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Assess the usefulness of interactionist approaches to the study of society. (33marks)
Interactionism is an action approach, which focuses on the individual, and tries to understand and
interpret human behaviour. They focus on the study of individuals, and how society is constructed by
members' interactions and meanings. They also focus on how human action is meaningful and can be
interpreted by an observer. Therefore they take an opposite approach to structural theories and believe
individuals have the ability to create society through choice, meaning and action.
Symbolic interactionism is concerned with explaining social actions in terms of the meanings that
people give to them. Interactions are based on meanings we give to situations. We express these
meanings through symbols, especially language. Meanings and symbols allow people to carry out human
action and interactions. Language and communication deepens our capacity to become selfaware and
aware of others. In addition to `talking to others' we engage in talking to ourselves', that is, engaging in
internal conversations when we are making decisions. Mead (18631931) states that humans use
symbols as a mean of interacting. Without these symbols there would be no human interaction and
human society. Symbolic interaction is necessary since humans have no instincts to direct their
Mead recognized that people had the capacity to reflect on their own actions. This is because everyone
has a self which consists of two parts: the `I' is the reflective part that plans actions and evaluates our
actions the `Me' is part of the self that exists for others in interactions such as roles. For people to
engage in interaction, they must understand symbols and reflect on their own performance, but must
also take on role of others. This is where an individual places themselves in the position of another
person to understand how to act. For example, a student takes on board the role of a teacher when they
sit quietly in class so that the teacher can speak. Mead thought society is the product of people acting on
the basis of shared symbols, reflecting on their own actions and roletaking in order to engage in
everyday social interaction. It could be argued that this technique of roletaking isn't helpful, because
we can never truly know what their motives and feelings are. Just because we put ourselves in their
position, doesn't mean we can actually become that person. It is useful in the sense that we are trying to
understand other people and look at it from their point of view, but we will never actually become that
person. E.g. we won't ever know why someone has given us a particular label and by putting ourselves in
their shoes we will only be able to assume what the reason is. A major strength with this theory is that it
overcomes the determinism of structural theories (are not just simply passive recipients of social
forces). They recognise that individuals have feelings and viewpoints and act in terms of reasons.
Herbert Blumer (1969) a student of Mead outlined three assumptions behind symbolic interactionism.
The first was that people act towards objects on the meaning that they have for them. E.g. red roses
represent a romantic gesture. Secondly, meanings are the product of social interaction. Like giving a red
rose to your grandma is not a romantic gesture. And those meanings are handled through a reflective
process where people try to make sense of situations. E.g. should I really giver her some flowers?
The meanings we give to situations are the result of us, interpreting and analyzing the situation before
responding ­ especially taking the role of the other. Blumer's view of human behaviour contrasts with
functionalism. They see individuals as puppets, passively responding to the systems needs. They see
behaviour as fixed and predictable. But Blumer argues, although behaviour is partially predictable
because we internalize the expectations of others and behave the way we're expected, behaviour is not
completely fixed. We can have a choice in how we behave and perform our roles e.g. in schools we have

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We don't always behave the way we are
expected to behave therefore our behaviour isn't always predictable.
Symbolic interactionism provides the theoretical basis of labelling theory. During social interaction, a
person defines situations as real. For example, if someone is suspected of having an affair, many of their
actions are defined in those terms. So, quickly putting the telephone down is seen as suspicious rather
than simply a wrong number.…read more

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It offers explanations for how and why
people communicate in public and small group situations. But it doesn't offer much for understanding
communication in more intimate setting. The Dramaturgical Model also fails to explain the underlying
processes and motivations that are involved in communicating with others. By drawing metaphors from
the theatre Goffman sets up a framework for his theory that is relatively easy to understand. The terms
that he uses already have meaning. His basic concept is simple.…read more


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