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Social Organization

July 17, 2017
by Russ Long

I.     Definition of Social Organization

Charon (1986:110) contends that social organization refers to patterns of social interaction. Within organization, expectations become more fixed. Actors agree on important matters affecting interaction and control themselves so that cooperation can occur. The patterns that characterize social interaction (i.e., organization) have developed over time. Generally speaking, the longer the patterns exist, the more expectations become fixed. At some point certain organizations eventually come to wield great power within society.

This paper explores various levels of organization. It first investigates the smallest level of social organization, the dyads, first. It then proceeds to subsequently larger forms of organization. After dyads are discussed, it explores small groups. Formal organization follows groups, then communities, nation states and finally world-system. Much attention is paid to groups and formal organization. Bureaucracy is an especially salient issue for nearly everyone worldwide. The larger levels of organization (i.e., the world system) are dealt within the fourth part of the course.

II.     The Smallest Level of
Social Organization: Dyads

The dyad is the smallest level of organization that exists. Dyads consist of two people.

A unique feature of dyads is that each individual in the dyad has total veto power over any aspect of the relationship (Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:84).

III.     Groups

A.     General Characteristics of Groups

1.     A Group Consists of People Who Interact and Form Social Patterns

A group is at least one person larger than a dyad. It has three or more people. Groups are different from dyads in that they depend less on the individual actor for continuity.

2.     Increases in Size Equals Loss of Freedom

As the group grows in numbers, the individual freedom of any particular member is de-emphasized. Furthermore, as the group grows in size, more emphasis is put on the well-being of the group.

3.     Interaction Reaffirms Social Patterns

Groups depend on interaction to affirm and reaffirm social patterns. The strength of patterns in the group depends on the history of the interaction. Usually, the longer the group exists, the stronger the bonds become.

4.     Groups Contribute to Larger Organization

Social organization at the "formal level" is sufficiently large that continuous interaction among all actors is impossible. Even in large organizations interaction between individuals still occurs in small groups. The interaction of small groups within the frame work of larger organizations reaffirms the social patterns of the larger social organizations.

5.     Groups Define Reality for the Individual

The group's definition of reality is a pattern that the individual assumes. The individual forms expectations about the world through group involvement. One learns within the group what the important issues are and the guide lines (the rules) that the group expects you to live by.

The Asch Line Experiment

Andersen & Taylor (2001:123) notes that the Asch Conformity Experiments builds on the perception that social influence is strong enough to make us behave in ways that would normally cause us discomfort. The Asch Conformity study finds that group pressure is even stronger than the weight of objective evidence. Group pressure could persuade an individual to say a short line was longer than an obviously longer line.


Group Think

Henslin (2006:128) describes group think as the tendency for a group to reach a consensus opinion, even if that decision is downright stupid.   Groupthink describes "collective tunnel vision" that group members sometimes develop.  Groupthink occurs when group member think alike.  The tend to think that their perspective is right and correct.  Any descent is seen as disloyalty.  Descent is, therefore discouraged.  Because the group allows little critique, it proceeds down dangerous paths ignoring alternatives.


The Milgram Study

Andersen & Taylor ( 2001:124-5) describe the Milgram study as an investigation into the obedience to authority. 

The Milgram Study showed that substantial number of people will inflict pain on other's if ordered to do so by a person in a position of authority (Henslin, 2008:133-4).

B.     Primary Groups

There are two broad categories of groups. There are primary groups and secondary groups. Primary groups generally form around family and close friends. Individuals receive most early or primary socialization in primary groups. Primary groups are most responsible for determining who you are. Primary groups are where close people form emotional ties. Socialization that occurs in primary groups is responsible for most later interaction and socialization (see Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:71).

1.     Hippy Cultures

Although many young people tried to "drop out" during the 1960s, most had returned to the middle-class life styles of their parents within ten years.

