The Interaction Order & Social Institutions

A reflection on religion.

It’s Sunday. The Sabbath. I haven’t attended any church services today, and I don’t intend to. Ten years ago, this same lifestyle choice would have consumed me in guilt and shame. ‘What will God think of me? Have I become lost? Am I so self-centered that I can’t spare a few hours of my time for the creator of the universe?’ I hated wearing uncomfortable, frilly dresses just to sit on uncomfortable, wooden pews and entertain uncomfortable, judgy conversations with old men that were self-proclaimed morality mentors. Then again, if I’m in a fatal car accident tonight, would my soul be saved? I was baptized when I was 13…

I don’t consider myself to be an atheist, but I’m not particularly fond of organized religion at this stage in my life. I grew up in a rural community with strict policies on God. There was only one holy denomination; Calvary Baptist. Lucky for me, I happened to be born into a family that were avid followers, so I had a foot in the door with the big guy upstairs. I can’t articulate when my walk with Christ started, mainly because it was impressed upon me before I could crawl. “God is love. God is light.” God is… someone I never got to know because church wasn’t a place of learning, it was a place of conforming. Everyone dressed up for Sunday service – even if they couldn’t afford it and hid the shopping tags to return the clothes on Monday morning. Everyone came together for fellowship – even though the mothers spread gossip about each other throughout the week. Everyone smiled – even if their dads screamed profanities at them the entire drive to church. “God is forgiveness. God is grace.” God is… an angry man that I feared deeply and helplessly.

When I was in middle school I began to question things; everything. I was confused as to why God would leave redemption up to personal choice if he already knew how flawed and imperfect humans’ decision-making capabilities were. Despite feeling disconnected from my spirituality, I conceded to the family’s group expectations to never share skepticism of Christianity aloud. The social reality (and sanctity) of the church relied upon two primary actors: the congregation as lost children of the Lord and the pastor as their shepherd. Only he who holds the proper achieved and ascribed status (an ordained man) can provide scriptural critique and interpretation. “Not then, men and their moments. Rather, moment and their men,” Goffman, Interaction Ritual Theory. The interaction ritual
suggests the power and authority of a church leader lies not in his own conduct or candor, but at the behest of the congregation’s willingness to believe in his symbolic role.

From this point forward, I followed informal situational scripts to get through the motions. When the pastor made eye contact during a sermon, I’d scrunch my brows to appear perplexed before nodding along in agreement. During worship I’d raise my hands just as high as the person next to me, as if we were awkwardly reaching for God himself. Throughout prayer I would keep my eyes squinted tightly shut to not draw suspicion onto myself. Perhaps if I looked like the perfect believer, I would eventually start believing.

It wasn’t until I became inspired by the social institution of education that I
learned conformity and autonomy could (at times) coexist. High school teachers encouraged students to think outside of the box and ask whatever questions came to mind. There was a behavioral process for questions to be posed (raise hand, wait to be called upon, ask question), but I was unashamed and engaged with the natural proclivity for curiosity and creativity. One pro of the rationalization of education is the liberation it can bring for those who have never had permission to safely explore. I soaked in every concept, theory and process presented. It wasn’t until later in life that I learned to equally value the lessons from other’s lived experiences. Academia can sometimes forget the unstudied knowledge of the average laborer, mother or farmhand. Perhaps this is one con of the rationalization of education as a social institution. In parallel, the power and authority of a professor lies not in their own research or candor, but at the behest of the student’s willingness to believe in their symbolic role.

The final facet of these social structures I’d like to complicate is the sustainability of survival. Jesus may have claimed to be the bread of life, but at the end of the day everyone needs literal food on the table. Our societal machine has been built to recognize status as currency for who is (and is not) deserving. The pastor holds privileged, tax-free access to material resources, but an unemployed member of the congregation may not. This is one con of the rationalization of buying the things you need, there isn’t guaranteed equity. It costs fictitious currency in our made-up society to meet very real needs. However, churches could conduct exorbitant amounts of public service with their profits to ensure community members have steady access to food, clothing and shelter. One pro of the rationalization of buying the things you need is the ability to use material surplus as desired and assist those who may find themselves deemed economically underprivileged.

In conclusion, I’m still unsure if people are consciously following a holy spirit, or unconsciously following a lifestyle that they’re most comfortable performing. Either way, I don’t believe that makes religious rituals any less fascinating in sociological grandeur.

by Cambria Nesryn | 10.16.2022
Sociology student, College of Charleston


• Boan-Lenzo, Chris. “Intro Unit 6 Video 2.” Interaction and Subcultures. (2019).
Accessed Nov. 6, 2022:

• Calvary Baptist. “Doctrinal Statement.” Doctrinal Statement of Faith. (2011).
Accessed Nov. 6, 2022:

• Goffman, Erving. “Interaction Ritual.” Essays on face-to-face behavior. ( 1967).
Accessed Nov. 6, 2022: