Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term “social structure” has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis within differing sub-fields of sociology. On the macro scale, it can refer to the system of socioeconomic stratification (e.g., the class structure), social institutions, or, other patterned relations between large social groups. On the meso scale, it can refer to the structure of social network ties between individuals or organizations. On the micro scale, it can refer to the way norms shape the behavior of actors within the social system.
These meanings are not always kept separate. For example, recent scholarship by John Levi Martin has theorized that certain macro-scale structures are the emergent properties of micro-scale cultural institutions (this meaning of “structure” resembles that used by anthropologistClaude Lévi-Strauss). Marxist sociology also has a history of mixing different meanings of social structure, though it has done so by simply treating the cultural aspects of social structure as epiphenomena of its economic ones.
Since the 1930s, the term has been in general use in social science, especially as a variable whose sub-components needed to be distinguished in relationship to other sociological variables.