Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Discussion 1 |

Social Structure

and the Individual

Judith Halasz, State University of New York at New Paltz

Peter Kaufman, State University of New York at New Paltz

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 2

Social Structure and

the Individual
J U D I T H H A L A S Z , S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y O F N E W Y O R K A T N E W P A L T Z

P E T E R K A U F M A N , S T A T E U N I V E R S I T Y O F N E W Y O R K A T N E W








Agents of socialization


Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 3


ï‚£ Why do people act the way they do?

ï‚£ Are we forced into our actions and behaviors? Or do we freely choose how to act

and behave?

On February 4, 2017, a sophomore at Penn State University died after a night of drinking

and hazing during a pledging ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house. Timothy Piazza, the

nineteen-year-old engineering student who died that night, and the eighteen fraternity

brothers who were charged with his death did not expect Pledge Night to end so tragically.

Timothy hoped he would be joining the Beta Theta Pi brotherhood, while the fraternity thought

they would be welcoming the spring 2017 class of brothers. No one expected anyone to die or

to be charged with manslaughter.

In some respects, what occurred at Penn State is not very different than what occurs on

many college campuses across the country, especially at fraternity parties. Students played

drinking games such as beer pong; they participated in drinking challenges such as The

Gauntlet, where pledges had to move from one station to the next and consume different

A Beta Theta Pi Fraternity chapter. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 4

types of alcohol; and they engaged in binge drinking, consuming excessive amounts of

alcohol in a short amount of time.

But as Eric Barron, President of Penn State University, noted, the details of Timothy’s

death are “heart-wrenching and incomprehensible.”1 Barron’s comments were based on a

grand jury investigation into the death.2 The details from this report, many of which came from

videos captured on security cameras within the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, point to a series

of bad decisions and negligent behavior.

Most troubling was the fact that the fraternity brothers did not immediately seek

medical attention for Timothy. Even after he consumed so much alcohol that he became

unconscious and unresponsive, even after falling repeatedly down stairs and landing on his

head, and even after his body was noticeably bruised, swollen, and bloodied, it was nearly

twelve hours before someone finally called for an ambulance. By then it was too late. Timothy

had a blood-alcohol level of nearly .40, a lacerated spleen, a fractured skull, and multiple

brain injuries. He died soon after arriving at the emergency room.

Timothy Piazza’s tragedy speaks to many of the themes we will discuss in this chapter:

Where do we learn how to behave in different situations? What effect do groups have on who

we are and what we choose to do? How do we develop preferences, aspirations, and

attitudes? Do we have total free will to select a course of action or are our behaviors

influenced by external pressures?

These questions are all relevant to what happened that night at the Beta Theta Pi

house. Why, for example, did it take so long for these college students to seek help when they

knew Timothy was in trouble? What was it about the situation that may have influenced their

decision to wait nearly twelve hours before calling an ambulance? Was a group dynamic at

work? Were there unspoken rules that interfered with the judgment of some of the brothers? If

these eighteen men saw someone in Timothy’s condition elsewhere on campus or in public,

would they be so negligent about getting immediate help?

And what about Timothy and the other recruits? Why did they wish to join Beta Theta

Pi? How did they come to see being a member of this fraternity as such a valuable resource

that they were willing to participate in this hazing ritual? Assuming these young men knew

about the dangers of binge drinking, why did they still consent to follow the drinking demands

of the pledge leaders? What identity where they hoping to secure by participating in these

dangerous acts? What might they have given up if they had refused and left early that night?

The question of why we act the way we do is complicated and multi-faceted.

Throughout this chapter, we will look at how our individual actions are strongly influenced by

external factors. We focus on the rules we are expected to follow and the resources we have

at our disposal or seek to acquire. But as we discuss in the last section, this is not a one-way

relationship. Our individual behaviors and actions emerge from these larger structural

dimensions, but also help to produce and perpetuate them.

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 5

We begin by examining one of the most important sociological concepts: social



ï‚£ What is social structure?

ï‚£ What statuses do we hold?

ï‚£ What roles do we fill?

ï‚£ Why are groups, networks, and institutions important?

Imagine you are in a classroom. How can you exit the room? The only openings are

doors and windows. Those are structural elements of the classroom that limit your actions.

What if the doors and windows were blocked? Could you bust through the walls? Could you

find a way to overcome the structure of the room?

You can think of social structure as the boundaries people confront as they make

decisions about their individual and collective actions. Structure often limits the choices

people can make, but it also enables some to have choices that others may not have. In

either case, structure does not determine our actions, but it does have a significant influence

on the behaviors we choose.

When we talk about structural boundaries, we are referring to the rules and resources

that guide our behavior.3 Rules

can be both formal (such as

school dress codes and laws) and

informal (such as whether you

shake someone’s hand to greet

them or kiss them on the cheek).

Resources are things we may have

or that we acquire, such as

money, education, and status,

which are valuable or allow us to

accomplish goals. Even race,

gender, religion, nationality, ability,

and age are structural resources.

A good example of how

structural boundaries influence our actions can be found in the animated film Kung Fu Panda.


Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 6

In this much-beloved blockbuster, a large and clumsy noodle-maker named Po transforms into

the Dragon Warrior, challenging social expectations for giant pandas like himself.4 To become

a martial arts master, Po must confront various structural hurdles. For example, his adoptive

father, Mr. Ping the goose, could teach Po the family business of noodle-making, but lacks the

knowledge to train Po in kung fu. Only by accidentally winning a contest does Po get the

opportunity to train with Master Shifu at Jade Palace, a resource very few have access to. Po

must convince Shifu and the skeptical martial arts students that he has the capacity to be the

Dragon Warrior even though his chubby figure does not conform to the typical appearance

of a kung fu fighter. Ultimately, Po transforms limitations into resources, using his large belly as a

weapon, his insatiable appetite as a motivational tool to complete his training, and his

perseverance to win the others’ respect. In this film, we see how a character’s trajectory is

shaped by informal and formal rules, the resources he has and seeks to acquire, and the

choices he makes each step of the way.

Rules and resources emerge in various elements

of social structure, such as the social statuses, roles,

groups, networks, and institutions that organize the way

people go about their lives. As we discuss below, each

of these elements of social structure shapes our lives in

distinct ways. In some cases they work together, such as

when a student whose parent is a graduate of a highly

prestigious university has a better chance of being

accepted to that school than a student without a

family connection to it. In that case, the applicant’s

network (family) leads to connections with an institution

(the college) that may influence future chances in the

labor market. In other cases, elements of social structure

may have contradictory effects on us. For instance,

women in high-status professions often encounter

gendered expectations that undercut their career

progress. Their role as women interacts with their

presence in a high-status occupation to put them at a disadvantage. To understand how

social structure plays a role in behavior and outcomes, we take a closer look at each element

of structure.


What do celebrity singer-actress Jennifer Lopez, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, U.S.

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, and hapless

cartoon dad and nuclear power plant worker Homer Simpson have in common? What sets

Kung Fu Panda, 2011. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 7

them apart from each other? Their shared and differing identities point to social statuses, or a

person’s or group’s socially-determined positions within a larger group or society. As we can

see from Table 1, a person can hold more than one status at the same time.

As you look at Table 1, think about the following: How did they get these statuses? How

do these statuses shape their actions? What resources do these statuses provide each of

them? What other statuses do they hold?

Table 1: Some Statuses of Several Famous Individuals

Status Mark




Jennifer Lopez Neil deGrasse


Deb Haaland

Race-ethnicity White White Latina African-American Laguna


Sex Male Male Female Male Female

Class Extremely


Working class Wealthy Wealthy Middle class

Occupation CEO of



power plant




Astrophysicist Politician

Education Some


High school


Some college Ph.D. J.D.

Some of the statuses are the result of choices these individuals made, including their

profession and education, while other statuses, such as race and sex, are part of their identities

regardless of the choices they made. We can think about two broad categories of statuses:

ascribed and achieved. An achieved status results at least in part from your efforts.

Occupation, level of education, class, and marital status are generally achieved statuses.

When a pledge is accepted as a member of a fraternity or sorority, the pledge achieves the

status of “brother” or “sister” and gains an important structural resource that can be leveraged

not only during college, but throughout life. For instance, their former brothers or sisters may

later serve as important contacts for career opportunities. By contrast, an ascribed status is

assigned to you by society without regard for your unique talents, efforts, or characteristics; this

often happens at birth. Like achieved statuses, ascribed statuses such as race, ethnicity, sex,

and age place people in social hierarchies, or ranking systems. Ascribed statuses also

influence the resources society makes available to individuals.

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 8

Ascribed statuses such as race or sex are

difficult to change, but their social meanings can be

transformed. Consider the meanings of hairstyles and

what they tell us about racial hierarchies. According

to feminist scholar Cheryl Thompson, “For young

Black girls, hair is not just something to play with, it is

something that is laden with messages, and it has the

power to dictate how others treat you, and in turn,

how you feel about yourself.”5 Do you straighten it,

braid it, add weaves, get dreadlocks, or wear it

natural? These choices are not simply a matter of

individual taste; beauty standards are structural rules

that reinforce a hierarchy based on which types of

physical features are most valued. In the U.S., the

market for hair straightening products has boomed

for over a century, reflecting the dominance of White beauty standards in our culture.

Even if a dominant beauty standard exists, not everyone will follow the structural rule.

For example, by the 1960s, more Black women began to wear their hair natural, encouraged

by the growing Black Is Beautiful movement. One of Cheryl Thompson’s interviewees, Ruth

Smith, an immigrant from Trinidad who owns a natural hair salon in Toronto, discusses this

challenge to White beauty standards: “When you can look in the mirror and you can see your

natural kinky Afro or locs and it’s yours and you can say, ‘you know what, I like that’ and you

know why you have to like it, because that’s what it is; when you get to the point, that’s when

you start to see your true beauty.”6 By embracing their natural hair, Smith and her clients may

help change beauty standards.

At the same time, many women of color recognize that hairstyles involve more than just

beauty. As scholar Noliwe Rooks explains, a hairstyle “could lead to acceptance or rejection

from certain groups and social classes, and its styling could provide the possibility of a

career.”7 For many years, natural hairstyles were viewed as unprofessional. This made it more

difficult for women of color to enter lucrative, high-status professions such as law, finance, and

business consulting unless they conformed to dominant beauty standards. These industries

have an informal rule that women of color are expected to straighten their hair or wear

weaves or a wig.

