Social Structure as a Sociological Concept

 Social Structure as a Sociological Concept

Social Structure as a Sociological Concept The term ‘structure’ (Latin structura from struere, to construct) was first applied to ‘construction’. Later, during the classical period, it was used in the scientific field of biology. To grasp the meaning of this oft-used concept in sociology and social anthropology (and now, in other social sciences), let us begin with the analogy of a house. Irrespective of the type of community to which a house belongs, it is divided into rooms, with each room set apart for conducting a particular set of activities. For instance, one room may be used for cooking foods and keeping raw ingredients and utensils for cooking, and it may be called the kitchen. 

Another room may be used for housing the idols and pictures of sacred deities and ancestors, and stacking sacred books and objects (such as lamps, incense sticks, peacock feathers, etc), and it may be called the place of worship, while another room may be used for spreading the bed, keeping clothes, money and jewelry, storing grains, as happens in rural communities, and it may called the bedroom. In this way, depending upon the purpose(s), the other rooms of the house may be set aside, given some sort of specialisation and name. 

Terms like ‘study room’, ‘store’, ‘guest room’, ‘toilet’, ‘bathroom’, ‘pantry’, ‘anteroom’, ‘children’s room’, etc, all indicate the purpose for which a particular portion of the land is marked, and thus designated. Where the tract of land is less, many of these ‘rooms’ may not be there, but rather different corners of the same room may be associated with different tasks and activities, so one of its sides may be used for cooking, while another, for keeping deities.

Pursuing this analogy further, a village or a neighbourhood may be described as an aggregate of houses, where each village or neighbourhood maintains its ‘wholeness’, at the same time, it is a part of the larger units. Each village or neighbourhood maintains its boundary, its identity, and also, has several connections (quite like the passages, alleyways, and corridors) with other villages or neighbourhoods. Social Structure as a Sociological Concept-  The relevant concepts that emerge from this analogy are of the ‘whole’, the ‘interconnections’, the ‘boundary-maintaining mechanisms’, the ‘aggregation’, and the ‘vantage point of the observer’. Like a house (or a village or a neighbourhood), a society may be conceptualised (or imagined) as consisted of parts. One needs to begin with this analogy, because society does not have the kind of concreteness one finds in a house, village, or neighbourhood. 

In fact, the method of analogy is useful for trying to know the unknown through the known. One knows what a house is, what it looks like, and by extending its model, one tries to formulate a tentative idea of society. However, it should not be forgotten that analogy is not homology: the idea that society is like a house does not imply that society is a house. Thus, after drawing similarities between a society and a house, one should also look at the differences between them, for such an exercise will direct us to the uniqueness of society – the distinct properties of society.

In their attempts to formulate the idea of society, different scholars have adopted different analogies. Herbert Spencer (1873) is one of the first ones to use the analogy of building, with which we have also begun. Social Structure as a Sociological Concept,  But of all the analogies that were used in the formative stage of sociology to comprehend the idea of society, the most frequently used analogy has been of the organism: Society is like an organism (Rex 1961). In addition to the analogy of building, Spencer also develops the organic analogy, believing that this analogy will be greatly valid if we are able to show not only that society is like an organism but also that ‘organism is like society’ (see Barnes, H.E. 1948; Harris 1968). Why organic analogy is used more than other analogies – such as of the solar system, and later, of atomic and chemical systems – is because an organism is far more concrete than other systems, and is easy to understand, comprehend, and explain. This analogy was basic to the understanding of the concept of social structure, a term used for the first time by Spencer.


Organic Analogy and Structure


Social Structure as a Sociological Concept - Organic analogy is quite useful as a starting point, but it should not be regarded as an end in itself, for it breaks down at many levels. For instance, a single cell can survive; there are organisms made up of single cells. But no individual can survive alone; the most elemental unit of human society is a dyad, i.e., a group of two individuals. Aristotle had said long time back: ‘One who lives alone is either a beast or god.’ Organic analogy helps us to understand the concepts of society and its structure, but it should not blind us to the specificities of society, not found in other systems of natural and biological world. The Oxford AdvancedLearner’s Dictionary (1999) gives three meanings of the term structure:

1) the way in which something is organised, built, or put together (e.g., the structure of the human body);

2) a particular system, pattern, procedure, or institution (e.g., class structure, salary structure); and

3) a thing made up of several parts put together in a particular way (e.g., a single-storey structure). When a sociologist speaks of structure, he has all the three meanings in his mind. By structure, he means an ‘interconnectedness’ of parts, i.e., the parts of a society are not isolated entities, but are brought together in a set of relationships to which the term structure may be used.

