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Elements of Society: Social Structure

A society’s enduring overall framework of elements and relationships, in which any given individual or group has a particular location or set of locations that shapes their behaviors and opportunities.


Major Perspectives


  • Social structure consists of a hierarchy of classes.

  • Relationships between classes are characterized by domination, exploitation, and conflict.


  • Social structure consists of statuses, roles, and social institutions.

  • Each element of structure performs some function in the overall social system.

Conflict theory

  • Social structure is comprised of a number of hierarchies among different groups defined by class, social status, ethnicity, and gender, among others.

  • Group relationships are characterized by domination, exploitation, and conflict.

Formal sociology

  • Social structure is comprised of individuals, groups, and other social entities, and of the networks of social ties between them.


Key Concepts: Multiple Approaches

  • Division of labor: A social process whereby productive activities become separated into different specialized tasks.

  • Social division of labor: Society’s total activities are differentiated into specialized occupations and institutions.

  • Technical division of labor: Specialization of tasks within a work setting, often at the command of owners seeking increased efficiency.


Key Concepts: Functionalist Approach

  • Social status: A relatively fixed position in society associated with particular rights, obligations, and a certain level of honor. See Role.

  • Ascribed status: A social status such as sex or age that one cannot voluntarily change.

  • Achieved status: A social status gained through voluntary action or achievement, or the lack thereof. Examples: the status of a college dropout, army officer, wife.

  • Master status: The most prominent of all the statuses an individual holds, affecting his or the rights, obligations, and prestige in every context.

  • Role: The obligations, rights, and expected behaviors attached to a specific social status. Contrast with Social Interaction > Key Concepts > Symbolic Interactionism > Roles.

  • Role conflict: The situation in which a person with two or more roles finds that the roles’ expected behaviors and attitudes do not mesh well.

  • Social institution: An established and cohesive set of standardized and rule-governed behaviors. According to functionalist theory, some social institutions are essential because they fulfill functional prerequisites. Other theorists deny that any institution is essential.


Key Concepts: Marxism, Weber, and Conflict Theory

  • Social class: (1) Marx, Conflict Theory: See Classical Sociological Thinkers > Karl Marx > Key Concepts > Class. (2) Weber, Social Stratification and Mobility research: A set of hierarchical categories that distinguish people based on their economic income, wealth, and, sometimes, occupational and educational status. In this definition, class relations do not necessarily entail domination or conflict.


Key Concepts: Formal Sociology

  • Group: A collectivity of individuals, bound by membership criteria, that interact and share some values, norms, and symbols. Differs from a social category, which includes all individuals who share a social characteristic but don’t necessarily interact.

  • Dyad: A group of two. Because they are destroyed if only one person departs, dyads require high levels of social interaction. They can provide more emotional sustenance than other groups.

  • Triad: A group of three. Two of the three members often come together and exclude the third. The third may act as a mediator or dividing wedge between the other two.

  • Social tie: A link between two individuals, groups, or other social entities, which may transmit resources, prestige, or meanings. Examples: Individuals may be tied by friendship; businesses by transactions; books by having the same publisher.

  • Social network: A set of actors or entities and of all the ties between them, where ties involve a specific type of relationship.