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Societies were understood by Durkheim as "objectively existing" realities, which the individual experienced as just as "naturally given" as nature itself. People moved "through society", but society itself was a permanent edifice. It formed a framework of morality and common understandings, which was what made fathers, kings and techno dancers be fathers, kings and techno-dancers. Radcliffe-Brown and others refer to this framework as "social structure".

This structure was envisioned as a network of rules and norms. In contrast, a "social system" comprises the processes that flow and the actions that people take, within the structural framework. "Social forms" is another, related term, used by Barth to denote specific aggregates of process; a "social form" is, so to speak, a social "subsystem". The term structure is used in different ways in different theoretical schools: (British) structural functionalists emphasized the normative, jural aspect of the structural rules; (French) structuralists considered the rules to be mainly logical, linguistic or esthetical - structures of meaning.

Methodologically, concepts of the above type may often be operationalized through a study of "social networks", the network of people who know people, directly or indirectly, each in his or her way (Barnes 1972 is the classical text on networks). The fieldworker can follow the network, describe various types of relations in it, or decipher hidden patterns in the network's structure. (See also impression management.) In the history of anthropology, the first prototype of work of this kind was the study of kinship.