4 Society and SocialInteraction

Figure 4.1 Sociologists study how societies interact with the environment and how they use technology. (Photo courtesty of Garry Knight/flickr)

Learning Objectives4.1. Types of Societies

• Describe the difference between preindustrial, industrial, and postindustrial societies

• Understand the role of environment on preindustrial societies

• Understand how technology impacts societal development

4.2. Theoretical Perspectives on Society• Describe Durkhiem’s functionalist view of society

• Understand the conflict theorist view of society

• Explain Marx’s concepts of class and alienation

• Identify how symbolic interactionists understand society

4.3. Social Constructions of Reality• Understand 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

Introduction to Society and Social InteractionIt was a school day, and Adriana, who was just entering eighth grade, woke up at 6:15 a.m. Before she got out of bed, shesent three text messages. One was to Jenn, who last year had moved five states away to a different time zone. Even though

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they now lived far apart, the two friends texted on and off every day. Now Adriana wanted to tell Jenn that she liked thenew boots in the photo that Jenn had posted on a social media site last night.

Throughout the day, Adriana used her smart phone to send fifty more texts, but she made no phone calls. She even textedher mother in the next room when she had a question about her homework. She kept in close electronic contact with all ofher friends on a daily basis. In fact, when she wasn't doing homework or attending class, she was chatting and laughingwith her friends via texts, tweets, and social media websites. Her smart phone was her main source of social interaction.

We can consider Adriana a typical teenager in the digital age—she constantly communicates with a large group of peoplewho are not confined to one geographical area. This is definitely one of the benefits of new forms of communication: it ischeap and easy, and you can keep in touch with everyone at the same time. However, with these new forms ofcommunication come new forms of societal interaction.

As we connect with each other more and more in an online environment, we make less time to interact in person. So theobvious question is this: are these forms of communication good developments in terms of social interaction? Or, if thereare negative effects, what will they be? As we shall see, our reliance on electronic communication does haveconsequences. Beyond popularizing new forms of communication, it also alters the traditional ways in which we deal withconflict, the way we view ourselves in relationship to our surroundings, and the ways in which we understand socialstatus.

4.1 Types of Societies

Figure 4.2 How does technology influence a society's daily occupations? (Photo courtesy of Mo Riza/flickr)

Hunting and gathering tribes, industrialized Japan, Americans—each is a society. But what does this mean? Exactly whatis a society? In sociological terms, society refers to a group of people who live in a definable community and share thesame culture. On a broader scale, society consists of the people and institutions around us, our shared beliefs, and ourcultural ideas. Typically, more-advanced societies also share a political authority.

Sociologist Gerhard Lenski (1924–) defined societies in terms of their technological sophistication. As a society advances,so does its use of technology. Societies with rudimentary technology depend on the fluctuations of their environments,while industrialized societies have more control over the impact of their surroundings and thus develop different culturalfeatures. This distinction is so important that sociologists generally classify societies along a spectrum of their level ofindustrialization—from preindustrial to industrial to postindustrial.

Preindustrial SocietiesBefore the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of machines, societies were small, rural, and dependent largely onlocal resources. Economic production was limited to the amount of labor a human being could provide, and there were fewspecialized occupations. The very first occupation was that of hunter-gatherer.


Hunter-gatherer societies demonstrate the strongest dependence on the environment of the various types of preindustrialsocieties. As the basic structure of human society until about 10,000–12,000 years ago, these groups were based aroundkinship or tribes. Hunter-gatherers relied on their surroundings for survival—they hunted wild animals and foraged foruncultivated plants for food. When resources became scarce, the group moved to a new area to find sustenance, meaning

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Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

they were nomadic. These societies were common until several hundred years ago, but today only a few hundred remain inexistence, such as indigenous Australian tribes sometimes referred to as “aborigines,” or the Bambuti, a group of pygmyhunter-gatherers residing in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Hunter-gatherer groups are quickly disappearing as theworld’s population explodes.


Changing conditions and adaptations led some societies to rely on the domestication of animals where circumstancespermitted. Roughly 7,500 years ago, human societies began to recognize their ability to tame and breed animals and togrow and cultivate their own plants. Pastoral societies, such as the Maasai villagers, rely on the domestication of animalsas a resource for survival. Unlike earlier hunter-gatherers who depended entirely on existing resources to stay alive,pastoral groups were able to breed livestock for food, clothing, and transportation, and they created a surplus of goods.Herding, or pastoral, societies remained nomadic because they were forced to follow their animals to fresh feedinggrounds. Around the time that pastoral societies emerged, specialized occupations began to develop, and societiescommenced trading with local groups.

