Basic Sociological Concepts Society Culture and Social Structure

A society is a large social grouping that shares the same geographical territory, shares a common culture and social structure, and is expected to abide by the same laws.

Two primary components of a society are its culture and its social structure. For those readers unfamiliar with these sociological concepts, I provide a simple description of the main elements of each component.

Culture is defined as “the knowledge, language, values, customs, and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society” (Kendall 2007: 74). Culture includes a society’s norms, sanctions, values, beliefs, symbols, as well as material objects, activities, and technology.

Norms are rules that define which behaviors are appropriate or inappropriate by the standards of a particular society. These rules can take the form of customs or laws.

Sanctions are the rewards for appropriate behaviors or the punishments for inappropriate behaviors. Sanctions can be informal or formal. Formal sanctions are those rewards or punishments that follow rules, guidelines, and procedures for how the reward or punishment should be given. A prison sentence, for example, is a negative, formal sanction.

Values are socially agreed upon ideas about what is right or wrong. When sociologists speak of values, they are often referring to cultural themes such as individualism, nationalism, family, etc.

Beliefs are ideas about the way the world works or should work.

Symbols are simply anything that represent something else. Language and gestures are both symbols. Symbols may also be objects or colors. For example, a noose can be a symbol of racism. The color pink can symbolize femininity.

Music, literature, movies, sports, and fashion are examples of material elements of culture.

Social structure changes less than culture. Social structure is defined as “the complex framework of societal institutions…and the social practices…that make up a society and that organize and establish limits on people’s behavior” (Kendall 2007: 137-138). Specifically, status, roles, social groups, and institutions are elements of social structure.

A status is a position in the hierarchy of society based on a characteristic that fits a person into a particular category. Two types of status are ascribed and achieved. An ascribed status is based on characteristics that a person is born with. Race, sex, and certain disabilities are examples of bases for ascribed statuses. On the other hand, there are characteristics that a person creates through their own actions. These characteristics create achieved statuses. Examples of achieved statuses include becoming a spouse, becoming a college graduate, and becoming a felon.

Roles are sets of expectations, rights, and privileges that accompany statuses. For example, my status as a college professor is accompanied by the expectations that I will give lectures and tests, will assign grades, and will show up for class on time. My rights as a professor include deciding what textbook to use. My privileges include receiving a faculty parking permit. All of these things make up my role.

A social group is a collection of people that come together for a purpose, whether it be to provide emotional support or to manufacture a product. Social groups can be primary (intimate, small) or secondary (larger, task-oriented).

The last element of social structure, institutions, are patterned ways of doing things. Often we think of institutions as being physical entities, such as schools or bureaucracies. However, ‘institution’ is actually an abstract concept that embodies how things are traditionally done within these specific groups. For example, the institution of the family, includes all families both past and present. Institutions are often defined in terms of what needs they meet for society. The family, to continue with that example, is seen as serving the ‘functions’ of procreation and socialization of children.

This overview of the components of society, culture and social structure, has introduced the reader to some of the core concepts used in sociology. These are the basics an individual should know before engaging in a sociological discussion.


Kendall, Diana. 2007. Sociology in Our Times, Sixth Edition. Thomson
Wadsworth:Florence, KY.