Social interaction and social relation. Levels of social interactions

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Belarus State Economic University


“Social interaction and social relation. Levels of social interactions”

Minsk 2008

Social interaction and social relation are identified as different
concepts. The concept “social relation” is frequently used in social
sciences, but there is no commonly agreed meaning for it. In the first
instance, a social relation is regarded as a relation between people,
and more specifically:

· a relation between individuals insofar as they belong to a group,

· a relation between groups,

· a relation between an individual and a group.

In this sense, a social relation is not identical with a unique
interpersonal relation or a unique individual relation, although all
these types of relations presuppose each other. Anyway, in sociological
hierarchy, social relation is more advanced than behaviour, action,
social behaviour, social action, social contact and social interaction.
These concepts denote:

· animal-like behaviour is first and most basic behaviour, various
physical movements of the body like walking, eating;

· action is a movement with a meaning and purpose, for instance, you
pick up berries to eat yourself;

· social behaviour is addressed towards other people;

· social action requires a response from another person, for instance,
you present a diamond ring to your girl-friend;

· social contact is a pair of social actions;

· social interaction is a sequence of social actions.

It should be noted that the last four movements can take place within
the frameworks of a social act.

There must be three components so that social interaction is realized:

· the subjects (two and more people – who interacts?);

· the object (why to interact?);

· a mechanism to regulate interactions (how to interact?)

If there is no object, individuals don’t interact, if there is one, they
do. For instance, a young man wants to get acquainted with a girl. It is
the girl who makes a decision to interact: if she likes the man (the
subject) or the object suggested, she continues the conversation, gives
her telephone number etc. In other words, she performs particular
actions to get social interaction done.

Social interactions can be differentiated into:

· accidental (also known as social contact) – not planned and not
repeated, for instance, asking a stranger for directions. Social contact
is interaction without further consequence, i. e. it is not likely to be
repeated or the subject of interaction can be easily exchanged by
another one. An example would be a failed and not-repeated attempt to
start a conversation with the girl a young man likes if she doesn’t like

· repeated – not planned, bound to happen from time to time. For
example, accidentally meeting a neighbour from time to time when walking
in your street;

· regular – not planned, but very common, likely to raise questions when
missed, for instance, meeting a doorman every workday in your workplace
or your tutor at the University, dining every day in the same
restaurant, etc.

· regulated – planned and regulated by customs or law, will definitely
raise questions when missed, for instance, interaction in a workplace
(coming to work or class to lectures, staff meetings etc), family etc.

The Romans said that man is a social animal, so an individual depends on
the society he lives in. It means that he depends on other individuals
with whom he enters into relations forming any social entity. That’s why
social interactions are based on interdependencies between two or more
people mutually oriented towards each other, i. e. social interaction is
any behavior that tries to affect or take account of each other’s
subjective actions or intentions. It suggests that the parties to the
social interaction must be aware of each other. It does not mean being
in sight of or directly behaving towards each other. Friends writing
letters are socially interacting, as are enemy generals preparing
opposing war plans. Social interaction is not defined by type of
physical relation or behavior, or by physical distance. It is a matter
of a mutual subjective orientation towards each other. Spying one on
another is not social interaction if the other is unaware. Thus, even
when no physical behavior is involved, as with two rivals deliberately
ignoring each other’s professional work, there is social interaction.

Social interaction is a dynamic, changing sequence of social actions
between people (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to
the actions done by their interaction partner(s).

An American researcher R. Rummel in his work, Understanding Conflict and
War, describes social interactions by their meaning, direction,
intensity, extension, duration, and organization.

The meaning of social interaction involves understanding such behavior
as act, action, or practice.

The direction of interaction depends on whether people orient their acts
towards each other, and whether the acts involve common intentions and
the desire or aim of helping each other to achieve that intention. There
are two opposing directions of interaction – solidary and antagonistic.
The first involves acts of similar intentions and a mutual orientation
of the parties towards helping each other to achieve these intentions.
For instance, friends helping each other to pass an examination, parents
mutually cooperating to bring up their children, a team of scientists
trying to discover a cure for cancer, and so on.

