Social Structure is defined by Robin Williams (1951)[1] “Human beings in society do exhibit complexes of action, thought, and emotion (1) shared by many individuals, (2) repeated in many successive situations, and (3) definitely related to other patterns in the same social aggregate. This is essentially all that is here meant by ‘structure’: an appreciable degree of regularity and relationship. There is thus nothing obscure or mystical about the concept, and the question of how definite and enduring the structure is in any particular case is left open for empirical study.”

In fact there is no single facet of personality, intelligence or any other phenomenon that drives or determines the relationship between individual and society. Melvin L .Kohn (1999)[2] opines “On the contrary, people’s social-structural positions both affect and are affected by many aspects of personality, intellectual flexibility among them.”

In effect the social structure has its impact on the individual throughout the life starting from one’s childhood, traversing through the career of education, employment and until retirement. It is possible to feel the effects of social structure on personality and also the converse not only through the times of social stability but also at times of social changes.  However it is not easier to understand and appreciate the process of how and why there is an impact of the social structure on the personality and vice versa.

The relationship between social structure and individual personality can be understood by a process of systematically linking the large scale social structure and the individual.  According to Melvin L. Kohn (1999)[3] the position in the larger social structure affects immediately impinging conditions of people’s lives and how people’s conditions of life affect and are affected by their values, their orientations and their thinking processes. With this background this paper analyses the relationship that exists between individual and social structure.

2.0 Definition of Social Structure:

Though the term is being frequently used in the subject of sociology, there is no concise or clear definition that conceptualizes the term ‘social structure’.  The term ‘social structure’ underlines the definite relationship of different entities and groups. It further defines the enduring patterns of behavior and relationship within social systems or the social institutions, when the norms defining such social systems and social institutions become embedded into them in such a way that the behavior of the actors within those social systems is shaped by those norms.

The very structure of the relationships that exist between different social groups and individuals stresses the point that the entire society is made of social groups with different roles and functions to play in the social world.

One form of social structure can be found in the form of ‘social stratification‘consisting of social distinctions such as race, class and gender. It may be said that the actions of people and organizations are guided partially by underlying structures in the social system. The concept of social structures gives rise to various forms of structuralism which form the basis for deciding on organisations’s capabilities to remain flexible and adapt itself to change. Social structures through structuralism thus become an important issue in the management arena.

Social structures may take several forms including economic system, legal system, political system, cultural system and other forms. These structures encompass family, religion, law and economy and the like.

3.0 Constructive Structuralism:

For analysis this paper takes the theory of constructive structuralism postulated by the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. His theory is based on the relationship among social structures and the way people construct the social reality. Though the theory recognizes the importance of social structure it does not wholly constrain the social agency. Bourdieu’s theory also takes the shape of ‘Post Structuralism’ that looks into beyond the modern society basing the values on the language in which the people communicate with each other. The theory doesn’t believe that the society is based on the underlying structures like race, class or gender. In fact Bourdieu’s theory had not based its ideologies on any grand theories or meta-narratives. Bourdieu also placed emphasis on ‘Relativism’.  As quoted by Plato  ‘Relativism’ reflects “The way things appear to me, in that way they exist for me; and the way things appears to you, in that way they exist for you” (Theaetetus 152a). Thus, however I see things, that is actually true — for me. If you see things differently, then that is true — for you. There is no separate or objective truth apart from how each individual happens to see things.”


4.0 Relationship of individual and the social structure as viewed by Pierre Bourdieu:

Bourdieu identified the state of ‘Mental or Cognitive Structures’ through which people look and deal with the social systems. According to him the individuals form their own view points about their positions in the social structures and such assumptions affect them in the way in which they have positioned themselves. Conversely they use the same standards or positions and affect the social structures to which the individuals belong.  This perception of the individuals, as achieved by the formation of internal schemes that enables them to understand, appreciate and evaluate the world and also make them feel and sense the effect of the different social structures as they exist. These schemes are produced through the internalization of the social structures that results in the long-term occupation of a position within the social system acquired through the social forms of class, age group gender, race and ethnicity. The social structure that reflects the collective history and also the agency concept that underpins the individual history are the responsible factors for acquiring these social positions. The processes by which these social positions are acquired by the individuals were termed as ‘habitus’.




