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Chapter 4: Social Structure

Pages 84-106
Social structures are sometimes mysterious & hard to see, but they are truly very powerful.
Societies & social structures exert influence over individuals
Set limits on our choices & opportunities
Enables & motivates us to do some things & not others
Makes some outcomes more likely than others
Understanding the social worlds humans inhabit requires us to go far beyond Thatchers
image of a world defined by a bunch of individuals acting freely & without societal
constraints to consider the impact of social structure on the lives of individuals
1. What is social structure?
Social structure as context of human action
How are social structures similar to the physical structure of a building?
What are the 2 key components of social structure?
Social structure is fundamental to entire way that sociologists understand human world
If you are born into poor family, it is much more likely that you will be poor as an adult
than if you are born into a rich family
Rich children are more likely than not to have opportunities for growth (ex: travel
to foreign countries, attending very good private schools, having tutors & other
forms of special help)
o Rich child benefits by his/her place in social structure
Poor children are likely to enjoy few or none of these resources
Social structure: bundle of forces
Hidden in background of everyday life are forces or structures that shape, constrain,
enable everything that we do
Underneath everyday social life is foundation that makes social order possible
Understanding what absence of social structure means is to think about importance of
structure for group activities
Social structure is essential to everything we do, but we are most likely to notice its
importance when its not there
Physical or social structure endures over timeeven as other things change all around it
Like buildingsarchitects & builders can dramatically change a buildings look
but the underlying structure (foundation) is much more difficult to alter w/o
tearing building down completely
Social structures tend to persist over time, giving social life a regularity
Historical changes occur, but happens slowly & modestly
Persistence & durability of structures give them their power
Were familiar w/ social structures
Poor people have world stacked up against them
Rich people have a lot of advantages
Have to show respect to teachers, doctors, judges, ministers, president

States w/ higher percentage of evangelical Christians are more likely to favor

Republican candidates for political office than Democrats
Social structures are mysterious b/c they have many components that are not usually
directly observable
Much research of contemporary sociology involves examining small pieces of social
structure, not the entire thing
Overarching concept of social structure is important to sociological imagination
Social structure that society imposes its will on individuals & groups
Social structures can be broken down into 2 key, distinct components:
1. Social hierarchies: found in any society; some groups or individuals are elevated
above others
2. Institutional environments: made up of laws, rules, organizations, government in
which individuals navigate

2. How do social hierarchies shape our life choices & relationships?

First dimension of social structure: social hierarchies
What 2 critical reasons make social hierarchies an important component of a societys structure?
Social structures contain set of important social relationships or social hierarchies
Social hierarchy: provides individuals & groups w/ different kinds of status
Every society in world today contains many social hierarchies
o Can be based on almost any way that people divide themselves into groups
o Critical source of what gives social structure its meaning & often motivate
people who benefit from them to try to maintain the existing social
structure in most or all of its dimensions
Social hierarchies arise & persist in any situation in which members of one group are able
to use their possession of some asset as the basis for claiming special advantages over
others who dont have that asset
Asset in question can vary widely
Might be something individuals are born w/ (skin color, gender)
Might be something they are usually born into but can change in adulthood
(membership in particular religious denomination)
Might be something they acquire at birth or attain later in life (possession of
enough resources to start a business & hire others)
Most common social hierarchies found around the world today are based on class, race,
ethnicity, religion, education, region, & gender
Most societies have hierarchies along each of these dimensions as well as a few
Central tasks of all of sociology is study of inequality: differences in endowments &
valued goods held by individuals of families (income, wealth, status, well-being)
Social hierarchies are important components of any societys social structure for 2
1. Where we stand in key social hierarchies will have huge bearing on our lives &
life chances
2. Hierarchies shape our social lives & relationships in many different ways

Impact of social hierarchies on life changes (individuals long-term possibilities &