Everything has a structure. Unless it is there, the entity will not be able to carry out any tasks; it will not be able to work. When its structure breaks down, or is jeopardized, it stops working, becomes inert, thereby affecting the activities of the other systems because they are all interconnected. Why the parts are connected in particular manner is because of the logical and rational relationship between them.


Social Structure is a Reality: A.R. RadcliffeBrown’s Contribution

Durkheim’s sociology exercised an indelible impact on the British social anthropologist, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who was a student of the diffusionist W.H.R. Rivers, and had carried out his first-hand fieldwork with the Andaman Islanders from 1906 to 1908. The findings of this field study were first submitted in the form of an M.A. dissertation in 1910. Subsequently, it was reworked for a book published in 1922 titled The Andaman Islanders, which is regarded as one of the first important books leading to the foundation of the functional approach. Besides his contribution to what he called the ‘structural-functional approach’, one of his important contributions was to the understanding of the concept of social structure. As said previously, there are scholars prior to Radcliffe-Brown who had used the term social structure, but it was Radcliffe-Brown (1952) who not only defined this concept but also initiated a debate on it. Throughout his teaching, he emphasised the importance of the study of social structure. This submission of RadcliffeBrown was closely linked to his notion of social anthropology, which he was quite willing to call after Durkheim, ‘comparative sociology’.

a) A Natural Science of Society

For Radcliffe-Brown (1948), social anthropology is the ‘theoretical natural science of human society’. That is to say, social phenomena are investigated by methods similar to those used in natural and biological sciences. Each of the sciences has a subject matter that can be investigated through our senses. Thus, the subject matter is empirical, which can be subjected to observation. Radcliffe-Brown pursues the analogy of the natural science: all natural sciences systematically investigate the ‘structure of the universe as it is revealed to us through our senses’. Each branch of science deals with a ‘certain class or kind of structures’ — for instance, atomic physics deals with the structure of atoms, chemistry with the structure of molecules, anatomy and physiology with the structure of organisms. Then, it moves further with the aim to ‘discover the characteristics of all structures of that kind’. Each science endeavours to understand a structure with which it is concerned, and then, all the structures of that type are compared to discover their common characteristics. All sciences move from particular to general, from understanding a structure to understanding the structure.

b) The Content of Social Structure

When we speak of structure, we have in mind, as said earlier, some sort of an ordered arrangement of parts or components. A piece of musical composition has a structure, and its parts are notes. Similarly, a sentence has a structure: its parts are words, so does a building, the parts of which are bricks and mortar. The basic part of social structure is the person. Here, Radcliffe-Brown (1952) makes an important distinction between an ‘individual’ and a ‘person’. As an individual, ‘he is a biological organism’, comprising a large number of molecules organised in a complex way, which keeps on carrying out a multitude of physiological and psychological functions till the time he is alive. This aspect of human beings — the ‘individual’ aspect — is an object of study for biological and psychological sciences. As a ‘person’, the human being is a ‘complex of social relationships’. It is the unit of study for sociologists and social anthropologists. As a person, he is a citizen of a country, a member of a family, a supporter of a political party, a follower of a religious cult, a worker in a factory, a resident of a neighbourhood, and so on. Each of these positions the person occupies denotes a social relationship, because each position is related to another position.

Society is not a ‘haphazard conjunction of persons’, rather an organised system where norms and values control the relationships between persons. A person knows how he is expected to behave according to these norms and values, and is ‘justified in expecting that other persons should do the same.’


c) Structural Type

When a social anthropologist carries out his fieldwork in a particular, territorially defined, society, what he actually investigates is its social structure, i.e., ‘an actually existing concrete reality, to be directly observed.’ But from what he observes, he abstracts a general picture of that society. In this context, Radcliffe-Brown makes a distinction between ‘social structure’ and ‘structural type or form’. 

