Social Structure

Social Structure

Social Structure

Social Structure

Synopsis

Plagued by confusion, the concept of social structure still presents difficulties for sociologists who have not agreed on a common definition of the term. This text discusses the concept in relation to institutional, relational and embodied structure.

Excerpt

'Social structure' has always been one of the central concepts in sociological theory and analysis. Indeed, it has now become something of a commonplace to see the major disputes of contemporary sociology as organized around the dualism of 'structure' and 'action'. While there have been many discussions of the nature and meaning of social action, there have been very few definitional works on social structure. Indeed, social structure is usually treated as a taken-for-granted concept that is not in need of any explicit definition or discussion. Actual uses of the concept, however, are strikingly nebulous and diverse. As a result, there is little consensus over what the word means, and it is all too easy for sociologists to be talking at cross purposes because they rely on different, and generally implicit, conceptions of social structure.

This peculiar situation – that one of the discipline's central concepts is so misunderstood – is clear from the definitions of social structure that are given in the leading dictionaries of sociology. One of the most important of these defines social structure 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' (Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology 1994: 517). Having given this very general characterization, the dictionary disarmingly adds, 'However, there is no generally agreed meaning, and attempts at providing succinct definitions have proved singularly unsuccessful.' In a strikingly similar way, another dictionary holds that social structure is 'Any relatively enduring pattern or interrelationship of social elements … The more or less enduring patterns of social arrangements within a particular society' (Collins' Dictionary of Sociology 1991:

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