Antagonistic interaction takes place when the parties intend to hinder
each other from achieving their purpose. For instance, two people
competing for promotion to the same position, generals fighting for the
same territory, or rivals trying to capture the same market share. The
interaction between a master and slave, a prisoner and his guard are
also examples.

It should be noted that antagonistic interaction does not imply that
intentions are different. The parties share a common desire and mutual
orientation towards each other. They have the same aims (a promotion,
possession, achievement etc) which they don’t want to or can’t have
together. Antagonistic interaction is characterized by this main
element: a perception of incompatible purposes and the belief that the
achievement of one’s own aim entails frustrating the others.

There is also a mixed interaction, which is partly antagonistic, partly
solidary. The mutual acts may be solidary as the parties intend to
achieve a common goal but their actions may be antagonistic. A doctor
and patient may both have the patient’s health uppermost in mind, but
the patient’s actions may be antagonistic, when he refuses to stay in
bed as ordered.

On the other hand, the acts may be antagonistic while the actions are
solidary, for instance, parents argue while keeping their voices down so
as not to wake up their children.

Besides meanings and direction, social interactions are also
characterized by high or low intensity. Deeply felt, strongly motivated
intentions can be involved, as in a world chess match, war, labour
strike, or marriage. On the other hand, the interactions may involve
little emotion or peripheral intentions, as with those playing tennis to
relax or disagreeing over what movie to see.

Due to extension interactions may be extensive or narrow. They may
invoke a range of activities, such as beating all competitors for the
presidency of a country, fighting a war, or building a good academic
department. Narrow interactions may be restricted to particular
activities, such as cooperation among friends cleaning up after a party,
or a legislative disagreement over the tax on imported watches.

Another characteristic of interaction concerns their duration.
Interactions may be of momentary or relatively short duration, such as a
dispute at the supper table as to who will get the last piece of cake,
or an interaction between a sales clerk and customer. Some interactions
are of extended duration, as in the rivalry of nations at the annual
meeting of the UN General Assembly, or the mutual love directed
interaction of a marriage.

Finally, interactions can be characterized as to whether they are
organized, that is, governed by law-norms defining a group, or not. For
instance, interactions between individuals preparing for a joint weekend
may not be organized, while trade between nations, or divorce
proceedings are organized interactions.

In total, social interactions manifest various combinations of
characteristics, or modalities in terminology by P. A. Sorokin. They may
be solidary, intensive, but narrow, short and non-organized, like sexual
intercourse; or intensive, extensive, durable, antagonistic and
organized, like war; or intensive, narrow, short, organized, and
antagonistic, like a coup d’йtat etc.

Within different conceptual frameworks sociologists classified social
interactions into such forms as Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft,
community versus association, cooperation versus conflict etc. The known
conception is that of P. A. Sorokin who divided the interaction system
of organized durable groups into three components: familistic,
contractual and compulsory ones.

The familistic component comprises consistent, solidary, extensive,
intensive and durable interactions. Those who are involved in them form
an organically interdependent unity, interrelated into a “we”. What
concerns one concerns them all; it is not a question of what each
personally can achieve from the interaction, but what can be done
together. Social interactions between father and son, members of
religions, sects, athletic teams are often of familistic nature.

The contractual component comprises interactions which are partly
solidary, partly antagonistic, limited in duration and extension, with
high or low intensity, and legalistic. Contractual interaction tends to
be utilitarian, a specific association of the actions of individuals for
independent purposes. It is manifested in benevolent neutrality, passive
resistance or reluctant cooperation, competitive cooperation,
simultaneous love and hate. Examples are interaction between a seller
and buyer, an employee and employer, a bureaucrat and citizen. Some
modern couples transform their marriages into a contractual affair.

Compulsory interaction is characterized by consistent internal
antagonism, as between lifelong enemies, conflicting nations, a slave
and master. It may or may not be intensive, extensive, durable and
organized. It comprises the attempt of one or more parties or groups to
coerce others. The use of coercion is a hallmark of this type of social
interaction. In a pure compulsory relationship the parties remain total
strangers and outsiders to each other.

