There is considerable debate across and even within theoretical perspectives and social science disciplines as to the nature of “social structures.” Nonetheless, there is also general consensus that structures are more or less fixed aspects of social life that cannot be significantly altered by isolated actions. The division of labor, modes of production, state institutions, and even aspects of symbolic culture, such as language, can all be seen as structures that individuals face as fixed, stable, and resistant to change. Nonetheless, as William Sewell (1992), among others, has pointed out, too often social-scientific notions of structure reify such social forms, implying their domination of agency and their imperviousness to change. Permanent and unmoving as they may seem from any given time or vantage point, structures are far from immutable. Instances of macrosocial change in the foundations or basic architecture of any given social form, and in the patterns of agency associated with that form, are often referred to as structural transformations. The term is too widely and loosely used in the social sciences to give it a precise, comprehensive meaning, but it is possible to speak of some prevalent usages.
Perhaps most famously, Jürgen Habermas wrote of the “structural transformation of the public sphere.” Habermas identifies a moment in the histories of Britain, France, and Germany in which there developed public arenas for rational political debate (at least among middle-class men) within emerging democratic cultures. These arenas effectively mediated between private life and the state, cultivating both critical rational discourse among participants and a forum for ideas and debate as to how democratic governance could be achieved. Habermas identifies several key social processes that undermined and transformed the public sphere into something quite different, including the tremendous growth in the size and scale of the public sphere that accompanied democratization, the blurring of the lines between private and public that accompanied the growth of the welfare state, and the development of political parties, professionalized politicians, and a mass media oriented toward marketing rather than public debate.
Habermas’s work on the public sphere has sparked a lively literature on the nature of democratic processes, rational discourse, and communication in modern societies. Among others influenced by Habermas, for example, Craig Calhoun (2006) has argued that higher education is currently undergoing a structural transformation characterized by skyrocketing costs, the marginalization of teaching, and the shift in focus from public goods production to private goods distribution, with dramatic consequences for the role of higher educational institutions in the economy and public life. Calhoun identifies three key processes fostering this transformation: (1) the massive increase in the size and scope of universities, which has, among other things, intensified status-driven enrollment competition; (2) declining public funding; and (3) related trends toward privatization, most obviously in the rapidly intensifying pursuit of intellectual property revenues.
In addition to Habermas’s and Calhoun’s identification of rapid increases in social scale (we might also include Max Weber’s account of the rise of bureaucratic organization as a transformative response to this problem of size), other key processes seen as primary contributors to structural transformations involve the intermixing of different kinds of people and the development of new modes of economic, political, and cultural activity. Contemporary observers may connect such social changes to globalization, but of course this is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Anthropologists speak of the structural transformation of linguistic communities (Silverstein 1998) and hunter-gatherer institutions (Riches 1995) as sometimes wrought by confrontations of new peoples in contexts of exploration, migration, and war.
Economists, of course, are most closely associated with the transformations of economic structures. Used in this context, the term is most often understood to involve the change from one sort of economic production system to another, perhaps most prominently the change from an agriculturally based economy to an industrial one or from a nonmarket to a market-based economy (Johnston 1970; Gollin et al. 2002). The processes involved in such shifts are too numerous, complex, and contested to be discussed here, potentially arising from a host of economic (e.g., the rise of national and international markets, the influence of the International Monetary Fund), political (e.g., elections, revolutions, and wars), and cultural factors (e.g., the rise of the “Protestant ethic”). Nonetheless, such changes, as with other sorts of structural transformations, are commonly seen as having massive consequences for the societies and individuals experiencing them, not the least of which are a fundamentally altered division of labor and the social mobility system. Out of such transformations, new patterns of social relations and social forms arise that condition social action in various but profound ways.
SEE ALSO Anthropology; Bureaucracy; Development Economics; Development, Rural; Economics; Habermas, Jürgen; Industrialization; Market Economy; Urbanization; Weber, Max
Calhoun, Craig. 2006. Is the University in Crisis? Society (May/June): 8–18.
Gollin, Douglas, Stephen Parente, and Richard Rogerson. 2002. The Role of Agriculture in Development. American Economic Review 92 (2): 160–164.
Habermas, Jürgen. 1989. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society. Trans. Frank Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Johnston, Bruce F. 1970. Agriculture and Structural Transformation in Developing Countries: A Survey of Research. Journal of Economic Research 8 (2): 369–404.
Riches, David. 1995. Hunter-Gatherer Structural Transformations. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 1 (4): 679–701.
Sewell, William, Jr. 1992. A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation. American Journal of Sociology 98 (1): 1–29.
Silverstein, Michael. 1998. Contemporary Transformations of Linguistic Communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 401–426.