Social structure analysis

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Social structure analysis is the empirical - sociological analysis of the social structure of societies . Important topics are social change , structured social inequality , lifestyle research , the analysis of social milieus and the comparison of social structures in several societies. Qualitative and quantitative methods of empirical social research are used as a means of research . In addition, there are theoretical structures to characterize the individual structural elements. One of its most important areas of application is policy advice .

Key concepts

In sociology, key socio-structural terms are used to break down a society according to sociological criteria (e.g. gender role , status, class, class) and demographic criteria (such as age, gender, highest level of education, income groups, urban / rural population).

In 1908, the German sociologist Georg Simmel gave the term “social structure” a special meaning in his work Sociology . For example, in the excursus on the nobility and in magazine articles on the sociology of the family and the sociology of competition, he uses the terms “sociological structure” or “structure” to characterize the internal structural features of the respective phenomenon.

The American sociologist Robert Merton also pursued an independent approach in his 1949 work Social Theory and Social Structure .

In the following, various key terms for structuring are presented. Central key concepts here are the social strata introduced by Theodor Geiger and others into social theory, the classes analyzed by Karl Marx , ethnological concepts of kinship and marriage, the (Indian) castes or the historical classes in the Middle Ages.

Social stratification

Social stratification or stratification is a basic concept in sociology , sometimes also part of macroeconomic considerations. The concept of class is relatively new compared to the concept of class and class. Theodor Geiger is considered to be the founder of the sociology of stratification . In 1932 he developed approaches to the stratification concept for the social structure analysis of the German Reich as an examination of the class concept, especially in Marxist theory .

In the last century, different layer models were developed, for example the “ leveled medium-sized company ” by Helmut Schelsky (1953), the “ Dahrendorfhäuschen ” by Ralf Dahrendorf (1965) or the “ Bolte onion ” by Karl Martin Bolte (1967). A layer model by Rainer Geißler (1967) supplements the Dahrendorfhäuschen with horizontally dividing layering features for special strata of foreigners.

The hierarchical layer models are not only used to typologize and categorize societies, but also as a tool to represent complex societies in a simplified manner using a few criteria and thus to examine, compare and explain them. Research is particularly interested in the description of the (power) relationships between the classes and their members, in the emergence and reproduction of these hierarchical structures , but also in their change ( social change ). The effects of social stratification on the actors involved are also often examined.

Social classes

Definition according to Marx

According to the original definition by Claude Henri de Saint-Simon , which Karl Marx adopted from him, “ classes ” are defined by the position of their members in the production process. For every historical production relationship, he differentiates between two all other classes with their special problems - with their “ secondary contradictions ” - dominating classes: the non-owners and the owners of the predominant means of production . For the capitalist mode of production these are the proletarians (also called the working class ) and capitalists (also called the bourgeoisie ), but in the ancient “ slave-owning society ” these are, for example, the slaves and the slave-owners.

From the analysis of the economic conditions it becomes clear, according to Marx, that the members of capitalist society who are legally free, but only have their labor to sell, must have adversarial interests than those who have the means of production and employ workers. For example, some want to sell their labor as dearly as possible and do as little as possible, while others want to buy the labor as cheaply as possible and let it work as long and as intensively as possible. In economics this is known as the "mini-max principle", according to which both sides are also adversarial . This fundamental antagonism exists independently of people's ideas about their own situation.

As soon as members of a class recognize the commonality of their interests and begin to act accordingly, Marx speaks of a transition from the “class in itself” (i.e. a class that is only conceptually characterized by its position in the production process) to the “class for itself”, that is, to a class that is self-conscious and willing to fight together for its interests ( class consciousness ). Consciously or unconsciously, the two analytically determinable classes “wage labor” and “capital” would find themselves in a permanent dispute, the so-called class struggle .

From the 1940s onwards there was an increasing number of analyzes that criticized the real socialism of the Eastern Bloc at that time with the help of a “class” concept based on Marx ( cf. Milovan Djilas , Rudi Dutschke and others).

Definition according to Weber

The concept of social class was differentiated and expanded within Max Weber's sociology . He defined "class" as that

"Typical opportunity [...], which follows from the degree and type of control (or lack of such) over goods and performance qualifications and from the given nature of their usability for the generation of income within a given economic system ."

Weber distinguishes three forms of classes:

  • the classes of ownership are determined by ownership
  • the employment classes are determined by the employment opportunities
  • the social classes are determined by their chances and risks of social advancement and relegation

Definition according to Dahrendorf

According to Ralf Dahrendorf ( cf. there , 1956), “classes” are to be defined not only by owning or not owning especially “means of production”, but simply by means of power . This often even includes means of violence . Although power is effective everywhere, Dahrendorf's antagonisms do not lead to a universal civil war, since all social actors have different social roles ( cf. on this: " homo sociologicus ") and each role can have a different class antagonism . This explains why they may not be 100 percent involved anywhere, and why their class opponents are also antagonists within one power relationship (as in the company), but their power allies within another (in the parish or party), which makes the violence and intensity more social Mitigates conflict .

