Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology

A man boarding a bus symbolizes the shared definition of the situation that shapes how we interact with others and what we do in a given situation.
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The definition of "the situation" is what people use to know what is expected of them and what is expected of others in any given situation. Through the definition of the situation, people obtain a sense of the statuses and roles of those involved in the situation so that they know how to behave. It is the agreed upon, subjective understanding of what will happen in a given situation or setting, and who will play which roles in the action. The concept refers to how our understanding of the social context of where we may be, like a movie theater, bank, library, or supermarket informs our expectations of what we will do, who we will interact with, and for what purpose. As such, the definition of the situation is a core aspect of social order -- of a smoothly operating society.

The definition of the situation is something that we learn through socialization, composed of prior experiences, knowledge of norms, customs, beliefs, and social expectations, and is also informed by individual and collective needs and wants. It is a foundational concept within symbolic interaction theory and an important one within sociology, generally.

The Theorists Behind the Definition of the Situation

Sociologists William I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki are credited with laying the theory and research groundwork for the concept that is known as the definition of the situation. They wrote about meaning and social interaction in their groundbreaking empirical study of Polish immigrants in Chicago, published in five volumes between 1918 and 1920. In the book, titled "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America", they wrote that a person "has to take social meanings into account and interpret his experience not exclusively in terms of his own needs and wishes but also in terms of the traditions, customs, beliefs, and aspirations of his social milieu." By "social meanings," they refer to the shared beliefs, cultural practices, and norms that become common sense to native members of a society.

However, the first time the phrase appeared in print was in a 1921 book published by sociologists Robert E. Park and Ernest Burgess, "Introduction to the Science of Sociology." In this book, Park and Burgess cited a Carnegie study published in 1919 which apparently used the phrase. They wrote, "common participation in common activities implies a common 'definition of the situation.' In fact, every single act, and eventually all moral life, is dependent upon the definition of the situation. A definition of the situation precedes and limits any possible action, and a redefinition of the situation changes the character of the action."

In this final sentence Park and Burgess refer to a defining principle of symbolic interaction theory: action follows meaning. They argue, without a definition of the situation that is known among all participants, those involved wouldn't know what to do with themselves. And, once that definition is known, it sanctions certain actions while prohibiting others.

Examples of the Situation

An easy example to grasp how situations are defined and why this process is important is that of a written contract. A legally binding document, a contract, for employment or sale of goods, for example, lays out the roles played by those involved and specifies their responsibilities, and sets out actions and interactions that will take place given the situation as defined by the contract.

But, it's the less easily codified definition of a situation that interests sociologists, who use it to refer to a necessary aspect of all the interactions we have in our daily lives, also known as micro-sociology. Take, for example, riding a bus. Before we even get on a bus, we are engaged with a definition of a situation in which buses exist to serve our transportation needs in society. Based on that shared understanding, we have expectations of being able to find buses at certain times, at certain places, and to be able to access them for a certain price. As we enter the bus, we, and presumably the other passengers and the driver, work with a shared definition of the situation that dictates the actions we take as we enter the bus -- paying or swiping a pass, conversing with the driver, taking a seat or grabbing a hand-hold.

If someone acts in a way that defies the definition of the situation, confusion, discomfort, and even chaos can ensue.


Burgess, E.W. "Introduction to the Science of Sociology." Robert Ezra Park, Kindle Edition, Amazon Digital Services LLC, March 30, 2011.

Thomas, William. "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America: A CLASSIC WORK IN IMMIGRATION HISTORY." Florian Znaniecki, Paperback, Student edition, University of Illinois Press, January 1, 1996.

Edited by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "Assessing a Situation, in Terms of Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 31, 2023).