This distinction is also related with RadcliffeBrown’s conception of science, and of social anthropology as a ‘natural science of society’. He says that as distinguished from history (or biography), science is not concerned with the particular or unique. It is concerned, rather, with the general, with propositions that apply to the entire phenomenon. We are concerned with, he says, ‘the form of the structure’. Say, in the study of an Australian tribe, an anthropologist is concerned with the relationship between the mother’s brother and sister’s son. He observes several instances of this relationship in their actual context, from which he abstracts its ‘general or normal’ form, which is largely invariant. If social structure is bound by factors of time and space, varying from one context to another, structural type is general and invariant.

For Radcliffe-Brown, the various steps of reaching the general laws are: 1) Intensive study of a social structure using the standard anthropological procedures. 2) Abstraction from this its structural type. 3) Comparing the structural type of a social structure with the structural types of other social structures, by rigorously using the comparative method.


d) Society and Social Structure

Radcliffe-Brown’s attempt was praiseworthy, for it was the first rigorous attempt to define the concept of social structure, rather than just taking its meaning for granted. However, it led to many questions and confusions. If social structure is a collectivity of interpersonal relations, real and observable, then what is society? Do we study society and find its structure? In his letter to Claude Lévi-Strauss, Radcliffe-Brown gave the following example: ‘When I pick up a particular sea-shell on the beach, I recognize it as having a particular structure’ (see Kuper, ed., 1977). The question that immediately comes in our mind is: What do I study? The seashell or its structure? Pursuing the example further, Radcliffe-Brown says: ‘I may find other shells of the same species which have a similar structure, so that I can say there is a form of structure characteristic of the species.’

 Here, do I describe the structure of each of these shells and then subject their structures to comparison? Or, do I assume that since they all happen to be seashells, they will have a similar structure? Further, Radcliffe-Brown writes: ‘By examining a number of different species, I may be able to recognize a certain general structural form or principle, that of a helix, which could be expressed by means of logarithmic equation.’


Social Structure is a Model -  Contributions of Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach

. If for functionalism, society is a ‘kind of living creature’, consisting of parts, which can be ‘dissected and distinguished’, for structuralism, it is the analogy from language that helps us in conceptualizing society. From the study of a given piece of language, the linguist tries to arrive at its grammar, the underlying rules which make an expression meaningful, although the speakers of that language may not know about it. Similarly, the structuralist from a given piece of social behaviour tries to infer its underlying structure. In structuralism, the shift is from observable behaviour to structure, from organic analogy to language (Barnard 2000).

Further, structuralism submits that the set of relations between different parts can be transformed into ‘something’ that appears to be different from what it was earlier. It is the idea of transformation — of one into another — that lies at the core of structuralism, rather than the quality of relations. Edmund Leach (1968: 486) has given a good example to illustrate this. A piece of music can be transformed in a variety of ways.

It is written down, played on a piano, recorded on a phonographic record, transmitted over the radio, and finally played back to the audience. In each case, the piece of music passes through a ‘whole series of transformations’.

It appears as ‘printed notes, as a pattern of finger movements, as sound waves, as modulations of Concept and Theories of Structure 66 the grooves on a piece of bakelite, as electromagnetic vibrations, and so on.’ But what is common to all these manifestations of music, one different from the other, and each conditioned by its own rules, is their structure. In a similar fashion, while different societies vary, what remains invariant (and common) to them is their structure.

Lévi-Strauss (1963) aptly showed this in one of his studies where he compared the totemic society of the Australian Aborigines with Indian caste system, and found that both of them had the same structure. If for Radcliffe-Brown, structure is observable, for LéviStrauss, it is an abstract concept. If for Radcliffe-Brown, what persists is the ‘structure’ of a particular society, at a particular point of time and place, for Lévi-Strauss, what persists is the ‘structure of the entire human society’ (Barnes, R.H. 2001). In his celebrated essay of 1953 in A.L. Kroeber’s Anthropology Today, titled ‘Social Structure’, Lévi-Strauss says that social structure is not a field of study; it is not a ‘province of enquiry’. We do not study social structure, but it is an explanatory method and can be used in any kind of social studies. In opposition to Radcliffe-Brown, Lévi-Strauss says that the term ‘social structure’ has nothing to do with empirical reality. It refers to the models that are built up from empirical reality.

He writes: ‘…the object of socialstructure studies is to understand social relations with the help of models’ (1953: 532). Social structure is a model; it is a method of study.

