Social Structure – Meaning, Elements and Types!
Social structure is the basic concept for the proper understanding of society. Herein we propose to give a somewhat detailed view of the important concept of social structure.
I. Meaning of Social Structure:
Since long many efforts have been made to define ‘Social Structure’ but still there is no unanimity of opinion on its definition.
Herbert Spencer was the first writer to throw light on the structure of society. He called society an organism but his view of society was confused. Emile Durkheim also made a futile attempt to define it.
The following are the important views on social structure:
(i) Nadel’s view:
S. F. Nadel writes, “We arrive at the structure of society through abstracting from the concrete population and its behaviour, the pattern or net work (or system) of relationships obtaining between actors in their capacity of playing roles relative to one another.”
Nadel has tried to explain in his definition that ‘structure’ refers to a definable articulation, an ordered arrangement of parts. It is related to the outer aspect or the framework of society and is totally unconcerned with the functional aspect of society. So he has emphasized that the social structure refers to the network of social relationship which is created among the human beings when they interact with each other according to their statuses in accordance with the patterns of society.
Nadel, therefore, says, “structure indicates an ordered arrangement of parts, which can be treated as transportable, being relatively invariant, while the parts themselves are variable. According to him there are three elements of a society: —
(i) a group of people
(ii) institutionalized rules according to which the members of the group interact
(iii) an institutionalized pattern or expression of these interactions
The institutionalized rules or patterns do not change easily and this creates orderliness in society. These rules determine the statuses and roles of the individuals. There is an order among these roles and statuses also which provides an ordered arrangement of human beings.
(ii) Ginsberg’s view:
According to Ginsberg, “The study of social structure is concerned with the principal forms of social organisation, i.e. types of groups, associations and institutions and the complex of these which constitute societies……. A full account of social structure would involve a review of the whole field of comparative institutions.”
Ginsberg has written that the human beings organise themselves into groups for the achievement of some object or goal and these groups are called as institutions. The sum total of these institutions gives birth to the structure of society.
The main defect of Ginsberg’s view is that he does not make any distinction between social structure, social organisation and social groups. At another place he writes, “The social structure of a community includes the different types of groups which people form and the institutions in which they take part.”
(iii) Radcliffe Brown’s view:
Radcliffe Brown was a great social anthropologist of England. He belongs to the structural-functional school of sociology. He writes, “The components of social structure are human beings, the structure itself being an arrangement of persons in relationship institutionally defined and regulated.
To clarify his definition he quoted examples from the Australian and African tribal societies. He said that kinship system among them is the description of institutionalized relationship. These relationships bind the individuals together in a specialised way and thus ascribe to them particular positions.
The kin, occupying the set of positions, creates a pattern which is termed as “kinship structure.” He cited another example from the Thonga and Bantu tribes of South Africa. There is a custom of paying ‘Bride-price’ called labola among them. This custom related to marriage binds the individuals together. For the payment of labola not only the members of family, but also the kith and kin join their hands together.
This labola is given as an economic aid to be used at the time of marriage of the bride’s brother or her near relatives. Thus the institution of marriage brings not only the members of the families but also brings a kind of economic aid. Thus the institutionally defined and regulated marital relations become a link between two families in the socio-economic field and thus their determined positions create a pattern of marriage and kinship structure.
Later on, Radcliffe Brown gave another definition of social structure. He said, “…Human beings are connected by a complex network of social relations. I use the term ‘social structure’ to denote this network of actually existing relations.” The components of social structure are persons, and a person is a human being considered not as an organism but as occupying position in a social structure.
Radcliffe Brown considers social structure as real as are individual organisms. According to him, both the social structure and the human organism are prone to change yet they are stable. By change he means that the organs of both the structures are liable to development or destruction. The capabilities of the human organism first develop from infancy to maturity and then their downfall starts in old age. Similarly, in social structure, new human beings take their birth and the old go on dying.
But inspite of this continuous change their basic features remain stable. In other words, we may say that the functional aspect of social structure is always under change while outer framework is stable. Radcliffe has used the terms, ‘actual structure’ and ‘general structure’ respectively.
He has distinguished between structural form, and ‘social structure’. Social structure is abstract; its expression is possible only in the functions or roles of the parts or units of social structure. Therefore, we can understand social structure only in terms of the functions or roles of its components.
