9.1 Elements of Social Interaction - Social Interaction

MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review - Kaplan Test Prep 2021–2022

9.1 Elements of Social Interaction
Social Interaction


After Chapter 9.1, you will be able to:

· Identify the meaning of social interaction terms such as status, role, group, network, and organization

· List the three types of status and provide an example of each

Society has developed out of necessity for human beings to survive and develop. Social interaction is the basis of social life and helps humans reach their full potential. Social interaction is facilitated by preexisting commonalities between individuals and shared understanding or experiences, such as a shared language. Through our social interactions, we develop culture.


In most human societies, people do not view every individual as an equal. Instead, we create a hierarchical structure with inequalities of material goods, social opportunities, social acceptance, and skills. Some are rich, and some are poor; some are talented in sports, while others are not. Some are admired by others, most are liked, and some are disliked or even stigmatized. Social statuses are positions in society that are used to classify individuals. Being a premed student, for example, is considered a status. Most statuses exist in relation to other statuses: being a premed student does not have meaning unless there are other statuses with which to compare it, such as medical student or resident. It is important to note that not all personal characteristics are considered to be social statuses. For example, being left-handed is not considered a status.

There are three key types of statuses: ascribed, achieved, and master statuses. An ascribed status is one that is given involuntarily (usually at birth), due to such factors as race, ethnicity, gender, and family background. An achieved status is a status that is gained as a result of one’s efforts or choices, such as being a doctor. A person can hold multiple statuses at the same time (collectively known as one’s status set), but one’s master status is the status by which a person is most identified. This status is typically the most important status the individual holds and affects all aspects of that person’s life. It is also generally how people view themselves and often holds a symbolic value. Master statuses can also cause pigeonholing: we may view an individual only through the lens of his or her master status, without regard to any other personal characteristics (such as with a president or other major political figure).

Key Concept

Types of statuses:

· Ascribed—given involuntarily, based on race, ethnicity, gender, family background, and so on

· Achieved—gained as a result of one’s efforts or choices

· Master—status by which one is most identified; is pervasive in that person’s life


Each status is associated with roles, or sets of beliefs, values, attitudes, and norms that define expectations for those who hold the status. Role performance is the carrying out of behaviors associated with a given role. Individuals can vary in how successful they are at performing a role. For example, part of a doctor’s role is to translate medical information into language their patients can understand; however, some doctors are far better at this skill than others. Role performance can also change depending on the social situation and context of the interaction. When doctors interact with each other, the pertinent parts of their roles are quite different than when interacting with patients. Behaviors and expectations thus change as a result of the role partner—the person with whom one is interacting. Doctors have many role partners: patients, nurses, patients’ relatives, other doctors, residents, and hospital administration. The various roles associated with a status are referred to as a role set.

Through our lives, we each take on numerous statuses, each of which may contain a variety of roles. Additionally, we are often playing several roles at one time. Due to the complex nature of statuses and role sets, it is not surprising that conflict, challenges, uncertainty, and ambivalence arise as we try to navigate the many expectations of day-to-day life. Role conflict is the difficulty in satisfying the requirements or expectations of multiple roles, whereas role strain is the difficulty in satisfying multiple requirements of the same role. Role exit is the dropping of one identity for another.

Real World

A great example of role conflict is a single parent who also works a full-time job. Both of these roles carry a very large set of expectations, which are often at odds with each other.


Another major component of social interaction involves groups. In sociological terms, a group (also known as a social group) consists of two or more people who share any number of similar characteristics as well as a sense of unity. The simplest of social groups is called a dyad (two people), followed by a triad (three people). As group size increases, the group trades intimacy for stability. Social groups are more complex than a group of individuals who happen to be in the same physical space. For example, people waiting to cross the street at a crosswalk do not constitute a social group. Common characteristics shared by social groups include values, interests, ethnicity, social background, family ties, and political representation. Many sociologists see social interaction as the most important characteristic that strengthens a social group.