If you are born into a rich family or have well-educated parents, you are much
more likely to do well in school & eventually find a good job
If you are a male, you are more likely to be employed in an occupation that pays
higher wages than if you are female
White people have advantages over minorities
Intergenerational social mobility: movement of individuals from social positions
of their parents into their own social positions
Society as a whole is impacted by social hierarchies b/c they generate tensions &
conflicts b/w dominant & subordinate groups
Social hierarchies allow dominant groups to get more of something that is valued
than subordinate groups
Subordinate groups might want to challenge their exclusion
Gender has long been one basis for exclusion from opportunity to compete for
management positions & positions of power & authority
Glass ceiling: metaphor to describe lack of progress women have made moving
into valued executive positions
Corporations are now willing to hire women to work in lower rungs of
management, but women remain disadvantaged when it comes time to promote
Aspects that hierarchies raisepower & demography (size of key groups)

Power & privilege in social hierarchies

In what ways do social hierarchies involve power & privilege?
Glass ceiling highlights ways in which social hierarchies involve power & privilege that
dominant group seeks to monopolize opportunities & control rewards or at least prevent
its existing privileges from eroding
Power: ability to influence behavior of others
Privilege: ability or right to have special access to opportunities or claims on
Subordinate groups are subjected to inferior status & limited opportunities
Most common mechanism that privilege is maintaineddiscrimination
Dominant group uses legal or informal means to control opportunities &
reduce/eliminate challenges from subordinate groups
Legal means of exclusion (group is prevented by law from attaining certain kinds
of valued positions) are blunt & powerful
Rules of social hierarchies become most visible & have biggest impact when they are
explicit, clear to everywhere, sanctions for violating them are clear
Such laws & rules are blatantly unfair & violate fundamental ideas about equality
in modern democratic societies
Laws are subject to powerful challenges by subordinate groups
Social movement protests: collective action aimed at bringing about some kind of change
as well as legal & political challenges
Ex: civil rights movement

Ex: womens movement

Legal barriers preventing racial, ethnic, or religious minorities & women from voting,
competing on equal terms in admission to college/universities, entering professional
occupations, serving in armed forceswhich were once basis of dominant groups to
monopolize opportunitieshave been overturned in past 50 years
Fewif anyexplicit legal barriers to equal opportunity based solely on group
Few exceptions: U.S. militarys restrictions on placing women in combat rules
o Discrimination upheld by military & federal courts even though lack of
combat-role opportunities hurts women officers in winning promotions
Inequalities associated w/ social hierarchies still exist even if explicit legal restrictions on
subordinate groups are gone
Dominant groups can still assert power via informal means that dont rely on
formal legal advantages
Negative stereotypes (faulty generalizations) about subordinate group applied to
all members of group
o Any of stereotypes (held by members of dominant group & others in
society) justify continuing discrimination against subordinate groups even
if formal legal equality is achieved
o Ex: laws can be passed that require employees to consider all applicants
for jobs equally. But if employers hold negative stereotypes about
subordinate groups, they will consistently favor members of the dominant
group in making decisions about who to hire

Demography & social hierarchies

In what ways does population change matter?
Most important aspects of social hierarchies of any society is relative size of key social
groups & how they change over time
Demography: study of population size
Becomes important for examining ways in which groups w/n social hierarchy
relate to one another
Changes in overall size of different social roles become critical source of social change &
impact individual lives
Often occur in ways that individual citizens dont notice until changes research
critical mass
Critical mass: point where everyone becomes aware of them & are large enough
to sustain some kind of important activity
Populations most commonly change over time by immigration (individuals & families
move to take up residence in new country)
Flow of immigrants from particular country or region of world to new place might
be trickle but hardly anyone notices their presence
As members from foreign land settles, they often encourage other family
members & friends to join over
Over time, people from new places have become more numerous & perhaps
threaten those who have lived there before

