A term referring to any recurring pattern of social behaviour; or, more specifically, to the ordered interrelationships between the different elements of a social system or society. Structure is generally agreed to be one of the most important but also most elusive concepts in the social sciences (see W. H. Sewell, ‘A Theory of Structure’, American Journal of Sociology, 1992). It is sometimes used rather loosely to refer to any observable ‘pattern’ in social activities, and empirical researchers, for example, have referred to statistical distributions of occupations and employment as disclosing the social structure of a society. More typically, however, it is seen as designating the actual arrangement of individuals and groups into those larger entities that Durkheim saw as social facts. The term largely originated as an application of ideas from biology, where the structure of an organism is the anatomical arrangement of its various organs. Social systems were seen as organized around an ‘institutional’ arrangement of individuals that defined their actual relations to each other. Most clearly expounded in structural functionalism, the institutions of a society are clusters of norms and meanings, drawn from the culture, that define the expectations that people hold about each other's behaviour. It is through these expectations that specific roles and reciprocal role relationships are defined. A social structure does not, however, consist only of such institutional connections. People act upon the institutionalized role expectations and so come into definite and recurrent relations with each other. Although there is rarely a perfect correspondence between institutionalized expectations and actual social relations, the term social structure designates this crucial combination of institutions and relations as constituting the ‘anatomy’ of a society. Social structure, then, comprises both ‘institutional structure’ and ‘relational structure’.
Unlike the structure of a building or an organism, a social structure is not directly visible. It is evidenced in the observable movements and actions of individuals, but it cannot be reduced to these. The core institutional norms and meanings are cultural phenomena that exist only as shared ideas and representations in the minds of individuals. For this reason, socialization into a culture is central to the maintenance of a social structure. Writers on structuration have emphasized that social structure is carried and has its effects because it is embodied in individuals through their socialization and provides them with dispositions and tendencies to act in particular, structured ways. Thus, a recent discussion has emphasized that the concept of social structure must be seen as resting upon this ‘embodied structure’ (José Lòpez and John Scott, Social Structure, 2000).
Some structural theories have emphasized the determining capacity of social structure as against human agency. Talcott Parsons, for example, has been criticized for overemphasizing socialization in a common cultural system and, therefore, depicting human actors as lacking in any freedom or autonomy. They are seen as passively acting out the roles into which they have been socialized. This is not, however, inherent in a structural approach. Marxism, for example, recognizes clashes and contradictions between elements of social structures, and active human agency is essential in resolving these contradictions. See also formalism; function; social order; structuralism.