Social structure of the society


Belarus State Economic University



Minsk 2008

What is social structure of the society?

Any object has its structure. As the noun “structure” is rendered as “строение расположение порядок” structure is defined as functional interdependence of elements constituting the carcass of an object.

The society has social structure. The concept of social structure was pioneered by G. Simmel then developed by K. Marx E. Durkheim but became most known due to T. Parsons who created structural functionalism. There are various approaches to studying social structure of the society but they didn’t avoid influence of structural functionalism in any way.

Due to the functionalist perspective social structure is the carcass of a social whole (society or its part) the elements of which are invariable in time interdependent of each other and largely determine the functioning of the whole in general and its members in particular. The focus is made on both interdependence – it’s like a house: take some brick off the wall and the whole building may ruin and function – take a log: it can be burnt to get warm or used as construction material to build a house. In other words structural functionalism analyzes parts of the society in terms of their purpose within the whole.

It’s clear that social structures of ancient and modern societies differ from each other. This difference is caused by diachronic changes taking place in the society: although the structure presents a stable carcass it is stable or invariable only for a definite period of time and historically it changes. Social structure is qualitative certainty of the society which means that change in structure leads to radical qualitative change in the society. Structure ensures stability required for the functioning of associated social elements which accumulate quantitative changes up till the moment when they turn to quality and a need for structural changes in the social object rises. For instance development of the bourgeoisie and proletariat as classes and formation of new relations of production lead to a bourgeoisie revolution and change of the socio-economic system.

Social structure is characterized by the following main attributes:

·  hierarchy – vertical and horizontal arrangement of structural elements which is based on their unequal access to authority income social prestige etc.;

·  interconnection of structural elements which is realized through exchange of resources information sharing values etc.;

·  differentiation into the smallest elements and their integration into the whole;

·  flexibility capacity to change so it is an important part of the management.

Traditionally theorists identify the following types of social structure: socio-demographic socio-class socio-ethnic socio-professional socio-confessional etc. No doubt any social object has its structure. For instance at analyzing a labour collective we may consider employees within the socio-professional structure: those who got secondary vocational and higher education scientific qualifications representatives of various professions specializations their levels of qualification. The socio-demographic structure suggests analysis of employees according to the age and gender: the young up to 30 middle-aged those of pre-pension and pension age males and females.

There are different types of social structure. A famous Russian theorist M. N. Rutkevich identifies three basic types. The first one characterizes the process of historical development of mankind i. e. a global structure of human society consisting of nations states and their various associations. The second type comprises relations between various spheres or subsystems of social life. The third type comprises relations between social groups and other communities of people. The last two types reflect some settled approaches to consider social structure.

In social structures of the second type their elements are viewed as relatively independent subsystems or spheres of social life (politics economy etc). Their number is a point for debate. For instance G. Hegel and F. Engels spoke of politics economy and family; modern theorists perceive four spheres: culture politics legislation and economy although they don’t deny that other spheres can also be seen in religion science or in family.

Anyway less debated is a position of the Russian researcher A.I. Kravchenko who divides the society into economic political social and spiritual spheres.

Economic sphere includes four types of activities – production distribution exchange and consumption. It provides means for increasing the material welfare of the society: enterprises banks markets money flows and the like that enables the society to use available resources (land labour capital and management) in order to produce the amount of goods and services sufficient enough to satisfy people’s essential needs in food shelter and leisure. About 50% of the economically active population take part in the economic sphere as the young old disabled do not produce material wealth. But indirectly 100% of the population participate in the economic sphere as consumers of created goods and services.

Political sphere includes the head of the state and the state bodies such as government and parliament local bodies of power the army the police taxation and customs bodies which together constitute the state and political parties which are not part of the state. Its objective is to realize the goals of the society: to ensure the social order settle conflicts arisen between partners (employers employees and trade unions) defend the state frontiers and sovereignty impose new laws collect taxes etc. But its main objective is to legalize ways of struggle for power and defend the power obtained by a particular class or group. The objective of political parties is to legally defend the diversified political interests of different very often opposite groups of the population.

Spiritual sphere includes culture science religion and education and their artifacts such as monuments and establishments of culture pieces of arts research and learning institutions temples and cathedrals mass media etc. If science is aimed at discovering new knowledge in various spheres education should translate this knowledge to the future generations in a most effective way for schools and universities are built new programs and teaching methods are worked out qualified teachers are trained. Culture is designed to create values of arts exhibit them in museums galleries libraries etc. Culture also comprises religion which is considered the pivot of spiritual culture in any society as it gives sense to human life and determines basic moral norms.

Social sphere embraces classes social layers nations associated by their relations and interactions. The given sphere of the society is understood as narrow and wide. In its wide meaning the social sphere is a totality of organizations and establishments that are in charge of the population’s wealth; they are shops transport means communal and consumer services establishments of catering medicine communication leisure and recreation. Thus as such the social sphere covers almost all classes and layers – the rich the poor and the middle class.

In its narrow meaning the social sphere is designed for the members of the society who are regarded as socially unprotected (pensioners unemployed with low incomes or with many children etc) and the establishments that provide their service namely the bodies of social security (including social insurance) of both local and national subordination. In this case the social sphere is designed for the poorer layers of the population.

