Essay on Social Structure – A number of sciences deal with the phenomenon of ‘structure’ in their own way mainly to discover the characteristics of “structure” of their interest.
For example, atomic physics deals with the structure of atoms, chemistry with the structure of molecules, crystallography and colloidal chemistry with the structure of crystals and colloids, and anatomy and physiology with the structures of organisms.
In sociological and social anthropological studies also the term ‘social structure’ is relevant because, the main task here is to discover the general characteristics of those ‘social structures’ the component parts of which are human beings.
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‘Social Structure’ is one of the basic concepts of sociology. But it has not been used consistently or unambiguously. In the decade following the Second World War the concept ‘Social Structure’ became extremely fashionable in social anthropological studies. It became so general that it could be applied to almost any ordered arrangement of social phenomena.
The word ‘structure’ in its original English meaning refers to “building construction” or “arrangement of parts”, or “manner of organisation”. But by the 16th century it was used to refer to the interrelations between the component parts of any whole.
It was in this sense widely used in anatomical studies. The term became relatively popular in sociological studies with the works of Herbert Spencer, that is, after 1850. Spencer who was very much fascinated by his biological analogies (organic structure and evolution) applied the term ‘structure’ to his analysis of society and spoke of ‘social structure’. Even Durkheim, Morgan, Marx and others gave their own interpretations to it.
At modern times, George Murdoch in America, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown and his followers in Britain and Claude Levi-Strauss in France used profusely this concept and popularised it. The usages of other writers are mostly the modified versions of these writers.
Murdock’s use of term ‘structure’ implies either a building analogy or a dead organic model dissected for demonstration. Radcliffe-Brown presumes that society may be compared to a living organism or a working mechanism. For Brown, society has a life of its own.
Society is not an object but it is very much like a creature. Hence, the study of structure, that is, the inter-dependence of the component parts of the system-is invariably linked with the study of function. It means one has to study how the component parts of the system ‘ work’ in relation to each other and to the whole.
Definitions of Social Structure:
The concept of social structure has been defined in different ways by different thinkers. We may consider some of these definitions:
1. Radcliffe-Brown defines social structure as “an arrangement of persons in institutionally controlled or defined relationships, (such as the relationship of King and subject, or that of husband and wife)”.
2. In the British social anthropological circles the term social structure is used to refer to “a body of principles underlying social relations, rather than their actual content”.
3. Morris Ginsberg regards social structure as “the complex of principal groups and institutions which constitute societies”.
4. In current sociological usage the concept of social structure is applied to small groups as well as larger associations, communities and societies. Thus, Ogburn and Knockoff are of the opinion that “In society, the organisation of a group of persons is the social structure. What the group does is the function.” They use the terms ‘social organisation’ and ‘social structure’ almost interchangeably.
5. In a loose manner, the term ‘social structure’ is used to refer to any recurring pattern of social behaviour.
6. Many sociologists have used the term ‘social structure’ to refer to “the enduring, orderly and patterned relationships between elements of a society…” (But there is disagreement as to what would count as an “element”.
For example, according to A.R. Brown, general and regular kinds of relationships that exist between people constitute the elements. For S.F. Nadel, the elements are roles. For most of the sociologists who are called ‘functionalists’, the elements of social structures are ‘social institutions’. They consider these elements (that is, social institutions) as necessary because they are “functional pre-requisites”. Without these institutions no society can survive.
Toward an Understanding of the Terms ‘Structure’ and ‘Social Structure’:
The term ‘structure’ refers to “some sort of ordered arrangements of parts or components”. A musical composition has a structure, a sentence has a structure, a building has a structure, a molecule or an animal has a structure and so on. In all these we find an ordered arrangement of different parts.
For example, a building which has structure consists of various parts such as stones, sand, bricks, iron, cement, wood, glass, etc. A structure that can be called a building can be obtained only when these parts or components are properly ordered and arranged one in relationship with the other.
In the same way, society too has its own structure called’ social structure’. The composites, or unite of social structure are “persons”. A person is a human being and is considered not just as an organism but as occupying position in a social structure.
Even though the persons are subject to change (due to change of membership, mobility or death) the structure as such maintains its continuity. A nation, tribe, a body such as Indian Institute of Technology, a political party, a religious body such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, can continue in existence as an arrangement of persons though the personnel of each changes from time to time.
There is continuity of the structure, just as a human body maintains its structure. The components of human body are molecules. The human body preserves the continuity of its structure though the actual molecules, out of which it is made, are continually changing.
In the political structure of India there must always be a Prime Minister, at one time it was Pandit Nehru, at another Indira Gandhi, and at present, it is Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Thus the structure as an arrangement remains continuous.
The Example of University as Having a Structure:
University as an educational group or system has a structure of its own. Every year senior students depart and a new batch of freshmen enters. Some faculty members are replaced, new professors are appointed and new classes may be added to the curriculum.
The administration agrees to include student representation in its planning sessions. Yet despite changes in personnel and policy, some things about university remain unchanged. Faculty members still design their courses, assign work to the students and evaluate their progress.
The ways in which individual Faculty members and students perform their roles vary, but the general patterns are much the same and fit together into an overall structure that we call a university.
Although the structure itself remains invisible, it silently shapes our actions. Thus, analysing the form and influence of social structure gives sociology its distinctive power in understanding human affairs.
The Necessity and Universality of Social Structures:
1. Human beings must be social to survive:
Man is a member of social species, a species which cannot survive unless its members are organised into groups and societies. These, in turn, develop a culture to meet shared needs. It is these minimum needs-biological, economic, social, psychological, etc., which result in the universality of some basic structures.
These structures lead to some general functions. Sociologists can therefore speak of a few kinds of structures or groups which will be present in all societies. These structures will exist in any society regardless of its ethos, its history, or any cultural variability. Because without the functions of these structures a human society could not survive.
Thus, a family may be monogamous or polygamous; a government may be democratic or totalitarian; an economy may be capitalist or socialist. The nature of the specific structure may vary from society to society but there is always some structure resulting in the function because, the functions are universal and essential.