Criticizing Critics of Structural-Functionalism

Struc­tural-Func­tion­al­ism is usu­ally crit­i­cized for be­ing cir­cu­lar, in the fol­low­ing two ways:

1) The func­tion of the whole fol­lows from that of its parts, and the func­tion of the parts fol­lows from that of the whole.

2) Schematic rep­re­sen­ta­tions of so­ciety are for­mu­lated on the ba­sis of pre­ex­ist­ing so­cietal in­sti­tu­tions which are, in turn, used to sub­stan­ti­ate their ex­is­tence.

The ar­gu­ment from tau­tolog­i­cal cir­cu­lar­ity sug­gests that this state of in­ter­nal con­sis­tency pre­vents a for­mal the­ory from ac­cu­rately ex­plain­ing the ac­tual struc­tures and be­hav­iors of the ac­tual world; and that fit­ting the ac­tual world into this scheme yields noth­ing but an ar­tifi­cial self-con­tained sys­tem di­vorced from all that it is at­tempt­ing to de­scribe and ex­plain.

More gen­er­ally, the ar­gu­ment can be defined thusly: The de­scrip­tion of all the state­ments which con­sti­tute a so­cial sys­tems the­ory as tau­tolog­i­cal is in­evitable as they are all true in virtue of their form but not in virtue of fact. They need not bear any re­sem­blance to the world, but only need satisfy the struc­ture of the sys­tem and the log­i­cal minds who cre­ated it. The struc­ture is co­her­ent, but co­her­ence doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily im­ply a cor­re­spon­dence to re­al­ity, and hence the tar­get of for­mal­iza­tion. This can be called the gen­eral prob­lem of for­mal­iza­tion—as it ap­plies to any sci­ence.

The coun­ter­point to be made here is that the schematic rep­re­sen­ta­tion is war­ranted pre­cisely be­cause it is based upon what sub­stan­ti­ates its ex­is­tence. Other­wise it wouldn’t ex­ist, and in its stead an­other pos­si­ble ver­sion of it would ex­ist. One which con­forms to the ac­tual struc­ture of the ac­tual world. Faulty premises de­rived from ob­ser­va­tions about pre­ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions do lead to faulty for­mal the­o­ries and those that don’t rely on faulty premises suc­ceed in their in­ten­tions. What hap­pens to be the case always re­mains, whether or not the the­ory suc­ceeds in its in­ten­tions re­mains to be seen. The failure of a the­ory must be granted, but so to must the suc­cess of any given the­ory.

What qual­ifies as the crite­rion for suc­cess is where un­cer­tainty arises. But this un­cer­tainty need not be of con­se­quence as the an­swer is sim­ple: As long as a real world in­ter­ac­tion, ac­tion, or or­ga­ni­za­tion satis­fies the crite­ria for its coun­ter­part in the for­mal the­ory and that for­mal coun­ter­part im­plies the phys­i­cal-so­cial re­al­iza­tion of it in the real world, then the over­all struc­ture of one matches the other. Just be­cause the ab­stract seeks gen­er­al­ity doesn’t mean that par­tic­u­lar in­stances of hu­man ex­pe­rience and so­ciolog­i­cal phe­nom­ena don’t fit into some gen­eral scheme. This scheme should mir­ror the par­tic­u­lar, and the par­tic­u­lar should mir­ror this scheme.

For­mal the­o­ries seek a dis­quo­ta­tional scheme in which re­al­ity, apart from its rep­re­sen­ta­tion, can also fit. Other­wise no one-to-one cor­re­spon­dence be­tween both the­ory and re­al­ity has been achieved. For­mal the­o­ries seek to be re­dun­dant—they seek to be su­perflu­ous in so far as gen­uine re­dun­dancy can be achieved. Such a scheme would al­low for one to su­per­im­pose their per­sonal ex­pe­rience onto the log­i­cal struc­ture of the­ory and yield an af­fir­ma­tive re­sult (if the the­ory proves work­able for that spe­cific case). One can re­flect their own ex­pe­rience onto the gen­eral struc­ture of a scheme so as to see for them­self how true to life a cor­re­spon­dence there is. The reader of these very words can them­self act as an in­stan­ti­a­tion of a the­o­ret­i­cal claim and so sub­stan­ti­ate them. Only if this col­lec­tion of in­stan­ti­a­tions is statis­ti­cally sig­nifi­cant enough will the claim made be sub­stan­ti­ated. If not, the the­ory is a failure and the claims false. If it is the case then it is the case, if not then not.