While this rule is increasingly flexible, it still affects women’s choices since working in a

prestigious profession offers access to valuable structural resources (a high salary, the ability to

network with high-status colleagues who may provide leads on even better opportunities, and

influence in the community). As Rooks highlights, their appearance affects how Black women

are perceived, treated, and given opportunities. Appearance is an individual choice that

impacts how we feel about ourselves, how we’re viewed by others, and even our

Natural hair. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 9

opportunities. As a result, an ascribed status (such as race) often influences your achieved

status (such as your career).

Figure 1: Median Annual Earnings by Education Level, U.S. Population Age 25 and over, 2015

Source: American Community Survey 2015

Seeing social status as a structural resource has a long tradition in sociology. According

to Max Weber, your social status is closely related to your life chances, or opportunities to

provide yourself with material goods, positive living conditions, and favorable life experiences.8

Occupying a high status in society improves your life chances, provides more structural

resources, and brings greater access to social rewards.

For example, American children who do very well academically are more likely to enroll

in college, complete a bachelor’s degree, attend a selective institution, or get a graduate

degree if they are from affluent families than if they are from low-income families.9 Academic

ability alone does not account for their level of educational attainment, or we would expect

children from poorer families to do just as well as their richer counterparts. Why does this

matter? Take a look at Figure 1; college graduates typically out-earn high school graduates by

a wide margin. Affluent people can afford to continue their education after high school and

pass those benefits on to their children through extracurricular activities, tutoring, and travel. By

contrast, people in the lower social classes must devote a larger proportion of their limited

resources to necessities such as housing, food, and transportation. They have fewer resources

for extra tutoring, music or athletic lessons that might help a student stand out on college

applications, or to support an adult child during several years of college. For both populations,

social structure influences the life chances and opportunities of individuals, even if both sets of














Less than high
school graduate

High school

Some college or
associate’s degree

Bachelor’s degree Graduate or





Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 10

parents are equally eager for their children to attend college and both sets of children are

equally academically capable of succeeding. 10

Figure 2: Violent Crime Victimization Rate per 1,000 People by Household Income, 2008-2012

Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Crime Victimization Survey, 2008-2012

SIncome is related to other aspects of your life chances, such as health and crime.

Residents in poor neighborhoods face greater exposure to environmental hazards, which

contribute to health problems. Not surprisingly, poor people suffer from serious, chronic illnesses

such as asthma, diabetes, and heart disease more frequently than wealthier people, and poor

children face higher infant mortality and obesity rates than their affluent counterparts.11 And

according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 National Crime Victimization Survey,

people in low-income families are more likely to be assaulted, raped, or robbed than are

affluent people.12 These examples further demonstrate the various ways that social structure,

particularly status (in this case, social class), helps some individuals and hinders others.


Each status includes expectations about how someone with that status is supposed to

behave and how others are supposed to behave toward them. A social role is a set of

expectations about the behavior and attitudes of people who occupy a particular social
















Less than $15,000 $15,000-24,999 $25,000-74,999 $75,000 or more











Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 11

Social roles contribute to social stability

by enabling us to anticipate the behavior of

others and to adapt our own actions

accordingly. However, social roles can be

problematic because they can limit

interactions and relationships. For example, if

we view a person as only a “police officer” or

a “boss,” then we may have difficulty also

seeing them as a neighbor or a friend.

Or consider Beyoncé, who juggles

multiple, and sometimes conflicting, roles for

her various statuses: singer, songwriter,

dancer, actress, model, businesswoman,

activist, philanthropist, parent, daughter,

sister, and wife. Some of Beyoncé’s fans may

be thrilled to see her transcend her role as a

celebrity by engaging in political activism.

Other fans may be more excited to see her in

her role as singer and dancer and less enthusiastic about her activism when she speaks out

against police brutality or for transgender rights, gun control, and female empowerment.

Inconsistency between two or more of the roles we fill is role conflict. In most instances,

role conflicts result in uncomfortable or awkward situations such as when you must decide

between hanging out with your friends and joining your family to celebrate a relative’s

birthday. The role conflict you experience is the result of the competing structural rules you feel

compelled to follow: the rules of friendship versus the rules of family.

In some situations, however, role conflicts can be more serious. One reason the young

people at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house failed to act in time to save Timothy Piazza’s life is

that they were experiencing role conflict. There was an inconsistency in how they were

supposed to act based on their role as frat boys at a party and their role as adults

encountering someone in medical trouble. If they had not been in their role as fraternity

pledges and came across an unconscious student while they were walking across campus in

the middle of the day, it is likely that they would have called for help immediately. But at the

fraternity house on Pledge Night, by calling for medical assistance, the pledges would have

risked being viewed as disloyal to the frat and might not have been accepted as a brother, a

role they desired. By contrast, in their role as a student outside the fraternity, they would face

fewer structural rules inhibiting them from intervening in a medical emergency.

Much like the statuses we hold, our roles influence and are influenced by the social

structure. Each role we fill has a set of rules that we may be expected to follow. These rules

affect our actions, and often enable or constrain our behaviors. Our roles provide us with

Beyoncé. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 12

valuable resources we can use as we take action; for example, being a fraternity member

provides older members authority over pledges and the ability to give them orders. The roles

we fill may grant us some degree of power—or lack of it—that could make it more or less likely

that we will successfully take action in a crisis. The power social roles provide is particularly

apparent in hazing rituals such as those Timothy Piazza participated in.


