Social Relationships

Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”1

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Table of contents

    The above declaration was made by Aristotle, the legendary Ancient Greek philosopher who shaped much of our understanding of humanity, logic, and science. While the study of society and social relations has become incredibly advanced and specialized since Aristotle's time, his claim that humans are social animals has remained foundational.

    Sociology is interested in our social relationships - with ourselves, the people we are surrounded by, and the groups and institutions we encounter throughout life. We will look at an overview of some major topics within this, including:

    • Social relationships
    • Socialization
    • The social self
    • Social groups and organizations
    • Deviance and social control

    This explanation is a summary. For detailed information on each of these topics, visit their dedicated explanations on StudySmarter!

    Definition of Social Relationships

    Let's first consider a definition of social relationships.

    A social relationship is any voluntary or involuntary interpersonal link between two or more people, individually or within/between groups. Social relationships are the basic analytical construct used in the social sciences and are central to sociology.

    Now that we have clarified what we mean by social relationships, let's dive into the major themes surrounding social relationships.

    Importance of Social Relationships: Socialization

    How much of an individual's personality is influenced by social rather than biological factors? What aspects of socialization are carried over into adulthood? Who are the most potent agents of socialization?

    Studies of socialization aim to address these questions, in studying the importance of social relationships in a person's development. To understand this, let's look at a definition of socialization.

    Socialization refers to "the process through which people learn the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate for members of a particular culture."2

    It is important to study socialization because it influences a society's prevailing cultural norms and molds the perceptions we have of ourselves.

    Let's now briefly examine some of the major topics within the study of socialization.

    Socialization across the Life Course

    The process of socialization begins during infancy and continues throughout life. When taking a life course approach, sociologists and other social scientists closely examine socioeconomic factors like gender and poverty that shape people's lives from birth to death.

    Some societies use formal rites of passage to identify different developmental phases of life. These are different in each society.

    In American culture and society, significant milestones like graduation, marriage, and parenthood alter a person's role and mark a new phase for them.

    The Nature vs. Nurture Debate

    A classic debate concerning socialization is the idea of nature vs. nurture.

    According to some experts, the relationships and nurturing we experience in our environment shape our 'selves' - we are not restricted by our biology. Others contend that heredity, i.e. genetics, alone determines who we are. This theory argues that our personalities, interests, and skills are predetermined before birth; therefore, nature shapes who we are.

    Agents of Socialization

    A person's socialization is greatly influenced by a variety of social institutions. Summaries of these are as follows:

    • The family: parents are crucial in socializing children to adopt the dominant gender roles in society.
    • Schools: in the United States, schools are explicitly mandated to socialize people—particularly children - into the norms and values of our culture. This obligation is similar to that of the family.
    • Peer groups: for teenagers, peer groups play a significant role in socialization as the role of the family reduces. At this stage, gender differences also arise.
    • The workplace: young people are first socialized in the norms of employment when they get their first part-time jobs in school. As they grow older, work full-time, and switch jobs throughout their lives, socialization in the workplace continues in different forms.
    • Media and technology: mass media and technology play increasingly larger roles as agents of socialization in contemporary society.
    • Religion and the state: by controlling the life course and shaping our ideas of what is suitable behavior at different ages, religion and the state influence the socialization process.
    • Environment: the type of physical environment a child is raised in, including the neighborhood they live in and the daycare they may go to, can also influence their behavior and bonds with others.
    • Culture: socialization differs according to the culture and customs of the individual and their community.

    Social Relationships: Self, Groups and Socialization, image of dad and child playing with doll, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The family, particularly the parents, plays an imperative role in socializing children into gender roles.

    Theoretical Perspectives of Socialization

    Let's look at what different sociological theories have to say regarding socialization:

    • According to the functionalist perspective, socialization and social institutions are crucial for preserving social cohesion and stability.

    • Conflict theory, based on Marxism, emphasizes how socialization processes uphold capitalism and the social class system.

    • Feminists contend that socialization-imposed gender roles and expectations disadvantage women for the benefit of men.

    • Symbolic interactionism argues that socialization is a process in which individuals in society interact with one another through language and imitation to influence others to adopt similar behaviors.

    Types of Social Relationships: The Social Self

    There are many types of social relationships, but one of the most important is with oneself - the social self.

    Sociologists understand that when we engage in social interactions, our sense of self, or the "self," develops. A unique identity that distinguishes us from others, the "self" is not fixed - rather, it develops and changes throughout different phases of our lives.

    Let's look at theories of self-development and some specific concepts within them - generalized other, I and me, and social identity.

