social structures in sociology are the relationships or interactions between groups of different people in a society.
Typically, individuals associate themselves in groups. These groups can be decided by a person’s interests, job, social status, political party, religion, and a large variety of other factors.
When these groups interact with one another, the social structure of a society is formed. Explanations of social structures are used by sociologists to understand the parts of society and see how they weave together.
Sociological Definition of Social Structure
The word social structure was first introduced in 1873, by Herbert Spencer, who was an English philosopher, sociologist, anthropologist, and biologist. We generally consider him to be a functionalist sociologist.
Spencer compared the many groups in a society to the various organs in the human body. Just like organs they, “performed a specifiable function for the organism as a whole.” (Wright, 2015, p.713).
In his metaphor, society can be thought of as the human body, and organs as the social structures that carry out social functions for the larger society.
How to Study Social Structures
Today, many sociologists study social structures in societies, and they use data to understand how different societies functions.
The analysis of social structures often occurs on three levels:
- Macro analysis – looks at broad categories and systems like large populations and groups like entire countries or economic systems.
- Meso analysis – studies communities or certain groups in a society.
- Micro analysis – observes patterns and collects data from smaller groups like families, or individuals (DeCarlo, 2018).
- Nations: The nation-state is one of the formal social structures that shape how we interact as imagined communities, and shapes geopolitical structures worldwide.
- Economies: Economies act as social structures on local (i.e. industrial and commercial estates such as silicon valley), national, and international levels (i.e. the European economic zone).
- Racial Groups: Humans have, throughout history, been separated into groups based on racial traits (such as skin colour, facial features, types of hair, stature).
- Religions: Religion provides moral guidelines and laws for behavior of members of the religious groups.
- Legal System: The makeup of the bodies that make laws (politicians), enforce laws (police), and pass judgment (courts) make up a core social structure in society.
- Ethnic Groups: Ethnic groups are groups of people bound together by a common language, heritage, or culture.
- Political Parties: In democracies, political parties have functioned as social structures designed to promote social, economic, and cultural ideologies upon which a society can organize itself.
- Social Networks: These can be social groups or teams with a larger organization; all of our functions at work, school, or home can take place in a social network.
- Communities: Communities can be determined by the geography of where people live, who lives in the community, and that they are cooperating towards common goals.
- Families: Relationships within a family as well as family structure can be seen as social structures.
- Relationships: The patterns of friendships, marriage, and dating among people are micro-level social structures.
- Social Status: Formal and informal hierarchies of social status create social structures for shaping everyday social interactions (the position is often a job title).
- Social Classes: In capitalist societies, social classes emerge which become social structures. Each class develops distinct cultural, economic, and political orientations.
- Gender Stratification: Gender can be considered a social structure, where certain genders are given ascribed gender roles within a society.
- Educational Institutions: The hierarchies of educational institutions, barriers to access, cultural capital gained from attendance of an institution, and what is taught, form an educational ecosystem that shapes society.
Five Key Social Structures in Sociology
Throughout history, racial identities have been used as social structures to stratify societies (often leading to discriminatory outcomes).
People cohere around racial identities both as a matter of self-identification and through ascribed statuses that they have no choice about. This can result in different treatment of groups based upon their identification. Sociologists often concern themselves with identifying how societies are stratified on racial lines.
For example, research conducted by Williams & Sternthal (2010) attempted to understand the Racial/ethnic disparities in healthcare in the United States.
They used data from African American populations, and also data according to gender, to find out why there was a difference in life expectancy between white men and women in comparison to other races within American demographics.
2. Ethnic Groups
While race and ethnicity overlap, the concepts do differ. In fact, if we look at ethnic groups within societies like Myanmar, we can see that there can be many ethnicities with shared racial origins, who mark their difference by culture and tradition.
Abramson (1976) suggests a four-point definition of ethnicity:
- Intergenerational continuity: relationships and customs that transfer from grandparents to grandchildren (p. 44). Simply put, the origin of someone’s ethnicity is based on a historic past.
- Cultural practices: ethnicity is less based on the way someone looks, and is more closely related to their cultural practices.
- Boundlessness: ethnicities are not bound by territories. For example, Irish people, Jewish people, Chinese people, or Japanese people whether in their homeland or not “represent ethnic groups in their distinctiveness abroad. The fourth point concludes that ethnicities are “symbolic”.
In short, ethnic category groups are interpreted, and seen differently, and sometimes prejudiced against depending on where in the world they are living and the social groups that surround them(pp.45-47).
