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Chapter 5: Social Structure, Social Interaction and Social Groups

5.1 Social Structure and Social Interaction

“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, social interaction, and social groups. 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

We first introduced the in chapter one, examining how societies have changed over time and how these different forms of societies, social institutions, social groups, and social statuses make up key components of the social structure. As a whole, social structure consists of these building blocks or social patterns through which a society is organized, influencing our individual opportunities and outcomes in the social world. In this chapter, we focus more closely on the dynamics of social status, roles, and groups. This discussion will give us a foundation for understanding specific forms of social inequalities and institutions in modern societies in the chapters ahead.

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 5.1 “Example of a Status Set”).

Figure 5.1 Example of a Status Set

Graphic with six boxes with different statuses listed in each including, banker, girl scout troop leader, mother, school board member, community volunteer and spouse

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.

image of surgeon performing a procedure

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. Pixabay 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. Joe Biden 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. An individual’s master status can also change over time or in different social spaces.

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.

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Think Like a Sociologist

What is your master status?

Why do you consider this to be your master status?

Is your master status an ascribed or achieved status?

Would your answers to the above questions change depending on the place and time in your life?

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Whatever status we occupy, certain objects signify any particular status. These objects are called . In popular terms, status symbols usually mean 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.

Roles

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.

image of a barista

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. Quang Nguyen Vinh 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.

Test Yourself

Social Interaction

A fundamental feature of social life is , or the ways in which people act with other people and react to how other people are acting. All individuals, except those who choose to live truly alone, interact with other individuals virtually every day and often many times in any one day. For social order, a prerequisite for any society, to be possible, effective social interaction must be possible. Partly for this reason, sociologists interested in microsociology have long tried to understand social life by analyzing how and why people interact the way they do. This section draws on their work to examine various social influences on individual behavior. As you read this section, you will probably be reading many things relevant to your own social interaction.

image of group of four friends hiking

Social interaction is a fundamental feature of social life. For social order to be possible, effective social interaction must also be possible. Rawpixel.comPexels

Socialization results from our social interaction. The reverse is also true: we learn how to interact from our socialization. We have seen many examples of this process in earlier chapters. Among other things, we learn from our socialization how far apart to stand when talking to someone else, we learn to enjoy kissing, we learn how to stand and behave in an elevator, and we learn how to behave when we are drunk. Perhaps most important for the present discussion, we especially learn our society’s roles, outlined earlier as a component of social structure. The importance of roles for social interaction merits further discussion here.

Roles and Social Interaction

Our earlier discussion of roles defined them as the behaviors expected of people in a certain status. Regardless of our individual differences, if we are in a certain status, we are all expected to behave in a way appropriate to that status. Roles thus help make social interaction possible.

As our example of shoppers and cashiers was meant to suggest, social interaction based on roles is usually very automatic, and we often perform our roles without thinking about them. This, in fact, is why social interaction is indeed possible: if we always had to think about our roles before we performed them, social interaction would be slow, tedious, and fraught with error. (Analogously, if actors in a play always had to read the script before performing their lines, as an understudy sometimes does, the play would be slow and stilted.) It is when people violate their roles that the importance of roles is thrown into sharp relief. Suppose you were shopping in a department store, and while you were in the checkout line the cashier asked you how your sex life has been. Now, you might expect such an intimate question from a very close friend, because discussions of intimate matters are part of the roles close friends play, but you would definitely not expect it from a cashier you do not know.

Sociologist Harold Garfinkel (1967) argued that unexpected events like this underscore how fragile social order is and remind us that people are constantly constructing the social reality of the situations in which they find themselves. To illustrate his point, he had his students perform a series of experiments, including acting like a stranger in their parents’ home. Not surprisingly, their parents quickly became flustered and wondered what college was doing to their daughters and sons!

