Can Social Structure Determine Individual Identity?


Social structure can be defined as “patterned social arrangements in society that emerge from and also determine the actions of individuals” (Abrahams, 2006). At the macro level, social structure describes the socio-economic stratification system. At the micro level, social structure explains how the behaviors and actions of individuals are influenced by the norms of a given social system.

Conceptualizing social structure as a pattern of relationships between various groups implies that the society comprises structurally related groups as well as roles. These groups have specific meanings as well as purposes. Individual identify refers to the set of cues and signals that differentiate persons in society. Identity is embedded in the self.

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The self develops through social interactions that occur in complex, organized and differentiated societies. Consequently, the self is a reflection of the society and describes the link between social structure and identity determination. This paper attempts to explain how identity is determined through social structure. The theory of catnets as well as the theory of group expansion and development of individuality will be used in the explanation.

Group Expansion and the Development of Individuality: Simmel

This theory explains the relationship that exists between an individual and the society by singling out the relational pattern that is not only situationally and historically dependent, but is also developed through interactions (Calhoun, Classical Sociological Theory, 2007).

The society is characterized by a typical and predictable structure that changes over time, and also varies in different institutional arrangements.

However, there is an unchangeable ratio that links social differentiation and the group size. Greater differentiation tends to occur in large groups as compared to small ones. Simmel asserts that individuals exhibit a dualist drive. Individuals also live a dual relation in the sense that they derive satisfaction both in their distinction and in their belonging (Calhoun, Classical Sociological Theory, 2007).

The family is considered an extension of an individual’s personality. Additionally, the family illustrates how a given social circle can function under various perspectives and circumstances. In conclusion, individuality increases as the social circle in which an individual belong expands. This implies that social differentiation increases due to quantitative expansion of social groups.

The Catnets by H White

A net is a set of relationships that exist between pairs of people. The members of the net have meaningful and indirect relationships with each other. However, the indirect relations are not institutionalized (Calhoun, Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2007). Relations within the net are partially recognized and conceptualized in concrete terms instead of being considered as well-defined relations. The existence of the net is indefinite, and each net has a culture observed by the members.

A cat refers to a group of people associated with similar attributes. Membership within a cat is only important in the “context of the whole structure formed by the group” (Calhoun, Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2007). Thus, a catnets relationship can develop either from a net or a cat. A culture is developed to enable individuals to visualize, operate and transform their social structure. For instance, individuals enter and leave a net through specific rules.

Concepts and Theoretical Strategy

The theory of group expansion and the development of individuality explain how interactions of individuals within a social group lead to the development of identity (Calhoun, Classical Sociological Theory, 2007). As the group increases in size, differentiation also increases, hence the development of individuality.

Thus, this theory explains both action and social structure. In particular, it explains the actions (interaction) of individuals within a group and how such actions affect the social structure. The theory focuses on both macro and micro level of analysis by considering the individual and the group.

The theory of catnets explains the relationships within various social groups and how such relationships lead to the development of identity (Calhoun, Classical Sociological Theory, 2007). According to this theory, each group has its culture which determines the relationships of its members.

Thus, the theory explains the social structure. According to White’s theory, membership in a social group is meaningful only in the perspective the whole structure developed by the group’s members. Consequently, White’s analysis focuses on groups within the society.

Causal Relationships

Simmel’s theory describes the relationship between group expansion and individuality. Simmel notes that individuals are enclosed either broadly or narrowly by concentric circles that represent spatial interests.

He points out that a small group such as the family, offers individuals initial differentiation before they join larger groups in the society. In this context, development of individuality is determined by the expansion of the social group. The developed individuality determines one’s identity. Thus, social structure can determine individual identity.

Whites’ theory illustrates how social interactions within groups shape one’s identity. According to White’s theory, each group has a culture that helps them to develop their social structure. In this case, social structure determines individual identity in the sense that individuals are identified by the attributes of the culture associated with their social structure.

Internal Validity

The group expansion and development of individuality theory is concrete. The claim that individuality and differentiation increases as the size of the group increases can be explained on the basis of freedom. It is a fact that members of large social groups have greater freedom as compared to members of small social groups (Abrahams, 2006).

The high level of freedom enhances the development of individuality. The theory also yield testable hypothesis that can be operationalized in social science research. For instance, we can hypothesize that freedom cause individuality. In this case, freedom can be operationalized in terms of measurable variables such as access to resources, ability to make personal decisions and rules that govern relationships.

The theory of catnets is both generalizable and falsifiable. It is generalizable due to the fact that most relationships within social groups are based on some rules. Such rules are formulated based on the culture associated with the group.

The theory is falsifiable since nets might not continue indefinitely in all circumstances as claimed by White. In some cases, assimilation can lead to the loss of cultural attributes that determine relationships (Abrahams, 2006).

In such cases, the net can either be discontinued or it can be significantly changed from its original state. The theory of catnets can yield testable hypothesis that can be operationalized in social science research. For instance, we can hypothesize that culture determines individual identity. In this case, we can operationalize culture in terms of norms, means of production and lifestyles.

External Validity

The external validity of catnets theory can be illustrated by the social class structure. Members of upper class and lower class have unique cultures that define how they operate within and modify their class. For instance, the upper class tends to dress in expensive clothes and uphold good manners. However, the upper class is made up of several individuals. Consequently, an individual can only be identified with the attributes of the upper class if he belongs to the group that is considered to be upper class.

The external validity of Simmel’s theory can also be explained through empirical evidence. The weakening of family ties in America, for instance, explains Simmel’s theory. As the families disintegrate in America, citizens tend to join large groups such as single mothers, divorcees and single fathers.

These large social groups enable their members to have freedom and take control of their lives. For instance, a single mother will not experience the interference of a husband in her life. The lack of interference in the large social groups promotes differentiation since everyone is in charge of their lives. Thus, the differentiation translates into individuality.


Social structure is determined by the actions of individuals. It is developed through interactions and relationships of members of various social groups. The social structure informs the development of the self which in turn determines the development of individual identity. According to catnets theory, people develop cultures that help them to establish their social structure (Calhoun, Contemporary Sociological Theory, 2007).

By belonging to the established social structures, and exhibiting the attributes associated with the social structure, individuals acquire their identity. The group expansion and development of identity theory asserts that differentiation and individuality increases as social groups increase in size. The expansion of the group leads to freedom that enables individuals to develop their identity. Consequently, social structure can determine individual identity.


Abrahams, F. (2006). Contemporary Sociology. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Calhoun, C. (2007). Classical Sociological Theory. New York: Blackwell.

Calhoun, C. (2007). Contemporary Sociological Theory. New York: Blackwell.