Competition for jobs, housing, places in schools, other forms of conflict

o Native group might feel that immigrations have reached critical mass,
deciding that immigrants are threatening way of life & seeking to exclude
them from opportunities by employing stereotypes & active discrimination
Changes in relative size of native & immigrant populations may continue to evolve over
Immigrants may eventually become as numerous as native group
More commonly immigration population will remain minority in community
Changing population size can itself generate important social conflicts
Changes in mix of racial & ethnic groups have been constant challenge throughout
American history
2 periods of high immigration from foreign countries that occurred in America:
1. Immigration b/w 1880s-1920s: large numbers of immigrants from Central &
Southern Europe
o Immigrants drawn to America as exploding economic growth, meaning
more availability of job opportunities (esp. manufacturing industries in
large cities in Northeast & Midwest)
2. Immigration beginning in 1965: coming from Mexico & other countries in
Central America & Asia
o High employment since 2007 has temporarily reduced flow of migrants
o Expected to surge again n ear future
Other major population shift: movement of different groups of Americans w/n U.S.
Great Migration of African Americans from South to North from 1910s-1960s
o Millions of black families moved to northern cities in search of better job
opportunities & education
o Blacks changed racial composition of cities where they moved
o Population composition of cities shifted greater tensions & conflicts
over race
Population changes can impact life chances of individuals & generate social conflicts
Changes in economy heavily influence patterns of immigration
2 critical long-term trends that transformed societies around the world, esp. U.S.:
1. Long-term decline in agricultural production & employment
o Occurred in late 19th & early 20th centuries in U.S. & Europe
o Shift from agriculture to manufacturing
2. Dramatic rise in employment in white-collar, knowledge-based occupations
o Began in second half of 20th century & ongoing in early part of 21st
Social structure of early-mid 19th century America was dominated by central role of
agriculture in economy
Farm work dominated by manual labor
American politicians & party leaders used to actively appeal to farm vote
trying to outdo each other in presenting policies that would appeal to farmers
o Farm vote is now almost completely forgotten

Overall shift away from farming driven by enormous improvements in

technologies of farmingincluding introduction of machines to replace things
that were once done by people & range of pesticides to reduce crop loss
Second big demographic shift in America economy is still ongoing
Manufacturing jobs were primary source of job growth in America economy b/w
end of Civil War and 1960s
Employment in manufacturing skyrocketed in early decades of 20th century
Entire communities were built around large factories or manufacturing industries
Most famous industrial centers dominated by manufacturing:
o Automobile industry in Detroit
o Steel in Pittsburgh & Gary, Indiana
o Meatpacking in Chicago
o Rubber in Akron
o Grain milling in Buffalo
o Transportation hubs in New Orleans
Places prospered as demand for manufactured products grew in America &
around world
Beginning 1970s, employment in manufacturing has steep decline
Due to major technology advancesdisplacing human workers
o Made is possible for manufacturing companies to produce efficiently in
countries where wages were far lower than in U.S.
Manufacturing in China, India, Vietnam played similar role in leading transition
away from agriculture toward cities
Most of consumer goods we buy today are largely assembled outside U.S.
New jobs being created primarily in service sector (wide range of industries including
finance, real estate, professional/personal service, sales job, emerging knowledge-based
occupations in computing & Internet
Shifts include growing number of bad jobsservice & maintenance work,
janitorial services, farm labor, fast-food restaurant work
Immigration to America today dominated by 2 different kinds of migrants: those
w/ limited skills occupying bad jobs & those w/ high-level skills in computing,
engineering, science
Having wrong set of skills becomes increasingly problematic for individuals &entire
Higher education became increasingly important dimension of employment
Individual w/ only high school education is at severe disadvantage in competition
for better-paying jobs in service sector (where knowledge & credentials are
increasingly important)
Size of different population groups is important for individuals chances in life
When competing but unequal groups become more equal in size, competition (for
jobs, housing, relationship partners) will grow
If subordinate or immigrant group is small, it poses less of a threat to dominant
group & laws explicitly limiting subordinate group may be rarer
When subordinate group grows large, it can threaten dominant group

