In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Closure

  • Introduction
  • Classical Sociology
  • Exclusion
  • The Stranger
  • Closure Effects in Total Institutions and Secret Societies

Sociology Social Closure
Juergen Mackert
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0084


“Social closure” is one of the most basic terms and concepts in sociology. Basically, closure refers to processes of drawing boundaries, constructing identities, and building communities in order to monopolize scarce resources for one’s own group, thereby excluding others from using them. Society is not a homogenous entity but is instead internally structured and subdivided by processes of social closure. Some social formations, such as groups, organizations, or institutions, may be open to everybody, provided they are capable of participation, while access to most others is limited due to certain criteria that either allow people to become members or exclude them from membership. Therefore, social closure is a ubiquitous, everyday phenomenon that can be observed in almost every sphere and place in the social world. Members of societies experience closure from the very beginning of their social life. To be excluded from certain groups starts at school, where presumably homogenous classes begin to subdivide into distinct peer groups or sports teams. Here, exclusion may be rather arbitrary, but the experience of having a door slammed in one’s face proceeds in cases, where inclusion depends on formal rules or preconditions. Access to private schools follows explicit rules and depends on financial capacities; access to university depends on a certificate or diploma, eventually from certain schools only; membership in a highly prestigious club depends on economic and social capital and the respective social networks; and finally, in the case of migration, people will have to be eligible for citizenship and pass the thorny path of naturalization. However, it is not just the enormous plurality of forms that makes social closure crucial for sociology. Rather, the process of closure of social relations—of groups, organizations, institutions, and even national societies—is the fundamental process of both “communal” (Vergemeinschaftung) and “associative” relationships (Vergesellschaftung), and neither would be possible without social closure. In this broad and fundamental sense, social closure is not restricted to processes in national societies. It even allows for understanding crucial processes of the way the social world is organized at the regional or global level.

Classical Sociology

Processes of social closure are of fundamental significance in the work of the founding fathers of sociology, either in analyzing modern societies or in comparing them with premodern societies. Any sociological debate on social closure descends from Max Weber’s basic sociological term, “open and closed social relations” (see Weber 1978). Reinterpreting Tönnies’s important distinction between “communal” relationships (Vergemeinschaftung) and “associative” relationships (Vergesellschaftung) Weber 1978 shows that social closure lies at the heart of both of them (see Tönnies 1963). Simmel 1964 refers to closure in different contexts, especially in discussing social conflict and processes of individualization, and not least in his debate on the sociology of secrecy and secret societies (see Simmel 1906, cited under Closure Effects in Total Institutions and Secret Societies). Further, Karl Marx’s historical analyses of modes of production (Marx 1968) and class theory (Marx 1887) are implicitly based on social closure, insofar as specific criteria are essential for people’s belonging to one class or another. Even Émile Durkheim’s comparison between premodern and modern societies (Durkheim 1997) depends on differences of (degrees of) closeness.

  • Durkheim, Émile. 1997. The division of labour in society. Translated by W. D. Halls. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan.

    English translation of De la Division du travail social: Étude sur l’organisation des societies supérieures, first published in 1902. Comparing the structure of premodern and modern societies, Durkheim argues that the structure of premodern societies was made up of closed segments, while modernity is much more open via the division of labor.

  • Marx, Karl. 1887. Capital: A critical analysis of capitalist production. London: Swan Sonnenschein, Lowrey.

    English translation of Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Vol. 1, first published in 1867. Marx discusses the economic structure of capitalism, arguing that processes of polarization generate two social classes that are completely detached from one another. No member of the proletariat would be allowed access to the bourgeoisie.

  • Marx, Karl. 1968. The German ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers.

    English translation of Die Deutsche Ideologie, first published in 1845–1846. In Marx’s historical analysis of modes of production, belonging to a social class depends on private ownership of the means of production. This is the criterion that decides whether individuals belong to either bourgeoisie or proletariat in modern society.

  • Simmel, Georg. 1964. Conflict and the web of group-affiliations. Edited by Kurt H. Wolff and Reinhard Bendix. New York: Free Press.

    English translation of “Der Streit” and “Die Kreuzung sozialer Kreise,” first published in 1908. Simmel refers to closure in discussing forms of both conflict and processes of individualization in modern societies. He explicitly refers to social closure insofar as people choose their social circles deliberately but remain excluded from others.

  • Tönnies, Ferdinand. 1963. Community and society. Translated and edited by Charles P. Loomis, et al. New York: Harper & Row.

    English translation of Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, first published in 1887. In his main contribution to sociology, Tönnies distinguishes two different forms of association in modern society. Implicitly, he refers to closure processes and different degrees of openness in community and society.

  • Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. Edited by Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    English translation of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der verstehenden Soziologie, first published in 1921–1922. Weber introduces the basic concept of “open and closed social relations.” He points to different degrees, criteria, and motivations for closure, exemplifying processes of monopolization with respect to both market relations and ethnic communities.

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