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The necessity of structure is hardly a simple subject. Discussions on the topic have ranged from Levi-Strauss' explanations of substructures which exist beyond our ability to directly comprehend, to unified world-systems such as Wallerstein proposed, and of course the counter arguments against such a unified system much like Mintz' offered. Indeed depending on our definition of 'necessity' and 'structure' the shape and scope of such argument can become radically different.
Within the social sciences the term structure also seems have different options. At perhaps the most fundamental level, within the field, the social sciences themselves are broken into separate disciplines in an effort to properly study, analyze, and categorize different types of information, thus providing a sense of order or structure. Yet even these divisions are inconsistent across the field. At one institute sociology and anthropology may be joined in a single program of study yet at others they are entirely separate and perhaps mixed with another, such as linguistics.
Beyond defining itself the social sciences have a remarkable ability for classifying, reclassifying, and re-reclassifying things (including but hardly limited to race, culture, historical periods, theoretical frameworks, methodologies, and gender) on a regular basis. In 1978, Edward Said, in his book Orientalism, identified a very controversial division between Europe and the Orient. Since then there have been significant debates on the reason for such a division, and even if such a division truly existed.
Janet Abu-Lughod, in 1989 wrote "Studying a System in Formation", in which she agreed that there is a recognizable division between the Europe and the rest of the world. Indeed she suggests that there is a unified world structure and it is based on a Eurocentric model which developed around the fourteenth century. Within social sciences this naturally raises the question, is the strong emphasis we give to structure an unconscious affect of the Eurocentric origin of our model? Or is structure a more pervasive idea?
This essay contends that while a large portion of the writing in social science literature is Eurocentric in origin, the structure, and more specifically the idea of structure is not limited to European thought. Levi-Strauss' ideas of substructure offers a strong argument that structure, as Abu-Lughod describes it, is merely the superstructure representation of an underlying substructure common throughout all human cultures. Then before addressing the form of structure in the superstructure of our modern world system, we must ask whether determine whether structure is needed, or rather can we conceive of a world, or social sciences, without structure? Finally, modes of communication will be used to show how structure is thoroughly embedded in our world even when it is not perceived.
In Studying a System in Formation, Janet Abu-Lughod very indicates her beliefs that the current structure of social sciences is dominated by its European origins. Indeed while quoting others, she gives states that the current world system is entirely Eurocentric. For example, she recognizes Immanuel Wallerstein for coining the term "modern world-system" and that Europe lead development of this system, which has lasted more than 500 years. (Abu-Lughod, 4) She supports this contention with the works of Fernand Braudel and Eric Wolff who describe how a euro-centered world was established in the fourteenth century and was the basis for the current world system. (Abu-Lughod, 9) Indeed, she accuses Braudel of making an "unconscious Eurocentric slip." (Abu-Lughod, 11)
In these examples the idea of Eurocentrism is hard to miss. As Abu-Lughod points out, "Before Europe became one of the world-economies in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries ... there were numerous preexistent world-economies." (12) Looking at the modern system it is perhaps too easy to see the strength of the European influence upon the system, whether in currency rates, human rights issues, or a variety of other areas. But to say that the modern system is strictly based on this influence suggests that all other systems have either been discarded or become subservient to the Euro-centric model. Yet we have only to enter a non-European country to realize just how diverse the differences elsewhere remain.
Certainly the strong degrees of European influences are felt in South Africa or India, where English is widely spoken. And likewise in Algeria and Egypt where Arabic is still the national language but a growing percentage of the population speak French and English, respectively. Yet in each case, although they have adopted parts of the Euro-centric model, they have each molded their own form. Rather than being consumed Europe they have been influenced by it. But the influence is not one-dimensional, rather influences flow back and forth between regions. The on-going debate in France regarding hijab and other religious symbols in public schools is indicative of the concern felt by many in France of the growing Muslim population. Likewise, the changes in corporate leadership methods over the past decade, from individualistic to more group-oriented, reflect an influx of new ideas from Japan and other nations in Southeast Asia.
In the end, Abu-Lughod was at least partially right; Europe has influenced the structure of the world-system. But the world-system, and including Europe, has been influenced by the rest of the world. In a similar manner, while the structure of social sciences found its origins in Europe it has, especially in recent decades, been strongly influenced by the rest of the world. The structure that remains is not a monolithic creation but rather an amalgamation which is constantly in flux. Leading perhaps to the inevitable question, are we using the right, or the best system? Or do we even need to create this structure?