Size of competing groups w/n social hierarchies can vary widely

Dominant groups can be made up of majorities (whites in America for most of 20th
century) of a population or minorities (whites in South Africa during apartheid in
Apartheid: explicit racial laws & rules relegating large African minority to
second-class citizenship until peaceful revolution in early 1990s
Until apartheid, South African blacksmaking up over 80% of populationwere
required to live in certain areas called townships
o South African blacks were denied right to vote or organize politically or
even speak freely in opposition to apartheid
o South African blacks faced legal restrictions on kinds of jobs they can
obtain & businesses they could operate
o South African blacks faced frequent harassment by police
Case of apartheid is extreme
Dominant groupin many casescan be very large or dominant group is same size as
subordinate group
Throughout most of 20th century, European whites constituted large proportion of
total population in U.S. w/ racially disadvantaged groups at much smaller sizes
In case of gender, men & women are approximately equal in size

3. Why do institutions influence social life?

Second dimension of social structure: powers of institutions
Institutions: enduring customs of social life, ex: religion, institution of marriage,
government agencies, schools
Institutions are critical to how social world is organized
Individuals are members of social groups & involved (voluntarily or involuntarily) w/
wide range of social & political institutions
Enduring customs as institutions
What are some examples of enduring customs that have been institutionalized?
Institutions emerge whenever groups of people begin to try to formalized social
relationships & ensure their continuity over time
Ex: organized religion
Institutionalized: formalized; occurs when beliefs become systematically spread
People start writing down ideas & electing specific people to teach them & build specific
places where they can be read/studied
Religion came to be organized as formal role & rules are formed
Religion became institutionalizedvia religious texts, places of worship,
organized into religious traditions, denominations, individual places of worship
(churches, temples)
Process of institutionalization seen in development of schools & educational systems
Teaching & learning existed from beginning of human civilization in some form
o Parents educate children necessary skills for survivalhunting, food
gathering, agriculture

Civilizations eventually decided that learning could be facilitated by bringing

children together in groups
First schools appeared & established concrete curriculum (structure of
coursework & content of sequence of courses making up program of study in
school or school system)
o Learning began truly institutionalized at this point
Many of earliest schools were founded by religious orders wanting to train religious
Only later did members of elite families begin to see schools as places that could
effectively teach children the arts & knowledge of upper-class life
Much later that rise of mass universal schooling & formal education spread to all
Institutions are creations of human beings & can be reinvented over time
Current struggle over institution of marriage is good example
Gays & lesbians are slowly being allowed same rights to marry as heterosexuals
Potential impact on entire conception of marriage, intimate relationships, status
of same-sex unions
Institutions can be designed to foster more or less equality b/c members of different
groups in social hierarchy
Law & practice of marriage provided definite advantages to men
o Until latter part of 19th century, married women & unmarried women
couldnt own property
o Until 20th century, physical violence inside marriage was rarely treated as
criminal courts of law
Today marriage & divorce laws are far more egalitarian (equal) although most research
finds that men on average fare better financially after divorce than women

Organizations & governments as institutions

What are the institutions of the government critically important to the overall social structure?
Organizations: social networks that are unified by common purpose
Important elements of overall institutional context in any society
Most important organizations: schools, economic institutions of society,
government, military, religion
Most important institutions are those of legal system (including courts, prisons, jails)
Laws specify what we can/cant do & includes set of formal penalties when we
fail to follow the laws
Institutions of government are important in determining overall social structure
Government policy can influence many other institutions in number of ways
Government stands above institutional structure of any societyultimate
expression of powers of institution
o Government is stateall of the agencies & offices of government, legal
system, military, constitution that provides basis for respective roles
o Power of state can change social life, ex: extreme cases of Hitlers Nazi
government in Germany in 1930s-1940s

