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01.05 Social Interactions in Life

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  1. What are social structures?
    1. In order to understand and differentiate social structure from culture, a house analogy is typically useful. If our social world is a house, then the social structures refer to the raw materials; beams, walls, doorways, entrances, and exits. Culture is how the house is decorated; carpets, wall hangings, furniture, paint color, etc. Thus, social structures organize human interaction and culture modifies the particulars of how interaction flows.
    2. Status: a position that someone holds. This is an element of social structures. Examples of status positions include teacher, students, father, daughter, president, manager, etc.
    3. Role: the behaviors expected of someone who occupies a certain status position. For example, the role associated with teachers is to be professional, knowledgeable, helpful, and prepared.
    4. Status set: the multitude of different status positions that we occupy from time to time.
    5. Role set: the multitude of different behaviors that are associated with a single status position
  2. Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy
    1. Goffman’s take on human interaction is that it is nothing more than actors and actresses playing different parts. Social structures provide for us the stage and culture provides for us the script. All we have to do is perform in a manner that is consistent with our structural positions and cultural expectations.
    2. Impression management: behaving in a manner designed to elicit certain responses from others. As a part of Goffman’s ideas he argues that we constantly attempt to manage the impressions that others have of us by behaving in specific ways. The dating world serves as a good example. Before a date we all tend to consider how we will dress, where we will go, how we will act, what we will say, etc. These are all examples of impression management as we try to manage the impression that our date has of us.
    3. Front stage: the social arena in which you heavily engage in impression management
    4. Back stage: a less social place in which you can be something more closely resembling your true self
  3. Conclusions
    1. Social structures organize interaction; they do not refer to interaction itself
    2. Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy views human interaction as nothing more than actors/actresses on a stage
    3. We all constantly engage in impression management when interacting with others

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Video Transcript

Welcome in everyone. Today we’re going to be talking about social structures and social interaction.


To begin, we will define social structures. Social structures are an element of our social environment that impacts our behavior along with culture. Next, we will discuss a popular perspective with sociology called dramaturgy which views human behavior through the lens of theatrical performance. And then we will wrap things up with some main points and takeaways from today’s lesson.


Social structure is probably a term you have heard before but if you were asked to define it could you? It’s one of those terms that gets used a bunch without clear understanding of what exactly it entails. I’ve often found a useful way to grasp what social structures are is to contrast social structure and culture using the analogy of a house. The structure of a house refers to raw materials; beams, walls, hallways, doors, rooms, and entrances. The structure of the house limits where you can go. Culture on the other hand would be how you decorate the house; carpets, furniture, wall hangings, cabinets, etc. Culture doesn’t structure interaction and movement, it is what brings the house to life and makes it feel like home. For sociologists, individual behavior and interactions between 2 people are largely the product of social structures and culture. Social structures organize interaction; the control where the interaction takes place and between whom. Culture determines the specifics of the interaction itself as we have previously learned in terms of the language spoken, the values that are salient, and the norms that are followed.


A couple of important terms to know are status and Role. Status refers to a position that someone holds. Teacher, student, president, worker, mother are all examples of different status positions. Attached to each status position is a role. A role refers to the behaviors expected of someone who occupies a certain status position. A status position is an element of social structure while role is the cultural content that is attached to any particular status position.

For someone who holds the position of teacher, their role is to lead a classroom, be professional, be engaging, and be an expert on a series of topics. For the status position of student, their role it to come to class, pay attention, socialize with their colleagues, make new friends, perhaps work a job on the side and many other things.


Along with status and role, it’s also important to know the terms status set and role set. Status set refers the series of different status that someone will occupy from time to time. My status set for example includes teacher, husband, brother, son, gym member, and u.s. citizen. Role set is just as it sounds; it refers to all of the different behaviors associated with any particular status. We already covered a good example of with the various roles associated with the status of student. Students aren’t expected to just come to class and study, but also to socialize and work when not in the classroom.