How we act is often influenced by the values, expectations, and behavior of people

around us. For example, college fraternities try to instill a lifelong sense of solidarity among their

members. They build that allegiance partly by forcing pledges to endure intense

psychological and physical challenges, such as step dancing, binge drinking, or violent and

degrading hazing. A tight bond is formed when pledges endure these tests together. At the

same time, the recruits demonstrate that they trust their older “brothers” to have their back

and that they are worthy of membership. Since refusing a challenge means giving up the

chance to be a member, pledges often push themselves beyond their limits, sometimes with

devastating effects, as was the case for Timothy Piazza.

Fraternities give us insight into how groups operate. A social group consists of two or

more people with similar values and expectations who interact with one another on a regular

basis. We seek out groups to establish friendships, accomplish goals, and fulfill social roles.

Much of our social interaction takes place within groups and is influenced by the group’s

norms, or the rules and expectations by which a group guides the behavior of its members;

behavior that meets these rules and expectations is normative. Groups provide members with

valuable resources such as social support, a sense of collective identity, values, and

opportunities for positive life chances.

Fraternities and sororities give first-year students at some universities a way to establish a

large set of supportive friends as they transition to college life. After graduation, members gain

access to other alumni affiliated with their organization, who may provide professional

opportunities and mentorship. Groups may also punish people who violate social norms. In

fraternities and sororities, this may include expulsion from the group and denial of the

resources it provides. Other examples of social groups include families, sports teams, religious

communities, and friendship circles.


We also build connections with others outside of groups. We may develop or join a

social network, a series of social relationships that links a person directly to other individuals

(such as friends) and indirectly to even more people (for instance, friends of friends). Social

networks can constrain you by limiting the range of your interactions, but may also empower

you by making vast resources available. Your friends on Facebook, followers on Twitter and

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 13

Instagram, high school or college alumni association, or a professional organization you join

form your social networks. These connections may reinforce or sway your political viewpoints,

build or undermine your self-esteem, and even help you land a job.

Social media. (Source)

According to sociologist Manuel Castells, digital technology has transformed social

networking.13 We no longer need to maintain regular face-to-face contact with members of

our social groups and networks. Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and other

platforms have made digital social networks commonplace. The feedback we receive on

social media influences our behavior. Individuals carefully curate digital personas to amass

“likes” and avoid a “swipe left” with Photoshop-enhanced selfies, exotic vacation pics, and

announcements of personal and professional accomplishments.14


The final element of social structure brings together statuses, roles, groups, and

networks. Social institutions are enduring practices and rules (both formal and informal) that

organize a central domain of social life. Examples of social institutions include mass media,

government, the economy, the family, the health care system, and the education system. All

institutions provide individuals with important resources while at the same time imposing rules

on how we behave. For example, in the United States the institution of the government grants

us the valuable resource of voting; however, it restricts voting to those aged eighteen or older.

More recently, the government legalized same-sex marriage. This change in the structural rules

gave many more individuals the financial, social, and symbolic resources that heterosexual

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 14

married couples have long benefited from. This governmental action also resulted in

significant changes to the institution of the family.

Some sociologists argue

that social institutions often

maintain the existing set of social

patterns, including existing social

inequalities. Consider the

American education system.

Most public schools in the U.S. are

financed largely through local

property taxes. Since houses are

more expensive in more affluent

areas, the property taxes in these

neighborhoods allow residents to

provide their children with better-

equipped schools and better-

paid teachers than in low-

income areas. As a result, children from prosperous communities are often better prepared

academically than children from impoverished areas. The structure of the nation’s educational

system allows such unequal treatment of school children. In response, groups such as the

Campaign for Fiscal Equity, which advocates for more equitable educational funding policies

in New York, try to address these structural inequalities.15

Social structure is one of the most important concepts in sociology. Unfortunately, it is

not always well defined or clearly understood. We are not always aware of it, and we do not

always see it, but all of our individual actions and behaviors are influenced by the larger social

structure. And yet it is undeniable that we can still make choices about how we act in a given

situation; our actions are not determined by social structure. For a more complete

perspective, we have to consider the individual actor.

White House illuminated in rainbow colors.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 15








ï‚£ What is agency?

ï‚£ How do we construct and maintain identities?

ï‚£ How are we socialized to become members of society?

ï‚£ How do agents of socialization shape our identities and behaviors?

Would you be willing to give up a goal you have worked diligently toward in order to

help out someone in need? What if that someone was an opposing player in a competition?

Would you sacrifice your own success to allow them to succeed?

These questions came to life for members of the women’s softball teams at Central

Washington and Western Oregon Universities. The two schools were playing a game that

could have determined which team won the conference championship and earned a spot in

the NCAA tournament, something neither team had ever accomplished. In the second inning

of a scoreless tie, Sara Tucholsky came to the plate for Western Oregon. With two runners on

base, Sara hit her first home run of her college career. In her shock and excitement, she forgot

to touch first base. When she turned back to correct her error, her right knee gave out and she

crumpled to the ground, unable to walk.

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 16

According to the

umpires, if her coach

replaced her with

another runner, the

home run would be

nullified and count only

as a single. The only

home run she ever hit

and the possibility of

making it to the NCAA

tournament were in

jeopardy. At that point,

Mallory Holtman, a

senior from the opposing

team, Central

Washington, asked the

umpires if she and her teammate, Liz Wallace, could carry Sara and have her touch each

base with her left leg. The umpires agreed this was allowable, and so began one of the most

heartwarming displays of sportsmanship in college sports.16

What compelled Mallory to risk her own team’s success by helping a rival? Was there

anything unique about this situation that might explain the actions of Mallory and her

teammates? It’s useful to look at which rules Mallory and Liz prioritized. They followed what

they saw as the rules of sportsmanship by honoring Sara’s home run. As fellow competitors,

they believed that Sara’s achievement should not be cancelled out due to an injury. In short,

their actions were governed by the rules of fair play rather than the culture of competition.

