Social Structure Defined

An Overview of the Concept

A lego structure symbolizes the interconnected and hierarchical nature of social structure.
Vincenzo Lombardo/Getty Images

Social structure is the organized set of social institutions and patterns of institutionalized relationships that together compose society. Social structure is both a product of social interaction, and directly determines it. Social structures are not immediately visible to the untrained observer, however they are always present and affect all dimensions of human experience in society.

It is helpful to think about social structure as operating on three levels within a given society: the macro, meso, and micro levels.

Social Structure: The Macro Level of Society

When sociologists use the term "social structure" they are typically referring to macro level social forces including social institutions and patterns of institutionalized relationships. The major social institutions recognized by sociologists include family, religion, education, media, law, politics, and economy. We see these as distinct institutions that are interrelated and interdependent, and together help compose the overarching social structure of a society.

These institutions organize our social relationships to others, and create patterns of social relations when viewed on a large scale. For example, the institution of family organizes people into distinct social relationships and roles, including mother, father, son, daughter, husband, wife, etc., and there is typically a hierarchy to these relationships, which results in a power differential.

The same goes for religion, education, law, and politics.

These social facts may be less obvious within the institutions of media and economy, but they are present there too. Within these there are organizations and people who hold greater amounts of power than others to determine what happens within them, and as such, they hold more power in society.

What these people and their organizations do act as structuring forces in the lives of all of us.

The organization and operation of these social institutions in a given society results in other aspects of social structure, including socio-economic stratification, which is not just a product of a class system, but is also determined by systemic racism and sexism, as well as other forms of bias and discrimination.

The social structure of the U.S. results in a sharply stratified society in which very few people control wealth and power--and they tend to be white and male--while the majority has very little of either. Given that racism is embedded in core social institutions like education, law, and politics, our social structure also results in a systemically racist society. The same can be said for the problem of gender bias and sexism.

Social Networks: The Meso Level Manifestation of Social Structure

Sociologists see social structure present at the "meso" level--between the macro and the micro levels--in the social networks that are organized by the social institutions and institutionalized social relationships described above. For example, systemic racism fosters segregation within U.S. society, which results in some racially homogenous networks.

The majority of white people in the U.S. today have entirely white social networks.

Our social networks are also a manifestation of social stratification, whereby social relations between people are structured by class differences, differences in educational attainment, and differences in levels of wealth.

In turn, social networks act as structuring forces by shaping the kinds of opportunities that may or may not be available to us, and by fostering particular behavioral and interactional norms that work to determine our life course and outcomes.

Social Interaction: Social Structure in the Micro Level of Everyday Life

Social structure manifests at the micro level in the everyday interactions we have with each other in the forms of norms and customs. We can see it present in the way patterned institutionalized relationships shape our interactions within certain institutions like family and education, and it is present in the way institutionalized ideas about race, gender, and sexuality shape what we expect from others, how we expect to be seen by them, and how we interact together.


In conclusion, social structure is composed of social institutions and patterns of institutionalized relationships, but we also understand it as present in the social networks that connect us, and in the interactions that fill our everyday lives.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.