Social structure and social organization (Anthropology)

The terms ‘social structure’ and ‘social organization’ have long had slightly different implications, although the distinction between them has not always been as clear-cut as some commentators would have preferred. ‘Social organization’ has tended to be used loosely to refer to the sum total of activities performed in a given social context. ‘Social structure’ has usually been employed for the social context itself, or more precisely for the set of social relations which link individuals in a society. Yet the definition of ‘social structure’ varies according to the theoretical perspective of the writer and the degree of precision required by his or her perspective.

Writers who are mainly concerned with social action tend to concentrate on social organization, which defines the "roles individuals play in relation to one another. Those who are concerned more with the formal relations between people tend to concentrate on social structure, which defines the "statuses of actors performing such roles. Thus, social organization is of greater interest to Malinowskian functionalists, and to some extent processualists, notably "Raymond Firth (1951). Social structure is of greater interest to those whose approaches are descended from classic "structural-functionalist and structuralist traditions.

The clearest distinction between the concepts occurs in the introduction to Radcliffe-Brown’s Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952: 9—11) and in his essay ‘On Social Structure’ (1952 [1940]: 188-204). In the latter, he further distinguished social structure from structural form – a distinction which caused some problems for his readers, not least Levi-Strauss. A celebrated debate (or rather, misunderstanding) between them occurred in 1953, when Levi-Strauss published his own essay on the subject.


For Radcliffe-Brown, ‘social structure’ includes the relations between individual people – he uses the example of a hypothetical Tom, Dick and Harry. Structural form, in contrast, is at a higher level of abstraction – the positions Tom, Dick or Harry occupy in relation to one another. Tom may be Dick’s father-in-law, and thus the structural form defines relations between father-in-law and sons-in-law in general, for a particular society. Essentially, Radcliffe-Brown saw social structure as a network of real people in a real society. Structural form entailed the cultural constants which enabled one to say that the grandchildren of these people would live in a society with a similar social structure, albeit one in which social processes had left changes to be understood and analysed in terms of an evolving structural form. In his 1953 letter to Levi-Strauss, illustrating the difference between social structure and structural form, he used the analogy of sea shells: each individual shell has its own structure, but shells of the same species will share a structural form. Radcliffe-Brown was consciously constructing an anthropology analogous to biology, with its like concerns of structure and function. Functional (as opposed to structural) relations were more part of the social organization through which social structure was played out.

Levi-Strauss, and many other anthropologists, have consistently employed the term ‘social structure’ for what Radcliffe-Brown called ‘structural form’. Levi-Strauss even uses ‘social structure’ to refer to a still higher degree of abstraction – the structure of social relations in all societies, as well as that within a particular society (RadcliffeBrown’s ‘structural form’). In fact, Levi-Strauss was simply doing the kind of universal cross-cultural comparison Radcliffe-Brown had long advocated but never practised, and indeed Radcliffe-Brown himself frequently slipped and used the term ‘social structure’ to refer to what he said should be called ‘structural form’. Where they truly differed was in their respective understandings of the locus of structure (or structural form). Levi-Strauss’s conception of it is at the level of the mind, even the human mind in general. His concern is often with the structure of all possible structures, e.g. in the study of kinship. RadcliffeBrown, on the other hand, always regarded structures and forms as accessible only empirically, from Tom, Dick and Harry upwards to generalizations based on the comparison of their statuses to those of other individuals, in the same society, or ultimately in diverse societies.


In sociology, the term ‘social structure’ has been around at least since Herbert, and ‘social organization’ at least since fComte. In that discipline, social structure and social organization have sometimes been defined even more formally than is generally the case in anthropology. fParsons’s view of the relation between social organization and social structure (e.g. 1951) was essentially the same as that of Radcliffe-Brown, but in addition he posited the idea of the social system, which comprises both. Parsons distinguished four levels of this system: social values, institutional patterns, specialized collectivities (groups), and roles performed by individuals in these collectivities or groups.

In the Marxist era of the 1970s and 1980s, these concepts gave way to that of social formation — itself a dynamic notion which hints at the action-centred idea of social organization as well as the concern with status and hierarchy which comprises classic notions of social structure. Of course, postmodernist thinkers have little use for any of these concepts, and the nuances of their meanings are no longer debated. Yet in that they define useful, even central, aspects of society, social organization and social structure remain part of the common vocabulary of the disciplines of both sociology and social anthropology — albeit with meanings which Radcliffe-Brown would have regarded as hopelessly imprecise.

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