Social Structure: Meaning, Components ( Examples)

Social interaction, i.e., the ways in which people interact with each other is structured or organized through a particular framework, which is known as social structure. (“Culture,” n.d.). Social structure is one of the foundational concepts in sociology and is defined as “the social patterns through which a society is organized” (Barkan, 2013). These patterns can be either horizontal or vertical:

  1. Vertical social structure: It is defined as referring to “ways in which a society or group ranks people in a hierarchy, with some more “equal” than others” (Barkan, 2013). It denotes how societies classify people hierarchically. For example, in industrial societies around the world, one’s position is shaped by factors such as their gender, ethnicity, class, etc (Barkan, 2013). Thus in a vertical social structure, those from the most privileged communities might be at the top while others are at the middle or bottom. People’s positions have a tremendous effect on how their lives and their families’ lives play out in terms of opportunities, resources, behaviours and so on.
  2. Horizontal social structure: refers to the characteristics of the various groups to which people belong and their social relationships.

Social structures exist on both a micro-level (individual relationships) and a macro level (in society). These social structures are not physically visible as they are not material in nature.  This article aims to present a brief overview of the various components present in a horizontal social structure. (Barkan, 2013)

What is society?

Components of Social Structure

Status:

Status, to put it simply, refers to the social position that an individual occupies in society. Statuses are of different types and together form an integral part of our identity, and thus a person at any given time occupies multiple statuses. All of them together are referred to as a person’s status set – for example, a person can be a parent, journalist, organizer, and someone’s partner at the same time. Status sets are ever-changing as people gain and lose statuses as they go through different phases of their life. There are different types of statuses:

Master status: The most important status that a person holds, which informs and shapes their identity and can cause negativity or positivity in their life.

Ascribed and Achieved Status: Ascribed status refers to a status that a person receives at their birth, one which is assigned to them involuntarily – for example, our gender, race/ethnicity, biological relationships, etc. On the other hand, achieved status refers to statuses that a person works towards and thus achieves, or which they get through luck and ability.

Role:

Role refers to the “behaviour expected of someone who holds a particular status” (Macionis, 2005). Thus, roles accompany statuses – individuals perform roles according to the statuses that they are holding. They are socially prescribed patterns of behaviour, and thus along with statuses differ a lot from culture to culture. The term role set refers to the set of roles linked to a status – for example, a teacher may have various roles – that of being a teacher, a colleague, a partner, and a parent. Role conflict occurs when there is “conflict among the roles corresponding to two or more statuses”, whereas role strain occurs when there is “tension among the roles connected to a single status” (Macionis, 2005). Lastly, role exit refers to the process through which people extricate themselves from social roles that they were performing.

Types of Social Roles in Society

Social Networks:

Social network here refers to the sum of all our social relationships with various groups and people and through the other groups and people and so on. These social networks can be very vast and can help significant events happen in one’s life, whether it be job recommendations, meeting your future partner, receiving mentorship, etc.

Groups and Organizations:

Every society is made up of various groups, big and small. Groups refer to a set of two or more people who share a common culture, identity or interest and have regular interactions based on joint expectations. They are of two types – primary groups and secondary groups. Primary groups are small, close-knit social groups that consist of people who have close relationships and have known each other for a long period of time, such as friends and family. Secondary groups are large groups consisting of relationships and interactions that are impersonal and not long-lasting. (“Culture”, n.d.)

Read: Primary and Secondary Groups- Differences

Formal organizations (or organizations), which fall under the latter are large groups that abide by certain rules and regulations and have a specific purpose – for example, hospitals, companies, schools, etc. They are one of the most essential structures in society today.

Social Institutions:

Social institutions are a macro-level social structure – they refer to sets of beliefs and behaviour patterns that help meet the needs of a society. Examples of some social institutions and the purposes they help serve include – education, which helps transmit knowledge and skills to people and religion, which helps bring together people with common values. (“Culture”, n.d.)

Societies:

Human beings live together in societies, which is the largest component of the social structure. A society can be defined as groups of people living within the same region and sharing a common culture. All societies are not the same – some are homogenous, some heterogeneous; some may have a large population while others do not, and they may be either traditional or industrial.

In industrial societies, the focus is on the individual and thus it is structured in a more impersonal and individualistic manner, with people mainly focusing on their own lives. Traditional societies, on the other hand, are community-oriented and collectivistic in nature, with the focus being on family, living and working together, and social activities involving the community being prioritized. German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies used specific German terms to describe these societies. He used the term Gemeinschaft, which means “human community” to refer to traditional societies as community living and family and kinship ties are prioritized in those societies, and the term Gesellschaft for industrial societies as in them relationships become more impersonal, and social ties are weakened. (Barkan, 2013) Emile Durkheim wrote about these societies in his work ‘The Division of Labour in Society’, wherein he described traditional societies as having mechanical solidarity and industrial societies as having organic solidarity.

The evolution of societies from traditional to industrial can be seen in the classification of societies from the past till now into different types, arranged in increasing order of complexity of their social structures – hunter-gatherer societies, pastoral societies, horticultural societies, agricultural societies, industrial societies and information (or post-industrial) societies (“Types of societies | Introduction to sociology,” n.d.).

Thus, we have outlined above the various components of social structure – status, role, social networks, groups and organizations, social institutions and societies.

References

6: Social groups and organization. (2020, May 16). Social Sci LibreTexts. https://socialsci.libretexts.org/Bookshelves/Sociology/Book%3A_Sociology_(Boundless)/06%3A_Social_Groups_and_Organization

Barkan, S. (2013). Sociology: Understanding and changing the social world.

Culture. (n.d.). A to Z Directory – Virginia Commonwealth University. https://www.people.vcu.edu/~jmahoney/groups.htme

Macionis, J. J. (2005). Sociology. Prentice Hall.

Types of societies | Introduction to sociology. (n.d.). Lumen Learning – Simple Book Production. https://courses.lumenlearning.com