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SOC: Social Structure?

What is Social Structure?

Social structure refers to¬†patterns around which society is organized. Henslin (1999:96) defines social structure as “the framework of society that was already laid out before you were born.” Social mobility is often achieved by routes provided by the social structure. In a bureaucracy, the patterns are well defined (in the army one moves up in rank).

There are micro aspects of social structure such as statuses and roles. Larger social structures include groups and institutions (e.g., government, education, religion). Still larger are more obscure structures, (like those related to the economy). Often, ordinary people are not even aware of their existence. These obscure structures none-the-less have great impact on the character of society overall.

Macro vs. Micro Approaches to Sociology

The micro-level refers to social relations that involve direct social interaction with others including families, friends, and coworkers. Symbolic Interactionist Theory explore micro-sociological issues.

  • An example would be Liebow and Anderson’s study of how street corner men in Washington coped with life on a day-to-day basis.

The macro-level refers to the larger, more invisible, and often more remote social processes that help to shape the micro world. Macro processes include political, economic, cultural, and other institutional social forces (Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:6).  Functionalists and Conflict Theory are the domain of macro-level studies.

Karl Marx’s concern with social class is an example of macro sociology

  1. Micro

Roles, Status, and Expectations

Henslin (1999:95-97) draws a distinction between status and roles.¬†Status refers to the social positions¬†that exist in society while¬†roles refer to “expected” patterns of behavior, obligations, and privileges attached to a particular social status. Associated with each role (or social position) are many expectations concerning how a person should behave.

Expectations are like norms. Viewing life simply in terms of roles that people occupy, one begins to see all life as if it were a stage play. Shakespeare said in “As You Like It”:

All the world is a stage and all the men and women merely players They have their exits and their entrances And one man in his time plays many parts

To act in a role is simply to act according to the norms (rules) and expectations attached to it.

  1. Ascribed Status Vs. Achieved Status

Henslin (1999:96) calls attention to the distinction between ascribed status and achieved status.

Ascribed statuses are involuntary. One is born with ascribed status such as race or sex.   Age is also an ascribed status.

Achieved status, on the other hand, is earned. It is based on merit.

  1. Role Distancing and Role Conflict

Unlike a stage play, however, we do not define roles. We negotiate social roles.

  1. Role Distancing

When an individual disagrees with the expectations associated with a particular role, the individual may try to de-emphasize the importance of that role. Irving Goffman (1961) calls this “role distancing.”¬†Role distancing is the act of separating oneself from the role. For example, the actor may only play the role in a tongue and cheek fashion.

  1. Role Conflict

Some roles that have to be played contradict other important roles (See Henslin, 1999:108). Here the individual does not know what is expected. We call this “role conflict.” Example:

The conflict experienced between having to be a mother and having to be a wage earner simultaneously.


Teenagers often experience conflict between the role of child and that of adult.

  1. Macro Sociology: Institutions
  • Family, religion, and politics are examples of institutions¬†(Henslin, 2004:83).
  • Institutions (in Charon, 1986:229) are structures that define the right and correct ways of doing things in society.
  • Institutions help establish and maintain social order.
  • Social institutions shape our behavior (Henslin, 2004:83).
  • Social institutions are the means that each society develops to meet its basic needs (Henslin, 2004:83).
  • Institutions act as norms.
  • Institutions tend to support the ideology of a society. For example, the educational system (as well as the rest of the institutions) in America support the ideology of democracy and free enterprise.
  • As society becomes more industrialized, institutions become more formal (Henslin, 2004:83).
  1. Institutions vs. Organization

Institutions can be organization, but they are different from organizations. Public education is an institution. El Paso Community college is an organization. GM is an organization. The “corporation” is an institution. Often one hears mental hospitals or prisons called institutions. One hears of people being institutionalized. The specific hospital is not an institution, speaking sociologically. The mental health system is an institution. If one is institutionalized, he or she becomes a part of a particular system of organization. The idea of prison, however, is an institution. The same idea holds no matter what prison in which an individual is.

  1. Structure Below the Surface

Essentialism is an idea that comes out of the French Structuralist School of Althusser and Foucoult. Essentialism generally refers to social structures that lie below the surface of observable society. According to Sartre, essentialists are concerned with the unconsciousness foundations of human culture. For essentialists the descriptive level (what people see) is only one of appearance and not cause. Cause is hidden. To understand society, one needs to go beyond description (the surface) to the causal level.  The characteristics of the economy determines what we see on the surface (in government, size of family, type of profession, major concerns of criminal justice, etc.)

Charon, Joel

1986 Sociology: A Conceptual Approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Henslin, James M.

1999 Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach, (4th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2006 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach,  (6th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2008 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach,  (7th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Zimbardo, Philip

1971 “Quiet Rage: The Stanford Prison Study.” (Movie)


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