There are other approaches as to the number of parts or spheres of the society but they are all united by a view that social subsystems cannot exist as isolated. They are arranged in a pattern of relationships that together make the system. The social naturally penetrates into the productive and managerial spheres since people of different nationalities ages sexes and confessions can work together at an enterprise on the one hand. On the other hand if the country’s economy doesn’t perform its main objective to satisfy the population with the sufficient amount of goods and services the number of jobs doesn’t increase there may arise negative consequences in the society. For instance the money is short to pay wages and pensions unemployment appears the living standards of the socially unprotected layers are decreasing crimes are increasing etc. In other words success or recession in one sphere has a great influence on prosperity in the other one.

The third type of social structure is best developed by structural functionalists who assert that structure arises out of face-to-face interactions of people. Interactions make up patterns which are independent of the particular individual because patterns are determined by social norms and values of the given society. For instance somebody needs money. He can earn it but if in some society robbery or burglary is not disapproved of he may rob someone to reach the purpose. So patterns exert a force which shapes behaviour and identity. That’s why T. Parsons and his supporters define social structure as the way in which the society is organized into predictable relationships or invariable patterns of social interaction called institutions.

Social structure does not concern itself with the people forming the society or their social organizations neither does it study who are the people or organizations forming it or what is the ultimate goal of their relations. Social structure deals rather with the very structure of their relations – how they are organized in a pattern of relationships or institution. So due to structural functionlism structural elements of the society are social institutions and social groupings; structural units are social norms and values.

Social groupings and communities

Social groupings are social groups social classes and layers communities social organizations social statuses and roles.

A group is a number of people or things which we class together so that they form a whole. In our minds we could group any assortment of people together. For instance you could group together Phillip Kirkorov your nearest relative the person who sat opposite you last time you were on a bus Santa Clause and a shop-assistant from the Hippo market in Serebryanka. But a social group however means more than just an assortment of people. There must be something to hold them together as a whole.

To be a social group people must:

·  interact with one another

·  perceive themselves as a group.

Social group is an assortment of people associated by a socially significant distinction people who interact together in an orderly way and perceive themselves or perceived by others as a group.

Any social group is characterized by a number of attributes:

·  interaction within a group is realized on the basis of shared norms values and expectations about one another’s behaviour;

·  groups develop their own internal structure: kernel and periphery norms value statuses and roles; they can be rigid and formal or loose and flexible;

·  there is a sense of belonging individuals identify with the group; outsiders are distinguished from members and treated differently;

·  groups are formed for a purpose – specific or diffuse;

·  people in a group tend to be similar and the more they participate the more similar they become.

There are a lot of classifications of social groups. The first one embraces statistical and real groups. A statistical group is an assortment of people differentiated by a definite characteristic that can be measured. For instance citizens are people living in formal settlements called cities. A real group possesses a number of characteristics describing its immanent essence. So citizens are people living in cities who live an urban way of life with highly diversified labour (mainly industrial and information kinds) and leisure activities with high professional and social mobility high frequency of human contacts in formal communication etc. According to this definition only a part of the statistical group of citizens comply with the criterion of being urbanites or not everyone who lives in city can belong to the real group of citizens.

Another type is a reference group as any group we use to evaluate ourselves but it doesn’t necessarily mean we must belong to it. It is like a target group in the market: a target group of black BMW cars is composed of people with high income of a certain age males etc. David is a person with such characteristics but he doesn’t like BMWs. He prefers Volvos. The normative function of the reference group is to set and enforce standards of conduct and belief. Its comparison function is viewed as a standard by which people can measure themselves or others. For instance we compare confessional groups to examine some features let’s say Jews and Protestants and find out that Jews display 20% greater tolerance. So if you are a Jew you’re perceived by others as a more tolerant person.

Social groups can also be classified according to their size character of organization emotional depth accomplished objective etc.

According to size groups can be small middle-sized and large ones. Small social groups normally small in number are characterized by human interactions in the form of direct contacts like in families. The smallest groups are stable and more constraining but offer more intimacy and individuality. As size increases freedom increases but intimacy declines and the emerging group structure tends to limit individuality. Contacts are frequent and intensive; members take each other into account as they group together on the basis of shared norms values and expectations about one another’s behaviour. As more people are added to the group (up to 20) complexity increases subdivisions appear.

Middle-sized social groups are relatively stable communities of people working at the same enterprise or organization members of a social association or those sharing one limited but large enough territory for example people living in one district city or region. The first type is called labour-organizational groups the second one – territorial groups. People are united into labour-organizational groups to accomplish a certain purpose or objective that determines its composition structure and type of activities interpersonal interaction and relations.

Large social groups are stable numerous collections of people who act together in socially significant situations in the context of the country or state or their unions. They are classes social layers professional groups ethnic groupings (nationalities nations and races) demographic groupings (the young the old males and females) etc. With regard to all of them a social group is a patrimonial collective concept. People’s affiliation to a large group is determined by a number of socially significant distinctions such as class affiliation demographic factors form and character of social activities etc.

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