The set of schemes should cor­re­spond to the set of real world par­tic­u­lars. I wouldn’t say that the set of schemes con­sti­tutes the to­tal­ity of a for­mal the­ory as that set ac­counts only for its struc­ture and not its meta-the­o­ret­i­cal parts—like why the the­ory is the way it is and how, which is to say the method­ol­ogy of the­ory con­struc­tion.

The crite­ria for suc­cess and failure that I’ve ar­gued for thus far have been of whether in­stan­ti­a­tions of phe­nom­ena in and of them­selves with­out their data rep­re­sen­ta­tions are cor­re­spon­dent with their for­mal coun­ter­parts in some for­mal the­ory. The great­est con­se­quence of a dis­quo­ta­tional scheme, in which ‘X’ iff X, is that the ob­ject of study has been for­mal­ized into a sen­ten­tial ob­ject—fur­ther di­vorc­ing it from the base re­al­ity of which it is in­tended to be a part. An al­ter­na­tive to my ex­plic­itly tau­tolog­i­cal ap­proach would be to de­rive em­piri­cal ev­i­dence from ob­serv­able real world events and func­tions, and con­se­quently make struc­tural claims about so­ciety based on the data col­lected; and view that as the only way in which to val­i­date some the­ory.

What may be ev­i­dent to some is the de­gree to which this re­sem­bles the prob­lem of co­or­di­na­tion in philos­o­phy of sci­ence, which is con­cerned with how the em­piri­cal re­lates to the the­o­ret­i­cal. “Cor­re­spon­dence” would be an ap­pro­pri­ate ad­di­tion to the vo­cab­u­lary of co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems. This is es­pe­cially so con­sid­er­ing its pre­sent ap­pli­ca­tion to how the­o­riz­ing re­lates to data. Co­or­di­na­tion is com­prised of both cor­re­spon­dence and val­i­da­tion. Val­i­da­tion for the the­ory that the mea­sure­ment con­forms to, and re­cip­roca­tive val­i­da­tion for the mea­sure­ment pro­ce­dures that pro­duced an out­come that the the­ory pre­dicted. Be­cause they cor­re­spond to each other, they val­i­date each other. Co­or­di­na­tion is reached if mea­sure­ment M and the­ory T satisfy each other and it is not reached if they do not satisfy each other:

So co­or­di­na­tion is a func­tion of satis­fac­tion as re­lated to mea­sure­ment and the­ory, and satis­fac­tion is a re­la­tion be­tween both mea­sure­ment and the­ory. Suc­cess and failure are the two pos­si­ble out­comes.

This re­cip­ro­cal cor­re­spon­dence be­tween the­ory and mea­sure­ment is re­ally one be­tween two higher level sys­tems de­rived from, but not iden­ti­cal to, base re­al­ity. Both are sub­or­di­nate to base re­al­ity. The em­piri­cal is not to be con­fused with the “real” as em­piri­cal data and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing method­olo­gies can be, and rou­tinely are, faulty. More­over, ap­pear­ance is not to be con­fused with re­al­ity, nor are ob­ser­va­tions of those ap­pear­ances.

Satis­fac­tion re­lies not upon the premise that con­crete ob­serv­able struc­tures (the phe­nom­ena in and of them­selves) can be iso­mor­phic to ab­stract the­o­ret­i­cal ones (sub­struc­tures of mod­els or parts of wholes); but upon the less com­mit­tal and more plau­si­ble premise that data col­lected from in­stan­ti­a­tions of those phe­nom­ena can be iso­mor­phic to for­mal­iza­tions of those phe­nom­ena. Whether cor­re­spon­dence be­tween both the em­piri­cal and the the­o­ret­i­cal does it­self ex­ist with the “real” is an­other ques­tion.

The ar­gu­ment from tau­tolog­i­cal cir­cu­lar­ity would also ap­ply to con­ven­tional so­ciolog­i­cal anal­y­sis and any data driven dis­ci­pline more gen­er­ally. The data de­rived from em­piri­cal re­search is in­tended to cor­re­spond to what it is the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of—just as a for­mal the­ory in­tends to do the same. This prop­erty of sup­posed cir­cu­lar­ity is not unique to for­mal the­ory.

Let me know if my crit­i­cism is as non­sen­si­cal as theirs.