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Macro Social Structures

Social Structure

Social structures are the means of organizing recurring patterns of relationships within a social system. Macro-level social structures are large-scale mechanisms that organize and distribute individuals in an entire society, as opposed to small-scale, or interpersonal, structures. There are three kinds of macro-level structures: world-systems, society, and institutions.

World Systems

All nations are connected to each other in a world-system, which is the most complete macro-level structure, since it encompasses all other levels of society. World-systems are defined by their cultural, economic, political, and military dimensions, and they are characterized by a global division of labor. Countries in the world-system are classified as core, peripheral, and semiperipheral nations. There are profound differences and inequalities between nations within the world-system.


The world-system is composed of many nations and societies. A society is an organization of people who share a common territory, govern themselves, and cooperate to secure the survival of the group. Nations are political entities with clearly defined geographic boundaries.

There are two basic views of social structure: the functionalist perspective and the conflict perspective. The functionalist perspective sees societies as adaptive social structures that help human beings adjust to their environment. The conflict perspective challenges the functionalist contention that all the members of a society benefit from the way society is structured. Sociologists who adhere to the conflict perspective contend that policy is often driven by power struggles, and therefore privileged people and groups are often able to impose their will on others.


In order to survive, every society must successfully address the same fundamental social needs, which functionalists call functional imperatives. Talcott Parsons formulated six imperatives: organization of the activities of the members of a society; protection of members; replacement of members; transmission of knowledge; motivation of new and continuing members; and the development of mechanisms for resolving conflicts.

The social structures that all known societies possess to fulfill these fundamental social needs are called institutions. There are five basic social institutions in all known societies: family; religion; economy; education; and the state. Each institution addresses basic needs (manifest functions) and in the process, produces unintended and often unrecognized outcomes of consequences (latent functions).

The family is the institution whose function is to contribute new members to society. Families may also perpetuate economic inequalities, conflict, and violence. Functionalists argue that the institution of religion assigns meaning and purpose to the actions of people and thereby motivates members of society to comply with their responsibilities. The institution of the economy includes corporations, organized markets, banking, international trade associations, labor unions, and consumer organizations. The institution of education has the manifest function of transmitting skills that all young members of society need to become productive adults. Conflict sociologists argue that in the United States, schools often reproduce inequality. The state is an institution designed to protect members of society from internal and external threats. The state is also known to reinforce inequality.

It is important to note that institutions are dynamic structures that interact and affect one another.

Social movements, such as the civil rights movement, are large-scale organizational structure within which individuals working together may alter how institutions and societies operate.

Neubeck: SociologyOnline Learning Center

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