Consider how the actions of the Central Washington players compare to the actions of

the college men at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house the night Timothy Piazza died. Unlike the

Central Washington softball players, the fraternity brothers at Beta Theta Pi were inhibited from

suspending the rules of their group and institution and coming to Timothy’s aid. Why did these

two sets of college students act so differently when they were similarly confronted with one of

their peers in need?

These questions get at the issue of agency—our ability to act given the structural rules

and resources that impact our behaviors. When sociologists speak about agency we are

generally referring to the choices individuals make and the actions they ultimately take. Our

ability to act is always influenced by the social structure. None of us has total free will. Whether

it’s the rules we follow or ignore, or the resources we have or lack, our agency is affected by

external structural forces.

Softball players. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 17

To fully comprehend agency and

how our ability to act is formed, we need

to better understand who we are as

individuals. Try this exercise: Number a

piece of paper 1-20 and at the top of the

page write the question: Who Am I? Now

try to fill in an answer for each of the

twenty spaces.17

What did you come up with? Your

list might contain status or role

classifications such as daughter, Latino,

friend, or student. Or perhaps social

groups you belong to such as a team,

club, or organization. Ideological beliefs

such as conservative, progressive, atheist,

or member of a religion may also appear

on your list. A few answers may reflect

your interests and ambitions, such as dancer,

traveler, or future lawyer. It’s likely that some responses reflected your self-evaluations, such as

kind, loving, funny, or lazy.

The Twenty-Statements Test (TST) was developed over 60 years ago by Manford Kuhn

and Thomas McPartland.18 Sociologists and psychologists use it to understand how people

identify themselves. It measures our self-concept, the thoughts and feelings we have of

ourselves as physical, social, and emotional beings.19

A great follow-up question to the TST is to ask yourself: How did I develop my self-

concept? How did I become who I am? These questions get at one of the most important

sociological processes: socialization, the experiences that give us an identity and teach us the

values, morals, beliefs, and ways of acting and thinking that are expected in our society.

One of the earliest sociologists to study the processes of identity formation and

socialization was George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). In his classic book, Mind, Self, and

Society, Mead argued that our sense of self develops from our social experiences and

interactions.20 Instead of assuming that we are born with our personalities already determined,

Mead recognized that our identities are constructed through the social influences that we

encounter in our daily lives. As we participate in social interactions we become aware of how

others see us and how they expect us to act in certain situations. For Mead, a key component

of how we develop a sense of self is being able to see ourselves through the eyes of others.

Who am I? (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 18

Think back to your first day of high

school and you should be able to

understand what Mead was getting at. If

you were like most teenagers, you wanted

to fit in and be accepted by your peers. As

you got dressed in the morning you

probably imagined how other students

would react to your clothes, your hairstyle,

your makeup, and your demeanor. Maybe

you even tried out some greetings or body

postures in the mirror. According to Mead,

you were using the values and norms of the

larger culture, the generalized other, to

guide your actions. Your agency was

heavily influenced by the informal dress

code (or rules) of the peer group and the resources you possessed, such as the appropriate

shoes, clothing, backpack, makeup, and hair style.

As you walked nervously into school that first day and started interacting with

classmates and teachers, you were probably imagining how you appeared to others. You

may have also imagined their judgment of you: do you seem cool, nerdy, trendy, or boring?

As you digested this information, you may have developed a particular feeling—pride, shame,

acceptance, rejection—which, in turn, may have affected your self-identity. This interactive

process is what one of Mead’s contemporaries, Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), referred to

as the looking-glass self, the way our perception of how others see us affects our sense of self.


Agents of socialization

The example of your first day of high school focuses on two influential factors that help

shape your identity: the peer group and school. We refer to these as agents of socialization

because they are among the individuals, groups, organizations, and institutions that influence

your sense of self and help you learn how to be a member of society. Besides peer groups and

schools, sociologists emphasize the family and the mass media as the two other most

significant agents of socialization.

At various points in our lives, different agents of socialization are most important. Our

friends might be most important during high school, but coworkers might become more

important when we enter the labor force. Socialization is a life-long process, and our sense of

self is always evolving, as is our understanding of what it means to be a member of society.

Similarly, the rules we are expected to follow and the resources we may acquire constantly

Preparing to face the world. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 19

change and evolve as we enter new social environments. The socialization process does not

just happen to us as children or young adults; it continues throughout our lives as we learn to

become different people in different contexts, such as teenagers, workers, parents, or


We are also socialized to know

our roles and statuses. According to

sociologist Judith Lorber, we are

socialized into our gender identities,

status, and roles from birth.22 Consider

the clothes and toys babies and young

children are given. If you encountered

the baby in the picture to the right,

would you assume that it’s a girl?

Parents often use colors to indicate

their infant’s gender based on the

current normative interpretation of pink

as feminine and blue as masculine. Of

course, some parents choose gender-

neutral colors such as yellow or white, or challenge gender norms by dressing a boy in pink or

a girl in blue.

