Social Structure Compared with Social Interaction (2013)


Which is more important in shaping individual identity: social structure or social interaction?


   My first thought when seeing this question was of the people at the margins of society – the extremely advantaged and disadvantaged – that are the least likely to be influenced by prevailing norms. I then thought that those people could not even be recognised as being on the margins of society without the societal structure being in place. Clearly this is a complex matter.


   According to Freese and Burke (year unknown), it has become a truism of sociology that a person has no individuality apart from identity and no identity apart from society. These ideas are intimately related to that of structuration theory, which is the concept that social action is made possible by social structures yet concurrently social action is the creator of those structures. (Plummer 2010, p. 105) The theory was proposed by sociologist Anthony, Lord Giddens. According to Gauntlett (2002), stucturation theory is perfectly straightforward and, like many Giddens arguments, eminently sensible.


   It is hard to imagine how social structure can exist without social interactions making its existence known. For example, would the social structure of a school be apparent if pupils and teachers were all on first name terms? Schools run by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) seem to manage with this system (HFS, 2013), but still, pupils are expected to obey the nearest adult in charge and would not ordinarily feel bound by direction from someone of their own age group. The statuses we have and the roles we play by having these statuses shape our lives in important ways and regularly affect our interactions with other people. (Anonymous, 2012)


   As people through history have frequently found it difficult to act in any way that they please (Gauntlett, 2002) (social revolutions being indirect proof of this), what makes up the social forces which provide resistance to change? Giddens, according to Gauntlett (2002), draws an analogy with language: even though language only exists the instances when it is spoken or written, people react negatively against those who disregard the conventions and rules which govern its use. There is a reason for this. Part of the reason why our family and society attempt to socialise us, apart from understanding the particular dynamics of the society in which we live, is so [that] we fit in with and understand the social structures that societies are built around.(Swinburne)


  Power is an integral part of society and of social science. Power cannot be tacked on after the more basic concepts of social science have been formulated. There is no more elemental concept than that of power. However, this does not mean that the concept of power is more essential than any other, as is supposed in those versions of social science which have come under a Nietzschean influence. Power is one of several primary concepts of social science, all clustered around the relations of action and structure.(Giddens, 1984) The teachers just mentioned are still in a position of power over pupils even though one of the linguistic representations of that status has been removed from their interactions.


   It is the relationship of action and structure that I draw attention to again with an example of a teacher and a pupil. In a Quaker school where one of the more common although less substantive parts of society is stripped away (that of honorifics), the pupils would still be aware that although in Quaker thought, they are equal to the teacher and to their fellow pupils, there is a societal obligation while at school to follow the instructions of all their teachers and to show them all respect and courtesy and yet there is no societal obligation to be obedient to their fellow pupils nor is there any serious societal expectation for children to be courteous to all of them either.


   Structures and interactions are sometimes formed artificially, like the protocol of an army of a recently-created nation; and sometimes organically, like the general understanding of when gifts should be given and the nature of those gifts (packaging, cost, colour etc.) that most cultures have. Structures of social interaction are ways of addressing the problem of establishing a satisfactory relationship between symbolic and resource interactions. People may create resources or symbols as needed and destroy them as needed.(Freese and Burke)


   “Social structure is what gives shape to the family, directs people to exchange greetings on the street, or steers events in a university classroom.(Macionis and Plummer, p. 38) This leads us to understand social structure in terms of social functions. (Macionis and Plummer, p. 38) All social structure, whether that of family life or that involved in a polite greeting, contributes to the operation of society as a whole. (Macionis and Plummer, p. 38)


   According to Berger and Luckmann (1966 cited in Keel, 2013), The most general way of answering this question is that social order is a human product and exists only as a product of human activity. Social order is not given in a mans natural environment although certain features of this may be involved in determining particular features of a social order (e.g. its technological or economic arrangements). (Berger and Luckmann, 1966 cited in Keel, 2013)No other ontological status may be ascribed to it without hopelessly obfuscating its empirical manifestations.(Berger and Luckmann, 1966 cited in Keel, 2013)


   For eminent sociologist George Herbert Mead, the emergence of mind, self and society were evolutionary adaptations that gave an advantage to the human species: the advantage of being able to consciously reflect on the conditions of immediate experience by using role-taking and communication as functional activities. (Freese and Burke) Peoples daily actions replicate and reinforce the sets of expectations present in societies and it is these which constitute the social structuresand social forcesas spoken of by sociologists. (Gauntlett, 2002)


   There cannot be a single type of structure (political, economical, educational etc.) that effects all people more than most. A lot of people are not educated at all and these people are even more likely to be politically uninterested. As a resident of Pakistan, I can attest to the fact that being uneducated and politically uninterested will not stop some group from bullying or bribing such people to vote. For executed revolutionaries, it would be hard to find anything in their life that was worthy of any sort of comparison with their chosen political ideology in terms of influence.


   Teenagers who grow to loathe their parents may still be influenced by them as some of their actions may be motivated largely by some sense of rebellion or revenge. At that point in time, they would probably wish to avoid dealing with their parents as much as possible. Which means that, despite the fact they do not like their parents and they now spend more time with their friends than their parents, they could still be most influenced by their home environment.


  Comparisons between influences from ones immediate environment such as friends and household residents (whether family or flatmates), are similarly difficult to analyse and compare. A friend may be far more trustworthy and admirable than other friends, but still rather dull, and so those other friends, who in theory should be less influential based on their character, might be more influential simply because of their greater exposure to their friends.


  As a simple matter of statistics, most people cannot be in extreme groups (otherwise they would not be considered extreme): they are not passionate politically (like executed revolutionaries), nor educationally extraordinary nor overtly poor for their area, age group or any other division. For this reason, even if the extent of these influences were somehow quantifiable, it would merely show that a large number of different things affect different people to different extents at different times over varying timespans.



Anonymous, 2012. Sociology: Comprehensive Edition, v. 1.0. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 14 December 2013].

(See for explanation of the anonymity of the author.)

Freese, L. and Burke, P. J., Persons, Identitities, and Social Interaction. Advances in Group Processes, Vol. 11. [online] Available at:<> [Accessed 14 December 2013].

Gauntlett, D., 2002. Media, Gender and Identity: An Introduction. London: Routledge. (Extracts available at

Giddens, A., 1984. The Constitution of Society: Outline of the theory of Structuration. Cambridge: Polity Press.

HFS, 2013. Quaker Tradition. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 16 December 2013].

Keel, R.O., 2013. Social Interaction and Social Structure. [online], University of Missouri-St. Louis. Available at: <> [Accessed 14 December 2013].

Macionis, J. J. and Plummer, K., 2012 Sociology: A Global Introduction, 5th Ed. Harlow, England: Pearson Education Limited

Plummer, K., 2010. Sociology: The Basics. [online via EBL Swinburne] London: Taylor and Francis. Available at: <> [Accessed 16 December 2013].

Swinburne, year unknown. Topic 4: Social Structures/Social Interaction. [online via iLearn], Swinburne University of Technology. Available at: <> [Accessed 12 December 2013].