Social structure is considered to be an important basic concept in sociology. A variety of definitions explain it as a social organization based on established patterns of social interaction between different relationships, including parents and children, teachers and students, employers and employees. It is regulated via defined norms and common values.
British philosopher, biologist, sociologist and political theorist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) was the first to introduce the idea of social structure, although he did not give a clear definition of the term. Other philosophers and scientists have discussed the topic and tried to define social structure. Leading figures here are French sociologist and philosopher Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), British anthropologist Siegfried Frederick Nadel (1903-1956), American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and British sociologist, philosopher and humanist Morris Ginsberg (1889-1970).
The idea that societies can be examined as "organized wholes" dates back to the time of the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle. The notion evolved into a common way to approach the social world between the 17th and 18th centuries, hand in hand with the rapid development of natural sciences. At first sociologists could not precisely formulate the meaning of social structure, due to the non-observability of social structures. Two metaphors helped them comprehend the complexity of the idea. According to one of the metaphors, social structure was similar to a biological organism as it formed a social body or a social organism. The other metaphor described social structure as something close to a personality or soul, forming a social mind.
Sociologists who preferred the comparison to a social organism focused their observation on the very anatomy of social life. For those who supported the social mind view, the study of social structure was centered on the communication of ideas among people and the way in which the spirit of a society shaped its members. Various groups, institutions, associations and organizations represent the units of social structure. Relationships between people establish structural forms. Arranged in an interrelated way to allow the society to function in harmony, these structural forms make up social structure.
According to Parsons, there are four main types of social structure based on four social values. These are universalistic, particularistic, achieved and ascribed social values. The first pattern defined by Parsons is the universalistic-achievement pattern. It is a result of the mix of universalism and achievement values. Under this type of social structure the plans of the individual have to correspond to the universalistic values. Universalistic-achievement values are usually related to the values of social structure focused on kinship, community, class and race.
The universalistic-ascription pattern stresses the status of the individual and not his or her specific achievements. In other words, what matters is the individual, not what he or she has accomplished. Status is assigned to the group and then to the individual. Under this type of social structure, values are government by the elements of ascription. The particularistic-achievement pattern combines particularism with achievement values. Social structures in China and India fall within this category. The final pattern in the categories outlined by Parsons is the particularistic-ascriptive pattern. Here the social structure is more traditional and its stability is of high importance. The Spanish social structure can be put into that category, according to Parsons.
Social structure has five basic elements, described as the normative system, position system, sanction system, a system of anticipated responses and action system. The normative system includes the society with its ideals and values. People usually attach emotional importance to their own ideas and values and thus they turn into norms of society. Most institutions and associations are interrelated in line with these norms. Position systems take into account the status and roles of each individual in the society. The adequate assignment of roles and statuses is crucial for the proper functioning of social structure. The role of the sanction system is to coordinate and integrate different parts of society. The effectiveness of the sanction system defines the stability of social structure.
The other two elements of social structure include the system of anticipated responses, whose function is to call upon the individual to participate in the social system. The successful functioning of social structure is contingent upon the realization of the individual's duties. The action system is the hub around which the whole social structure revolves. It is the core cause, governing social relationships and pushing the social structure in motion.