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Chapter 4: Social Structure and Social Interaction

4.1 Social Structure: The Building Blocks of Social Life

Social Issues in the News

“He’s Not a Patient, but Plays One for Class,” the headline said. For 12 days in July 2010, a 24-year-old medical student named Matt entered a nursing home in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to play the role of an 85-year-old man bound to a wheelchair and suffering from several serious health problems. He and five other medical students were staying in the facility to get a better idea of how to care for the elderly. Matt kept a daily journal and wrote regularly of the problems of using his wheelchair, among other topics. One day he wrote, “I never really noticed how hard it is to live like this. I just always thought of old people as grumpy people who are easily upset.” He had trouble reaching a TV remote control or reading a notice that was posted too high. When he first showered in his wheelchair, he was unable to turn it to be able to wash the right side of his body. He was so embarrassed to ask for help in going to the bathroom that he tried to spread out his bathroom trips so that the same nurse would not have to help him twice in a row. The experience taught Matt a lot about how to care not only for older patients but also for patients in general. The emotional bonds he developed with other patients during his time in the nursing home particularly made him realize how he should interact with patients. As Matt wrote in his journal, “There is a face and story behind every patient. The patient should not be viewed by the conditions that ail them, but by the person beneath the disease.” (Wu, 2010)

The status of an 85-year-old man bound to a wheelchair is very different from that of a medical student. So are our views of people in each status and our expectations of their behavior. Matt quickly learned what life in a wheelchair is like and realized that his stereotypical views of older people could easily complicate his medical interactions with them. Stereotypes are unreliable generalizations about social groups that we share during social interactions.

In all these ways, Matt’s brief experience in the nursing home illuminates important aspects of social structure and social interaction in today’s society. The statuses we occupy and the roles we play in these statuses shape our lives in fundamental ways and affect our daily interactions with other people. The many social institutions that are so important in modern society affect our lives profoundly from the moment we are born. This chapter examines major aspects of social structure and social interaction. This chapter should help you further understand yourself as a social being and not just as an individual. This in turn means it should further help you understand how and why you came to be the person you are.

Social Structure

Social life is composed of many levels of building blocks, from the very micro to the very macro. These building blocks combine to form the social structure. refers to the social patterns through which a society is organized, including the interrelated social institutions found in a society, social groups and associated patterns of group behavior, as well as statuses that individuals assume within social groups and the roles played in relation to these statuses. 


has many meanings in the dictionary and also within sociology, but for now we will define it as the position that someone occupies in society. This position is often a job title, but many other types of positions exist: student, parent, sibling, relative, friend, and so forth. It should be clear that status as used in this way conveys nothing about the prestige of the position, to use a common synonym for status. A physician’s job is a status with much prestige, but a shoe shiner’s job is a status with no prestige.

Any one individual often occupies several different statuses at the same time, and someone can simultaneously be a banker, Girl Scout troop leader, mother, school board member, volunteer at a homeless shelter, and spouse. This someone would be very busy! We call all the positions an individual occupies that person’s (see Figure 4.1 “Example of a Status Set”).

Figure 4.1 Example of a Status Setimage

Sociologists usually speak of three types of statuses. The first type is , which is the status that someone is born with and has little control over. There are relatively few ascribed statuses; the most common ones are our biological sex, race, parents’ social class and religious affiliation, and biological relationships (child, grandchild, sibling, and so forth).

The second kind of status is called , which, as the name implies, is a status you achieve, at some point after birth, and is understood as a position you have more control over. Sometimes through your own efforts and sometimes because good or bad luck befalls you. The status of student is an achieved status, as is the status of restaurant server or romantic partner, to cite just two of the many achieved statuses that exist.

Two things about achieved statuses should be kept in mind. First, our ascribed statuses, and in particular our sex, race and ethnicity, and social class, often affect our ability to acquire and maintain many achieved statuses. Second, achieved statuses can be viewed positively or negatively. Our society usually views achieved statuses such as physician, professor, or college student positively, but it views achieved statuses such as burglar or prostitute negatively.


