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Social Structure in Global Perspective

Modern societies are complex, especially compared to earlier social arrangements. Sociologists’ Émile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tonnies, and Gerhard Lenski developed ways to contrast modern societies with simpler forms of social structure. In his Division of Labor Durkheim argued that social structure depends on the division of labor in a society on the manner in which tasks are performed. Thus, a task such as providing food can be carried out almost totally by one individual, or it can be divided among many people. The latter pattern is typical of modern societies, in which the cultivation, processing, distribution, and retailing of a single food item are performed by literally hundreds of people.

In societies in which there is minimal division of labor, a collective consciousness develops that emphasizes group solidarity. Durkheim termed this collective frame of mind mechanical solidarity, implying that all individuals perform the same tasks. Each person prepares food, hunts, makes clothing, builds homes, and so forth. Because people have few options regarding what to do with their lives, there is little concern for individual needs. Instead, the group is the dominating force in society. Both social interaction and negotiation are based on close, intimate, face-to-face social contacts. Since there is little specialization, there are few social roles.

As societies become more advanced technologically, they rely on greater division of labor, so that no individual can go it alone. Dependence on others becomes essential for group survival. In Durkheim’s terms, mechanical solidarity is replaced by organic solidarity, a collective consciousness resting on the need a society’s members have for one another. Durkheim chose the term organic solidarity because in his view, individuals become interdependent in much the same way as organs of the human body. In Ferdinand Tonnies view, the city marked a dramatic change from the ideal of a close-knit community, which he termed a Gemeinschaft, to that of an impersonal mass society, known as a Gesellschaft.

The Gemeinschaft is typical of rural life. It is a small community in which people have similar backgrounds and life experiences. Virtually everyone knows one another, and social interactions are intimate and familiar, almost as among kinfolk. In this community there is a commitment to the larger social group and a sense of togetherness among members.

Social control in the Gemeinschaft is maintained through informal means such as moral persuasion, gossip, and even gestures. These techniques work effectively because people genuinely care how others feel about them. Social change is relatively limited in the Gemeinschaft; the lives of members of one generation may be quite similar to those of their grandparents.

In contrast, the Gesellschaft is an ideal community that is characteristic of modern urban life. In this community most people are strangers who feel little in common with other residents. Relationships are governed by social roles that grow out of immediate tasks, such as purchasing a product or arranging a business meeting. Self-interest dominates, and there is little consensus concerning values or commitment to the group. As a result, social control must rest on more formal techniques, such as laws and legally defined punishments. Social change is an important aspect of life in the Gesellschaft. Sociologists have used these terms to compare social structures that stress close relationships with those that emphasize less personal ties.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski takes a very different view of society and social structure. He sees human societies as undergoing a process of change characterized by a dominant pattern known as sociocultural evolution. This term refers to long-term social trends resulting from the interplay of continuity, innovation, and selection. In Lenski’s view, a society’s level of technology is critical to the way it is organized. Lenski defines technology as “cultural information about the ways in which the material resources of the environment may be used to satisfy human needs and desires”. The available technology does not completely define the form that a particular society and its social structure take. Nevertheless, a low level of technology may limit the degree to which a society can depend on such things as irrigation or complex machinery. As technology advances, Lenski writes, a community evolves from a preindustrial to an industrial and finally a postindustrial society.