Introduction (Social Structure)

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In this section, we explore the idea that all human behavior is social by definition; by this, we mean that most of our activities take place in interaction with other people in specific social contexts. Social interaction is the process through which people act and respond to other people. Whether we interact with family members or friends, teachers or co-workers, salespersons or even strangers, our interactions are not random occurrences. Most social interactions are heavily influenced, shaped and structured, not by our individual personalities, but by the social context of, and our position in, the situation.


To examine how social forces thoroughly influence most aspects of our lives, sociological analysis operates at two levels:


  • Macrosociology is the level of analysis that focuses on the large-scale aspects of society, such as social inequalities, political and economic systems. This is the level of analysis that looks at “the big picture,” society as a whole.


To examine society through macrosociological lenses is comparable to viewing a city from above. We distinguish broad patterns of building structures and roadways. We perceive the large-scale organization of space. Structural-functionalist and conflict theorists tend to use this level of sociological analysis.


As one can see on the picture on the right (click on the image for a larger view), which is a view of Paris, the capital of France, a macrosociological view distinguishes between different types of large elements and gives a sense of the city's overal geography, where the main arteries are, where the parks are located and where more concentrated areas are situated. This view gives us a good survey of the city. Its large-scale structures are clearly visible.


  • Microsociology is the level of analysis that focuses on social interaction and interpersonal phenomena, that is, on how social forces shape the small-scale aspects of our lives as well as how we interact in groups, large and small, and how we negotiate all sorts of social encounters.


To examine society through microsociological lenses is comparable to viewing a city at street level. From this perspective, we see how people’s day-to-day activities and interactions are shaped by the broad patterns. This is the level of analysis favored by symbolic interactionists.


In this "down on the ground" view of Paris (left - click on the image for a larger view), one gets a very different picture. Ther large-scale structures are no longer visible but we see people, groups, how they interact and use the space available. We see how street flows of people and vehicles work. We see an economic world of shops and street vendors. We might have lost the overall structural view of the city, but we have gained a more detailed view of life within the large-scale structures.


In this section, we address Mills’ essential questions raised in our first section (structure, evolution, inequality) by looking at the major building blocks of society, that is, we look at the major components of society through macrosociological analysis.


Before examining the basic components of society, we need to define what sociologists mean when we talk about “society.” Sociologically speaking, a society is a population that shares


  1. A geographical area,
  2. Organized social relationships,
  3. A somewhat distinctive culture, and
  4. A sense of unity.


Because of these characteristics, human behaviors and practices tend to be predictable and organized. Social life would be impossible if we never knew what to expect from other people. Imagine what it would be like to drive if nobody ever followed the rules and no one knew what behavior to expect from other drivers and if the shape of the roadways changed constantly. Similarly, social life is structured by rules and relatively stable patterns that render behavior predictable.


What are the structures of social life that make it predictable and orderly? How do these structures shape our behaviors and interactions? What do social structures accomplish for society as a whole? In the first part of this section, we try to answer Mills’ first essential question.


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