Wright definition

Erik Wright divides a society into 12 classes and is closely based on the Marxian class concept. There is an older and a younger class scheme by Wright, only the current version (from 2005) is explained here. In this scheme there is a division into:

  • Owners of means of production (entrepreneurs), grades 1-3 in the Wright scheme
  • Non-owners of means of production (workers), grades 4–12

Classes 1–3 ( bourgeoisie, small employers, petty bourgeoisie ) are used to classify the entrepreneurs (owners of means of production), here the following applies:

are entrepreneurs who typically employ more than 10 people, they have sufficient capital to hire workers, they do not have to work themselves
Small employers
Small business owners typically have fewer than 10 employees, can afford to hire employees, but have to work themselves
Petty bourgeoisie
Petty bourgeoisie, are self-employed entrepreneurs who have enough capital to start their own business, but cannot afford to hire people and are therefore forced to work.

Workers (non-owners of means of production) are classified by Wright on the basis of two characteristics: according to their qualification resources (educational qualifications) and according to their organizational resources (control of material and subordinates).

Goldthorpe class schema

The schema according to Robert Erikson and John Goldthorpe , often just called the “Goldthorpe class schema”, is used with modifications in sociology, but is even more common in market research . The terms such as layer and class nowadays have large overlaps and must be viewed, examined and differentiated from each other where possible. According to the criteria of some sociologists, this class scheme can rather be described as a stratification scheme with milieu-related characteristics. Goldthorpe divides the population into seven classes (strata), some of which he subdivides even more finely. He differentiates his classes on the basis of their sources of income and their position in the economic process.

The categories of the class schema are:

  1. upper and middle ranks of the service class (= higher and middle ranks of the academic professions, administrative and management professions; large entrepreneurs)
  2. low ranks of service class
  3. non-manual jobs with routine activities (especially office jobs, including sales jobs)
  4. Self-employed with 2–49 employees
  5. Small self-employed with 1 employee or alone
  6. Self-employed farmers
  7. Technician; Supervisors of employees in the manual area (foreman, foreman)
  8. Skilled workers
  9. unskilled and semi-skilled workers
  10. Farm workers
  11. Split from class 3: professions without any bureaucratic involvement.

This measurement criterion has the advantage that it is easy to operationalize for empirical market research . Since he also describes the top class as " service class ", he lacks the top class , which is insignificant for mass markets, which is also very difficult to research empirically in sociology, but which must never be missing in a comprehensive social structure analysis: very rich self-employed ( the super -rich ), top politicians, church leaders , representatives of the media and science, the so-called elite . From a sociological point of view, Goldthorp's scheme is therefore incomplete, but can be supplemented depending on the question.

Reference should also be made here to the class model according to Engel, Blackwell and Kollat , which operates similarly according to consumer groups and which also takes into account the upper classes.

The use of a modified Goldthorpe scheme played a role in investigations into the individualization theorem , according to which the formative influence of social structure on problems, interests and behavioral tendencies is disappearing. The sociologist Walter Müller , on the other hand, used the example of voting behavior to show that splitting the service class into administrative service class, social services and experts leads to results that cast doubt on this aspect of the individualization theorem.

Social milieu

As a social milieu is by Émile Durkheim the social environment described in which an individual grows up and lives. Durkheim differentiates between an inner and an outer social milieu. Rainer Lepsius later took up the term to explain voting behavior ; within the Weimar Republic he differentiates between three major socio-moral milieus in which people were surrounded “from cradle to grave”, namely

  • the liberal-Protestant milieu,
  • the social democratic milieu and
  • the Catholic milieu.

According to Pierre Bourdieu, there are three major classes : the upper class / bourgeoisie , the petty bourgeoisie and the working class . These are distributed in the social space along a "vertical" axis on which the power relations are more or less depicted. The classes differ, among other things, in the ability of their members to distinguish.

Within the individual classes, Bourdieu distinguishes - on a "horizontal" axis - class fractions with a specific position and symbolic conflicts in the area of ​​lifestyles , e.g. the property bourgeoisie (entrepreneurs; oriented towards tradition and luxury), the new bourgeoisie (executives; towards progress oriented) and the educated middle class (intellectuals, teachers at universities; oriented towards bohemian or - forced - asceticism). Bourdieu differentiates the individual class factions from one another on the basis of the structure of their entire capital . Bourdieu distinguishes economic capital from cultural capital , social capital and symbolic capital . For example, the educated bourgeoisie has a high “cultural capital”, but only a relatively low level of “economic capital”. The different class fractions are also sometimes referred to as milieus .

