Unit 3: Social Interaction, Social Structure, and Social Problems


In sociology there are two levels of sociological analysis, micro and macro sociology. Macrosociology looks at the broad features of a society. The social structure of a society is one of those features. Social structure refers to the framework of a society that was already laid out before a person was born. The existing social structure of a society is instrumental in guiding our behavior.

The question of what holds society together has perplexed sociologists for two hundred years. Some modern sociologists believe that society is united through a shared culture. Others, such as conflict theorists, don’t see unity, but rather an uneasy peace between the haves (elites) at the top and the have-nots (the masses) at the bottom. Finally, the structural-functionalists, led by Durkheim, would say that society is a complex organism that is functional, and exists outside of the individuals who compose it. Society existed before we were born, and will exist after we die. Once created, society takes on a life of its own.

Basic Elements of Social Status

statusIn the maternity ward of a hospital, newborn babies probably come closest to experiencing equality. They each receive loving attention from the doctors and nurses present. It is when they are taken home by their parents that a difference in treatment from society will occur. Every baby is born to parents who occupy a position in society. This position that a person occupies in a society is called a social status. Each of us occupies a status set, which refers to the multiple statuses we hold simultaneously. Some of the statuses in a status set may change over time. There are two types of statuses. The first status, ascribed, is involuntary. It is inherited at birth. Such factors as race, gender, and social class are examples of ascribed statuses. Another type of status is called achieved. Achieved status is voluntary. It is based on effort made through individual choices. Positions in society such as friend, spouse, or president are earned. Achieved statuses can be either positive or negative. For example, a positive achieved status would be a high school graduate, a negative achieved status would be a high school dropout. Each status provides guidelines for how people are to act and feel. Which statuses do Princess Diana and Mother Theresa pictured above hold?

statussymbolsWithin each status are status symbols. Status symbols are signs that identify a status. Status symbols can be either positive or negative. Examples of status symbols are wedding rings, military uniforms, badges, and gang attire. Some statuses are more important than others. These are called master statuses. Master statuses is a status that cuts across and is more dominant than other statuses. A master status is noticed first before other statuses a person holds. Examples of master statuses are race, gender, extreme wealth, and physical disability. Statuses come with built in norms or expected behavior. Sometimes there is a contradiction between statuses. This is called status inconsistency. For example, a fourteen year old college student. The status this teenager has while at class is different from the status he/she would receive from parents and friends.

The Social Construction of Reality

For many sociologists, especially symbolic interactionists, reality is not fixed. The phrase social construction of reality is used to describe the process why which people creatively shape reality through social interaction. In other words, reality is negotiated based on shared agreements and perceptions about the events going on around us. Much of “reality” may not seem clear in many situations, particularly unfamiliar ones. People create reality from the culture in which they live. Since people will view situations differently, social construction of reality will always involve conflict and tension. Think about how reality is shaped in the following social settings: a man and a woman flirt, a woman goes to a annual check-up with her gynecologist, or an inmate enters a concentration camp.

The Social Construction of Reality and the movie “The Matrix”

Roles are another component of social structure. Roles refer to the behaviors, obligations, and privileges attached to a status. The purpose of roles is to make us do what society wants us to do. For example, you may not normally wear suits, but you might wear one to a wedding or funeral. Imagine the looks you would get if you didn’t. It is important to remember that you occupy a status, but play a role. For example, you can occupy the status of a student, but play the role of a “brownnoser”.

Impression Management


Erving Goffman analyzed how we play our roles. His concept of “Impression Management” describes people’s efforts to control the impression we make on others. Goffman’s inspiration came from the theater. He believed that people’s everyday behavior is similar to actors performing on a stage. Goffman says that we have two stages we act on. The front stage is the area of ourselves that we feel comfortable exposing to a group. This is where we do our acting. The back stage is an area that we prefer to keep private, exposing it only to close friends and family members- or not at all. Impression management looks at how we play a role and try to present a favorable “self” to others. In social settings, just as actors on a stage, we constantly manage our dress, gestures, and words. Think of how you act at a job interview, or going on a date. How aware are you of your actions and words? Many years ago, Shakespeare captured Goffman’s notion of impression management when he wrote, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts. (As You Like It, act 2, scene 7).

