I am currently teaching a module designed to introduce social theory to new sociology undergraduates and I will write a few posts on here summarising some of the issues I highlight in these sessions over the next few weeks.

In the previous post I discussed the impact which the French and American revolutions, the industrial revolution and the Enlightenment had on the early development of sociology. Significantly these three events helped people to realise that society is a “thing” which really exists, changes and (most importantly) can be observed and studied. In this post I will outline how some of the early sociologists made sense of society through their discussion of social structures.

I will discuss the approach taken by three early sociologists.

  1. Karl Marx’s explanation of social class.
  1. Emile Durkheim’s notion of social facts.
  1. Max Weber’s insight that social structures are composed of individuals

For all of these thinkers social structures are influential and important phenomena but there is an important distinction we can make between their approaches. For Marx and Durkheim social structures are objectively existing things which control our behaviour to some extent. Alternatively, Weber characterised social structures as “necessary fictions” and asserted that reality exists on the level of the individual.

Social structures are a key concept in sociology. They are fundamental partly because analysis of them is one of the key things which makes sociology distinctive. It is their existence which initially enabled sociology to be seen as a distinct discipline which had its own “object of knowledge” or focus. Social structures are to sociologists what physical forces (such as gravity) are to physicists or what chemical elements (such as hydrogen or carbon) are to chemists.

I think we can define social structures as being:

  • Social (not natural)
  • “Made up” by human beings
  • Constrain and enable human behaviour
  • Exist independently of individuals
  • Dynamic (change over time)

One kind of social structure is the ways in which society is structured eg. into social groups (such as religious communities or occupations) or through institutions or bodies (such as universities or trade unions). Conventions or norms are another kind of social structure; these are things which encourage us to behave in a particular way (these might be formal things such as laws or informal expectations such as those placed on “sons” or “daughters”). Social structures can be seen in lots of other situations such as Facebook “Likes”.

Karl Marx and social class

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While Marx did not use the phrase social structure he was clearly concerned with them. One of his most famous statements was that:

“Men make history but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

Here he is clearly asserting that there are social things which make some actions by individuals more achievable than others. The circumstances in which people find themselves are determined, according to Marx, by their “material” circumstances. By this he (mostly) meant their place within the system of production or what their job is. The way in which work is organised in a society creates different groups, “classes” or “kinds” of people and, at least for Marx, we are part of these classes regardless of whether we think we are or not.

This is because the capitalist system of production generates two main classes. These two groups are not just one way of analysing society but they really exist because they have “objective interests”. These are really existing interests which are there whether or not people think they are.

These two groups are:

  • The Bourgeoisie – the owners of the “means of production”
  • The proletariat  – the workers.

The Bourgeoisie who live off profits so therefore want to keep wages low and prices of the commodities they sell high. The proletariat who live off wages so want wages to be high and the price of commodities low.

As these are their “objective interests” and what defines them as social classes they are things which can be studied scientifically.

Émile Durkheim and social facts

Emile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim also emphasised the controlling nature of social structures in description of what he called “social facts” (see What is a Social Fact? from The Rules of Sociological Method). These are, social things which cannot be explained through looking at individual behaviour alone. For instance, money constrains our behaviour in obvious ways but is clearly a social thing which exists in interactions “between people”.

They are most obviously observable in the constraints placed on human action. We can sense social facts whenever we feel that our behavior is directed or constrained in some way. Although we often do not realise that it is being constrained. Often over time our actions or beliefs align themselves with social norms. When this happens then these constraints seem natural and even invisible. Often it is only when we resist social norms that we feel their force.

For Durkheim, these social facts (for instance social roles or norms) spread through society into individuals who then implement them in their own way. For instance, there are general, socially prescribed ways of being a mother (being caring, disciplining children, playing games) which will be implemented in particular ways by individuals.

But social structures are not only constraints. They also enable us to do things and to transcend our individuality by becoming more than just an individual. When we perform our social roles we have been coerced into this but it also makes us feel like we are connected to others engaged in the same role.

Max Weber and Individual actions

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While the other two sociologists I have discussed tended to emphasise the ways in which social structures control and coerce us Max Weber had a quite different focus. He suggested that social structures are only “necessary fictions” the real focus for sociologists should be on the individuals who “make up” social structures. A social structure is made up of individuals. For instance, money (a social structure) could not exist without many individuals buying and selling things every day.

For this reason Weber felt it was important to focus on the “meaningful actions” of individuals. By this he meant their actions directed towards other people. It is these meaningful actions which create social structures.

Norbert Elias was another sociologist took a lot of influence from Weber and came up with a good way of explaining the relationship between individuals and structures. He suggested that social structures (what he called social processes) are like a football match (see What is Sociology?). A football match is “made up” of lots of individuals acting in various ways (running from one place to another, passing the football, etc). But we can’t understand a football match just by looking at the actions of one particular individual or even by looking at the actions of all 22 players individually.

There are characteristics of a football match (such as the flow or the tempo) which we can only understand on the level of the “match”. The same can be said of social structures, they are constituted by individuals actions and interactions but they also exist on their own level of reality. While the social structure of the economy is made up of individual actions we could not understand it merely through observing individuals making purchases or sales in shops.

In the next post I will address the impact which social structures have on how we feel.