The conditions of the social situation, i.e. the location in the social space, determine a different “ habitus ” in each case , while the strategies for action offer a certain amount of individual freedom. The habitus shapes the specific taste, but also the forms of practice , i.e. the respective practiced and preferred social practices (i.e. the lifestyle ). At the same time, the habitus enables a distinction between ingroups and outgroups . The different lifestyles, depending on the class and class faction, were empirically confirmed by Bourdieu in an extensive study , especially of consumer conditions in France in the 1960s and 70s . The subtle differences .

A further development of the Bourdieuian model of the social structure of society can be found in the milieu theory as used by Michael Vester and others.

Social situation and lifestyle

In lifestyle and inequality research, the term milieu was differentiated in the 1980s and a distinction was made between social situation , life goals and lifestyles, which describe patterns of action to achieve life goals. The “milieu” term assumes that people's lifestyles are not only shaped by external circumstances, but also by internal values. The term “social milieu” thus refers to groups of individuals with similar goals and styles of life and includes the mentality and disposition of the people. Due to the increasing pluralization of societies and the individualization of lifestyles, the previously close connection between social situation and milieus is loosened, even if social milieus can still be hierarchically classified according to status and income.

Ethnology: Kinship and Marriage

The Ethnosociology , an interdisciplinary field of anthropology (Ethnology) has, in 1300 for the world's  ethnic groups and indigenous peoples worked out other terms and concepts to describe and analyze their forms of social organization, especially social origin rules (descent) and marriage rules with appropriate marital home rules (Residence ).

The social structures of most ethnic groups are formed by kinship groups such as hordes of predators (hunters, fishermen and gatherers), lineages (groups of descent), clans (mythical groups of descent), phratria (clan associations) or moieties (social lineages). These can work together as similar and equal segments (parts) in the form of a segmentary society , some of them entirely without rule (see also ethnological social models ). In addition, there are gradations in the complexity of social and political organizational methods, for example in tribal societies or chiefdoms , up to the formation of states . Today's analysis of the social structure of ethnic societies is often made more difficult by the influence of modern states and globalization .


The term “caste” is primarily associated with a social phenomenon known from India . The sociological reference becomes clear through the practical effects on formal behavioral restrictions. The term is also used colloquially or sociologically in general and applied to individual groups of other and even modern societies. An important role in the “box” concept is played by its high rigidity , which is also religiously consolidated ( cf. social mobility ), which even exceeds that of the social order . However, social advancement is also possible here (often by splitting up a caste), which is called sanscritization in Indian sociology .

The caste membership of the individual is also determined by birth , similar to the class order , whereby entry or exit are theoretically also not possible (unless one leaves the Hindu traditions by confessing to the Sikh or others, for example ). However, social mobility within the castes does indeed exist. In practice, for example, a member can be excluded from his or her caste, which corresponds roughly to medieval excommunication in the Christian West. Likewise, a member sinks into the caste of a lower spouse, regardless of whether it is the man or the woman.

The caste system is particularly widespread in India , Sri Lanka , Nepal and Bali , but also among the Kurdish Yazidis . Societies that are predominantly characterized by caste can also be assumed for some tribes in the figurative sense, but no longer exist in modern times . However, even in (mobile) societies that are richly subdivided according to social classes and functions, individual groups can still show pronounced "caste" features (such as in the clergy , in the officer rank , as the cadre of a communist dictatorship). They are then mostly interpreted as other social patterns .


The medieval and early modern European society was divided into several levels. The three-tier system, which was particularly characteristic of France, was widespread:

  • The 1st estate comprised the group of all clergymen, i.e. H. Members of the high clergy as well as the lower clergy .
  • In the second stand was noble summarized. Here, too, it made no difference whether you belonged to the high nobility or to the - often poor - rural or postal nobility .
  • The 3rd estate nominally comprised all townspeople , occasionally also the free farmers, but not the “rest” of the population.

For beneath the estates there were subordinate groups of semi-free and unfree peasants, the household, court and monastery servants , the dishonest professions (the millers), the traveling people , impoverished, runaway, abdicated mercenaries and robbers ; also members of minorities (Jews, Roma and Sinti).

Occasionally the peasants were also able to stand ( Sweden , Tyrol ), in the large peasant republics of East Friesland and Dithmarschen even the ruling class, but in Central Europe after the Peasants' War of 1525 their disenfranchisement could not be stopped.

The class system was seen by the people of the Middle Ages and early modern times as a fixed, God-given order in which everyone had his unchangeable place. One was born into one's class. Celibacy and a lack of direct succession opened the first estate to a large extent for members of the second, and to a limited extent also for others. As a rule, however, it was not possible to move up to the second tier. Overall, earnings or wealth had little influence on what class one belonged to. For example, a bourgeois who had made a fortune as a merchant could be considerably richer than a poor nobleman. The class system is thus a relatively static model of society. It is no coincidence that static and status , the Latin word for “stand”, have the same etymological origin.

