Several years ago, I was leaving Guatemala on a Sunday morning when the newspaper ran a front-page story about a wealthy landowner who had been kidnapped a few days before. Such kidnappings for ransom occur there often enough that no one was surprised by the news, but this time things were different. The victim was forty-one years old and was somehow able to escape his captors after a few hours. He returned to his home and reported the crime to the police, who sent to investigate the incident the same three men who had kidnapped him that morning, now in their police uniforms.
The man had connections, he knew the head of the nation’s Supreme Court, and the story made it onto the front page. I asked several locals what they thought of these events and they all responded the same way—with a shrug of the shoulders and some version of “What can you do?”
Corruption plagues every nation to one degree or another, but this kidnapping case manifests a criminal-justice system so pervasively corrupt that, in the parlance of Catholic social thought, one would surely call it a sinful social structure. For decades now, popes have spoken out against sinful social structures, a concept that has arisen from the work of liberation theologians. But neither papal teaching nor liberation theology has explained what a social structure is or how one can be sinful.
Critical realist sociology provides a perceptive analysis to answer the first question. A social structure is a system of relations among pre-existing social positions into which persons enter. A social structure has causal impact on the people within it by presenting them with restrictions and opportunities that frequently alter the decisions they would otherwise make. Structure affects moral agency.
Consider your local parish as a social structure. It is a complex system of relations among positions: parishioner and pastor, parishioner and fellow parishioner, pastor and parish secretary, pastor and chair of the pastoral council, etc. These positions existed long before you or your pastor or the secretary entered into them. One of the critical insights into structures is that they predate the people within them. Critical realist sociologist Margaret Archer reminds us that “the majority of actors are the dead.” Consider the social position you entered into last Sunday, that of a parishioner, during your pastor’s sermon. The social structure we call a parish generates restrictions against your standing during the homily to object or even raising your hand to ask for a clarification, actions you might well take in other settings. There doesn’t have to be an explicit rule against such behavior in church, and the preacher doesn’t have to enforce this implicit restriction on your decisions. The strange looks of disapproval you would receive from your fellow parishioners are penalty enough to prevent such actions.
It is important to notice that social structures restrict your decisions but do not remove your freedom. Any one of us could stand up during the homily to object. The fact that almost no one ever does means that our decision to live within restrictions tends to “reproduce” the structure itself. Most of us, most of the time, agree with the prohibitions implicit in the restrictions that social structures present to us, whether at church, at work, or on the road.
Structures don’t only restrict. If you’re fortunate enough to have a pastor who preaches well, then the structure of the parish also provides you with the opportunity to hear an insightful reflection on the readings and their implications for daily life. Here too there is no determinism. Each of us has the option to ignore the opportunity and daydream during the homily.
We live our lives within social structures, and make decisions in the face of their restrictions and opportunities, whether we enter the position of rider on a city bus, customer at Macy’s, pedestrian on the crosswalk, or bridge player at the Monday night game. At our place of work, restrictions (conditional penalties) may lead us to submit those forms in duplicate even though we think the practice foolish. Opportunities (conditional rewards) also alter work behavior. Time-and-a-half for overtime has led many a factory worker to Saturday labor, and that bonus for meeting a monthly goal leads the salesperson to extra effort. And, of course, we’ve all bought something “because it was on sale.” The opportunity of the lower price wasn’t the only cause but it did alter our decision.