Dictatorships are extreme, but all states have capacity to determine how wide the gap b/w
individuals is, how many people will live in poverty, how well advantages can be passed
on to children
Governments in richer countries have more resources to influence outcomes
Government policies provide social insurance & social assistancewelfare state
Can reduce amount of poverty & inequality in society or allow higher levels of
poverty & inequality
Countries w/ large welfare states typically impose higher taxes on affluent citizens & set
limits on how wealthy individuals or families can become
Provides benefits for people who are too old to continue working
Provide health insurance for all citizens
Changes very conditions of social life
4. How is social structure linked to social interaction?
Context of social interaction
How does socialization contribute to the creation of roles & norms?
Individuals define themselves via identities required for such social interaction
Some specific processes influence our social identities & forms of interaction
Social structure & social interaction are linked
Role: expectation to do certain things
Organization establishes roles
Having assigned roles allow people to know what they are supposed to do at any
given time
In ideal world, roles complement rather than interfere w/ each other
In real world, roles often overlap
Most efficient workplaces are those where divisions b/w tasks are reduced so people do
lots of different things & shared responsibilities
Roles are powerful aspects of broader social order
Life course: stage of life
When we shift from one life course to another, we are supposed to transition as we age
By growing up, we are expected to alter behavior to fit new roles
People typically adopt roles in appropriate ways that change their behavior
Social roles create one type of instructions or set of clues for individuals
Social norms act as broader set of constraints
o Basic rules of society help us know what is & whats not appropriate
o Norms are related to formal rules of behavior but are not written down
o Rules are straightforward, explicit guidelines whereas norms are
somewhat more ambiguous
Norms & formal rules/laws are important but often violated
Sometimes we can get away w/ petty violations of rules & norms but there are
costs to violations
Violating routine norms can be consequential

o Not acting according to basic norms might cause you to be labeled

weird or abnormal or shunned from social interactions & gatherings
o Ex: getting too close to someone when you talk to them, refusing to stop
shaking someones hand, talking loudly in movie theatre
We have powerful incentives to follow basic rules & norms almostif not allthe time

How does social structure create rules & norms?

Social structures provide processes or mechanisms that reinforce roles & norms
Social hierarchies provide important clues to appropriate behavior
Participation in various institutional settings throughout lives that we learn about &
Socialization: process we are taught & trained to behave in society or in particular social
At heart of transmission of ideas about rules, norms, roles in institutions
Throughout lives, we are constantly being socialize to behave in certain ways
o Begins in familiesparents attempt to teach children a wide range of
different rules & norms
o Continues at every stage of life course & learning from different people
(classmates, teachers, colleagues, bosses, priests, rabbis, imams,
congregants, mass media)
Universal ways in which society imposes itself on us as we grow up:
Children play games & games involve role playing
o Teach children the importance of subscribing to assigned roleeven if for
purposes of game
As children get older, they move from play to structured learning environments
o Children learn about rules & need to conform in daycares, schools, sports,
o Children begin to socialize w/ other children & learn how to get along &
interact w/ others
As they move through school, children learn how to do things that will be
o Includes learning how to take a test or how to write a paper
o Success in mastering activities goes long way in determining outcomes in
Socialization is not something that is simply learned in childhood
Learning & adapting to new situations occurs throughout lives
o Ex: taking new job, participating in new activity/hobby, making new
friends, joining new kind of organization, gaining new skills
o Ex: drivingsimple but universal situation
Not simple process but skill that almost everyone eventually
masters w/ practice
Requires us to learn large set of rules & being able to apply them
in making split-second decisions
We are always learning or adapting to new situations as they arise