Where Societies Meet—The Worst and the BestWhen cultures meet, technology can help, hinder, and even destroy. The Exxon Valdez oil spillage in Alaska nearlydestroyed the local inhabitant’s entire way of life. Oil spills in the Nigerian Delta have forced many of the Ogoni tribefrom their land and forced removal has meant that over 100,000 Ogoni have sought refuge in the country of Benin(University of Michigan, n.d.). And the massive Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2006 drew great attention as itoccurred in what is the most developed country, the United States. Environmental disasters continue as Westerntechnology and its need for energy expands into less developed (peripheral) regions of the globe.

Of course not all technology is bad. We take electric light for granted in the United States, Europe, and the rest of thedeveloped world. Such light extends the day and allows us to work, read, and travel at night. It makes us safer andmore productive. But regions in India, Africa, and elsewhere are not so fortunate. Meeting the challenge, oneparticular organization, Barefoot College, located in District Ajmer, Rajasthan, India, works with numerous lessdeveloped nations to bring solar electricity, water solutions, and education. The focus for the solar projects is thevillage elders. The elders agree to select two grandmothers to be trained as solar engineers and choose a villagecommittee composed of men and women to help operate the solar program.

The program has brought light to over 450,000 people in 1,015 villages. The environmental rewards include a largereduction in the use of kerosene and in carbon dioxide emissions. The fact that the villagers are operating the projectsthemselves helps minimize their sense of dependence.

Figure 4.3 Otherwise skeptic or hesitant villagers are more easily convinced of the value of the solar project when they realize that the“solar engineers” are their local grandmothers. (Photo courtesy of Abri le Roux/flickr)


Around the same time that pastoral societies were on the rise, another type of society developed, based on the newlydeveloped capacity for people to grow and cultivate plants. Previously, the depletion of a region’s crops or water supplyforced pastoral societies to relocate in search of food sources for their livestock. Horticultural societies formed in areaswhere rainfall and other conditions allowed them to grow stable crops. They were similar to hunter-gatherers in that they

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largely depended on the environment for survival, but since they didn’t have to abandon their location to follow resources,they were able to start permanent settlements. This created more stability and more material goods and became the basisfor the first revolution in human survival.


While pastoral and horticultural societies used small, temporary tools such as digging sticks or hoes, agriculturalsocieties relied on permanent tools for survival. Around 3000 B.C.E., an explosion of new technology known as theAgricultural Revolution made farming possible—and profitable. Farmers learned to rotate the types of crops grown ontheir fields and to reuse waste products such as fertilizer, which led to better harvests and bigger surpluses of food. Newtools for digging and harvesting were made of metal, and this made them more effective and longer lasting. Humansettlements grew into towns and cities, and particularly bountiful regions became centers of trade and commerce.

This is also the age in which people had the time and comfort to engage in more contemplative and thoughtful activities,such as music, poetry, and philosophy. This period became referred to as the “dawn of civilization” by some because of thedevelopment of leisure and humanities. Craftspeople were able to support themselves through the production of creative,decorative, or thought-provoking aesthetic objects and writings.

As resources became more plentiful, social classes became more divisive. Those who had more resources could affordbetter living and developed into a class of nobility. Difference in social standing between men and women increased. Ascities expanded, ownership and preservation of resources became a pressing concern.


The ninth century gave rise to feudal societies. These societies contained a strict hierarchical system of power basedaround land ownership and protection. The nobility, known as lords, placed vassals in charge of pieces of land. In returnfor the resources that the land provided, vassals promised to fight for their lords.

These individual pieces of land, known as fiefdoms, were cultivated by the lower class. In return for maintaining the land,peasants were guaranteed a place to live and protection from outside enemies. Power was handed down through familylines, with peasant families serving lords for generations and generations. Ultimately, the social and economic system offeudalism failed and was replaced by capitalism and the technological advances of the industrial era.