Erving Goffman and the Presentation of the Self

Meet the Parents youtube video

A person can experience problems in playing out roles. One problem is role strain. Role strain is a conflict a person feels within a role corresponding to a status. For example, a police officer working in internal affairs feels a conflict between doing his job and maintaining camaraderie with the other officers. Teachers experience role strain when trying to decide to set time aside to meet with students or to attend divisional meetings. A second problem is role conflict. Role conflict is when a person experiences a conflict between the roles corresponding to two or more statuses. For example, a person’s role as a worker may conflict with a role as a parent. The difference between role conflict and role strain is that role conflict is conflict between various roles, while role strain is conflict within a single role.

Graphical Representation of the Difference Between Role Strain and Role Conflict

The Simpsons and Friends Illustrate the Difference Between Role Strain and Role Conflict (youtube)


Social Interaction

The “self” is the concept unique to humans, of being able to see ourselves “from the outside”. It is our internalized perception of how others see us. It is the self that is influenced by the society around us. The influence of society on our self-concepts has interested sociologists, particularity symbolic interactionists. Let us take a look at how this school of thought explains the interaction of social experiences and our self-concepts.

The Looking Glass Self

lookinglassCharles Horton Cooley ( 1864 – 1929) developed the concept of “The Looking Glass Self”. He proposed that our sense of self develops from interaction with others. We learn to view ourselves as we think others view us. In a sense, people act as mirrors for one another. If we think others see us as intelligent, then that is how we will see ourselves. There are three steps in the development of the looking glass self. They are:

1. We imagine how we appear to those around us. For example, we might think others see us as attractive or smart.
2. We interpret others reactions. For example, we might ask ourselves, do they like us because we are attractive and smart?
3. We develop feelings about and responses to these judgments or what we call a self-concept. A favorable reflection in this “social mirror” leads to a positive self-concept. An unfavorable reflection to a negative self-concept.

It is important to note that the development of the self does not depend on accurate information. We all know someone who thinks he/she is smarter or better looking than they really are. Keep in mind that the development of the self is an ongoing, lifelong process. How would you apply Cooley’s notion of the Looking Glass Self, to being a student in a sociology class?

Charles Horton Cooley: The Looking Glass Self

The First Date and the Looking Glass Self (youtube)

Taking on the Role of the Other

Another sociologist interested in the self is George Herbert Mead ( 1863 – 1931). Mead developed the concept of role taking or “Taking the role of the other”. This is where we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagine what it is like to be in their role. According to Mead, human beings acquire this skill gradually, beginning in childhood. We are first able to do this with our significant others ( parents, siblings). Later we expand our role taking to the generalized other or the group as a whole ( fellow students, coworkers). There are three stages of “Taking the role of the other”. They are:


1) Imitation. This occurs with infants up to the age of three. Children may imitate spontaneously (eating), or repeat through encouragement or reward (“count to three and I’ll give you…)
2) Play. This occurs in children ages 3 to 5. Here children model adults. During this stage children often pretend to be their significant others. Children often take on the roles of what they see around them. Young boys in the United States will pretend to fight like characters on a popular show, such as the Power Rangers. Young Palestinian and Israeli boys might pretend to fight like the soldiers they see around them every day.
3) Game. This usually occurs in the early school years. This is where children first learn the ability to take on the role of others. They are able to step outside of their “selves” and assume the role of other participants. For example, at this stage children are able to play a game of baseball. They understand not only the rules, but also the roles of each position in the baseball game.

Which of Mead’s stages is the young girl pictured above in?

According to Mead, there are two components of the self. The first is the “I”, the self as subject, the active, creative, spontaneous part of the self. The second is the “Me”, the self as object. It is the “Me” that internalizes attitudes from our interaction with others. To better understand this concept, think of the “me” as the part of you that understands the norms that determine our behavior in specific situations. The “I” is the part of us that acts in unpredictable and unexpected ways. A dialogue goes on constantly between the “I” and the “me” to determine the development of our “self”.

George Herbert Mead: The Genesis of the Self


Social Institutions

Social institutions represent an enduring, organized social structure that each society develops to meet its basic needs. Institutions provide routine patterns for dealing with predictable problems of social life. In industrial societies social institutions tend to be more formal, in developing societies, more informal. Each institution has its own set of values, norms and roles. The ten social institutions identified by sociologists are briefly described below.

The Family

The first, and probably most influential social institution is the family. The primary job of the family is to care for dependents and socialize children.


Religion attempts to answer the difficult questions of life, such as the meaning of suffering, what happens after death, as well as provide moral codes.


Economics looks at how society decides what to produce and how to distribute what has been produced. Businesses, banks, and individuals comprise some of the economic organizations within a society.


The main function of education is to transmit information between generations. All of us have spent some time in schools learning skills important to our society.


