Friday, 18 June 2021


Social life does not happen randomly. Most of our activities are structured. They are organized in a regular and repetitive way. Interaction tends to develop certain uniformities over time, some of which tend to persist. As they are orderly and systematic, they can be recognized as a ‘social system’. Because the social system is composed of identifiable and interdependent parts, it is said to possess ‘social structure’.

Definition of Social Structure

Social structure has been defined in myriad ways. Early social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe- Brown viewed social structure as a mesh of mutual positions and interrelations, with the interdependence of the parts.

  1. According to Talcott Parsons, “social structure is a term applied to the particular arrangement of interrelated institutions, agencies and social patterns as well as status and roles which each person assumes in the group”.

  2. Anthony Giddens, “patterns of interaction between individuals or groups are known as social structure.”

  3. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology defined it as “a term loosely applied to any recurring pattern of sociology, or more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society.”

Elements of social structure

Social structure refers to the way a society is organized.  It is about the way that various parts of society fit together and work together.  Different scholars identify different elements of a social structure.  Among these elements are such things as:

  1. Values: At the top level are the societal values. These are the most general or abstract normative conceptions of what the ideal society itself would be like. Individuals or groups are found to be emotionally committed to values. These values help to integrate personality or a system of interaction.

  2. Groups and Institutions: Institutions are made up of social groups. A social group is defined as two or more people who have a common identity, interact, and form a social relationship. For example, the family in which you were reared is a social group that is part of the family institution. The religious association to which you may belong is a social group that is part of the religious institution.

An institution is an established and enduring pattern of social relationships. The five traditional institutions are family, religion, politics, economics, and education. Some sociologists argue that other social institutions, such as science and technology, mass media, medicine, sport, and the military, also play important roles in modern society.

  1. Organizations: In the larger societies of modern time, human beings deliberately establish certain organizations to pursue their specific ends or purposes. These organizations, very often called associations, are group manifestations of life and common interests.

  2. Collectivities: There are specialized collectivities such as families, firms, schools, political parties etc. (Differentiated institutional patterns almost directly imply collective and role units whose activities have different kinds of functional significance).

  3. Roles: Every status is associated with many roles, or the set of rights, obligations, and expectations associated with a status. According to Nodal, the elements of social structure are roles. Roles guide our behaviour and allow us to predict the behaviour of others. As a student, you are expected to attend class, listen and take notes, study for tests, and complete assignments. Because you know what the teacher's role involves, you can predict that your teacher will lecture, give exams, and assign grades based on your performance on tests.

For example, if you are a child in a family you are expected to obey your parents but are not generally expected to help support the family.

  1. Norms: According to H.M. Johnson, sub-groups and roles are governed by social norms. Social norms are of two types:

    1. Obligatory or relational: Some norms specify positive obligations. But they are not commonly applied to all the roles and sub-groups.

For example, the positive obligations of a family are not the same as those of a business firm.

  1. Permissive or regulative: Some other norms specify the limit of permissible action. A role occupant of a sub-group in this case ‘must’ do certain things, ‘may’ do certain things and ‘must not do sill others. They are called regulative norms. They do not differentiate between roles and sub-groups.

For example, regardless of one’s role in our society, one must not seek to influence others by threat of violence or by violence itself.

Thus, the components of social structure are human beings, the structure being an arrangement of persons in relationship institutionally defined and regulated.

Characteristics of social structure

Certain characteristics of social structure are as under:

  1. Abstraction of empirical reality: Empirical reality has a large number of details about the functioning of society. The construction of social structure removes unnecessary details and brings out abstractions. For instance, there are innumer­able caste and tribal groups in India. Each caste has its locus and functioning. The tribes also have their own identity. In the formation of social structure, we delete the names and specialities of each caste and tribal group. Instead, we use the terms ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’. These are abstractions.

  2. Exists independently of the individuals: In a social structure, individuals do not matter; they come and go. In our country, we had Gandhi, Nehru and Vinoba Bhave. They have left this world. Social structure is independent of any individual-big or small.

  3. It is concerned with the interactions between statuses: The fam­ily or the university is a social structure notwithstanding the persons who are members of these structures. Radcliffe-Brown mentioned that Jack and Jill come and go but the struc­tures continue.

  4. Persistent social group: Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn edited a book on India entitled, Structure and Change in Indian Society (1968). The contributors to this rather big volume discuss caste, joint family and language as compo­nents of social structure in India. The editors argue that the Indian social structure's speciality is not only its change but also its continuity. Thus, social structure means persistent social interactions of varying statuses.

  5. Retains continuity: Radcliffe-Brown, Firth and Nadel insist that there may be a change in social structure but an “ordered arrangements of parts” that are relatively invariant. The parts themselves are variable but the nature of the social structure is invariable.

This invariability of the parts of ordered arrangements gives continuity to social structure. The members of a society are free to have social interactions as they like. There is a wide range of choices. But the established institutionalized norms change little. They are invariant.

  1. Matrix (Origin) of society:  Eriksen has defined social structure rather elaborately. He says that social structure is the origin of society. It is the matrix of society. It is the total of all the statuses of society. It contains norms, values, social control, polity, etc. There is a difference in social structure and social organization. Social organization is the society in function, it is an ongoing life. Social structure is the abstraction of society. A man may come and go but the structure remains the same.

  2. Not concerned with the particular or unique: One very important aspect of social structure is that it does not relate to the unusual or unique. The mythological story of Mahabharata says that Kansa, who was Krishna’s mother’s brother, killed his own sis­ter’s children. But, the general status of the mother’s brother is not that of Kansa. Social structure is concerned, therefore, with the usual or gen­eral and not specific or particular.

  3. Having spatial dimensions: Social structure is invariant and continuous. But it has its spatial as­pects also; it is related to the place. Social structure is not the same all over the world. The kind of social structure that we find in India is differ­ent from that in the US. Each space has its particularity, its history, and its own experiences. Therefore, the nature of social structure varies from one locality to another.

  4. Connected with social personality: Radcliffe-Brown mentions the connections of social structure with so­cial personality. “Every human being living in society is two things: he is an individual and also a person.”

Human beings as individuals are objects of study for physi­ologists and psychologists. As a person, the human being is the object of study for social anthropologists.

Thus, the social structure has almost occupied a place of theory in so­cial anthropology. It includes various social institutions such as family, marriage, kinship, religion, custom and law, primitive econ­omy, politics, etc. These institutions are based on social organization. The social organization carries within it the social structure of society.

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