These examples indicate that social reality is to a large extent socially constructed. It is what we make of it, and individuals who interact help construct the reality of the situation in which they interact. Sociologists refer to this process as the (Berger & Luckmann, 1963). Although we usually come into a situation with shared understandings of what is about to happen, as the interaction proceeds the actors continue to define the situation and thus to construct its reality. This view lies at the heart of the symbolic interactionist perspective and helps us understand how and why roles (or to be more precise, our understanding of what behavior is expected of someone in a certain status) make social interaction possible.

Role Problems

Roles help our interactions run smoothly and automatically and, for better or worse, shape our personalities. But roles can also cause various kinds of problems. One such problem is , which occurs when the roles of our many statuses conflict with each other. For example, say you are a student and also a parent. Your 3-year-old child gets sick. You now have a conflict between your role as a parent and your role as a student. To perform your role as a parent, you should stay home with your sick child. To perform your role as a student, you should go to your classes and take the big exam that had been scheduled weeks ago. What do you do?

One thing is clear: you cannot perform both roles at the same time. To resolve role conflict, we ordinarily have to choose between one role and the other, which is often a difficult choice to make. In this example, if you take care of your child, you miss your classes and exam; if you go to your classes, you have to leave your child at home alone, an unacceptable and illegal option. Another way to resolve role conflict is to find some alternative that would meet the needs of your conflicting roles. In our sick child example, you might be able to find someone to watch your child until you can get back from classes. It is certainly desirable to find such alternatives, but, unfortunately, they are not always forthcoming. If role conflict becomes too frequent and severe, a final option is to leave one of your statuses altogether. In our example, if you find it too difficult to juggle your roles as parent and student, you could stop being a parent (hardly likely) or, more likely, take time off from school until your child is older. Most of us in these circumstances would try our best to avoid having to do this.

Figure 5.2 Example of a Role Conflict

graphic of 4 boxes interconnected, labeled sick child, you are a parent, you are a student and decision?

Another role-related problem is called . Here you have one status, and in an effort to fulfill all the role expectations associated with that one status, the individual experiences stress. Suppose you were a high school principal. As a principal, you come into contact with various employees and stakeholders, including: teachers, students, custodial and support staff, the school superintendent, school board members, the community as a whole, and the news media. Each has different expectations and demands of you that can sometimes conflict with one another. If your high school has a dress code, for example, the students may want you to abolish it, the teachers and superintendent may want you to keep it, and maybe the school board would agree with the students. As you try to please all these competing factions, you certainly might experience some role strain.

Test Yourself

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Nonverbal Social Interaction

Social interaction is both verbal and nonverbal. Culture greatly influences , or ways of communicating that do not involve talking. Nonverbal communication includes the gestures we use and how far apart we stand when we talk with someone. When we do talk with someone, much more nonverbal interaction happens beyond gestures and standing apart. We might smile, laugh, frown, grimace, or engage in any number of other facial expressions (with or without realizing we are doing so) that let the people with whom we interact know how we feel about what we are saying or what they are saying. Often how we act nonverbally is at least as important, and sometimes more important, than what our mouths are saying.

Body posture is another form of nonverbal communication, and one that often combines with facial expressions to convey how a person feels. People who are angry may cross their arms or stand with their hands on their hips and glare at someone. Someone sitting slouched in a chair looks either very comfortable or very bored, and neither posture is one you would want to use at an interview for a job you really wanted to get. Men and women may engage in certain postures while they are flirting with someone. Consciously or not, they sit or stand in certain ways that convey they are romantically interested in a particular person and hopeful that the person will return this interest. As with emotions, gender appears to influence how people communicate nonverbally (Hall, 2006). For example, a number of studies find that women are more likely than men to smile, to nod, and to have more expressive faces. Once again, biologists and social scientists disagree over the origins of these and other gender differences in nonverbal communication, with social scientists attributing the differences to gender roles, culture, and socialization.

image of woman laughing

Research finds that women tend to smile more often than men. Biologists and social scientists disagree over the origins of this gender difference in nonverbal communication. MwabonjePexels

