Category Archives: Base and Superstructure

Functional Categories

James Griesemer and his collaborators have developed the notion of “scaffolding” as a way to think about complex interactive processes such as embryonic development, evolution, social institutions, or the psychology of learning. A scaffold is anything that facilitates the development of something else by lowering the costs involved for the relevant actors. The typical example is the wooden framework assembled under a stone bridge or arch while the structure is being built.. The frame scaffolds the structure by taking the weight from the stones until the keystone is fitted into the gap between the remaining stones and the structure can support itself.


Image result for stone arch framework under construction


The notion of scaffolds is useful for a number of reasons I won’t get into here— I’ll leave that to Griesemer’s upcoming paper on the topic. But what it got me thinking about was that concepts can be defined functionally, by what they do or have the capacity to do, rather than by their structure, composition, or other attributes. This is not an intuitive notion, but it can be illustrated with examples in world of manufactured parts.

We commonly think of springs as coiled pieces of some flexible material, usually metal. But there are other kinds of springs such as leaf springs which are made from flat sheets rather than coils. The definition of ‘spring’ comes from what they do: hold energy under physical deformation, and then provide that energy back after returning to their previous shape.

Another example: valves; there are many kinds of valves, needle valves, flap valves, gasket vales, and others. These different varieties of valves do not necessarily resemble each other in structure, nor do they need to be made from the same kinds of material. The important part of being a valve is allowing and blocking the flow of a fluid, which can be done through a number of different mechanisms.

So, getting back to scaffolds, entities and organizations as disparate as catalyst enzymes and study groups could be grouped under the same functional category because they make it cheaper, easier, and more likely to successfully carry out an activity that requires some investment of time, energy, or risk.

A contemporary institutionalist view of the old structure-agency problematic

… we take the following as our mantra: In the short run, actors create relations; in the long run, relations create actors. The difference between methodological individualism and social constructivism is not for us a matter of religion; it is a matter of time scale. In the short run, all objects—physical, biological, or social—appear fixed, atomic. But in the long run, all objects evolve, that is, emerge, transform, and disappear. To understand the genesis of objects, we argue, requires a relational and historical turn of mind. On longer time frames, transformational relations come first, and actors congeal out of iterations of such constitutive relations.

“The Problem of Emergence”

In Padgett, John F. and Powell, William W. (2012) The Emergence of Markets and Organizations. Princeton University Press. p. 2. 

Elective affinities

Talcott Parsons translated Weber’s use of the word “Wahlverwandtschaft” as “correlations”…but maybe a better treatment would be “elective affinities.”

In view of the tremendous confusion of interdependent influences between the material basis, the forms of social and political organization, and the ideas current in the time of the Reformation, we can only proceed by investigating whether and at what points certain correlations (Wahlverwandtschaft) between forms of religious belief and practical ethics can be worked out. At the same time we shall as far as possible clarify the manner and the general direction in which, by virtue of those relationships, the religious movements have influenced the development of material culture. Only when this has been determined with reasonable accuracy can the attempt be made to estimate to what extent the historical development of modern culture can be attributed to those religious forces and to what extent to others.

Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (underline and parenthetical mine)

For more see Richard Herbert Howe (1978) Max Weber’s Elective Affinities: Sociology Within the Bounds of Pure Reason. American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 84, No. 2 pp. 366-385

An Irresistible Analogy

Like Bourdieu’s description of the Kabyle house’s analogic relationship to the family, the seasons, and the cosmos, Harrison’s conceptualization of embryos as a hierarchy of semi-autonomous yet interacting parts bear an analogic resemblance to the institutional forms of life that were conventional in other parts of the social world of early twentieth century American science: the corporation, government bureaucracy, university administrations, and philanthropic foundations.  Except, for Harrison’s embryos if not for the Kabyle house, the characteristics of natural phenomena which are harmonious with the social structures that allow them to be thought of as such are taken to be because of things “really being that way” rather than “the right way of being.” The fetishization actually runs deeper for modern scientists, because they take their conceptual schemes to be natural and representative, instead of, as in the case of the Kabyle, conventional and customary. “We do this because this is the way things are” obscures the process of the reciprocal action of social structure on mental conceptions of nature more than “ We do this because we have always done it this way.”

Development as a harmonious equipotential system


Base and Productive Forces:

So we have to say that when we talk of ‘the base’, we are talking of a process and not a state. And we cannot ascribe to that process certain fixed properties for subsequent deduction to the variable processes of the superstructure. Most people who have wanted to make the ordinary proposition more reasonable have concentrated on refining the notion of superstructure. But I would say that each term of the proposition has to be revalued in a particular direction. We have to revalue ‘determination’ towards the setting of limits and the exertion of pressure, and away from a predicted, prefigured and controlled content. We have to revalue ‘superstructure’ towards a related range of cultural practices, and away from a reflected, reproduced or specifically dependent content. And, crucially, we have to revalue ‘the base’ away from the notion of a fixed economic or technological abstraction, and towards the specific activities of men in real social and economic relationships, containing fundamental contradictions and variations and therefore always in a state of dynamic process.

Raymond Williams, Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory. 1973.