    Theories of Self-Development

    The seminal works of Cooley, Mead, and Goffman have shaped theories on self and self-development:

    • Charles Horton Cooley originated the idea that we develop our sense of self through interactions with others around the beginning of the 20th century. He referred to this idea as the "looking-glass self."
    • George Herbert Mead postulated that there are three individual stages of development and that as an individual matures, their "self" starts to reflect their concerns about how they will be perceived by others, including significant and generalized others.
    • Erving Goffman demonstrated how we create our "selves" through the impressions we convey to others through our daily actions, creating the concepts of impression management, face-work, and the dramaturgical approach.

    Sociological vs. Psychological Theories of Development

    Before the above sociological theories of development came into being, psychologists theorized about the creation of the 'self':

    • According to Sigmund Freud (1905), our personality development is based on the id (primitive, self-centered mind), the superego (moral conscience), and the ego, which develops as a counterbalance between the id, the superego, and societal expectations.

    • Lawrence Kohlberg (1981) theorized four stages children go through while developing morality: moral, pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.

    • Jean Piaget (1954) argued that the negotiation between the world as it is experienced in our minds and the world as it is experienced socially leads to the development of the self.

    Generalized Other and I & Me

    Mead refers to the attitudes, opinions, and expectations of society that a child considers in their behavior and actions as the generalized other.

    Additionally, Mead differentiates between "me" and "I", both of which make up the self. The "me" is the individual's social self, based on internalized behaviors and expectations learned from society. The "I", on the other hand, stands for the individual's reaction to their social self. The concepts of "me" and "I" serve to balance out the self.

    Social Identity

    As we have mentioned, the "self" is also shaped by society's perceptions of us and the learned expectations and behaviors we obtain from it - our social identity. In the process of socialization, families and other institutions shape children's social identities by teaching them norms and behaviors based on their gender, race/ethnicity, nationality, etc.

    For a mixed-race woman with Indian and Ashkenazi Jewish heritage, with both Indian and American citizenship, her gender, ethnicity, and nationalities will all play a part in her social identity.

    Social Statuses and Roles

    Sociologists differentiate between two social categories people occupy in society: social statuses and roles.

    Roles are behavioral patterns that we can all identify as being indicative of a person's social status. Status is a phrase used to refer to the responsibilities and privileges associated with a person's role and position in society.

    Examples of Social Relationships: Social Groups and Organizations

    We will look at examples of social relationships - different types of groups, the importance of group size and structure, and formal organizations in society.

    Have you ever been in a situation where a new person enters your friend group, and everything seems to change? Or, have you felt frustrated at having to contact many people in a large company or organization to get what you need?

    These are both parts of the sociological study of social groups and organizations.

    In sociology, a group is "any number of people with similar norms, values, and expectations who interact with one another on a regular basis."3

    Types of Social Groups

    There are several varieties of social groups in society.

    • The groups we find ourselves identifying with most strongly, and which play the biggest roles in socialization, are primary groups. Secondary groups tend to be less personal and more formal.
    • In-groups and out-groups are based on our membership - those we are part of are our in-groups, while any outsiders are out-groups.
    • Reference groups establish and uphold codes of conduct and act as a standard by which individuals judge both themselves and others.

    Social Relationships: Self, Groups and Socialization, bird's eye view of people at crossing, StudySmarterFig. 2 - There are several different types of groups in society.

    Group Size and Structure

    The size and structure of groups matter because even in the smaller ranges, the number of members can fundamentally alter the dynamics and structure of the group. This is because the position of both the leaders and non-leader members of a group can change as group size changes.

    The phrase "small group" refers to a group that is intimate enough for everyone to converse or at the very least get to know one another. A dyad, which has two members, is the simplest type of group. Coalitions can arise as a result of the increased interaction that triads and bigger groups enable.

    Imagine that you and your best friend attend the same class and form a dyad. Then, you are put in a group with other people for a group project, but realize that you two don't get along with them that well. In this situation, you and your best friend may form a coalition or alliance to get through the project.

    Group Conformity

    Sociologists are fascinated by how we behave and interact with others in a group when we are trying to conform. Group conformity refers to the degree to which a person complies with social standards or expectations in groups.

    Formal Organizations

    Large formal organizations have grown in size and influence as societies have become more complex.

    A formal organization is a group created for a specific goal and systematized for the highest efficiency.

    An element of a formal organization known as bureaucracy employs regulations and hierarchical ordering to maximize efficiency. We can think of bureaucracy as both a method and a scale. As a result, one group can be considered more or less bureaucratic than another.

