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Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

2. Orientation

2.3 Phenomenology

2.3.1 The Development of Phenomenological Social Science Interactionism Simmel Pragmatism: Dewey, Thomas and early Chicago School Mead Symbolic interactionism: Blumer The dramaturgical approach: Goffman Overview of interactionism

Activity 2.3.2
Activity 2.3.3 Interactionism
Interactionists are concerned to show that human beings are creative beings who can act purposefully. People do not simply act as isolated individuals, rather they act in relation to others. In deciding upon their actions, individuals take account of the ways in which they suppose that others will react to such actions.

Top Simmel
Georg Simmel was an influential sociologist at the turn of the century who was opposed to positivistic sociology and proposed that sociology should explore subjective interpretations rather than consider them outside the realms of a science of society. For Simmel, society is the sum of the interactions between individuals and as such sociology should attempt to describe and interpret interactions.

In his book Sociology, Simmel (1908) attempted to answer the question, how is society possible? Unlike Durkheim (see Section who saw individuals as socialised into society, Simmel argued that individuals have choices. This means that their integration is not inevitable; indeed, individuals are never fully integrated but retain some individuality. Individuals do not just accept social norms and values they are, rather, active beings whose interaction creates and recreates society.

Simmel's (1903) study of the city The Metropolis and Mental Life attempted to demonstrate how city life changed people's behaviour (See also Wilsey 2010). Early sociologists such as Durkheim, were concerned about the changes that came about as a result of the change from traditional to modern societies. It is often assumed that modern society is characterised by selfish individualism and that people who live in cities are less caring than those who live in traditional or more intimate rural communities. Simmel argued that people who live in cities only appear less caring because the city is much more complex and city dwellers cannot take account of everything.

The impact on the development of interactionism attributed to Simmel was mainly forgotten through the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, interactionism was linked closely to American sociology and seen to derive from the work of George Herbert Mead. However, later work suggested that interactionism has rather more diverse roots (Harvey, 1987; Bulmer, 1984) and Simmel's role has been given more emphasis (Rock, 1979).

Top Pragmatism: Dewey, Thomas and early Chicago School
Another strand of thinking that informed phenomenological sociology can be found in pragmatic philosophy. Pragmatism has several variants but broadly pragmatic philosophy says that a theory is valid if it is useful. This idea underpinned the early interactionism of W.I. Thomas and others at the Chicago School.

Interactionism originally set out to establish the causes of social phenomena. However, these traditional interactionists argued that it was necessary to take into account people's attitudes as well as social values. People developed their attitudes through interaction with other people. The life history of a person was important evidence in understanding how they developed their attitudes.

Interactionism was influential in the development of a science of sociology in the United States between 1910 and 1930. W.I. Thomas's notion of the definition of the situation was an important element of interactionism. It suggests that people make sense of their circumstances pragmatically by defining the world and their situation in it.

Early interactionism attempted to provide causal explanations based on empirical evidence. They were concerned with the issue of social control and sought social laws to explain social phenomena which could then be used to ensure social control.

People define the situation in which they find themselves on the basis of their attitudes and prevailing social values and then act accordingly. So attitudes and values both effect social action.

Interactionists thought that causal explanations had to take account of attitudes as well as social facts and values. Thus they had a similar approach to Max Weber.

The term interactionism has been applied somewhat loosely and often incorporates any approach that focuses on the specific details of social processes, particularly face-to-face and small-group interaction. It thus sometimes includes the various different approaches to symbolic interactionism (see Section and ethnomethodology (see Section These later developments are less concerned than traditional interactionism with broad social process and causal explanations.

Top Mead
George Herbert Mead was a social psychologist but his work is supposed to have been a significant influence on the development of interactionism. In practice, Mead mainly influenced the strand of interactionism that later emerged as symbolic interactionism (see Section

The central concept for Mead is the 'self'. The self can be divided into two elements, the 'me' and the 'I'. The 'me' can be thought of as the objective self upon which the 'I' can reflect. TO BE COMPLETED.

Top Symbolic interactionism: Blumer
Blumer developed the work of Mead and produced a version of interactionism that came to be known as symbolic interactionism. Blumer pointed out that when we interact with others we take certain things for granted. We do not create new meanings each time that we communicate with people. Thus, we can say that people construct meanings within a taken-for-granted framework that will usually remain unquestioned.

