4 Society and Social Interaction

A young woman applies makeup while sitting on a couch. She is wearing a head covering.
Figure 4.1 Some aspects of teenage life cross societal boundaries, while others are distinct. (Credit: USAID/flickr)

It was a school day, and Inayah woke up at 5:15 a.m, checked her phone, and began a few chores. Her aunt had gone to work, but had left a pile of vegetables for be cut for dinner. After taking care of that, Inayah gathered and organized the laundry, then woke up her younger cousin and sister. She led them in prayers, gave them breakfast, and dressed for school. Inayah was running late, so she didn’t have time to record a full video. Instead she took a few pictures and posted a good-morning clip, updated her status on another platform, and went to check on the younger girls.

Twenty minutes later, Inayah was fixing her sister’s uniform and calling to her cousin to hurry along. She loaded them up with their school bags and one sack of laundry each. The three girls walked the two kilometers to the bus station, dropping the laundry at the cleaner on the way. The ride to school took about thirty minutes.

Inayah had grown up about sixty kilometers away, where her parents still lived. She usually saw them on weekends. She had previously attended a boarding school, but those had become dangerous due to kidnappings or other trouble. Inayah’s new school was not quite as good as the old one, but she was still learning. She did particularly well in math and economics.

After school and the bus ride back, Inayah sent her sister and her cousin to the house while she stayed in town with some friends. The girls sat at the picnic tables near the basketball courts, where groups of other teenagers and some adults usually came to play. She didn’t talk to any of the boys there, but she had met several of them at her uncle’s store. The girls recorded a few videos together, started on their homework, and after about an hour, headed home to help with dinner.

How does Inayah’s day compare with yours? How does it compare to the days of teenagers you know? Inayah interacts with her family and friends based on individual relationships and personalities, but societal norms and acceptable behaviors shape those interactions. Someone from outside of her community might feel that her society’s expectations are too challenging, while others may feel they are too lenient. But Inayah may disagree with both perspectives. She might have taken those societal expectations as her own.

Social Construction of Reality

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • Interpret the sociological concept of reality as a social construct
  • Define roles and describe their places in people’s daily interactions
  • Explain how individuals present themselves and perceive themselves in a social context
Two mimes are shown making faces and performing on a street.
Figure 4.10 Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through our interactions with others. In a way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Credit: Jan Lewandowski/flickr)

Until now, we’ve primarily discussed the differences between societies. Rather than discuss their problems and configurations, we’ll now explore how society came to be and how sociologists view social interaction.

In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote a book called The Social Construction of Reality. In it, they argued that society is created by humans and human interaction, which they call habitualization. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do we construct our own society but we also accept it as it is because others have created it before us. Society is, in fact, “habit.”

For example, your school exists as a school and not just as a building because you and others agree that it is a school. If your school is older than you are, it was created by the agreement of others before you. In a sense, it exists by consensus, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept is through W.I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behavior can be determined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. For example, a teenager who is repeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum—might live up to the term even though it initially wasn’t a part of his character.

Like Berger and Luckmann in their description of habitualization, Thomas states that our moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.” This concept is defined by sociologist Robert K. Merton as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false idea can become true if it is acted upon. One example he gives is of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all of their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. Here, reality is constructed by an idea.

Symbolic interactionists offer another lens through which to analyze the social construction of reality. With a theoretical perspective focused on the symbols (like language, gestures, and artifacts) that people use to interact, this approach is interested in how people interpret those symbols in daily interactions. Interactionists also recognize that language and body language reflect our values. One has only to learn a foreign tongue to know that not every English word can be easily translated into another language. The same is true for gestures. While Americans might recognize a “thumbs up” as meaning “great,” in Germany it would mean “one” and in Japan it would mean “five.” Thus, our construction of reality is influenced by our symbolic interactions.

Painting depicting Oedipus and three other ancient Greek figures.
Figure 4.11 The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story illustrates one way in which members of society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Credit: Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons)

Roles and Status

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviors in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behavior that we recognize in each other that are representative of a person’s social status. Currently, while reading this text, you are playing the role of a student. However, you also play other roles in your life, such as “daughter,” “neighbor,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to their rank and role in society. Some statuses are ascribed—those you do not select, such as son, elderly person, or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or nurse. As a daughter or son, you occupy a different status than as a neighbor or employee. One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it (Merton 1957). It is important to note that status refers to the rank in social hierarchy, while role is the behavior expected of a person holding a certain status.

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, driving, problem-solving, acting as a source of moral guidance—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When you are working toward a promotion but your children want you to come to their school play, which do you choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. Our roles in life have a great effect on our decisions and who we become.

A person sits at a desk while working at a computer, while holding a baby of about six months old. A second child leans against the chair as well.
Figure 4.12 Parents often experience role strain or role conflict as they try to balance different and often urgent competing responsibilities. (Credit: Ran Zwigenberg/flickr)

Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can observe is behavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Sociologist Erving Goffman presented the idea that a person is like an actor on a stage. Calling his theory dramaturgy, Goffman believed that we use “impression management” to present ourselves to others as we hope to be perceived. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave around your coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents versus the way you behave with a blind date. Even if you’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you.

As in a play, the setting matters as well. If you have a group of friends over to your house for dinner, you are playing the role of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup at the end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your property and any rules you may set forth (“Don’t leave the door open or the cat will get out.”). In any scene, there needs to be a shared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likely to be problems.

Impression management is a critical component of symbolic interactionism. For example, a judge in a courtroom has many “props” to create an impression of fairness, gravity, and control—like their robe and gavel. Those entering the courtroom are expected to adhere to the scene being set. Just imagine the “impression” that can be made by how a person dresses. This is the reason that attorneys frequently select the hairstyle and apparel for witnesses and defendants in courtroom proceedings.

A judge's gavel lays on a table.
Figure 4.13 A judge’s gavel is known as a prop designed to add gravity and ceremony to the proceedings. (Credit: Brian Turner/flickr)

Goffman’s dramaturgy ideas expand on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. According to Cooley, we base our image on what we think other people see (Cooley 1902). We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to this speculation. We don certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and the like—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certain reaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. But more than that, Cooley believed that our sense of self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, and then we develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we are reflected.

Key Terms

achieved status
the status a person chooses, such as a level of education or income
agricultural societies
societies that rely on farming as a way of life
an individual’s isolation from his society, his work, and his sense of self
a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collective consciousness
ascribed status
the status outside of an individual’s control, such as sex or race
the owners of the means of production in a society
a way of organizing an economy so that the things that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government
class consciousness
the awareness of one’s rank in society
collective conscience
the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society
false consciousness
a condition in which the beliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest
feudal societies
societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership and protection
the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit
horticultural societies
societies based around the cultivation of plants
hunter-gatherer societies
societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants for survival
industrial societies
societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labor to create material goods
information societies
societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services
the act of implanting a convention or norm into society
iron cage
a situation in which an individual is trapped by social institutions
looking-glass self
our reflection of how we think we appear to others
mechanical solidarity
a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture
organic solidarity
a type of social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences
pastoral societies
societies based around the domestication of animals
the laborers in a society
a belief that modern society should be built around logic and efficiency rather than morality or tradition
role conflict
a situation when one or more of an individual’s roles clash
role performance
the expression of a role
role strain
stress that occurs when too much is required of a single role
an array of roles attached to a particular status
patterns of behavior that are representative of a person’s social status
self-fulfilling prophecy
an idea that becomes true when acted upon
social integration
how strongly a person is connected to his or her social group
a group of people who live in a definable community and share the same cultural components
the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society
Thomas theorem
how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite being originally unsupported by objective reality.

Section Summary

4.1 Types of Societies

Societies are classified according to their development and use of technology. For most of human history, people lived in preindustrial societies characterized by limited technology and low production of goods. After the Industrial Revolution, many societies based their economies around mechanized labor, leading to greater profits and a trend toward greater social mobility. At the turn of the new millennium, a new type of society emerged. This postindustrial, or information, society is built on digital technology and nonmaterial goods.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Émile Durkheim believed that as societies advance, they make the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Karl Marx, society exists in terms of class conflict. With the rise of capitalism, workers become alienated from themselves and others in society. Sociologist Max Weber noted that the rationalization of society can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

Society is based on the social construction of reality. How we define society influences how society actually is. Likewise, how we see other people influences their actions as well as our actions toward them. We all take on various roles throughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who we assume them with, and the scene where interaction takes place.

Section Quiz

4.1 Types of Societies


Which of the following fictional societies is an example of a pastoral society?

  1. The Deswan people, who live in small tribes and base their economy on the production and trade of textiles
  2. The Rositian Clan, a small community of farmers who have lived on their family’s land for centuries
  3. The Hunti, a wandering group of nomads who specialize in breeding and training horses
  4. The Amaganda, an extended family of warriors who serve a single noble family


Which of the following occupations is a person of power most likely to have in an information society?

  1. Software engineer
  2. Coal miner
  3. Children’s book author
  4. Sharecropper


Which of the following societies were the first to have permanent residents?

  1. Industrial
  2. Hunter-gatherer
  3. Horticultural
  4. Feudal

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society


Organic solidarity is most likely to exist in which of the following types of societies?

  1. Hunter-gatherer
  2. Industrial
  3. Agricultural
  4. Feudal


According to Marx, the _____ own the means of production in a society.

  1. proletariat
  2. vassals
  3. bourgeoisie
  4. anomie


Which of the following best depicts Marx’s concept of alienation from the process of one’s labor?

  1. A supermarket cashier always scans store coupons before company coupons because she was taught to do it that way.
  2. A businessman feels that he deserves a raise, but is nervous to ask his manager for one; instead, he comforts himself with the idea that hard work is its own reward.
  3. An associate professor is afraid that she won’t be given tenure and starts spreading rumors about one of her associates to make herself look better.
  4. A construction worker is laid off and takes a job at a fast food restaurant temporarily, although he has never had an interest in preparing food before.


The Protestant work ethic is based on the concept of predestination, which states that ________.

  1. performing good deeds in life is the only way to secure a spot in Heaven
  2. salvation is only achievable through obedience to God
  3. no person can be saved before he or she accepts Jesus Christ as his or her savior
  4. God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned


The concept of the iron cage was popularized by which of the following sociological thinkers?

  1. Max Weber
  2. Karl Marx
  3. Émile Durkheim
  4. Friedrich Engels


Émile Durkheim’s ideas about society can best be described as ________.

  1. functionalist
  2. conflict theorist
  3. symbolic interactionist
  4. rationalist

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality


Mary works full-time at an office downtown while her young children stay at a neighbor’s house. She’s just learned that the childcare provider is leaving the country. Mary has succumbed to pressure to volunteer at her church, plus her ailing mother-in-law will be moving in with her next month. Which of the following is likely to occur as Mary tries to balance her existing and new responsibilities?

  1. Role conflict
  2. Self-fulfilling prophecy
  3. Status conflict
  4. Status strain


According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, society is based on ________.

  1. habitual actions
  2. status
  3. institutionalization
  4. role performance


Paco knows that women find him attractive, and he’s never found it hard to get a date. But as he ages, he dyes his hair to hide the gray and wears clothes that camouflage the weight he has put on. Paco’s behavior can be best explained by the concept of ___________.

  1. role strain
  2. the looking-glass self
  3. role performance
  4. habitualization

Short Answer

4.1 Types of Societies


In which type or types of societies do the benefits seem to outweigh the costs? Explain your answer, and cite social and economic reasons.


Is Gerhard Lenski right in classifying societies based on technological advances? What other criteria might be appropriate, based on what you have read?

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society


Choose two of the three sociologists discussed here (Durkheim, Marx, Weber), and use their arguments to explain a current social event such as the Occupy movement. Do their theories hold up under modern scrutiny?


Think of the ways workers are alienated from the product and process of their jobs. How can these concepts be applied to students and their educations?

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality


Draw a large circle, and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status that you occupy. Add as many statuses, ascribed and achieved, that you have. Don’t forget things like dog owner, gardener, traveler, student, runner, employee. How many statuses do you have? In which ones are there role conflicts?


Think of a self-fulfilling prophecy that you’ve experienced. Based on this experience, do you agree with the Thomas theorem? Use examples from current events to support your answer as well.


Further Research

4.1 Types of Societies

The Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read more about the Maasai people and see pictures of their daily lives here .

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

One of the most influential pieces of writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The Communist ManifestoVisit this site to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

TV Tropes is a website where users identify concepts that are commonly used in literature, film, and other media. Although its tone is for the most part humorous, the site provides a good jumping-off point for research. Browse the list of examples under the entry of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Pay careful attention to the real-life examples. Are there ones that surprised you or that you don’t agree with?



Maasai Association. “Facing the Lion.” Retrieved January 4, 2012 (http://www.maasai-association.org/lion.html).

4.1 Types of Societies

Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. 2005. “Israel: Treatment of Bedouin, Including Incidents of Harassment, Discrimination or Attacks; State Protection (January 2003–July 2005)”, Refworld, July 29. Retrieved February 10, 2012 (http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/440ed71325.html).

Kjeilen, Tore. “Bedouin.” Looklex.com. Retrieved February 17, 2012 (http://looklex.com/index.htm).

University of Michigan. n.d. “The Curse of Oil in Ogoniland”. Retrieved January 2, 2015 (http://www.umich.edu/~snre492/cases_03-04/Ogoni/Ogoni_case_study.htm).

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Durkheim, Émile. 1960 [1893]. The Division of Labor in Society. Translated by George Simpson. New York: Free Press.

Durkheim, Émile. 1982 [1895]. The Rules of the Sociological Method. Translated by W. D. Halls. New York: Free Press.

Engels, Friedrich. 1892. The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. London: Swan Sonnenschein & Co.

Geographia. 1998. “The Bedouin Way.” Geograpia.com. Retrieved January 4, 2012 (http://www.geographia.com/egypt/sinai/bedouin02.htm).

Gerth, H. H., and C. Wright Mills. 1946. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1998 [1848]. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin Group.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

Berger, P. L., and T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Cooley, Charles H. 1902. Human Nature and the Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self In Everyday Life. New York: Doubleday.

Merton, Robert K. 1957. “The Role-Set: Problems in Sociological Theory.” British Journal of Sociology 8(2):110–113.

Thomas, W.I., and D.S. Thomas. 1928. The Child in America: Behavior Problems and Programs. New York: Knopf.


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