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social structure and organization

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Every human group has structure and organization. Social structure means an orderly, fixed arrangement of parts making up an integral whole: a society, a community, or an institution. Social organization refers to the dynamic efficiency of a structure in relation to concerted action by group members or to their enduring common purposes.

Because the two concepts are closely allied, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably. Concrete planning and task-oriented activities, however, are best considered as social organization. Statements about the structure of a group are normally made in abstract terms, often in the form of models. Such statements refer not to the way members compete and cooperate in particular activities, but to the similarities and differences they perceive among themselves and that provide them with their most important social distinctions. As soon as the focus shifts to political, economic, religious, or kin-oriented activities, the emphasis is on social organization.

Social Structure

Social structure may be studied through the development of models to represent typical cases. A model usually incorporates several simplifying assumptions to allow concentration on those components of the structure under study. Two models that refer to different types of society are given below to illustrate the range of problems encountered in moving from folk and tribal societies to industrialized societies.

Egalitarian Society.

It is not hard to imagine a small, isolated, and homogeneous society comprising some few hundreds (or thousands) of families, each with its own domicile, each getting its own food and clothing from nature, and recognizing no chiefs. The rules that generate this type of society are of two sorts: one set governs the structure of the family groups, and the other regulates their interrelationships. Family-group rules will be related to a full cycle of development through one full generation to the establishment of the next. Rules will allocate authority, work, and privilege according to sex, age, and status. In particular, incest will be strongly prohibited. Provision will be made for dissolution or reconstitution of the group when a member dies. The headship may belong to a man or a woman, or it may be shared. Sons, daughters, or both may be obliged to shift residence when they marry. In accordance with such rules, the internal structure of the domestic unit, its typical composition at each stage of the cycle, and the organization of tasks will be established.

The net effect of these rules is to create a reasonably stable, self-reliant primary group able to meet most of the demands put upon it without turning elsewhere for help. The further set of rules required to generate a viable egalitarian society, however, pertains to just those concerns with which a family on its own cannot be expected to cope. These rules include the regulation of marriage and fosterage, torts and property rights, intergroup hostility, and cooperative alliance. Typical of egalitarian societies is the use of clan membership to help regulate public life: rules of descent determine the clan of each person at birth, and clan rules in turn define property and hunting rights, ceremonial standing, and the choice of partners in marriage. Also important to the morale and good order of any folk community is a ceremonial life that affirms an identity of interest among all the members.

Many examples of egalitarian societies exist. Such societies are not necessarily agricultural but have subsistence economies, making the family an all-purpose institution. Hunting-gathering people usually have a band structure, combining several families and attached individuals in small, nomadic communities or communities that follow the seasonal movement of game, suited to survival in a given region. Pastoral people often modify their egalitarian values sufficiently to allow for at least nominal leadership and authority at the clan or subtribal level of organization. This change occurs because pastoralism generally demands the preservation of exchange relationships with far-flung peoples, entailing potentially hostile contacts. Among the best-known examples of egalitarian structure are the Eskimo, or Inuit, as hunters; the Pueblo Indians of Arizona and New Mexico, as gardeners; and the Nuer of the Eastern Sudan, as pastoralists. The Navajo, inhabiting a semiarid region near the Pueblo settlements, are another example of an egalitarian people. Navajo success in the present century as sheepherders with a strong tradition of personal dignity and independence stands in contrast to the fate of other peoples who have been unable to maintain effective self-reliance at the domestic level.

Stratified Society.

Contemporary urban-industrial societies are sprawling entities so complex as to defy conceptualization as complete units. To overcome problems of scale and the anomalies of urban sprawl, the most satisfactory studies have been of a town or village typical of its region, letting it stand for others. Some useful community studies were made in the United States a few decades ago, particularly in the South, where a town would normally exhibit the two major types of stratification, ethnic and class, clearly juxtaposed. In the North ethnic stratification—for example, prejudicial treatment of Danes in Wisconsin or Irish in Boston early in the 20th century—would flare up as an initial response to immigration but soon die away. In the South the color bar was both more explicit and more durable, being backed by racist doctrines. Owing to the relative stability of most communities, class differences were also pronounced. Class lines are never absolute barriers, but caste is.

