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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Structure and Representation

Structure focuses attention on axiomatic problems of historiographical, sociological and theoretical discourse. In historiography, a singular event in narrative is said to be dialectically conditioned by the long-term structural context in which it can meaningfully said to have occurred. Yet such meta-narrative structures are accepted as themselves being subject to change, so that they too become events, in a different temporal order. In one dominant form of social theory, individual elements are held to cohere and function within a superordinate structure. Yet that structure itself is claimed to exert a higher-order causality greater than the sum of its parts. How, then, do element, function and structure interact, and what is the role of their mutual environment(s)?

Such structural issues may be considered in relation to a range of representational forms and artefacts: narrative, visual media, art and material culture, art and architecture. How does structure emerge in these, how are they constrained by other structures (material properties for example, or the cognitive structures of the humans that produce them) and what, in turn, do such artefacts structure? For example, aesthetics may be considered as a structural matter – a persistent concept of order which provides social and cultural continuity. Popular and other artworks play a role in the structuring of social and political relations. The long-term cultural continuities manifested in material and ritual form continue, over time, to frame individual encounters with landscapes, objects and infrastructure.

Thinking Ecologically about Policy and Structure


The aim of this sub-theme programme is to conceptualize structure as an ecological relationship. The concrete context it is concerned with is that involving social problems and the policies intended to address them.

An ‘ecological’ approach contrasts with more standard ways of conceiving structure in social policy. In an attempt to address social problems (like social exclusion, limitations on access to resources or particular governance problems) policy analysts try to identify structural relationships between components of a social structure and a problem. They look for functional relationships among particular variables that are meant to represent aspects of the problem, its setting and possible policy actions. There are two ways these relationships are typically conceived: a) as relationships between the problem and static components of a recognized structure or b) as the process linking those components with the social problem. Although the latter is a process-based approach involving a more dynamic way of thinking than the former, it still is focused on a functionally recognized or identified relationship between a social issue and a process linking this issue with other variables within the structure. This model is still too ‘reductive’, engaging with structure in a ‘mono-causal’ manner.

Organised by Professor Nancy Cartwright (Durham University) and Dr Hakan Seckinelgin (London School of Economics) instead will consider structure as an ecological context for social problems and their solution. They will consider how, on the one hand, dynamic relations underwrite the persistence of social problems and their reproduction, and, on the other hand, the way in which these relations are responsive to policy interventions to reposition themselves in relation to change. This is a different way policy interventions can be articulated: not as interventions only in relation to identified structural causes of a problem but also in a much more diffused manner as interventions to the overall dynamics of the structure that create the problem.

What they call a more ‘ecological’ model of these issues considers the network of relations as interactive processes that support what is observed as a social structure. Cultural categories, material relations and ways of thinking and acting are important entry points for understanding the structure of a responsive ecology. These allows us structure of function, process and outcome to be considered as an interactive relationship. Here are clear issues around cooperative, synergistic and competitive relations in ecological contexts that produce particular sustainable or exploitative outcomes. This model provides novel conceptual angles for thinking not only about how social problems are produced but also about how policy actors try to deal with social problems depending on their ecological positions in a society.

Two half day workshops will be held to bring together social scientists, philosophers and policy thinkers to develop the outlines of a more ecological approach to the structural setting of social problems and the policies proposed to address them.


Workshop One - Learning how to affect change in stable structures

This workshop aims to explore:

(1) methods for studying the causal pathways that different social structures afford;

(2) how far one can intervene in social settings without altering their basic structures.

This will take place on Tuesday 31 October 2017, 1-6pm at the Institute of Advanced Study.

Workshop Two - Two approaches to mapping social structure?(Systems theory; Ecology

This workshop aims to:

(1) to compare these two approaches in order to see how they work;

(2) to explore how their concepts and techniques can be put to use to understand the interactive relations at multiple policy levels that affect policy outcomes in different contexts;

(3) to begin to develop better methods for understanding policy/context interactions.

The second workshop is also scheduled to take place at the Institute of Advanced Study on Tuesday 15 May 2018, 1-6pm.


For further information about these workshops please contact Professor Nancy Cartwright nancy.cartwright@durham.ac.uk or Nicola Craigs n.j.craigs@durham.ac.uk.