Industrial SocietyIn the eighteenth century, Europe experienced a dramatic rise in technological invention, ushering in an era known as theIndustrial Revolution. What made this period remarkable was the number of new inventions that influenced people’s dailylives. Within a generation, tasks that had until this point required months of labor became achievable in a matter of days.Before the Industrial Revolution, work was largely person- or animal-based, and relied on human workers or horses topower mills and drive pumps. In 1782, James Watt and Matthew Boulton created a steam engine that could do the work oftwelve horses by itself.

Steam power began appearing everywhere. Instead of paying artisans to painstakingly spin wool and weave it into cloth,people turned to textile mills that produced fabric quickly at a better price and often with better quality. Rather thanplanting and harvesting fields by hand, farmers were able to purchase mechanical seeders and threshing machines thatcaused agricultural productivity to soar. Products such as paper and glass became available to the average person, and thequality and accessibility of education and health care soared. Gas lights allowed increased visibility in the dark, and townsand cities developed a nightlife.

One of the results of increased productivity and technology was the rise of urban centers. Workers flocked to factories forjobs, and the populations of cities became increasingly diverse. The new generation became less preoccupied withmaintaining family land and traditions and more focused on acquiring wealth and achieving upward mobility forthemselves and their families. People wanted their children and their children’s children to continue to rise to the top, andas capitalism increased, so did social mobility.

It was during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries of the Industrial Revolution that sociology was born. Life waschanging quickly and the long-established traditions of the agricultural eras did not apply to life in the larger cities. Massesof people were moving to new environments and often found themselves faced with horrendous conditions of filth,overcrowding, and poverty. Social scientists emerged to study the relationship between the individual members of societyand society as a whole.

It was during this time that power moved from the hands of the aristocracy and “old money” to business-savvy newcomerswho amassed fortunes in their lifetimes. Families such as the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts became the new powerplayers and used their influence in business to control aspects of government as well. Eventually, concerns over theexploitation of workers led to the formation of labor unions and laws that set mandatory conditions for employees.

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Although the introduction of new technology at the end of the nineteenth century ended the industrial age, much of oursocial structure and social ideas—like family, childhood, and time standardization—have a basis in industrial society.

Figure 4.4 John D. Rockefeller, cofounder of the Standard Oil Company, came from an unremarkable family of salesmen and menial laborers. Byhis death at age 98, he was worth $1.4 billion. In industrial societies, business owners such as Rockefeller hold the majority of the power. (Photocourtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Postindustrial SocietyInformation societies, sometimes known as postindustrial or digital societies, are a recent development. Unlike industrialsocieties that are rooted in the production of material goods, information societies are based on the production ofinformation and services.

Digital technology is the steam engine of information societies, and computer moguls such as Steve Jobs and Bill Gatesare its John D. Rockefellers and Cornelius Vanderbilts. Since the economy of information societies is driven by knowledgeand not material goods, power lies with those in charge of storing and distributing information. Members of apostindustrial society are likely to be employed as sellers of services—software programmers or business consultants, forexample—instead of producers of goods. Social classes are divided by access to education, since without technical skills,people in an information society lack the means for success.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society

Figure 4.5 Warren Buffett’s ideas about taxation and spending habits of the very wealthy are controversial, particularly since they raise questionsabout America’s embedded system of class structure and social power. The three major sociological paradigms differ in their perspectives on theseissues. (Photo courtesy of Medill DC/flickr)

While many sociologists have contributed to research on society and social interaction, three thinkers form the base ofmodern-day perspectives. Émile Durkheim, Karl Marx, and Max Weber developed different theoretical approaches to helpus understand the way societies function.

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Émile Durkheim and FunctionalismAs a functionalist, Émile Durkheim’s (1858–1917) perspective on society stressed the necessary interconnectivity of all ofits elements. To Durkheim, society was greater than the sum of its parts. He asserted that individual behavior was not thesame as collective behavior and that studying collective behavior was quite different from studying an individual’s actions.Durkheim called the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society the collective conscience. In his quest tounderstand what causes individuals to act in similar and predictable ways, he wrote, “If I do not submit to the conventionsof society, if in my dress I do not conform to the customs observed in my country and in my class, the ridicule I provoke,the social isolation in which I am kept, produce, although in an attenuated form, the same effects as punishment”(Durkheim 1895). Durkheim also believed that social integration, or the strength of ties that people have to their socialgroups, was a key factor in social life.

