Social organization refers to the arrangement of individuals and the patterns of relationships among them within a society (Matsueda, 2006; Ritzer, 2015). At its core, social organization studies how a society or group structures its relationships to meet the needs of its members.
Social organization is a concept that applies to all types of social units, from communities and companies to societies. It aims to maintain stability, predictability, and productivity in social systems. For instance, in a workforce , there exist relationships between managers (who direct work) and employees (who perform tasks) which establish an organized structure for productivity.
This term is widely used in sociology, anthropology, and criminology to study how societies structure themselves, how they change over time, and the flow-on effects of this.
Social Organization Examples
1. Nuclear Families: Nuclear families are typically composed of parents and their children. This organization forms the basic unit and backbone of many societies. Some other families have other family structures, such as multigenerational households, which are also a form of social organization.
2. Extended Families: Extended families include aunts, uncles, grandparents, and cousins, beyond the basic family unit. They provide a wider network for support, resource sharing, and socialization. For example, adult siblings may take a role in raising one another’s children or sharing childcare duties.
3. Clans: Clans refer to groups of related families with a common ancestor. They often work together for common goals and protection. These were strong, for example, in Celtic regions of Britain and Ireland.
4. Tribes: Tribes are social organizations consisting of numerous families, clans, or other groups, usually under a recognized chief. They represent a larger collective identity based on common culture and ancestry.
5. Castes: Castes are social classes in certain cultures, where membership is hereditary. The caste system largely determines a person’s social status, occupation, and marriage prospects.
6. Social Classes: Social classes are divisions within society based on economic and social status. They shape opportunities and lifestyle choices for individuals. The organization of societies into class structures is often seen as a form of social inequality, especially when it leads to marginalization and exclusion.
7. Religious Congregations: Religious congregations are groups of people who gather for worship or religious instructions. They create a sense of community and spiritual belonging. For example, the vast network of Mormon churches allows a member to travel interstate and still have a religious network to draw upon wherever they are.
8. Youth Gangs: Youth gangs are informal groups of adolescents or young adults with a defined leadership and internal organization. They can offer identity, companionship, and protection, albeit often related to criminal activities.
9. Professional Associations: Professional associations are organizations of people who share the same profession. They offer networking opportunities, professional development, and advocacy.
10. Labor Unions: Labor unions are organized associations of workers formed to protect and further their rights and interests. They provide worker representation and promote fair labor practices.
11. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): NGOs are private sector organizations that operate to serve public causes. They often fill gaps left by governmental services and advocate for social issues.
12. Sports Teams: Sports teams are groups organized, usually by their skill level, to compete together against other teams. They promote teamwork, physical fitness, and competition.
13. Military Units: Military units are groups of armed forces with specific roles and hierarchies in defense operations. They maintain national security and sovereignty.
14. Corporations: Corporations are large business organizations that are separate legal entities from their owners. They drive economic activity, innovation, and provide employment.
15. Cooperative societies: Cooperative societies are business organizations owned and operated by the people who use their services. They promote economic cooperation and mutual benefit.
See Also: Cooperation Examples
16. Peer Groups: Peer groups consist of people who share similar interests and status, usually of similar age. They influence socialization and identity formation, especially during adolescence. They often form subcultures based on tastes and hobbies, such as the goths and the gamers.
17. Academic Institutions: Academic institutions provide structured education and research opportunities. They foster intellectual development, skill acquisition, and societal progress (Turkkahraman, 2015).
18. Fraternities and Sororities: Fraternities and sororities are social organizations for undergraduate students, typically single-sex. They offer social, academic, leadership, and service opportunities for their members.
19. Political Parties: Political parties are organized groups of people who share similar political views and strive to influence public policy. They structure political debate and represent citizen interests.
20. Hunter-Gatherer Bands: Hunter-gatherer bands are small, mobile, and fluid social groups who subsist on hunting wild animals and gathering wild plants. They represent one of the earliest forms of human social organization.
