Chicken or the Egg by Ruben Alexander

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Structure or Culture: Sociology’s Chicken or The Egg Dilemma

In this essay Nathan Palmer tries to answer an age old sociological question, does social structure determine our culture or does our culture determine our social structure?

Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Questions like this create what’s known as a causality dilemma because it is hard, if not impossible, to know which caused the other to happen. Sociologists have a causality dilemma of their very own and it can be encapsulated in an equally simple question: which came first, the culture of society or the structure of society?

Culture vs. Structure

Culture can be thought of as all of the ideas, symbols, values, beliefs, etc. that we use in our daily lives to interact with one another and accomplish tasks. A society’s culture affects individual and group behavior by shaping how we see the world, what situations we identify as problems, and what we think are reasonable courses of action to take to solve those problems.

Structure on the other hand describes the relationships between groups of people, organizations, and social institutions (e.g. the government, the economy, the education system, religion, the media, and the family). A society’s structure affects our behavior by making it easier for some things to happen and harder for others[^ex]. Both of these definitions are overly simplified, but they should suffice in the service of addressing sociology’s causality dilemma.

It’s important to remember that sociology as a discipline was born right after the industrial revolution as capitalism was beginning to take hold in Europe and The West. Two of sociology’s most influential early theorists, Karl Marx and Max Weber, tried to address our discipline’s chicken or the egg question by explaining the origins of capitalism as an economic system.

Team Structure: Marx’s Base & Superstructure

Karl Marx believed that as the economy goes, so goes the rest of society (Marx and Engles 1978). He was what we call an economic determinist; someone who argues that every aspect of society is determined by the structure of the economic system. Marx believed that a society’s base (the system of economic production) determined a society’s superstructure (i.e. culture, ideology, and everything not directly related to production). In other words, what ever the economy needs, the rest of society will adjust to give it. For instance, capitalism is highly individualistic; we are paid for our individual labor and most of the goods we consume are for our individual need/pleasure. Thus, Marx would argue this explains why individualism is widely considered the dominant American ideology (Klugel and Smith 1986).

Team Culture: Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic

Max Weber thought that Marx’s economic determinism was too simplistic. He agreed that the structure of a society’s economy influences its culture, but Weber argued that the influence goes both ways. This is never more clear than in Weber’s (1930) classic work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Here Weber is arguing that if it wasn’t for the creation of protestantism and the spread of Calvinism, capitalism would not have taken hold in Western Europe. Protestants believed they had an individual relationship with god (unlike Catholicism which believes that your relationship with god is mediated through confession, the Pope, etc.). Calvinism’s belief in predestination led them to work hard to amass wealth to prove that they were a part of “the elect” who were destined for heaven. Those beliefs complemented capitalism and facilitated its expansion throughout Europe.

Conclusion: It’s a Tie

For the most part, sociologists today are able to do their research without worrying if it is structure that drives culture or culture that drives structure. After a few hundred years of research it has become clear that both culture and social structure influence our individual and collective behavior. So no matter which comes first, both are worthy of our sociological examination.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Which side of sociology’s “chicken or the egg” question do you think makes the most sense? Explain your answer.
  2. What is an example (not discussed in this article) of how our society is shaped to serve the needs of the economy? Explain your answer.
  3. How does culture shape the way we view our economy? That is, how is our perception of the economy shaped by cultural beliefs, values, and ideas? Explain your answer.
  4. How is the U.S. society structured to make it easier for people to go to college? Explain your answer. (Hint: think about how the government, the economy, and higher education work together).

References:

  • Kluegel, James R. and Eliot R. Smith. 1986. Beliefs About Inequality: Americans’ Views of What Is and What Ought to Be. New York: Aldine Transaction.
  • Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit Of Capitalism. First Edition edition. George Allen & Unwin.
  • Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1978. The Marx-Engels Reader. 2nd ed. edited by R. C. Tucker. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

Image by Ruben Alexander via Flickr