Following the ideas of Comte and Spencer, Durkheim likened society to that of a living organism, in which each organplays a necessary role in keeping the being alive. Even the socially deviant members of society are necessary, Durkheimargued, as punishments for deviance affirm established cultural values and norms. That is, punishment of a crime reaffirmsour moral consciousness. “A crime is a crime because we condemn it,” Durkheim wrote in 1893. “An act offends thecommon consciousness not because it is criminal, but it is criminal because it offends that consciousness” (Durkheim1893). Durkheim called these elements of society “social facts.” By this, he meant that social forces were to be consideredreal and existed outside the individual.

As an observer of his social world, Durkheim was not entirely satisfied with the direction of society in his day. Hisprimary concern was that the cultural glue that held society together was failing, and people were becoming more divided.In his book The Division of Labor in Society (1893), Durkheim argued that as society grew more complex, social ordermade the transition from mechanical to organic.

Preindustrial societies, Durkheim explained, were held together by mechanical solidarity, a type of social ordermaintained by the collective consciousness of a culture. Societies with mechanical solidarity act in a mechanical fashion;things are done mostly because they have always been done that way. This type of thinking was common in preindustrialsocieties where strong bonds of kinship and a low division of labor created shared morals and values among people, suchas hunter-gatherer groups. When people tend to do the same type of work, Durkheim argued, they tend to think and actalike.

In industrial societies, mechanical solidarity is replaced with organic solidarity, which is social order based around anacceptance of economic and social differences. In capitalist societies, Durkheim wrote, division of labor becomes sospecialized that everyone is doing different things. Instead of punishing members of a society for failure to assimilate tocommon values, organic solidarity allows people with differing values to coexist. Laws exist as formalized morals and arebased on restitution rather than revenge.

While the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity is, in the long run, advantageous for a society, Durkheim notedthat it can be a time of chaos and “normlessness.” One of the outcomes of the transition is something he called socialanomie. Anomie—literally, “without law”—is a situation in which society no longer has the support of a firm collectiveconsciousness. Collective norms are weakened. People, while more interdependent to accomplish complex tasks, are alsoalienated from each other. Anomie is experienced in times of social uncertainty, such as war or a great upturn or downturnin the economy. As societies reach an advanced stage of organic solidarity, they avoid anomie by redeveloping a set ofshared norms. According to Durkheim, once a society achieves organic solidarity, it has finished its development.

Karl Marx and Conflict TheoryKarl Marx (1818–1883) is certainly among the most significant social thinkers in recent history. While there are manycritics of his work, it is still widely respected and influential. For Marx, society’s constructions were predicated upon theidea of “base and superstructure.” This term refers to the idea that a society’s economic character forms its base, uponwhich rests the culture and social institutions, the superstructure. For Marx, it is the base (economy) that determines whata society will be like.

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Figure 4.6 Karl Marx asserted that all elements of a society’s structure depend on its economic structure.

Additionally, Marx saw conflict in society as the primary means of change. Economically, he saw conflict existingbetween the owners of the means of production—the bourgeoisie—and the laborers, called the proletariat.

Marx maintained that these conflicts appeared consistently throughout history during times of social revolution. Theserevolutions or “class antagonisms” as he called them, were a result of one class dominating another. Most recently, withthe end of feudalism, a new revolutionary class he called the bourgeoisie dominated the proletariat laborers. Thebourgeoisie were revolutionary in the sense that they represented a radical change in the structure of society. In Marx’swords, “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directlyfacing each other—Bourgeoisie and Proletariat” (Marx and Engels 1848).

In the mid-nineteenth century, as industrialization was booming, industrial employers, the "owners of the means ofproduction" in Marx's terms, became more and more exploitative toward the working class. The large manufacturers ofsteel were particularly ruthless, and their facilities became popularly dubbed “satanic mills” based on a poem by WilliamBlake. Marx’s colleague and friend, Frederick Engels, wrote The Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844,which described in detail the horrid conditions.

Such is the Old Town of Manchester, and on re-reading my description, I am forced to admit thatinstead of being exaggerated, it is far from black enough to convey a true impression of the filth, ruin,and uninhabitableness, the defiance of all considerations of cleanliness, ventilation, and healthwhich characterise the construction of this single district, containing at least twenty to thirty thousandinhabitants. And such a district exists in the heart of the second city of England, the firstmanufacturing city of the world.