2.     Five Characteristics of The Primary Group

  1. Primary groups involve face to face interaction.
  2. The interaction is unspecialized. It exists to fulfill a wide rage of personal needs.
  3. Bonds that form within the primary group are relatively permanent.
  4. Primary groups are small.
  5. They are intimate. The primary group is characterized by a sense of "we." There is an emotional commitment to the whole rather than to the individual or to the specific goals of an individual member. The well-being of the group itself is, in a sense, the goal (Like the family).

3.     The Gang As a Primary Group

What happens when traditional primary groups are unavailable for the individual [like young children]? Frederick Thrasher (1963) demonstrates the importance of gangs in this regard. Thrasher considers gangs as part of normal development in poor neighborhoods although gangs tended to contribute to antisocial behavior (like crime). Thrasher considers gangs as primary groups because they take on the major responsibilities for socialization of individuals whose need's traditional families did not meet. Thrasher noted that although gangs taught illegitimate means of self-actualization, the skills learned within gangs were necessary for survival. Furthermore, status accrued to individuals because of their gang related activities in their immediate neighborhood. Within the gang, illegitimate goals (as seen from societies stand point) become legitimate for the gang members.

C.     Secondary groups

1.     The Characteristics of Secondary Groups

  1. Secondary groups are more impersonal.
  2. They are more specialized (i.e., goal oriented).
  3. They are more temporary.
  4. They are usually larger.
  5. They require less of an emotional commitment.
  6. The are informal.

Example:  Part-time waiters in a college dinning hall.

2.     Reference Groups

Reference groups represent the standards people use to evaluate themselves and others. They can include the family, members of a church, people in the neighborhood, teachers, classmates, or co-workers (see Henslin, 1999:153).

3.     In-Group Vs. Out-Group

The in-groups are the groups which an individual feels loyalty toward. They provide a sense of identification or belonging.  The out group is the group that has individual feels antagonism toward (Henslin, 1999:152).

4.     Cliques, Networks, and Networking

a.     Cliques

People don't usually communicate with all members of large groups. Cliques are small factions of close associates that operate within larger groups (Henslin, 1999:154).

b.     Social Networks

The links between an individual and his or her cliques, family, close friends and other acquaintances make up an individual's social network (Henslin, 1999:154).

c.     Networking

Sociologists refer to the conscious use or cultivation of networks as networking.  Networking refers to using social networks to establish a circle of friends usually for career advancement (Henslin, 1999:155).

D.     Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Under the topic of Urban Sociology, Toennies (in Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:406) contends that the overall approach that people use to communicate with one another has shifted from primary types relationships to secondary type relationships.

1.     Gemeinschaft

Before the onslaught of industrialization and urbanization human relationships were characterized by Gemeinschaft.  Life was carried out in rural communities.   Relationships were intimate.  Citizens in rural areas possessed a strong sense of family. Powerful folkways and mores kept people in line as did a strong sense of religious commitment. 

The Amish represent a Gemeinschaft community.

Mechanical Solidarity

The key to social cohesion in gemeinschaft type communities (i.e., the degree to which members of a society feel united by shared values and other social bonds) lies in what Durkheim called mechanical solidarity.  Durkheim noted how people performed similar tasks and developed a shared consciousness that united the community.  An agricultural society is an example.  The members of the community have so much in common that they know how most others feel about life (Henslin, 2004:93).

2.     Gesellschaft

As industrialization transformed human lives from that which was rural to that which is urban, human relationships shifted to a state of gesellschaft.  Relationships became more impersonal.  Society witnesses a breakdown in traditional family arrangements.   Behavior was governed, not by religious commitment, but rather by impersonal calculation and public opinion.

Organic Solidarity

As society gets larger, tasks become more specialized. People come to depend on each other for the work that each contributed to the whole.  Organic solidarity is based, not on similarity, but on interdependence (Henslin, 2004:93).

IV.     Formal Organizations

Formal organizations include churches, clubs, schools, armies, colleges, the IRS, and hospitals.

