September 20, 2010

The Significance of Social Structure

new sally By Sally Raskoff

Can you imagine what it’s like to be absent from your normal social routines? Consider the plight of the miners stuck in a Chilean mine. At the time of this writing, they are in the second month of a projected three to four month waiting period to be rescued from the collapsed mine.


Apparently the miners have set up routines and roles to help keep them mentally healthy (as much as possible given the circumstances). Each has a specific role to play and tasks to complete to keep them all fed and their “living” space clean.

These people, trapped in a confined space with remote hopes of immediate rescue, bring to mind many parallel situations. The recent TV show Lost is one – although they were not underground and were able to move freely and let the sun regulate their days. And of course that the story was fictional.

People who have chosen to go into underground spaces have a parallel experience but for the fact that they have chosen the experience. Veronique Le Guen and Michael Siffre come to mind.

Michel Siffre started his cave isolation experiments in 1962, spending two months underground at a time. Ten years later he spent six months in a Texas cave, although it is unclear if he was alone or had company. Veronique Le Guen spent 111 days alone in an underground cave in France in 1988. She documented the experience of extreme isolation from the sun and from society. Le Guen and Siffre’s experiences have added to the field of “human chronobiology,” knowledge of how humans cope with isolation from time cues and other elements.

image Siffre approached his time underground as scientific research and thus had systematic plans on what to do and how to structure his approach and experiences. Although her cave experience supposedly was prompted by scientific aims, it doesn’t seem that she had much structure to guide her during those 111 days. Le Guen committed suicide in 1990, only two years after her isolation experiences.

Social structure, including roles and norms, emerges from human interaction. Even in isolation, we can create some structure to mimic the presence of society. In fact, by creating roles and norms, we are not just mimicking society, we are creating it!

In the movie, Castaway, the Tom Hanks character creates Wilson, the volleyball companion so that he can have some “human” interaction in the efforts to retain and protect his sanity as he continues to live on his island.

At our campus, we have a one-unit class in which students spend two days simulating a society. We play the game SIMSOC, invented by sociologist William Gamson. The game demonstrates that when a group of people get together, structure emerges. While there is a book that lays out the rules of the game, not all (but most) students read it. This nicely mirrors society in which some people find out the rules while others navigate through their lives without knowing how to get things done. At the end of the game, students have a really good sense of how society emerges from – and is different from – human interaction.

The miners in Chile have a few more months to wait before they are rescued and can emerge from their underground micro-society. Their stories, along with those of disaster survivors, astronauts, submariners, and severely neglected children are fascinating accounts of how humans can be ripped away from society but sometimes manage to recreate societal elements. They provide a basis for better understanding how humans create society and how society, in turn, makes us fully human.


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This blog you posted is really interesting, i had a fun time reading it. Its really cool how someone spent 6 months in a cave. I would not be able to stay in one area like that.

This was very interesting to read about. In my Sociology class we just did an assignment about ethics and how Sociologists should treat their cubjects. I wonder how one would approach being ethical to oneself? Le Guen ended up committing suicide after using herself as a test subject, where should the line be drawn?

Wow I couldn't do that. Just to build your self up from being down there for two months and then going down there for six months and stayig there. I would be panicing about my air supplies. Then staying underground for 111 days all by myself I couldn't do that. They have a lot of guts.

This is a interesting story. Michel Siffre and Le Guen might have felt that it was an obligation or their role to experiment with isolation and gather information. This comes with problems in the end because like Le Guen, committed suicide.

Very interesting! Thank you!

This is quite a fascinating post... In my sociology class we are studying social structure. It has always interested me that, although social structure is of paramount importance in everyday social life, people who are forcibly removed from their everyday structure are able to create ad-hoc structures to keep themselvs sane in extreme situations.

It's an interesting thing, the way that humans naturally make a social structure when they're in groups. The patterns of it are amazing, and it amazes me how dependent we are on such structures. I hadn't heard about the Chilean miners, but hearing their story is very intrigueing. I don't think I'd be able to do it, but it'd be a lot easier with a group.

Its interesting that in cases like Le Guen, it proves that humans need to socialize and even a small amount of someones life without interaction with other people could prove to permanently damage you.

This is very interesting. I have heard about all those guys down there and I think that that would be a very scary thing to handle. You would have to be a very calm person to be able to do that. I think that it is really cool that kids are learning about that and doing that kind of stuff because then if anything ever happened to them they would know what to do and how to handle it. I am really excited see if all those people are able to get back to to main ground and make see if they are all okay!

This is a very interesting article. I envy the fact that they could stay in a cave for 6 months, I dont think I would beable to do that I hate being shut off from the world.

There are countless stories of social structure emerging when groups of people are isolated. The situation with the coal miners and the others mentioned are very interesting, yet there was no mention of the conflicts this could cause. Whenever groups of people are isolated and have to form their own "government", fights break out. An example of this is the novel The Lord Of The Flies, where school boys are trapped on a island. People are teased, killed, die off, and split into conflicting interests. This is an example of failed social structure, because although social structure must happen, a real and true authority figure must be appointed, with real and scary laws to reinforce it.

Some people cant get thrown ofregular routine. It will throw them off balance, through out the day. On the other hand a break from the regular routine it soothes them or allows them to get another experince.

This is very remarkable! I just read a chapter on social structure in my sociology class. It is amazing how people can recover so significantly from being isolated for such long periods of time. They may not always fully recover, but any recovery is good, right? Also, I like the role playing concept. I am not sure I would think of that while in such a depressing situation, but I guess you do what you gotta do!

I think it's amazing that people are able to create their own new social structure when they are isolated like that. I think the most interesting part about this situations is how people re-adjust when they come back to "normal" society. It seems as though Le Guen was unable to go through that readjustment.

Right now we are learning about social structure and about social classes in my sociology class. Your post reminded me of it. Its amazing how some people can be forced to live a different lifestyle and learn new ways to live to keep themselves form going crazy.

That's insane how someone would willingly seclude themselves away from society for such a long period of time. It's odd to hear, but it also intrigues me to learn more about what it's like to run and hide in a cave, away from society. It's definitely interesting research!

Wow this story is very interesting. I would really love to experience this game that you mention it sounds like it would be very interesting and i would learn a lot about my self and others around me i love the show survivor and it kind of sounds similar to your simulation. it seems like there are many parallels between the TV show and this simulation and also the miners. The cast of the show set up routines and have living areas and kitchen areas too.

Social structure is an essential part of humanity as well as individual survivial and development. Social structure is a necessary component for human success, when humans were first spreading across the globe-humanity would never of survived if we're all alone-maybe a few people would still be around but the success of what humans have done today would of never of been matched.

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