Add to that the long hours, the use of child labor, and exposure to extreme conditions of heat, cold, and toxic chemicals,and it is no wonder that Marx and Engels referred to capitalism, which is a way of organizing an economy so that thethings that are used to make and transport products (such as land, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual peopleand companies rather than by the government, as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

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Figure 4.7 Karl Marx (left) and Friedrich Engels (right) analyzed differences in social power between “have” and “have-not” groups. (Photo (a)courtesy of Wikimedia Commons; Photo (b) courtesy of George Lester/Wikimedia Commons)

For Marx, what we do defines who we are. In historical terms, in spite of the persistent nature of one class dominatinganother, some element of humanity existed. There was at least some connection between the worker and the product,augmented by the natural conditions of seasons and the rise and fall of the sun, such as we see in an agricultural society.But with the bourgeoisie revolution and the rise of industry and capitalism, the worker now worked for wages alone. Hisrelationship to his efforts was no longer of a human nature, but based on artificial conditions.

Marx described modern society in terms of alienation. Alienation refers to the condition in which the individual is isolatedand divorced from his or her society, work, or the sense of self. Marx defined four specific types of alienation.

Alienation from the product of one’s labor. An industrial worker does not have the opportunity to relate to the product helabors on. Instead of training for years as a watchmaker, an unskilled worker can get a job at a watch factory pressingbuttons to seal pieces together. The worker does not care if he is making watches or cars, simply that the job exists. In thesame way, a worker may not even know or care what product to which he is contributing. A worker on a Ford assemblyline may spend all day installing windows on car doors without ever seeing the rest of the car. A cannery worker can spenda lifetime cleaning fish without ever knowing what product they are used for.

Alienation from the process of one’s labor. A worker does not control the conditions of her job because she does not ownthe means of production. If a person is hired to work in a fast food restaurant, she is expected to make the food the way sheis taught. All ingredients must be combined in a particular order and in a particular quantity; there is no room for creativityor change. An employee at Burger King cannot decide to change the spices used on the fries in the same way that anemployee on a Ford assembly line cannot decide to place a car’s headlights in a different position. Everything is decidedby the bourgeoisie who then dictate orders to the laborers.

Alienation from others. Workers compete, rather than cooperate. Employees vie for time slots, bonuses, and job security.Even when a worker clocks out at night and goes home, the competition does not end. As Marx commented in TheCommunist Manifesto (1848), “No sooner is the exploitation of the laborer by the manufacturer, so far at an end, that hereceives his wages in cash, than he is set upon by the other portion of the bourgeoisie, the landlord, the shopkeeper, thepawnbroker.”

Alienation from one’s self. A final outcome of industrialization is a loss of connectivity between a worker and heroccupation. Because there is nothing that ties a worker to her labor, there is no longer a sense of self. Instead of being ableto take pride in an identity such as being a watchmaker, automobile builder, or chef, a person is simply a cog in themachine.

Taken as a whole, then, alienation in modern society means that an individual has no control over his life. Even in feudalsocieties, a person controlled the manner of his labor as to when and how it was carried out. But why, then, does themodern working class not rise up and rebel? (Indeed, Marx predicted that this would be the ultimate outcome and collapseof capitalism.)

Another idea that Marx developed is the concept of false consciousness. False consciousness is a condition in which thebeliefs, ideals, or ideology of a person are not in the person’s own best interest. In fact, it is the ideology of the dominantclass (here, the bourgeoisie capitalists) that is imposed upon the proletariat. Ideas such as the emphasis of competition over

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cooperation, or of hard work being its own reward, clearly benefit the owners of industry. Therefore, workers are lesslikely to question their place in society and assume individual responsibility for existing conditions.

In order for society to overcome false consciousness, Marx proposed that it be replaced with class consciousness, theawareness of one’s rank in society. Instead of existing as a “class in itself,” the proletariat must become a “class for itself”in order to produce social change (Marx and Engels 1848), meaning that instead of just being an inert strata of society, theclass could become an advocate for social improvements. Only once society entered this state of political consciousnesswould it be ready for a social revolution.

Figure 4.8 An assembly line worker installs car parts with the aid of complex machinery. Has technology made this type of labor more or lessalienating? (Photo courtesy of Carol Highsmith/Wikimedia Commons)

Max Weber and Symbolic InteractionismWhile Karl Marx may be one of the best-known thinkers of the nineteenth century, Max Weber is certainly one of thegreatest influences in the field of sociology. Like the other social thinkers discussed here, he was concerned with theimportant changes taking place in Western society with the advent of industrialization. And, like Marx and Durkheim, hefeared that industrialization would have negative effects on individuals.