For caste the cardinal rule is that individuals of different caste must not be members of the same family. The class barrier entails a contrary rule that, regardless of separate class origins, all members of one family belong to one class. In order to maintain the cardinal rule of caste, offspring of the sexual union of whites and blacks in the South were always deemed to be black; union of a white woman with a black man was deemed particularly pernicious, because her family connection with a black child could hardly be denied. In a similar situation in India, when a Brahman woman becomes pregnant by a man of lower caste she may remain in her household until the live birth, when she is evicted for bringing a stranger into the midst of her family.

The cardinal rule of class has very different implications. Because differences accruing within a family through marriage or adoption across class lines must socially disappear, the class identity of a family must be read from its circumstances, not its history. One significant current condition may be name—that is, family reputation built up over time in a stable community. Even in the conditions of the South, however, where "good family" was always an important claim to status, the main criteria of class were current assets and long-term expectations—wealth and connection to it, education and profession, and the moral qualities associated with solvency.

Class is associated with competitive individualism and social mobility, but caste militates against these qualities of the open society. Because the class principle is more pragmatic, it cannot be absolute in any sense: of two brothers in the same community, by local standards one doing well and the other badly, it cannot be categorically affirmed that they belong to different classes unless they have actually severed connections. The criteria of class standing are multiple. The more open the class system has been to mobility, the less exact the lines that may be drawn—but this observation does not mean that class has disappeared. The greater the competition for class and position, the more steeply stratified a society may become, although nominal class identities may be vague. A generation ago in the South the boundaries of the white upper class were blurring as old families lost their wealth, but the line between middle and lower class among blacks was becoming more and more clearly defined as educated or otherwise successful blacks conscientiously set themselves apart from "common folk" on their side of the color bar.

Social Organization

Any attempt to understand the social structure of an industrial society through community studies must be supplemented by knowledge of the organization of work in small companies and in the economic and governing bureaucracies or by studies of schools and universities, churches, voluntary associations, and political parties and movements. Each of these organizations incorporates structural principles characteristic of the society, but each in turn has its effect upon the general structure. French labor unions are not quite like the French-Canadian, and both differ in essentials from British unions. A labor movement cannot be transplanted from one national context to another without provoking change on both accounts—the union movement must adapt, and the host society in turn will react, whether by radicalization or the opposite. By the same token the recent appearance of powerful multinational industrial organizations has affected—homogenized, to some extent—the structure of the modern capitalist world.

Changes of structure may occur with revolutionary violence or by incremental shifts. No social structures are so brittle that they will not bend and change before breaking under stress; however, all social structures in the short run do resist change. Some structures remain stable because they function well with respect to both individuals' needs and the larger context, but repressive institutions may be maintained in spite of the constraints they impose, and the most satisfactory institutions may be swept away by external forces.

Social structures do not maintain themselves in the face of ideological and ethical revolution. A Victorian family structure could never survive in the moral climate of the modern suburb. Historically, new religions and new social structures have been firmly associated, whether in modern China or ancient Rome. The study of social structure may offer a comprehensive view of a society, including even its ideas and moral beliefs, for all social expression has its structural dimensions. Even the fullest picture, however, of family life in the Hebrides, seen in the special frame of social structure, is not a substitute for meeting such a family. One cannot learn all about a religion by studying its priesthood, or all about love by surveying the customs of courtship in a hundred societies.

The irreducible unit of social structure is the social role, and whereas much may be learned about a person by studying all the roles that person plays, it does not add up to a comprehensive portrait. By the same token, a knowledge of all the component roles and role-relationships constituting an institution will afford only an abstract or schematic knowledge of it, and the knowledge of all the institutions of a society does not fully define that society's place in history. Thus the study of social structure and organization is bounded on one side by a social psychology sensitive to the play of personality and experience and on the other by history.

George Park


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