Understanding the meaning of Social Structure – Essay

His concern was culture, and not social structure. So­cial anthropology is very rich in ethnographic data. If we look into social anthropology in India, we find that whatever material we have concerning the tribals is ethnography. In a broad way, it could be said in a limited sense, social anthropology in India is essentially eth­nography, out of which social anthropology or social structure is made.

Indian sociology is far ahead of social anthropology so far as the delineation of social structure is concerned. In sociology much has been done to construct formulations about social structure and social system. In anthropology, perhaps for the first time, an effort was made by S.F. Nadel to build a theory of social structure.

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Nadel very rightly observes in the preliminaries of his book, The Theory of Social Structure that he wanted to call this book Towards a Theory of Social Structure. Such an observation clearly shows that building of social structure as a theory was made only in the 1950s.

Compared to sociology it is easy in social anthropology to bring out the meaning and definition of social structure. There are reasons for this. First, social anthropology stresses on studies of small-scale locali­ties. It is easy methodologically to manage smaller units.

These units can be studied by field observations. In a village or a tribal society, most inhabitants know each other personally; they participate in, and reproduce, forming a social structure characterized by face-to-face contact.

In this kind of setting, it is possible for the anthropologists to become acquainted with most of the locality’s inhabitants in the course of their fieldwork. Second, the local society may be studied as though it were self-sustaining.

Most of the activities of the inhabitants take place locally, many of their needs are satisfied locally, and the lo­cal community is being reproduced and maintained over a period of time.

It is thereby possible to use the methodological tools of anthro­pology for studying the interrelationship among different social institutions within the framework of local communities.

It must, however, be said that local communities or small-scale so­cieties always remain self-sustaining and unchanging. Though in the wake of directed development programmes, accelerating markets and globalization, these societies are also changing, the core aspect of these societies resists change.

And, it is this nature of simple societies that provides continuity. It is this aspect of continuity and change which prompts the social anthropologists to construct the theory of social structure.

Several attempts have been made to define the concept of social structure. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, while taking into consideration the definitions given by Radcliffe-Brown, Raymond Firth, S.F. Nadel and others, gives a tentative definition of social structure. This will provide us a clue to go back and explore the meaning and definition of social structure. He defines the concept as under:

Social structure may thus, be perceived as the matrix of society, emp­tied of humans; the totality of duties, rights, division of labour, norms, social control, etc., abstracted from ongoing social life.

It seems that Eriksen’s definition of social structure draws heavily on the definition given by Radcliffe-Brown which runs as below:

The actual relations of Tom, Dick and Harry or the behaviour of Jack and Jill may go down in our field notebooks and may provide il­lustrations for a general description. But what we need for scientific purposes is an account for the form of the structure.

Social structure does not stand for names, places and other par­ticularities. It is independent of individuals. On the basis of these empirical realities abstractions are made which, in turn, go toward; the making of a social structure. M.N. Srinivas, in his book, The Re membered Village, quite particular accounts about his stay in Rampur: village.

All these helped him develop concepts about village life. Hi study of the religion among Coorgs also helped him build the concept of sanskritization. Sanskritization is not social structure, but an aspect of social structure. Our emphasis is that in the construction of social structure we remove the names of the persons and events, and make an abstraction.

This abstraction helps us construct social structure. It is on this strategy of the construction of social structure that Radcliffe- Brown talks about the form of the social structure. Eriksen, therefore, says that social structure is abstracted from ongoing social life.

It is to be noted that in the framing of social structure unnecessary details about the functioning of society are deleted. Social structure consists of the abstractions of empirical reality that are used for comparative analysis. Thus, in view of the definitions given above, we can infer tliat:

1. Social structure is an abstraction.

2. It does not give details of particularities.

3. It is used for wider comparisons.

Raymond Firth’s definition of social structure has emerged out of the empirical reality of African tribes. Making a differentiation be­tween social structure and social organization, he says:

There is distinction between social structure and social organization. The structure is the established pattern of rules, customs, statuses and social institutions. Social organization, on the other hand, is defined as the dynamic aspect of structure, in other words, what people actu­ally do their decisions and patterns of action within the framework of the structure.

Firth argues that social structure consists of the standards of be­haviour. These standards are actually patterns. Patterns and standards do not often change; they are normally invariant.

The social organiza­tion is always changing. Nadel comes closer to Firth and Radcliff-Brown when he says that the concept of social structure should not be used as a blanket term. Its meaning is technical and spe­cific. He has defined social structure as a precise concept of social anthropology.

Accordingly, the society is a whole. It has sub-divisions. These sub-divisions are the parts of society and these parts are interrelated.

In other words, the arrangement of the interrelations of parts is the so­cial structure. Taking into consideration the whole society and the interrelationship of the parts, Nadel defines social structure in the fol­lowing way:

Structure indicates an ordered arrangement of parts, which can be treated as transposable, being relatively invariant, while the parts themselves are variable.

Nadel’s definition brings out the following features of a social structure:

1. Social structure is an arrangement of the different parts of the so­ciety.

2. The interrelations among the parts are invariant, though the parts themselves may vary.

Functionalists have defined social structure in a different way. They relate structure with function. It would be quite interesting to discuss the structural functional analysis as mentioned by Talcott Par­sons.

Parsons views structure differently. He says that the parts of structure, namely, economy, education, polity, and the like, function in such a way that they maintain the whole system.

They keep the sys­tem going. Instead of social structure, the sociologists, therefore, use the term ‘social system’. Social system may be defined as “a set of so­cial relations which are regularly actualized and thus reproduced as a system through interaction”.

The difference between social system and social structure is of degree of emphasis. Social anthropologists stress on parts and say that the parts have arrangement of interrela­tions.

They further argue that the parts are more or less invariants. But sociologists do not focus on parts. Instead they concentrate on the functions of the parts in terms of the maintenance of the system.

Social anthropologists look at social structure as providing conti­nuity to the society. It is because of this that they talk about the form of social structure. Radcliffe-Brown provides a full chapter on social structure in his book, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1964).

In it he argues that social structure is concerned with persistent social groups, such as nations, tribes and clans, which retain their con­tinuity, their identity as individual groups, in spite of changes in their membership.

To make the observations of Radcliffe-Brown clear, we would say that in a social structure there are different forms of social relations.

There are kinship relations between father and son, or sister and brother, or uncle and his nephew. In a social structure, what is im­portant is the form, which constitutes the structure.

In the process of social change there is change in the actual struc­ture, but the general structural form remains relatively constant over a longer or shorter period of time. Stressing on this general form of so­cial structure, which remains constant, Radcliffe-Brown writes:

Thus, the actual relations of persons and groups of persons change from year to year, or even from day to day. New members come into a community by birth or immigration; others go out of it by death or emigration. There are marriages and divorces.

Friends may become enemies, or enemies may make peace and become friends. But while the actual structure changes in this way, the general structural form may remain relatively constant over a longer or shorter period of time.