Eight Important Characteristics of Social Structure

We have discussed the meaning and definitions of social structure in the preceding pages. Sociologists have worked on social structure quite elaborately. They prefer to use term ‘social system’ instead of ‘social structure’.

However, both sociologists and social anthropolo­gists define social structure in terms of the interrelations between the individuals and functioning of these ordered interrelationships in the maintenance of the society.

The definitions given by various social an­thropologists help us to bring out certain characteristics of social structure. We enumerate these as under:


(i) Abstraction of empirical reality:

Empirical reality has a large number of details about the functioning of society. The construction of social structure removes unnecessary details and brings out abstractions. For instance, there are innumer­able caste and tribal groups in India. Each caste has its locus and functioning.

The tribes also have their own identity. In the formation of social structure we delete the names and specialities of each caste and tribal group. Instead we use the terms ‘caste’ and ‘tribe’. These are abstractions.

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(ii) Exists independently of the individuals:

In a social structure, individuals do not matter; they come and go. In our country we had Gandhi, Nehru and Vinoba Bhave. They have left this world. Social structure is independent of any individual-big or small.

It is concerned with the interactions between statuses: The fam­ily or the university is a social structure notwithstanding the persons who are members of these structures. Radcliffe-Brown, as mentioned earlier, very rightly says that Jack and Jill come and go but the struc­tures continue.

(iii) Persistent social group:


Milton Singer and Bernard Cohn edited a book on India entitled, Structure and Change in Indian Society (1968). The contributors to this rather big volume discuss caste, joint family and language as compo­nents of social structure in India.

The editors argue that the specialty of the Indian social structure is not only its change but also its conti­nuity. Thus, when we talk of social structure, we mean persistent social interactions of varying statuses.

(iv) Retains continuity:

Throughout their discussions Radcliffe-Brown, Firth and Nadel insist that there may be a change in social structure but there is an “ordered arrangements of parts” which are relatively invariant. Interestingly, the parts themselves are variable but the nature of the social structure is invariable.

This invariability of the parts of ordered arrangements gives continuity to social structure. The members of a society are free to have social interactions as they like. There are a wide range of choices. But, the established institutionalized norms change little. They are invariant.

(v) Matrix (Origin) of society:

Eriksen has defined social structure rather elaborately. He says that social structure is the origin of society. It is the matrix of society. It is the sum total of all the statuses of society.

It contains norms, values, social control, polity, etc. There is difference in social structure and social organization. Social organization is the society in function, it is an ongoing life. Social structure is the abstraction of society. Man may come and go but the structure remains the same.

(vi) Not concerned with the particular or unique:

One very important aspect of social structure is that it does not relate to the unusual or unique. The mythological story of Mahabharata says that Kansa, who was Krishna’s mother’s brother, killed his own sis­ter’s children.

But, the general status of mother’s brother is not that of Kansa. Social structure is concerned, therefore, with the usual or gen­eral and not specific or particular.

(vii) Having spatial dimensions:

Social structure is invariant and continuous. But it has its spatial as­pects also; it is related to place. Social structure is not the same all over the world. The kind of social structure that we find in India is differ­ent from that in the US. Each space has its particularity, its own history, and its own experiences. Therefore, the nature of social structure varies from one locality to another.

(viii) Connected with social personality:

Radcliffe-Brown mentions the connections of social structure with so­cial personality. “Every human being living in society is two things: he is an individual and also a person.

As an individual, he is a biologi­cal organism, a collection of a vast number of molecules organized in a complex structure, within which as long as it persists, there occur physiological and psychological actions and reactions, processes and changes. Human beings as individuals are objects of study for physi­ologists and psychologists. The human being as a person is a complex of social relationships.

As a person, the human being is the object of study for the social anthropologists. We cannot study persons except in terms of social structure, nor can we study social structure, except in terms of the persons who are the units of which it is composed.” In other words, there is a close nexus between individual and social struc­ture.

Thus, social structure has almost occupied a place of theory in so­cial anthropology. It includes various institutions of society such as family, marriage, kinship, religion, custom and law, primitive econ­omy, politics, etc.

These institutions are based on social organization. Eriksen argues that social organization carries within it the social structure of society. In a broader way it is said that social structure is like an organism which has different parts to maintain the body sys­tem. Or, in simple words, it is like a huge building which has different walls, windows, doors and a roof.

But such a kind of explanation of a social structure is very naive. As a matter of fact, it is an abstraction of the empirical reality of all these institutions. Social structure dwells on established patterns of rules, customs, statutes, and social institutions. It is the arrangement of different parts of the society whereas social or­ganization is the dynamic aspect of social structure.

Finally, it would be interesting to refer to the question which has been raised by Radcliffe-Brown in his analysis of social structure. He asks: “How do structural systems persist? What are the mechanisms which maintain a network of social relations in existence, and how do they work?” Radcliffe-Brown himself answers the question:

Morals, law, etiquette, religion, government and education are all parts of the complex mechanism by which a social structure exists and persists.

If we take up the structural point of view, we study these things, not in abstraction or isolation, but in their direct and in­direct relations to social structure, that is, with reference to the way in which they depend upon, or affect the social relations between persons and groups of persons.