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social rights

– see rights.

social role

The concept social role refers to the repertoire of

possible behaviors associated with social position

in cooperative relations, that is social standing

or social status. The terms role and status are

associated, on the one hand, with functionalism

in sociology, put forward by Talcott Parsons and

Robert K. Merton, and, on the other hand, with

symbolic interactionism, associated with George

Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman. Whereas the

functionalist notion of role emphasizes socially

prescribed behavioral and attitudinal expectations

that attach to a particular status, symbolic

interactionist understandings of role focus on

the elaboration of practices available to a role

incumbent. Neither approach has much currency

in sociology today. Indeed, the term role is more

likely to be used in everyday conversation than

in sociological writing. There are a number of

reasons for this. First, the co-relative concept of

status has been diminished since the mid twentieth

century. If it survives at all it refers to

social psychology social role


position in a scheme of social stratification, and

the associated conditions are unequal distributions

of resources not roles. Also, in a social climate

of supposed individual autonomy, the

concept of role has come to suggest a much higher

degree of plasticity than the notion of social status

itself could permit. In late capitalist society, roles

appear to be freely chosen, and their performance

determined solely by the personal interpretations

their incumbents invent. Here the social

character of status is almost totally lost through

the highly ideological connotations that have

attached themselves to the role concept.


social sciences

Theoretically, methodologically, and institutionally

broad-ranging and diverse in character, the

social sciences aimat nothing less than the analysis

and understanding of human society. In pursuit of

this goal, social scientists have studied the structures,

practices, and processes of many elements of

society including, inter alia, its economy, religion,

law (see law and society), politics, language, and

beliefs; how these are manifested in the daily lives

of people, in both their mentality and their social

actions; and how individuals are socialized into the

ways of acting and believing which enable them

to be competent members of that society. This

breadth has given rise to the study of a multitude

of specific phenomena, ranging from broad largescale

issues such as the class structure of societies

and patterns of advantage and disadvantage, to

very specific detailed matters such as how conversationalists

organize their turns at speaking in a


Some social science disciplines are motivated by

specific fields of interest, for example, in the case of

politics and economics, while others are driven by a

more synthetic approach, as in the case of anthropology

or sociology. While some of its disciplines

are comparatively new as distinct perspectives, for

example, social psychology, all of them can trace

the origins of their ideas and investigative practices

to much earlier periods. Every discipline can find a

classical precursor when necessary, and many lay

claim to the same figures even though nowadays

they are often seen to be quite distinct. While

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) is most often seen as

a figure of importance within the field of politics, it

is quite easy to see within his work many psychological

and sociological claims that are reflected in

contemporary work. More recently, Karl Marx is

seen as a precursor for more or less every social

science discipline, according to some.

The disciplinary specialization we see nowadays

is very much a phenomenon of the period from

the late nineteenth century onwards. It is often

decried as inhibiting the proper study of social

phenomena, and interdisciplinarity repeatedly

comes into vogue. However, the institutional, professional,

and theoretical positions of many social

scientists ensure that the disciplines have become

a fixed and enduring fact of life. This will

continue to be the case as long as the social sciences

do not have an agreed position on what

constitutes secure knowledge and how it might

be acquired, as is to be found within the natural

sciences. The comparative success of the latter

has led some to success by imitating its practices.

Others, in contrast, have sought to prove on

a-priori grounds that any such project for the

discovery of secure social scientific knowledge

is bound to fail. These led to one British government

minister requiring the United Kingdom

Social Science Research Council to change its

name on the grounds that there could be no

such thing as a social science. Ironically, the idea

of evidence-based policy is very much in favor in

the United Kingdom nowadays, but the name has

not been changed back again.

Specifying the boundaries of the social sciences

can also be problematic. On the one hand, many

disciplines have components that clearly sit

within and without, for example, psychology, history,

and law. Some of these have elsewhere been

characterized as more properly called the “human

sciences.” On the other hand, other disciplines,

most notably biology, have sought to arrogate to

themselves the explanation of social phenomena

such as violence, aggression, and competition,

and thereby deny a role for the social sciences.