A.     Characteristics of Formal Organizations

Characteristics of formal organizations include:

  1. Impersonal interaction among group members.
  2. As groups grow in size, they make objectives explicit in writing (e.g., they become more formal).
  3. Formal organizations are created to work toward specified goals. When they meet goals, the individual moves on.

B.     Three Types of Formal Organizations

There are three types of formal organizations according to Amitai Etzioni (1961).

1.     Coercive Organizations

Coercive organizations rely on force to achieve order. Force is necessary because people tend to resist being a part of the organization. Examples are prisons and mental hospitals (see Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:88).

2.     Utilitarian Organizations

Utilitarian organizations see individuals conforming to organization standards because organizations pay them to be a part of that organization. Of course, most jobs are utilitarian (see Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:88).

3.     Normative Organizations

Normative organizations are based on a shared moral commitment. People conform to the organizations standards out of a positive sense of obligation. Normative organizations include political parties, religious organizations, and fraternities (see Appelbaum and Chambliss, 1997:88).

V.     Bureaucracy

A.     The Development of Formal Social Structure: Division of Labor

The impact of social structure is great indeed! Durkheim, in his epic work, The Division of Labor in Society (1983) maintained "as society becomes larger and more complex, there is a vast increase in the interdependence among its members as the labor needed to feed, house, educate, communicate with, transport, care for, and defend them becomes more complex" (in Kornblum, 1988:160). Durkheim argued that the increasing complexity was an advantage for any society because it gave the members of society more choice and, therefore, more freedom.

Much of Durkheim's work centers on social organization. Social organization means, on one hand, that the individual has to give up a certain amount of individual freedom. On the other hand, people are not overly concerned about losing that freedom. By the time they are a part of an organization, organizations have socialized them to accept the rules and goals of the organization as their own. Individuals ultimately offer a great amount of respect to organizations. People define themselves through the organizations to which they belong.

B.     Freedom from a Durkheimian Point of View

Durkheim raised the point that the freedom an individual experiences depends on the level of social organization (order). Imagine a condition where no reliable organization exists. Without organization a state of anarchy would prevail. Individuals would lose the safety provided by organization and would thus lose their freedom. On the other hand, too much organization, like that found in fascist states, likewise places extreme limits on the freedom of individuals. With the latter, the individual can experience too much order.

No system of organization is perfect with respect to guaranteeing freedom. Democracy may facilitate human freedom and emancipation, but freedom does not automatically flow from democracy. American style democracy, for example, confronts one with what Tocqueville called the "tyranny of the majority." In a democracy, once the voting is over, the minority (those who lost the vote) must abide by the decision of the majority. (Ex: The debate concerning abortion issues highlights this kind of dilemma). Despite the problematic aspects of democracy, it appears that a moderate amount of organization is most desirable.

Another freedom-limiting problem associated with developing social structure revolves around the possibility that so many choices may overwhelm the. Furthermore, as the division of labor becomes complex, certain groups find themselves with greater or lesser access to the higher levels of the system. Inequality becomes institutionalized.

C.     General Features Associated with Developing Social Structure

  1. As society becomes more complex, the social structure becomes increasingly formal. Positions within structure become more clearly defined, often in writing.
  2. Categories within the organization become more differentiated. Jobs become specialized and a greater variety of jobs are the result. There is also an increase in "vertical differentiation." In other words, there are more layers across which an individual can advance.
  3. Power within the structure becomes increasingly centralized. Initially organizational business, such as problem control and policy implementation happened informally. As organization becomes more complex, policy becomes explicitly stated that covers all situations that might arise.

Iron Law of Oligarchy?

Appelbaum & Chambliss (1997:91)defines the iron law of oligarchy as an inevitable tendency for large-scale bureaucratic organizations to become dominated by a small, self-perpetuating elite.

