6 Module 6: Social Interaction, Social Groups and Social Identity

Learning Objectives

  • Use Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective to describe the social dynamics of self-presentation and mutual accommodation.
  • Distinguish between different levels of analysis in sociology:  Micro, Meso, Macro and Global
  • Distinguish between the form and content of social interaction
  • Describe the paradox of the modern individual
  • Describe the social dimensions of emotional life
  • Explain why the operation of a group is more than the sum of its parts
  • Distinguish between primary and secondary groups as two key sociological groups
  • Describe in-groups, out-groups, and reference groups as subtypes of primary and secondary groups.
  • Distinguish between different types and styles of leadership.
  • Describe how conformity is impacted by group membership.

6.0 Introduction to Social Interaction

Face-to-face interaction of even the simplest sort is a far more socially intricate operation than we generally recognize. It is rife with unacknowledged rituals, tacit understandings, covert symbolic exchanges, impression management techniques, and calculated strategic maneuverings.

The Canadian sociologist Erving Goffman went to the Shetland Islands in the 1950s to do fieldwork on the social structure of the island community for his PhD dissertation. However, he found that the complex interpersonal relationships in the hotel he stayed at to be a much richer site for social study. The theories that became the basis for his dramaturgical approach in The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959) developed from his detailed observations of the elaborate “interaction rituals” in everyday social interaction.

Figure 6.1. “The face is like a switch on a railroad track. It affects the trajectory of the social interaction the way the switch would affect the path of the train” (Alan Fridlund, 1994). (The Face, Like A Switch by Derrick Tyson CC BY 2.0).

Goffman describes the way that people try to control the impression they make on others in social encounters. They want to be received well. They want to be taken as credible. At the same time, the others are interested in checking up on the person’s sincerity, trustworthiness and general suitability as someone worth spending time with. In face-to-face encounters in “real time,” they might not have access to information from the person’s background. So in the absence of confirming or disconfirming information that the person is as they claim, they compare what the person intentionally expresses about themselves against other expressions that the person unintentionally “gives off”: facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures, nervousness, quality of clothing, application of make-up, use of language and so on. This dynamic between a person’s self-presentation and the audience’s critical discernment sets in motion a number of micro-level structures that govern the course of social interactions no matter their specific content.

In the Shetland Islands, Goffman observed how islanders were sometimes amused to watch the manners of neighbours who dropped in for a cup of tea. As there were no impediments to the view in front of the simple cottages and no electric lights inside, they were well positioned to see how the neighbour would drop one expression as he or she approached and adopt another as they entered the door. The visitor consciously composed his or her “social face” by adopting a “warm expectant smile.” Based on these cues the hosts were able to judge how the neighbour really felt about them. However, other neighbours who were aware of this dynamic of examination, adopted a social face well before turning into the cottage “thus ensuring the projection of a constant image” (Goffman, 1959). Successful impression management requires an awareness of both the expressions that one gives and the expressions that one gives off. In this manner Goffman examines how impression management in social interaction always involves some degree of cynical performance.

In his essay “On Face-Work,” Goffman (1972) suggests that individuals in any social encounter attempt to establish and act out a line, not unlike the pick-up line a suitor might try out on a potential companion in a bar. The line the individual adopts in any social encounter expresses their view of the situation, their attitude towards the other members of the group, and especially, their attitude towards themselves. Consciously or unconsciously, they decide what “line” they are going to take to respond to the situation. Their line might be, “I’ve been down on my luck, can you help me out?” or “I know more about wine than that guy, so I’m going to let him know it” or “I am really polite so I am not going to say directly that the dress does nothing for her,” etc.

As a result of this line, they present a certain face to the group that Goffman describes as a claim to a “positive social value” for themselves.

Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes–albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself (Goffman, 1972).

They present themselves as humble, sincere, knowledgeable, decisive, aggressive, or easygoing, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the social crowd present. Goffman remarks that whether they intentionally take a specific line or present a specific face, or not, they will find that the others assume they have done so and will act towards them accordingly.

Therefore, the dynamics of social encounters play out based on whether an individual is successful in his or her bid to “maintain face” or whether they make a gaff or do something that inadvertently interrupts their performance. If they are a professor, they might misspell a word on the blackboard, which undermines their claim to rarefied knowledge and erudition. If they are a new MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), they might have to account for inappropriate pictures or posts on their Facebook page which undermine their claim to have the requisite responsibility and perspicuity for the job. If they are a driver, the hint of liquor on their breath might undermine the appearance of sobriety they wish to display to a police officer at a check stop. Then it becomes a question of whether they can “save face” or whether they will end up “shame faced.” Goffman calls the management of one’s face in light of the responses of others—how we make it consistent with the line we are acting out, how we make adjustments to cover over inconsistencies or incidents, etc.—face-work.

The strange insight that Goffman offers is that one’s “face”—essentially positive social attributes one claims for oneself in any situation, but also one’s actual face (its expressiveness, nonverbal cues, potential for betrayal)—does not really belong to the individual:

A person may be said to have, or be in or maintain face when the line he effectively takes presents an image of him that is internally consistent, that is supported by judgments and evidence conveyed by other participants, and that is confirmed by evidence conveyed through impersonal agencies in the situation. At such times the person’s face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on his body, but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events in the encounter and becomes manifest only when these events are read and interpreted for the appraisals expressed in them. (1972, pp. 6–7)

The acceptance or rejection of one’s face is in the hands of the others who generally are prepared to accommodate small glitches in performance, but not indefinitely. In Goffman’s analysis, a social encounter is a precarious affair in which each of the participants desperately hopes to survive without disaster or mishap. An elaborate system of tact and etiquette evolves to which the participants in a face-to-face encounter consciously or unconsciously submit, even when they have their doubts about the credibility of a performance, so that the group as a whole can maintain face. If the disruption to someone’s face becomes too severe however a “scene” is created and the encounter falls apart. Goffman illustrates the way in which even the seemingly free and spontaneous interactions of everyday life are governed by intricate and predictable structures of self-presentation and mutual accommodation. Before delving deeper into Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of face to face interaction, it is useful to consider the multiple layers of social life that establish the context for face to face interaction.

6.0.1 Micro, Meso, Macro, and Global Levels of Sociological Analysis

Sociologists study all aspects and levels of society. A society is a group of people whose members interact, reside in a definable area, and share a culture. A culture includes the group’s shared practices, values, beliefs, norms, and artifacts. One sociologist might analyze video of people from different societies as they carry on everyday conversations to study the rules of polite conversation from different world cultures. Another sociologist might interview a representative sample of people to see how email and instant messaging have changed the way organizations are run. Yet another sociologist might study how migration determined the way in which language spread and changed over time. A fourth sociologist might study the history of international agencies like the United Nations or the International Monetary Fund to examine how the globe became divided into a First World and a Third World after the end of the colonial era.

These examples illustrate the ways in which society and culture can be studied at different levels of analysis, from the detailed study of face-to-face interactions to the examination of large-scale historical processes affecting entire civilizations. It is common to divide these levels of analysis into different gradations based on the scale of interaction involved. Generally speaking, sociologists break the study of society down into four separate levels of analysis: micro, meso, macro, and global. In Sociology 112 we focus primarily on the theoretical and methodological approaches which facilitate sociological analysis at the micro and meso scales of social interaction.  In Sociology 111, the focus shifts to those theoretical and methodological approaches which are more suited to macro and global levels of analysis. It is important to keep in mind, however, that in the world of everyday social reality the multiple layers of social reality co-exist and are inter-related.

At the micro-level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of face-to-face interaction: How are specific individuals in specific locations able to interact in a coherent and consistent manner? For example, how is a conversation possible? How do you know when it is your turn to speak or when someone has been speaking too long? We will discuss the analysis of various types of social interaction at the micro-level later in this Module.

At the meso-level of analysis, the focus shifts to the characteristics of specific networks, groups, and organizations (i.e., collectivities). The meso-level refers to the connection, interaction and ongoing coordination of numerous different social roles simultaneously. When we speak of a school, for example, we need to move beyond the analysis of single face-to-face interactions–interactions in a single setting where participants are co-present–to examine the combined interactions and relationships between students, parents, teachers, and administrators. At this level, we ask, how do the properties of different types of social collectivity affect or alter the actions of individuals? Why does an individual’s behaviour change when they are in a collectivity? How do collectivities constrain or enable their members to act in certain ways? What is it about collectivities that entice people to conform, or resist? In these meso-level examples we are still talking about specific, identifiable individuals–albeit not necessarily in direct face-to-face situations–but take into account the complex entwinement of their lives to account for their social actions and interactions. In this Module, we draw on the theoretical insights of Simmel to examine how group identification and membership impacts the social actions and interactions of individuals.

At the macro-level of analysis, the focus is on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions: the dynamics of institutions, classes, or whole societies. The macro therefore extends beyond the immediate milieu or direct experience of individuals. These large-scale social structures might be nothing more than the aggregations of specific interactions between individuals at any particular moment as Simmel argues. However, the properties of structures, institutions, and societies — described by statistical analysis, cross-cultural comparisons, or historical research — also have a reality that Emile Durkheim called sui generis (i.e., of their own kind). The properties that make society possible at a macro scale cannot be explained by, or reduced to, their components without missing their most important features.