5.0 Individuals and Social Practices:

Under Bourdeu’s theory, the social practices of the individual represent the dialectical relationship between structure and agency implying that the impact of the social structures on the individuals determines the action of the individuals that take the form of social practices. Thus the social practices representing the individuals’ responses to the impact of the social structure to which they belong are not mostly initiated out of the free will of the individuals nor are pre determined in an objective way. They are often formed as a mediation between the ‘habitus’ or the process of obtaining the social positions and the social structures that exist in the world. It is to be understood that the social practices also are instrumental in forming ‘habitus’ and the social structures themselves. This goes to prove the fact that the ‘habitus’ or the process by which the individuals acquire social positions are also not fixed or pre determined. Both the social practices and habitus are intertwined with each other that one helps the formation of the other and vice versa.

5.1 Boundaries of Social Practices or ‘Fields’:

In order to elaborate his theory of the structuralism and the individual’s role in the formation of social structures, Boaurdieu identifies a ‘field’ within which the actions of the individuals take place in the larger social structures. The ‘field’ of actions is a network of relations among the different objectives the individuals want to pursue as a result of his social position and the field positions itself within those objectives.  The field often is not created by the individuals but it exists as distinct from the consciousness and will of the actors. The field does not in any way represent the interactions among the actors themselves. The agents representing the individuals and the institutions representing organizations are often constrained in their actions by the existence of the field. It is important to understand that the ‘fields’ generate and maintain their own logical explanations and also make the actors believe in the logical explanations contained in the field. The characteristic feature of the field is that it possesses a magnetic force that makes everyone comes within its range and act according to their perceptions.  The field may take the form of an artistic, religious or economic background.

6.0 Relationship between Fields and Habitus:

Habitus represent the produce of an individuals’ field. Mostly the objective economic factors that represent the individuals’ pursuit for the social positions form the fields.  Thus, logically the broad economic objectives of the individuals determine the social structure.  Bourdieu thus tries to arrive at the ideology that the economic objectives form the broad base on which the social structures are basically formed.  However it is not easier for the individuals to go through the process of acquiring their social positions and form their fields to represent their economic objectives. This is so because acting in the field involves a lot of struggle for the individuals to maximize and sustain their own interest within the fields. In fact the field itself determines the strategies and options available to the individuals to act and maximize their interests.  “Bourdieu  suggests that practice is the result of various habitual schemas and dispositions (habitus), combined with resources (capital), being activated by certain structured social conditions (field) which they, in turn, belong to and variously reproduce and modify” (Sociology)[4]



7.0 Legal Culture and Social Structures:

Struggles within the fields and the accompanying internal protocols, assumptions, characteristic behaviours and self sustaining values lead to legal culture which has a different process. The legal culture takes different course entirely independent of other social forces.  The legal course again takes a tangential direction from the operation of the state control. The struggles within the judicial field produce an increasing gap between the lay people and professionals like lawyers.  This also widens the gap between the judgments based on legal provisions and intuitions of fairness.

8.0 Capital and Class as Advocated by Bourdieu:

Bourdieu identified two major forms of capital; Economic Capital and Cultural Capital which were further subdivided into ‘Symbolic Capital’ and ‘Social Capital’. By capital Bourdieu implied the resources distributed throughout the social structures. According to Bourdieu these resources have an exchange value in one or more of the fields comprised in the social world. The most obvious example is ‘money’ which is the economic capital which has the characteristics of being able to be accumulated and given away.  Money as economic capital includes all the income, savings and assets that can be represented having a monetary value. Cultural capital on the other hand is more rationalized than the economic capital and consists of the ‘qualifications’ that can be exchanged for money offered for employment. The cultural capital is in a way can be inherited from within a family.  ‘Symbolic capital’ represents the status or recognition and comprises of various prizes and awards.  “Bourdieu refers to ‘social capital’, by which he means the connections and networks which an agent can call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal. The ‘old boy’ networks of the public school and elite university systems, famed for their capacity for ‘string pulling’, are one very obvious example of this.”(Sociology)[5]