Lévi-Strauss makes three distinctions: first, between observation and experimentation on models; second, the conscious and unconscious character of the models; and third, between mechanical and statistical models. The observation of social relations and the construction of models after these facts need to be distinguished from ‘experiments’ on models. By experimentation, Lévi-Strauss means the ‘controlled comparison’ of models of the same or of a different kind, with an intention to identify the model that accounts best for the observed facts. In a structural analysis, the first step is to observe the facts without any bias, then to describe them in relationship to themselves and in relation to the whole. From this, models are constructed, and in the final analysis, the best model is chosen. This distinction is with reference to the anthropologist who studies society.




Functionalism is the name of an approach in social anthropology and sociology according to which a society is a whole of interconnected parts, where each part contributes to the maintenance of the whole. The task of sociology is to find out the contribution of each part of society and how society works together as an ordered arrangement of parts. Literally, the word ‘function’ (from Latin, fungi, functio, to effect, perform, execute) means ‘to perform’ or ‘to serve’ (a purpose). In the field of architecture, it implies that a form should be adapted to usage and material. In areas such as politics and management, it means ‘getting things to work’. The word is used in mathematics (in the sense of ‘A is a function of B’); it is used in everyday conversation, where it may mean ‘job’ or ‘purpose’ (for instance, ‘What is your function in the office’?). In fact, what I am asking in the latter question is ‘what do you do in your office’, and for the act of doing I am using the word ‘function’. This word is also used for celebrations and festal occasions, such as ‘inaugural function’, ‘marriage function’, etc. In other words, ‘function’ is a multi-meaning and multi-usage term.

‘Perhaps the major difficulty associated with the general concept of function has been the use of a single term to cover several distinctly different referent.

Some writers regard Claude Henri de Saint-Simon, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century scholar, writing after the French Revolution, as the ‘father of sociology’, because in his writings, one finds a coexistence of two ideas — one from which a scientific study of society emerged, and the other which contributed substantially to the growth of Marxian theory (Giddens 1973). The first idea is that ‘scientific methods’ should be used for the study of society, and the second is that each society contains in it the germs of its contradiction, because of which it changes over time. Saint-Simon also recognises revolution as an important process of change. It is the first thought of studying a society scientifically that Auguste Comte (1789-1857), the collaborator of Saint-Simon and the person who has coined the term ‘sociology’, fully develops under the rubric of what he calls ‘positivism’ or ‘positive philosophy’.

In this view, the methods for the study of society come from natural and biological sciences. The aim of the study is to discover the ‘laws of evolution’ as well as the ‘laws of functioning’ of society, i.e., ‘how has the society evolved with the passage of time and what are the various stages through which it has passed’ and ‘how does the society function (or work) at a particular point of time.’

 The knowledge thus generated, Comte thinks, will help us to bring about desirable changes in society, in carrying out the tasks of social reconstruction and amelioration. Comte’s aim is to make sociology a ‘science of society’, quite like the natural and biological sciences, and assign it a place in the hierarchy of sciences.

For Comte, being the most general and most specific subject, sociology occupies the summit of the hierarchy of sciences: it is the ‘queen of sciences’.


From Positivism to Functionalism

The thesis of functionalism lies in the philosophy of positivism. Comte also makes use of the analogy of society as an organism. Organic analogy has aided the viewing of society as a system of interrelated parts, a view basic to the functional approach. The immediate forerunner of functionalism in sociology is Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), who is a sharp critic of Comte as well as influenced by his ideas, for which he has earned in the words of Alvin Gouldner (1973) the distinction of being ‘uneasy Comtean’.

Like Comte, Durkheim is keenly interested in defining the subject matter of sociology as distinct from that of philosophy or biology. For him, sociology is a comparative and an objective study of ‘social facts’, which are the ‘ways of thinking, acting and feeling’ that have the ‘noteworthy property’ of existing outside the ‘individual consciousness’. Social facts do not originate in the individual but in the collectivity, in the ‘collective mind’ (l’ âme collective). Because they exist outside the individual, they can be studied in the same way as one studies the material objects. Social facts are comme des choses, i.e., they are ‘things’, perceived objectively and outside the individual. This however does not mean that they are as tangible as are the ‘material things’. Instead, for their study one uses the same frame of mind which one uses for the study of natural and biological objects that constitute the subject matter of natural and biological sciences.