In global-level sociology, the focus is on structures and processes that extend beyond the boundaries of states or specific societies. As Ulrich Beck (2000) has pointed out, in many respects we no longer “live and act in the self-enclosed spaces of national states and their respective national societies.” Issues of climate change, the introduction of new technologies, the investment and disinvestment of capital, the images of popular culture, or the tensions of cross-cultural conflict, etc. increasingly involve our daily life in the affairs of the entire globe, by-passing traditional borders and, to some degree, distance itself. The way in which the world became divided into wealthy First World and impoverished Third World societies reflects social processes — the formation of international institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and non-governmental organizations, for example — which are global in scale and global in their effects. With the boom and bust of petroleum or other export commodity economies, it is clear to someone living in Fort McMurray, Alberta, that their daily life is affected not only by their intimate relationships with the people around them, nor only by provincial and national based corporations and policies, etc., but by global markets that determine the price of oil and the global flows of capital investment. The context of these processes has to be analysed at a global scale of analysis, but their effects may be experienced at the macro, meso and micro levels of social reality.

The relationship between the micro, macro, and global remains one of the key conceptual problems confronting sociology. What is the relationship between an individual’s life and social life? The early German sociologist Georg Simmel pointed out that macro-level processes are in fact nothing more than the sum of all the unique interactions between specific individuals at any one time (1908/1971), yet they have properties of their own which would be missed if sociologists only focused on the interactions of specific individuals. Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897/1951) is a case in point. While suicide is one of the most personal, individual, and intimate acts imaginable, Durkheim demonstrated that rates of suicide differed between religious communities — Protestants, Catholics, and Jews — in a way that could not be explained by the individual factors involved in each specific case. The different rates of suicide had to be explained by macro-level variables associated with the different religious beliefs and practices of the faith communities; more specifically, the different degrees of social integration of these communities. On the other hand, macro-level phenomena like class structures, institutional organizations, legal systems, gender stereotypes, population growth, and urban ways of life provide the shared context for everyday life but do not explain its specific nuances and micro-variations very well. Macro-level structures constrain the daily interactions of the intimate circles in which we move, but they are also filtered through localized perceptions and “lived” in a myriad of inventive and unpredictable ways.

6.1. Symbolic Interaction and Everyday Social Interaction

How do we understand the way a definition of the situation comes to be established in everyday social interaction? Social interaction is in crucial respects symbolic interaction–interaction which is mediated by the exchange and interpretation of symbols. In symbolic interaction, people contrive to reach a mutual understanding of each other and of the tasks at hand through the exchange and interpretation of symbols. Only on this basis can a coordinated action be accomplished. The process of communication is the central quality of the human social environment. Social interaction depends on communication.

George Herbert Mead (1934) argues that we often act as if an idea we have “in our head” defines who we are and what the situation in front of us is. But our ideas are in fact nebulous. They have to be confirmed by the others in the situation before they can become “real” or “actual.” Therefore, communication is central to defining social situations. Moreover, it operates primarily based on indications or gestures of meaning that call out responses in others. As Mead puts it, in a somewhat complicated way, “the meaning of a gesture by one organism … is found in the response of another organism to what would be the completion of the act of the first organism which that gesture initiates and indicates” (Mead, 1934).

Herbert Blumer (1969) clarifies the three parts of these communication processes as follows. Ones own and the others actions are symbolic in that they refer beyond themselves to meanings which call out for the response of the other: (a) they indicate to the other what they are expected to do, (b) they indicate what the speaker plans to do, and (c) on this basis they form a mutual definition of the situation that indicates how a joint action will be agreed upon, carried out, and accomplished. Until each of the “indications” is confirmed by the other, the situation is undefined and no coordinated joint action is possible. A robber tells a victim to put his or her hands up, which indicates (a) what the victim is supposed to do (i.e., not resist); (b) what the robber intends to do (i.e., take the victim’s money), and (c) what the joint action is going to be (i.e., a robbery). Blumer writes: “If there is confusion or misunderstanding along any one of these three lines of meaning, communication is ineffective, interaction is impeded, and the formation of joint action is blocked” (Blumer, 1969).

In this model of communication, the definition of the situation, or mutual understanding of the tasks at hand, arises out of ongoing communicative interaction. Situations are not defined in advance, nor are they defined by the isolated understandings of the individuals involved. They are defined by the indications of meaning given by participants and the responses by the others. “Such a response is its meaning, or gives it its meaning” (Mead, 1934). Even the most habitualized situations involve a process of symbolic interaction in which a definition of the situation emerges through a mutual interpretation of signs or indications.

6.1.1 Roles and Status

As you can imagine, people employ many types of behaviours in day-to-day life. Roles are patterns of behaviour expected of a person who occupies particular social status or position in society. 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,” “neighbour,” or “employee.” These various roles are each associated with a different status.

Sociologists use the term status to describe the access to resources and benefits a person experiences according to the rank or prestige of his or her 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 personal effort or 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 neighbour 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).

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 on who we become.

6.1.2 Presentation of Self

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role he or she is playing. All we can observe is behaviour, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses his or her role; describing it as a “performance” emphasizes that individuals use certain gestures, manners and “routines” to seek to influence others in their enactments of specific roles. In this sense, individuals in social contexts are always performers. The focus on the importance of role performance in everyday life led Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis. It represents a sociological reflection on the famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Goffman used the theater as an analogy for social interaction, (i.e. dramaturgy in theater is the art of dramatic composition on stage).  He recognized that people played their roles and engaged in interaction theatrically, often following common social scripts and using props and costumes to support their roles.  For example, he notes that simply wearing a white lab coat brings to mind in the observer stock images of cleanliness, modernity, scrupulous exactitude and authoritative knowledge. In England in the 1950s, even chimney sweeps and perfume clerks wore white lab coats as props “to provide the client with the understanding that the delicate tasks performed by these persons [would] be performed in … a standardized, clinical confidential manner” (Goffman, 1959). Whether the perfume clerk was clinically competent or not, the lab coat was used to bolster the impression that he or she was. Today, even without the lab coats, an analogous repertoire of props, sets and scripts are used to convey the clean, clinical, and confidential tasks of the perfume clerk.

A boy pouring perfume into small bottles.
Figure 6.2. Perfume shop in Mumbai, India. (perfume shopping, Mumbai by monika.monika CC BY 2.0)

Scripts and props are important in social encounters, because as we noted earlier individuals are constrained to present a “face” that represents how they want the others to see them. They appear “in-face.” They present themselves to others as they hope to be perceived. “First impressions” and “getting off on the right foot” are therefore crucial for the way the events during a social interaction unfold.  Individuals project an image of themselves that, once proposed, they find themselves committed to for the duration of the encounter. Their presentation defines the situation but also entails that certain lines of responsive action will be available to them while others will not. It is difficult to change ones mode of self-presentation midway through a social interaction. The individual’s self-presentation therefore has a promissory character that will either be borne out by the ensuing interactions or discredited. In either case, it commits the performer and the audience to a certain predictable series of events no matter what the content of the social encounter is.

The audience of a performance is not passive however. The audience also projects a definition of the situation through their responses to the performer. In general, the audience of a performance tries to attune their responses as much as possible so that open contradiction with each other or the performer does not emerge. The rules of tact dictate that the audience accommodates the performer’s claims and agrees to overlook minor flaws in the performance so that the encounter can reach its conclusion without mishap. Goffman points out that this attunement is not usually a true consensus in which everyone expresses their honest feelings and agrees with one another in an open and candid manner. Rather, it is more like a covert agreement, much like that in a theater performance, to temporarily suspend disbelief. Individuals are expected to suppress their real feelings and project an attitude to the performance that they imagine the others will find acceptable.  They establish a provisional “official ruling” on the performance. In this way social encounters work based on a temporary  modus vivendi or “working consensus” with regard to “whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured” (Goffman, 1959).

As everyone who has been in an awkward social situation knows, the stakes of mutual accommodation in social interactions are high. Events that contradict, discredit or throw doubt upon the performer threaten to disrupt the social encounter. When it happens, this results in a kind of micro-level anomie or normlessness, which is characterized by a general uncertainty about what is going to happen and is usually painful for everyone involved.

When these disruptive events occur, the interaction itself may come to a confused and embarrassed halt. Some of the assumptions upon which the responses of the participants had been predicated become untenable, and the participants find themselves lodged in an interaction for which the situation has been wrongly defined and is now no longer defined. At such moments the individual whose presentation has been discredited may feel ashamed while the others present may feel hostile, and all the participants may come to feel ill at ease, nonplussed, out of countenance, embarrassed, experiencing the kind of anomie that is generated when the minute social system of face-to-face interaction breaks down (Goffman, 1959).

Therefore the logic of social situations, whatever their particular content or participants, dictates that it is in the interest of the performer to control the conduct and responses of the others through various defensive strategies or impression management, while it is in the interest of the audience to accommodate the performance as far as is practicable through various protective practices (e.g. tact, willful ignorance, etc.).

As a result, individuals are continually obliged to manage the impression they are making on the others, often using the same type of “props” and “lines” as an actor. Social interactions are governed by preventative practices employed to avoid embarrassments. Moreover, because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds. Each situation is a new scene, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present. This led to Goffman’s focus on the ritualized nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious. For example, the ritual exchange, “Hi. How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” is an  exchange of symbolic tokens, ordinarily empty of actual content, which indicates sufficient mutual concern for the other, that it stands in for a complete social interaction in passing.

