on what one does as a part of the whole - contribution by occupying a place in a collective with a distinct identity and values - is in the process of being rejected by cultures everywhere. To look at the world with a structuralist perspective, loyalty to institutions that provide identity are pivotal. This means nation, family, religion, employer, race, something. But such loyalties are precisely on the way out.

In the educational and working world, people never find encouragement to fill in a slot somewhere for the sake of the bigger picture of an institution's welfare. Rather, they are encouraged to pursue a passion, or more pragmatically, to pursue money. There are patriots, people who choose a career with national interest in mind, a form of structural thinking. But those people are frequently seen as idiotic tools, particularly if their understanding of loyalty includes any element of trust in authorities like government or business.

Family is obviously dying, recast as a mutable emotional bond instead of a genetic bond that implies unchangeable membership in a group. Arguing that this bond is good for society on an organizational level looks baseless and most people just don't seem to understand it, as challenges to divorce law and gay marriage have shown.

Religion is effectively dead: the remaining fundamentalists only reinforce Nietzsche's point made in The Birth of Tragedy, that obsession with a religion's truth is a sure sign of its decay. Secularism already won that game.

Government and business from the consumer side, including education and media, are healthy only insofar as they provide valuable services to the individuals taking advantage of their infrastructure. Loyalty to those institutions is invariably conditional, and those who fight against both of them prey on the fear that they might actually have control over anything.

Even the military is folding to individualism and a revulsion for punishment. Find me one influential society today who's institutions are immune from this trend. Or don't, it doesn't matter. You can't do it. No one thinks of structures as more important than the individuals in them in the modern world anymore.

This isn't quite historically unprecedented, but it's close and a few elements like the breakdown of the family really are unprecedented. So why now? Directly from the Wiki:
Structuralism has often been criticized for being ahistorical and for favoring deterministic structural forces over the ability of people to act. As the political turbulence of the 1960s and 1970s (and particularly the student uprisings of May 1968) began affecting academia, issues of power and political struggle moved to the center of people's attention.
Look familiar? Of course it does, as we know this story. And we can easily dismiss the notion that unbiased anthropological research makes any difference. This entire story is political and ideological, not scientific.

In this culture, where conflict between perspectives is encouraged in order to find the most palatable of them, accepting any authority as legitimate has become impossible. Structure is order, but structure is also inequality, and inequality is now the enemy. People studying culture and relationships should have known, but they were self-styled scientists, not philosophers, certainly not Nietzscheans or even consequentialists.

Opposing structuralism and taking its place in the anthropological world, we find an eclectic mix of ideas that loosely came to be known as "conflict theory". That umbrella term covers everything related to Frankfurt school critical theory, from world systems theory to postmodern feminism, and nearly every other ideal running through the social sciences; it pretends to objectivity only to the degree necessary to remain in the humanities department at your local university. Which is to say, not much.

Individualism and egalitarianism in theory are as inseparable as structuralism and hierarchy are in practice. And because equality sells so much better than hierarchy for those on the bottom, legitimate authority took body blows from academia, media, and the political world. It's condition looks terminal at the moment, although I wouldn't be the only one to wonder if and when society will need it badly enough to resuscitate it down the road. It won't be easy with the failure of organized religion. It will probably be functional: a crisis, manufactured or otherwise, might be the only thing to pull people in line.


This is partially the fault of the structuralists themselves. It is no surprise out of a clique of people less concerned with empathy than with viability, but they managed to be both timid and callous as they talked about their perspective. Individualists hate being told that they're placeholders in a structure that's more important than they are, and that the pains of their individual lives are not the point. There was no understanding of the individual mind and it's conflicts. The biggest mistake of structuralism was ignoring everything that critical theory talks about.

Structuralists never came up with the simple and necessary ontological arguments to affirm the mechanics of hierarchy, or go into detail about how value judgments and function were related. Thinkers like Parsons and Malinowski whitewashed the coercive, hierarchical elements of its point of view instead of meeting them straight on. There was no underlying theory of power dynamics, and little questioning about the nature of the individual's integration into the system made with the assumption that the individual is tabula rasa programmable.

The two perspectives of structuralism and conflict theory need to be integrated, even if no one wants to do it, fearing that they will legitimize human suffering. A scientific understanding of humanity with a historical perspective should do precisely that. Hierarchy is objectively necessary. Period. The end. Full stop.


Think about it for a little while, and you'll see why this matters so much. Since our cultural perspective on life is so individualistic, we are having an increasingly hard time understanding ethics and identity. You can't explain those elements of social life without understanding society as a body, one with more going on than a simple collection of people hanging out with each other for the sake of self-interest, our even out of some instinctive programming for being around others. All the divisions look arbitrary, all the traditions look irrational, all the authorities look like assholes, all the color in our culture looks like something meant to sate or manipulate our urges.

Individualism is limited like that. The structuralist perspective has major implications for Western concepts like innocence, trust, authenticity, love, righteousness, and morality, even redefining - in a very intuitive sense - what is meant by strength and weakness. It explains the necessity of loyalty in a culture which seems to not understand the purpose of it. It IS a moral view, but the teleology of morality is rather obvious if you're part of a large, multigenerational group with a legacy: morality exists for the sake of binding and preserving the whole.

I'm not trying to revive structural functionalism, as I'm not a functionalist. What I'm looking for is a theoretical basis for conservatism, for the establishment of the old understanding into the new intellectual framework. Call it hierarchical structuralism. Those necessary ontological arguments affirming the mechanics of hierarchy can be made today, which is where I'm going next. The first thing they require is simple: the integration of the attention economy.

*post-structuralist: vulgar hip-hop persona parody by a very smart artist at link