One example of research conducted on an ethnicity in sociology is a study of 2nd generation Italians living in New York City. Sociologist Mariono (2016) explores each detail concerning the lives of the people in this ethnic group. The ethnic groups’ health statistics, standard of living, occupations, demographics, housing, and citizenship are some of the data collected and analyzed.
For more on the distinction between race and ethnicity, I recommend visiting our article on the topic here.
The word community is derived from two Latin words; ‘com’ and ‘munis’. When used in the English language, ‘com’ means together, while ‘munis’ means to serve. Therefore, community means to serve together (Mini Pradeep & Sathyamurthi, 2017, p.58).
However, community can mean different things to different people. Some sociologists believe that a main component of a community is a specific geographic location where people live together. While, others, like American anthropologist Robert Redfield (1989) emphasize the homogeneity of thought among a community’s members.
From referencing the opinions of a group of notable sociologists, MiniPradeep & Sathyamurthi (2017) have divided the definition of community into two categories. One definition concerns the place or neighborhood that a group of people live. An example is a a small area in a large city, or a rural town/village.
The second definition refers to the relationship of the people, and whether or not they “have the same sense of shared identity”(p. 59). For example, a community of motorcycle enthusiasts, or a community of academics in a particular field.
4. Political Parties
Political parties are groups of people with a shared worldview or goal who come together to exercise political power.
Sociologists look for explanations for why voters prefer the party that they vote. These explanations are often found in socio-structural variables such as social class, religion, urban-rural residence and region.
Maria Oskarson (2005) in a journal article regarding European society, examines the how party systems are formed, and how these origins often lead to “cleavages” in society.
She studies the connections between social positions and party preference and analyses the divisions in society as a result of these “cleavages”. This is often referred to as the Social Cleavage Model in sociology (pp. 82-86).
Sociologists categorize social relationships into primary and secondary groups.
Primary groups involve direct, personal, and intimate interactions. Additionally, primary group members share similarities such as support, love, and compassion for each other.
These could be both close friends, family members, a church group, or a crisis group where people help each other overcome grief or substance abuse. These relationships are often long lasting.
Secondary relationships are often temporary, goal-oriented, and can be impersonal. Some examples are a doctor to patient relationship, a client to lawyer relationship, or a mechanic to customer relationship.
For example, sociologists can use love in relationships to better understand society.
Benefits of Social Structures
Human beings can create social structures to more effectively organize society, achieve efficiency in the economic sphere, and work of the common good.
Indeed, humans’ capacity to create large-scale social structures that transcend immediate relationships has facilitated rapid economic growth, the spread of ideas around the world, and growing global prosperity.
While social structures are natural and inevitable in societies (humans naturally form relationships), they are also a vehicle for social stratification.
For example, the emergence of a hierarchical social and economic structure based on social class (a social structure) works to prevent social mobility and facilitate wealth transfer from the poor to the wealthy.
Social structures in sociology help sociologists to better understand how society functions. They allow sociologists to analyze the interactions between different social institutions, groups, individuals, communities, and other layers of society to better understand what they have in common and how they may differ.
Researching on the macro, meso, and micro level help sociologists to understand how interactions between social structures occur. Utilizing a wide array of data collection tools and methods to accomplish their goals, sociologists then use these defined social structures to gain valuable insight into humanity.
Abramson, H. J. (1976). On the Sociology of Ethnicity and Social Change: A Model of Rootedness and Rootlessness. Economic and Social Review, 8(1), 43- 69. http://www.tara.tcd.ie/bitstream/handle/2262/69096/v8n11976_3.pdf?sequ ence=1&isAllowed=y
DeCarlo, M. (2018, August 7). 6.1 Micro, meso, and macro approaches – Scientific Inquiry in Social Work. Pressbooks. https://pressbooks.pub/scientificinquiryinsocialwork/chapter/6-1-micro-meso-and-macro-approaches/
Wright, J. D. (2015). International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (2nd ed.). Elsevier.
Mariano, J. H. 1. (2016). The Second Generation of Italians in New York City. Wentworth Press.
Mini Pradeep, K. P., & Sathyamurthi. (2017). The “Community” in “Community Social Work.” IOSR Journal of Humanities and Social Science, 22(9), e-ISSN: 22790837.
Oskarson, M. (2005). Social Structure and Party Choice1. The European Voter, 84– 105. doi: https://doi.org/10.1093/0199273219.003.0004
Redfield, R. (1989). The Little Community and Peasant Society and Culture. Amsterdam University Press.
Williams, D. R., & Sternthal, M. (2010). Understanding Racial-ethnic Disparities in Health: Sociological Contributions. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 51(1_suppl),S15–S27. https://doi.org/10.1177/002214651038383