structure, social structure
A term loosely applied to any recurring pattern of social behaviour; or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society . Thus, for example, the different kinship, religious, economic, political, and other institutions of a society may be said to comprise its social structure, as might such components as its norms, values, and social roles. However, there is no generally agreed meaning, and attempts at providing a succinct definition have proved singularly unsuccessful. Thus, for example, Raymond Firth arrives merely at the truism that social structure is ‘an analytical tool, designed to serve us in understanding how men behave in their social life. The essence of this concept is those social relations which seem to be of critical importance for the behaviour of members of the society, so that if such relations were not in operation, the society could not be said to exist in that form’ (Elements of Social Organization, 1951). Structure is generally agreed to be one of the most important but also most elusive concepts in the social sciences (see, ‘A Theory of Structure’, American Journal of Sociology, 1992).
The term is central to the theories of structural functionalism, structuralism , and post-structuralism . In all three cases it is employed in both a nominative and explanatory capacity. Thus, whatever aspects of social life are designated as structure are also endowed with the capacity for structuring other aspects of the social, as when sociologists claim that gender structures employment opportunities, religion structures family life, or modes of production structure social formations. Not unreasonably, Sewell concludes that structure is not a concept and cannot therefore be defined precisely, since it functions rather as a metaphor in and of social scientific discourse.
Where structure has been placed at the forefront of sociological discussion it has tended to generate a causal determinism in which the efficacy of human agency is lost. Structures invariably seem to exist separately from, but nevertheless to determine, motivated social action. This often makes it difficult to explain change , since structures imply stability of patterns over time, if not permanency. These problems are widely recognized in the discipline. For example, specifically in response to the dualism of ‘agency versus structure’ Anthony Giddens has proposed a theory of so-called structuration , which states that structures are themselves dual; that is, they are ‘both the medium and the outcome of the practices which constitute social systems’ (A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, 1981). In short, structure shapes people's practices, but these practices constitute and reproduce social systems. Some have acknowledged this formulation as an imaginative step forward in social theory; others dismiss it as merely a redescription of the problem.
Such issues apart, the major divergence in sociological usages of structure is between those who see the term as referring to the observable patterned social practices (roles, norms, and such like) that make up social systems or societies, and those for whom structure comprises the underlying principles (for example relationships to the means of production) that pattern these overt practices. Structural functionalists exemplify the former; structuralists (such as structural Marxists) are a good example of the latter. See also formalism ; function ; social order ; sociology.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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