Social structure

From New World Encyclopedia

Social structure refers to the pattern of social relationships in a society. Such structure regulates the interactions among members of the society, providing guidelines within the cultural norms for achieving the goals defined by cultural values. Generally, social structure maintains societal stability. However, when the social structure and the societal values become incompatible, the structure must embrace social change to allow the society to survive and continue healthy development. While a variety of sociological approaches have sought to describe the development and maintenance of social structure, understanding the relationship between structure and change is necessary for the development of a peaceful world society.


Social structure is the distinctive, stable system of social relations that exists in any human society. It is not concerned with people as individuals, in groups, or in the organizations forming the society, nor the ultimate goal of their relationships. Rather, social structure deals with the organization of their relationships: how they are arranged into patterns. Thus, the concept of social structure assumes that human social relationships are not arbitrary or coincidental, but rather they follow certain patterns that can be identified.

Social structure is the institutional framework that makes for order in repetitive, rhythmic (whether daily, weekly, or yearly) interactions among people. The key to the social structure of a society lies in understanding its social institutions and their intertwining combinations. Social institutions provide the order necessary to make social structure possible.

Both "micro-structure" and "macro-structure" can be found within social structure. Micro-structure is the pattern of relations among the basic elements of social life that cannot be further divided and have no social structure of their own (i.e. pattern of relations between individuals in a group composed of individuals, where individuals have no social structure). Macro-structure is thus a kind of “second level” structure, a pattern of relations among objects that have their own structure (e.g. the relationship among political parties, as political parties have their own social structure).

Development of Social Structure

There is no agreement on how different types of social structure develop. Generally, social structures form hierarchies or networks. The differences between these types of social structure are related to the notion of "social stratification," i.e. whether society is separated into different strata or levels, according to social distinctions such as race, class, and gender. The social treatment of persons within the social structure is then related to their placement within the various social strata.

In the hierarchical structures, stratification is vertical, with higher levels valued more than lower ones. There are those (mostly American) who claim that hierarchical social structures develop naturally. They suggest that such structures may be caused by larger system needs, such as the need for labor, management, professional, and military classes, or by conflicts among groups, such as competition among political parties or among different social classes. Others, (mainly in Europe) hold that this structuring is not the result of natural processes, but that it is socially constructed. It may have been created by those in power seeking to retain their power, or by economic systems that place emphasis upon monopoly and competition or cooperation and sharing.

The second type of structure is that of a network: people are connected, but not in pyramids. There is no "alpha male" at the top of the heap; there is not even any concept of higher and lower. In contrast to the "mechanical" solidarity of hierarchical social structure, noted for generally repressive and punitive legal systems, Emile Durkheim introduced the term "organic" solidarity to describe societies based on the network model, where law is generally restitutive. This type of structure is likened to the anatomy of a living body, where all social institutions are interdependent and these connections are what naturally impose constraints and goals on each other.

In understanding social structures and social changes, there appeared several schools of thought, two main examples being Structuralism, and Functionalism.


Structuralism was introduced into sociology by Claude Levi-Strauss originally from the linguistic theories of Ferdinand de Saussure. This view favors deterministic structural forms (that define forces) over the ability of individual people to act. Just as languages are structured by rules governing their elements that native speakers follow almost unconsciously, so societies are seen as being structured according to underlying rules. Thus, it might be argued that the structural view comes close to "mathematization" of a given object.

Each given culture forms the world according to different structures of meaning. Structures studied by Strauss and others include patterns of kinship, myths, religion, and various cultural customs related to everyday life. Just as linguistic structuralism claimed that "deep structures" exist in the grammars of all languages, Strauss claimed that social structures originate from the deep structures of the human mind and thus reflect universals in human thinking.


Functionalism is based on Emile Durkheim's work, and holds that every social and cultural phenomenon fulfills a certain function. This approach was developed in relation to social structure by Radcliffe-Brown and Talcott Parsons. Radcliffe-Brown regarded the system of human interactions as central in a functionalist approach to society. Society is seen as a system of organized parts or components of the whole, each dependent on the others and integrated into the whole. These parts are individual persons who participate in social life, occupying a certain status within the system. The individual is in turn controlled by norms or patterns. In some primitive societies it is the function of folklore to maintain these norms and patterns; in others, education, religious rituals, or other traditional customs fulfill this role. Since he explained cultural phenomena through the functioning of social structure, Radcliffe-Brown’s mode of thought became known as "structural-functionalism."

Talcott Parsons developed a structural functionalism theory in which he claimed that humans were "acting" in a non-voluntary way. According to his view, society molds people, causing them think that there are certain acceptable ways to behave and live. Shared values and norms, the institution of the family, and the generally agreed upon means for accomplishing ends were all viewed by Parsons as patterns of social interaction that contribute to the relatively smooth functioning of society. Such patterns allow the operation of society as a system of interrelated parts where a change in any one part affects all the others. Talcott Parsons' main goal was to convincingly describe logical types of social relations that included all groups of society, not just the rich or the poor. Thus, his theory includes a cross-section of society in all its aspects.

Other approaches

Karl Marx developed a view of social structure that underlay his materialistic view of history, namely that European society had progressed though a series of stages or modes of production from a primitive communal society, to slave society, to feudalism, to capitalism, which he predicted would then move on to socialism. Each mode of production had its own economic system which gave rise to a system of class stratification based around ownership of the means of production. According to Marx, society moves to the next stage when the dominant social class is displaced by a new emerging class, resulting in a new social structure.

Marx's approach includes several core assumptions that are not specific to any period of history:

  • Human beings are social creatures who live in complex societies.
  • Human society consists of human beings collectively working to achieve the necessities of life.
  • Human society develops a complex division of labor.
  • Over time, unlike ants or bees, human beings develop better methods of harnessing nature through the development of science and technology.
  • Human beings have the ability to reflect on their society and interaction with nature, but their thinking and organization are always dependent on the state of development of their society and of the power structures in their society.

The clearest formulation of Marx's "Materialist Conception of History" was in the 1859 Preface to his book A contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.

While Marx's view was met with significant criticism, his distinction between the material structure of society, namely relationships among people in their activities in relation to the physical world, and the non-material "superstructure," consisting of norms, knowledge, and meaning of human life, has remained influential. Although the relationship between them, namely whether superstructure derives from material structure, as Marx claimed, or whether the non-material aspects of human life are causal and material structures are resultant, has been debated.

A number of anthropologists, such as Max Gluckman and Victor Turner, argued that society should not be conceived of as rigid structures, or static functions, but rather as a pattern of social processes. In this processual view, human society is seen as organized around sets of rituals or symbolic activities that carry the meaning (usually religious and values of the society, and which guide the behavior of its members particularly through transitions in their lives). Building on Arnold van Gennep's model of rites of passage, Turner (1975) elaborated on the concept of "liminality," the state of being between phases, in the process of entering a new stage (on the threshold). Applying this concept not just to the individuals within the society but to societies as a whole results in a view of social structure as providing guidelines on how social change should be effected in the society as well as the interactions among its members.

Finally, the "transactional" view, developed from the idea that interdependence among people forms the basis of society (Keohane & Nye 2000), allows a different approach, particularly to the analysis of micro-structures in society. From this viewpoint, each social institution develops its structure through the complex interactions among those involved, as they work towards a common goal. No individual behaves in isolation, nor is any relationship between individuals seen in isolation; all are part of one interconnecting system that exists inseparably from the activities of the members. Thus, social structure is not separable from the behavior and relationships of the members of the society.

Elements of Social Structure

In order to discuss the basic division and types of social structures, the "unit" of social structure should be established first. Murdoch (Goldsmith 1978) has shown that the family is universal among stable societies and thus should be regarded as the "unit" of social structure. Culture, as the product of the interactions in society, both material (between people and physical objects) and non-material (in relation to meanings, beliefs, language, values, ideas, expectations, etc.) is shared, learned, and intergenerational. It also forms the foundation of social structure.

Society is grouped into structures with different functions, meanings, or purposes. In a broader sense is the "social system," which can be viewed as a social structure composed of the economic system, legal system, political system, and cultural system (some sort of shared reality: language, norms, values, etc.). Social structure, however, is much more than that. It also includes education, family, religion, and social services such as health care. Language is the basic channel for communicating information and instruction in a society. There are cultural norms affecting marriage, child bearing, and child rearing. Political systems affect not only the individual political environment but also certain legal systems, regulation of violence (by a police force), property laws, trade rules, health care, and so forth. Societies also generally develop an agreed upon division of labor.

These different elements are interrelated, as can be seen from the following example: economic factors have been responsible for shifts in popular behavior, some of them cutting across class lines. As a result of increasing production, prosperity increased, and the general trend in the standard of living for most groups was upward, allowing ordinary people to improve their diet, housing, and increase leisure time. Workers pressed for a workday of 12 hours, then ten, and, in the early twentieth century, a few groups began to demand an even shorter period. Scattered vacation days were also introduced, and the “English weekend,” which allowed time off on Saturday afternoons as well as Sundays, spread widely.

Among the several elements of social and cultural structures, two are of great importance:

  • The first consists of culturally defined goals, purposes, and interests, held out as legitimate objectives for all members of the society. They are simply the things “worth striving for.” Although some of these cultural goals may be directly related to human biological needs, they are not necessarily determined by them.
  • The second element of the cultural structure defines, regulates, and controls the acceptable ways of reaching these goals. Every social group invariably matches its cultural objectives with regulations, rooted in the norms and values, regarding allowable procedures for moving toward these objectives.