8.1 Relationship between Habitus, Capital and Field:

The relationship that exists between Habitus, Capital and Field as perceived by Bourideu explains the relationship between the individual and the social structures. A combination of these factors result in the social practice which we saw implies the actions of the individuals initiated to acquire social positions. It may be noted that different arenas of action fields make the social world. Each field can be equated to a game having its own goals, rules of the game, cultural and economic norms and each one is peculiar in its own way.  Individuals acquire the expertise and knowledge to play these games and get themselves equipped to perform in these fields. While it can be seen that these skills are acquired by the process of habitus, the agents or individuals can function with the help of these know-how or competence only below the threshold of these habitus.  Each player is equipped with the economic and cultural capital in varying degrees which represent the capital available with them for playing in their respective fields. It may also be observed that the capital is distributed in an uneven way among the actors. “If we want to understand social life we need to grasp the game that is being played, and we can understand the actions of individuals by reference both to the state of play in the game, and to their individual dispositions and resources.” (Sociology)[6] Thus it may be seen that the individuals’ social practices by making them acquire social

positions in the various social structures directly influence such social structures and in the process of such actions, the social structures in turn influence the position of the individuals in the social world.

9.0 Shortcomings in Bourdieu’s Theory:

The theory advocated by Bourdieu doesn’t bring out the major role being played by the agents or the individuals in forming their actions. He attaches more interaction of the ‘habitus’ on the actions of the individuals than the actions that create the ‘habitus’.  In the real world, the attraction towards social positions and the means of acquiring them in a speedier way makes the actions of the individuals more dominant than the ‘habitus’. Individuals by virtue of the intelligence they acquire out of their education coupled with their natural instincts are able to acquire higher social positions by indulging in more expedient and better ways of social practices. Hence in the real world, the actions of the individuals overtake the habitus mentioned in Bourdieu’s theory.

Bourdieu’s theory basically suffers from the problems of ‘dualism’.  ‘Dualism’ implies the metaphysical doctrine that there are two substances, distinct and independent from each other. They are one material and the other spiritual. “Material substance is defined as physical and is asserted to be the underlying reality of the empirical world, i.e., the world we see, hear, etc., and measure with our senses and technical instruments that extend the range of the senses, such as electron microscopes, telescopes, radar, etc.” (Skeptic’s Dictionary)[7] Quite opposite to the material substances, the spiritual world are usually consists of non-physical, non-material reality underlying the non-empirical world. Bourdieu combines the economic capital and cultural capital as having equal influences on the individuals’ actions which is far from reality. In actual practice the cultural capital may be an aid for making economic capital but cannot influence the actions of the individuals in acquiring social positions.

Further Bourdieu draws only a fine balance between the determinism and individualism. He advocates that the fields on their own determine what strategies are available to the actors to achieve the maximization of self interest by the actors. In reality it is not so. It is more of the actions of the individual on the basis of the influence of the social systems that determines their action in the fields.

Moreover according to Bourdieu the economic base determines the social stricture which is only partially true and will not apply to all circumstances. There are other criteria like race, class and dynasty that also determine the social structures irrespective of the economic standing.

It is highly unrealistic for Bourdieu to have taken up the’ Post-structuralism’ as a concept to explain his sociological theory. It is quite not possible for any sociological idea to look at post-modern theory which will make the whole concept only purely theoretical devoid of any practical value. In the same way it is also impractical to think that the world is a series of texts and discourses with all the meanings construed plainly. In a world where the agents thinking and action to maximize one’s self interest, it is highly questionable to think that every individual will be plain enough to express their feelings and actions openly.

Finally, Bourdiu’s theory also suffers from the trap of ‘relativism’. It seldom happens that individuals can decide to act as they think and decide. Being social animals, individuals do have the influence of the thinking and opinions of the fellow beings in the society on one’s own actions. If individuals try to follow true ‘relativism, then they may be termed eccentrics or out-laws in the society.

10.0 Conclusion:

The relationship between individuals and the social structure is being dealt with by Sociology. Sociology as a discipline has been developed from theoretical writings from predominant theorists like Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, and James Coleman of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century.  The influence of the ideologies expressed by these theorists had laid the foundation for the development of various studies on sociology including the relationship o the individuals and the social structure. Various researches and studies have been conducted in this particular segment of sociology and several   theories had been contributed to explain the relationship. As advocated by Bourdieu foremost is the emphasis on social world rather than the individual. The individual is viewed as an actor within larger social processes. The emphasis is on units of analysis at the collective level, such as the family, the group, the neighborhood, the city, the organization, the state, and the world. Of key importance is how the social fabric, or social structure, is maintained, and how social processes, such as conflict and resolution, relate to the maintenance and change of social structures. Though explicit the theory advocated by Bourdieu also suffers from certain shortcomings like excessive dependence on Relativism and expression of dualism.



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