The politically justified estates (or estates) were closely linked to the social estates, and the latter were the prerequisite for their existence. In the Middle Ages, political and military power was by no means concentrated in the hands of the sovereign or king. Rather, he was dependent on the participation of the social elites (" vassals ") during his rule . First he needed the military service of his noble vassals, then financial contributions, which he could only have collected with the consent of the landlords - that is, the nobles or the monasteries and founders. The height of estate power in most European countries was in the period from the 15th to the 17th centuries. In some territories that had become Protestant, the monasteries and monasteries disappeared from the class system in the course of the 16th century, in others (for example in Württemberg ) Protestant prelates exercised the rights of their Catholic predecessors.

Data sources

An analysis of the social structure often makes use of data from the demographically and statistically oriented population structure and the economically oriented economic structure . They are important for the connections between sociology, administration and economics . However, other data is collected and presented there according to different characteristics, under different legal conditions and for purposes other than sociological analysis.


An example of the official sources is the microcensus , which has been collected since 1975 , which represents a 1 percent area sample of Germany and thus offers the largest representative statistics on the population and the labor market.

In addition to the official data, however, there are also a number of other large-scale surveys on the general social structure in Germany. Since 1980, the general population survey of the social sciences ( ALLBUS for short ) has been collected every two years , a cross-sectional survey that enables a time series analysis of detailed demographic characteristics. With the Socio-Economic Panel ( SOEP for short ), the composition of the households in the sample has been collected annually since 1984.

See also

Sources and further reading

  • Georges Balandier : Stratifications sociales. In: Georges Balandier, Roger Bastide (eds.): Perspectives de la sociologie contemporaine. PUF, Paris 1968, pp. 3-20 (French).
  • Reinhard Bendix , Seymour Martin Lipset : Class, Status and Power, a Reader in Social Stratification. Free Press, New York 1966 (English).
  • Peter Blau : Inequality and Heterogeneity: A primitive theory of social structure. 1977 (English).
  • Katharina Bleuer: Les inégalités sociales. Definitions, articulations et conséquences. Université de Neuchâtel 1995 (French).
  • Nicole Burzan : Social Inequality. Publishing house for social sciences, Wiesbaden 2005.
  • Roger Cornu, Janina Lagneau (eds.): Hiérarchie et classes sociales. Armand Colin, Paris 1969 (French).
  • Günter Endruweit : Milieu and lifestyle group - successor to the shift concept? Hampp, Munich / Mering 2000.
  • Rainer Geißler : The stratification sociology of Theodor Geiger. On the topicality of an almost forgotten classic. In: Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 37, 1985, pp. 378-410.
  • Thomas Klein: Social Structure Analysis. An introduction. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 2005, ISBN 3-499-55671-5 .
  • Paul Mombert : The Facts of Class Formation. In: Schmoller's yearbook for legislation, administration and economics in the German Empire. Volume 44, Issue 4, 1920, pp. 93–122.
  • Jörg Rössel : Plural social structure analysis. An action-theoretical reconstruction of the basic concepts of social structure analysis. Publishing house for social sciences, Wiesbaden 2005.
  • Jörg Rössel: social structure analysis. A compact introduction. Publishing house for social sciences, Wiesbaden 2009.
  • Bernhard Schäfers : Social Structure and Social Change in Germany. 2005.
  • Georg Simmel : On the sociology of the family. In: Vossische Zeitung. Berlin, June 30th and July 7th, 1885.
  • Georg Simmel: Sociology of the competition. In: New German Rundschau. Berlin, October 1903.
  • Georg Simmel: Digression on the nobility. In: Sociology. Investigation into the forms of socialization. Berlin 1908.
  • Wolfgang Teckenberg: Classes as Contexts in a European Comparison of Society. In: social world. Volume 55, Issue 4, 2004, pp. 389-424.
  • Ferdinand Tönnies : The Present Problems of Social Structure. In: American Journal of Sociology. Volume 10, Issue 5, 1905, pp. 569-588 (English).
  • Michael Vester , Peter von Oertzen u. a .: Social milieus in social structural change. Between integration and exclusion. Suhrkamp, ​​Frankfurt 2001.
  • W. Lloyd Warner: The study of social stratification. In: Review of Sociology. New York 1957, pp. 221-258 (English).
  • Max Weber : Economy and Society . (Since 1921/22 various editions: Sociological Basic Concepts. Mohr, Tübingen 1984 / UTB for Science, Volume 541).
  • Erik Wright: Classes. 1985 (English).

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. At the end of 2012, the Ethnographic Atlas by George P. Murdock recorded exactly 1,300 ethnic groups worldwide .