The concept of ‘social structure’ is widely used but is also most elusive concept in the social sciences. There is little agreement on a precise definition and general meaning of this concept. It can be conceived of in a variety of ways. However, the enduring, orderly and patterned relationships between elements (groups, institutions etc.) of a society are usually described as social structure.
It directs attention to their internal configurations (such as the status and role relations), to the interrelations of component parts to a designated whole and external relations (such as whether in horizontal or vertical order, degree of interconnectedness and stability).
What is structure?
In simple terms, the formal arrangement or ordering of elements, parts, events or facts is known as structure. It is the way in which the things we are analysing are put together, or the relationship of its parts to one another. A botanist will describe the structure of a leaf the way it is put together. A chemist is concerned with the structure of a compound, or the relationship of the elements in the compound to one another.
A biologist refers to the structure of an organism, meaning a relatively stable arrangement of tissues and organs and the relationships between the different cells and interstitial fluids. When a builder speaks of the structure of a building, he is talking about the materials (sand, bricks, lime, cement, stone, timber, etc.) of which it is composed, the relationships between the parts (walls, rooms, stairs, passages, open space and their arrangement) and the building as a unit as a whole.
Thus, structure generally refers to a set of relatively stable patterns of relationship between interdependent elements or parts of any given unit (biological, physical or social). An important term closely related with the concept of structure is ‘function’, which refers to those consequences of any activity that make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given structure or its parts. In other words, ‘structure’ refers to a system with relatively enduring patterns, and ‘function’ refers to the dynamic process within the structure.
Thus, the main characteristics of a structure are:
(1) Constituent elements.
(2) Parts and sub-parts.
(3) Interrelation between parts.
(4) Arrangement of parts in a particular order.
(5) Parts are relatively stable and permanent.
(6) Changing character.
Social life does not happen in a random fashion. Most of our activities are structured. They are organised 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 recognised as ‘social system’. Because the social system is composed of identifiable and interdependent parts, it is said to possess ‘social structure’.
Social structure has been defined in myriad ways. Early social anthropologist A.R. Radcliffe- Brown (1950) viewed social structure as a mesh of mutual positions and interrelations, with interdependence of the component parts.
He said, “Components of social structure are human beings, the structure itself being an arrangement of persons in relationship institutionally defined and regulated”. Some writers have defined it in terms of roles performed by people and the statuses occupied by them. It has also been seen in terms of process.
According to Talcott Parsons (1951), “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”.
Oxford Dictionary of Sociology (1994) defines it as “a term loosely applied to any recurring pattern of social behaviour, or more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society”. Thus, for example, the different kinship, religious, economic, political and other institutions of a society may be said to comprise its structure as might such components as its norms, values, and social roles. According to Anthony Giddens (2000), “patterns of interaction between individuals or groups are known as social structure”.
On the basis of above definitions, the following characteristics of social structure may be delineated:
(1) Social structure is not monolithic whole but made up of parts and sub-parts. It is not mere sum of its parts but there is a definite arrangement between parts. These parts cannot be explained outside the structure.
(2) It is an abstract and intangible phenomenon.
(3) As individuals are units of associations and institutions, so these institutions and associations (groups) are the units of social structure.
(4) These institutions and associations are interrelated in a particular arrangement and this arrangement creates the pattern of social structure.
(5) It refers to the external aspect of society which is relatively stable as compared to the internal (functional) aspect of society.
(6) It is not static but dynamic yet there is not much change in its basic form. It is relatively permanent through time.
(7) There is a systematic and orderly relationship between parts which gives a special shape to its outer form.
(8) Statuses and roles along with norms and values that govern social roles form the main constituents in the formation of social structure.
(9) There is a functional unity among the units of structure.
There is some disagreement as what would count as an ‘element’ of social structure.
Main elements that constitute the social structure may be grouped as under:
1. Normative system – norms and values.
2. Position system – status and roles of individuals.
3. Sanction system – system of rules.
4. Action system – goal or object of society.
5. Anticipated response system – desires, aspirations and expectations.