Social Interaction and Social Relationship

To understand social organizations in a society, sociologists study social structures and the function of social events and processes. This involves studying social interaction and relationships at broader (macro) and micro levels. Social interaction and relationship may be studied as they occur between the whole societies linked in the world system down to those between two individuals. Here our focus is on social interaction and relationship in the everyday life of individuals.

Individuals are the main components of society; they make up the building blocks; as, in a very important sense, society is the product of the actions of individuals. We may further state that society is a representation of the collective behavior of individual actors. It is the product of decisions people make concerning when, how, and with whom they are going to interact. However, individuals are social actors who act in a social environment; their social interactions are influenced by the social environment and existing social pattern. In other words, the actions of individuals are not haphazard ones; they take place in patterned relationships.

Social relationship refers to any routinized, enduring patterns of social interactions between individuals in society under the limits and influences of the social structure. The term “social relationship” elicits two important questions: between whom does social relationship take place? About what are social relationships? Answers to these questions lead us to the concepts of social status and role (Henslin and Nelson, 1995).

Social Status and Social Roles

The Concept and Types of Social Status

In the social structure of a society or a group, there are various defined positions to be occupied by a group of individuals. This position in termed as social status. It is the position or rank a person or a group of persons occupy in the social system. Some of these positions are naturally given and they are called ascribed social status. They are acquired by birth. For example, being a male or female, boy or girl, black or white person, son or daughter, father or mother, etc. Some positions in society are to be attained by competitions, making efforts, commitments, choices, decisions, and other mechanisms. Such kinds of status are called achieved statuses. Examples include being a husband or wife, a student or teacher, a physician, a nurse, an athlete, etc.

However, there are some of the statuses which may be both ascribed and achieved. For example, one can be a Nigerian by birth or through other mechanisms.

Achieved social status may be regarded as the characteristics of modern, industrial societies. In a traditional society, most social statuses are naturally acquired. E.g. a potter family may produce potter son or daughter. But in modern society, this is not usually the case.

Every person has at least two social statuses. A person, for example, may be at the same time a student, a daughter, a mother, an employee, etc. Of these various statuses, one or two may be more dominant than others.

The most dominant of all is called a salient status. It is that which defines a person’s position in most cases at most occasions Calhoun et al., 1994; Rosenberg, 1987; Stockard, 1997).

The Concept of Social Roles

Social roles are the expectations, duties, responsibilities, obligations, etc, which are associated with a given social status. Every person/ group of persons is/ are expected to behave, act and demonstrate skills, knowledge and attitude that are fitting to the given status or statuses. Every person is expected to play two or more roles.

Multiple statuses are associated with multiple roles. The different roles associated with a single status are called role set. Sometimes, there are role conflicts, meaning the clashing of one role with the other. These role conflicts may be inter-role, i.e. conflict between two or more roles. There are also intra-role conflicts, i.e. conflicts that occur when a person feels strains and inadequacies in accomplishing a certain role, or when there is a gap between what a person does and what a group expects of him or her. Intra-role conflict may also be called role strain. In other words, there is a clash between ideal role, that which a person is expected to perform theoretically, and actual role, that a person accomplishes according to his or her level of understanding, capacity and personality.

Social Interaction in Everyday Life

Micro-sociology focuses on understanding and analyzing the processes and dynamics of social interaction in everyday life. Social interaction may simply mean what people do when they are in the presence of one another. Four symbolic interactionist micro-sociological perspectives are developed to understand social interaction in everyday life (Henslin  and Nelson, 1995). These are:

1.      Symbolic Interaction:

Symbolic interactionism as indicated earlier focuses on social interaction as the most significant part of life in society. What interest scholars in this perspective are symbols people use to define their worlds. Here, three important concepts are used to explain the symbolic basis and nature of social interaction; these are: stereotypes in every day life, personal space, and touching.

  • Stereotypes in Everyday Life: Stereotypes are the assumptions we have about people; they determine and shape our reactions and behaviors towards people. Our first impressions about people are shaped by the assumptions we make about such characteristics as the person’s sex, age, skin color, physical appearance, social status, etc. The assumptions not only influence our ideas about the person, but the way we interact with that person.
  • Personal space: Individuals have, and maintain, an important sense of personal space in social interaction; every person has thus personal space. Our personal spaces are open to only those whom we are intimate with such as children, parents, close friends and spouses. Otherwise, we keep others out of this personal space making sure that we do not touch, and are touched by, others. Anthropological research findings show that the use of personal space varies form culture to culture; four different distance zones are identified, for example, as used in North America (Ibid). These are:
    • Intimate Distance (50 centimeter from our bodies; reserved for lovemaking, wrestling, comforting, protecting, etc.);
    • Personal Distance (extends from 50 centimeter to 120 centimeter surrounding our bodies; these spaces are reserved for friends, acquaintances and conversations)
    • Social Distance (extends from 120 centimeter to 3.6 meters for impersonal or formal relationships; e.g., for job interviews); and
    • Public Distance (this zone extends from 3.6 meters; it marks a more formal relationship. This is used to separate dignitaries and public speakers from the general public.)
  • Touching: Each society has rules about touching in social interaction. Frequency of touching and the meaning people attach to it vary between and within cultures. However, in impersonal social interactions, higher status individuals are more likely to touch those of lower status; e.g. teacher his/ her students; a boss his secretary, etc.

2.      Dramaturgy:

Symbolic integrationists use the term “dramaturgy” to refer to the way individuals present themselves in everyday life. The term was coined by sociologist Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) to refer to dramaturgical analysis of how people act and behave in social situations. Thus, social life is likened to a drama or stage. Individuals are born into the stage of everyday life. Our everyday social life consists of playing our assigned roles. Every person learns how to perform in the stage. Our everyday life is filled with stages where we perform; each person is expected to play his/ her drama taking many roles; e.g. a student, a wife, a mother, a daughter, a worker, etc. The actions and roles played on the stage are called role performances (Ibid.).

3.      Ethno-methodology:

This literally means the study of people’s methods. Ethno-methodologists study how people make sense of life. Ethno-methodology involves uncovering people’s basic assumptions as they interpret their everyday world. Sociologists like

Harold Garfinkel (who coined the term) have made extensive studies of how people use commonsense understandings to make sense out of their lives. What form the bases of social interaction in our everyday life are the assumptions individual actors have about the way life is and they way things ought to work (Ibid.)

4.      The Social Construction of Reality:

Symbolic interactionists argue that individuals define their own reality and try to live according that definition. Reality is not something that exists “out there”, independently. It is created socially. By “social construction of reality“, we mean the process by which we take the various elements available in our society and put them together to form a particular view of reality. Every individual’s definition of realities derives from his/ her society’s own definition. The definitions we learn from our cultures form the basis of not only what we do, but also what we perceive, feel or think.

  • What is social relationship?
  • Explain the following statement: “No one enjoys aloneness.”
  • Mention and discuss the four key concepts developed by symbolic interactionists to analyze the nature of social interaction in everyday life.
  • Differentiate between intra-social and inter-social role conflicts. Explain cases of, if any, inter-social role and intra-social role conflicts you have encountered. Have these conflicts had any negative impact on your health? How?