Describing interaction with a combination of modalities P. A. Sorokin
styles it as the system of interaction or social relationship. If a
social contact may have the form of exchange of information, joint
activities etc., social interactions form the basis of social relations.
Social relation refers to a multitude of social interactions, regulated
by social law-norms, between two or more people, each having a social
position and performing a social role.

Sociologists share the opinion of F. Znaniecki who defines social
relations as a system of interactions comprising two partners (from
individuals to societies) and a bound such as the object, interest,
orientation, value which become the platform for the entity. An example
of the bound can be parents’ obligations to ensure socialization of
their child, i. e. to make him learn its own obligations with regard to
the elder, brothers and sisters, society etc.

So, social relations can be defined as a stable system of regulated
social interactions between two or more people on the basis of a certain
platform (i. e. interest). This concept always suggests a goal which the
united people intend to achieve. For instance, such institutions as the
court or jail are created to maintain social order and punish deviants
who break moral and legal norms, encroach on social material or
spiritual values.

The availability of a common platform in social relations was marked by
M. Weber who also underlined that social behaviour of the people should
be defined and observed. And social institutions are designed to provide
observation. If the function of the institution of the family is to
reproduce the population, both physically as delivering children, and
socially as their bringing up, consequently we can observe social
behaviours of the members of a family such as their methods of influence
on the children or planning the family. It leads to a logical conclusion
that social relations form the basis of such concepts as social
organization, social structure, social institution, social movement and
social system.

Levels of social interactions

There are three levels of social interactions. Interpersonal or
face-to-face interactions may be presented by interactions between two
people (dyad), between three people (triad), between one person and many
(between an actor and spectators, and many and many individuals (buyers
– sellers). Interpersonal interactions are largely determined by
psychical and physiological factors due to the fact that partners enter
into direct interaction with each other. The other factors are purposes
and orientations of the partners who predetermine the character of
interactions because setting the purpose and formation of value
orientations are connected with the processes of socialization, i. e.
their learning social experience.

Interpersonal interaction is observable. At this level a number of units
of observation are differentiated: interaction subjects (individuals),
their actions mutually oriented toward each other (acts of interaction),
symbols of actions, outcomes of interactions. Each of them may be
classified as a functional element of the social system. For instance,
interaction subjects can be analyzed from the viewpoint of a demographic
or professional structure. The other example is formal or informal
character of interactions under observation.

Group interactions are of a higher level at which both the group’s
social orientations and values shared by all or most of its members are
manifested. They are further determined by additional factors such as
relations within a group, the character of leadership, value
orientations of the group etc. The subjects of interactions are groups,
not individuals. As in interpersonal interactions, in group behaviour
one can observe and empirically fix the character of interactions, and
determine the type of relations between the groups.

Societal interactions bearing on the level of community and society are
always indirect. Such interactions are most often defined as social
relations. As they are characterized by a high degree of indirectness,
the interaction partners such as nations cannot be in direct contact
that’s why it is difficult to fix empirically observed acts of
interaction if formal structures or concluding of political, economic
treaties etc. are not spoken about.

At this level of interactions other factors perform such as culture,
morals, ethics, law which make the interactions regulated. As any
society is interested in social order, the system of regulated
interactions at any of its levels is supported by law and social
control. The analysis of societal interactions can be made from the
viewpoint of social structures or functional systems, for instance,
education, the institution of power, social control etc. that, in turn,
enables to determine the character of interactions at the societal

Theories of social interaction

There are a number of theories of social interaction as their authors
are seeking for the answer to the question about what factors determine
whether individuals enter into interaction, continue or break it. To
such theories belong social exchange theory, symbolic interactionism,
psychological analysis etc.

Social exchange theory is based on a central premise that the exchange
of social and material resources is a fundamental form of human
interaction. G. Homans underlined that without repeated social actions
there are no enduring social structures. He developed five propositions
which enable to explain why individuals enter into interaction, why they
continue or break it.

