Chapter 5 Chapter Overview & Learning Objectives

Social Roles, Interaction, and Organization

Chapter Overview

Status and role are two central concepts in the study of sociology. They are the basis of individual identity and social interactions and impose responsibilities and expectations in relation to other members of society. A status is a recognized social position that an individual occupies. The collection of statuses held by an individual is called a status set. An ascribed status is one you are born into or enter involuntarily (e.g., sexuality). In contrast, an achieved status is one you enter voluntarily at some stage in your life, often reflecting individual ability and/or accomplishment (e.g., an occupation and trade). Everett C. Hughes (1945) introduced the concept of master status, the status of an individual that dominates all other statuses and plays the greatest role in an individual’s social identity.

Status hierarchy is a term used to describe the ranking of statuses from high to low based on their power and prestige. In Canadian society, male is ranked over female, heterosexual over homosexual, and white over non-white, for example. When a person occupies statuses that are highly ranked in one status category, but not in others, status inconsistency can result. For example, a working-class, white male is highly ranked in terms of “race” and gender but lowly ranked in economic class. On the other hand, status consistency means that all of the social status hierarchies line up for an individual.

A role is a set of behaviours and attitudes associated with a particular status. Robert Merton developed the idea of a role set, which comprises all the roles attached to a status. Role strain develops when there is conflict between roles within the role set of a particular status. Role conflict occurs when a person is forced to reconcile incompatible expectations generated from two or more statuses they hold. Role exit involves disengaging, voluntarily or involuntarily, from a role that has been central to one’s identity and attempting to establish a new one.

The study of small-group interaction has long been a part of sociology. Georg Simmel was one of the first sociologists to focus on the daily social interactions of individuals. William I. Thomas furthered work on individuals and small groups by developing an important sociological concept known today as the Thomas Theorem, which states that when a situation is defined as real, it becomes real in its consequences. This theorem became central to symbolic interactionist theory and builds on the concept of the definition of the situation, which states that individuals will define the same situation in different ways based on their own subjective experiences. Therefore, in order to understand a person’s actions and reactions in any given situation, we must first understand how that individual defines the situation.

Social organization refers to the social and cultural principles around which things are structured, ordered, and categorized. Max Weber was one of the first sociologists to systematically examine social organizations and bureaucracy. Advances in the fields of organizational theory and organizational behaviour were made in the 1980s, when the study of organizations shifted from the examination of social institutions to the examination of businesses and corporations in an effort to uncover more effective management practices. During the last two decades, these studies have become more interdisciplinary (such as anthropology) and shifted their focus to organizational culture. In the wake of increasing globalization, critical management studies have gained prominence. These are analyses which are critical of traditional theories of management and their focus on increasing profits trump inequalities in terms of gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. On the other hand, Feminist organizations are generally structured around feminist principles and challenge traditional patriarchal, hierarchical organizations, paying particular attention to internal distribution of power and control, the division of labour, and decision-making rules.

Bureaucracies have existed for at least 5,000 years; however, sociological analyses of them only began in the nineteenth century, particularly through the work of Max Weber, who studied bureaucracy marked by formal rationalization. Weber described formal rationalization as a model for improving organizational effectiveness composed of four basic elements: efficiency, quantification, predictability, and control. Weber was critical of bureaucracy, because of its dehumanizing nature and of formal rationalization because it led to disenchantment and alienation. Building on the notion of formal rationalization, Frederick W. Taylor developed scientific management. Now known as Taylorism, this practice was designed to maximize efficiency for any given job by eliminating non-essential movements. However, efficiency standards limit the work processes to a single set of repetitive actions, thereby undermining skill development. Taylorism was still practised in North America through the 1990s, but now alternate practices like the team approach adopted from Japan are being implemented more widely.

George Ritzer built on Weber’s four elements of formal rationality—efficiency, quantification, predictability, and control—in his conception of McDonaldization, which he described as the application of principles used in the fast-food industry to other sectors of society (e.g., health care, education). In Ritzer’s analysis, efficiency involves streamlining the movement of people and things, often by breaking tasks up into smaller, repeated tasks performed only by specific people. Quantification involves counting and measuring as many elements as possible so that success is defined in terms of completion of quantifiable tasks rather than in terms of quality, which is more difficult to measure. Predictability means creating a uniform set of rules so that administration, workers, and clients know what to expect from each other. Control is always hierarchal and involves an explicit division of labour, through which each employee is assigned well-defined tasks with limited room to exercise judgment. McDonaldization hinders creativity, it leads to alienation.

Society requires social organization in order to avoid chaos. But organizational principles and structures greatly affect society and must therefore be examined critically. Organizations, instead of serving the interests and needs of individuals, often dictate values and interactions. By doing so, they ensure that societal norms and values are obeyed and supported. Organizational bureaucracies have become increasingly self-serving, losing sight of “the greater good” and their social connections to others. They give rise to injustice, oppression, racism and sexism.

Learning Objectives

After reading chapter five, you will be able to:

  • Distinguish between status/status set and role/role set.
  • Explain the difference between ascribed and achieved status using examples.
  • Distinguish between role strain, role conflict, and role exit.
  • Outline the emergence of bureaucracy and formal rationalization, substantive rationalization.
  • Explain the four elements and consequences of Max Weber’s formal rationalization.
  • Describe the four elements of George Ritzer’s McDonaldization using examples.
  • Discuss the sway of McDonaldization in the many areas of the social world that transcend fast-food and business.
  • Analyze how social organization shuns social location.