Critical to remember is that sociologists view behavior as a product of social structure and culture. In other words, a sociologist would argue that although behavior will vary somewhat from teacher to teacher, most teachers behave very much the same even though they are different people. The reason for this is that all teachers are occupying the same location in a social structure and thus have the same behavioral expectations (role) to enact. Think about how you might behave differently from one context to the next. Do you talk and behave the same around your parents vs. around your closest friends? I doubt that you do, and the reason isn’t that your personality changes when to interact with different people but rather your social structural location and cultural expectations change from one situation to the next.


A prominent perspective you will learn about in any introductory sociology class is Erving Goffman’s Dramaturgy. Goffman’s ideas were heavily influenced by the symbolic interaction perspective which we learned about in lesson 2. Goffman’s take on human behavior is that it is nothing more than a theatrical performance. In other words, all human behavior is viewed as if it were simply actors on a stage trying to play their part. And where do these parts come from? We just went over that; they come from social structures and culture. In Goffman’s view, a status position that we occupy is similar to a part that an actor or actress holds. The script that the actor/actress follows is the role. As Goffman puts it, we are constantly engaging in something he calls “presentation of the self”, sometimes referred to as impression management. We are constantly trying to behave in manner to elicit the responses that we want from those that we are interacting with, just as actors and actresses behave in a manner to convey the proper impression to an audience.


2 terms that can help us wrap our heads around Goffman’s ideas are front stage & back stage. The front stage is the social arena in which you play your part as determined by social structure and culture. The back stage is the place where you can practice for the front stage and be a little bit more free with your behavior. If you are a waiter/waitress, the front stage is when you are serving customers. You are expected to be courteous, prompt, dressed in a certain manner and have your notepad ready to take an order. The back stage is when you are in the kitchen or away from customers where you can let your guard down so to speak. In the back stage you can let off steam but also practice for how you will behave once you enter the front stage once again.


Let’s go with another example to really cement our understanding. Imagine that you are going on a blind date. Even before the date you likely spend plenty of time thinking about how the date will go. You will think about what you will wear, what you will say, what you will do, and rehearse in your mind how you want the date to go. In other words, before the date even starts you will spend plenty of time thinking about how you are going to manage the impression your date gets of you by presenting yourself in a certain manner. We all have preconceived ideas about how we need to present ourselves in order to elicit certain responses from others. In a dating context, you likely want to come across as attractive, confident, intelligent, and funny. This is the impression that you want to give and thus you will behave in a manner that you think will cause your date to view you in such terms. And importantly, where do these ideas about how you should behave come from? They come the social structures that we occupy and the culture that exists around us.


All in all, Goffman argues that the way we interact with others cannot escape the influences of society; specifically meaning social structures and culture. The status positions we occupy and the roles associated with them give us the information we need to play our parts. Goffman as well as many other like-minded sociologists argue that our very reality is socially constructed as we constantly engage in impression management. By constantly trying to manage the impressions of others we try to exert control over our own reality by attempting to manipulate the impressions that others have of who we are.


Alright, a few main points to remember. First, social structures organize interaction whereas culture influences the actual moment-to-moment specifics of interaction. I always find it useful to go back to the house analogy to differentiate the 2. Social structure is the raw materials; beams, walls, doorways and furniture. Culture is how you decorate the house; carpets, wall hanging, paint color, etc. Second, Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy views human behavior as if it were nothing more than theatrical performance. Social structures provide for us the stage, culture provides for us the script and we play out our parts. And third, as a part of this understanding we are constantly engaging in impression management. In other words, we are constantly trying to manipulate the views that others have of us by interacting with them in certain ways. Again, go back to the dating example and think about any past dates that you had. How much impression management did you engage in? The more you think about it, the more you realize that Goffman’s ideas can really help us understand human behavior, as move from stage to stage and shift from part to part.

All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players – William Shakespeare


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