We center most of our lives around social groups, from the camaraderie of teammates to the complexity of governments. Social groups also meet many of the needs we have; these groups provide an opportunity to belong and be accepted and they offer protection, safety, and support. We also learn, earn a living, and practice religion in groups. Groups can also be a source of conflict, including discrimination, persecution, oppression, and war. These conflicts sprout from the relationships within and between groups.

An in-group is a social group with which a person experiences a sense of belonging or identifies as a member. An out-group, on the other hand, refers to a social group with which an individual does not identify. An in-group can form based on a variety of identifying characteristics, including but not limited to race, culture, gender, religion, profession, or education. Out-groups can sometimes compete with or oppose in-groups, creating group conflict. Notably, negative feelings toward an out-group are not necessarily based on a sense of dislike toward the characteristics of the out-group; rather, they can be based on favoritism for the in-group and the absence of favoritism for the out-group.

A peer group is a group that consists of self-selected equals associated by similar interests, ages, or statuses. Peer groups provide an opportunity for friendship and feelings of belonging. A family group, by contrast, is not self-selected but determined by birth, adoption, and marriage. It joins members of various ages, sexes, and generations through emotional ties. The family group can be filled with conflict at times; this is often true in adolescence when peer groups begin to compete with family groups for time and loyalty. Family groups may also struggle with cultural gaps and social differences between generations, such as speaking in different languages.

Another important type of group is a reference group. These are groups that individuals use as a standard for evaluating themselves. For example, to determine how strong a medical school applicant you are, you might compare yourself to the reference group of all medical school applicants.

Primary and Secondary Groups

Groups can also be categorized into primary and secondary groups. In a primary group, interactions between members of the group are direct, with close bonds providing warm, personal, and intimate relationships to members. These groups often last a long period of time and may include a core circle of friends, a tightly knit family, or members of a team. In a secondary group, the interactions are impersonal and businesslike, with few emotional bonds and with the goal of accomplishing a specific purpose. Secondary groups typically last for a short period of time, and they form and dissolve without any special significance to those involved, an example being students working together on a group project.

Community and Society

The German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies distinguished two major types of groups. His theory is known as Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft, which translates to community and society. Gemeinschaft (community) refers to groups unified by feelings of togetherness due to shared beliefs, ancestry, or geography. Families and neighborhoods are examples of Gemeinschaften. Gesellschaft (society) refers to less personal groups that are formed out of mutual self-interests working together toward the same goal. Companies and countries are examples of Gesellschaften.

Observing and Analyzing Groups

Group size may vary; the smallest size a group can be is two people. Smaller group sizes, like dyads or triads, allow individuals to present more of themselves to the group. Interaction process analysis is a technique for observing, classifying, and measuring the interactions within small groups. In the 1970s, it was revised to the system for multiple level observation of groups (SYMLOG), which is based on the belief that there are three fundamental dimensions of interaction: dominance vs. submission, friendliness vs. unfriendliness, and instrumentally controlled vs. emotionally expressive.

Through extensive research on groups, we have learned that a group holds power over its members, creating group pressure that ultimately shapes members’ behaviors. This is called group conformity; individuals are compliant with the group’s goals, even when the group’s goals may be in direct contrast to the individual’s goal. Individuals conform in an attempt to fit in and be accepted by the group. Individuals will often participate in behaviors they normally would not.

Groupthink is related to group conformity and occurs when members focus on reaching a consensus at the cost of critical evaluation of relevant information. This can lead to groups not exploring all sides of an issue and may limit the group’s options or views; further, group members may self-censor by not expressing their beliefs. A more extensive discussion of the effects of groups on individual behavior (social action) and group dynamics is explored in Chapter 8 of MCAT Behavioral Sciences Review.