Status refers to the position an individual occupies. The jobs of physician and shoe shiner are both statuses, even though one of these jobs is much more prestigious than the other job. Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

The third type of status is called a . This is a status that is so important that it overrides other statuses you may hold. In terms of people’s reactions, master statuses can be either positive or negative for an individual depending on the particular master status they hold. Donald Trump now holds the positive master status of president of the United States: his status as president overrides all the other statuses he holds (husband, father, and so forth), and millions of Americans respect him, whether or not they voted for him or now favor his policies, because of this status. Many other positive master statuses exist in the political and entertainment worlds and in other spheres of life.

Some master statuses have negative consequences. To recall the medical student and nursing home news story that began this chapter, a physical disability often becomes such a master status. If you are bound to a wheelchair, for example, this fact becomes more important than the other statuses you have and may prompt people to perceive and interact with you negatively. In particular, they perceive you more in terms of your master status (someone bound to a wheelchair) than as the “person beneath” the master status, to cite Matt’s words. For similar reasons, gender, race, and sexual orientation may also be considered master statuses, as these statuses often subject women, people of color, and gays and lesbians, respectively, to discrimination and other problems, no matter what other statuses they may have.

Whatever status we occupy, certain objects signify any particular status. These objects are called . In popular terms, status symbol usually means something like a Rolls-Royce or BMW that shows off someone’s wealth or success, and many status symbols of this type exist. But sociologists use the term more generally than that. For example, the wheelchair that Matt the medical student rode for 12 days was a status symbol that signified his master status of someone with a (feigned) disability. If someone is pushing a stroller, the stroller is a status symbol that signifies that the person pushing it is a parent or caretaker of a young child.


Whatever its type, every status is accompanied by a , which is the behavior expected of someone—and in fact everyone—with a certain status. You and most other people reading this book are students. Despite all the other differences among you, you have at least this one status in common. As such, there is a role expected of you as a student (at least by your professors); this role includes coming to class regularly, doing all the reading assigned from this textbook, and studying the best you can for exams. Roles for each status exist before you are born but are always changing. In fact, they continue changing throughout your lifetime. You are most likely aware of how much the social expectations of men and women have changed even in the last 20 years! A major dimension of socialization is learning the roles our society has and then behaving in the way a particular role demands.


Roles help us interact because we are familiar with the behavior associated with roles. Because baristas and café customers know what to expect of each other, their social interaction is possible. Photo by Quang Nguyen Vinh from Pexels

Because roles are the behavior expected of people in various statuses, they help us interact because we are familiar with the roles in the first place, a point to which the second half of this chapter returns. Suppose you are shopping in a department store. Your status is a shopper, and the role expected of you as a shopper—and of all shoppers—involves looking quietly at various items in the store, taking the ones you want to purchase to a checkout line, and paying for them. The person who takes your money is occupying another status in the store that we often call a cashier. The role expected of that cashier—and of all cashiers not only in that store but in every other store—is to accept your payment in a businesslike way and put your items in a bag. Because shoppers and cashiers all have these mutual expectations, their social interaction is possible.

Social Networks

Modern life seems increasingly characterized by social networks and yet they have always existed in societies. A is the totality of relationships that link us to other people and groups and through them to still other people and groups. As Facebook and other social media show so clearly, social networks can be incredibly extensive. Social networks can be so large, of course, that an individual in a network may know little or nothing of another individual in the network (e.g., a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend). But these “friends of friends” can sometimes be an important source of practical advice and other kinds of help. They can “open doors” in the job market, they can introduce you to a potential romantic partner, they can pass through some tickets to the next big basketball game.

Groups and Organizations

Groups and organizations are the next component of social structure. A or group consists of two or more people who regularly interact on the basis of mutual expectations and who share a common identity. To paraphrase John Donne, the 17th-century English poet, no one is an island; almost all people are members of many groups, including families, groups of friends, and groups of coworkers in a workplace. Sociology is sometimes called the study of group life, and it is difficult to imagine a modern society without many types of groups and a small, preindustrial society without at least some groups.