Ultimately, the quintessential social sciences

are synthetic disciplines such as sociology and

anthropology, but it is quite clear that many of

the phenomena they seek to explain are in part

dependent on biological and other phenomena

that currently lie outside their remit. A successful

social science will be one that finds the basis of

a felicitous integration of cultural, historical, and

biological accounts. DAVID GOOD

social status

This term is used in three analytical contexts

with quite different meanings. In the analysis of

social structure and differentiation, social status

refers to (1) a position in social relations (for

example student, parent, or priest) that is socially

recognized and normatively regulated. This generic

usage is often contrasted with a more specific

social sciences social status


one, associated with sociological studies of inequalities,

and meaning, (2) a hierarchical position

in a vertical social order, an overall social

rank, standing, and social worth. In this context,

individual statuses are associated with privileges

and discriminations. Finally, in contemporary

studies of social stratification, especially those

inspired by Max Weber, social status refers to

(3) an aspect of hierarchical location in the social

order derived from established cultural conventions

(traditional beliefs and popular creeds). It

is contrasted with class (market position in the

economic order) and party (authority or command

position in the political/organizational order). In

this Weberian context, hierarchical status positions

reflect the unequal conventional distribution

of honor (esteem) and the accompanying life

chances, while class positions reflect unequal distribution

of market endowments and the accompanying

lifechances. The occupants of these

positions form status groups characterized by

common lifestyles, tastes, social proximity, and

intermarriage. Traditional aristocracies, ethnoracial

groups, and lifestyle communities, such as

“yuppies,” are all examples of status groups. In

Edward Shils’s view (Center and Periphery, 1975),

all societies engender status inequalities, and

these inequalities reflect distance from the center

which represents the shared value standards. This

echoes E´mile Durkheim’s proposition that status

represents a distance from “the sacred” – the symbolic

representations of society (see sacred and

profane dichotomy). This link with the sacred

gives strong legitimacy to status distinctions.

Status group members reinforce these distinctions

by claiming monopolies over certain privileges,

titles, occupational roles, and styles of dress.

The penetration of traditional status distinctions

into the fabric of modern society was the

main theme of Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the

Leisure Class (1899). Social esteem enjoyed by the

upper strata, argued Veblen, did not depend on

their wealth or power; it had to be earned through

conventional social practices, in particular the

avoidance of vulgar forms of labor, especially services,

engagement in “vicarious leisure,” and conspicuous

consumption. Earning and cultivating

esteem was a task pursued by families, rather

than individuals. While the paterfamilias led and

provided, his wife and children cultivated social


The processes of modernization have weakened

status conventions and undermined established

status hierarchies. The social distance scores –

the most popular sociological measures of status

divisions between ethno-racial categories – have

been showing a steady decline since they were

first applied in the 1920s. However, new status

hierarchies and divisions emerge around occupations,

citizenship (or lack of it), and civic activism,

as well as cultural consumption, tastes, and lifestyles.

Thus the occupational status rankings and

occupational prestige scales, constructed mainly

by American sociologists, show a change, rather

than a decline. The old arguments about the salience

of race and ethnicity, and gender as the key

determinants of social status were supplemented

by new arguments about the importance of education,

civic/citizenship status, consumption, and

taste. New theories of status, principally in the

work of European sociologists, such as Bryan S.

Turner in Status (1988), re-opened the issue of the

role of the modern state in managing status inequalities

by granting citizenship rights to all

its members. Turner followed in the footsteps of

Thomas H. Marshall in exploring the expansion

of citizenship rights, and he pointed to an expansion

of more universalistic human rights in

the context of globalizing trends. Efforts to identify

the new status hierarchies of consumption

and taste were fueled by Pierre Bourdieu, especially

in Distinction (1979 [trans. 1984]). Bourdieu

purposefully fused (some critics say conflated)

status and class, and highlighted the importance

of gender, race and ethnicity as core status distinctions.