The term network is used to describe the observable pattern of social relationships among individuals or groups. Patterns of relationship can be determined by mapping the interactions between individual units, the nature of which can be highly variable. For example, a sociologist may look at the patterns in the interactions between friends, family members, or societal institutions. Researchers often display networks with maps containing a series of points, with each point representing a unit in the network. They connect the points with lines to display the interactions between units, as shown in Figure 9.1. Not all contact points within a network are necessarily unique. If there are overlapping connections with the same individual, it is referred to as network redundancy. Network analysis can be used to gain understanding of the actions of individuals and groups and to study the broader social structure.

ImageFigure 9.1. Example of a Social Network Diagram

Individuals in networks face the demands and expectations of other members, constraining what they are able to do. They also may have access to resources through the network. An example of a network is a university’s alumni association: the members are held to certain standards and commitments, but also may reap the benefits of the network when searching for a job. Immediate networks are dense with strong ties, whereas distant networks are looser and contain weaker ties; immediate networks may be composed of friends, whereas distant networks may include acquaintances. The combination of immediate and distant networks provide the most benefit to individuals, which is augmented if the networks work complementarily to provide different resources.


A genetic pedigree can be thought of as a specific type of network map, in which geneticists can track genetic patterns. The lines in genetic pedigrees represent mating patterns, parent—child relationships, and other familial structures. While pedigree analysis does not appear on the MCAT, the related topic of genetics is discussed in Chapter 12 of MCAT Biology Review.


In sociology, organizations are complex secondary groups that are set up to achieve specific goals and are characterized by having a structure and a culture. We have all been members of multiple organizations, such as schools, companies, music groups, sports teams, fraternities and sororities, political organizations, community action committees, and so on. The study of organizations is at the heart of sociology because of the importance that organizations have throughout a person’s life.

The modern formal organization developed during the Industrial Revolution as a way to maximize efficiency. The formal aspect derives from the explicit goals that guide the members and their activities. Furthermore, formal organizations have enforcement procedures that seek to control the activities of their members. Lastly, these organizations are characterized by the hierarchical allotment of formal roles or duties to members. Formal organizations can be quite large.

The basic organization of society is found in its characteristic institution. Throughout history this has changed. In prehistoric times, the characteristic institution was primarily the kin, clan, or sib. In modern times, as we have transformed our cities into urban centers of trade and commerce, we have moved to bureaucracy as the characteristic institution. A bureaucracy is a rational system of political organization, administration, discipline, and control. Generally, a bureaucracy has these six characteristics: paid, nonelected officials on a fixed salary; officials who are provided rights and privileges as a result of making their careers out of holding office; regular salary increases, seniority rights, and promotions upon passing exams or milestones; officials who enter the organization by holding an advanced degree or training; responsibilities, obligations, privileges, and work procedures rigidly defined by the organization; and responsibility for meeting the demands of one’s position. Due to these characteristics, bureaucracies are often slow to change and less efficient than other organizations.

Bureaucracies have been criticized over time. The iron law of oligarchy states that democratic or bureaucratic systems naturally shift to being ruled by an elite group. This shift is due to a number of factors, including the necessity of a core body of individuals to carry out the day-to-day activities of the organization, increased need for specialization, and leadership characteristics of certain members of the group. Thus, even a group established with democratic principles and complete egalitarianism will ultimately centralize, placing power in the hands of a few key leaders.

McDonaldization is commonly used to refer to a shift in focus toward efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control in societal practices. While the original model for McDonaldization was, of course, the fast-food restaurant and its push towards efficiency, examples of these same characteristics can be seen in many other institutions. For example, 24-hour news channels, which feature running footers of the latest news stories as “bite-size” headlines, demonstrate efficient and predictable sources of information. Corporations may mine “big data” to make business decisions using controlled, standardized methods, allowing the business to focus on the calculable outcomes of a choice such as profit and loss analysis and market share.

MCAT Concept Check 9.1:

Before you move on, assess your understanding of the material with these questions.

1. List the three types of statuses and provide an example of each:



2. For each of the sociological terms below, provide a brief definition:

o Status:

o Role:

o Group:

o Network:

o Organization: