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Social structure

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Social structure is a term frequently used in social theory - yet rarely defined or clearly conceptualised (Jary and Jary 1991, Abercrombie et al 2000).

The term social structure, used in a general sense, refers to entities or groups in definite relation to each other, to relatively enduring patterns of behaviour and relationship within social systems, or to social institutions and norms becoming embedded into social systems in such a way that they shape the behaviour of actors within those social systems.

The notion of social structure as relationships between different entities or groups or as enduring and relatively stable patterns of relationship emphasises the idea that society is grouped into structurally related groups or sets of roles, with different functions, meanings or purposes. One example of social structure is the idea of "Social Stratification," which refers to the idea that society is separated into different strata, according to social distinctions such as a race, class and gender. Social treatment of persons within various social structures can be understood as related to their placement within the various social strata.

The notion of structure as embedded institutions or norms that shape the actions of social agents is important, as structural determination may occur as the actions of people and organisations are guided partially by the underlying structures in the social system. This approach has been important in the academic literature with the rise of various forms of structuralism, and is important in the contemporary organisational context as organisation structure may determine an organisations flexibity, capacity to change and many other factors, and is therefore an important issue to management.

Social structure may be seen to underly important social systems including the economic system, legal system, political system, cultural system, and others. Family, religion, law, economy and class are all social structures. The social system is the parent system of those various systems that are embedded in the social system.

History of the concept of social structure Edit

The concept of social structure has a long history in the social sciences, going back for example to the functionalism of figures such as Herbert Spencer, the class structure analysis of Karl Marx , or the work of 19th century German sociologist Georg Simmel on social structure as abstract patterns underlying human interaction.

The notion of social structure has been extensively developed in the twentieth century, with key contributions from structuralist perspectives drawing on the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, Feminist or Marxist perspectives, from functionalist perspectives such as those developed by Talcott Parsons and his followers, or from a variety of analytic perspectives (see Blau 1975, Lopez and Scott 2000).

The notion of social structure is intimately related to a variety of central topics in social science, including the relation of structure and agency.

Definitions and concepts of social structure Edit

As noted above, social structure has been identified as

(i) the relationship of definite entities or groups to each other,
(ii) as enduring patterns of behaviour by participants in a social system in relation to each other, and
(iii) as institutionalised norms or cognitive frameworks that structure the actions of actors in the social system.

Lopez and Scott (2000) distinguish between institutional structure and relational structure, where in the former:

. . . social structure is seen as comprising those cultural or normative patterns that define the expectations of agents hold about each other's behaviour and that organize their enduring relations with each other. (p. 3)

whereas in the latter:

. . . social structure is seen as comprising the relationships themselves, understood as patterns of causal interconnection and interdependence among agents and their actions, as well as the positions that they occupy. (p. 3)

Social structure can also be divided into microstructure and macrostructure. Microstructure is the pattern of relations between most basic elements of social life, that cannot be further divided and have no social structure of their own (for example, pattern of relations between individuals in a group composed of individuals - where individuals have no social structure, or a structure of organizations as a pattern of relations between social positions or social roles, where those positions and roles have no structure by themselves). Macrostructure is thus a kind of 'second level' structure, a pattern of relations between objects that have their own structure (for example, a political social structure between political parties, as political parties have their own social structure). Some special types of social structures that modern sociologist differentiate are relation structures (in family or larger family-like clan structures), communication structures (how information is passed in organizations) and sociometric structures (structures of sympathy, antipathy and indifference in organisations - this was studied by Jacob L. Moreno).

Sociologists also distinguish between:

Origins and evolution of social structure Edit

Some believe that social structure is naturally developed. It may be caused by larger system needs, such as the need for labour, management, professional and military classes, or by conflicts between groups, such as competition among political parties or among elites and masses. Others believe that this structuring is not a result of natural processes, but is socially constructed. It may be created by the power of elites who seek to retain their power, or by economic systems that place emphasis upon competition or cooperation.

The most thorough account of the evolution of social structure is perhaps provided by structure and agency accounts that allow for a sophisticated analysis of the co-evolution of social structure and human agency, where socialised agents with a degree of autonomy take action in social systems where their action is on the one hand mediated by existing institutional structure and expectations but may, on the other hand, influence or transform that institutional structure.

The notion of social structure may mask systematic biases Edit

Some argue that men and women who have otherwise equal qualifications receive different treatment in the workplace because of their gender. Others note that individuals are sometimes viewed as having different essential qualities based on their race and ethnicity, regardless of their individual qualities. When examined, these social distinctions are often considered stereotypes based on prejudice. However, these social distinctions often go unexamined because they appear to be the result of social structures rather than prejudice.

Samy See also Edit

Related ideas:

Related theorists:

References Edit

  • Abercrombie, N., S. Hill and B. S. Turner (2000), 'Social structure' in The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology, 4th edn., Penguin, London, pp. 326-327.
  • Blau, P. M. (editor) (1975). Approaches to the Study of Social Structure, New York, The Free Press A Division of Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Jary, D. and J. Jary (editors). (1991). 'Social structure' in The Harper Collins Dictionary of Sociology, New York, Harper Collins.
  • Lopez, J. and J. Scott (2000), Social Structure, Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia.
  • Porpora, D. V. (1987), The Concept of Social Structure, Greenwood Press, New York, Wetport and London.
  • Porpora, D. V. (1989). 'Four Concepts of Social Structure', Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 19 (2), pp. 195-211.
  • Smelser, N. J. (1988). 'Social structure' in The Handbook of Sociology, ed. N. J. Smelser, Sage, London, pp. 103-209.
  • George Murdock (1949). Social Structure. MacMillan, New York.

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