Professor Marshall

LESSON 4: Culture and Social Structure

Culture and Structure

This chapter deals with two very important sociological topics – CULTURE and STRUCTURE. It also highlights the importance of the "concept." As Steele and Price state, the concept is defined as "a set of ideas that makes sense of everyday life" (26). Sociologists, whether practicing or applied, use concepts to help clarify what exactly it is they are trying to understand.

One of the things that sociologists and people who practice a sociological perspective are very good at is the ability to describe a situation fully and robustly. When sociologists conduct research, especially in the field (such as for example doing ethnographic or participant observation research), a big part of the job is being able to describe to the reader exactly what it is that is being researched in painstaking detail. Sociologists get very good at noting and explaining social reality so that the reader can have a viable and accurate understanding of what was going on at that moment in time when the research was actually occurring. As an applied sociologist, or as a professional in any field practicing applied sociology, the more you use a sociological perspective, the easier it will become.

One of the benefits to using a sociological perspectives is being able to "pivot" around a social event, situation, or series of action and be able to see it from different frames and perspectives. Sociologists commonly come up with questions in their mind about what's going on in a particular scenario – we're interested in knowing what's going on for all of the actors, what the agenda may be for each person involved, where the power and control rests with each individual in the scene, and so on. Each of the things that a sociologist uncovers points to two basic notions:

  • how does the individual influence the situation?
  • how does the situation influence the individual?

The first of these two questions points to the influence of culture, which is created when people interact with each other, and as an example of the micro level forces in society at play (recall the information from your lesson on research methods regarding macro and micro sociology).

The second of these two questions – how social reality influences the individual –points to how structure of society bears down on the individual to influence the situation, and is an example of the macro level forces of society at play (recall the information from your lesson on research methods regarding macro and micro sociology).


How do sociologists define culture? Read THIS ARTICLE about culture which gives a good overview of the sociological development of the study of culture and the meanings that sociologists apply to this concept. The study of culture, to most sociologists today, is basic to the study of society.

As you can see, there are some basic elements to the study of culture that sociologists must observe and attempt to measure. In 1970, Sociologist Robin Williams conducted a research project in an attempt to measure the values of American society. He came up with 15 cultural values which Americans say are important. Note how some of these values seem to be in opposition to each other:

Williams' Research on American Values

Can our American values be in opposition? According to Williams' research, they can. I would assert that even though this research was completed in the early '70s, many of these values--if not all--are still prevalent in American society today. And, the struggle between values may have gotten more pronounced. It might be time for a replication/comparative study in which a sociologist uses the same question set as Williams did in his original research. This would allow us to gather some new data and compare it to the existing data set to see what is the same and what has changed.


Evolution of Society

The structure of society, as observed by sociologists for the past few hundred years (since the beginning of sociology as an academic discipline) changes over time. While this is not an easy thing to see happening, we can point to some significant events as the influences which have changed the structure of society. The image above is a graphic representation of a functional orientation toward how societies become more "advanced" as they get older.

When sociologists talk about "structure" they are not talking necessarily about something we can see. The components of the structure come from social institutions, and social institutions are defined as "overarching concepts about social reality which endure over generations." For example, when I ask you to define the concept of "family," most of you can generally agree on the same sorts of components:

  • Two parents
  • Two children
  • A house
  • Two cars
  • Parents work to pay the bills
  • A dog (or a cat)
  • And so on...

We can also probably agree on a basic list of the things a family should do:

  • Protect
  • Teach morals
  • Instill values
  • And so on...

These attributes do not describe YOUR family. Rather they show that we have an overarching idea of what family is (or perhaps what we think it should be). This concept becomes the institution of the family, and it becomes a part of the framework from which society operates. These ideas (institutions) do change over time, but those changes are very slow, and we rarely see them as they happen. If you look back 100 years, 200 years, and so on, you can see how the institution of family has changed (particularly with regard to the number of children). Today in American society our ideas about the concept of family are changing to incorporate more diverse definitions--it will take some time for those new ideas to find their way into the structure of society.

There are three major theorists who have made assertions about the structure of society from the MACRO level:

The work of Durkheim and Tonnies is considered historical and laid out some theoretical groundwork with regard to how sociologists think about the elements of society today. Lenski is a temporary theorist who pushed the theoretical boundary to add newer models to describe the structure post-industrialization.

All three of these theories are MACRO level theories, meaning that they are not concerned with examining the individual's impact on the structure. Rather they are interested in examining the structure's impact on the individual. We also have MICRO level theorists who were (are) concerned with examining society--from the individual's point of view. What are the elements of the individual which form the structural framework of society? One popular explanation comes from the work of Goffman:

Program Evaluation

For students who go on to major in the field of sociology, there are entire courses devoted to program design and evaluation. For purposes of this course, there are two main types of program evaluation (Steele and Price 29).


The basic question that a summative evaluation asks is whether or not a program worked. Obviously, this type of evaluation is done after the fact. As an example, you may work in the field of human resources and it might be important for you to know whether or not there has been a substantive change with the implementation of a specific program within your organization. Knowing how to conduct an evaluation of that program will help you to determine whether or not the program was valuable.


Formative program evaluation work toward improving the program for future use. These types of evaluations often include ways of gathering information which can help to point out areas in a program which need to be changed, modified, or deleted. This type of evaluation will also help you to identify new areas which may need to be developed. For example, you may work in the field of drug counseling and rehabilitation. It might be important for you to know whether or not a rehab program that you have in place is working conducting a formative evaluation will help you to change or modify the program before you implement it again.

There are two main questions for you to remember about summative and formative program evaluation:

  • Summative: did the program work?
  • Formative: will the program work in the future?

In either of these cases, culture plays an important role. Understanding the culture of the program (and perhaps of the clients the program serves) will be beneficial to your evaluation, whether summative or formative. There are various components of culture from a sociological perspective that can help you while you're on the job to conduct your program evaluation and understand how each of these cultural components may be influencing the group.

Subcultures: subcultures are a subset of the dominant culture. They have their own distinct set of values and beliefs however they still continue to exist within the framework of the dominant culture (Carl 56). Subcultures, especially in the workplace, can wield a lot of power, both with in their group and when influencing those in other groups in the workplace. For example, it is not uncommon for paramilitary groups such as law enforcement agencies to have several different divisions — patrol, detective, narcotic/undercover, and so on. Each of these groups has its own subcultural values and beliefs about how to best go about doing the job of law enforcement. Of course there are basic safety rules that must be applied no matter the division the officer works in, but each of these groups has different ways of doing the job itself. This creates subcultural attitudes and beliefs about the group and can work to create friction between the group and others.

Two things that a researcher conducting program evaluation needs to be aware of are the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism (Steele and Price 30).

  • Ethnocentrism: using your own values or beliefs to judge the behaviors of another culture or subculture.
  • Cultural relativism: making a deliberate effort to appreciate a group, culture, or subculture without applying one's own prejudices or preconceived notions.

Ehtnocentrism vs. Cultural Relativism

On either end of the ethnocentric – culturally relative spectrum, there are problems. On the far ethnocentric side, there is no room for seeing the value within a subculture. As a researcher, this can lead you to making incorrect assumptions, to collecting data which is skewed, and two missing out on important realities of the situation which might be overlooked due to your inability to evaluate the subculture on its own merits. On the far culturally relative side, problems can arise for you as a researcher because it becomes difficult for you to make appropriate recommendations for change to a program or to the values, beliefs, or behaviors of a particular workplace subculture. Remember — the goal of program evaluation is to identify problematic areas and to target specific recommendations for future changes to the program which will help it run more smoothly. If your job entails program evaluation, you'll need to be aware of some of the ways in which your own personal ideas and prejudices may influence your evaluation. As with any profession or career, people who conduct program evaluation regularly become better at it with practice.


The structure of society has a tremendous impact on us, and we also impact it. And social theorists are always considering the push-and-pull between the macro and micro perspectives. You are encouraged to do additional research on this topic to better understand the point of view of sociologists who study the impacts of social structure to society.


Carl, John. Think Sociology Second Edition. Upper Saddle River: Pearson. 2011. Print.

Steele, Stephen F., Jammie Price. Applied Sociology. Belmont: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.