D.     A Weberian Analysis of Bureaucracy

Max Weber is renowned for his analysis of bureaucracies. He interprets the features that evolve within social structure as an attempt to make organizations more rational. Weber contends that as social structure becomes more complex, people turn away from policies based on tradition, customs, emotions, and personal values to policies based on efficiency and rationality


Rationalism refers to the careful calculation of practical results. Calculated rules and procedures characterize bureaucracies. Bureaucracies allow for more efficient decision making. The acceptance of rules, efficiency, and practical results is the right way to approach human affairs.

McDonaldization of Society

George Ritzer maintains that the organizational features of the fast food industry have gradually seeped into many aspects of human social life. He describes this process as the McDonaldization of Society (Henslin, 2006:118).  Much of life in modern society is "standardized."  

  • We see this feature when ever we visit shopping malls. 

  • We experience standardization when we plan trips through travel agencies.  Everyone gets the same experience.   They eat the same food, have the same sort of travel accommodations, and visit the same tourist spots.

  • When you watch the news, you get the same sort of format regardless of the network you watch.  They cover the same stories.  They give the same sort of points of view.

Efficiency brings dependability and may even lower prices, but we lose spontaneity (Henslin, 2006:118).  There are no more unique experiences.

E.     Characteristics of Bureaucracy

The following characteristics represent an ideal picture of well-running bureaucracies (See Henslin, 1999:171-172).

Ideal Type

Weber coined the term ideal type (Henslin, 1999:173) to describe typical (or pure forms) of rational or bureaucratic organizations. An ideal type is an abstract description that is based on real cases.  The ideal type reveals essential characteristics of those real cases.  

  1. Impersonality: Bureaucracies are a system of offices, not people. People only fill positions.  Offices are filled by incumbents with experience.
  2. Bureaucracies are a hierarchy of offices. There are always superiors with clearly defined authority. Henslin (1999:171) notes that assignments flow downward and accountability flows upward.
  3. A Division of Labor: Each member has specific tasks to fulfill and all the tasks are coordinated to fulfill the purpose of the organization.
  4. Written Rules: Explicit rules govern the offices.
  5. Written Communication and Records: Bureaucracies carry all business out in writing.

F.     The Informal Structure of Bureaucracy

Bureaucracies do not do a very good job handling unusual situations. A peculiar characteristic of formal organization is the creation of informal patterns of communication within the formal organization. The informal network helps in organizational coherence when the organization encounters unusual situations. In fact, informal interaction within a bureaucracy actually makes the bureaucracy more efficient!   Sometimes the informal networks become more important than the formal organization. Often formal rules are "bent" to adjust to "real" situations.   Informal interaction may become necessary because the formal organization becomes inefficient and cannot perform its assigned tasks.

Example: When the Doctor Does not Arrive on Time

In a hospital labor and delivery ward, the doctor (MD) is in charge of delivering babies. Sometimes the MD does not arrive on time and the nurse has to perform the doctor's duties. The nurse's actions technically violates the formal rules of the hospital. The consequences of not violating those rules, however, are obviously catastrophic.

G.     Dysfunction of Bureaucracy

1.     Goal Displacement

Once created, society cannot easily undo bureaucracies. Some times bureaucracy takes on a life of its own. Once a task is completed, it seeks new goals (See Henslin, 1999:174-177).

Example:  March of Dimes shifted it focus  from raising funs to combat polio to raising funds for birth defects research.

2.     Self-serving Bureaucrats

Superiors act to keep their positions. The goals of bureaucrats become self-survival and self-serving.

3.     Loss of Initiative

Bureaucrats become secure in their position and lose their initiative.

4.     Alienation (bureaucratic)

Bureaucrats also lose their initiative because so much of their free-choice is taken away from them. Also at the bottom of organizations, bureaucracies induce a sense of powerlessness and low moral for people who work in the bureaucracy and for those individuals receiving the service.

Example:  when one is at a job and they feel they are viewed as an object rather than a person is experiencing alienation.

Example:  From a Marxian sense, alienation refers to the experience of being cut off from the product of a person's labor resulting in feelings of powerlessness and normlessness.