Gender differences also exist in two other forms of nonverbal interaction: eye contact and touching. Women tend more than men to look directly into the eyes of people with whom they interact, a process called gazing. Such gazing is meant to convey interest in the interaction and to be non-threatening. On the other hand, men are more likely than women to stare at someone in a way that is indeed threatening. A man might stare at a man because he resents something the other man said or did; a man might stare at a woman because he sees her as a sexual object. In touching, men are more likely than women to touch someone, especially when that someone is a woman; as he guides her through a doorway, for example, he might put his arm behind her arm or back. On the other hand, women are more likely than men to touch themselves when they are talking with someone, a process called self-touching. Thus, if a woman is saying “I think that…,” she might briefly touch the area just below her neck to refer to herself. Men are less likely to refer to themselves in this manner.

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Think Like a Sociologist

Social interaction, how people act towards and respond to other people, is learned behavior and varies depending on different factors. This is demonstrated when observing how far people stand when talking to another person. Americans and the citizens of Great Britain and the northern European nations customarily stand about three to four feet apart from someone who is a stranger or acquaintance. Standing closer than this when it is not necessary (such as in an elevator) makes us uncomfortable. In contrast, people in many parts of the world—South and Central America, Africa, the Middle East, and Western European nations such as France, Spain, and Italy—stand much closer to someone with whom they are talking. In these nations, people stand only about 9 to 15 inches apart when they talk. If someone for some reason wanted to stand another two feet away, a member of one of these nations would view this person as unfriendly and might well feel insulted (Ting-Toomey, 1999; Samovar, Porter, & McDaniel, 2010). When Americans travel abroad, they may find people from other nations pushy and aggressive, while the people from those countries think Americans are cold and aloof (Ellsworth, 2005).

Differences in how we communicate can also interfere with social interaction. Deborah Tannen’s studies of linguistics have uncovered some surprising insights such as how the pace of speech varies across the U.S. For example, people from New York allow for shorter pauses between speakers while talking than people from southern California, causing the New Yorkers to monopolize the conversation while the Californians cannot get a word in – and making both sides annoyed with the other (Vedantam, 2021). Tannen also researched how gender differences in communication style can lead to misunderstandings. She posits that women use ‘rapport-talk’ where conversation is used to build relationships (causing women stereotypically to want to talk about their feelings). Men on the other hand use ‘report-talk’; since they build relationships through activities, men seek to gain the upper hand in conversation and see it more as a competition (leading to the proverbial reluctance of men to ask for directions) (Tannen, 1990).

How do you use personal space to indicate the level of closeness you have with your family, friends, acquaintances or strangers?

Have you noticed regional or gender differences in communication styles?

 



Section 5.1 References

Berger, P. and T. Luckmann (1963). The social construction of reality. New York, NY: Doubleday. 

Ellsworth, M. (2005, December 12). Crossing cultures—Personal space. ExPatFacts. Retrieved from http://www.expatfacts.com/2005/12/crossing_cultures_personal_spa.html.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Cambridge, England: Polity Press.

Hall, J. A. (2006). Women’s and men’s nonverbal communication: Similarities, differences, stereotypes, and origins. In V. Manusov & M. L. Patterson (Eds.), The Sage handbook of nonverbal communication (pp. 201–218). 

Samovar, L. A., R. E. Porter and E. R. McDaniel. (2010). Communication between cultures (7th ed.). Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

Ting-Toomey, S. (1999). Communicating across cultures. New York, NY: Guilford Press

Tannen, Deborah. (1990) You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation. New York: Harper Collins.

Wu, J. Q. (2010, July 19). He’s not a patient, but plays one for class. The Boston Globe, p. B1.

Vedantam, Shankar (Host). (2021, April 26) Why Conversations Go Wrong. Hidden Brain Media. https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/why-conversations-go-wrong/

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Exploring Our Social World: The Story of Us by Jean M. Ramirez, Suzanne Latham, Rudy G. Hernandez, and Alicia E. Juskewycz is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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