Chapter 1: An Introduction | Chapter 2: The Social Dimension of Society | Chapter 3: Basic Sociological Terms and Concepts


Chapter 2: The Social Dimension of Society


As a matter of fact, people everywhere are members of some group at almost all times in their lives.  Through interaction within a group, the human organism becomes a human being.  People live within a social organization or structure made up of shared and repeated patterns of behavior.  Social organization is a dynamic process rather than a rigid set of rules, although it contains both stable and changing elements.  People relate to others from the standpoint of their own position (status) in a particular group and generally behave in ways expected of those in such a position (role).  Status and role are basic elements of social organization, directing interaction within and between social systems.

   There are a great number of groups in society, varying in size from two to several hundred million.  Groups may also be formal or informal, voluntary or involuntary.  The reciprocal relationships that take place within and among groups are defined as interaction.  Interaction consists of several social processes, the most basic of which are cooperation, competition and conflict.  Cooperation and conflict sometimes lead to the social processes of accommodation, assimilation, coercion and exchange. Primary groups engage in intimate, intense, informal and spontaneous interaction.  Their members know and deal with one another on an individual, personal and total basis.  Secondary groups, in contrast, tend to be large and of short duration, characterized by formal, utilitarian, specialized and temporary interactions.  They are almost always less satisfying to individuals.  The largest group to which people belong is society on the basis (usually) of a shared territory and culture.  Every society organizes itself is a way to give someone the power to make decisions and settle conflicts.

   Social interaction is not entirely haphazard but guided by recurring patterns of behavior.  The outgrowth of such interactions and patterns is culture, which dictates further how interaction is to take place.  Culture is therefore a product of society and can be considered as the way of life of a particular people.  It includes all the accumulated knowledge, ideas, values, goals and material objects of a society that are shared by the members of the society and passed from generation to generation.  Culture is learned through a process known as socialization.  Each culture is distinct from others, but they all share similarities because they deal with biological and emotional needs that are universal.  There are five fundamental human needs considered pivotal:

        The need to regulate sexual interaction and to care for the helpless newborn human being gave rise to the institution of the family.

        The need to provide food, shelter and clothing resulted in the emergence of the economic institution.

        The need to maintain peace and order within society led to the formation of the institution of government (politics).

        The need to transmit culture and to train the young gave origin to the institution of education.

        The dread and fear of the unknown generated the institution of religion.


Although these basic institutions are common to all societies, the forms they assume vary in each case, none being exactly alike.  Institutions supply people with procedures, detailing how to act in specific circumstances in a way the society desires them to act.

   Why societies differ has spawned theories throughout history.  Unfortunately, people tend to judge other societies from the viewpoint of ethnocentrism, that is, with an attitude of making judgments on other societies according to the standards of ones own.  Ethnocentrism is present, to some degree, in all social groups.  It is reinforced by many of our institutionsthe family and education, in particularand by the we against them feeling that characterizes almost every group.  In fact, there is no culture in the world that has not been altered in some way by other cultures through a process called diffusion.  The concept of cultural relativity counteracts ethnocentrism by requiring that each culture be analyzed in its societal context and on the basis of how well it fills its members needs.

   Because societies are made up of varying groups, culture can also vary within a single society.  An individual group may have its own language or jargon, customs, traditions and rituals.  If the principal values of such a group are the same as those of the general culture, the group is classified as a subculture.  It the principal values espoused are in direct opposition, the group is called a counterculture.  As indicated, all societies experience cultural change in different ways and at variable speeds.  In some cases, such changes necessitate giving up or exchanging previous beliefs, values and customs. 

   Stratification is a phenomenon present in all societies, a social ranking based on differences among people that inevitably produce a situation of inequality. Stratification takes place on the basis of class, status and power.  A social class consists of people in a society who stand in a similar position with respect to power, privilege or prestige.  Status is a ranked position of a person vis--vis others within a society on the basis of occupation, income, race, ethnic origin, religion, education, sex, age or other such variables.  (Achieved status denotes position achieved through individual effort or merit; the opposite is called ascribed status.) Power is the ability of one person or group to control the actions of others without the latters consent.  Conflict seems to be an integral part of group life.  It becomes especially sharp when it involves physical appearance or cultural traits that distinguish minority groups from a dominant group.  Prejudice, discrimination and institutions designed to exploit minorities have existed in all societies.

   Our present era is characterized by several technological revolutions that have brought countless socio-cultural changes throughout the world.  Whereas stability is a characteristic of individuals, societies and cultures, change is equally an integral part of nature and of humans.  The structures that humans buildsocieties and their systems and culturesare therefore subject to change.  Technology has radically altered the lives in most of the worlds societies both physically and in the area of cultural values.  But the mechanisms of socio-cultural change are easier to determine than its causes.  The principal processes of cultural change are discovery, invention and, as previously indicated, diffusion.  Change in the structure of society occurs through planning, reform and revolution.  Communication is essential for social cohesion and collective advancement.  Todays technology in communications provides vast opportunities for the acquisition of knowledge but so much information can also overwhelm, giving those who control its flow the power to manipulate its use for purposes of domination.