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Thinking Ecologically about Policy and Structure

The aim of this sub-theme programme is to conceptualise

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 recognised 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 recognised 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.  

Professor Nancy Cartwright (Durham University) and Dr Hakan

Seckinelgin (London School of Economics) will consider

structure as an ecological context for social problems and their


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 allow 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.

Structure and Representation