(iv) Parsons’ view:
According to Talcott Parsons, “Social structure is a term applied to the particular arrangement of the interrelated institutions, agencies and social patterns as well as the statuses and roles which each person assumes in the group.”
Talcott Parsons has tried to explain the concept of social structure in abstract form. All the units of social structure, i.e. institutions, agencies, social patterns, statuses and roles are invisible and intangible and hence are abstract. He has emphasized that the statuses and roles of individuals are determined by customs, traditions and conventions of society.
These statuses give birth to different institutions, agencies and patterns. All these when interrelated and organised in a particular manner build the social structure of society. Social structure is concerned with forms of inter-relationship between these units rather than with the units. These units constitute the society. The ordered arrangement seen between these units is social structure.
(v) Johnson’s view:
Harry M. Johnson writes, “The structure of anything consists of the relatively stable inter-relationships among its parts; moreover, the term ‘part’ itself implies a certain degree of Stability. Since a social system is composed of the inter-related acts of people, its structure must be sought in some degree of regularity or recurrence in these acts.”
Thus, according to Johnson, the ‘structure’ itself is a pattern of stability which is created by the interrelation of the parts. These parts are the groups and sub-groups of society. He does not mean by stability that there is no change at all in the structure, but actually he means that it is comparatively stable.
For example, the structure of community consists of institutions and associations which in turn consist of human beings. Every human being is allocated a particular status and role to perform. With the death of the individual, there is no change in the status and role itself.
The new incumbent who succeeds the deceased person is again to perform the same role in the same status. Thus the status and the role are relatively stable which in turn make the structure stable. Among the constituent parts of social structure, Johnson includes groups, sub-groups, roles, regulative norms and cultural values.
(vi) MacIver’s view:
MacIver and Page write, “…The various modes of grouping ….. together comprise the complex pattern of the social structure……. In the analysis of the social structure the role of diverse attitude and interest of social beings is revealed.”
MacIver and Page have also regarded the social structure as abstract which is composed of several groups like family, church, class, caste, state, community etc. They have given due consideration to those sources and powers who bind these groups into a chain to give them a definite form of social structure.
Since society is the organisation of social relationship and is abstract, therefore, its structure also is abstract. MacIver and Page also refer to the stability and changefulness of social structure. They write, “For while the social structure itself is unstable and changeful it has a definite character at every stage, and many of its major elements have shown greater persistence of type through change.” In their study of social structure they have included the study of associations, institutions, groups, functional systems and institutional complexes.
After going through the various views on social structure, we may conclude as under:
(a) Social structure is an abstract and intangible phenomenon.
(b) As individuals are the units of association and institutions so these associations and institutions are the units of social structure.
(c) These institutions and associations are inter-related in a particular arrangement and thus create the pattern of social structure.
(d) It refers to the external aspect of society which is relatively stable as compared to the functional or internal aspect of society.
(e) Social structure is a “living” structure which is created, maintained for a time and changes.
II. Elements of Social Structure:
In a social structure the human beings organise themselves into associations for the pursuit of some object or objects. The aim can be fulfilled only if the social structure is based upon certain principles.
These principles set the elements of social structure in motion which is as follows:
(i) Normative System:
Normative system presents the society with the ideals and values. The people attach emotional importance to these norms. The institutions and associations are inter-related according to these norms. The individuals perform their roles in accordance with the accepted norms of society.
(ii) Position System:
Position system refers to the statuses and roles of the individuals. The desires, aspirations and expectations of the individuals are varied, multiple and unlimited. So these can be fulfilled only if the members of society are assigned different roles according to their capacities and capabilities. Actually the proper functioning of social structure depends upon proper assignment of roles and statuses.
(iii) Sanction System:
For the proper enforcement of norms, every society has a sanction system. The integration and coordination of the different parts of social structure depend upon conformity to social norms. The non-conformists are punished by the society according to the nature of non-conformity.
It, however, does not mean that there are no non-conformists in a well organised society. Non-conformity is also an essential feature of society, otherwise there would be no progress. But the number of non-conformists is smaller than the number of conformists. The stability of a social structure depends upon the effectiveness of its sanction system.