21. Intentional Communities: Intentional communities are groups of people who have chosen to live together with a common purpose, often embracing alternative lifestyles. They represent choices for communal living, shared resources, and often promote sustainable practices.
22. Online Communities: Online communities are groups of people who interact through the internet, based on shared interests or goals. They provide platforms for communication, sharing, and support that transcend physical boundaries.
23. Social Clubs: Social clubs are groups that gather regularly for social, recreational or professional interaction. They provide networking, recreation, and companionship opportunities.
24. Mutual Aid Societies: Mutual aid societies are voluntary associations formed to support and protect the interests of members. In these societies, members typically pool resources to provide assistance during times of need.
25. Civic Organizations: Civic organizations are nonprofit groups that seek to improve communities and promote the public good. They serve local community needs, encourage civic participation, and often form a vital link between individuals and government institutions.
Key Social Organization Theory Concepts
The study of social organization is often classified under the broad banner of ‘social organization theory’.
This is a key concern of many influential sociologists, including Emile Durkheim, Robert Merton, and even Karl Marx.
Critical concepts emergent out of social organization include: social hierarchy, social status, social roles, and social institutions.
- Social Hierarchy: All social organizations form hierarchies over time, which are demonstrations of what the societies value or see as the nodes of power (Kerbo, 2012). While some societies are more hierarchical than others, we can see it from the strongest dictatorship to bureaucratic organizations and even among primates.
- Social Status: This describes the position you occupy within a group hierarchy. For example, in capitalist societies, social status is often determined by your wealth (Bourdieu, 1979; Fiske, 2010).
- Social Roles: Social roles refer to the behaviors and attitudes expected from an individual occupying a certain status. In a classroom, for example, a teacher is expected to impart knowledge while the student learns.
- Social Institutions: Emile Durkheim, the founder of sociology, spent a lot of time focusing on social institutions. Durkheim argued that societies established institutions within a society, such as schools, police, and governments, are established to maintain norms, structure, and social order within the broader social organization (Durkheim, 1915; Miller, 2010). Even within specific organizations, such as workplaces, we may find institutions such as the HR department and the IT department.
- Social change: A key concern of sociologists is how societies change over time – with conflict theorists seeing change occurring through rapid transformation while functionalists see it as occurring through gradual change (Little, McGivern, & Kerins, 2016). Social change often occurs following points of friction where adaptation is necessary, such as whenever there is a social, economic or technological change in society.
See Related: Conflict Theory vs Functionalism
Norms within Social Organizations
Members of a group or society share common group norms and values that hold the organization together.
According to Durkheim, societies thrive when individuals have a common understanding and consensus about rules, roles and expectations. At the societal level, this is reflected in the establishment of social norms and taboos.
But at the smaller organizational level, we still see organizational norms. For example, if everyone on a team values punctuality, that commitment to a shared value helps to ensure smooth interactions and productivity.
Social organization is not a static phenomenon but a dynamic and evolving system that forms the basis of social interaction in any society. By understanding its components, and how they relate to one another, you can gain better insights into the complex fabric of human social life.
Bourdieu, P. (1979). Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. London: Routledge.
Durkheim, E. (1915). The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life: A Study in Religious Sociology. New York: Macmillan.
Fiske, S. (2010) Interpersonal Stratification: Status, Power, and Subordination. (pp. 941–982). In Fiske, S., Gilbert, D. & Lindzey, G. (eds.) Handbook of Social Psychology. Los Angeles: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Kerbo, H. (2012). Social Stratification and Inequality: Class Conflict in the United States. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Little, W., McGivern, R., & Kerins, N. (2016). Introduction to sociology-2nd Canadian edition. BC Campus.
Matsueda, R. L. (2006). Differential social organization, collective action, and crime. Crime, law and social change, 46, 3-33. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-006-9045-1
Miller, S. (2010). The Moral Foundations of Social Institutions – A Philosophical Study, Cambridge University Press.
Ritzer, G. (2015). Essentials of sociology. New York: Sage Publications.
Turkkahraman, M. (2015). Education, teaching and school as a social organization. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 186, 381-387. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.04.044
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]