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Lecture Notes

Chapter 4: Social Structure

We All Fill Positions in Social Structure

One of the patterns in social organization is called social structure. Social structure refers to the fact that individuals act toward one another according to their position in the interaction. Over time, actors are located in relation to one another in the interaction—they have a “place”—and others act toward them according to their place, and they act toward others according to their place. These positions or places create a network or what we might describe as a social map; this network or map is called the social structure.

A social structure consists of a interrelated set of positions within the social organization. Positions form a network—they all are places  in relation to all other positions—and they cannot be described as isolated entities. Thus, a teacher is someone who exists in relation to students, a husband in relation to wife, a boss in relation to employees, etc.

A position is like a slot. This is an impersonal word, perhaps an exaggeration, but it still emphasizes the fact that people are placed in positions whenever they interact with others, and certainly whenever they join an established organization.

As we interact with others, we focus our perceptions and actions and expectations on where others are in relation to us. The more technical name for position is status position. Some sociologists prefer the term “status,” but position or status position is more descriptive.

Roles Are Attached to Positions

Over time people within the interaction come to focus on positions. Expectations are also called norms.

Norms can be informal and simply agreed upon in the interaction, or they can be formal, written down, even becoming a body of rules, a constitution, charter, or contract.

Norms can be stated, or they can be picked up from other people’s actions.

Norms can be violated and met with only mild disapproval (you are foolish; I am going to pretend I didn’t see that; stop it!), or its violation can be met with fines, imprisonment, or even death.

The norms focusing on a position together are called a role. A role should be thought of as a set of expectations, a script to be followed, a set of behaviors and thoughts a person is expected to follow in a position.

Most of the time, we are barely aware of the script attached to our position. The norms are accepted without consciously thinking about it. We are expected to wear clothes in public, to be polite to people we meet, not to embarrass people we do not know, to drive on the correct side of the street, to use utensils when we eat. In a given day we will enter many roles and act appropriately without thinking twice.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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