Weber’s primary focus on the structure of society lay in the elements of class, status, and power. Similar to Marx, Webersaw class as economically determined. Society, he believed, was split between owners and laborers. Status, on the otherhand, was based on noneconomic factors such as education, kinship, and religion. Both status and class determined anindividual’s power, or influence over ideas. Unlike Marx, Weber believed that these ideas formed the base of society.

Weber’s analysis of modern society centered on the concept of rationalization. A rational society is one built around logicand efficiency rather than morality or tradition. To Weber, capitalism is entirely rational. Although this leads to efficiencyand merit-based success, it can have negative effects when taken to the extreme. In some modern societies, this is seenwhen rigid routines and strict design lead to a mechanized work environment and a focus on producing identical productsin every location.

Another example of the extreme conditions of rationality can be found in Charlie Chaplin’s classic film Modern Times(1936). Chaplin’s character performs a routine task to the point where he cannot stop his motions even while away fromthe job. Indeed, today we even have a recognized medical condition that results from such tasks, known as “repetitivestress syndrome.”

Weber was also unlike his predecessors in that he was more interested in how individuals experienced societal divisionsthan in the divisions themselves. The symbolic interactionism theory, the third of the three most recognized theories ofsociology, is based on Weber’s early ideas that emphasize the viewpoint of the individual and how that individual relatesto society. For Weber, the culmination of industrialization, rationalization, and the like results in what he referred to as theiron cage, in which the individual is trapped by institutions and bureaucracy. This leads to a sense of “disenchantment ofthe world,” a phrase Weber used to describe the final condition of humanity. Indeed a dark prediction, but one that has, atleast to some degree, been borne out (Gerth and Mills 1918). In a rationalized, modern society, we have supermarketsinstead of family-owned stores. We have chain restaurants instead of local eateries. Superstores that offer a multitude ofmerchandise have replaced independent businesses that focused on one product line, such as hardware, groceries,automotive repair, or clothing. Shopping malls offer retail stores, restaurants, fitness centers, even condominiums. Thischange may be rational, but is it universally desirable?

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Making Connections: Big Picturethe

Figure 4.9 Cubicles are used to maximize individual workspace in an office. Such structures may be rational, but they are also isolating. (Photocourtesy of Tim Patterson/flickr)

The Protestant Work EthicIn a series of essays in 1904, Max Weber presented the idea of the Protestant work ethic, a new attitude toward workbased on the Calvinist principle of predestination. In the sixteenth century, Europe was shaken by the ProtestantRevolution. Religious leaders such as Martin Luther and John Calvin argued against the Catholic Church’s belief insalvation through obedience. While Catholic leaders emphasized the importance of religious dogma and performinggood deeds as a gateway to Heaven, Protestants believed that inner grace, or faith in God, was enough to achievesalvation.

John Calvin in particular popularized the Christian concept of predestination, the idea that all events—includingsalvation—have already been decided by God. Because followers were never sure whether they had been chosen toenter Heaven or Hell, they looked for signs in their everyday lives. If a person was hard-working and successful, hewas likely to be one of the chosen. If a person was lazy or simply indifferent, he was likely to be one of the damned.

Weber argued that this mentality encouraged people to work hard for personal gain; after all, why should one help theunfortunate if they were already damned? Over time, the Protestant work ethic spread and became the foundation forcapitalism.

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality

Figure 4.10 Who are we? What role do we play in society? According to sociologists, we construct reality through our interactions with others. Ina way, our day-to-day interactions are like those of actors on a stage. (Photo courtesy of Jan Lewandowski/flickr)

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Until now, we’ve primarily discussed the differences between societies. Rather than discuss their problems andconfigurations, 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. Habitualizationdescribes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again inthe future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do weconstruct 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. Ifyour 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 ornorm 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 definesituations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas 1928). That is, people’s behavior can bedetermined by their subjective construction of reality rather than by objective reality. For example, a teenager who isrepeatedly given a label—overachiever, player, bum—might live up to the term even though it initially wasn’t a part of hischaracter.