His book on masculinities (Masculine Domination,

1998 [trans. 2000]) carries indelibly the

signature of his distinguished predecessor and

countryman, Durkheim. Bourdieu, like Durkheim,

saw status inequalities as constituted hierarchically

through collective representations and symbolic

classifications in relation to the “legitimate

culture” – a close equivalent to the sacred in classic

Durkheimian analyses. While popular, studies

of taste and consumption illustrate the numerous

difficulties in constructing synthetic status hierarchies

with more than local scope and applicability.

There seems to be an agreement among contemporary

sociologists that the key determinants

of social status (standing, esteem, and prestige) in

advanced societies are occupation/class, education/

skill, race/ethnicity, gender, citizenship, and

cultural consumption. They show quite different

dynamics. While the ascribed and traditional

sources of status distinction (primarily race and

gender) decline in importance, the status-leveling

impact of citizenship continues, and the statusstratifying

impact of education and cultural consumption

have been increasing. There also seems

to be an agreement that postmodern trends

social status social status


weaken further traditional status distinctions and

blur status hierarchies. The hierarchies of consumption

and taste, in particular, seem to fragment

and decompose. They show less clarity,

stability, and anchoring in “communal norms

and values” than the old status divisions. Lifestyles

are so diverse and fickle that they defy attempts

at a clear status ordering – the point made

by all students of postmodernization. The new

status hierarchies based on consumption and lifestyle

are fragmenting under the impact of value

polytheism, rampant consumerism, and increasing

commercial pressures. Intense social mobility,

combined with the increased interpenetration of

diverse value systems (and tastes) that accompanies

globalization, also contribute to blurring and

fragmentation of status hierarchies in advanced

societies. JAN PAKULSKI

social stratification

Social stratification is usually contrasted with

social differentiation. Differentiation involves

the formation of horizontal social divisions; stratification

involves vertical (hierarchical) ranking

of social strata. Some sociologists also contrast

stratification, which implies gradation, with

social class divisions, which are seen as polar

and antagonistic. Stratification implies persistent

gradation of social classes, occupational groups,

and ethno-racial categories. Strata may be nominal,

constructed by sociologists, or real, reflecting

actual social distances. Real strata are divided

by social distances and systematic exclusions.

Sociologists also distinguish closed stratification

systems, such as the Hindu caste system, from

open ones, such as modern occupational/class

systems. In the former, social mobility is discouraged

and restricted by traditional conventions.

In the latter, mobility is typical, intense, and socially

approved. In the functional theory of stratification,

sociologists portray stratification as

socially beneficial and consensual. Conflict theorists

perceive stratification as contested and accompanied

by domination. Marxists see it as an

outcome of economic exploitation engendered

in class relations, while Weberians treat it as

an outcome of multifaceted domination in

combination with socioeconomic class, sociocultural

status and sociopolitical power/authority


Modern stratification systems are open – social

mobility is frequent and expected – and they

emphasize achieved characteristics, such as

education/knowledge, skills, performance, and

experience. They are also increasingly complex,

with various criteria and dimensions of stratification

interacting and cross-cutting each other. The

rankings of individuals and groups in various dimensions

of social hierarchies seldom coincide,

thus resulting in status inconsistency. The most

popular representation of modern stratification

systems is in the form of national occupational

status gradations, often scaled. Such status

schemes prove most popular in the United States;

European sociologists seem to prefer synthetic

occupational class maps. While there is a wide

consensus that occupational and employment statuses

form the backbone of modern stratification,

it is accepted that social strata may also develop

around other assets and locations:

• political influence, authority (as in Ralph

Dahrendorf );

• ethno-racial status, prestige (as in W. Lloyd

Warner or Edward A. Shils);

• education, skills, human capital, expert knowledge

(as in Gary Becker and Daniel Bell);

• social networks, ties, social capital (as in

James S. Coleman);

• “cultural capital,” taste, lifestyle, gender (as

in Pierre Bourdieu);

• rights, entitlements, privileges (as in Bryan S.


Contemporary students of social stratification

typically combine class, occupational status, and

authority dimensions into synthetic gradations

(stratification schemes and class maps). Anthony

Giddens (The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies,

1973) and Ralph Dahrendorf (The Modern Social

Conflict, 1988), for example, draw stratification

maps that include occupational classes, elites,

and socially marginalized strata (underclasses).