Toys are also used to shape children’s gender identities, status, and roles. Boys are

generally offered cars, trains, blocks, balls, action figures, and toy guns, while girls are given

dolls, Barbies, dollhouses, and toy makeup. These toys send messages about gender-

appropriate rules of behavior and interests. They encourage boys to be mechanical, handy,

athletic, and aggressive, while girls learn to be nurturing homemakers concerned with being

physical attractive. Again, some parents challenge these gender norms by giving Lego blocks

to girls and stuffed animals or dolls to boys, or buying gender-neutral toys such as board


As we grow older, we get cues about gender norms from our peers, school, work, and

the media. For many years, teachers, administrators, and even parents discouraged girls from

exploring math and science, instead steering them toward the social sciences, humanities,

and education. The structural boundaries of what is deemed an appropriate field of study for

women and men have not only influenced the choices and opportunities of generations of

students; these structural rules of gender tracking have contributed to women’s subordinate

economic position.23

Recently, concerted institutional efforts have challenged this educational gender

tracking with computer-coding schools for girls, STEM scholarships for women, and

representations of female scientists in the media. The rules about which subject areas are

acceptable for specific genders are changing; as a result, women are increasingly acquiring

Baby in pink. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 20

the same educational resources and credentials as their male peers, though they remain a

small minority of those earning degrees in areas such as computer science.

The 2016 film Hidden Figures focuses on a team of female African American

mathematicians who played a pivotal role in the success of early space missions at NASA,

where jobs were segregated by gender, with women allowed to hold only certain positions.

When mathematician Katherine Johnson confronted one of the chief engineers at NASA

about how job segregation hindered her ability to work, these structural barriers were

removed. Other employees at NASA changed their perceptions and behaviors in response to

the shifting rules by demonstrating greater respect and inclusivity toward Mrs. Johnson and

other women like her.

“Science Careers in Search of Women,” Argonne National Laboratory.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

When social expectations shift and we encounter a new set of group rules that

guide our behavior, we often experience resocialization, the process of adopting new social

norms and identities. Consider the resocialization process that young men experience when

pledging a fraternity. They are encouraged to develop allegiance to a new “family,” which

often places great value on hetero-normative masculinity, or the dominant, widespread ideas

of what it means to be a straight man. This includes displays of endurance, toughness,

strength, the ability to control emotions, and sexual success with women. How do you think this

compulsory allegiance and show of masculinity influenced the events that lead to Timothy

Piazza’s hazing death?

Sometimes we experience dramatic resocialization, greatly changing how we

behave, what we think, and how we view ourselves. This is common in what Erving Goffman

called total institutions, where groups of people are largely cut off from the wider society and

their lives are largely controlled by the institution.24 Military boot camp, prisons, mental

institutions, and religious training organizations all commonly function as total institutions. They

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 21

have near-complete control over the people in them; the institution decides when people eat

or sleep, what they do all day, and when (or if) they can talk to people outside the institution.

Total institutions usually resocialize residents into values, beliefs, and behaviors that suit the

needs of the institution. For instance, religious organizations training nuns or monks may

resocialize them to reject pleasures or preferences from their old lives and adopt new

standards of behavior. Military cadets learn to follow rigid military regulations for everything

from their haircuts to how to make their beds; by doing so, the military is also training them to

follow orders without question, no matter how small or seemingly unimportant the orders might

be. Reducing signs of individuality—such as different hairstyles—also resocializes cadets to

think of themselves as just one member of a larger unit.

Most of us like to think of ourselves as independent people who develop our own

unique identities and sense of who we are. In truth, we evolve from the social worlds in which

we live. We all have a strong sense of identity and we all exert our agency in each moment of

our lives. But the way we come to see ourselves, the choices we make, and the behaviors we

engage in are shaped by our place in the larger social structure. Whether we realize or like to

admit it, our actions are deeply affected by structural rules and resources. None of us act in a

vacuum devoid of societal influences.

At the same time, individuals are not robots or puppets with no control over their

actions. We exert our agency and choose the actions we take, and we have some control

over the structures that influence our lives. The central theme of this chapter, and one of the

central themes of sociology, revolves around this dynamic interplay between individuals and

social structure. As we will explain in the final section, individuals are both the products and the

producers of social structure.







Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 22


ï‚£ What is the relationship between individual agency and social structure?

ï‚£ How are individuals constrained and enabled by external forces?

ï‚£ How does our behavior contribute to the construction of society?

ï‚£ How are we products of the social world in which we live?

“If you’re in hijab, then someone sees you and treats you accordingly. I feel more free.

Especially men, they don’t look at your appearance—they appreciate your intellectual

abilities. They respect you.” This comment came from a 22-year-old female Muslim-American

college student.25

Veiled and unveiled women. (Source)

Some of you may be surprised by this young woman’s perspective on veiling, the

Muslim practice of wearing a hijab (hair covering) or veil. Yet it reflects the attitudes of some of

the well-educated, middle-class, devout Muslim women living in Austin, Texas, that Jen’Nan

Ghazal Read and John Bartowski interviewed in their 2000 study.26 To uncover the diverse

attitudes Muslim women have toward veiling, they spoke with college students, professionals,

and homemakers ranging in age from 21 to 55. Some had recently arrived to the U.S., while

the majority had lived in the country for at least a decade. Half wore a hijab.