o When we take on new roles, we learn new guidelines & rules

French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argued that socialization works most powerfully via
development of a set of specific habitshabitus
We develop a set of understandings about rules & norms that become so ingrained
that they become routine
Habitus guides how we act in the world, respond to situations, tastes, preferences,
skills, & dispositions
o Represents the outcome of various socialization processes we have been
through in our lives
Since people go through different socialization processes, they acquire different habituses
Differences depend on family background
Also depends on particular kinds of institutions (schools, cultural institutions,
museums, theater, film, books) we are exposed to & absorb as we grow up
Habitus is developed over time through our upbringing & socialization experiences
As we spend more time being educated, our routine behavior comes to be second
nature to us
Ex: tying a shoelace
Bourdieus theory of growth of habitus examined how different economic & social
groupsclassesteach their members different kinds of ways of living
Children born into poor families grow up inhabits w/ parents who have little
Middle-class children & very rich/privileged children grow up w/ very different
kinds of habituses
Differences b/w middle & upper classes include everything contained in habitus
tastes, dispositions, ways of carrying yourself
Habitus shows that you belong to a particular group by acting in a specific ways
People growing up in wealthy families might place emphasis on knowing how to
dress & act at dinner party
Someone growing up on farm knows how to milk a cow or track footprints of
Differences in habitus become especially important when we try to move from 1 social
location to another
By the time we reach adulthood, we have developed a set of habits of acting thats hard to
undo or remake
Rich & well-educated children is often right at home w/ high culture products
& ideas and can comfortably interact w/ similar kinds of people
Less economically advantaged child might acquire a good education & learn
something about ways of world might still struggle to appear at home w/ these
same people

Sociological perspective: how responsible are you for your own behavior?
Sociologists refer to process of learning how to behave as socialization
Schools are important institutions when it comes to socialization
Different schools are organized differently & seek to socialize people in different ways

Students who wear uniforms & attend all-girl Catholic school will be socialized
differently than students who attend mixed-gender public school
Socialization occurs throughout life course
Great deal of socialization is about learning rules
When we enter new job or become involved in organization, new forms of
learning occur as we learn about basic ins & outs of new activity or group
Many formal rules & sanctions of legal system remind us of what we can & cant do in
many situations
Formal socialization provided by law has limits
We may obey w/o actively believing that everything legal system tells us is
Churches & religious institutions socialize through ritual & repetitionattempting to
teach moral values & behaviors to followers

Social structure & individual free will

What is at issue in the debate over the relative impact of social structure vs. individual choice?
Revolutions happen, new laws are passed, old ones are overturned, social hierarchies
change shape
People arent robots
Will respond in different & occasionally unpredictable waysdepending on
choices & opportunities confronting them
People do have significant measure of individual choice
Critical question is how to weigh relative impact of social structure vs. individual choice
Especially important debate w/n sociology & contemporary social sciences as
Important b/c thinking about relative impact of social structure vs. individual
choice can impact moral judgments we make about people & their positions in
our society
In society, we accept a certain level of free will & choice but we are limited by structures
Some scholars strongly emphasize the ways in which social structure primarily
determines our individual lives & behaviorstructuralism
Belief that individuals have little agencycapacity to make free choices & exert
their own wills
Structure is connected w/ constraints; agency is connected w/ freedom
o Agency places power in hands of individual
o Structure places power in hands of larger society
Social theorist Karl Marx believed that most important social structureeconomy
Individual behavior was largely determined by ones place w/n economic
Being in different locations in social structure means having different interests
Different interests are basis for a lot of social conflict
Criticism of view of structuralism:

Others emphasize that our lives are not so neatly organizedwe belong to many
different groups, play different roles, are affected by multiple structures exerting
influence on us at once
Ex: For some settings, race might be more important influence than class
o Point made by African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois
In The Souls of Black Folksargued that people inhabit multiple
roles & are located in different hierarchies
Suggested that black Americans identities are complex things w/
multiple strands & no way to simply categorize people
Others argue that too much emphasis on structuralism leads to the inability to
account how changes happen
o If structures determine how we behave, how is it that anything ever
Criticism of heavy emphasis on power of free will & individual agency:
Doesnt account for fact that most things tend to stay the same or change very
o Hierarchies & inequalities tend to persist over generations
Struggle to unify excessive structionalist approaches w/ approaches that leave society &
social structure out altogether
Possible wayconsidering structures as things that enable action
Workplace hierarchies: place limits on what people can do; give individuals a
sense of identity from which their behavior stems
Structures give order to society & w/o order action is impossible
5. Why are social structures slow to change?
Endurance of social structures
Hallmark features of social structures is their endurance