(iv) A System of Anticipated Response:
The anticipated response system calls upon the individuals to participate in the social system. ‘His preparation sets the social structure in motion. The successful working of social structure depends upon the realisation of his duties by the individual and his efforts to fulfill these duties.
(v) Action System:
It is the object or goal to be arrived at by the social structure. The whole structure revolves around it. The Action is the root cause which weaves the web of social relationships and sets the social structure in motion.
It may be emphasized that social structure is an abstract entity. It cannot be seen. Its parts are dynamic and constantly changing. They are spatially widespread and, therefore, difficult to see as wholes. Any scientific understanding of social structure would require structural-functional approach.
III. Types of Social Structure:
Talcott Parsons has described four principal types of social structure. His classification is based on four social values: universalistic social values, particularistic social values, achieved social values, and ascribed social values.
Universalistic social values are those which are found almost in every society and are applicable to everybody. For example, every society values the expert craftsmen as in that case production is both cheaper and superior and thus the efficient craftsmen are selected in every society.
Particularistic social values are the features of particular societies and these differ from society to society. If, for example, selection is made on the basis of caste, religion, state etc. it means that in such societies particularistic social values are considered more important.
When the statuses are achieved on the basis of efforts, it means that such societies attach importance to achieved social values. When the statuses are hereditary then the society gives consideration to ascribed social statuses.
The four types of social structure are:
(i) The Universalistic-Achievement Pattern:
This is the combination of the value patterns which sometimes are opposed to the values of a social structure built mostly about kinship, community, class and race. Universalism by itself favours status- determination on the basis of generalized rules independently of one’s achievement.
When universalism is combined with achievement values, it produces a social structure of universalistic-achievement pattern. Under this type of social structure, the choice of goal by the individual must be in accord with the universalistic values.
His pursuits are defined by universalistic moral arms. Such a system is dynamically developing system with an encouragement for initiative. On the one hand, it has to resort to adoptive structures which are in conflict with its major value patterns; on the other hand, it cannot allow the adoptive structures to become too important, lest the social structure shift into another type.
(ii) The Universalistic-Ascription Pattern:
Under this type of social structure, the elements of value-orientation are dominated by the elements of ascription. Therefore, in such a social structure, strong emphasis is laid on the status of the individual, rather than on his specific achievements. The emphasis is on what an individual is rather than on what he has done. Status is ascribed to the group than to the individual. The individual derives his status from his group.
Hence in such a structure are found the concepts of aristocracy and ethnic superiority. Nazi Germany was such a type of society. In this type of social structure all resources are mobilized in the interest of the collective ideal. It tends to have a “political” accent as distinguished from the “economic” accent.
There is a strong emphasis on the state as the primary organ for the realization of the ideal states of collective affairs. Collective morality as distinguished from the individual morality has a particularly central place. To sum up, it may be said that the universalistic-achievement type of social structure is “individualistic” whereas the universalistic-ascription type is “collectivistic”.
(iii) The Particularistic-Achievement Pattern:
This type combines achievement values with particularism. The primary criterion of valued achievement is found not in universalistic terms such as conformity to a generalized ideal or efficiency but these are focused on certain points of reference within the relational system itself or are inherent in the situation.
The emphasis on achievement leads to the conception of a proper pattern of adaptation which is the product of human achievement and which can be maintained only by continuous effort. This type involves a far more unequivocal acceptance of kinship ties than is the case with either of the universalistic types. It is more traditionalistic. Parsons has kept the Indian and the Chinese social structure under this category.
(iv) The Particularistic-Ascriptive Pattern:
In this type also the social structure is organised around the relational reference points notably those of kinship and local community but it differs from the particularistic-achievement type inasmuch as the relational values are taken as given and passively “adapted to” rather than made for an actively organised system. The structure tends to be traditionalistic and emphasis is laid on its stability. According to Parsons, the Spanish social structure is the example of such a type.
IV. Social Institutions:
We may also devote some attention to the concept of social institutions because social institutions are- essential to maintain the ordered arrangement of social structure. The institutions are collective modes of behaviour. They prescribe a way of doing things. They bind the members of the group together. Some thinkers have distinguished between ‘institutions’ and ‘institutional agencies’.