The law is used to maintain social order. The local police, judicial courts, and the prison system are groups used to maintain the social order.


Politics, or government is used to provide the community with a hierarchy of power and authority in solving problems. Our local, state, and federal governments, as well as political parties, are some of the groups within this hierarchy.


Science tries to explain the environment in which we live through the use of research. It is used to help humanity overcome and master everyday problems. A scientist or researcher is an example of a role with the institution of science.


The institution of medicine is primarily concerned with health and welfare of the injured and the dying. Hospitals and health clinics are examples of groups within the institution of medicine.


The function of the military is to protect against foreign invasion and to promote national interests. The army, navy, air force and marines are examples of groups within the institution of the military.

Mass Media

The mass media is an emerging social institution. Its influence is greatest in the more developed societies. Its function is to disseminate information and to mold public opinion. Television, radio, and the internet are examples of groups within the institution of the mass media.


The information contained in this unit so far has focused on the concepts that influence how humans interact with one another.  What follows below is a description of how this interaction can be used to address social issues or perceived problems in human society.


Who Do We Blame for Social Problems/Issues?

Whether a sociologist or a lay person, people will use one of two explanations in assessing blame for a social problem.  One viewpoint is the person-blame approach.  This in an individualistic perspective or micro view. Someone who believes in the person-blame approach will blame a poor person for their poverty without regard to the unequal distribution of wealth, will blame the dropout for leaving school without looking at how the educational system is failing, or will blame  an unemployed person for not having a job without looking at the economic affects of globalization. To sum up, those who believe in the person-blame approach have a strong tendency to blame social problems on individuals rather than on the social system.  A consequence of a person-blame approach is that it promotes the idea that anything that happens to someone is due to a control individuals have over their own fate.  It justifies Social Darwinism, the placement of people in a stratification system based on their ability and effort.

HomelessAnother viewpoint is the system-blame approach.  This viewpoint believes social problems develop from the existing social structure.  System-blamers will lay blame on the shortcomings of social institutions that are dysfunctional.  For example, a person-blamer when looking at the issue of inner city poverty will blame the individual for  pathologies such as teenage pregnancy, illegitimacy, and crime, whereas the system-blamer will find fault with the social institutions (the economy not providing enough jobs, the schools under funded, the government uninterested in solving problems, the lack of access to health care).

The reality that we should recognize is that social problems are highly complex phenomena that possess both individual and systemic factors.  Although it is likely that it is desirable to avoid the extremes, system-blame will be emphasized in the course. Since most people tend to interpret social problems from an person-blame or  individualistic perspective,  a balance is needed and so attention to looking at the how the social structure influences social problems will be emphasized.


Should We Solve the Problem/Issue?

Once a social problem or issue has been identified, the search for solutions begins.  In formulating a solution, there are a few considerations that need to be addressed.

1.  What are the costs to a solution?  When choosing a solution, economic costs must be considered. If money is used to solve social problem “x”, there will be less money to solve social problem “Y”.

2.  Does solving one problem lead to the creation of another problem.  For example, if we declare a “war on drugs” will it have the effect of creating overcrowded prisons?

3.  Is a particular solution possible/feasible?  When looking for a solution, it is important to look at the social and political climate to see if solving the problem is possible. Because of strong anti-drug sentiment in the United States, it would be difficult to legalize drugs such as marijuana.


Stages of Social Problems

Herbert Blumer (1971) suggested that social problems develop in stages. First, social problems pass through the stage of “societal recognition“–the process by which a social problem, for example, drunk driving, is “born.” Second, “social legitimation” takes place when the social problem achieves recognition by the larger community, including the media, schools, and churches. As the visibility of traffic fatalities associated with alcohol increased, so the the legitimation of drunk driving as a social problem. The next stage in the development of a social problem involves “mobilization for action,” which occurs when individuals and groups, such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, become concerned about how to respond to the social condition. This mobilization leads to the “development and implementation of an official plan” for dealing with the problem, involving, for example, highway checkpoints, lower legal blood-alcohol levels, and tougher drunk driving regulations.

The Difficulty With Solving Social Problems

It is often easier to identify a social problem than it is to solve it. Designing and implementing solutions to social problems could take years while the needs of groups of people are immediate.

One of the first problems in trying to solve a social problem is dealing with the difference between ideal solutions and practical solutions. Sometimes the ideal solution to a problem requires very high expenditures.  This means that many times, a social problem only receives a fraction of the money necessary to solve it. In the case of Hurricane Katrina, engineers, the media and community members asked for  a large sum of money to use for storm protection.  They only received a small portion of the amount they requested and what was needed to prevent massive flooding in New Orleans.

