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The term social structure denotes a more or less enduring pattern of social arrangements within a particular society, group, or social organization. Nonetheless, despite its widespread usage, there is no single agreed concept of social structure that exists in sociology or related disciplines. An early attempt to theorize the notion of social structure was seen in the work of Levi-Strauss, the French social anthropologist, who attempted to discover the universal rules that underpin everyday activities and custom through cultural systems (Levi-Strauss 1967). Within sociology, however, the term has been employed in various ways according to the theoretical approach within which the concept is used.
Historically speaking, sociological theories exploring the concept of social structure are generally associated with macro or structural perspectives oriented to understanding the nature of social order, and in doing so stand in stark contrast to social action (or micro) approaches which seek meaning and motivation behind human social behavior. Social structural analysis has tended to be identified with two schools of thought. First, it is associated with the theoretical speculations of structural functionalists such as Talcott Parsons, for whom the major concern of the sociological enterprise was to explain how social life was possible. For Parsons (1951), the answer lay in the establishment of a certain degree of order and stability which is essential for the survival of the social system. Parsons identified cultural values as the key to stability. Value consensus provides the foundations for cooperation, since common values produce common goals. The value system permeated social structures which, in Parsons’s schemata, constituted a fourfold system of functional prerequisites which give way to universal arrangements oriented towards adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. In Parsons’s structuralist theory the notion of social structure also implied that human behavior and relationships are, to one degree or another, structured,” particularly in terms of rules, social status and roles, and normative values. Social behavior and relationships are thus patterned and recurrent. It follows that the structure of society can be seen as the sum total of normative behavior, as well as social relationships which are governed by norms.
In western Europe, in particular, functionalism has long been rivaled by Marxist schools of structuralism. Marx (1964) himself considered the importance of what he identified as the two dimensions of the social structure: the overarching economic substructure (or base) which for the most part determined the social superstructure comprised of the various institutions of society. In turn, the hard” interpretation of Marxist thought came to identify the processes of dialectical and historical materialism as forging social structures concomitant with the economic base. In this elucidation the social superstructure was transformed into social structures that enforced class subjugation and exploitation.
Criticisms of macro-level structuralist theories were to lead to the intellectual movement of poststructuralism which developed from the 1960s. Although initially derived from structuralist schools, theorists challenged assumptions concerning society and language as signifying “coherent systems.” Through major exponents such as Derrida, Foucault, and others associated with schools of postmodernism, even earlier poststructuralist theory was itself “deconstructed” in order to understand how knowledge, linguistics, and centers of power came into existence in the first place.
- Levi-Strauss, C. (1967) The Scope of Anthropology. Cape, London.
- Marx, (1964) The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. International Manuscripts, New York.
- Parsons, T. (1951) The Social System. Free Press, New York.
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