Social Interaction: Characteristics and Main Types

The social interaction is the process by which one acts and reacts to those around him. It includes those acts that people perform toward each other, and the responses they give in return.

It is considered a field of study, also known as Microsociology, created by Erving Goffman.

Social Interaction: Characteristics and Main Types

Having a quick conversation with a friend seems relatively trivial. Goffman argued that these apparently insignificant forms of social interaction are of great importance in Sociology and should not be overlooked.

Social interaction is a fundamental feature in life. That is, all individuals, except those who decided to be monks or live truly as hermits, obligatorily interact with others daily, virtual or physically.

According to the social order, an effective rule to make a society work well is effective social interaction.

Microsociology has spent its life researching, analyzing and trying to understand social life through the interactions of people and the way in which they do it.

Characteristics of social interactions

When two or more people meet, they can act among themselves in countless ways.

A stranger, for example, may ask where the nearest hotel is, and another person can provide the necessary information. The question in this case is the stimulus and the information given is the answer.

The response can easily become the journalistic stimulus, and thus lead to new responses and"interestimulations." This is social interaction, which can involve two or more personalities, groups or social systems that influence each other.

The interaction itself may involve a single person. Such interaction with oneself occurs when someone analyzes a given idea or discusses with himself the pros and cons of an important issue or decision.

Sociologists often use the concept of"social relationship"as a synonym for social interaction. Symbolic interaction is also used quite frequently, but this term denotes interaction through human communication.

Social interaction manifests itself in many ways. One end is reflected by a very intense interaction, while the opposite end consists of the"zero degree of social interaction"or complete isolation.

For example, an abandoned child, who has no contact with other human beings, represents isolation that experiences zero social interaction.

Types of social interaction

Erving Goffman, the father of microsociology, distinguishes two main types of interaction:

1- Interaction focused

It is the interaction between a group of people who have a common goal. These people may have been familiar with each other in the past, or may have become familiar in the first moment of their focused interaction.

An example of this is a group of young people studying together for a final exam, a football team or attendees to a concert.

2- Interaction not focused

It does not include any common goal or familiarity, even during the interaction process. In fact, people who interact may not be aware of their interaction.

An example given by Goffman himself is the interaction between pedestrians, who avoid disastrous collisions following traffic signs and regulations.

The four categories of social interaction

According to Goffman, social interactions include a large number of behaviors; so many, that in Sociology the interaction is generally divided into four categories.

These are: exchange, competition, cooperation and conflict. These four types will be examined in more detail below:

1- Exchange

Exchange is the most basic type of social interaction. Whenever people interact, they make an effort to receive a reward or a return for their actions. This reward reflects that an exchange has occurred.

Exchange is a social process by which social behavior is exchanged for some kind of reward, for an equal or greater value.

The reward can be material (a paycheck on a job) or non-material (a"thank you"from your co-worker). Exchange theorists argue that rewarded behavior tends to be repeated.

However, when the costs of an interaction outweigh the rewards, it is likely that people will end the relationship.

2- Competition

Competition is a process through which two or more people try to meet a goal that only one can achieve.

Competition is a common feature of Western societies, and the cornerstone of the capitalist economic system and the democratic form of government.

Most sociologists see competition as positive, as something that can motivate people to achieve goals.

However, competition can also lead to psychological stress, lack of cooperation in social relations, inequality and even conflict.

3- Cooperation

Cooperation is the process in which people work together to achieve shared goals.

Cooperation is a social process that leads to action; no group can complete its tasks or achieve its objectives without the cooperation of its members.

Cooperation often works together with other forms of interaction, such as competition. In a baseball game, for example, a team will work together (cooperation) while trying to achieve a victory (a goal that only one team can achieve).

4- Conflict

Conflict is the process by which people face physically or socially.

Probably the most obvious example of conflict is war, but conflict can also be demonstrated in our daily interactions, such as legal disputes and arguments about religion and politics.

Conflict can have its positive functions, such as strengthening group loyalty by focusing attention on an external threat. It can also lead to social change, putting problems at the forefront and forcing opposing sides to seek solutions.


  1. Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J.-C. (1990). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Newbury Park: Sage.
  2. Bardis, P. (1976). Social Interaction and Social Processes.
  3. García, C., Carrasco, J., & Rojas, C. (2017). The urban context and social interactions: duality of the activity space of high and low income sectors in Concepción, Chile.
  4. Scheff, T. (2009). Microsociology. Johanneshov.

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