Social Action Persepectives

Weber, Mead, Blumer, Goffman, Becker, Criticisms

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Symbolic Interactionism


Interactionism focuses on small-scale interactions rather than on the social structure, 

The main concern is the way meanings are constructed through social interaction.

The emphasis is on the way people have a degree of control and influence over social behaviour - 'people in society' rather than 'society in people'.

Human behaviour is not simply some response to an external social structure.

Key Concepts;

  • Roles
  • Interaction
  • Negotiation
  • Labelling
  • Construction of meaning.
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  • People define and interpret the world through the meanings they attach to it.
  • 'Reality' is therefore the reality they choose to see in the world - a subjective reality.
  • The definitions/meanings people hold are constructed from and communicated in the form of symbols.
  • Without this exchange of symbols, social existence would be impossible. Social life is a constant stream of symbolic communication with meanings being constantly negotiated and re-negotiated.
  • People can only do this by being able to 'take the role of the other' - seeing our own actions though the eyes and minds of those with interact with.
  • Individuals develop a concept of 'self' though socialisation. This allows them to direct their own actions and to influence the actions of others.
  • Social roles exist, but they are not so fixed that individuals can't re-negotiate and change them
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Coined the term 'symbolic interactionism' because of the centrality of the notion of exchange of meanings in small-scale interaction.

Meanings developed from social interaction, they aren't forced upon individuals who have to conform to outside pressures.

Social systems approaches 'reified' social life, giving them a structure they do not really have.

Society is a more fluid process of constant social interaction.

Notions of 'structures' and 'functions' are rejected.

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Goffman - Social Life as Theatre

Goffman developed the 'dramaturgical analogy' - 'life is like a stage...'

As in theatre, roles are not fixed, they are blueprints for action. People can interpret their roles in many different ways.

People are aware they are doing this and life is a process of 'self-presentation'. We use props, stages etc, to control how we appear to others. This is only made possible by our ability to see ourselves as others see us.

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Becker - Labelling

An important application of interactionist ideas, labelling has a lot of relevance to the study of many social processes relating to the exercise of power in society.

Examples include teacher-pupil and police-suspect relationships.

Labelling is linked to the idea of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Links to issues

Labelling - education, crime and deviance


The Social construction of crime statistics

The issue of a value-free sociology

Goffman - total institutions

Choice of research methods.

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Most of the criticisms of interactionism come from social systems theorists who question the emphasis placed on the way norms, behaviour etc is created within interactions. The lack of reference to social structure is seen as a major weakness.

Where do meanings come from?

The examples of labelling illustrates the problem interactionists have in explaining the origin of meanings. Where do labels originate from? Labels are so similar that it is highly unlikely that they are simply created in the process of an interaction. The similarity of labels suggests that they are created in a systematic fashion, from the social structure.

Social Behaviour is not Randomly Created.

Social behaviour is influenced by the social and historical context in which it takes place. Some Interactionist research seems to ignore this important influence on behaviour.

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If Individuals Have Such an Influence, Why Do People Act in Such Similar Ways?

Similarly, interactionism fails to account for why people act in such a consistent fashion. In any given social situation or role, people tend to act in fairly similar ways from a wider range of possible behaviours. The only explanation for this is that roles are located within the social structure and most individuals accept and adhere to these. Where interactionists may be useful is in being able to explain the way social actors are able to neogtiate behaviour within roles.

Research Methods.

Some sociologists challenge the usefulness of the methods used by interactionists. Participant observation and other unstructured research techniques don't meet scientific criteria. Positivists see these methods as producing data which is unreliable and unrepresentative.

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Schutz has argued we have a series of typifications which are basically categories we use to organise the world as we see it.

Members of society have a store of commonsense knowledge which helps them in thier everyday interactions. For example, we all 'know' that a red light means danger and a green light means safety. These meanings are not in the colours themselves, but in how we come to categorise them.

By us all agreeing on such things, social life is made possible, but Schutz points out that we need to 'achieve' this every day in our social interactions.

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  • This literally means 'people's methods' and studies the way people are able to make sense of everyday social situations.
  • Garfinkel pointed out that there were a vast set of rules which govern everyday social situations, but these rules were unwritten and depended on everyone sharing the same set of common-sense assumptions.
  • Some ethnomethodologists conducted conversation analysis to discover the hidden rules of how we talk. For example, the question 'how are you' has a range of expected responses which should be quite brief as 'fine' or 'OK'. We all 'know' that the question is not asking for a detailed discussion of our health or our mental or emotional state.
  • To demonstrate the rules which govern everyday social interaction Garfinkel got his students to engage in a series of naturalistic experiments where they deliberately disrupted normal social expectations. For example, they acted as lodgers in their homes and hence exposed how their family expected other family members to act. 
  • These newer forms of social action theory go further than earlier versions in denying there is a real thing called society with a structure. Instead they believe we actively construct our social world every time we interact with others.
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