Like Berger and Luckmann in their description of habitualization, Thomas states that our moral codes and social norms arecreated 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 actedupon. One example he gives is of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank issoon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all of their cash at once. As banksrarely, 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 theoreticalperspective focused on the symbols (like language, gestures, and artifacts) that people use to interact, this approach isinterested in how people interpret those symbols in daily interactions. For example, we might feel fright at seeing a personholding a gun, unless, of course, it turns out to be a police officer. Interactionists also recognize that language and bodylanguage reflect our values. One has only to learn a foreign tongue to know that not every English word can be easilytranslated into another language. The same is true for gestures. While Americans might recognize a “thumbs up” asmeaning “great,” in Germany it would mean “one” and in Japan it would mean “five.” Thus, our construction of reality isinfluenced by our symbolic interactions.

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 istold 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’sstory illustrates one way in which members of society contribute to the social construction of reality. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons)

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

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Sociologists use the term status to describe the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to theirrank 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 amultitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached toit (Merton 1957).

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 canexperience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experiencerole 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 afriend. Our roles in life have a great effect on our decisions and who we become.

Presentation of SelfOf course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All we can observe isbehavior, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role. Sociologist Erving Goffmanpresented 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, andindividuals perform different roles depending on who is present (Goffman 1959). Think about the way you behave aroundyour coworkers versus the way you behave around your grandparents versus the way you behave with a blind date. Even ifyou’re not consciously trying to alter your personality, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sidesof 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 therole of a host. It is agreed upon that you will provide food and seating and probably be stuck with a lot of the cleanup atthe end of the night. Similarly, your friends are playing the roles of guests, and they are expected to respect your propertyand 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 ashared reality between players. In this case, if you view yourself as a guest and others view you as a host, there are likelyto 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 her robe and gavel. Those entering the courtroomare 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 courtroomproceedings.

Figure 4.12 Janus, another possible "prop", depicted with two heads, exemplifies war and peace. (Photo courtesy of Fubar Obfusco/WikimediaCommons)

Goffman’s dramaturgy ideas expand on the ideas of Charles Cooley and the looking-glass self. According to Cooley, webase our image on what we think other people see (Cooley 1902). We imagine how we must appear to others, then react to

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achieved status:

agricultural societies:



ascribed status:



class consciousness:

collective conscience:

false consciousness:

feudal societies:


horticultural societies:

hunter-gatherer societies:

industrial societies:

information societies:


iron cage:

looking-glass self:

mechanical solidarity:

organic solidarity:

pastoral societies:


this speculation. We don certain clothes, prepare our hair in a particular manner, wear makeup, use cologne, and thelike—all with the notion that our presentation of ourselves is going to affect how others perceive us. We expect a certainreaction, and, if lucky, we get the one we desire and feel good about it. But more than that, Cooley believed that our senseof self is based upon this idea: we imagine how we look to others, draw conclusions based upon their reactions to us, andthen we develop our personal sense of self. In other words, people’s reactions to us are like a mirror in which we arereflected.

Chapter Review

Key Termsthe status a person chooses, such as a level of education or income

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

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 asland, oil, factories, ships, etc.) are owned by individual people and companies rather than by the government

the awareness of one’s rank in society

the communal beliefs, morals, and attitudes of a society

a person’s beliefs and ideology that are in conflict with her best interests

societies that operate on a strict hierarchical system of power based around land ownership andprotection

the idea that society is constructed by us and those before us, and it is followed like a habit

societies based around the cultivation of plants

societies that depend on hunting wild animals and gathering uncultivated plants forsurvival

societies characterized by a reliance on mechanized labor to create material goods

societies based on the production of nonmaterial goods and services

the act of implanting a convention or norm into society

a situation in which an individual is trapped by social institutions

our reflection of how we think we appear to others

a type of social order maintained by the collective consciousness of a culture

a type of social order based around an acceptance of economic and social differences

societies based around the domestication of animals

the laborers in a society

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role conflict:

role performance:

role strain:



self-fulfilling prophecy:

social integration:



Thomas theorem:

a belief that modern society should be built around logic and efficiency rather than morality ortradition

a situation when one or more of an individual’s roles clash

the expression of a role

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

an idea that becomes true when acted upon

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 culture

the responsibilities and benefits that a person experiences according to his or her rank and role in society

how a subjective reality can drive events to develop in accordance with that reality, despite beingoriginally unsupported by objective reality

Section Summary

4.1 Types of SocietiesSocieties are classified according to their development and use of technology. For most of human history, people lived inpreindustrial 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 socialmobility. At the turn of the new millennium, a new type of society emerged. This postindustrial, or information, society isbuilt on digital technology and nonmaterial goods.

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on SocietyÉmile Durkheim believed that as societies advance, they make the transition from mechanical to organic solidarity. ForKarl Marx, society exists in terms of class conflict. With the rise of capitalism, workers become alienated from themselvesand others in society. Sociologist Max Weber noted that the rationalization of society can be taken to unhealthy extremes.

4.3 Social Constructions of RealitySociety 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 rolesthroughout our lives, and our social interactions depend on what types of roles we assume, who we assume them with, andthe scene where interaction takes place.

Section Quiz

4.1 Types of Societies1. Which of the following fictional societies is an example of a pastoral society?

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

2. Which of the following occupations is a person of power most likely to have in an information society?a. Software engineerb. Coal minerc. Children’s book authord. Sharecropper

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3. Which of the following societies were the first to have permanent residents?a. Industrialb. Hunter-gathererc. Horticulturald. Feudal

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society4. Organic solidarity is most likely to exist in which of the following types of societies?

a. Hunter-gathererb. Industrialc. Agriculturald. Feudal

5. According to Marx, the _____ own the means of production in a society.a. proletariatb. vassalsc. bourgeoisied. anomie

6. Which of the following best depicts Marx’s concept of alienation from the process of one’s labor?a. A supermarket cashier always scans store coupons before company coupons because she was taught to do it that

way.b. 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.c. 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.d. 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.

7. The Protestant work ethic is based on the concept of predestination, which states that ________.a. performing good deeds in life is the only way to secure a spot in Heavenb. salvation is only achievable through obedience to Godc. no person can be saved before he or she accepts Jesus Christ as his or her saviord. God has already chosen those who will be saved and those who will be damned

8. The concept of the iron cage was popularized by which of the following sociological thinkers?a. Max Weberb. Karl Marxc. Émile Durkheimd. Friedrich Engels

9. Émile Durkheim’s ideas about society can best be described as ________.a. functionalistb. conflict theoristc. symbolic interactionistd. rationalist

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality10. Mary works full-time at an office downtown while her young children stay at a neighbor’s house. She’s just learnedthat the childcare provider is leaving the country. Mary has succumbed to pressure to volunteer at her church, plus herailing mother-in-law will be moving in with her next month. Which of the following is likely to occur as Mary tries tobalance her existing and new responsibilities?

a. Role strainb. Self-fulfilling prophecyc. Status conflictd. Status strain

11. According to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, society is based on ________.a. habitual actionsb. statusc. institutionalization

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d. role performance

12. 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 hairto hide the gray and wears clothes that camouflage the weight he has put on. Paco’s behavior can be best explained by theconcept of ___________.

a. role strainb. the looking-glass selfc. role performanced. habitualization

Short Answer

4.1 Types of Societies1. In which type or types of societies do the benefits seem to outweigh the costs? Explain your answer, and cite social andeconomic reasons.

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

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on Society3. Choose two of the three sociologists discussed here (Durkheim, Marx, Weber), and use their arguments to explain acurrent social event such as the Occupy movement. Do their theories hold up under modern scrutiny?

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

4.3 Social Constructions of Reality5. Draw a large circle, and then “slice” the circle into pieces like a pie, labeling each piece with a role or status that youoccupy. 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?

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

Further Research

4.1 Types of SocietiesThe Maasai are a modern pastoral society with an economy largely structured around herds of cattle. Read more about theMaasai people and see pictures of their daily lives here:

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on SocietyOne of the most influential pieces of writing in modern history was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The CommunistManifesto. Visit this site to read the original document that spurred revolutions around the world: (

4.3 Social Constructions of RealityTV 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 ofexamples under the entry of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” Pay careful attention to the real-life examples. Are there ones thatsurprised you or that you don’t agree with? (


4.0 Introduction to Society and Social InteractionMaasai Association. “Facing the Lion.” Retrieved January 4, 2012 ( ).

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4.1 Types of SocietiesImmigration 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( ( ).

Kjeilen, Tore. “Bedouin.” Retrieved February 17, 2012 ( ( ).

University of Michigan. n.d. "The Curse of Oil in Ogoniland". Retrieved January 2, 2015(

4.2 Theoretical Perspectives on SocietyDurkheim, 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.” Retrieved January 4, 2012 ( ( ).

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 RealityBerger, 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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