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 23

The main questions the researchers explored were: How do Muslim communities expect

women to behave? Should they wear a hijab or veil? And if so, why? How do these Muslim

women explain their choices and decisions? In other words, the researchers were interested in

learning more about the interplay between social structure and the individual.

All the interviewees noted that veiling was based on the belief that men are prone to

sexual impulses, from which the hijab would supposedly protect women. Those who wore a

veil had diverse attitudes toward their gender roles as Muslim women. Some felt liberated from

the male gaze and more comfortable being in public among men. Some sensed that men

took them more seriously as college students or professionals if they wore a veil. And some

wanted to assert their Muslim identity in a visible way to forge connections with other Muslims

in the community.

By contrast, many of the unveiled interviewees saw the hijab as a means for men to

dominate women, assert gender differences, and reinforce patriarchy. As one unveiled

woman bluntly stated, “The veil is used to control women.”27 They also felt that the hijab was

not necessary to prove their religious piety, since they viewed veiling not as a divine

commandment but as a political and cultural practice designed to differentiate Muslim

women from Westerners and help men manage women’s sexuality.

These women used their agency in deciding whether or not to veil, but their choices

must be understood in the context of social structure, particularly the rules and resources

provided by cultural expectations, religious traditions, and the political climate. Each of these

women interpreted the rules of their faith individually, sorting out how to follow the rules of their

religion and use these regulations as a resource to navigate the social world. For some

women, that meant wearing the hijab to gain respect in a male-dominated society. For

others, veiling was a way to express their religious identity. For a third group of women, not

wearing the veil symbolized their challenge to male domination.

Aware of prevailing attitudes in the Muslim community and broader American society,

these women faced the choice of whether to be visibly identifiable as Muslim. They had to

weigh the benefits of building ties in the Muslim community against the potential risk of

religious and ethnic discrimination. By making choices about veiling, they influenced the social

structure, including norms and attitudes concerning veiling in communities where Muslims are

a religious minority. By framing veiling as empowering and liberating, some of the veiled

women changed what it means to wear a hijab. The women who chose not to wear a veil

also challenged Muslim norms while tacitly reinforcing Western attitudes about veiling.

The key point is that our individual actions, our agency, can reinforce the social

structure in some situations and transform it in others. There is a constant interaction between

agency—the ability to act on our own will—and social structure—the resources we can tap

into as well as the rules we must navigate.

When we recognize the complex interconnection between agency and social

structure we are exercising our sociological imagination.28 As C. Wright Mills (1916-1962)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 24

pointed out, all of our actions, large and small, shape the world in which we live. At the same

time, the social world shapes the actions we take. It’s important to understand the two sides of

this relationship—the extent to which we shape the social world and the extent to which we

are shaped by it—if we hope to fully understand why people behave the way they do and

why society is organized as it is.

Sociologists often describe the relationship between individual action and the larger

social structure in terms of micro-sociological and macro-sociological aspects of society.

Micro-sociology focuses on individual identities and small-scale interactions with others.

Macro-sociology takes aim at large-scale societal structures, including groups and institutions

as well as social forces such as norms. Micro and macro theories help us understand the

interplay between individuals and social structure, particularly in terms of our choices and

actions. These theories provide different ways to view this relationship.

Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), one of the most well-known micro-sociologists, contributed

to a theory called symbolic interaction, which studies human interaction by focusing on the

words and gestures that people use and the meanings they create about the world.29 From

the perspective of symbolic interaction, individuals act toward things based on the meanings

those things have for them. The meanings are developed through a process of socialization,

and they may change over the life course. As individuals act toward things, they inevitably

perpetuate or transform the meanings of the things that were influencing their actions in the

first place.

We can illustrate the process of symbolic interaction by thinking about the women in

Read and Bartowski’s study. As young children, they learned from their parents, family

members, and other adults in their community that the veil is an important religious symbol for

Muslims. As these women entered adulthood, the veil took on a variety of additional cultural

and political meanings, such as respectability, collective identity, and oppression. The way

these women act toward the veil is dependent on the meaning the veil has for them at any

given time in their lives. Sometimes, their actions can alter the meaning of veiling, such as

when they wear the veil to achieve respect in school and work or when they reject the veil to

call attention to patriarchy. Symbolic interactionists suggest that this process shows how

individuals create social change. Through small-scale actions, individuals transform social

norms and the widely-held meanings attached to people, things, and behaviors. This is how

the micro influences the macro level of society.

Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 25

Macro-sociologists take a

different perspective, focusing first on

societal influences. Robert Merton (1910-

2003) argued that people make choices

based on the resources available to

achieve their goals.30 The goals people

hope to achieve often reflect social

norms, such as financial security. When

someone lacks access to socially

acceptable pathways, they tend to seek

other means to achieve culturally

acceptable goals. For example, if

someone does not have the financial

means to attend college, they may

seek other avenues to support themselves, such as becoming an entrepreneur, entering the

military, or even resorting to crime. In this way, the unequal distribution of resources and

opportunities across society, a macro-sociological phenomenon known as the structure of

opportunity, shapes the choices individuals make.

Sociologists must consider both micro and macro perspectives when we analyze

individual choices and actions. We should also look at both sides of this relationship when we

investigate how larger social structures such as groups and institutions are established,

maintained, and transformed.