Nevertheless, the emphasis in Goffman’s analysis, as in symbolic interactionism as a whole, is that the social encounter, and social reality itself, is open and unpredictable. It relies on a continuous process of mutual interpretation, of signs given and signs received. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history but often draws on these in the same way actors draw on background knowledge and experience in creating a credible character.

6.1.3 Front Stage and Back Stage

Erving Goffman
Figure 6.3. Erving Goffman (1922–1982). “We move into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons” (Goffman, 1959). (Erving Goffman, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Goffman observes that face-to-face performances usually take place in highly bounded “regions”—both spatially and temporally—which the impression and understanding fostered by the performances tend to saturate. A work meeting takes place in a board room for a specified period of time and generally provides the single focus for the participants. The same can be said for dinner in a restaurant, a ball hockey game or a classroom lecture. Following his theatrical metaphor, Goffman (1959) further breaks down the regions of performance into front stage and back stage to examine the different implications they have for behaviour.

The front stage is the place where the performance is given to an audience, including the fixed sign-equipment or setting that supports the performance (the raised podium of the judge’s bench, the family photos of the living room, the bookshelves of the professor’s office, etc.). On the front stage the performer puts on a personal front (or face), which includes elements of appearance–uniforms, insignia, clothing, hairstyle, gender or racial characteristics, body weight, posture, etc.–that convey their claim to status, and elements of manner–aggressiveness or passivity, seriousness or joviality, politeness or informality–that foreshadow how they plan to play their role. The front stage is where the performer is on display and he or she is therefore constrained to maintain expressive control as a single note off key can disrupt the tone of an entire performance. A waitress for example needs to read the situation table by table in walking the tricky line between establishing clear, firm, professional boundaries with the paying clients, (who are generally of higher status than her), while also being friendly, courteous and informal so that tips will be forthcoming.

The back stage is generally out of the public eye, the place where the front stage performance is prepared. It is the place where “the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman, 1959). The waitress retreats to the kitchen to complain about the customers, the date retreats to the washroom to reassemble crucial make-up or hair details, the lawyer goes to the reference room to look up a matter of law she is not sure about, the neat and proper clerk goes out in the street to have a cigarette, etc. The back stage regions are where props are stored, costumes adjusted and examined for flaws, roles rehearsed and ceremonial equipment hidden–like the good bottle of scotch–so the audience cannot see how their treatment differs from others. As Goffman says, back stage is where the performer goes to drop the performance and be themselves temporarily: “Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman, 1959).

However, the implications of Goffman’s dramaturgical approach are that one is always playing a role. There is no single self. Even backstage the performer is not necessarily able to be their “true self.” Firstly, role performances are often performed as part of a team “whose intimate cooperation is required if a given projected definition of the situation is to be maintained”–the restaurant staff, the law office, the husband and wife team, etc. As Goffman describes, this means that team members are involved with each other in a relationship of reciprocal dependence, because any team member of a team has the power to give away the secrets of the show, and reciprocal familiarity, because team members are all “persons in the know” and not a position to maintain their front before each other. This entails that even backstage they are obliged to demonstrate their allegiance to the team project and play their respective “back stage” roles.

Secondly,  whether one plays one’s role sincerely–fully taken in with one’s act–or with a degree of cynicism or role distance–aware of acting a role that one is not fully identified with–the self is never truly singular or authentic in Goffman’s view. The self is just a collection of roles that we play out for different people in different situations. 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 personal performance, your grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of you. Back stage or front stage, the self is always an artifact of the ongoing stratagems of accommodation and impression management involved in the social interaction with particular persons. The self is on one side “an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking,” and on the other, “a kind of player in a ritual game” (Goffman, 1972). The self is essentially a mask.

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves (Park quoted in Goffman, 1959)

Goffman’s point here is not that individuals are completely inauthentic or phony. “In so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be” (Goffman, 1959).

6.2. Micro-level Interaction and Social Structure

Social interaction is the process of reciprocal influence exercised by individuals over one another during social encounters. Usually it refers to face-to-face encounters in which people are physically present with one another for a specified duration. However, in contemporary society we can also think of social encounters that are technologically mediated like texting, skyping, or messaging. In terms of the different levels of analysis in sociology–micro, meso, macro, and global–social interaction is generally approached at the micro-level where the structures and social scripts, the pre-established patterns of behaviour that people are expected to follow in specific social situations, that govern the relationship between particular individuals can be examined. However, as the sociological study of emotions indicates, the micro-level processes of everyday life are also impacted by macro-level phenomena such as gender inequality and historical transformations.

6.2.1 Emotional Management

14 bronze statues standing 3 meters tall express different states of laughter.
Figure 6.4. A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture (2009) by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, Vancouver B.C. (2014 – Vancouver – A-maze-ing Laughter by Ted McGrath CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The study of micro-level interaction has been a rich source of insight in sociology. The idea that our emotions, for example, have a social component might not be all that surprising at first because often we are subject to having “emotional reactions” to other people, positive or negative. The other person, or the social situation itself, brings on an emotion that otherwise would not arise.

However, sociological research has shown that our emotions also can have a systematic, socially structured quality of which we are not immediately aware. Studies of face-to-face conversations show that the outward signs of emotion like smiling or laughing are not equally distributed. For example, the predisposition to show emotion by laughing in a conversation is structured by differences in gender, status, role, and norm. Robert Provine (1996) studied 1200 two-person conversations, observed discretely in public places like shopping malls. He discovered that when a woman was speaking and a man was listening the woman laughed more than twice as much as the man. Similarly when a man was speaking and a woman listening, she was still more likely to laugh than him.  “Female speakers laugh 127 percent more than their male audience. In contrast, male speakers laugh about 7 percent less than their female audience” (Provine, 1996). Provine suggests that this shows that males lead in producing humour while females lead in laughing at humour, but it might also show a pattern of social deference reflecting the unequal social status of men and women.

How a culture laughs, when it laughs and at what it laughs also varies through history. Jokes often hone in on what we are most anxious about as a culture. The Roman Classicist Mary Beard (2014) argues that while it is very difficult to go from the recorded literature to a confident appraisal of what laughter and its place in social life in ancient Rome was like, the nature of the jokes the Romans told reveals an anxiety about the ability to demonstrate identity unique to Roman culture. Many jokes had the common theme of “how do I know that I am me?” and
how can I prove to others that I am me?”

For example, “two friends meet in the street and one says to the other, ‘I heard that you were dead,’ and the other says, ‘I’m not dead, you can see me, here I am,’ to which the first replies, ‘But the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are.’ “

This typical Roman joke refers to a cultural context in which demonstrating status was extremely important but official proofs of identity like passports or ID cards were minimal (Beard 2014).

The head of a statue with a blank expression.
Figure 6.5. The Emperor Commodus (depicted recently in the film Gladiator, 2000). Roman statues do not depict their subjects with smiles. What does the absence of a culture of smiling indicate about the emotional experience of everyday social interaction in ancient Rome? (Commodus, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna – 20100226 by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna CC BY-SA 3.0)

On the other hand, one rare account from ancient Rome in which the physical, bodily, uncontrollable nature of laughter is actually recorded was when the Emperor Commodus was playing at being a gladiator in the Roman forum. He decapitated an ostrich and threatened the Roman senators in the front row by waving its head and neck at them. What a modern audience would probably find horrifying or disgusting, the Roman senator Dio Cassius found so ridiculous he had to bite down on a laurel leaf from the wreath he was wearing to suppress his urge to giggle (Beard 2014).

What is perhaps even more significant with regard to the unique emotional life of the Romans is Beard’s claim that the Romans did not smile, or more accurately, that the expression we experience as smiling played no significant role in Roman facial communication. The Romans might have turned their mouths up at the corners but the smile was not a significant gesture in their social interaction. There are no accounts of smiling in Roman literature. The Roman words that are sometimes translated into English as smile are ridere and subridere which mean “laugh” and “little laugh” respectively; no word for smile exists. Beard concludes that the culture of the smile that figures so prominently in modern life (smiling when we meet someone, smiling to show pleasure, smiling in photographs, etc.) did not exist in Roman life. Medieval scholars suggest that the culture of the smile was not invented until the middle ages (Beard 2014).

In fact our emotional life follows detailed cultural scripts and feeling rules. Feeling rules are a set of socially shared guidelines that direct how we want to try to feel and not to feel emotions according to given situations (Hochschild, 1979). We are obliged to systematically manage our emotions in response to different social situations.

For example, we often speak of “having the right” to feel angry at someone. Or we say we “should feel more grateful” to a benefactor. We chide ourselves that a friend’s misfortune, a relative’s death, “should have hit us harder,” or that another’s good luck, or our own, should have inspired more joy. We know feeling rules, too, from how others react to what they infer from our emotive display. Another may say to us, “You shouldn’t feel so guilty; it wasn’t your fault,” or “You don’t have a right to feel jealous, given our agreement” (Hochschild, 1979).

As Hochschild argues, the fact that we are even able to distance ourselves enough from our feelings to recognize that something like a set of feeling rules may or may not apply in certain situations is a product of the modern “ironic” posture towards ourselves, quite foreign to traditional cultures.