Generally, no society lacks norms governing conduct. However, societies do differ in the degree to which acceptable behavior, social mores, and institutional controls are effectively integrated with the goals in the hierarchy of cultural values. The social structure remains intact as long as members of the society are able to achieve their goals within the framework of acceptable ways of reaching them. When cultural values and social structure become incompatible, changes in the social structure become inevitable.

Social Structure and Social Change

Problems arise when the regulatory norms of the society come into conflict with procedures which, from the standpoint of individuals in the society, would be most efficient in securing the desired values. The exercise of force, fraud, or power may be ruled out of the institutional area of permitted conduct yet would appear to be efficient methods of obtaining wealth, often a symbol of success. Thus, the culture and the social structure may operate at cross-purposes.

Under stable conditions, societal regulations and goals are balanced in such a way that individuals are able to find socially acceptable methods of realizing social value. Thus, within a competitive society, as long as the sentiments supporting this competitive system are distributed throughout the entire range of activities and are not confined to the final result of success, the choice of means will remain largely within the realm of social control. When, however, the cultural emphasis shifts from the satisfaction deriving from competition itself to almost exclusive concern with the outcome, the resultant stress makes for the breakdown of the regulatory structure, the society becomes unstable and what Emile Durkheim called "anomie" (or normlessness) develops.

In the view of structural functionalists: "without the normative regulation of means, society would be afflicted by chaos, anomie, and apathy ... social disorder" (Merton 1957). There is another way to deal with the danger of social disorders, however: structural change. For the survival of any society, social structural changes are crucial in preventing protracted conflict.

John Burton (1996) wrote of conflict "prevention" by removing its underlying causes and creating conditions under which it need not occur. However, addressing injustice before it provokes conflict often requires far-reaching changes in the existing structures and institutions of society. For example, if it were discovered that a major societal problem, such as drug abuse or teenage pregnancy, could be prevented by the redistribution of resources and the provision of more rewarding jobs, social changes could be effected which would ultimately lead to more stable social structure. If such social structural changes were made, this might ensure that all members of society had sufficient opportunities for individual development and social bonding, and thus alleviate the structural conditions that contribute to these social problems. Reform of government institutions also has potential to stabilize social structure through societal change. Societies strive to develop a "workable political system in which the multiple social groups can participate to their satisfaction" (Maiese 2000). This sort of state reform has the potential to mitigate and heal the effects of violent intrastate conflict, as well as prevent future conflict.

History provides many examples of political and social movements that aimed to radically change existing political and socioeconomic structures. The American New Deal, for example, used nonviolent methods to alter the balance of economic power between dominant and subordinate classes. The New Deal's labor legislation compelled large interstate corporations to recognize and bargain with labor unions, and also banned unfair labor practices. In this way, significant changes were effected without involving a breakdown of the existing social structure.


Social structure describes the way in which society is organized into predictable relationships and patterns of social interaction (the way in which people respond to each other). These patterns are to some extent independent of the particular individual, as they exert a force that shapes individual behavior and the identity of the society.

Society uses norms to control acceptable methods of achieving culturally approved values (e.g. wealth). When these norms and values come into conflict, the social and regulatory structures become strained, and the result is either social change or a breakdown in the functioning of the social structure.

The various sociological theories have had some, albeit limited, success in explaining how and why social structures maintain and reproduce themselves. However, there is a need to understand how and why society constantly generates forces for social change from within itself that do not necessitate violent revolution. For it can be anticipated that any living culture will be constantly confronted with that which it does not recognize, and there is no reason to suppose that the structural transformations which may follow from a change of conditions will be homologous.

Additionally, it must be recognized that social structure cannot be fixed, static, and universal. Not only must a society be open to adjustment and transformation in response to changes both internal and external to itself, but also even in a "globalized" world there remain significant differences in the ways in which people live and relate to each other and their environment. The future of human society, if it is to be peaceful and satisfying to all people, requires that we understand both the varieties of social structure that such a world could have, and the processes of social change required to achieve and maintain them.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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  • Goldsmith, E. 1978. "The Family Basis of Social Structure" in The Stable Society. Ch. 2, The Wadebridge Press.
  • Keohane, Robert & Joseph Nye. 2000. Power and Independence. 3rd edition. Longman. ISBN 0321048571
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  • Maiese , M. 2000. Social Structural Change.
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  • Turner, Victor W. 1975. Dramas, Fields, and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Society (Symbol, Myth, & Ritual). Cornell, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801491517


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