Introduction: social structure as social closure
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In attempting to understand any unfamiliar phenomenon, whether in the natural or the social sciences, we tend to use models, images and metaphors based on our prior understanding of something else. Thus, we picture the structure of the atom as a miniature planetary system or think of the evolutionary survival of the fittest in terms of competition in a free market. Similarly, when we conceptualise social hierarchies, we often think in terms of metaphors such as ‘pyramids’ or the layering of geological ‘strata’ to convey an impression of inequalities in social privilege. Such analogies are unavoidable; to refuse any representation is ‘tantamount to refusing the concept of society itself’, an option which is not open to us. When historians and social scientists attempt to describe the nature of social stratification in general, or of medieval England in particular, they tend to adopt one of three broad perspectives or images of social structure. The first of these, labelled by Ossowski the ‘dichotomic’ conception of society, sees social structure in terms of one or a number of binary oppositions, such as those between propertied and non-propertied, lord and peasant, employer and employee. The second perspective is that of social ‘gradation’, in which an image of society as polarised between discrete groups is replaced by a conception of society as a ‘graded hierarchy’ of groups.
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