Durkheim’s definition of function has tremendously influenced the writings of later functionalists, both in social anthropology and sociology. For him, function is the ‘contribution’ a part makes to the whole for its ‘maintenance and well being’. Thus, function is a ‘positive contribution’: it is inherently good for society (the whole), for it ensures its continuity and healthy maintenance. Social Structure as a Sociological Concept By making its contribution, each part fulfills one of the needs or needs (besoin) of society. Once needs have been fulfilled, society will be able to survive and endure.

Durkheim applies this framework of social function in all his studies. For instance, in his doctoral work, which was on the division of labour, Durkheim (1893) rejects Darwin’s idea that once the size of a human population increases, there will be a struggle for existence and those who happen to be fit will survive, while the rest will be eliminated.

Instead of lending support to the theory of competition, conflict and elimination, Durkheim shows that as human population increases, society becomes more and more differentiated with the division of labour moving towards the specialisation of jobs. Rather than competing with others for survival, human beings are able to depend on one another, for each specialises in a particular work. Specialisation makes each one of the beings important for society.


Functionalism in Social Anthropology: RadcliffeBrown and Malinowski


The first approach in social anthropology for the analysis of society was evolutionary, which though present earlier, in the writings of Comte and Spencer, was almost firmly established after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). During the second half of the nineteenth century, almost every anthropologist was concerned with two issues. First, how was the institution (or, cultural practice, trait) established in the first place? What has been its origin? Second, what are the various stages through which it has passed to reach its contemporary state? Both the questions were important and relevant, but in the absence of authentic data, the early (or, ‘classical’) evolutionists extravagantly indulged in speculations and conjectures, imagining the causes (or, the factors) that gave rise to institutions and the stages of their evolution. Most of the evolutionists — barring a few possible exceptions, such as Lewis H. Morgan and Edward B. Tylor — had not themselves collected any data on which they based their generalisations.

They almost completely relied upon the information that travelers, missionaries, colonial officers, and soldiers, who were in touch with non-Western societies, provided, knowing full well that much of these data might be biased, exaggerated, incomplete, and incorrect. Because they themselves did not carry out any fieldwork, they earned the notorious title of ‘arm-chair anthropologists’. Both the founders of the British functional approach (Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski) were vehemently critical of the nineteenth-century evolutionism. Radcliffe-Brown (1952) said that it was based on ‘conjectural history’, a term we used earlier, and not ‘authentic history’.Social Structure as a Sociological Concept  It was ‘pseudo-historical’, thus devoid of a scientific value. For Malinowski (1944), classical evolutionism was a ‘limbo of conjectural reconstructions’. With the works of these scholars came a shift from:

1) Arm-chair anthropology to fieldwork-based studies;

2) The study of the origin and stages of evolution of society and its institutions (diachronic studies) to society ‘here and now’ (synchronic studies);

 3) The study of the entire societies and cultures (macro approach) to the study of particular societies, especially the small-scale societies (micro approach); and

4) An understanding of society confined to a theoretical level to putting the knowledge of society ‘here and now’ to practical use, to bring about desired changes in society.

Rather than remaining just an ‘academic study of the oddities of society’ — different and bizarre customs and practices — the knowledge we have acquired should be used for improving upon the conditions of people, for improving upon the relations of local people with the outside world. Incidentally, Malinowski called this concern of anthropology ‘practical anthropology’.


a) Structural-functional Approach of Radcliffe-Brown

 Abandoning the search for origins and the pasts of institutions, and the ways in which cultural traits have diffused from one part of the world to the other, Radcliffe-Brown (1952: 180) defines each society as a ‘functionally interrelated system’ in which ‘general laws or functions operate’. He accepts that Durkheim offered the first systematic formulation of the concept of function and that this concept is based on an ‘analogy between social life and organic life’. However, with reference to Durkheim’s use of the term ‘need’ for the conditions that must be satisfied for a system to continue, Radcliffe-Brown thinks that this term would direct us towards a postulation of ‘universal human or societal needs’. As a consequence, the theory according to which events and developments are meant to fulfill a purpose and happen because of that will trap us. Known as the theory of teleology, as we said earlier, Radcliffe-Brown suspects that functionalism might become teleological. He thus substitutes for the word ‘need’ the term ‘necessary conditions of existence.’ He believes that the question of which conditions are necessary for survival is an empirical one, and the study of a society will tell us about this. Radcliffe-Brown recognizes the ‘diversity of conditions necessary for the survival of different systems.’

