(Mooney, Knox, & Schacht, 2000 pp. 5-9)

Mooney, L. A., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2000). Understanding social problems (2nd ed.). Cincinnati, OH: Wadsworth. 


Elements of Social Structure and Culture

Although society surrounds us and permeates our lives, it is difficult to "see" society. By thinking of society in terms of a picture or image, however, we can visualize society and therefore better understand it. Imagine that society is a coin with two sides: on one side is the structure of society, and on the other is the culture of society. Although each "side" is distinct, both are inseparable from the whole. By looking at the various elements of social structure and culture, we can better understand the root cause of social problems. 

Elements of Social Structure

The structure of society refers to the way society is organized. Society is organized into different parts: institutions, social groups, statuses, and roles.

Institutions An institution is an established and enduring pattern of social relationships. The five traditional institutions are family, religion, politics, economics, and education. but some sociologists argue that other social institutions, such as science and technology, mass media, medicine, sport, and the military, also play important roles in modern society. 

Many social problems are generated by inadequacies in various institutions. For example, unemployment may be influenced by the educational institution's failure to prepare individuals for the job market and by alterations in the structure of the economic institution.

Social Groups Institutions are made up of social groups. A social group is defined as two or more people who have a common identity, interact, and form a social relationship. For example, the family in which you were reared is a social group that is part of the family institution. The religious association to which you may belong is a social group that is part of the religious institution. 

Social groups may be categorized as primary or secondary. Primary groups, which tend to involve small numbers of individuals, are characterized by intimate and informal interaction. Families and friends are examples of primary groups. Secondary groups, which may involve small or large numbers of individuals, are task-oriented and characterized by impersonal and formal interaction. Examples of secondary groups include employers and their employees and clerks and their customers. 

Statuses Just as institutions consist of social groups, social groups consist of statuses. A status is a position a person occupies within a social group. The statuses we occupy largely define our social identity. The statuses in a family may consist of mother, father, stepmother, stepfather, wife, husband, child, and so on. Statuses may be either ascribed or achieved. An ascribed status is one that society assigns to an individual on the basis of factors over which the individual has no control. For example, we have no control over the sex, race, ethnic background, and socioeconomic status into which we are born. Similarly, we are assigned the status of "child," "teenager," "adult," or "senior citizen" on the basis of age--something we do not choose or control. 

An achieved status is assigned on the basis of some characteristic or behavior over which the individual has some control. Whether or not you achieve the status of college graduate, spouse, parent, bank president, or prison inmate depends largely on your own efforts, behavior, and choices. One's ascribed statuses may affect the likelihood of achieving other statuses, however. For example, if you are born into a poor socioeconomic status you may find it more difficult to achieve the status of "college graduate" because of the high cost of a college education. 

Every individual has numerous statuses simultaneously. You may be a student, parent, tutor, volunteer fundraiser, female, and Hispanic. A person's master status is the status that is considered the most significant in a person's social identity. Typically, a person's occupational status is regarded as his or her master status. If you are a full-time student, your master status is likely to be "student."

Roles Every status is associated with many roles, or the set of rights, obligations, and expectations associated with a status. Roles guide our behavior and allow us to predict the behavior of others. As a student, you are expected to attend class, listen and take notes, study for tests, and complete assignments. Because you know what the role of the teacher involves, you can predict that your teacher will lecture, give exams, and assign grades based on your performance on tests. 

A single status involves more than one role. For example, the status of prison inmate includes one role for interacting with prison guards and another role for interacting with other prison inmates. Similarly, the status of nurse involves different roles for interacting with physicians and with patients. 

Elements of Culture

Whereas social structure refers to the organization of society, culture refers to the meanings and ways of life that characterize a society. The elements of culture include beliefs, values, norms, sanctions, and symbols. 

Beliefs Beliefs refer to definitions and explanations about what is assumed to be true. The belief of an individual or group influence whether that individual or group views a particular social condition as a social problem. Does secondhand smoke harm nonsmokers? Are nuclear power plants safe? Does violence in movies and on television lead to increase aggression in children? Our beliefs regarding these issues influence whether we view the issues as social problems. Beliefs not only influence how a social condition is interpreted, they also influence the existence of the condition itself. For example, men who believe that when a woman says "no," she really means "yes" or "maybe" are more likely to commit rape and sexual assault than men who do not have these beliefs (Frank, 1991). 

Values Values are social agreements about what is considered good and bad, right and wrong, desirable and undesirable. Frequently, social conditions are viewed as social problems when the conditions are incompatible with or contradict closely held values. For example, poverty and homelessness violates the value of human welfare; crime contradicts the values of honesty, private property, and nonviolence; racism, sexism, and heterosexism violate the values of equality and fairness. 

Norms and Sanctions Norms are socially defined rules of behavior. Norms serve as guidelines for our behavior and for our expectations of the behavior of others. 

There are three types of norms: folkways, laws, and mores. Folkways refer to the customs and manners of society. In many segments of our society, it is customary to shake hands when being introduced to a new acquaintance, to say "excuse me" after sneezing, and to give presents to family and friends on their birthdays. Although no laws require us to do these things, we are expected to do them because they are part of the cultural traditions, or folkways, of the society in which we live. 

Laws are norms that are formalized and backed by political authority. A person who eats food out of a public garbage container is violating a folkway; no law prohibits this behavior. However, throwing trash onto a public street is considered littering and is against the law. 

Some norms, called mores, have a moral basis. Violations of mores may produce shock, horror, and moral indignation. Both littering and child sexual abuse are violations of law, but child sexual abuse is also a violation of our mores because we view such behavior as immoral. 

All norms are associated with sanctions, or social consequences for conforming to or violating norms. When we conform to a social norm, we may be rewarded by a positive sanction. These may range from an approving smile to a public ceremony in our honor. When we violate a social norm, we may be punished by a negative sanction, which may range from a disapproving look to the death penalty or life in prison. Most sanctions are spontaneous expressions of approval or disapproval by groups and individuals--these are referred to as informal sanctions. Sanctions that are carried out according to some recognized or formal procedure are referred to as formal sanctions. Types of sanctions, then, include positive informal sanctions, positive formal sanctions, negative informal sanctions, and negative formal sanctions (see Table 1.1). [William Graham Sumner developed the concept of how norms and sanctions work within society.]

Table 1.1      Types and Examples of Sanctions
  Positive Negative
Informal Being praised by one's neighbors for organizing a neighborhood recycling program.  Being criticized by one's neighbors for refusing to participate in the neighborhood recycling program.
Formal Being granted a citizen award for organizing a neighborhood recycling program. Being fined by the city for failing to dispose of trash properly.

Symbols A symbol is something that represents something else. Without symbols, we could not communicate with each other or live as social beings.

The symbol of a culture include language, gestures, and objects whose meaning is commonly understood by the members of society. In our society, a red ribbon tied around a car antenna symbolizes Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a peace sign symbolizes the value of nonviolence, and a white hooded robe symbolizes the Ku Klux Klan. Sometimes people attach different meanings to the same symbol. The Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern pride to some, a symbol of racial bigotry to others. 

The elements of the social structure and culture just discussed play a central role in the creation, maintenance, and social response to various social problems. One of the goals of taking a course in social problems is to develop an awareness of how the elements of social structure and culture contribute to social problems. Sociologists refer to this awareness as the "sociological imagination" or "sociological mindfulness."