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Social Structure

Police officer speaking to demonstrator during civil disobedience action

Police officer speaking to demonstrator during civil disobedience action

In the social sciences, social structures are the patterns of social arrangement in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions and relations between agents, as enduring patterns of behavior and interaction they define some form of order to the overall system. Social structures are typically complex and recurring patterns of organization.1 The different types of social structure can be modeled in terms of the condition under which the agents give over their choices and actions, starting on the most basic level of coercion that places an emphasis on structure over agency in a rigid hierarchical organization resistant to change. Another form of social structure is utilitarian organizations where agents partake in exchange relations based on mutual self-interest with the result being bureaucratic organizations focused on efficiency. Normative organizations are another type of social structure where people voluntarily coordinate towards some collective outcome that is of normative value, often through an inclusive decision-making process.2

Structure & Agency

In contrast to social structure, social agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Because social structure is largely about order it is often treated together with the concept of social change, which deals with the forces that change the social structure and the organization of society. Structures are really designed to facilitate order, social change requires some form of individual initiative, so we have to ask how do we as individuals change the social structure around us? Here we see the interdependency between the two, we need structures that often constrain the individual but also we need individuals in order to test and change the structure for it to develop. These two phenomena of agency and structure are deeply interdependent with social structure emerging out of individuals giving over and combining their agency within organizations that both enable the individuals and constrain them.3

Types of Social Structure

Social structure or organization is a product of agents coordinating their activities in some fashion, this coordination can only happen by the individuals giving over their agency, their choices and actions to that organization, in people giving over their agency they allow the organization to make decisions on their behalf, they submit to follow orders and become obedient to the organization’s agenda.  Without this submission and coordination we have no form of structure. It is only by police officers following orders that we can incarcerate people, it is only by people choosing to go to work every day that we get business organizations, it is only in our collective belief in money that it has value. So the question is then why do people give over their agency to organizations? Sociologies have really found three answers to this question, we do it either out of coercion, meaning we give up our choices because of the force others exert on us, or we do it in exchange, meaning we bind ourselves into organizations because we perceive the benefits to us to be greater than the cost, or we do it for normative reasons, meaning we form organizations and maintain them because we see it as a process through which to achieve a collective outcome that we value. Each of these different basis for giving over our agency create very different social structures with different process of change.4


Coercive organizations are driven by relations of conflict, military dictatorships are classical examples of coercive organizations, power is based on force, you give over your agency because ultimately of some fear that you have, as humans we actually use physical violence very rarely in our interactions, actually exercising violence is often a very last resort, what we do use though is intimidation, displays of power, manipulation, propaganda, neglect, acts of omission etc. that are ultimately all trying to force one into adopting certain actions and out of this we get some form of order and organization that is based on coercion.
Inherent to the conflict theory of social order is that conflict is the normal state within a society not the exception, this is most famously captured by Thomas Hobbes’s book the Leviathan, where he posits that man, in a state of nature, is in a continuous war of all against all, order is then seen to only be maintainable through some powerful centralized force. This force is exorcised through some hierarchical structure. Relations of conflict give rise to a micro structure of one agent assuming a dominant position over another a micro dynamic of power and authority, where one agent assumes greater control over the agency of the combined organizations while another assumes a subordinate position with a lower level of representation within the combined overall agency. As such the social structure that emerges out of agonistic relations engender varying degrees of inequality, within a stratified hierarchical system where power is exorcised in a downward direction in order to maintain the state or order of the system.5

Chain of Command

Coercive social systems typically involve a strong chain of command, strict obedience, and conformity to social norms

Coercive social systems typically involve a strong chain of command, strict obedience, and conformity to social norms

Coercive social structures have strong rules and follow a strict chain of command through a hierarchal structure that represents a systematic way to integrate the activities of members with divergent agendas by having a clear line of command and thus automatic method for resolving conflict. In order to control an organization in a hierarchical fashion it has to be linearized, nonlinearity is inherently uncontrollable through a hierarchical model, linearization means that you have to define a closed system, creating a boundary around it in order to regulate and constrain inputs and outputs to a relatively low level, equally you have to reduce the number of nonlinear interactions within the system, meaning you need information to be primarily flowing up and down the hierarchy not horizontally because this would empower the agents on the lower levels of the organization and have a corrosive effect on the top down exercise of control.
Within coercive organizations there is a strong dichotomy between agent and structure, individual agency is not some natural right that all members have, members are typically stripped of individuality and forced to conform, the culture is of strict obedience. Jail would be an example of this, membership is not voluntary, the individual is stripped of their personal belonging and forced to wear identical clothes, they are identified by a number instead of by name, all of this is to reduce the diversity and individuality of the agents and facilitate their manipulation through the social structure. Agency is really derived from your place in the social structure, for example within the feudal system the individual had no inalienable rights, one got rights from your place in the social hierarchy and there was very little social mobility.