A girl taking an unsmiling selfie in front of a field of tombstones.
Figure 6.6. Do funeral selfies violate deeply held feeling rules? (Funeral Service by MudflapDC CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

An example of an issue that revolves around feeling rules is the controversy that emerged over people, generally teenagers, or millennials, posting selfies at funerals. Selfies are the photographic self portraits taken with camera at arms length to be shared on social media. Taking and posting selfie photographs on social media like Instagram is commonly regarded as a frivolous, if not a purely narcissistic and self-absorbed pastime. A headline in the Huffington Post read, “Funeral Selfies Are The Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough” (Huffington Post, 2013). Taking selfies at funerals is seen to violate deeply held views about the solemnity and emotional tenor of funerals and the etiquette of mourning.

A commentator on an article that defended funeral selfies stated the problem clearly:

But I can’t comprehend WHY you would be taking pictures of yourself if you’re so deep into the grieving process. It does not compute. When my mother died six years ago … I didn’t decide to whip out my phone and take photos of myself in my cute outfit or pretty makeup …. I didn’t even think about that stuff. I was too busy grieving the loss of someone that I loved. I just don’t understand how taking a selfie has anything to do with the grieving process. It’s just wildly inappropriate imo [in my opinion]. It bugs me that they don’t think of this before they post the damn pic or don’t care (Doughty, 2013).

For this commentator, it is not just that selfies are seen as frivolous, but that the people taking them do not know how to feel the appropriate feelings. She sees this as a character defect.

The defender of funeral selfies, a mortician herself, makes a similar argument but from the other side of the issue. Breaking the feeling rules of funerals is not good etiquette but reflects “our tragic disengagement with the reality of death” rather than a personal defect. “Modern death practices in the West, created by the funeral industry, have given teenagers diddly squat to do when someone dies” and therefore their feelings have no support in collective ritual (Doughty, 2013).

Emotions are therefore subject to more or less conscious practices of emotion management, the way individuals work on producing or inhibiting feelings according to the social expectations of different situations. They are not as natural, spontaneous or involuntary as we typically assume. Moreover, this intimate and personal component of our life is subject to macro-level processes like commodification. In post-industrial societies, services—nursing and care professions, flight attendants, call center employees, waiters, sales clerks, teachers, community policing officers, therapists, etc.—increasingly require expertise in the use of emotional labour. We speak of emotional labour “when deep gestures of exchange enter the market sector and are bought and sold as an aspect of labour power” (Hochschild, 1979). Managing emotion according to meticulous protocols becomes part of the job description because emotional tonality is part of the commodity being sold.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1992) also noted the emotional or affective nature of power. He drew on Spinoza’s distinction between joy and sadness as affects that express the feelings of power and powerlessness respectively. Power for Deleuze is defined as the sense of being able to do something; feeling uninhibited. Powerlessness on the other hand is the sense of being unable to do something; feeling blocked. When we feel joy, we feel ourselves to be at the maximum of our power of action; we feel that we have fulfilled one of our abilities. Joy is the expression of the experience of feeling empowered. When we feel sadness we feel separated from our power of action; we feel that we failed to do something we could have done because of circumstances, or because we were prevented or forbidden from doing it. Sadness is the expression of the experience of feeling disempowered. Deleuze argues that sadness is therefore the effect of a power that is exercised over us; we are prevented from realizing or fulfilling our powers of action. In Deleuze’s analysis contemporary manifestations of power–the power of various types of tyrant, judge or priest in particular–are accompanied by techniques that strip people of their powers of action (joy) and instill feelings of impotence, inadequacy, guilt, indebtedness, and bad conscience.

As Brym et al., (2013) argue, “the common sense view of emotions as unique, spontaneous, uncontrollable, authentic, natural, and perhaps even rooted exclusively in our biological makeup proves to be misguided.”

The video, “Rosenhan’s Experiment: Being Sane in Insane Places.” https://fod.infobase.com/PortalPlaylists.aspx?wID=105077&xtid=94188. Accessed 3 Feb. 2020, accessible in the LMS, will highlight some of these key ideas.

6.2.2 The Individual and Society

A group of people sitting on a subway, all on their cell phones.
Figure 6.7. The individual and society. (Cell Phone Business by Stefan Klauke CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Many sociological findings like these strike the newcomer to the discipline as counter-intuitive because we are so steeped in a certain way of thinking about ourselves as unique individuals. This way of thinking is what Goffman called the schoolboy attitude: the idea that we make our way in life and establish our identity and our merits by personal effort and individual character (Goffman, 1972). In this way of thinking, the individual is understood to be independent of external influences; as having a private subjective interior life of memories, impressions, feelings, fantasies, likes and dislikes that is his or hers alone. The individual makes free, rational, and autonomous decisions between different courses of action and is therefore individually responsible for his or her decisions and actions, etc. From this perspective, the individual is unique, and his or her authenticity resides in finding and expressing this uniqueness. “Be yourself!” might be the dominant message we receive through childhood and adolescence, if not beyond.

However, these are ideas about the individual that go back to the political and ethical philosophies of the Enlightenment, the aesthetic reaction of the Romantic movement, and before that to the Stoic practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What this means is that the modern idea of the individual is not a product of universal “human nature” or of unique personal self-discovery but a type of relationship to the self that emerges under specific historical conditions. We make ourselves into individuals. The inquiry of micro-level sociology is to examine the various ways in which the individual is produced in social interaction, just like any other artifact.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), there is a scene in which Brian addresses the crowd of disciples that have assembled outside his window. He implores them to be themselves and not to follow him.

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow ME, You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Ssssh!

The Python troupe put their finger on the paradox of the modern idea of the individual. The idea of the modern individual is to be defined by ones uniqueness and difference from all others. In a sense, one is obliged to be an individual in a manner that forces one to conform to the crowd. There is no individual choice in the matter. Moreover, as Goffman would have it, to be “an individual” is to make a claim for oneself before others using a common, shared repertoire of impression management stratagems (i.e., culture) to demonstrate it. Paradoxically, to be different means to be the same in many important aspects.

Figure 6.8. We are all individuals! (117/365 – Movie Quote by RXAphotos  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Often, a comparison of individual members of one culture to another will reveal obvious differences. But all cultures share common elements. Cultural universals are patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies. One example of a cultural universal is the family unit: Every human society recognizes a family structure that regulates sexual reproduction and the care of children. Even so, how that family unit is defined and how it functions vary. In many Asian cultures, for example, family members from all generations commonly live together in one household. In these cultures, young adults will continue to live in the extended household family structure until they marry and join their spouse’s household, or they may remain and raise their nuclear family within the extended family’s homestead. In Canada, by contrast, individuals are expected to leave home and live independently for a period before forming a family unit consisting of parents and their offspring.

Anthropologist George Murdock (1897-1985) first recognized the existence of cultural universals while studying systems of kinship around the world. Murdock found that cultural universals often revolve around basic human survival, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter, or around shared human experiences, such as birth and death, or illness and healing. Through his research, Murdock identified other universals including language, the concept of personal names, and, interestingly, jokes. Humour seems to be a universal way to release tensions and create a sense of unity among people (Murdock, 1949). Sociologists consider humour necessary to human interaction because it helps individuals navigate otherwise tense situations.

Despite how much humans have in common, cultural differences are far more prevalent than cultural universals. For example, while all cultures have language, analysis of particular language structures and conversational etiquette reveals tremendous differences. In some Middle Eastern cultures, it is common to stand close to others in conversation. North Americans keep more distance, maintaining a large personal space. Even something as simple as eating and drinking varies greatly from culture to culture. If your professor comes into an early morning class holding a mug of liquid, what do you assume she is drinking? In Canada, it’s most likely filled with coffee, not Earl Grey tea, a favourite in England, or yak butter tea, a staple in Tibet.

The way cuisines vary across cultures fascinates many people. Some travellers, like celebrated food writer Anthony Bourdain, pride themselves on their willingness to try unfamiliar foods, while others return home expressing gratitude for their native culture’s fare. Canadians might express disgust at other cultures’ cuisine, thinking it is gross to eat meat from a dog or guinea pig for example, while they do not question their own habit of eating cows or pigs. Such attitudes are an example of ethnocentrism, or evaluating and judging another culture based on how it compares to one’s own cultural norms. Ethnocentrism, as sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) described the term, involves a belief or attitude that one’s own culture is better than all others (1906). Almost everyone is a little bit ethnocentric. For example, Canadians tend to say that people from England drive on the “wrong” side of the road, rather than the “other” side. Someone from a country where dogs are considered dirty and unhygienic might find it off-putting to see a dog in a French restaurant.

A high level of appreciation for one’s own culture can be healthy; a shared sense of community pride, for example, connects people in a society. But ethnocentrism can lead to disdain or dislike for other cultures, causing misunderstanding and conflict. People with the best intentions sometimes travel to a society to “help” its people, seeing them as uneducated or backward, essentially inferior. In reality, these travellers are guilty of cultural imperialism — the deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture. Europe’s colonial expansion, begun in the 16th century, was often accompanied by a severe cultural imperialism. European colonizers often viewed the people in the lands they colonized as uncultured savages who were in need of European governance, dress, religion, and other cultural practices. On the West Coast of Canada, the Aboriginal potlatch (gift-giving) ceremony was made illegal in 1885 because it was thought to prevent Aboriginal peoples from acquiring the proper industriousness and respect for material goods required by civilization. A more modern example of cultural imperialism may include the work of international aid agencies who introduce modern technological agricultural methods and plant species from developed countries while overlooking indigenous varieties and agricultural approaches that are better suited to the particular region.