Rather than using preventive measures to deal with social problems, societies rely on after-the-fact measures (trying to fix a problem after its effects have occurred).  Billions more were spent rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina than were spent before to prevent flooding and damage.

Another issue is in defining a social problem versus fixing it.  Sometimes there is a disagreement over defining what the problem is and what efforts should be made to reduce or eliminate it.  For example, there is wide spread agreement in the scientific community that human activity has contributed to climate change. Yet there are those in the government (who often receive campaign donations from energy companies) who don’t see a problem that needs fixing.

Micro Versus Macro Level Solutions

Microlevel solutions to social problems focus on how individuals working in small groups try to remedy a problem. Micro solutions can range from an individual who is jobless seeking out education and training to get a “better” job, to a small group of people who build a home for someone who can’t afford it on their own (Habitat for Humanity).  There are limitations to the micro approach.  If the problem is widespread in the larger society, individualized efforts may be ineffective in eliminating the problem.  Although individuals should be responsible for their own behavior and must make decisions that help solve their own problems, there are limitations to the assumption that social problems can be solved one person at a time.

Macrolevel solutions to social problems focus on how large-scale social institutions such as the government and the media can be persuaded to become involved in fixing social problems. Individuals view themselves as powerless will bind together in organizations to put pressure on decision makers at the national and global level.  Individuals will push for a social objective, for example universal health care, which benefits them while also benefiting all those similarly situated. At the national level, those seeking macrolevel solutions to social problems may become members of a special interest group.  Macrolevel solutions such as interest groups are attractive to those looking for change because it is possible to combine resources because of working with larger numbers. Those who advocate for issues such as school prayer or an increase in the minimum wage believe their chance for success is increased if they take a macrolevel approach.

Some social observers believe the macrolevel approach has shortcomings. Macrolevel approaches might deemphasize the importance of individual responsibility. Individuals may believe that the larger organization will solve the social problem and that their individual efforts are not needed.  For example, reducing the availability of drugs does not resolve the problem of the individual drug abuser who still needs a means to eliminate the problem in his or her personal life.


Studying Collective Behavior

Collective behavior and social movements are ways in which people seek to resolve social problems. Collective behavior involves a large number of people, is unplanned, voluntary, sometimes dangerous, and violates dominant group norms and values. Collective behavior involves a wide range of human activities and can vary in its form. Below is a brief examination of various forms of collective behavior.

Crowds.  Crowds are a temporary gathering of people who share a common focus and who influence one another.  People who attend a rock concert, sporting event, or a political demonstration are part of a crowd.  Some crowds may have people who have low levels of interaction and minimal awareness of each other (people at a beach on a hot summer day) or can have an emotional connection and high levels of energy such as at a protest or a strike.

Mobs.  A mob is a highly emotional crowd that pursues a violent or destructive goal.  Because of their intense emotions, mobs tend to dissipate quickly after the goal has been met. An example of mob behavior would be the lynchings that occurred in the United States following the Civil War. Lynch mobs would quickly attract hundreds of spectators/participants.  Shortly after the violent outcome had been reached (the person was lynched and killed) the mob would disperse.

RiotsRiots are a social eruption that is highly emotional, violent, and undirected. A mob action usually ends with the accomplishment of a specific, violent goal. Riots tend to go on until participants run out of steam or police and community leaders bring participants under control. Throughout or nation’s history, riots have been sparked by social injustice.  Examples would be the Haymarket Riot, prison riots, and the riot in Los Angeles in 1992 following the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King.

Is there anything that is accomplished through a riot?  One answer may be the demonstration of power. Ordinary people can gain power when they act collectively. The power of a crowd has the power to challenge the status quo and to sometimes force social change. The riots in New York, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati have brought national attention to the claim of racial bias on the part of police.

civildisobedience1Mass Civil DisobedienceCivil disobedience is non-violent action by a group of people that seeks to change a policy or law by refusing to comply with it. Examples would be sit-ins, marches, boycotts, and strikes.  Mass civil disobedience differs from mobs and riots in that the group seeking change are committed to non-violence. The crowd disperses voluntarily after the activity is over. If violence occurs, it is done by the security forces which are present.