Conflict theory sees social change as only achievable through conflict, these coercive social systems are designed to serve the interests of those in the higher strata of the system, below some level in this hierarchy the value of being part of the organization is less than it returns, people remain in these low positions because of coercion and dependency. This creates one subsystem that desires change, but above this theoretical line in the hierarchy agents are receiving more than they are putting in through exploitation, this creates another subsystem that desires the maintenance of the social structure. The system then remains in it current confutation as long as the upper strata have sufficient power and the lower strata are sufficiently dependent, but conflict theory goes on to add that this does not last forever at some point change happens though abrupt revolution.6

Utilitarian Organizations

When agents give over their agency based upon their own perceived interests within an exchange system we get what is called utilitarian organizations. People engage in this type of organization because they have something to gain, thus the culture is one of productivity and efficiency, legitimacy is based on the organization’s or person’s capacity to deliver in the exchange. Modern societies are dominated by utilitarian organizations, with the Enlightenment came the idea of reason and people as rational self-interested agents driven to maximize their utility, on this new understand of the individual we built a whole new set of social institutions that are utilitarian in nature, they are designed to provide people with as much return on their investment of time, energy, money or freedom as possible.
This is one way of understanding how economics and the idea of the market has become so domain within modern societies as an exchange mechanism for creating social order. A good example of a utilitarian organization would be a business, people consent to join and give over their agency while part of that organization in exchange for some remuneration, that is to say they work in exchange for pay, when they feel this exchange is no longer of value to them they can discontinue it. The idea of the social contract would be another example of this, the modern theory of the social contract propounds that individuals have consented, either explicitly or tacitly, to surrender some of their freedom and submit to the government, in exchange for protection of their remaining rights. We are exchanging the constraint of our actions for the agency that governments gives back to us in the form of rights that it will protect.7

Order & Change

Modern bureaucratic governments and intergovernmental organizations like the EU are examples of utilitarian organizations

Modern bureaucratic governments and intergovernmental organizations like the EU are examples of utilitarian organizations

Order is maintained by a network of relations between the mutual self-interest of individuals and often regulated by some impartial third party that oversees the exchange, like in a football match we have the two competing parties, but we also have the referee to mediate this exchange and ensure rules that facilitate the exchange are upheld. Utilitarian organizations are bureaucratic in nature, i.e. an organizational model that is rationally designed to perform complex tasks efficiently. In a bureaucratic business or government agency, officials deliberately enact and revise policies to make the organization as efficient as possible, legitimacy and status are based largely on one’s capabilities and efficiency. Bureaucratic organizations are designed to be impersonal, there is a degree of abstraction between the role and the individual person that fulfills that role, there are formal methods to facilitate the change process, whether this is through election or some employment process.
This form of organization often involves decisions made through what is called an adversarial decision-making processes. The use of a voting system to choose candidates to hold political office is an example of an adversarial decision-making process. This process requires each candidate to convince voters that they are more trustworthy and will be more effective in the role than their opponent, everyone gets a vote in this process but it does not require consensus, whoever gets the most votes wins, this process will sound very normal to us because it is used in many modern organizations.8

Normative Organizations

People join normative organizations not out of coercion or self-interest but to pursue some goal they believe has value in itself. These include community service groups, political movements, many charities and we might include the new forms of collaborative network organizations we see emerging in post-industrial economies such as open source software or Wikipedia. These organizations involve high levels of positive interdependence, making cooperation an attractor, these relations of positive interdependence create peer interactions of cooperation, with low levels of stratification in a more horizontal networked structure.

Order & Agency

Collaborative organizations emerge from self-governance, because the individual is not joining out of coercion or self-benefit, they are in no way dependent upon it, they engage in the organization voluntarily and thus the organization has no real power over them, through self-governance they themselves have chosen to constrain themselves in order to coordinate with the group and achieve some collective outcome. Without this need to regulate and control the members the organization can do away with much of the hierarchy within the first two forms of organization that was required to simply ensure people’s compliance, meaning they can likely be much more agile.
Order is maintained through shared common commitment to some collective function. The organization is an emergent phenomena of the individuals pursuing a goal or some interest that is of value to the overall system. Within this form of organization there is the possibility for consensus decision-making, which is a group decision-making process in which group members develop, and agree to support, a decision in the best interests of the whole. It is used to describe the process of reaching a decision that is fully inclusive, through self-governance the individual’s agenda is aligned with that of the whole and in this way we get integration between agency and structure. But it is only because the individual has created some internal structure of morals, values, ethics etc. Thus they are called normative organizations because they are really governed by these personal normative values that people have developed to govern themselves personally. In this way the governance structure is not something out there in some constitution or set of rules that needs to be enforced, it is in the individual’s culture.9


Almost all real-world social systems will involve some combination of these three forms of basis to their structure and order. For example many people go to work both out of a profit motive and because they believe in the value of what their organization is doing, or if we take the military as another example we might see all three forms, people may join the military out of a belief in the value of securing their nation but also for personal financial benefit and once they are there rules are enforced in a coercive fashion.

Cite this article as: Joss Colchester, "Social Structure," in Complexity Academy, April 6, 2016,

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