March 14-17, 2003
Symbolic Interaction Perspectives
Adams and Sydie, chapter 20, pp. 502-517 and handout on symbolic interactionism
Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) was a student and later a professor at the University of Chicago who continued and developed the ideas of Mead. Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism in 1937, keeping this sociological perspective alive through the early 1950s at Chicago, and then in California where he was a professor at the University of Californa in Berkeley. His ideas were important in the development of sociology in North America, countering the dominant approach of Parsons and playing a major part in developing the symbolic interaction perspective as a major school of sociological thought. Blumer views symbolic interaction in the following manner (quote 1):
The term “symbolic interaction” refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or “define” each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their “response” is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions. This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior. (Blumer, p. 180).
According to Blumer, the characteristics of this approach are (i) human interaction, (ii) interpretation or definition rather than mere reaction, (iii) response based on meaning, (iv) use of symbols, and (v) interpretation between stimulus and response. Blumer proposed an interpretive model for sociology which “inserts a middle term into the stimulus response couplet so that it becomes stimulus-interpretation-response” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 206).
Stimulus Interpetation Response
For the symbolic interaction perspective, acting people are the basic units of human society. These are like Mead's act, with the acting units being individual people, groups, or organizations. Blumer's view of human society is that it consists of acting units and acting people, and all activity in society springs from such acting units. These acting units are to be viewed in the way that Mead did, as taking on the role of others, using interpretation, and considering meaning in action. Blumer describes society as follows (quote 2):
Human society is to be seen as consisting of acting people, and the life of the society is to be seen as consisting of their actions. The acting units may be separate individuals, collectivities whose members are acting together on a common quest, or organizations acting on behalf of a constituency … There is no empirically observable activity in a human society that does not spring from some acting unit. This banal statement needs to be stressed in light of the common practice of sociologists of reducing human society to social units that do not act – for example, social classes in modern society. (Blumer, pp. 186-7).
Premises of the Symbolic Interaction Approach
Adams and Sydie (p. 504) summarize Blumer’s approach with three premises or assumptions. These are as follows (quote 3):
a. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them. Human consciousness, the ability of humans to indicate something to themselves about their surroundings leads to the possibility of meaning. Individuals in any situation are surrounded by myriad characteristics of their environment, but certain of these are meaningful. Blumer terms this indicating something by taking things from the setting – indications such as a knock at a door or the appearance of a friend (Wallace and Wolf, p. 209). The things extricated from the setting may be gestures, sounds, material things, or what symbolic interactionists call symbols. The individual takes note of these, has an understanding of them, notes them to himself or herself, and makes decisions concerning how to proceed. That is, the individual interprets these things as meaningful symbols and uses the symbols in action.
b. The meaning of things arises out of the social interaction one has with one’s fellows. Things do not have inherent meaning in and of themselves, but the meaning is socially created, through experience with these as one interacts with other individuals and groups in society. For example, if one does not know a particular language, the sounds uttered by others speaking that language have no meaning for the individual, they are merely sounds. Gestures and practices from other cultures, such as religious or patriotic symbols and rituals, have no meaning for those not familiar with them. But practices, symbols, and gestures of the type frequently experienced generally have meaning for the individual.
Two points should be noted about these. First, it may be difficult for an individual who is part of the social world in which the symbols are developed and used to comprehend them. While a sociologist may need to put himself or herself in the position of the individual using the symbol to understand it, it may also be necessary for the sociologist to adopt a certain distance or method by which the symbol can be identified and examined. Second, while the meaning of the symbol is likely to be developed on the basis of common understandings, there may not be agreement concerning the purpose or appropriateness of the symbol. For example, I may have an understanding of the meaning of the national anthem in the United States, but I may not wish to stand, take off my cap, or place my right hand across my heart. That is, commonly understood meanings imply that the individual must have had enough interaction with others to understand the thing, but it that does not mean that the individual accepts or adopts the symbol or its commonly understood purpose.
c. The meanings of things are handled in and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with things he encounters. The symbolic interaction perspective considers meaning to be much more flexible than in the structural or Weberian approaches. That is, through interaction with others, the individual understands the common meaning associated with the symbols, but may modify and changes this, in a flexible way. The same symbol may have different meanings in different settings, for different individuals, and depending on how the individual interprets the setting. For example, a familiar gesture from a friend may take on a different meaning if one feels somewhat estranged from the friend than if there have been smoother relations. Particular words and phrases may be appropriate in one circumstance and not in another – e.g. calling people by their first name.
Blumer noted how the meanings are a result of a dialogue with oneself. That is, when responding in a particular way to a symbol, the individual notes the symbol and, however quickly or unconsciously, develops a particular response. This stage of interpretation between stimulus and response involves some dialogue with oneself, considering what was meant by the symbol, what one wants to portray in a response, how the other person will understand and interpret the response, and what is the most appropriate response in the circumstance. All this is done in a dialogue with oneself.
One of the sociologists who used a type of symbolic interaction approach to examine human interaction in social settings was Goffman. Goffman did not develop a theoretical approach that would explain all parts of the social world, but primarily analyzed the interaction order – the social situations or “environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence” (Goffman in Lemert, p. 235). These are the situations where we spend much or most of our life – in face-to-face activities involving others, whether these be everyday social situations, situations within organized structures (jobs, school), unusual social situations (accidents, weddings, funerals), or mediated situations (telephone and other forms of communication).
