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Musings on the Material Elements of a Social Structure

A guest blog by Luis Flores

Luis is a second-year doctoral student in sociology at the University of Michigan. His interests concern U.S. political economy, household finance, and social welfare in the 20th century. His interest in realist and pragmatist approaches to social scientific inquiry stems from a focus on meso-level structures and meaningful approaches to the study of economic action.

Households As Emergent Social Institutions: Musings on the Material Elements of a Social Structure 

Writing in 1984, American social anthropologist Eugene A. Hammel, a noted scholar of kinship structure and historical demography, declared the household “the next biggest thing on the social map after the individual”. In sociological theory, following slight movements up from the scale of individuals, but stopping short of the scale of states, markets, and ideological structures, has produced rich subfields in symbolic interactionism, field theory, and network analysis, but the household level has arguably not generated the theoretical attention Hammel might have predicted. [1] My suspicion is that a limited conception of social structure is at fault of obscuring, from robust theoretical elaboration, a scale on the social map central to the reproduction, organization, and transformation of markets, stratification, and ideology—as sociologists and the public were violently reminded after the recent financial crisis. More generally, a lack of attention to the materiality of social structure has kept us from attending to the structuring tendencies of the “artifactual”, or spatial and material characteristics of social life. In my own research, repairing this oversight has meant foregrounding the trivial observation that households must occupy a house.

But why a discussion on households in a blog concerned with philosophy in the social sciences? In short, existing treatments of households in the social sciences demonstrate some pitfalls that are avoided by an explicitly “emergent” conception of certain social phenomena (for discussions on the varieties of emergence see Dan Little’s blog and Philip Gorski’s recent webinar). For the purpose of simplicity, it is fair to identify two treatments of households in social science: one that reduces them to grouping of autonomous individuals, and a second that superimposes onto them the characteristics of larger (more recognizable) institutions, principally market firms and states. The former is most exemplified by the microeconomics of the late Chicago economist Gary Becker, for whom households represented a group of relatively autonomous individuals, each with their own preferences and utility functions, engaged in contractual negotiations over consumption and time-allocation decisions. The latter approach might characterize recent organizational literature on household financial participation that transposes frameworks for studying corporate behavior (“shareholder value”) to studying household financial behavior, but is also recognizable in Daniel Bell’s conception of the “public household”, through which he likened the internal struggle for internally allocating domestic household resources to the fiscal policy of the state. The former might be recognized as a strong “microfoundationalist” approach, which asserts that the characteristics of “the household” are fully determined by and visible at lower level of abstraction, while the latter stems less from an ontological commitment but rather from the lack of one.

An ontology of social emergence, which posits the relatively autonomous existence of compound structures, which emerge as irreducible from its components but also as distinct from larger aggregates, seems essential to holding this illusive strata of social life in sustained view. But it’s one thing to posit emergence, its quite another to describe the parameters and constituent parts of an emergent entity. Here a second insight from Philip Gorski’s working conception of social structure (see paper from webinar) offers great assistance. Building on Dave Elder-Vass’ writing on materiality, Gorski presents a model of social structure as of composed of three social kinds: agents (individuals, groups, or organizations), intersubjectivity (social interactions and culture), and “artifacts”, by which he means physical structures, tools, objects, spatial layouts, and presumably even nature. Gorski implies no order of importance, but simply posits the presence of these three kinds in what we identify as “social structure”.

The emergence of households in societies can best be grasped as separate from individuals and distinct from productive organization by an attention to the ‘artifactual’ characteristics of households—they must be spatially fixed, negotiating the sustained occupation of material shelter. These relations of sustained home occupation, with a mortgage lender, or a tenement landlord, or a hostile municipal government unwilling to recognize informal settlements, are constitutive of household as social entities and set the terms for household interactions with (and effects on) markets and states. It is worth stressing, this form of what Elder-Vass calls “relational emergence” (see Elder-Vass 2010) comes not from the individual, but emerges from how a group of individuals negotiate the occupation of space through external and sustained social relations—thus a household constituted through a 30-year mortgage with a variable interest rate is a causally and relationally distinct entity from a household occupying shelter through a monthly lease agreement in a 19th century tenement.

Certainly material elements do not constitute the central basis of emergence for all social structures. Yet recognizing the plausibility of material preconditions, and conceiving of the artifactual, the material and the spatial in terms of social relations, provides powerful theoretical tools for the identification and analysis of meso-level social structures that are distinct from individuals and macro structures both in terms of their composition but also in their structuring capacities.


[1] Here I say very little about the family demography and cultural sociology, arguably the two sociological sub disciplines that consistently engage household-like entities in their research. These omissions are not only driven by a concern for blog length; while these subdisciplines come into frequent contact with households, rarely to they conceive of them as sociological objects in their own right. Demographers conceive of households as settings for the bundling of observations and the unfolding of lifecycle events. Households are a unit of measurement, and their qualitative equivalence is assumed across history—with variation occurring along the series of variables that compose the unit. Cultural sociologists, unlike demographers, for the most part, fail to disentangle households from families, and critique them as sites for the reproduction of social structure, ideology, and taste. Both approaches, in treating households as sites for the bundling of variable data, the unfolding of lifecycle events, or as a conduit for social reproduction by virtue of their internal relations, are illuminating but of less of concern here.