In sociology, interactionism is a theoretical perspective that derives social processes (such as conflict, cooperation, identity formation) from human interaction. It is the study of how individuals shape society and are shaped by society through meaning that arises in interactions. Interactionist theory has grown in the latter half of the twentieth century and has become one of the dominant sociological perspectives in the world today. George Herbert Mead, as an advocate of pragmatism and the subjectivity of social reality, is considered a leader in the development of interactionism. Herbert Blumer expanded on Mead's work and coined the term "symbolic interactionism".
Interactionism is micro-sociological and believes that meaning is produced through the interactions of individuals.
The social interaction is a face-to-face process consisting of actions, reactions, and mutual adaptation between two or more individuals. It also includes animal interaction such as mating. The interaction includes all language (including body language) and mannerisms. The goal of the social interaction is to communicate with others. If the interaction is in danger of ending before one intends to it, it can be conserved by conforming to the others' expectations, by ignoring certain incidents or by solving apparent problems. Erving Goffman underlines the importance of control in the interaction. One must attempt to control the others' behaviour during the interaction, in order to attain the information one is seeking and in order to control the perception of one's own image. Important concepts in the field of interactionism include the "social role" and Goffman's "presentation of self."
Interactionists are interested in how people see themselves in the broader social context. Interactionists want to understand each individual, and how they act within society. In extreme cases, they would deny class as an issue, and would say that we cannot generalize that everyone from one social class thinks in one way. Instead they believe everyone has different attitudes, values, culture and beliefs. Therefore, it is the duty of the sociologist to carry out the study within society. They set out to gather qualitative data.
Rejection of Structuralist methods
Interactionists reject statistical (quantitative) data, a method preferred by structuralists. These methods include; experiments, structured interviews, questionnaires, non-participant observation and secondary sources. They have a few basic criticisms, namely:
- Statistical data is not "valid". This is to say that these methods don't provide us with a true picture of society on the topic being researched.
- Research is biased and therefore not objective. Whilst the sociologist would be distant, it is argued that a hypothesis means the research is biased towards a pre-set conclusion (Rosenhan experiment in 1973). This is again rejected by Interactionists, who claim it is artificial, and also raises ethical issues to experiment on people.
Preferred Interactionist Methods
Interactionists prefer several methods to contrast with Structuralist methods, namely; unstructured interviews, covert participant observation, overt participant observation, and analysing historical, public and personal documents by content analysis.
Interactionist methods generally reject the absolute need to provide statistics. Statistics allows cause and effect to be shown, as well as isolating variables so that relationships and trends can be distinguished over time. Instead, interactionists want to "go deep" to explain society. This draws criticisms such as:
- Information and sociological research cannot be compared or contrasted, hence we can never truly understand how society changes. Data are not reliable.
- The information that is gathered is interpreted (hence the name "Interpretivist") by a sociologist, therefore it isn't objective, but biased.
Despite these criticisms, interactionist methods do allow flexibility. The fact that there is no hypothesis means that the sociologist is not rooted in attempting to prove dogma or theory. Instead, researchers react to what they discover, not assuming anything about society. (This is not entirely true. There can be hypotheses for many studies using interactionist methods. The researcher may then be inclined to observe certain events happening while ignoring the bigger picture. This will still bias the results, if such studies are not well conducted. This is arguably why some theorists have turned to this method. It also shows how human behaviour is affected and altered through interactions i.e. socialization.
- Field experiments: David Rosenhan 1973. Studied the treatment of mental health in California and got 8 normal researchers to carry out the study at 12 hospitals. Critics say the method is unethical, and the vast majority of Interactionists concur.
- Unstructured interviews: William Labov 1973. Study of socio-linguistics. Joan Smith 1998. Aaron Cicourel and John Kitsuse 1963 ethno-methodology study in American schools. Howard Becker 1971.
- Participant observation: John Howard Griffin, Michael Haralambos.
Interactionism, or the idea that individuals have more awareness, skill and power to change their own situation, links to several other theories.
Neo-Marxism is a loose term for various twentieth-century approaches that amend or extend Marxism and Marxist theory, usually by incorporating elements from other intellectual traditions, such as critical theory, psychoanalysis, or existentialism.
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Pluralism is the idea that the "public gets what the public wants." It is the notion that our lives offer choice like a representative democracy. This idea of consumer choice means that each individual has power as a consumer to change any aspect of life if he/she wishes to do so. The situation that exists is, according to the theory, a reflection of the norms, values and beliefs of the majority of people. It fits with the idea of individual power, although interactionist sociologists may not accept the idea that we are all labeled as "consumers".