Ethnocentrism can be so strong that when confronted with all the differences of a new culture, one may experience disorientation and frustration. In sociology, we call this culture shock. A traveller from Toronto might find the nightly silence of rural Alberta unsettling, not peaceful. An exchange student from China might be annoyed by the constant interruptions in class as other students ask questions — a practice that is considered rude in China. Perhaps the Toronto traveller was initially captivated with Alberta’s quiet beauty, and the Chinese student was originally excited to see an Canadian-style classroom firsthand. But as they experience unanticipated differences from their own culture, their excitement gives way to discomfort and doubts about how to behave appropriately in the new situation. Eventually, as people learn more about a culture, they recover from culture shock.

Culture shock may appear because people are not always expecting cultural differences. Anthropologist Ken Barger discovered this when conducting participatory observation in an Inuit community in the Canadian Arctic (1971). Originally from Indiana, Barger hesitated when invited to join a local snowshoe race. He knew he’d never hold his own against these experts. Sure enough, he finished last, to his mortification. But the tribal members congratulated him, saying, “You really tried!” In Barger’s own culture, he had learned to value victory. To the Inuit people winning was enjoyable, but their culture valued survival skills essential to their environment: How hard someone tried could mean the difference between life and death. Over the course of his stay, Barger participated in caribou hunts, learned how to take shelter in winter storms, and sometimes went days with little or no food to share among tribal members. Trying hard and working together, two nonmaterial values, were indeed much more important than winning.

Ruth Benedict
Figure 6.9. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict: “The purpose of anthropology is to make the world safe for human differences.” (Ruth Benedict courtesy of Library of Congress no copyright restriction known)

During his time with the Inuit, Barger learned to engage in cultural relativism. Cultural relativism is the practice of assessing a culture by its own standards rather than viewing it through the lens of one’s own culture. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1887–1948) argued that each culture has an internally consistent pattern of thought and action, which alone could be the basis for judging the merits and morality of the culture’s practices. Cultural relativism requires an open mind and a willingness to consider, and even adapt to, new values and norms. The logic of cultural relativism is at the basis of contemporary policies of multiculturalism. However, indiscriminately embracing everything about a new culture is not always possible. Even the most culturally relativist people from egalitarian societies, such as Canada — societies in which women have political rights and control over their own bodies — would question whether the widespread practice of female genital circumcision in countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan should be accepted as a part of a cultural tradition.

Sociologists attempting to engage in cultural relativism may struggle to reconcile aspects of their own culture with aspects of a culture they are studying. Pride in one’s own culture does not have to lead to imposing its values on others. Nor does an appreciation for another culture preclude individuals from studying it with a critical eye. In the case of female genital circumcision, a universal right to life and liberty of the person conflicts with the neutral stance of cultural relativism. It is not necessarily ethnocentric to be critical of practices that violate universal standards of human dignity that are contained in the cultural codes of all cultures, (while not necessarily followed in practice). Not every practice can be regarded as culturally relative. Cultural traditions are not immune from power imbalances and liberation movements that seek to correct them.

(The video Cross Cultural Communication is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YMyofREc5Jk)

6.3. Social Groups and Social Networks

6.3.1  Groups

Most of us feel comfortable using the word “group” without giving it much thought. But what does it mean to be part of a group? The concept of a group is central to much of how we think about society and human interaction. As Georg Simmel (1858–1915) put it, “[s]ociety exists where a number of individuals enter into interaction” (1908/1950). Society exists in groups. For Simmel, society did not exist otherwise. What fascinated him was the way in which people mutually attune to one another to create relatively enduring forms. In a group, individuals behave differently than they would if they were alone. They conform, they resist, they forge alliances, they cooperate, they betray, they organize, they defer gratification, they show respect, they expect obedience, they share, they manipulate, etc. At this meso-level of interaction, being in a group changes their behaviour and their abilities.

With each formation of parties, with each joining for common tasks or in a common feeling or way of thinking, with each articulation of the distribution of positions of submission and domination, with each common meal, with each self-adornment for others — with every growth of new synthesizing phenomena such as these, the same group becomes “more society” than it was before. There is no such thing as society “as such”; that is, there is no society in the sense that it is the condition for the emergence of all these particular phenomena. For there is no such thing as interaction “as such” — there are only specific kinds of interaction. And it is with their emergence that society too emerges, for they are neither the cause nor the consequence of society but are, themselves, society. The fact that an extraordinary multitude and variety of interactions operate at any one moment has given a seemingly autonomous historical reality to the general concept of society (Simmel, 1908/1971, emphasis is the editor’s).

This is one of the founding insights of sociology: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The group has properties over and above the properties of its individual members. It has a reality sui generis, of its own kind. But how exactly does the whole come to be greater (Review Module 5 for a fuller discussion of Simmel’s ideas)?

How can we hone the meaning of the term group more precisely for sociological purposes? The term is an amorphous one and can refer to a wide variety of gatherings, from just two people (think about a “group project” in school when you partner with another student), a club, a regular gathering of friends, or people who work together or share a hobby. In short, the term refers to any collection of at least two people who interact with some frequency and who share a sense that their identity is somehow aligned with the group. Of course, every time people gather, they do not necessarily form a group. An audience assembled to watch a street performer is a one-time random gathering. Conservative-minded people who come together to vote in an election are not a group because the members do not necessarily interact with one another with some frequency. People who exist in the same place at the same time, but who do not interact or share a sense of identity — such as a bunch of people standing in line at Starbucks — are considered an  aggregate, or a crowd. People who share similar characteristics but are not otherwise tied to one another in any way are considered a category.

An example of a category would be Millennials, the term given to all children born from approximately 1980 to 2000. Why are Millennials a category and not a group? Because while some of them may share a sense of identity, they do not, as a whole, interact frequently with each other.

Interestingly, people within an aggregate or category can become a group. During disasters, people in a neighbourhood (an aggregate) who did not know each other might become friendly and depend on each other at the local shelter. After the disaster ends and the people go back to simply living near each other, the feeling of cohesiveness may last since they have all shared an experience. They might remain a group, practising emergency readiness, coordinating supplies for the next emergency, or taking turns caring for neighbours who need extra help. Similarly, there may be many groups within a single category. Consider teachers, for example. Within this category, groups may exist like teachers’ unions, teachers who coach, or staff members who are involved with the school board.

Types of Groups

Sociologist Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) suggested that groups can broadly be divided into two categories: primary groups and secondary groups (Cooley, 1909/1963). According to Cooley, primary groups play the most critical role in our lives. The primary group is usually fairly small and is made up of individuals who generally engage face-to-face in long-term, emotional ways. This group serves emotional needs: expressive functions rather than pragmatic ones. The primary group is usually made up of significant others — those individuals who have the most impact on our socialization. The best example of a primary group is the family.

Secondary groups are often larger and impersonal. They may also be task-focused and time-limited. These groups serve an instrumental function rather than an expressive one, meaning that their role is more goal- or task-oriented than emotional. A classroom or office can be an example of a secondary group. Neither primary nor secondary groups are bound by strict definitions or set limits. In fact, people can move from one group to another. A graduate seminar, for example, can start as a secondary group focused on the class at hand, but as the students work together throughout their program, they may find common interests and strong ties that transform them into a primary group.

Peter Marsden (1987) refers to one’s group of close social contacts as a core discussion group. These are individuals with whom you can discuss important personal matters or with whom you choose to spend your free time. Christakis and Fowler (2009) found that the average North American had four close, personal contacts. However, 12% of their sample had no close personal contacts of this sort, while 5% had more than eight close personal contacts. Half of the people listed in the core discussion group were characterized as friends, as might be expected, but the other half included family members, spouses, children, colleagues, and various professional consultants. Marsden’s original research from the 1980s showed that the size of the core discussion group decreases as one ages, there was no difference in size between men and women, and those with a post-secondary degree had core discussion groups almost twice the size of those who had not completed high school.

Figure 6.10. Engineering and construction students gather around a job site. How do your academic interests define your in- and out-groups? (Construction and engineering students visit the Folsom spillway job site by  USACEpublicaffairs CC0)

In-Groups and Out-Groups

One of the ways that groups can be powerful is through inclusion, and its inverse, exclusion. In-groups and out-groups are subcategories of primary and secondary groups that help identify this dynamic. Primary groups consist of both in-groups and out-groups, as do secondary groups. The feeling that one belongs in an elite or select group is a heady one, while the feeling of not being allowed in, or of being in competition with a group, can be motivating in a different way. Sociologist William Sumner (1840–1910) developed the concepts of in-group and out-group to explain this phenomenon (Sumner, 1906/1959). In short, an in-group is the group that an individual feels he or she belongs to, and believes it to be an integral part of who he or she is. An out-group, conversely, is a group someone doesn’t belong to; often there may be a feeling of disdain or competition in relation to an out-group. Sports teams, unions, and secret societies are examples of in-groups and out-groups; people may belong to, or be an outsider to, any of these.