Social Movements

If enough people get involved with a social issue or problem, it can then lead to a social movement.  A social movement is an organized activity that either encourages or discourages social change.  Social movements often start off and are organized at the grass roots level.  Social movements are common in the modern world. Almost every important public issue give rise to a social movement that favors change, and an opposing counter movement resisting it. The political life of our society is based largely on the claims and counterclaims of social movements.

Because social movements are longer lasting than mob behavior, sociologists have been able to study them. There are several theories that try to explain social movements.

Deprivation Theory: This theory holds that social movements arise among people who feel deprived. Expectations, rather than absolute measures, are the key to whether or not people feel deprived. The slight (or perceived slight) may be a range of situations from poor working conditions to standard of living to racial preferences.  The Civil Rights Movement in the United States would be an example.  Critics point out that deprivation theory  cannot fully explain social movements because there is no perfect society that satisfies all its citizens.

Social isolation is the key to mass-society theory. Proponents of this perspective argue that modern society is alienating, immoral, apathetic, and discourages individuality, and that in this context, socially isolated people are attracted to social movements for personal reasons. Joining gives them a sense of importance and intent. This makes them easily manipulated and easily influenced to join movements.

Sociologists have developed a different approach to understanding social movements that draws from our understanding of both collective action and organizations. Resource-mobilization theory recognizes that social movements need to generate adequate, and often substantial, resources to achieve their goals.  The resources they need to muster are extensive. They include money, membership, office facilities and equipment, communication processes, political influence, and a skill base with expertise in organization, leadership, and marketing the cause. Successes and limits are set by the resources a movement is able to mobilize.

Another important resource to social movements is technology. The internet and the cell phone have become important resources that help organizations link hundreds of thousands of people across the country or the globe. The protests in Egypt during the Arab Spring showed how important these new technologies were.  Using resources available online, even a small number of people can plan and carry out an effective political event.

Political-Economy Theory:  this theory says societies operating under a capitalist economic system will fail to meet the needs of the majority of the people. Millions of people living in capitalist systems are unable to find good paying jobs, live below the poverty line, or are unable to access health care.  Because of this, workers organize to demand higher wages, safer working conditions, or health care that covers everyone.


Types of Social Movements

Social movements are classified based on “who” is changed and “how much” change has occurred. There are a number of different types of social movements which are examined below.

types-of-social-movementsAlternative Social Movements: These are the least threatening to the status quo. They seek limited change in only a part of the population.  Their aim is to help a certain group of people alter their lives. An example would be Promise Keepers, which is a movement that encourages men to live more spiritual lives and be more supportive of their families. Another example would be the movement to get drivers not to text while driving.

Redemptive Social Movements:  This type of social movement targets specific groups but they seek radical change. Their aim is to help certain people redeem their lives. The redemption aspect can be very specific or it can be more general. An example of a specific redemptive social movement would be Alcoholics Anonymous, which is an organization that helps people with an alcohol addiction achieve a sober life.  An example of a more general redemptive social movement is the spread of Christianity in South America.

Reformative Social Movement:  This type of movement aims for only limited social change, but targets everyone. Reformative movements generally work inside the existing political system. They can be progressive in nature seeking a new social pattern (same sex marriage) or reactionary, seeking to preserve the status quo (white supremacy).

Revolutionary Social movements:  These are the most extreme of all. These movements seek to transform an entire society.  These movements reject existing social institutions as flawed in favor of a radically new alternative.  The French Revolution of 1789 and the Russian Revolution of 1917 would be examples.

Social movements exist to encourage or to resist social change. The political life of our society is based on the claims and counterclaims of social movements about what the problems are and which are the right solutions.  There is little doubt that social movements have changed our way of life.



actionSociology in Film

Below are a list of movies that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. Meet the Parents. This film is loaded with “impression management”.

2. Fiddler on the Roof. Statuses, role strain, mechanical solidarity, this film has it all.

3. Life is Beautiful. This film has many sociological topics, but it is loaded with the “social construction of reality”.

books03Sociology in Books

Below are a list of books that exhibit sociological concepts learned in this unit.

1. The Social Construction of Reality : A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge
by Peter L. Berger

2. Bowling Alone : The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam


Brym, Robert J.
2003 Sociology: Your Compass For A New World Canada: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Ferrante, Joan

2000 Sociology: The United States in a Global Community United States: Wadsworth Thomson Learning

Henslin, James M.
2000 Essentials of Sociology: A Down-to-Earth Approach (3rd Edition) Boston: Allyn and Bacon

Macionis, John J.

1999 Sociology. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall

Copyright ©2002, 2013 Glenn Hoffarth All Rights Reserved

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