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Social Structure

The concept of ‘social structure’ was first introduced by Herbert Spencer, in the latter half of the 19th century. He applied the “organic analogy” to the study of society. During this time, the term “structure” was used in biology to refer to “organs,” i.e., groups of connective tissues that had a specific purpose for the organism as a whole. According to Spencer, society has similar “social structures” that serve societal purposes [5]. This idea can also be found in Émile Durkheim’s writings, which anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown used as well, as a source for many of his concepts [2].

Social Structure in Cultural Anthropology

In the decade that followed World War II, the idea of social structure gained popularity among sociologists and social anthropologists. This word was so widely used at the time that it was applied to describe “just about any ordered arrangement of social phenomenon” [1].

It is important to take into account the various definitions and applications of social structure that sociologists and social anthropologists have developed. They are discussed briefly below:

Émile Durkheim

The duality of structure and function that French sociologist Émile Durkheim accepted was essential for sociology and anthropology. Durkheim argued that society is structured in accordance with the roles and functions that social groups play in the division of labour. In “The Division of Labour in Society” (1893), he looked at how the division of labour functioned as a foundation for social solidarity. According to him, the role of division of labour in integrating and unifying the societal organism and maintaining its life is the most basic “function” in society. According to Durkheim, modern society is unified primarily by “organic” solidarity, or solidarity that results from people’s interdependence in the societal division of labour, as opposed to mechanical solidarity, or solidarity based on people’s similarities, which was the dominant foundation for social bonds in earlier eras [5].

Ralph Linton

American anthropologist Ralph Linton (1936) proposed a second duality—that of status and role—after the duality of structure/function. He looked at ‘social structure’ as a collection of established roles. A status, according to Linton, is a position in a specific pattern (structure) or, as he put it  “a slot in social structure”. Such a position carries with it both rights and obligations, and acting in accordance with these is playing a role [5]. Linton views a role as the “dynamic” component of a status [6].

Claude Lévi-Strauss

French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss is a prominent structuralist who gave the idea of social structure a different connotation. He argues that the word “social structure” refers to models that are developed in response to empirical reality. Therefore, social structure “can by no means be reduced to the collection of social relations in a particular society’ [1].

In his opinion, social structure is more of a technique that can be used with any social studies discipline.

It is related to structural analysis, which is popular across many academic fields, including linguistics, literature, political science, etc [1]. In “The Elementary Structures of Kinship” (1949), he extended these structuralist ideas to the investigation of social structure. He studied the “structural logics” that governed patterns of kin relationships. He saw the kinship system as “formal laws of transfers”, i.e., for him, marriage was a transfer of women from one lineage to another [5].This came to be known as the Alliance Theory.

Talcott Parsons

According to American sociologist Talcott Parsons, social structure is a naturally enduring system that, like an organism, maintains continuity despite periodic internal alterations. For him, “natural persistent systems” are those that have a life of their own. He views the concept of a social system as being considerably broader than just social structure, encompassing both the functional and structural aspects [1].

In The Social System (1951), Talcott Parsons first introduced a systems framework for analyzing social structure. He suggested four systemic necessities as being crucial to understanding the structure and growth of societies. Systemic necessities are fundamental tasks that systems must perform to continue their existence. (journal) The assumption is that a complex social social system is made up of a network of interconnected and interpenetrating “subsystems”, each of which, when viewed at the proper level of reference, is a social system by itself [4].

Talcott Parsons also analyzed the correlation of “structure” and “culture”. According to him, “institutionalised patterns of normative culture” make up social systems. ‘Role’ is the core concept in this context. In other words, societal roles are established by particular norms that specify acceptable conduct. For Parsons, an individual’s “structured” and “normatively regulated” involvement in a concrete social interaction process with specific, concrete role-partners is referred to as playing a role [4].


According to English anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown (1952), social structure is “an arrangement of parts of components related to one another in some sort of a larger unity” [2]. He highlighted that social structure is “to be defined as a set of

relations between entities” [5]. Radcliffe-Brown sees social structure as an empirical reality and not an abstraction ., i.e. “social structure” refers to empirically observable phenomena, specifically the arrangements or relationships of a society’s individuals. [2]. Human beings or individuals who participate in social life are the fundamental components of social structure. Thus, social structure is determined by how individuals are arranged in relation to one another. [2].

A social structure is established and maintained through a variety of intricate systems, including law, economic institutions, education, moral principles, and values. When viewed in relation to the social structure, the majority of the primitive institutions, values, and beliefs take on an entirely different character. For instance, the Canadian officials viewed the “Potlach” system of the Indians of northwest America as a needless idiocy. However, it served as a mechanism for upholding the social structure of lineages, tribes, and moieties, along with a system of rank and status that was determined by privileges [1].

Robert K. Merton

American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1957) noted that “status and roles become concepts serving to connect culturally defined expectations with the patterned conduct and relationships which make up a social structure” [5]. In “Social Theory and Social Structure” (1949), he looked at how specific social structures exert pressure on specific members of society to act in non-conformist rather than conformist ways. Merton examined the social structure with relation to two elements namely: i) culturally defined goals, and ii) acceptable modes of achieving these goals. His analysis served as a basis for Deviant theory. [3].


[1] “CONCEPTS OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE.” Egyankosh, egyankosh.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/18812/1/Unit-25.pdf.

[2] “CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE RADCLIFFE.BROWN.” Egyankosh, egyankosh.ac.in/bitstream/123456789/18967/1/Unit-24.pdf.

[3] Merton, Robert K. “Social Structure and Anomie.” American Sociological Review, vol. 3, no. 5, 1938, pp. 672–82. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/2084686. Accessed 9 Mar. 2023.

[4] Parsons, Talcott. “An Outline of the Social System.” T Classical Sociological Theory, edited by Calhoun, Craig, Blackwell, 2007. pp. 421-440.

[5] —. “Social Structure.” International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 2nd ed., vol. 22, Elsevier, 2015, pp. 713–18. home.uchicago.edu/~jlmartin/Papers/Social%20Structures.pdf.

[6] Van der Horst, Mariska (2016) Role Theory. In: Sociology. Oxford Bibliographies . Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-975638-4. https://doi.org/10.1093/OBO/9780199756384-0175

Suchandra Chattopadhyay - Anthroholic
Suchandra Chattopadhyay

Suchandra is a Ph.D. Research Scholar, at the Department of Sociology, Sidho-Kanho-Birsha University, West Bengal. Her interests lie in the Sociology of Culture and the Sociology of Gender. She has previously held positions at XamFit and Collegedunia.

Articles: 9

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