While these affiliations can be neutral or even positive, such as the case of a team-sport competition, the concept of in-groups and out-groups can also explain some negative human behaviour, such as white supremacist movements like the Ku Klux Klan, or the bullying of gay or lesbian students. By defining others as “not like us” and inferior, in-groups can end up practicing ethnocentrism, racism, sexism, ageism, and heterosexism — manners of judging others negatively based on their culture, race, sex, age, or sexuality. Often, in-groups can form within a secondary group. For instance, a workplace can have cliques of people, from senior executives who play golf together, to engineers who write code together, to young singles who socialize after hours. While these in-groups might show favouritism and affinity for other in-group members, the overall organization may be unable or unwilling to acknowledge it. Therefore, it pays to be wary of the politics of in-groups, since members may exclude others as a form of gaining status within the group.

Reference Groups

A group of hockey players celebrating on the ice.
Figure 6.11. Athletes are often viewed as a reference group for young people. (HayleyWickenheiserCgyGoal by Canada Hky CC BY-SA 3.0)

A reference group is a group that people compare themselves to — it provides a standard of measurement. In Canadian society, peer groups are common reference groups. Children, teens, and adults pay attention to what their peers wear, what music they like, what they do with their free time — and they compare themselves to what they see. Most people have more than one reference group, so a middle-school boy might look not only at his classmates but also at his older brother’s friends and see a different set of norms. And he might observe the antics of his favourite athletes for yet another set of behaviours.

Some other examples of reference groups can be one’s church, synagogue, or mosque; one’s cultural centre, workplace, or family gathering; and even one’s parents. Often, reference groups convey competing messages. For instance, on television and in movies, young adults often have wonderful apartments, cars, and lively social lives despite not holding a job. In music videos, young women might dance and sing in a sexually aggressive way that suggests experience beyond their years. At all ages, we use reference groups to help guide our behaviour and show us social norms. So how important is it to surround yourself with positive reference groups? You may never meet or know a particular reference group, but it may still impact and influence how you act. Identifying reference groups can help you understand the source of the social identities you aspire to or want to distance yourself from.

A group of young cadets in a parade wearing the same uniforms march in sync.
Figure 6.12. Cadets illustrate how strongly conformity can define groups. (Cadets March Past by David Spender CC BY 2.0)

Large Groups

It is difficult to define exactly when a small group becomes a large group. One step might be when there are too many people to join in a simultaneous discussion. Another might be when a group joins with other groups as part of a movement that unites them. These larger groups may share a geographic space, such as Occupy Montreal or the People’s Assembly of Victoria, or they might be spread out around the globe. The larger the group, the more attention it can garner, and the more pressure members can put toward whatever goal they wish to achieve. At the same time, the larger the group becomes, the more the risk grows for division and lack of cohesion.

One can think of three main social forms by which the content or activity of a group might be organized to prevent division and lack of cohesion: domination, cooperation, and competition. No matter what the organization is — a hockey franchise, a workplace, or a social movement — the choice of one form of organization over the others has consequences in terms of the loyalty of members and the efficiency and effectiveness of the group in achieving its goals. In the form of domination, power is concentrated in the hands of leaders while the power of subordinates is severely restricted or constrained. In extreme versions of domination, like slavery, loyalty and efficiency are low because fear of coercion is the only motivation. In the form of cooperation on the other hand, power is distributed relatively equally and loyalty and efficiency are high because the group is based on mutual trust and high levels of commitment. In the form of competition, power is distributed unequally but there is latitude for movement based on the outcome of competition for prestige or money. Loyalty and efficiency are relatively high but only as long as the pay-offs are high.

In a Star Trek episode from the 1960s, “Patterns of Force,” the crew of the Enterprise discover that a rogue historian has gone against the Prime Directive and reorganized a planet’s culture on the basis of Nazi Germany. In order to address the planet’s condition of chaos, he appealed to the “efficiency” of Nazism only to unleash a systematic persecution of one native group by the other. The ensuing drama in the episode reveals that the historian mistook domination for efficiency. As Spock puts it at the end of the episode, how could such a noted historian make the logical error of emulating the Nazis? Captain Kirk responds by saying that the failure was in putting so much power in the hands of a dictator, to which Dr. McCoy adds that power corrupts. In fact, as historians point out, Nazi Germany was startlingly inefficient, if only because all major decisions were filtered through Hitler himself who was notoriously unpredictable, hard to get the attention of, and lacked any form of personal routine (Kershaw, 1998). The irony of the Star Trek episode is of course that the Starship Enterprise itself is organized on the formal basis of domination. It is only the leadership style that differs.

Group Leadership

Often, larger groups require some kind of leadership. In small, primary groups, leadership tends to be informal. After all, most families don’t take a vote on who will rule the group, nor do most groups of friends. This is not to say that de facto leaders do not emerge, but formal leadership is rare.

In a series of small group studies at Harvard in the 1950s, Robert Bales (1970) studied the group processes that emerged around solving problems. No matter what the specific tasks were, he discovered that in all the successful groups — i.e., in the groups that were able to see their tasks through to the end without breaking up — three types of informal leader emerged: a task leader, an emotional leader, and a joker. The task leader was the person who stepped up to organize the group to solve the problem by setting goals and distributing tasks. The emotional leader was the person who helped the group resolve disagreements and frustrations when strong feelings emerged. The joker made fun and fooled around but also had the knack for releasing group tension by making jokes. These leadership roles emerged spontaneously in the small groups without planning or awareness that they were needed. They appear to simply be properties of task-oriented, face-to-face groups.

In secondary groups, leadership is usually more overt. There are often clearly outlined roles and responsibilities, with a chain of command to follow. Some secondary groups, like the army, have highly structured and clearly understood chains of command, and many lives depend on those. After all, how well could soldiers function in a battle if they had no idea whom to listen to or if different people were calling out orders? Other secondary groups, like a workplace or a classroom, also have formal leaders, but the styles and functions of leadership can vary significantly.

Leadership function refers to the main focus or goal of the leader. An instrumental leader is one who is goal-oriented and largely concerned with accomplishing set tasks. An army general or a Fortune 500 CEO would be an instrumental leader. In contrast, expressive leaders are more concerned with promoting emotional strength and health, and ensuring that people feel supported. Social and religious leaders — rabbis, priests, imams, and directors of youth homes and social service programs — are often perceived as expressive leaders. There is a longstanding stereotype that men are more instrumental leaders and women are more expressive leaders. Although gender roles have changed, even today, many women and men who exhibit the opposite-gender manner can be seen as deviants and can encounter resistance. Former U.S. Secretary of State and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton provides an example of how society reacts to a high-profile woman who is an instrumental leader. Despite the stereotype, Boatwright and Forrest (2000) have found that both men and women prefer leaders who use a combination of expressive and instrumental leadership.

A nutcracker for sale that looks like Hillary Clinton. Long description available
Figure 6.13. This gag gift demonstrates how female leaders may be viewed if they violate social norms. [Long Description] (the hillary nutcracker by  istolethetv CC BY 2.0)

In addition to these leadership functions, there are three different leadership styles. Democratic leaders encourage group participation in all decision making. The group is essentially cooperative. These leaders work hard to build consensus before choosing a course of action and moving forward. This type of leader is particularly common, for example, in a club where the members vote on which activities or projects to pursue. These leaders can be well-liked, but there is often a challenge that the work will proceed slowly since consensus building is time-consuming. A further risk is that group members might pick sides and entrench themselves into opposing factions rather than reaching a solution.

In contrast, a laissez-faire leader (French for “leave it alone”) is hands-off, allowing group members to self-manage and make their own decisions. An example of this kind of leader might be an art teacher who opens the art cupboard, leaves materials on the shelves, and tells students to help themselves and make some art. While this style can work well with highly motivated and mature participants who have clear goals and guidelines, it risks group dissolution and a lack of progress.

As the name suggests, authoritarian leaders issue orders and assigns tasks. These leaders are clear instrumental leaders with a strong focus on meeting goals. Often, entrepreneurs fall into this mould, like Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. Not surprisingly, this type of leader risks alienating the workers. There are times, however, when this style of leadership can be required. In different circumstances, each of these leadership styles can be effective and successful. Consider what leadership style you prefer. Why? Do you like the same style in different areas of your life, such as a classroom, a workplace, and a sports team?

Group Conformity

We all like to fit in to some degree. Likewise, when we want to stand out, we want to choose how we stand out and for what reasons. For example, a woman who loves cutting-edge fashion and wants to dress in thought-provoking new styles likely wants to be noticed within a framework of high fashion. She would not want people to think she was too poor to find proper clothes. Conformity is the extent to which an individual complies with group norms or expectations. As you might recall, we use reference groups to assess and understand how we should act, dress, and behave. Not surprisingly, young people are particularly aware of who conforms and who does not. A high school boy whose mother makes him wear ironed, button-down shirts might protest that he will look stupid — that everyone else wears T-shirts. Another high school boy might like wearing those shirts as a way of standing out. Following Georg Simmel’s analysis of the contradictory dynamics of fashion: it represents both the need to conform and the need to stand out. How much do you enjoy being noticed? Do you consciously prefer to conform to group norms so as not to be singled out? Are there people in your class or peer group who immediately come to mind when you think about those who do, and do not, want to conform?

A number of famous experiments in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s tested the propensity of individuals to conform to authority. Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment is a classic example. Within days of beginning the simulated prison experiment, the random sample of university students proved themselves capable of conforming to the roles of prison guards and prisoners to an extreme degree, even though the conditions were highly artificial (Haney, Banks, and Zimbardo, 1973).