The success proposition implies that an increasing frequency of reward
leads to an increasing frequency of action, but it is obvious that such
an increase cannot go on indefinitely.

The second proposition concerns the effect on the action of the
circumstances attending it. Since in many accounts of behaviour these
attendant circumstances are called stimuli, G. Homans calls this the
stimulus proposition. It emphasizes the reappearance of the
circumstances attending a successful action that make the repetition of
the action more probable. For instance, if you pass the exam well, next
time you try to reproduce the previous circumstances such as the same
dress or suit, some rituals as a coin in the shoe, no washing in the
morning, or a ticket numbered 3 in the upper row etc. But the uppermost
here is knowledge.

The value proposition includes reward and punishment. The results of a
person’s actions that have positive values for him are called rewards;
the results with negative ones are called punishments. The proposition
implies that just as an increase in the positive value of the reward
makes it more likely that the person will perform a particular act, so
an increase in the negative value of the punishment makes it less likely
that he will do so.

The deprivation-satiation proposition implies that if a man has often
received the reward, he begins to be satiated with it. Its value
decreases for him, and by the value proposition, he becomes less apt to
perform an action that is followed by this reward. Food is the best

The aggression-approval proposition implies that when a person doesn’t
get what he expected, he is frustrated. When he is frustrated, he is apt
to feel some anger. No doubt, the more valuable to a person is the
reward he expected or the more painful the punishment he didn’t expect,
the greater is his frustration and hence his anger. When a man is
frustrated, he is apt to perform aggressive actions. These are actions
that attack, break, hurt, or threaten the source of the frustration. The
target of aggression may be an inanimate object though humans can also
serve targets. When we are furious at someone and hit him, the sight of
his wincing under our blow becomes intensely rewarding.

Social exchange theory explains interpersonal interaction, i. e. how we
feel about a relationship with another person as depending on our
perceptions of the balance between what we put into the relationship and
what we get out of it. But the postulates of equal and mutually
beneficial interaction known as balanced exchange can’t explain such
phenomena as social inequality, coercion, or power. To do so G. Homans
suggested the proposition of the least interest that states that a
person, who is least interested in the continuation of exchange,
possesses a greater ability to dictate the terms of this exchange to the
interaction partners. The result of this kind of exchange is emergence
of power because “one man can provide more rewards to the others than
the latter can reward him”. The researcher asserts that any relations of
power, even coercive ones, are examples of non-balanced exchange.

P. Blau’s version of exchange value makes a useful complement to Homans.
He viewed social interactions from the other positions, those of
structural exchange. The researcher stressed that behavioural
propositions can explain people’s interactions at the micro-level when
relations are oriented toward achieving the aim but this aim can be
achieved only if partners interact with each other and they all have the
means necessary to obtain the aim. Relations of power emerge when one of
the interaction partners has monopolistic or exclusive rights to some
reward which other partners are trying to get. In this case the owner
will try to exchange the available reward at a higher cost possible,
imposing his will on the other partners. But in order to be
institutionalized, power must be legitimized on the basis of social
norms and values constituting a particular cultural system, the latter
not being connected with the exchange processes. In other words, P. Blau
explains the essence of social interaction at the macro-level.

American sociologists have gone further in developing the theory within
the framework of which social life can be treated as an exchange of
rewards or resources between actors. Their main conclusion is that
actors in exchange can be not only individuals but also groups, and that
in-group processes and inter-group relations are more complex than being
sets of market transactions.

Additional literature

1. Blau P. Exchange and Power in Social Life. (3rd edition). – New
Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1992. – 354 p.

2. Bourdeiu P. Logic of Practice. – Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990. – 382

3. Coser L. The Functions of Social Conflict. – Glencoe, Ill: Free
Press, 1956. – 188 p.

4. Durkheim E. The Division of Labour in Society. – New York, NY: Free
Press; 1997. – 272 p.

5. Durkheim E. Suicide. – New York, NY: Free Press; 1951. – 345 p.

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