When writing The Ritual Process in 1969 Victor Turner gave us the term 'anti-structure'. His term was not meant to imply a lack of structure. In "Metaphors of Anti-Structure in Religious Culture" he clarified his term stating, "... the 'anti' is here only used strategically and does not imply a radical negativity." (272) He further explains, "I do not seek the eradication of matter by form." (273) Rather than suggesting non-structure, the term anti-structure is conceived as yet another part of the whole not fully accounted for within the existing structure; they are two-sides of the same coin.
Within social sciences as a whole there always seems to be a structure. Disciplines are broken down by subjects or methods. Subjects are broken down by location or time period. Information is then pigeon-holed into a particular topic within a subject under a discipline. Sometimes these subjects and disciplines are realigned, and sometimes information is referenced in multiple places, but there is consistent attempt to find a place everything; or as the saying goes, "A place for everything and everything in its place."
But why must everything be put in its place? And is there really a place for everything? Historically, our categorization systems last until something doesn't fit. After trying numerous unsuccessful ways to adapt our model and our information we acknowledge the problem and look for a new structure; what sociology of knowledge would cal l a revolution of knowledge. But is a structure necessary? Can we conceive of our social science information outside the constraints of structure? If it is possible, we do we constantly seek to develop a more accurate and/or effective structure?
One might argue that early ethnographers, such as Marco Polo and Sir Richard Francis Burton worked outside the constraints of structure. They successfully documented significant information without being strictly attached to a particular discipline. Indeed such works often contain a wealth of information because they include a great variety of different types of information. In a similar manner Clifford Geertz' experience as described in Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight can be viewed as working outside the established structure. His intended study was, no doubt, sanctioned and developed along certain guidelines. However, when he allowed himself to be caught up in mob mentality brought on by the sudden arrival of the police he was not acting within the constraints of any guidelines. Indeed Geertz' description of the policeman's action on page 415 suggest that he was acting against the established structure.
When we read about the Balinese cockfight and underlying structure is easy to identity. Peoples are identified by archetypes and specific themes are morals are indicated. The analysis itself is very structured, and that is where the structure seems to fall within much of the social sciences, especially anthropology. In order to communicate the information to others we structure it in such as way that it becomes relevant to our audience. Yet the actual gathering of information, though perhaps limited by a pre-defined field site and research questions, can be a non-structured action.
In my research of the effects of mobile communication technologies, I often find it difficult to not see a structure. Due to my experience working on the mechanical side of the technology, I often structure the technologies, and thereby the people, without noticing. A man in a suit using a Blackberry phone seems is deemed a business man, while a similar man wearing jeans and using an iPhone is deemed a college student. Likewise, someone using Linux is considered more technologically savvy than someone using Windows or an Apple OS, regardless of their actual competence.
From a technical perspective, mobile phones require a physical network to enable communication. Unlike a landline phone which offers interaction between to fixed points in space, a mobile phone offers an equivalent interaction at two random points. Moreover, the cellular technologies allow for non-stationary points, meaning communicators are no longer tied to a fixed location.
Enabling this mobile communication is an infrastructure network akin to Levi-Strauss' substructure of society. This is the invisible, underlying system which ties everything together. With mobile phones, a cellular network must be developed and maintained. This network must allow easy connection and must be linked to other cellular networks to enable transferring of one communicator to different locations with interrupting the mode of communication. Finally, for this method to be truly effective the network must be built around the communicators and their locales; a cellular network in an empty desert serves no purpose. Developing an effective network thus requires awareness of existing locations of communicators and a method of mapping that data into a cellular network. Thus a structure develops based on the needs of a community.
Of course, the communicators are generally unaware of this network. A man merely dials a number on his mobile phone, regardless of where he is, and his wife answers at some other unknown and seemingly unrelated location. There is no need for the users of this system to be aware of its nature, nevertheless the system does exist.
It is very easy to look around and see only chaos. We are not required to see structures in our daily life. We take the structure itself for granted, yet that does not mean it does not exist. We may conceive of instances where individuals act outside the structure, or in a non-structured form. Yet when we seek communicate these actions we do so in a structured manner. The analysis, the way we present the information, even the very language itself contains an agreed upon structure which allows us to communicate. But the structure is not monolithic and unchanging. A constant dialogue between different influences shapes and reshapes the structure. We influence others even while we are influenced. At times a certain type of structure, such as the European model may seem to dominate but in time even it is seen to be influenced by others. In the end idea of structure is in an inherent idea throughout the world, and it is only the particular form, what Levi-Strauss called the superstructure, that is distinct.
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