According to them, the term ‘institution’ refers to the normative patterns of behaviour, whereas institutional agencies are the social system through which these express themselves. But since there is a close integration of these normative complexes and the systems through which they are made effective, therefore, most of the writers do not distinguish between them. The common practice is to refer to family, school, church, state and many others as the institutions of society.
Kinds of Institutions:
There are five kinds of institutions. These are (i) the family, (ii) economics, (iii) religion, (iv) education, and (v) state. There are a number of secondary institutions derived from each of the five primary institutions. Thus the secondary institutions derived from family would be the marriage, divorce, monogamy, polygamy etc.
The secondary institutions of economics are property, trading, credit, banking etc. The secondary institutions of religion are church, temple, mosque, totem, taboo etc. The secondary institutions of education are school, college, university etc. The secondary institutions of state are interest groups, party system, democracy etc.
Institutions may grow as do the folkways and mores or they may be created just as laws are enacted, for instance, monogamy or polyandry grew in response to some felt needs of the people. Banks grew as the need for borrowing and lending money was felt. Schools and colleges are created by deliberate choice and action. An important feature that we find in the growth of institutions is the extension of the power of the state over the other four primary institutions.
The state now exercises more authority by laws and regulations. Sometimes, folkways and mores are incorporated into laws, for example, monogamy: sometimes, new laws may be enacted, for example, Hindu Code Bill. Today the family is being regulated and controlled by the state in scores of ways. A number of traditional functions of family have been taken over by the state. The state has enacted laws regulating marriage, divorce, adoption and inheritance. The authority of state has similarly been extended to economics, to education and to religion.
An institution never dies. New institutional norms may replace the old norms, but the institution goes on. For example, the modern family has replaced the norms of patriarchal family, yet family as an institution continues. When feudalism died, government did not end. The governmental and economic functions continued to be fulfilled, although according to changed norms. All the primary institutions are thousands of years old, only the institutional norms are new.
Functions of Institutions:
The functions of institutions are of two kinds:
(i) Manifest and (ii) Latent. Manifest functions are those functions which are intended and main functions, i.e., those functions for which the institution primarily exists. Latent functions are unintended functions. They are not primary functions but only the by-products.
Thus the manifest functions of education are the development of literacy, training for occupational roles and the inculcation of basic social values. But its latent functions would be keeping youth off the labour market, weakening the control of parents or development of friendship. The manifest functions of religion are worship of God and instruction in religious ideology. Its latent functions would be to develop attachment to one’s religious community, to alter family life and to create religious hatred.
The manifest function of economic institutions is to produce and distribute goods while its latent functions may be to promote urbanization, promote the growth of labour unions and redirect education. The latent functions of an institution may support the intended objectives, or may damage the norms of the institution.
Inter-relations of Institutions:
A social structure owes its stability to a proper adjustment of relationships among the different institutions. No institution works in a vacuum. Religion, education, family, government and business all interact on each other. Thus education creates attitudes which influence the acceptance or rejection of religious dogmas.
Religion may exalt education because it enables one to know the truths of God or denounce it because it threatens the faith. Business conditions may influence the family life. Unemployment may determine the number of people who feel able to many. An unemployed person may postpone his marriage till he gets employed in a suitable job.
Postponement of marriage may affect the birth rates. The state influences the functions of institutions. It may take over some of the functions and determine their institutional norms. The businessmen, educators, clergymen and the functionaries of all other institutions also seek to influence the acts of state, since any state action may obstruct or help the realization of their institutional objectives.
Thus sisal institutions are closely related to each other. The inter-relationship of the various institutions can be likened to a wheel. The family is the hub while education, religion, government and economics are the spokes of the wheel. The rim would be the community within which the various institutions operate.
All institutions face the problem of continuously adjusting themselves to a changing society. Changes in the social environment may bring changes in all the institutions. Inflation may have a great influence on marriage, death, crime and education. Breakdown of economic institutions may have radical effects upon political institutions.
Any change in an institution may lead to a change in the other intuitions. There may also take place a shifting of functions from one institution to another. Child care, formerly a function of family, has now shifted to the state. When one institution fails to meet a human need, another institution will often assume the function. No institution can avoid affecting other institutions or avoid being affected by others.