Good Question

by johnmccreery

In an email message to SOCNET, Blyden Potts asks a question that hit me as I read it as one of the best questions I have seen asked.

In addition to (1) peer influence or social contagion and (2) homophily,
isn’t there also a rather substantial factor of (3) structural equivalence,
separate from either peer influence or homophily, to consider as a factor in
the adoption of new practices?

There is here, I submit, the proper starting point for all sorts of things: figuring out why information isn’t getting to where it is needed in an organization; tracing the transmission of an infectious disease; planning a marketing campaign; or teaching a really good course on sociological theory. It is likely my trying to teach grannies to suck eggs (readers of this blog probably know this stuff stone cold); but think of the possibilities this question raises.

1. Classic theories of socialization, enculturation, peer pressure, viral marketing — the underlying assumption is the same, people are influenced by those around them, in parents, communities, classrooms, networks of friends or acquaintances.

2. Homophily is the idea that birds of a feather flock together, i.e., that people who are similar are more likely to associate with each other and to transmit ideas, goods, diseases, etc., to each other — the underlying assumption of all forms of marketing and political segmentation as well as epidemiology focused on shared genetic or other characteristics.

3. Structural equivalence is the stuff of classic concepts like status, role and class — people who may otherwise have little in common may behave in certain ways because they occupy the same social position, drill sergeant, coal minor, elite, working class, husband, wife, teacher, student.

The tricky bit is that these factors frequently overlap in social life.

People can wind up associating with structurally equivalent people with whom they’ve become associated because of some homophily.  Talented musicians wind up in the same orchestras with whom they share a love of music.

Socialization resulting from structural equivalence can become hard to distinguish from the underlying traits in which people are similar. Think of the old jokes about long-married couples becoming similar to each other or how easy it used to be to characterize an IBM man or white-shoe lawyer.

Taking on the habits of those with a person associates can be a way of claiming structural equivalence. Precisely why, of course, high society both fears and is fascinated by the nouveau riche and the stranger who is not who he seems to be is the staple of so much folklore.

So are these “factors” after all, theoretically distinct entities that “explain” other things. Or, are they instead, three useful starting points for analyzing social processes?

Whatever. That’s a damned good question.

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4 Comments to “Good Question”

  1. You’re right John, it’s a great question and opens up many more. For example off the top of my head another key overlap is between ‘interactive’ and ‘structural’ layers of observation and analysis. I wonder though how much the overlaps are ‘out there’ and how much in our conceptual abstractions from what are always more fluid dynamics. We need things to pin down into distinct categories to get our thinking done, but that’s not usually how stuff works. Then we wave our hands and say ‘it’s complicated’.

    Also among the questions is which of various possibilities we mean by ‘explain’, ranging from rigorously isolated causes and effects to fully-detailed descriptions. If we mean the former, then your conceptual framework would be necessary and perhaps sufficient to abstract causal relations of specific kinds. If we mean the latter, then it offers three lenses to begin our looking through. Does any of this connect up with what you were thinking or did I just shoot off on my own tangent?

  2. In my tired and had-some-wine state, it actually seems like a reprise of the Miss Marple conversation. But with more fancier language (and more precision, perhaps, which ain’t necessarily a bad thing).

  3. Narya, you’re right. But what Potts succeeded in doing is boiling it down to three basic questions that, for me at least, capture the heart of sociological thinking.

  4. And I like having places like that to start. Simple questions that lead to usefully complex answers.

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