However, people interact in a variety of circumstances. Therefore, they may, occasionally, find themselves in new situations that may cause them to adjust their meaning framework.

Blumer (1969) summarised what he regarded as the key principles of symbolic interaction as follows.

1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meaning that things have for them.

2. These meanings are the product of social interaction in human society.

3. These meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is used by each individual in dealing with the signs each encounters.

Hester and Eglin (1992), for example, have demonstrated how Blumer's three key assumptions about interactionism can be applied to the study of crime:

1. When we talk about crime we know that whether or not an act is constructed as criminal depends upon the meanings that we attribute to the act. Those meanings will vary in different societies and in different historical periods. For example, in the United Kingdom, marital rape was not considered a crime until 1992.

2. The meanings we attach to specific acts are derived from our interactions with others. These interactions may also help us to stand back from our own actions. By taking the standpoint of others with whom we have interacted we are able to classify our own behaviour as either criminal or not.

3. Our decisions as to what is or is not criminal will depend upon how the setting in which the act takes place is defined by the individuals who are party to it. For example, we know that it is against the law to kill someone but in the context of war we may not always construe the killing of another individual as a crime.

As Hester and Eglin (1992) point out, a Blumerian approach to crime would examine the processes of interaction through which: particular forms of behaviour come to be defined as illegal; particular people come to the attention of law enforcers; particular people are defined as criminal by the courts; a person's criminal identity is developed, maintained and transformed.

In the sociology of crime, the concern with the processes outlined above are linked to a particular theory of deviance, that apparently embodies symbolic interactionist concerns, called labelling theory. Although labelling theorists, along with other interactionists, have been criticised for taking insufficient account of social structures, the questions asked by labelling theorists were very important because they shifted the focus of attention from those with least power to those who had the power to label others.

Activity 2.3.2
Think of a topic on which you have been persuaded to challenge your way of understanding an aspect of the social world, for example sexuality. How do new understandings of a topic affect subsequent interactions?

Top The dramaturgical approach: Goffman
Goffman developed a version of symbolic interactionsim in which he likened social interactions to performances in a theatre. In the same way that actors play parts on the stage, Goffman says that we all play our parts in society and we act in response to our 'audience' (other people).

Just like actors in a play, people put on a performance in public but, in private (or 'backstage') or with those with whom they are most intimate, people behave in different ways. In our everyday lives we choose which aspects of ourselves to reveal to others, which varies as the context changes. What people say and do with their friends differs from when they are confronted by strangers.

Goffman called these processes impression management. According to this approach there are not external 'rules' of society that manipulate our actions, rather our actions are constantly being modified in the processes of interaction. Symbolic interaction attempts to view human beings in relation to each other with the recognition that life is made up of complex processes of action and reaction. Human beings make sense of society by attributing meaning to facets of human life through these processes.

Goffman was also interested in the ways in which people may either intentionally or unintentionally discredit themselves. For example, you might walk into a job interview wearing your best clothes, feeling confident that you have the skills needed for the job and on your way you trip over a chair, fall to the floor and lose your confidence. Such incidents are beyond our control and may result in a 'spoiled identity' or in Goffman's (1963) terms, 'losing face'.

Top Overview of interactionism
In general, interactionists focus on providing formal descriptions of the micro social worlds that constitute a society. These tend to be restricted social situations, such as interactive groups in specific settings. Shared symbols are used to define social situations. The key to interactionists approaches is not to presume how people make sense of the their world. Uncovering this process of making sense is the purpose of the study. Interactionists argue that researchers can never know what they are exploring until it has been explored and that they have to keep an open mind on the social world, learning about it as they move through the research process.

For example, Doris Ingrisch examined life history interviews in a study carried out for the Austrian Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Society of Ageing and Culture in Vienna (Anderson and Ingrisch, 1992). This study focused on older women and the ways in which socially transmitted images of women's roles are related to age and identity. Ingrisch (1995, p. 42) stated that:

...the intention was to allow theoretical ideas to emerge through analysing and interpreting the women's accounts, rather than approaching the interviews with a particular theoretical orientation.

Activity 2.3.3
In the light of the above information and information in Section 2.2 can you identify any points of similarity between interactionism and positivism?


Next Ethnomethodology, Postmodernism and Hermeneutics