Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements which form the society as a whole, and which determine, to some varying degree, the actions of the individuals socialized into that structure. The meaning of "social structure" differs between various fields of sociology. On the macro scale, it can refer to the system of socioeconomic stratification (e.g., the class structure), social institutions, or, other patterned relations between large social groups. On the meso scale, it can refer to the structure of social network ties between individuals or organizations. On the micro scale, it can refer to the way norms shape the behavior of actors within the social system.
These meanings are not always kept separate. For example, recent scholarship by John Levi Martin has theorized that certain macro-scale structures are the emergent properties of micro-scale cultural institutions (this meaning of "structure" resembles that used by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss). Marxist sociology also has a history of mixing different meanings of social structure, though it has done so by simply treating the cultural aspects of social structure as epiphenomena of its economic ones.
Since the 1930s, the term has been in general use in social science, especially as a variable whose sub-components needed to be distinguished in relationship to other sociological variables.
The notion of social structure as relationships between different entities or groups or as enduring and relatively stable patterns of relationship emphasises the idea that society is grouped into structurally related groups or sets of roles, with different functions, meanings or purposes. One example of social structure is the idea of "social stratification", which refers to the idea that society is separated into different strata (levels), guided (if only partially) by the underlying structures in the social system. This approach has been important in the academic literature with the rise of various forms of structuralism. It is important in the modern study of organizations, because an organization's structure may determine its flexibility, capacity to change, and many other factors. Therefore, structure is an important issue for management.
Social structure may be seen to influence important social systems including the economic system, legal system, political system, cultural system, and others. Family, religion, law, economy and class are all social structures. The "social system" is the parent system of those various systems that are embedded in it.
Society: self contained, self sufficient population united by social relationships, bounded from other populations by geographic locations
Stratification: unequal distribution of valued goods or holdings in a population (i.e. class, status, resources, grades, wealth, positional goods, etc.)
Network: pattern of relationships in a population of actors
Social structure variables: pattern of relationships, size of institution, income distribution, and concurrency of social relationships
The early study of social structures has informed the study of institutions, culture and agency, social interaction, and history. Alexis de Tocqueville was apparently the first to use the term social structure; later, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Émile Durkheim all contributed to structural concepts in sociology. Weber investigated and analyzed the institutions of modern society: market, bureaucracy (private enterprise and public administration), and politics (e.g. democracy).
One of the earliest and most comprehensive accounts of social structure was provided by Karl Marx, who related political, cultural, and religious life to the mode of production (an underlying economic structure). Marx argued that the economic base substantially determined the cultural and political superstructure of a society. Subsequent Marxist accounts, such as that by Louis Althusser, proposed a more complex relationship that asserted the relative autonomy of cultural and political institutions, and a general determination by economic factors only "in the last instance".
In 1905, the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies first published his study The Present Problems of Social Structure in the U.S.A, in: arguing that only the constitution of a multitude into a unity creates a "social structure" (basing this approach on his concept of social will).
Émile Durkheim (drawing on the analogies between biological and social systems popularized by Herbert Spencer and others) introduced the idea that diverse social institutions and practices played a role in assuring the functional integration of society — the assimilation of diverse parts into a unified and self-reproducing whole. In this context, Durkheim distinguished two forms of structural relationship: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. The former describes structures that unite similar parts through a shared culture; the latter describes differentiated parts united through exchange and material interdependence.
Georg Simmel develop Weber did but more generally), competition, division of labor, formation of parties, representation, inner solidarity coupled with exclusiveness toward the outside, and many similar features in the state, in a religious community, in an economic association, in an art school, and in family and kinship networks (however diverse the interests that give rise to these associations, the forms in which interests are realized may yet be identical (Crothers, 1996)).
The notion of social structure was extensively developed in the 20th century, with key contributions from structuralist perspectives drawing on the theories of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Feminist or Marxist perspectives, from functionalist perspectives such as those developed by Talcott Parsons and his followers, or from a variety of analytic perspectives (see Blau 1975, Lopez and Scott 2000). Some follow Marx in trying to identify the basic dimensions of society that explain the other dimensions, most emphasizing either economic production or political power. Others follow Lévi-Strauss in seeking logical order in cultural structures. Still others, notably Peter Blau, follow Simmel in attempting to base a formal theory of social structure on numerical patterns in relationships—analyzing, for example, the ways in which factors like group size shape intergroup relations.
The notion of social structure is intimately related to a variety of central topics in social science, including the relation of structure and agency. The most influential attempts to combine the concept of social structure with agency are Anthony Giddens' theory of structuration and Pierre Bourdieu's practice theory. Giddens emphasizes the duality of structure and agency, in the sense that structures and agency cannot be conceived apart from one another. This permits him to argue that structures are neither independent of actors nor determining of their behavior, but rather sets of rules and competencies on which actors draw, and which, in the aggregate, they reproduce. Giddens's analysis, in this respect, closely parallels Jacques Derrida's deconstruction of the binaries that underlie classic sociological and anthropological reasoning (notably the universalizing tendencies of Lévi-Strauss's structuralism). Bourdieu's practice theory also seeks a more supple account of social structure as embedded in, rather than determinative of, individual behavior.
Other recent work by Margaret Archer (morphogenesis theory), Tom R. Burns and collaborators (actor-system dynamics theory and social rule system theory), and Immanuel Wallerstein (World Systems Theory) provided elaborations and applications of the sociological classics in structural sociology.