In terms of size, emotional bonding, and other characteristics, many types of groups exist. But one of the most important types is the bureaucracy which is a large group that follows explicit rules and procedures to achieve specific goals and tasks. For better and for worse, organizations are an essential feature of modern societies. Our banks, our hospitals, our schools, and so many other examples are all organizations, even if they differ from one another in many respects. In terms of their goals and other characteristics, several types of organizations exist.

Social Institutions

Yet another component of social structure is the , or patterns of beliefs and behavior that help a society meet its basic needs. Modern society is filled with many social institutions that all help society meet its needs and achieve other goals and thus have a profound impact not only on the society as a whole but also on virtually every individual in a society. Examples of social institutions include family, economy, education, government and religion.


The largest component of social structure is, of course, itself. Society is a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture. Societies certainly differ in many ways; some are larger in population and some are smaller, some are modern and some are less modern. Since the origins of sociology during the 19th century, sociologists have tried to understand how and why modern, industrial society developed. Part of this understanding involves determining the differences between industrial societies and preindustrial ones.


Every society has a : the norms, language and beliefs adhered to by the most powerful. In small societies, the dominant culture is typically practiced by everyone. However, large societies, like postindustrial ones, have multiple within one society. Subcultures are adhered to by a segment of the population, oftentimes a minority population. As discussed previously, the norms and beliefs of a subculture differ slightly from the dominant culture but usually still remain within the realm of legitimate behaviors. If a subculture were too deviant from the dominant norms, they would likely be treated as deviants and negatively sanctioned. An essential component of a functioning social structure in a large society is to have a higher tolerance of cultural diversity. Sociologists look to Emile Durkheim’s concept of social solidarity to explain this component.

Social Solidarity

One of the key differences between preindustrial and industrial societies is the emphasis placed on the community versus the emphasis placed on the individual. In preindustrial societies, community feeling and group commitment create , or hold the society together. In these societies, deviance from the dominant culture is rarely tolerated. In contrast, industrial and postindustrial societies are more individualistic and impersonal however cultural diversity is tolerated resulting in the multiple subcultures we see here. So what holds industrialized societies together?

Sociologist Emile Durkheim suggests an explanation in his book The Division of Labour in Society, published in 1893. In this book, he highlights the degree of division of labor within these societies as a key difference. In preindustrial societies, there is little division of labor; there are not many types of labor besides maintaining a food source and taking care of children and men and women work together for a lot of this. It is important for these societies to agree on cultural norms and beliefs; if they did not, they might not get along enough to accomplish their work! Durkheim would say that these societies have . Compare this to what you are familiar with: a society where there are thousands of occupations of varying prestige and power and available to men or women. Industrialized societies have extreme division of labor and, because of this, require a tolerance to cultural diversity. Durkheim theorized that this complex and hierarchical system of labor is what holds industrialized societies together and called this . The takeaway here is that, while these types of societies may appear dramatically different culturally, the people existing in them are still reliant on everyone else for survival. A functioning society requires some type of social solidarity. As you will read below, agriculture dramatically changes the social structure of societies. Agriculture can produce a surplus of food and this can be done with fewer people, allowing for others to become experts in areas such as medicine and architecture. The division of labor that we see today would not have happened without this initial change in food production strategies.


Key Terms

Achieved Status — a status you achieve at some point after birth that is understood as a position you have more control over.

Ascribed Status — the status that someone is born with and has little control over.

Master Status –a status that is so important that it overrides other statuses you may hold.

Mechanical Solidarity — when a society has little division of labor and a strong emphasis on group commitment leaving little room for deviance from group norms and beliefs.

Organic Solidarity — when a society relies on a large, complex and hierarchical division of labor, where cultural diversity and individualism are common.

Roles — behaviors expected of someone of a certain status.

Social Institution — the patterns of beliefs and behaviors that help a society meet its basic needs.

Social Status — the position that someone occupies in society.

Social Structure — the social patterns through which a society is organized.

Society – a group of people who live within a defined territory and who share a culture.

Status Set — all the positions an individual occupies.

Status Symbols — objects that signify a particular status.


Continue to 4.2 The Development of Modern Society


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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean Ramirez; Rudy Hernandez; Aliza Robison; Pamela Smith; and Willie Davis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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