Chapter 5: Social Structure and Social Interaction

Social Issues in the News

“He’s Not a Patient, but Plays One for Class,” the headline said. For 12 days in July 2010, a 24-year-old medical student named Matt entered a nursing home in Chelsea, Massachusetts, to play the role of an 85-year-old man bound to a wheelchair and suffering from several serious health problems. He and five other medical students were staying in the facility to get a better idea of how to care for the elderly.
Matt kept a daily journal and wrote regularly of the problems of using his wheelchair, among other topics. One day he wrote, “I never really noticed how hard it is to live like this. I just always thought of old people as grumpy people who are easily upset.” He had trouble reaching a TV remote control or reading a notice that was posted too high. When he first showered in his wheelchair, he was unable to turn it to be able to wash the right side of his body. He was so embarrassed to ask for help in going to the bathroom that he tried to spread out his bathroom trips so that the same nurse would not have to help him twice in a row.
The experience taught Matt a lot about how to care not only for older patients but also for patients in general. The emotional bonds he developed with other patients during his time in the nursing home particularly made him realize how he should interact with patients. As Matt wrote in his journal, “There is a face and story behind every patient. The patient should not be viewed by the conditions that ail them, but by the person beneath the disease.” (Wu, 2010)

The status of an 85-year-old man bound to a wheelchair is very different from that of a medical student. So are our views of people in each status and our expectations of their behavior. Matt quickly learned what life in a wheelchair is like and realized that his stereotypical views of older people could easily complicate his medical interactions with them. The setting in which he played the role of a very old man was an institutional setting, but this setting was also one tiny component of the vast social institution that sociologists call medicine.

In all these ways, Matt’s brief experience in the nursing home illuminates important aspects of social structure and social interaction in today’s society. The statuses we occupy and the roles we play in these statuses shape our lives in fundamental ways and affect our daily interactions with other people. The many social institutions that are so important in modern society affect our lives profoundly from the moment we are born. This chapter examines major aspects of social structure and social interaction. As with Chapter 3 “Culture” and Chapter 4 “Socialization”, this chapter should help you further understand yourself as a social being and not just as an individual. This in turn means it should further help you understand how and why you came to be the person you are.


Wu, J. Q. (2010, July 19). He’s not a patient, but plays one for class. The Boston Globe, p. B1.


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