Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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core definition

A structure is a complex set of interrelated elements.

explanatory context

Structure or structural is a term used in two ways. First a structure is viewed holistically as a complex set of interrelated elements that are interdependent and that can only be adequately conceived by reference to the complete structure. This is the sense in which structuralism uses the term structure.

Second, a structure is viewed as a composite of its elements. The complexity of a structure is decomposed into a network of linked parts with a view to exposing the elements and simplifying the whole. It is assumed that the elements make sense in their own right. This is more aptly described as a system. It is essentially the approach adopted by structural functionalists.

The use of the term structure in information technology also reflects this idea of decomposition, indeed, system and structure tend to be used interchangeably by information technologists. Systems analysts undertake 'structured techniques' which involve the breaking down of complex problem into manageable units in a disciplined systematic way. Thus structural analysis undertaken by information technologists does not have any of the concerns of structuralism and is possibly closest to the Durkheimian functionalist use of structure.

Possibly the easiest way to distinguish structure from system is to see a system as a congealed patterns of interaction, and structure as underlying models of the world that structuralists seek to identify.

Piaget's designation of structure provides a useful definition. For Piaget, structure is an arrangement of entities that embodies the following fundamental ideas:
a. the idea of wholeness (i.e. internal coherence, not a simple composite or aggregate of independent elements, but parts conforming to intrinsic laws that determine the nature of the structure and of the parts)
b. the idea of transformation (i.e. the structure is not static, the intrinsic laws make it not only structured but structuring. The structure is capable of transformative procedures.)
c. the idea of self-regulation. (i.e. the structure makes no appeals beyond itself in order to valiate its transformational procedures)

Language, for example, is a relational whole with grammatical rules, can transform fundamental sentences into a wide variety of forms whilst retaining them within its structure and transforms sentences with no reference to an outside reality.


analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines 'structure' as follows:

To Giddens, the structuring properties (specifically, rules and resources) that give similar social practices a systemic form.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) defines social structure as follows:

Societies are "divided" generally into two components - social structure and social processes - that interpenetrate each other; i.e., are dialectically interrelated. The key to understanding social structure in a society is understanding its social institutions and their intertwining combinations. Social structure is the institutional framework that makes for order in daily, weekly, and yearly interaction between people. It is social institutions that promote the necessary order to make social structure possible.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines structure as:

Sociological term to refer to all human institutions, groups and organizations.

associated issues


related areas

See also




Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.
McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 12 December 2016.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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