Social Organization

Cooperation in Sociology

Kinship as a Basis of Organization

Social organization based on kinship allows family-based networks to share resources and divide labor.

One function of a society is to organize cooperation among its members. This cooperation helps members of the society survive and thrive. One approach to organizing cooperation is kinship, ties among families or networks of families. Kinship ties can be based on biology, such as the ties between parents and children or between siblings. They can also be based on marriage. Different societies have different understandings of what constitutes kinship. Some societies understand distant connections by marriage as kinship. For example, when people marry, their extended families may consider themselves linked by kinship. Ties can also exist between people who are fictive kin, meaning that no biological or marriage tie exists, but they consider each other family.

With kinship as a basis of social organization, economic relationships are based on cooperation. Members of a kinship group share their resources with one another, and labor divisions are based on family structure. Early societies, such as hunter-gatherer societies, were organized around kinship. They were small in size, as well as homogenous, meaning that members of society shared common values and ideas. Modern societies rely less on kinship and are more organized by bureaucracy.
Social cooperation is necessary to divide labor and reach goals. German philosopher Max Weber described bureaucracies as more efficient than kinship organization. Bureaucracies and markets (systems of economic exchange) are forms of cooperation that underlie capitalism.

Bureaucracy as a Basis of Organization

Bureaucracy is a solution to the weaknesses of kinship-based structures.

A bureaucracy is an organization based on rationality and efficiency. As human societies began to develop divisions of labor and trade, they also developed bureaucratic institutions such as governments. Bureaucracies can organize complex societies. They can also prevent some of the negative aspects of kinship-based organization, such as nepotism (giving jobs and privileges to family members). In theory, bureaucracies function as meritocracies, rewarding ability, effort, and expertise. A meritocracy is a system in which people occupy positions according to their abilities and achievements. Bureaucracy is used to organize most macrolevel aspects of modern societies, such as education, health care, justice, the military, and the economy. Individual bureaucracies organize businesses, nonprofit organizations, parent-teacher associations, neighborhood associations, and other small groups.

Weber analyzed bureaucracies, focusing on how and why they are efficient systems of organization. He described an ideal type of bureaucracy. An ideal type is a concept proposed by Weber, referring to a set of features that is characteristic of a social or historical phenomenon. Weber developed the concept of the ideal type as a tool to use in analyzing phenomena in general terms. It does not refer to something that is perfect or admirable. Rather, a Weberian ideal type is a general, abstract model that includes essential characteristics that define something. For example, the essential characteristics of a birthday cake might include sweetness, frosting, other decorations, and candles. Specific birthday cakes do not always include all these features. Weber used the concept of an ideal type as a framework that can be used to understand some feature of society, such as bureaucracies. Weber described an ideal type for bureaucracies. His purpose was not to describe a perfect bureaucracy, but rather to develop a theoretical model of a bureaucracy, to use as a tool in analyzing particular bureaucracies. There are several basic features of a bureaucracy:

  • division of labor
  • hierarchy of authority
  • rules and procedures
  • written records
  • impersonality

Weber argued that these features keep organizations running in an efficient and rational order. Weber celebrated the efficiency and rationality of bureaucracy, but he also knew there were significant disadvantages. Weber feared what he termed the "iron cage of rationality"—the bureaucratic tendency to dehumanize people. He warned that this could lead to the establishment of oligarchy, a small group of people who hold all or most power in a society and rule for their own benefit.

Markets as a Basis of Organization

Market-based structures organize cooperation based on economic relationships.

A market is a system for the exchange of goods and services. Organization based on markets is linked to how a society produces, exchanges, and consumes goods and services. Some researchers practice economic sociology, an approach that examines how the economy relates to society. They examine the context of economic structures and activity and consider how social factors drive the economy, as well as how the economy impacts social behavior. For example, social connections between individuals who work at different companies can drive a decision for the companies to do business together. Likewise, economic factors can drive social behavior. A strong economy, where employers need more employees, can spur companies and individuals to strive to expand their networks, reaching out to social groups that did not previously have access to such networks.

Market-based social organization is tied to the economic system of a society. The principle economic systems in modern societies are based on capitalism and socialism. In capitalistic economic systems, the means of production, such as land, technology, and resources, are privately owned. Economic activity maximizes the wealth of the owner of the means of production and also of the society as a whole. Goods are produced and sold in some form of a free market, where people and businesses compete to buy and sell at the lowest cost. Ideally in a capitalist economy, the competition characteristic of a free market should work on its own without government interference or control. In socialist economies, the means of production are collectively owned, meaning they belong to the public at large. Usually, a government structure manages the means of production. Competition and individual profit are not the key driving values of socialism. Instead, the collective needs of society are more important than the individual.

No societies use pure capitalism or pure socialism. Instead, capitalism and socialism exist on a continuum, and most societies fall somewhere in the middle. Canada takes a socialist approach to areas including health care and some price and supply controls. There is a publically funded national health system, regulated by the Canadian government. Laws regulate supply in some key areas, such as the dairy industry. However, Canada incorporates many elements of capitalism as well. Most industry and property are privately owned. Private companies compete and work to earn profits. In the United States, capitalism is the economic system, but the government plays a large role in regulating many industries. For instance, education, transportation, and sewage are all publicly owned systems in the United States.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both economic systems. Sociologists look at the ways that forms of capitalism and socialism impact social structure, class structure, opportunity, social behavior, culture, and other elements of society. For example, sociologists might consider how social cooperation based on markets impacts social mobility, the movement of individuals and groups up and down within overall social structure and social hierarchy. They study how lack of regulation in capitalist systems leads to structures that prioritize corporate profits over the environment or that give great power to employers and little power to workers. Rather than seeking to analyze how economic systems succeed or fail in terms of creating wealth, sociologists look at how economic systems contribute to social systems and patterns of social behavior.