Social norms influence social structure through relations between the majority and the minority. Because those who align with the majority are considered normal while those who align with the minority are considered abnormal, majority-minority relations create a hierarchical stratification within social structures that favors the majority in all aspects of society.
These scales are not always kept separate. For example, recent scholarship by John Levi Martin has theorized that certain macro-scale structures are the emergent properties of micro-scale cultural institutions (this meaning of "structure" resembles that used by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss). Likewise, another recent study, in ethnography, describes how indigenous social structure in the Republic of Panama changed macro social structures and impeded a planned Panama Canal expansion. Marxist sociology also has a history of mixing different meanings of social structure, though it has done so by simply treating the cultural aspects of social structure as epiphenomena of its economic ones.
Since the 1920s, the term has been in general use in social science, especially as a variable whose sub-components needed to be distinguished in relationship to other sociological variables.
The notion of social structure as relationship between different entities or groups or as enduring and relatively stable patterns of relationship emphasises the idea that society is grouped into structurally related groups or sets of roles, with different functions, meanings or purposes. One example of social structure is the idea of "social stratification", which refers to the idea that most societies are separated into different strata (levels), guided (if only partially) by the underlying structures in the social system. This approach has been important in the academic literature with the rise of various forms of structuralism. It is important in the modern study of organizations, because an organization's structure may determine its flexibility, capacity to change, and many other factors. Therefore, structure is an important issue for management.
Social structure may be seen to influence important social systems including the economic system, legal system, political system, cultural system, and others. Family, religion, law, economy, and class are all social structures. The "social system" is the parent system of those various systems that are embedded in it.
The early study of social structures has informed the study of institutions, culture and agency, social interaction, and history. Alexis de Tocqueville was apparently the first to use the term social structure; later, Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer, Max Weber, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Émile Durkheim all contributed to structural concepts in sociology. Weber investigated and analyzed the institutions of modern society: market, bureaucracy (private enterprise and public administration), and politics (e.g. democracy).
One of the earliest and most comprehensive accounts of social structure was provided by Karl Marx, who related political, cultural, and religious life to the mode of production (an underlying economic structure). Marx argued that the economic base substantially determined the cultural and political superstructure of a society. Subsequent Marxist accounts, such as that by Louis Althusser, proposed a more complex relationship that asserted the relative autonomy of cultural and political institutions, and a general determination by economic factors only "in the last instance".