Radcliffe-Brown dislikes the use of the word ‘functionalism’, which Malinowski propagated with enthusiasm. His objection is that ‘-isms’ (like functionalism) are ideologies, schools of thought, philosophies, and realms of opinions. Science does not have either of them. What it has are the methods of study, opting for those methods that are regarded as the best for study. A scientist does not have any passionate relationship with any methods. For him, they are all of equal importance and worth, but their operational value lies in carrying out a satisfactory study of a phenomenon according to the canons of scientific research. Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown also looks at the distinction between an organism and society. For instance, an organism dies, but a society continues to survive over time, although it may be changed and transformed. An organism can be studied even when its parts have stopped working.


b) The functionalism of Malinowski

By comparison to Radcliffe-Brown, it is Malinowski who claims the creation of a separate ‘school’, the ‘Functional School’. The aim of functional analysis for him (1926: 132) is to arrive at the explanation of anthropological facts at all levels of development by their function, by the part they play within the integral system of culture.

Malinowski’s approach distinguishes between three levels: the biological, the social structural, and the symbolic (Turner 1987: 50-1). Each of these levels has a set of needs that must be satisfied for the survival of the individual. It is on his survival that the survival of larger entities (such as groups, communities, societies) is dependent. Malinowski proposes that these three levels constitute a hierarchy. At the bottom is placed the biological system, followed next by the social-structural, and finally, by the symbolic system. The way in which needs at one level are fulfilled will affect the way in which they will be fulfilled at the subsequent levels.

For example, the first need is of food, and the cultural mechanisms are centered on the processes of food getting, for which Malinowski uses the term ‘commissariat’, which means the convoy that transports food. Similarly, the second need is of reproduction (biological continuity of society) and the cultural response to which is kinship concerned with regulating sex and marriage. From this, Malinowski goes on to four-fold sequences, which he calls the ‘instrumental imperatives’, and associates each one of them with their respective cultural responses. The four-fold sequence is of economy, social control, education, and political organisation. From here, he shifts to the symbolic system — of religion, magic, beliefs and values — examining its role in culture.


Criticisms of Functionalism

 One of the main criticisms of functionalism is that it does not adequately deal with history. In other words, it is inherently ahistorical (but not antihistorical). It does not deal with the questions of past and history, although the advocates of functionalism have considered evolution and diffusion as important processes of change. Functionalism in social anthropology in the 1930s emerged as a reaction to the nineteenth century ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘speculative’ evolutionism and diffusionism. It also tried to overcome the ethnocentric biases of the earlier approaches, which regarded the contemporary pre-literate societies, popularly known as ‘primitive societies’, and certain customs and practices found among them as remnants of past. Edward Tylor unhesitatingly regarded the ‘contemporary primitives’ as ‘social fossils’ and ‘survivals’ of the past, assuming that their study would guide us to an understanding of the cultural traits of the societies of prehistoric times (Harris 1968: 164-5). This would help us in reconstructing the history of humankind.

There are two views on this issue. First, the problem is believed to lie with the theory of functionalism, because when the parts of a society are seen as reinforcing one another as well as the system, when each part fits well with the other parts, then it is difficult to explain how these parts can contribute to change (Cohen 1968). Or, why should the parts change or contribute to change when they are all in a state of harmony? The second opinion is that there is nothing in functionalism which prevents it from dealing with the issues of history and change. For instance, Parsons’s 1966 book titled Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives reflects the ability of structural-functionalism to handle the dimensions of change. So does Smelser’s work of 1959 on industrial revolution. The problem lies, according to some, not with the theory of functionalism, but its practitioners, who rarely address the issues of change and even when they do, it is in developmental and adaptive terms than in revolutionary (Turner and Maryanski 1979). Whether the problem of functionalism has to do with the theory or its practitioners, ‘the fact remains that the main contributions of structural functionalists lie with the study of static, not changing, social structures’.

