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Definitions and concepts of social structure

As noted above, social structure has been identified as

(i) the relationship of definite entities or groups to each other,

(ii) as enduring patterns of behaviour by participants in a social system in relation to each other, and

(iii) as institutionalised norms or cognitive frameworks that structure the actions of actors in the social system.

Lopez and Scott (2000) distinguish between institutional structure and relational structure, where in the former:

. . . social structure is seen as comprising those cultural or normative patterns that define the expectations of agents hold about each other's behaviour and that organize their enduring relations with each other.

whereas in the latter:

. . . social structure is seen as comprising the relationships themselves, understood as patterns of causal interconnection and interdependence among agents and their actions, as well as the positions that they occupy.

Social structure can also be divided into microstructure and macrostructure. Microstructure is the pattern of relations between most basic elements of social life, that cannot be further divided and have no social structure of their own (for example, pattern of relations between individuals in a group composed of individuals – where individuals have no social structure, or a structure of organizations as a pattern of relations between social positions or social roles, where those positions and roles have no structure by themselves). Macrostructure is thus a kind of 'second level' structure, a pattern of relations between objects that have their own structure (for example, a political social structure between political parties, as political parties have their own social structure). Some special types of social structures that modern sociologist differentiate are relation structures (in family or larger family-like clan structures), communication structures (how information is passed in organizations) and sociometric structures (structures of sympathy, antipathy and indifference in organisations – this was studied by Jacob L. Moreno).

Sociologists also distinguish between:

· normative structure — pattern of relations in given structure (organisation) between norms and modes of operations of people of varying social positions

· ideal structure — pattern of relations between beliefs and views of people of varying social positions

· interest structure — pattern of relations between goals and desires of people of varying social positions

· interaction structure — forms of communications of people of varying social positions

Origins and evolution of social structure

Some believe that social structure is naturally developed. It may be caused by larger system needs, such as the need for labour, management, professional and military classes, or by conflicts between groups, such as competition among political parties or among elites and masses. Others believe that this structuring is not a result of natural processes, but is socially constructed. It may be created by the power of elites who seek to retain their power, or by economic systems that place emphasis upon competition or cooperation.

The most thorough account of the evolution of social structure is perhaps provided by structure and agency accounts that allow for a sophisticated analysis of the co-evolution of social structure and human agency, where socialised agents with a degree of autonomy take action in social systems where their action is on the one hand mediated by existing institutional structure and expectations but may, on the other hand, influence or transform that institutional structure.

The notion of social structure may mask systematic biases

Some argue that men and women who have otherwise equal qualifications receive different treatment in the workplace because of their gender. Others note that individuals are sometimes viewed as having different essential qualities based on their race and ethnicity, regardless of their individual qualities. When examined, these social distinctions are often considered stereotypes based on prejudice. However, these social distinctions often go unexamined because they appear to be the result of social structures rather than prejudice.




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