In such a profound influence on us. Sociology,

In this lesson, you will explore fundamental concepts of sociology and discover how strong our need for social groups really is.

Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

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Being Social

Humans are social creatures. Yeah, sure, we all need some alone time now and again, but really, we are meant to exist together. And being humans, we feel the need to understand anything that can have such a profound influence on us.

Sociology, the academic study of social behavior, seeks to explore this major part of our existence.

Social Interaction Theory

The study of sociology revolves around the idea that we behave in distinct ways when we are in groups. Think about it – when you’re alone, you act differently than when you are around other people.

Social groups have their own unique sets of behaviors and attitudes. This is summed up in the social interaction theory, which looks at an individual’s patterns of actions and reactions in response to other people.According to social interaction theory, peoples’ social behaviors are determined by the social pressures they encounter. What this means is that behavior is partly created in response to our surroundings, specifically our social groups. For example, a person who may normally be too shy to sing in public can change their behavior if their entire social group actively participates in karaoke. Next thing you know, this shy individual is standing on stage belting out their favorite Katy Perry song. How we interact in society can define our behaviors.

Social Roles

Another key aspect of sociology is the position of each individual in society. Your social role, your place in society, is a combination of behavior, responsibilities, rights, beliefs and social norms. All of these factors create a complex network of society. Where you fall within that network defines your social role. In some societies, social roles were very strict, and deviating from your role could be punishable by death. Medieval societies, for example, had laws that peasants had to lower their eyes to nobles because their role was to work and support the lords. Our society is much more lenient about social roles, but they still exist.

What is the role of an artist versus a businessman, a teacher versus an athlete?Everyone has a role in society, a position they are expected to fill. Sociologists examine how social groups develop, define, and maintain these social roles. While social interaction theory is more concerned with the way that an individual responds to social groups, social roles are more about the way that the group defines the individual. Like it or not, social roles come with expectations. The expectations of a society can often force people to conform to social roles whether they agree with them or not.

Presentation of Self

In 1959, the sociologist Erving Goffman published a book called The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

In this book, Goffman was the first to really explore the interaction between two individual people. Sociology tended to look at social behavior in group terms, but this book illustrated that even in the simplest of social groups, two people engaged in a single face-to-face interaction, social behavior is an important part of who we are. Goffman even states that individual people in society are like actors, selecting a costume and attitude, even the setting and props.When we enter into a social situation, be it with one person or several, we may try to present ourselves in a certain way. In other words, we are trying to influence the way that other people see us. This can come from changing how we look, how we act, or where we are seen. And this goes both ways: at the same time that we are trying to present ourselves in a certain way, we are also judging the presentation of people around us.

The same is true of other people – they are presenting themselves while unconsciously evaluating your presentation. As with other sociological principles, this also comes back to social expectations. There is an expectation by each person that the other will continue to present themselves in socially acceptable ways and therefore avoid embarrassing themselves or the people around them.

Lesson Summary

Sociology is the academic study of social behavior. As social creatures, we are very, very influenced by our social surroundings. The social interaction theory demonstrates this by examining the patterns of actions and reactions in response to other people. In this theory, people’s behaviors directly reflect their awareness of social expectations.

These expectations also define social roles, the place of an individual in society. Social roles define how people are expected to interact within the larger social group and can often be taken very seriously. These social roles can also influence how we present ourselves in social situations.Like actors on stage, humans are aware of being observed and observe the other people around them as well. By presenting ourselves in certain ways, we express a commitment to obeying or rejecting social roles, and we expect other peoples’ presentations to do the same thing.

We are social creatures, and the way that we behave in social situations says a lot about who we are as a species and as individuals.

Learning Outcomes

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Define what sociology is
  • Describe social interaction theory
  • Illustrate the social role
  • Identify Erving Goffman’s presentation of self
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