Professor Marshall

LESSON 5: Social Structure and Interaction

Lesson 5

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Identify types of societies

Evaluate macro level theories about social structure

Evaluate micro level theories about social structure

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies

You can articulate the role of environment on preindustrial societies

You can explain how technology impacts societal development

You can describe Durkheim’s functionalist view of society

You can describe the conflict theorist view of society

You can explain Marx’s concepts of class and alienation

You can identify how symbolic interactionists explain social structure

You can define the sociological concept of reality as a social construct

You can define roles and describe their places in people’s daily interactions

You can explain how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 4 of your text.

2. COMPLETE the lesson below.

3. USE this social structure cheat sheet as you work through the lesson.


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.

Socially Constructed Reality and Society

So what exactly does it mean to socially construct reality?

Social construction theory comes from the symbolic interaction perspective and it comes from the work of Berger and Luckmann (1966). This theory essentially asserts that when we interact with other people we create shared meanings and those meanings eventually get reinforced at the macro level by norms, laws, and our social institutions. This creates pressure to conform to social norms. What this tells us is that the structure of society, according to social construction theorists, begins at the micro level; once those interactions begin to occur among larger and larger groups of people, they get woven into and create the structure in which we all live and the rules to which we adhere. There are two basic premises to social construction theory and the analysis that social construction theorists use when analyzing social behavior:

  • The way we see reality currently is taken for granted by us, and
  • It is not inevitable that this reality exists — we have created it to be this way.

There are also some considerations that social construction theorists ponder when applying social construction theory to society and groups:

  • Concepts, that is to say the way we "see" and describe reality are not inevitable.
  • The way we describe or construct reality (society) is contingent upon history.
  • If social reality and the way we see it is contingent upon history, it is also therefore contingent upon power as not every member of society has the ability via power to construct the reality in which we all must live.

Essentially, what this theory tells us is that we can have some choice in the creation of the structures of the societies in which we live. It also tells us that we should not take things for granted – what some of us see as common sense social interactions, others may see as nonsensical. Berger and Luckmann assert that when we interact we do so with an understanding that the perceptions of reality of the people with whom we interact are similar to ours. This reinforces our common knowledge and further begins the building of our social structure.

Criticism of Social Construction Theory

Social construction theory leans heavily towards the "nurture" side of the nature/nurture spectrum. In doing so it tends to forget or discount any probable or possible "nature" contributions to human behavior.

In a nutshell, this theory tells us that the structure of our society has not happened randomly. Rather, many people have had a hand in creating the structure in which we live. Further, some people have had more power and control over the structure than others. This means that the structure may work well for some, but not for others (and thus, compliments conflict theory on many levels). Contemporarily, considering some of the issues and concerns that we have about American society, it is not difficult to see how social constructionists may view the inequalities in our society among groups as having served a very valuable purpose for powerful people – not only our past, but today as well.

Types of Societies

Essentially, there are three major divisions within contemporary society:

  • PRE-INDUSTRIAL societies – these societies are characterized by hunter gatherer groups, pastoral and horticultural groups, and agricultural and feudal societies. These all existed prior to the Industrial Revolution and these types of societies were small and close-knit. The economy of these types of societies was closely linked to the amount of labor each human in a society could provide.
  • INDUSTRIAL societies — characterized in the West by the Industrial Revolution of the 1800 these societies begin to use machinery and production to increase output. Urban centers popped up and the need for workers was created; this changes the structure of our previous preindustrial society. It was at this point that sociologists began to notice these types of changes which are inherent to the large social forces that were prevalent during the Industrial Revolution, and which changed the fabric – the structure – of society.
  • POST-INDUSTRIAL societies – characterized by the ebb and flow of information, these are societies which have passed through the Industrial Revolution. While employment in the industrial era was characterized by physical labor, societies or nation-states which are postindustrial tend to move away from physical labor more towards intellectual labor production.

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:

Ethnocentrism and Cultural Relativism

Two things that a sociologist needs to be aware of are the concepts of ethnocentrism and cultural relativism.

  • 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.

Ethnocentrism and 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 to 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 the values, beliefs, or behaviors of a particular subculture. Remember — the goal of program evaluation is to identify problematic areas and to target specific recommendations for future changes which will help a group, a social structure, an institution, a government (and so on) to run more smoothly. 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 this type of research regularly become better at it with practice.


Today, we are moving into a post-modern state:

Modernism and Modernity

Modernity generally refers to a post-traditional, historical period, marked by the move from feudalism toward capitalism and industrialization. In this period, societies become less religious (moving toward secularization) and "rational" thinking prevails. So, modernity relates to the modern era in that our ways of thinking changed from the time of feudalism to the time of capitalism and beyond. While it it linked to the Enlightenment, it is not a specific movement like the Enlightenment--modernity is more so an idea or a concept about how we exist as a society than it is a distinct concept about ways of thinking. Modernity is specifically about social relationships associated with the rise of capitalism as well as the theories and ideas that go along with living in a post-industrial world. (Toulmin 1992). Modernity is characterized by "rational" thought, rather than the mystical thinking of the pre-industrial era.

Modernity is a term which expressed the feeling by contemporary thinkers that the "older," more traditional ways of viewing social organization and daily life were becoming outdated in the new conditions of a world which is, more or less, fully industrialized. Modernity encompasses economic, social and political thought, and so, is comfortably at home in the field of contemporary sociology.

Adorno, a social theorist (a phenomenologist), describes modernity as "a qualitative, not a chronological, category. Just as it cannot be reduced to abstract form, with equal necessity it must turn its back on conventional surface coherence, the appearance of harmony, the order corroborated merely by replication." In this respect, modernity acknowledges the past while also rejecting it. Adorno wants us to see that the coherence we thought the Enlightenment brought was an illusion.

While modernity is a different way of thinking, modernism is a cultural movement which is a "subset" of modernity. We can think about these two as being closely related however there are some clear differences:

Modernism and Modernity 2

So, with which of these two is sociology concerned?

With an emphasis on culture, politics and society, sociologists use modernism as a new theoretical base from which to do research. This does not mean that sociologists have completely abandoned past theories, or that they don't consider the historical era of modernity. Quite the contrary, modernity plays an important role for theorists seeking to understand contemporary society.

As we have noted in past lessons, theory is often viewed as static and unmoving. But just like other facets of life, when we know more, we theorize more. Our newfound knowledge leads to new theories. Modernism however is not built in a vacuum. It relies on an understanding of the past and a rejection of those historical ways of thinking. This does not completely obscure past theory! Functionalism, conflict and interaction theories (among others) all still have a place at the sociological table. Each still has practical and applicable uses in research. Modernism adds to the body of work in that it gives us another way to describe contemporary society. In order for modernism to be "accepted" as a legitimate foundation of study, modernist theorists must consider the past.

Many modernist theorists thought that by rejecting past notions about society, they could/would discover new and radical ways to describe society. In rejecting how theorists of the past explained things, they came up with new ways to describe an increasingly complex world in which traditional authority came under intense scrutiny. Modernist theorists challenged authority on many levels--the authority of the government, the authority of Cartesian science, the authority of reason, and the authority of God.

At the very core of modernist thought is the idea of questioning reality and rejecting contemporary values (such as consumerism and popular culture). In doing so, modernist theorists assert there will be a rejection of capitalism, and therefore, modernism becomes a revolutionary concept.


Post-modernism continues a "deconstructed" view of history and again changes the contemporary thinking about society. Incorporating the concepts of modernism, postmodernism pushes the theoretical boundaries even farther with some "radical" new ideas. Postmodernism is nearly a complete rejection of the past. Postmodernism is an examination of what we assume to be "real" in the scientific sense. While there really isn't one definition, most postmodernists agree that reality is constructed by the individual as the individual attempts to understand his or her personal reality--this means that there is NO OBJECTIVE reality by which we can describe social interaction, and that we must REJECT TRADITIONAL SCIENTIFIC METHODS AND PROCESSES as a way of understanding social reality. If the individual and her or his experiences are all that "matter," then all others attempts to describe the world fall short. In other words, my way of describing your social reality (my theory about your world) means nothing.

Thus, in this postmodern world, the theoretical focus falls to a few main points:

  • Postmodern theory is CRITICAL of contemporary society
  • We live in a post-capitalist world
  • Understanding this new world requires an examination of DISCOURSE

Thinking back to the work of Durkheim, Tonnies and Parsons (among others) under a postmodern stance, their ideas about some sort of concrete structure and reality in which we all exist and function would be rejected. This does not imply that a postmodern theorist does not attempt to understand the past, but that they reject that singular way of interpreting the past:

Old and New School


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.