Stanley Milgram conducted experiments in the 1960s to determine how structures of authority rendered individuals obedient (Milgram, 1963). This was shortly after the Adolf Eichmann war crime trial in which Eichmann claimed that he was just a bureaucrat following orders when he helped to organize the Holocaust. Milgram had experimental subjects administer, what they were led to believe were, electric shocks to a subject when the subject gave a wrong answer to a question. Each time a wrong answer was given, the experimental subject was told to increase the intensity of the shock. The experiment was supposed to be testing the relationship between punishment and learning, but the subject receiving the shocks was an actor. As the experimental subjects increased the amount of voltage, the actor began to show distress, eventually begging to be released. When the subjects became reluctant to administer more shocks, Milgram (wearing a white lab coat to underline his authority as a scientist) assured them that the actor would be fine and that the results of the experiment would be compromised if the subject did not continue. Seventy-one percent of the experimental subjects were willing to continue administering shocks, even beyond 285 volts, despite the actor crying out in pain, and the voltage dial labelled with warnings like “Danger: Severe shock.”

Psychologist Solomon Asch (1907–1996) conducted experiments that illustrated how great the pressure to conform is, specifically within a small group (1956).  In 1951, he sat a small group of eight people around a table. Only one of the people sitting there was the true experimental subject; the rest were actors or associates of the experimenter. However, the subject was led to believe that the others were all, like him, people brought in for an experiment in visual judgments. The group was shown two cards, the first card with a single vertical line, and the second card with three vertical lines differing in length. The experimenter polled the group, asking each participant, one at a time, which line on the second card matched up with the line on the first card.

However, this was not really a test of visual judgment. Rather, it was Asch’s study on the pressures of conformity. He was curious to see what the effect of multiple wrong answers would be on the subject, who presumably was able to tell which lines matched. In order to test this, Asch had each planted respondent answer in a specific way. The subject was seated in such a way that he had to hear almost everyone else’s answers before it was his turn. Sometimes the non-subject members would unanimously choose an answer that was clearly wrong.

So what was the conclusion? Asch found that 37 out of 50 test subjects responded with an “obviously erroneous” answer at least once. When faced by a unanimous wrong answer from the rest of the group, the subject conformed to a mean of four of the staged answers. Asch revised the study and repeated it, wherein the subject still heard the staged wrong answers, but was allowed to write down his answer rather than speak it aloud. In this version, the number of examples of conformity — giving an incorrect answer so as not to contradict the group — fell by two-thirds. He also found that group size had an impact on how much pressure the subject felt to conform.

The results showed that speaking up when only one other person gave an erroneous answer was far more common than when five or six people defended the incorrect position. Finally, Asch discovered that people were far more likely to give the correct answer in the face of near-unanimous consent if they had a single ally. If even one person in the group also dissented, the subject conformed only a quarter as often. Clearly, it was easier to be a minority of two than a minority of one.

Asch concluded that there are two main causes for conformity: people want to be liked by the group or they believe the group is better informed than they are. He found his study results disturbing. To him, they revealed that intelligent, well-educated people would, with very little coaxing, go along with an untruth. This phenomenon is known as groupthink, the tendency to conform to the attitudes and beliefs of the group despite individual misgivings. He believed this result highlighted real problems with the education system and values in our society (Asch, 1956).

What would you do in Asch’s experiment? Would you speak up? What would help you speak up and what would discourage you?

Micro, Meso and Macro analysis of group dynamics

How do sociologists approach the analysis of group dynamics? At the micro-level of analysis, the focus is on the social dynamics of face-to-face interaction: How are specific individuals in specific locations able to interact in a coherent and consistent manner? For example, how is a conversation possible? How do you know when it is your turn to speak or when someone has been speaking too long?

At the meso-level of analysis, the focus shifts to the characteristics of specific networks, groups, and organizations (i.e., collectivities). The meso-level refers to the connection, interaction and ongoing coordination of numerous different social roles simultaneously. When we speak of a school, for example, we need to move beyond the analysis of single face-to-face interactions–interactions in a single setting where participants are co-present–to examine the combined interactions and relationships between students, parents, teachers, and administrators. At this level, we ask, how do the properties of different types of social collectivity affect or alter the behaviour of individuals? Why does an individual’s behaviour change when they are in a collectivity? How do collectivities constrain or enable their members to act in certain ways? What is it about collectivities that entice people to conform? In these meso-level examples we are still talking about specific, identifiable individuals–albeit not necessarily in direct face-to-face situations–but take into account the complex entwinement of their lives to account for their behaviour.

Finally, at the macro-level of analysis, the focus is on the properties of large-scale, society-wide social interactions: the dynamics of institutions, classes, or whole societies. The macro therefore extends beyond the immediate milieu or direct experience of individuals. These large-scale social structures might be nothing more than the aggregations of specific interactions between individuals at any particular moment as Simmel argues. However, the properties of structures, institutions, and societies — described by statistical analysis, cross-cultural comparisons, or historical research — also have a reality that Emile Durkheim called sui generis (i.e., of their own kind). The properties that make society possible at a macro scale cannot be explained by, or reduced to, their components without missing their most important features.

Daniel and Henrik Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks
Figure 6.14. Hockey is a social activity that can be examined at micro-, meso-, and macro-levels of analysis. (Sedin’s Fun by  Jerry Meaden CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

To illustrate the micro, meso, and macro distinction, we might consider how a sociologist would analyze the game of hockey. At the micro-level of analysis, the sociologist would be interested in the interpersonal structures and role-play that governs how various specific individuals (players, coaches, managers, owners, fans, etc.) interact face to face. With respect to the players, how do they interact on the ice in a coherent manner? How do they coordinate their activities to win games? How do they make the game work? In part, this analysis is a matter of simply knowing the rules of the game and each player’s role or position (center, winger, defense, goalie). From a different angle, the analysis has to do with the players practicing the plays by which they move the puck out of the defensive zone, cross the blue line into the offensive zone, defend against offensive plays, cycle the puck behind the net, set up a power play, etc. From another angle, the analysis is also a matter of the personal dynamic between individual players, their ability to read each other’s cues, to anticipate each other’s moves, and to work off each other’s strengths, etc. (or the failure to do so). In this regard, hockey is an entirely symbolic interaction, which depends on individuals sending signals and interpreting signals. It is, after all, a game based on chasing a small disk of rubber around a frozen surface of ice. It is thoroughly symbolic.

At the meso-level of analysis, a sociologist takes into account group dynamics involving a number of different roles simultaneously such as team membership or fandom. How and why do fans get so emotionally involved in the fortunes of their favourite team? How do they sort themselves into categories — “true” fans and “occasional” fans — and with what consequences? How do team rivalries develop? Similarly, the sociologist might be interested in the hockey team as a type of institutional arrangement of roles that organizes its members by collectively defining roles, functions, norms, official rules, hierarchical relationships, and channels of communication, etc.

The meso-level sociologist might also be interested in trying to define what defines hockey as a type of activity — a “game.” Roger Caillois (1961) noted that games, or what Simmel called the “play forms” of association, constitute a separate and unique type of activity. We cross a boundary whenever we leave the ordinary world of everyday life to enter the zone of play. In particular, games are defined by six characteristics:

  1. They are free (playing cannot be obligatory),
  2. They are separate (play is distinct from ordinary life),
  3. They are uncertain (outcomes cannot be determined in advance),
  4. They are unproductive (play by itself creates neither goods nor wealth),
  5. They are governed by rules (under conventions that suspend ordinary laws), and
  6. They are make-believe (they partake in a second reality or a “free unreality”).

In part, due to the distinction between games and normal life, activities like the use of violence and the infliction of injury — that would be punishable by law off the ice — are events that are frequently celebrated (or at most deplored) when they occur on the ice. It is the status of hockey as a game that makes the issue of its violence both ambiguous and subject to arbitrary assessments and punishments.

At the macro-level of analysis, the sociologist would be interested in how hockey is structured by the type of society in which it is embedded. The Micmac game of wolchamaadijik, which is cited as an early stick and ball progenitor of Canadian hockey, was played in the context of ceremonial exchanges between native tribes (Rand, 2005). NHL hockey, on the other hand, is a capitalist enterprise, and as such, it takes the form of a commodity produced for sale on the market for profit. The commodity is the spectacle of the hockey game, which fans pay to see and advertisers pay to use as a vehicle for promoting their products. Therefore, the organization and dynamics of the sport are defined by the logic of capital as Marx defined it — a logic in which teams are competitive corporations that invest in their players like any other asset; in which team hometowns are assessed in terms of their viability as profitable markets (hence the oddity of having teams based in Florida or California where natural ice probably has not existed for 10,000 years); in which the logic of class struggle periodically leads to disruptions in play (such as lock-outs and strikes); and in which an elaborate set of regulations (like salary caps and organized draft picks) are instituted by the league to ensure the viability of the competition and manage the excesses and crises that are tendencies of capitalist accumulation.