In the words of Robert Redfield (1955), these societies were ‘past-oriented’ in comparison to modern societies which were ‘future-oriented’. The ‘pastoriented’ societies were proud of their tradition, which for them was sacrosanct; they wanted to keep it intact and therefore, any attempt to assail it was strongly dealt with. The ‘future-oriented’ societies were not satisfied with their lot; they looked forward to changing their lifestyles, technology, and norms and values. Since the substantiation of anthropological functionalism came from the empirical study of ‘past-oriented’, technologically simpler, pre-literate, and non-civilized societies, it was obvious that the characteristics of these societies would find their conspicuous presence in the theory.

One of the important criticisms of functionalism is that it is inherently teleological, i.e., explanations are given in terms of ‘purposes’ or ‘goals’. With respect to this, Turner and Maryanski (1979) submit that teleology per se is not a problem. As a matter of fact, social theory should take into account the ‘teleological relationship between society and its component parts’ (Ritzer 2000).

The problem comes when teleology is stretched to unacceptable limits, when it is believed that only the given and specific part of society can fulfill the needs. Teleology becomes illegitimate when it fails to take into consideration the idea that a variety of alternative structures can fulfill the same needs. Why certain structures come up and why certain structures become irreplaceable needs to be explained.

The later functionalists — such as Parsons and Merton — were aware of this problem and in their own ways tried to overcome it. Merton, for example, proposed the concept of functional alternatives. In his analysis of the family system, Parsons was able to show that in the contemporary industrial society, nuclear family performed the functions of primary socialisation and the stabilization of adult personality and no other institution could carry them out. These functions were nontransferable to any other institutions.


The Thesis of Neo-functionalism

For to understand better Social Structure as a Sociological Concept  A revival of interest in Parsons’s work, first in Germany and then, the United States of America, led to the emergence of neo-functionalism. The basic aim has been to merge certain aspects of functionalism, those which have withstood the test of time, with other paradigms that have better developed critical perspectives. The aim has been to build a ‘hybrid’ that combines the strong points of the other perspectives so that one can deal with the socalled opposite issues (such as, consensus and conflict, equilibrium and change, collectivity and individual) in a balanced manner.

a) Revival in Germany

Those associated with neo-functionalism in Germany are Niklas Luhmann and Jürgen Habermas, who initially collaborated on a theory of social engineering in modern society, but later worked separately. Although formally trained in law, Luhmann has been a student of sociology and in 1960, spent a year at Harvard where he had a chance to be in contact with Parsons. He developed a sociological approach that combined certain aspects from Parsons’ structural functionalism with general systems theory. He also introduced in it concepts from cognitive biology and cybernetics (Ritzer 2000: 185). However, he disagreed with Parsons about the options available to individuals as concrete human beings. Parsons placed emphasis on value consensus, also believing that because the social system penetrates the personality system, the options available to the individual for social relationships and behaviour are limited. But that is, Luhmann thinks, not simply correct. He moves the individual out of the social system into the ‘society’ — what may be termed the ‘societal environment’ — which is far more complex and less restrictive. It accords people more freedom, especially freedom for carrying out ‘irrational and immoral behaviour’.

Habermas’s early writings were strongly critical of Parsons, but later, he accorded a place to cultural, social, and personality systems in his theory. His conceptualisation of the relationship between these systems was quite consistent with Parsons’s views. He also gave place to Parsons’s concept of ‘self-regulating system’, which comes into existence when societies become complex as a consequence of which structural systems are separated from ‘lifeworld’, i.e., the inter-subjective realm for experiencing and communicating about culture, society, and personality.

b) Revival in the United States of America

The main spokespersons of neofunctionalism in America are Jeffrey Alexander and Paul Colomy. In one of their joint publications of 1985, they define neofunctionalism as ‘a self-critical strand of functional theory that seeks to broaden functionalism’s intellectual scope while retaining its theoretical core’ (p. 118). Under the rubric of ‘neo-functionalism’, they have made an effort to extend structural functionalism by overcoming its difficulties.

Social Structure as a Sociological Concept A concept of social structure that the Australian anthropologist, S.F. Nadel, proposes tries to combine the views of both Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss. In his posthumously published The Theory of Social Structure (1957), Nadel disagrees with Radcliffe-Brown’s idea that social structure is an observable entity, but an abstraction from it. At the same time, he rejects Lévi-Strauss’s view that social structure has nothing to do with empirical reality.

From Radcliffe-Brown, he borrows the idea that each person occupies a position in the social structure, but from an empirical level of inter-personal interaction, he moves to a level of abstraction where the person becomes the actor who plays a role with respect to the others.

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