    Factors Affecting Social Relationships: Deviance and Social Control

    When faced with pressure from others to do something, especially something you would not normally do, how would you react? In these situations, people can generally respond in two ways: deviance or conformity.

    Some of the biggest factors affecting social relationships are revealed when we study crime, deviance, and social control in society.

    Let's study deviance, social control, theoretical perspectives on these phenomena, and how they relate to criminal activity and the law.

    What is Deviance?

    Deviance refers to any type of behavior that violates social norms and conventions.

    While some forms of deviance are socially stigmatized, others are more or less tolerated.

    For instance, smoking cigarettes is generally accepted, even if it is less common nowadays, but taking (hard) drugs is heavily stigmatized.

    What is Social Control?

    Social control refers to the ways in which deviant behavior is prevented in society. A society uses means of social control to promote adherence to its fundamental morals and standards of behavior.

    Social control is exercised on everyone and through all institutions of society, from the family to educational institutions to the government.

    Theoretical Perspectives on Deviance and Social Control

    Sociologists of different theoretical fields have different views on deviance and social control. For instance:

    • From a functionalist perspective, deviance and its effects aid in defining the boundaries of acceptable behavior in society.

    • According to some interactionists, cultural transmission, meaning interactions with others, is how people learn deviant and/or criminal behavior. They argue that exposure to views that are supportive of criminality causes deviance (differential association). Others believe that a lack of or dysfunction in social structures and groups such as families, schools, governments, etc. are to blame (social disorganization theory).

    • Labeling theory points out that the label of "deviant" is not always fairly applied.

    • Laws and penalties are a reflection of the interests of the powerful, according to conflict theory.

    • The feminist viewpoint stresses that cultural norms and unequal socioeconomic relationships contribute to gender differences in crime and deviance.

    Crime and the Law

    Unlike deviance, crime is a violation of laws and formal social norms regulated by the state. While deviance does not always warrant state punishment, a crime usually results in formal penalties.

    Sociologists differentiate between a number of different crimes:

    • Victimless crimes, which refer to transactions of illegal goods and services
    • Professional crime, carried out by experienced and skilled career criminals
    • Organized crime, conducted by groups involved with criminal/illegal operations and industries
    • White-collar crime, which is carried out in the course of business, frequently by wealthy, "respectable" individuals
    • Transnational crime, which occurs in multiple countries or regions

    Crime Statistics

    Statistics on crime are highly contested because crime statistics are not always accurate - many crimes are not reported - and crime is not always prosecuted.

    The US Criminal Justice System

    The criminal justice system is a body established to uphold the law. The police, the courts, and the correctional system are the three divisions of the criminal justice system in the United States.

    Public Perception of Crime

    The public's ideas of crime rates are not always accurate - in fact, people tend to assume crime is much more prevalent/common than it actually is. This is influenced by sensationalized news coverage of crimes as well as the many crime shows on TV.

    Social Relationships: Self, Groups and Socialization, image of police car at crime scene, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Sociologists recognize a variety of different crimes.

    Social Relationships: Self, Groups and Socialization - Key takeaways

    • Socialization refers to "the process through which people learn the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate for members of a particular culture."1
    • Sociologists understand that when we engage in social interactions, our sense of self, or the "self," develops.
    • In sociology, a group is "any number of people with similar norms, values, and expectations who interact with one another on a regular basis."3
    • Deviance refers to any type of behavior that violates social norms and conventions.
    • A society uses means of social control to promote adherence to its fundamental morals and standards of behavior.

    References

    1. Barker, E., & Stalley, R. F. (1995). Aristotle: Politics.
    2. Richard, T. S. (2010). Sociology: A brief introduction 12th edition. MCGRAW-HILL US HIGHER ED.
    3. Richard, T. S. (2010). Sociology: A brief introduction 12th edition. MCGRAW-HILL US HIGHER ED.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Relationships

    Why are social relationships important? 

    Social relationships are important because they shape an individual's socialization, sense of self, experiences, interests, and more. Social relationships are the basic analytical construct used in the social sciences and are central to sociology.  

    What is the meaning of social relationships? 

    A social relationship is any voluntary or involuntary interpersonal link between two or more people, individually or within/between groups.  

    What are examples of social relationships? 

    Examples of social relationships are the relationships between a friend group, a teacher and student, or a parent and child.

    What are the types of social relationships? 

    There are many types of social relationships an individual can have.

    What are the benefits of social relationships? 

    There are several benefits of social relationships, from social and emotional support to gaining economic opportunities.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Name the iconic philosopher who stated this quote:“Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human. Society is something that precedes the individual.”

    Which of these concepts did Goffman NOT conceptualize?

    Which of these is the simplest type of group?

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