6.3.2 Social Networks

Dyads, Triads, and Social Networks

Figure 6.15. A visual representation of network connections formed through Twitter showing dense nodes of tightly interconnected friends and outliers. (20120212-NodeXL-Twitter-socbiz network graph courtesy of Marc Smith CC BY 2.0)

A small group is typically one where the collection of people is small enough that all members of the group know each other and share simultaneous interaction, such as a nuclear family, a dyad, or a triad. Georg Simmel wrote extensively about the difference between a  dyad, or two-member group, and a  triad, a three-member group (Simmel, 1908/1950). No matter what the content of the groups is — business, friendship, family, teamwork, etc. — the dynamic or formal qualities of the groups differ simply by virtue of the number of individuals involved. The forms of sociation available to individuals differ significantly for dyads and triads, no matter the specific reason (content) for the sociation (e.g., friendship, love, business, leisure, etc.). The social dynamic inheres in the number of individuals, no matter who they are or their specific interests. This insight forms the basis of the analysis of networks, which are another of the major meso-level social phenomena examined in sociology.

In a dyad, if one person withdraws, the group can no longer exist. Examples include a divorce, which effectively ends the “group” of the married couple, or two best friends never speaking again. Neither of the two members can hide what he or she has done behind the group, nor hold the group responsible for what he or she has failed to do.

In a triad, however, the dynamic is quite different. If one person withdraws, the group lives on. A triad has a different set of relationships. If there are three in the group, two-against-one dynamics can develop and the potential exists for a majority opinion on any issue. At the same time, the relationships in a triad cannot be as close as in a dyad because a third person always intrudes. Where a group of two is both closer and more unstable than a group of three, because it rests on the immediate, ongoing reciprocity of the two members, a group of three is able to attain a sense of super-personal life, independent of the members.

The difference between a dyad and a triad is an example of network analysis. A social network is a collection of people who exchange resources (emotional, informational, financial, etc.) tied together by a specific configuration of connections. They can be characterized by the number of people involved, as in the dyad and triad, but also in terms of their structures (who is connected to whom) and functions (what resources flow across ties). The particular configurations of the connections determine how networks are able to do more things and different things than individuals acting on their own could. Networks have this effect, regardless of the content of the connections or persons involved.

For example, if one person phones 50 people one after the other to see who could come out to play ball hockey on Wednesday night, it would take a long time to work through the phone list. The structure of the network would be one in which the telephone caller has an individual connection with each of the 50 players, but the players themselves do not necessarily have any connections with each other. There is only one node in the network. On the other hand, if the telephone caller phones five key (or nodal) individuals, who would then call five individuals, and so on, then the telephone calling would be accomplished much more quickly. A telephone tree like this has a different network structure than the single telephone caller model does and can therefore accomplish the task much more efficiently and quickly. Of course the responsibility is also shared so there are more opportunities for the communication network to break down.

Network analysis is interesting because much of social life can be understood as operating outside of either formal organizations or traditional group structures. Social media like Twitter or Facebook connect people through networks. One’s posts are seen by friends, but also by friends of friends. The revolution in Tunisia in 2010–2011 was aided by social media networks, which were able to disseminate an accurate, or alternate, account of the events as they unfolded, even while the official media characterized the unrest as vandalism and terrorism (Zuckerman, 2011). On the other hand, military counterinsurgency strategies trace cell phone connections to model the networks of insurgents in asymmetrical or guerilla warfare. Increased densities of network connections indicate the centrality of key insurgents and the ability of insurgents to mount coordinated attacks (Department of the Army, 2006). The amorphous nature of global capital and the formation of a global capitalist class consciousness can also be analyzed by mapping interlocking directorates; namely, the way institutionalized social networks are established between banks and corporations in different parts of the world through shared board members. Network analysis reveals the break up of national-based corporate elite networks, and the establishment of a unified and coordinated transatlantic capitalist class (Carroll, 2010).

Christakis and Fowler (2009) argue that social networks are influential in a wide range of social aspects of life, including political opinions, weight gain, and happiness. They develop Stanley Milgram’s claim that there is only six degrees of separation between any two individuals on Earth by adding that in a network, it can be demonstrated that there are also three degrees of influence. That is, one is not only influenced by one’s immediate friends and social contacts, but by their friends, and their friends’ friends.  For example, an individual’s chance of becoming obese increases 57% if a friend becomes obese; it increases by 20% if it is a friend’s friend who becomes obese; and it increases 10% if it is a friend’s friend’s friend who becomes obese. Beyond the third degree of separation, there is no measurable influence.

6.4. Social Identity

A person’s social identity is the sense of who they are based on their group memberships. Because individuals are members of multiple and varied social groups at any given point in time, our identities are similarly characterized by multiplicity rather than singularity.  For example we may identity our selves as members of a particular religion, nationality, political party, social class, occupation, relationship, etc.  Moreover, some of the dimensions of our identity may be allocated privileged social status while other dimensions may be stigmatized.  Your social identity not only influences how you see and relate to yourself, but also how other selves view and relate to you.  In Modules 7, 8 and 9 attention is turned to a fuller elaboration of the concept of social identity and an examination of various dimensions of social identity including social class, gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.

Key Terms and Concepts

androcentricism: A perspective in which male concerns, male attitudes, and male practices are presented as “normal” or define what is significant and valued in a culture.beliefs: Tenets or convictions that people hold to be true.

commodity: An object, service, or good that has been produced for sale on the market.

commodity fetishism: Regarding commodities as objects with inherent qualities independent of the labour that produced them or the needs they were designed to satisfy.

commodification: The process through which objects, services, or goods are turned into commodities.

consumerism: The tendency to define ourselves in terms of the commodities we purchase.

counterculture: A group that rejects and opposes society’s widely accepted cultural patterns.

cultural imperialism: The deliberate imposition of one’s own cultural values on another culture.

cultural relativism: The practice of assessing a culture by its own standards, and not in comparison to another culture.

cultural universals: Patterns or traits that are globally common to all societies.

culture: Shared beliefs, values, and practices.

culture lag: The gap of time between the introduction of material culture and nonmaterial culture’s acceptance of it.

culture shock: An experience of personal disorientation when confronted with an unfamiliar way of life.

detournement: The conscious subversion of messages, signs, and symbols by altering them slightly.

diaspora: The dispersion of a people from their original homeland.

diffusion: The spread of material and nonmaterial culture from one culture to another.

discoveries: Things and ideas found from what already exists.

ethnocentrism: Evaluating another culture according to the standards of one’s own culture.

folkways: Norms based on social preferences that direct appropriate behaviour in the day-to-day practices and expressions of a culture.

formal norms: Established, written rules.

geneticism: A form of biological determinism that suggests the qualities of human life are caused by genes.

globalization: The integration of international trade and finance markets.

high culture: Forms of cultural experience characterized by formal complexity, eternal values, or intrinsic authenticity.

hybridity: New forms of culture that arose from cross-cultural exchange in the aftermath of the colonial era.

ideal culture: The standards a society would like to embrace and live up to.

informal norms: Casual behaviours that are generally and widely conformed to.

innovation: New objects or ideas introduced to a culture for the first time.

invention: Combining pieces of existing reality into new forms.

iron cage: Max Weber’s metaphor for the modern condition of life circumscribed by the demand for maximum efficiency.

language: A symbolic system of communication.

material culture: The objects or belongings of a group of people.

mores: Norms based on social requirements which are based on the moral views and principles of a group.

nonmaterial culture: The ideas, attitudes, and beliefs of a society.

norms: The visible and invisible rules of conduct through which societies are structured.

popular culture: Mainstream, widespread patterns among a society’s population.

postmodern culture: The form of culture that comes after modern culture characterized by the playful mixture of forms and “incredulity towards metanarratives”.

real culture: The way society really is; based on what actually occurs and exists.

Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: The idea that people understand the world based on their form of language.

sanctions: A way to authorize or formally disapprove of certain behaviours.

social control: A way to encourage conformity to cultural norms.

society: The structure of a social group of people who interact within a definable territory and who share a culture.

socioeconomic formation: The concrete set of social structures that form around a specific mode of production or economic system.

subculture: A group that shares a specific identity apart from a society’s majority, even as the members exist within a larger society.

symbol: Gestures or objects that have meanings associated with them that are recognized by people who share a culture.

taboos: Strong prohibitions based on deeply held sacred or moral beliefs.

values: A culture’s standard for discerning desirable states in society (what is true, good, just, or beautiful).

6.5 References

Solomon Asch 1956

(Carroll, 2010)

(Department of the Army, 2006)

(Zuckerman, 2011)

Boatwright and Forrest (2000)

Christakis and Fowler (2009)

Robert Bales (1970)

Barger, K. (2008). “Ethnocentrism.” Indiana University. Retrieved from http://www.iupui.edu/~anthkb/ethnocen.htm.

Mary Beard (2014)

Ulrich Beck (2000)

Roger Caillois (1961)

(Cooley, 1909/1963)

Ruth Benedict (1887–1948)

Brym et al., (2013)

Gilles Deleuze (1992)

Doughty 2013

Émile Durkheim’s classic study of suicide (1897/1951)

Goffman (1972)

(Huffington Post, 2013)

(Rand, 2005)

Peter Marsden (1987)

Marx, K. (1977). The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 300-325). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1852).

Marx, K. (1977). Capital. In D. McLellan (Ed.), Karl Marx: Selected writings (pp. 415-507). London, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1867).

Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Robert Provine (1996)

Simmel, G. (1971). Fashion. In D. Levine (Ed.), On individuality and social forms (pp. 294–323). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1904).

Sumner, W. G. (1906). Folkways: A study of the sociological importance of usages, manners, customs, mores, and morals. New York, NY: Ginn and Co.


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Foundations in Sociology I by Susan Robertson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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