Similarly, John Goldthorpe (Social Mobility and

Class Structure in Modern Britain, 1987) synthesizes

class and occupational schemes into an elevenclass

map. Erik Olin Wright (Class Counts, 1997), in

turn, juxtaposes class analysis to a study of race

and gender stratification. His class/stratification

schemes also incorporate the dimensions of managerial

control and skill/expertise. Finally, Bell

(The Coming of Post Industrial Society, 1973) and

Gøsta Esping-Anderson (Changing Classes, 1993) accommodate

in their postindustrial class maps

the dimension of power/authority (elite or political

directorate), economic integration, and citizenship

rights (outsiders and underclass). With

advancing globalization, many sociologists see

the whole world as stratified, typically along the

economic/developmental and power dimensions.

Thus the dependency and world-system theorists

distinguish the global power strata between

social stratification social stratification


countries of the core, semi-periphery, and

periphery. J AN PAKULSK I

social structure

The product of human agency, social structures

express the fact that what people intend should

never be confused with what results.

Premodern thought is basically structural in

character. People act through social roles that

determine their action, and great stress is laid

upon executing a particular role according to the

norms governing it. A male feudal lord is expected

to act quite differently from, say, a female servant.

These structures are seen as timeless, and are

usually ascribed to the creative interventions of a

higher divinity.

With the onset of modernity, all this dramatically

changes. People are presented as individuals

who can choose which role they play and change

from one role to another. Structures seemingly

dissolve into agency, so that what matters is the

will of individuals to alter the world in which they

find themselves. The problem with this position

is that not only is agency presented abstractly –

that is, as outside society – but the same abstract

force that enables some to be actors condemns

others to passivity. Hence the classical liberals

limited the notion of the individual to men who

owned property, were Protestants, and had the

correct ethnicity. Timeless structures had not disappeared

– they were merely assigned to others.

The emphasis upon agency and the individual

is important, but it needs to be linked dynamically

and historically to the notion of structure.

People became conscious actors not simply because

they had changed their ideas, but because

they acquired through the market the wealth

that enabled them to command the services of

others. They may have imagined that social structures

simply affected others – women, the poor,

the residents of the colonies, and so forth. But

this is an illusion. The market is itself a social

structure and, as such, dictates to beneficiaries

and victims alike how they are to conduct themselves.

Social structures are the product of agency.

Without conscious action, there would be no

structures. But what makes a practice structural

is that the patterning which results has implications

and imposes constraints that correspond

only imperfectly to the intentions of those who

created them.

The structural argument that people enter

into social relations independent of their will

cannot mean that these relations are the product

of automatons – creatures without intention

and purpose. What it means is that the result of

activities undertaken is never the same as the

intention of those who undertook those activities:

it is this gap between intention and consequence

that creates the structural character of activity.

It is not that these structures are brought about

by the will of some higher power: they are creations

of human activity, but human activity in

which intention and result never coincide.

Being aware of this makes it possible to try and

organize our activities with greater consideration

of their likely consequences. It is, however, a mistake

to imagine that any society, no matter how

enlightened and well regulated, can extinguish

the gulf between intention and result, since

the fallibility of humans and the complexity of

social practices make it inevitable that agency

and structure will remain distinct. JOHN HOF FMAN

social systems

– see social systems theory.

social systems theory

The theory of social systems was strongly influenced

by systems theory in other fields, especially

cybernetics, engineering, and biology. General

system theory was particularly influential in the

1950s and 1960s. It was proposed by the biologist

Ludwig von Bertalanffy (1901–72) as the basis of

a unified science, avoiding the older mechanistic

view of physical science under which it had

proven difficult to include the human sciences.

The basic postulate of any systems theory is

that the particular phenomenon under investigation

is made up of elements and parts that are

organized and interdependent. This organized

interdependence is what constitutes a system,

and it operates as a relatively bounded entity in

interaction with an environment. System theorists

are interested both in the organization of the

system and in the organization of its relations

with its environment. Emphasis is upon selfregulation

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