Path dependency
Why are path-dependent processes so powerful?
Path dependency: was in which outcomes of past impact actors & organizations in the
Makes some choices or outcomes logical & others illogical
Social structures persist in past b/w earlier departments & institutionalization make it
much easier for individual to work w/n them than try to rip them apart
Ex: QWERTY keyboard
o Nothing in their right mind would invent a keyboard laid out this way w/
many of the commonly used letters placed in hard-to-reach locations
o Yet, attempts to replace QWERTY keyboard failed
o To use the computer, everyone basically learns to navigate the keyboard
o Switching to better-designed keyboard will be initially time consuming &
costly, requiring to master the others keyboard
Path dependency rests on idea that pathsonce adoptedare extraordinarily difficult to
What has happened in past sets limits on what is possible today or in the future

Deeply historical process & is tied up w/ how, why & when particular institutions
take root
Particular paths are sometimes established for accidental reasons while others emerge in
specific historical moments
United States Constitutionexample of how particular pathway to modern social
structure & society was influenced by single key event
Created by group of menmeeting in 1787 who eventually settled on a document
that has continuously provided foundation for modern American governance
Contains numerous of features that shaped American politics ever seenset up
institutions of democracy that made it difficult for more than 2 political parties to
win elections to Congress
o U.S. electrons for Congress takes place in either districts (House elections)
or individual states (Senate elections)
o Each district or state elects the person who gets the most votes
Existing major parties (Democratic & Republican since Civil War) are too
powerful & efforts to change system have failed
Constitution granted unusual powers to legal system & courts, gave exceptional
powers to state governments
Racial hierarchy in Americaevolved slowly over longer periods of time
Late 19th centurydominant white racial category limited to European whites
from Northern European Protestant countries (later known as WASPswhite
Anglo-Saxon Protestants)
Immigrants from Catholic countries (from Ireland & Italy) & Jews & growing
numbers from Eastern Europe had light skin tone but were subject to many
negative stereotypes
Eventually, racial hierarchy was flexible to expand definition of white to include
all groups (except African Americans)
o Hierarchies can adapt while retaining their importancemaintaining
black/nonblack distinction
o Immigrant Europeans excluded from whiteness choose to struggle to be
included in dominant racial category rather than trying to eliminate race

Why social structures are sticky

Social structures tend to persist over time for number of concrete reasons:
Political reason: once a particular element of social structure comes to be
established, it often generates its own interest groups
o Interest groups: organizations established to promote concerns of group or
business corporations
Will fight to protect & extend existing social arrangement when
they are viewed as beneficial to their members
Works in case of social hierarchiesmembers of dominant group
have strong incentives to maintain their privileges
Broad public support for existing hierarchies & institutions or fearing
consequences of completely starting over

o More comfortable living in worlds we know & trying to make them better
than opting for radically new world
Not everyone is averse to change & peopleunder extreme &
unusual conditionsdo opt to try to tear down parts of social
structure rather than reform it
o More often than not, individuals & groups reinforce social structure by
reforming parts that are not working rather than tearing it down
Conclusion: link b/w social structure & social problems
Karl Marx: our ability to act & choices we make are limited by the circumstances in
which we find ourselves
We are continually making choices shaped by the hierarchies & institutions in our
Social structures have positive & negative features
Positive b/c social life is possible w/ some social structures
o W/o social structures (in cases of extreme social disorder like natural
disaster or brutal war), structures are broken down & people begin rioting
o Social structures provide order & rhythm to daily life
Negative b/c can be rigid & allow some groups to exploit or dominate others
o Possibility of true equality of opportunity & fairness might be undermined
o Some groups enjoy advantages not shared by others
When social institutions fail to adapt to changing external conditions, they threaten our
Modern economic systems thrived on ever-growing levels of production & consumption
Governments work hard to maximize both
Understanding social structures is central to larger project of sociological imagination
Sociologists pay attention to understanding different elements of social structure
Try to see where & why the elements limit possibilities for improving human
Only by understanding underlying structures can we then make meaningful progress on
social problems