Social structure is defined as an overall system that seeks to understand society and the differentiations that it operates between individuals according to their social position in this society. The social structure is hierarchized into different categories. It refers also on how economic and political power is organized within society.
In sociology that is used to describe the dividing order of human societies according to their social characteristics , especially their social stratification.
Society is structured and hierarchical: it is social stratification. There are multiple factors for structuring and prioritizing social space: income, diploma, age, gender, place of residence, household composition, professions and socio-professional categories.
The term social structure was introduced in 1905 by the German sociologist and philosopher Ferdinand Tönnies ; In general, it refers to the grouping of the social structure of relationships in a society as a whole according to similarities and differences in several dimensions. Structural groups are, for example, social class, social class , caste , social situation, social milieu, lifestyle or, historically, the class order.
In our contemporary societies, we often hear about the different trades: executive in the public service, self-employed, farmer… All these categories refer to a way of understanding the spectrum of trades. How to analyze and construct social categories? What are the main theories for analyzing social structure in our Western economies?
Depending on the sociological perspective and interest in knowledge these are divided in detail into the characteristics that are important for the respective dimension in order to recognize and explain the lasting social interactions between these groups.
In the social structure analysis, the social structure is examined empirically and socially. The goals are the description, the explanation of connections, the comparison and the political advice.
Examples of social structure
Examples of social structure include family, law, religion, economy and class. It contrasts with “social system”, which refers to the parent structure in which these various structures are embedded.
Thus, social structures significantly influence larger systems, such as economic systems, legal systems, political systems, cultural systems, etc. Social structure can also be said to be the framework upon which a society is established. It determines the norms and patterns of relations between the various institutions of the society.
The social structure is hierarchical and constantly changing
The diversity of modes of social stratification
Social stratification refers to the set of systems of social differentiation based on the unequal distribution of resources and positions in society. The principles governing social stratification can vary significantly from one society to another.
Social stratification is based on different criteria, some of a socio-economic nature (professional status, income, prestige, etc.), others of a more demographic nature (place in the life cycle, gender, ethnic origin, place of life, etc.).
The division into social classes is one mode of stratification among others. Other logics of the organization of society exist, such as the caste system and the division of society into orders which are based in particular on birth.
The International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO) provides an interpretation of social stratification by profession. It distinguishes different groups bringing together populations with a certain social homogeneity.
The main changes in the social structure
The social structure has changed profoundly since the post-war period due to changes in the economy. The movement towards wage earning increased while technical progress in the primary and secondary sector, but also the improvement in living standards, favored the tertiairization of the economy.
The increased need for skilled workers has led to an increase in PCS for executives and intermediate professions. The level of qualification of workers has thus increased significantly. The participation rate of women has also increased significantly since the mid-1970s.
Sociologists have different conceptions of social structure
Marx and Weber, two visions of social structure
Karl Marx shows that society tends to polarize into two social classes: the bourgeois, who own the means of production and the proletarians who have only their labor power. These social groups are classes in themselves since the individuals who compose them share objective living conditions. These are therefore people who have the same position in the relations of production and exploitation. A class for itself is a class in which people are aware of their common interests and are able to fight to defend them.
Max Weber proposes a multidimensional theory in which social class (economic order) is only one dimension of social stratification with the criterion of parties (political order) and status groups (social order) which establishes a hierarchy of prestige. . This vision in terms of social strata is based on the idea of a continuity of social groups rather than of distinct social classes inscribed in relations of domination.
The weakening of class logic
During the Thirty Glorious Years, Henri Mendras offered a vision of society on the model of a spinning top, in which a vast “central constellation” constituted the social group which absorbed other groups.
This presentation makes it possible to describe the phenomenon of averaging which is explained by the development of the consumer society, the improvement of wages and working conditions, but also by the weakening of conflicts and a less marked class consciousness within of a working class whose numbers were reduced from the mid-1970s and whose standard of living increased.
Analysis in terms of classes remains relevant
The end of the post-war boom marks the slowdown in the growth of the purchasing power of the poorest populations and their growing exposure to rising unemployment and insecurity. We are once again witnessing a growth in wage inequalities, but also in assets.
Pierre Bourdieu shows in his representation of social space that inequalities are maintained between social groups, due to an unequal distribution of economic and cultural capital, but also within each of them (lower and upper fractions of classes).
It is thus possible to think that class logics have never really disappeared. In fact, the big bourgeoisie has managed to retain its ability to defend its interests and pass on its heritage. It remains a class in itself and for itself according to Michel Pinçon and Monique Pinçon-Charlot. At the same time, the disadvantaged popular categories are subject to new forms of domination.
The mechanisms of identification with a social group have become more complex
The articulation of the different criteria of social stratification
To limit oneself to social classes and to take them as coherent groups, is to forget certain other criteria of differentiation. Thus, whatever their social class, women often experience specific inequalities or discrimination, but most often the division of labor is very closely juxtaposed with its gendered division.
Age is an increasingly important variable. However, young people do not experience the same difficulties depending on their social origin. The logic of gender, age or social class can complement each other.
Likewise, the origin of people, their name or their skin color are all sources of inequality and domination that social class logic cannot summarize but which are articulated with it and even with gender inequalities (example of nannies).
Individualization complicates identification with a social group
Individualization would participate in weakening the influence of class determinations on individuals. Individuals would thus develop diversified practices that are less strictly linked to their social affiliation. According to Bernard Lahire, the experience of individuals is plural because they are socialized in various contexts.
This can lead to a diversification of the social status of individuals. Thus, anticipatory socialization attests to situations of discrepancies between the group to which they belong and the reference group.
A first understanding of the social structure
Social structure is defined as an overall system that seeks to understand society and the differentiations it makes between individuals according to their social position in this society.
The social structure is hierarchized into different categories. To understand the differences within them, it is necessary to understand what are the determinants that make it possible to differentiate individuals. During their development, individuals will present with others differences in access to culture, education, personal development. These differences between individuals crystallize and become inequalities when these differences in access allow access to functions valued by the standards of the society in which they operate.
This is why the role of the school, in trying to give everyone so much luck, is particularly important. Social groups are formed on the basis of inequalities in income, heritage and cultural and symbolic capital. From these multi-factorial social inequalities results a classification of individuals according to their objective situation with regard to the possession of such or such capital. All inequalities are interrelated in interrelated relationships.
The fact of having few economic resources can impact the possibilities of going to school, thus of cultivating oneself and of learning to master the legitimate and dominant knowledge in society, thus increasing one’s chances of social mobility. The notions of social structure and social mobility are therefore strongly intertwined. Social mobility is also very often synonymous with social reproduction within households that have strong economic resources and legitimate cultural resources.
To analyze social structure, sociologists use different tools for analyzing inequalities within a society in order to order and classify different elements of comparison between them. We can thus analyze the economic structure between countries, but also within a country. We can look at the way in which the social structure behaves within a country, how it evolves due to the change in the organization of the labor market within a country (structural mobility) or due to performance due to individual action.