5.     The Control of a Few

The centralized organizational structure enhances the power of a few individuals. People who are familiar with the rules of how bureaucracies function maintain a sense of "quiet" control over those who have little knowledge of how the system operates.

6.     Red Tape:  Bureaucracies May Become Inefficient

Bureaucracies get choked with rules to the point where they cease to function.  Red tape may impede the purpose of an organization.

7.     Bureaucratic Incompetence - The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle argues that people rise to the level of their incompetence. It suggests that if an individual does a great job at a low level in the bureaucracy, then the organization will promote that person to the next level. If they continue to perform well, they receive yet another promotion. Organizations will promote the individual to higher and higher rungs in the organization until they reach a point where the worker no longer does a good job. At that point the promotions stop, but seldom are the bureaucrats demoted. They tend to stay at the level where they have ceased to be functional.

VI.     MACRO Levels of Social Organization

A.     Communities

  1. Communities are large formal organizations that attain a significant degree of self sufficiency and independence.
  2. A community is a place that can be found on a map.
  3. The community takes care of most basic human needs. Communities address the social, educational, and cultural needs of its members.
  4. A community has an economy and political orientation.
  5. People form most of their personal relationships within the community.

Example: Communes

B.     Society

1.     What is a Society?

Charon (1986:142) indicates that society is a type of social organization. Like dyads and groups, society begins with individuals who interact with one another. Through interaction patterns develop that are much larger than the organizations discussed thus far. Societies are all encompassing. They are simultaneously the longest enduring, the most abstract, and the most all embracing social organization.

On the other hand, it is difficult to specify exactly what a society is. One might argue that a particular society exists where individuals mutually interact with one another and where common social patterns exist.

Example: Where Do People Interact?

People in the U.S. interact with one another on a far more regular basis than they do with people outside the U.S. For example, people in Detroit know more about people in L. A. than they do about people in Montreal although Montreal is much closer to Detroit.

Common patterns make us more similar to one another than we are to other societies. Such patterns may include a common set of laws, customs, a heritage, and a class structure. Sometimes a society shares common values and often it shares a common language. A society's patterns of interaction are difficult to change because of their long history and because of their importance to large segments of the population.

2.     Problems Associated with the Study of Society

a.     You Cannot See Society

Society does not exist in material form. You cannot put your hands on it. Social scientists cannot measure society directly.

b.     Society is a Total Experience

Society surrounds us. To study something, a researcher generally wants to be able to isolate the phenomena. When a sociologist attempts to study society, he immediately becomes a part of the environment that he is attempting to study. His presence alters the phenomena that he is investigating. Example: Alaskan Natives become Anthropologists.

C.     Nation-States and Society

A convenient way to visualize a society is to look at nation-states like the USA, Canada, or the UK (See Chirot, 1986:71-3). It is obvious, however, that using the nation-state as society is flawed when one looks at multi cultural nation-states like Lebanon or stateless societies like Palestine.

D.     The World-System

Some people consider the world as society. With the aid of technological advances in communication and transportation, the world has become more integrated. What happens between nation-states is more the business of the world community now than it once was.


The nuclear power plant in the Ukraine, Oil and Kuwait, WTO, GATT, NAFTA


Appelbaum, Richard P. and William J. Chambliss

1997 Sociology: A Brief Introduction. New York: Longman.

Charon, Joel

1986 Sociology: A Conceptual Approach. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Chirot, Daniel

1986 Social Change In The Modern Era. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich.

Durkheim, Emile

1997 The Division of Labor in Society. Simon and Schuster

Etzioni, Amitai


Henslin, James M.

1999 Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach, (4th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2006 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach,  (6th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

2008 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-To-Earth Approach,  (7th Ed) Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kornblum, William

1988 Sociology in a Changing World. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Thrasher, Frederic Milton

1963 The Gang: A Study of 1,313 Gangs in Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.