Chilean Minister of Women and Gender Equity Elbow

Bumping President. (Source)

Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 26

Figure 2: Relationship between the Individual and Social Structure

Let’s revisit the example we started the chapter with to help us better understand these

important points. What makes Timothy Piazza’s death so tragic is that the other men attending

the party did not use their agency in a way that may have saved his life. Those young men did

not immediately call for help because they were following a specific set of structural rules

pertaining to fraternity life and college partying. The fraternity chapter officers knew that Penn

State had a zero-tolerance policy for underage drinking. Reporting the incident meant their

organization could lose its charter and be banned from campus. The pledges did not want to

jeopardize their own chances of gaining a valuable structural resource, membership in the

fraternity. Their choice to delay calling for medical assistance was deeply affected by the

social structure; it also negatively affected Timothy’s chance of survival.

When the fraternity pledges and brothers weighed the consequences of helping

Timothy, when the Muslim women contemplated whether to veil, and when the softball

players considered aiding the competing team, they were all engaging in reflexivity—the

process of evaluating our position in the social world, the rules we are expected to follow, and

the resources we have or can acquire. Ultimately, we make a decision to act in a certain way

and our decision has consequences. In some instances, we reinforce the social structure

through our individual choices and actions; in others, we may alter the social structure.

In either case, our actions and their corresponding effects reveal how we are both

products and producers of the social world. We make reflexive choices about how to act, and

those choices are informed by social structural rules and resources. In this sense, the social







Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 27

structure only exists because of the actions of individuals, and the actions of individuals are

influenced by social structure. They mutually influence each other to create our ever-

changing individual and social lives.








Social Structure and the Individual(Fall 2021)

Page 28

1 Stolberg, Sheryl Gay. 2017. “18 Penn State Students Charged in Fraternity Death.” New York Times, Retrieved at
2 Park Miller, Stacy. 2017. “Beta Theta Pi Fraternity and 18 Brothers Charged in Death of Timothy Piazza; 8 Facing

Manslaughter Charges,” Court Filing, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Office of the District Attorney, May 5.

Retrieved at
3 Sewell, Jr., William H. 1992. “A Theory of Structure: Duality, Agency, and Transformation,” American Journal of

Sociology 98(1): 1-29. Sewell builds on Giddens’ structuration theory. See also Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The

Constitution of Society: Outline of the Theory of Structuration. Berkeley: University of California Press.
5 Thompson, Cheryl. 2008-2009. “Black Women and Identity: What’s Hair Got to Do With It?” Michigan Feminist

Studies 22(1).
6 Thompson, 2008-2009.
7 Rooks, Noliwe. 1996. Hair Raising: Beauty, Culture, and African American Women. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers

University Press, pp.5-6
8 Weber, Max (translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills). 1944. “Class, Status, Party,” Politics,

October, 271-77. Originally published in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Tübingen, 1922: 631-40).
9 National Center for Education Statistics website, “The Condition of Education: Differences in

Postsecondary Enrollment Among Recent High School Completers,” 2016, gives data that says college enrollment differs by SES in 2013;

and Wyner, Joshua S., John M. Bridgeland, John J. Diiulio, Jr., 2009, “The Achievement Trap: How America Is Failing

Millions of High-Achieving Students from Lower-Income Families,” Jack Kent Cooke Foundation & Civic Enterprises,
10 The work of Annette Lareau demonstrates how social class acts as a valuable resource that propels some

students forward and holds other students back. Lareau, Annette. 2011. Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and

Family Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. Lareau, Annette. 2000. Home Advantage: Social Class and

Parental Intervention in Elementary Education. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
11 Braverman, Paula and Susan Egerter. 2013. “Overcoming Obstacles to Health in 2013 and Beyond,” Robert Wood

Johnson Foundation Commission to Build a Healthier America,
13 Castells, Manuel. 2000. The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd edition. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
14 David, Gaby, and Carolina Cambre. 2016. “Screened Intimacies: Tinder and the Swipe Logic.” Social Media +

Society, doi:10.1177/2056305116641976
15 Alliance for Quality Education website: Campaign for Fiscal Equity,
16 Hays, Graham. 2008. “Central Washington Offers the Ultimate Act of Sportsmanship.” Retrieved at
17 For a ready-made sheet for this exercise follow this link:
18 Kuhn, Manford.H. and Thomas S. McPartland. 1954. “An Empirical Investigation of Self-Attitudes.” American

Sociological Review 19(1): 68-76.
19 Gecas, Viktor. 1982. “The Self-Concept.” Annual Review of Sociology 8:1-33.
20 Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago:

University of Chicago Press.
21 Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. NY: Scribner.
22 Lorber, Judith. 1994. Paradoxes of Gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
23 De Welde, Kris and Sandra Laursen. 2011. “The Glass Obstacle Course: Informal and Formal Barriers for Women

Ph.D. Students in STEM Fields,” International Journal of Gender, Science and Technology 3(3): 571-595.
24 Goffman, Erving. 1961. Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates. Garden City,

NY: Anchor Books.
25 Ghazal Read, Jen’Nan and John P. Bartkowski. 2000. “To Veil or Not to Veil? A Case Study of Identity Negotiation

among Muslim Women in Austin, Texas,” Gender and Society 14(3): 405.
26 Ghazal Read and Bartkowski, 2000.
27 Ghazal Read and Bartkowski, 2000.
28 Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. NY: Oxford.
29 Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.
30 Merton, Robert. 1938. “Social Structure and Anomie,” American Sociological Review 3(5):672-682.


Social Structure and the Individual (Fall 2021)

Page 29

Cover Photo Source

error: Content is protected !!