Adams and Sydie argue that Goffman used an inductive approach (p. 507) and note “Goffman’s work was the observation and analysis of individual conduct ‘as an attribute of social order, of society, not an attribute of individual persons” (p. 506). In doing this, he was concerned with the individual and the self, viewing these as the “product of social interaction” (Adams and Sydie, p. 507). Goffman excels at observation and description, analyzing how people interpret and act in ordinary situations, and he provides guidelines concerning how to examine social situations. Goffman provides a sociology of everyday life – he was an astute observer of everyday social interaction, one that each of us lives every day.
An example of how Goffman approaches social interaction comes from the following quote (quote 4):
Universal human nature is not a very human thing. By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, built up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without. These rules, when followed, determine the evaluation he will make of himself and his fellow-participants in the encounter, the distribution of his feelings, and the kinds of practices he will emply to maintain a specified and obligatory kind of ritual equilibrium. … Instead of abiding by the rules, there may be much effort to break them safely. But if an encounter or undertaking is to be sustained as a viable system of interaction organized on ritual principles, then these variations must be held within certain bounds and nicely counterbalanced by corresponding modification in some of the other rules and understandings. Similarly, the human nature of a particular set of persons may be specially designed for the special kind of undertakings in which they participate, but still each of these persons must have within him something of the balance of characteristics required of a usable participant in any ritually organized system of social activity. (Goffman, 1967, p. 45).
This quote demonstrates Goffman’s approach – emphasis on the social nature of human beings, the social origin of the self, influences from society, forms of interaction, evaluation of self and others, practices and procedures for such interaction (both following and modifying rules), and maintaining some type of normal or equilibrium relationship in interaction. He notes that the system has “ritual principles” and “ritual equilibrium.” Adams and Sydie argue that, for Goffman, the connection between individual and society is that of ritual (p. 507). That is, in order to maintain civility and good will in interaction, individuals perform rituals and the exercise and performance of these rituals is the “ritually organized system of social activity.”
2. Goffman’s life
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was born and raised in Alberta, and attended the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. He became a professor at Berkeley and later at Pennsylvania. Goffman's best known work is The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959), the research for which he conducted in the Shetland Islands of Scotland (Adams and Sydie, p. 506). Goffman described and analyzed unusual situations such as monasteries, prisons, and asylums, total institutions that are “closed to the outside world” (Adams and Sydie, p. 513) and all-encompassing on social life within them. He used these examples to show how individuals developed and used various means (many unauthorized) to maintain their sense of selfhood within the constraints and regulations of these institutions. He also used these settings to illustrate aspects of everyday life, and the unexamined asumptions that we all make in such situations.
Goffman's approach is sometimes called dramaturgy or dramaturgical theory in that he used theatre and drama as a metaphor for how the individual presents his or her self and how individuals attempt to preserve selfhood. He examines the roles taken on by the individual, what the different aspects of these roles are, how the individual interprets these roles, and how the individual distances himself or herself from the role. These set the stage for explaining human interaction and it is the human linkages and countless minor syntheses that constitute the interaction order. Adams and Sydie note “The theatre metaphor was a handy means of illustrating the ‘structure of social encounters’ that occur in all social life” (p. 508).
Goffman examined the front and back stages or regions of human action and interaction in a theatrical settting, using these as a way of illusrating how everyday social life can be considered as a theatrical setting. Goffman defines the front region of daily life as that of managing the individual’s impressions in dealings with others. That is, a large part of what individuals do in face-to-face encounters is impression management – ensuring that the image given to others in an encounter is consistent with the role or impression that the individual wishes to convey. There are various props that might be considered natural, such as sex or age, size and looks (Adams and Sydie, p. 512) along with ways that the individual presents himself or herself – clothing, posture, bodily gestures, speech patterns – and what might be termed attitudes or forms of behaviour such as deference, submission, mastery, or emotion.
The back stage or region is what goes on behind the scene, as the individual prepares and practices impression management. If the individual is aware of the situation, the impressions are likely to be well developed and portrayed to others, with the individual having made appropriate choices in impression management, using acceptable forms of presentation appropriate for the situation. This might be compared to Mead’s views of the ability of humans to examine their actions and consider how others might view these actions. Goffman did not emphasize the dialogue with the self, preferring instead to concentrate on the ways in which people interact and manage these interactions (Wallace and Wolf, p. 240).
Two aspects of the relation between front and back need emphasis. First, “maintaining the separation of front and back is important for impression management” (Adams and Sydie, p. 512). This allows the individual to prepare for presentation, avoid embarrassment, and modify presentation between encounters. For Goffman, both individuals in a presentation or encounter on the front stage “have a stake in ensuring a successful performance” (Adams and Sydie, p. 512) and when it is not so successful, excuses may be provided and the other party may find ways to minimize the lack of success. That is, actors in the performance work together to create the possibility of ongoing forms of encounters that maintain the face of all involved. Sometimes this breaks down, when situations are difficult or when actors are not prepared. In such cases, interaction may stop or actors rehearse and prepare for a better performance next time.
A second element is that for an individual actor, it is important to ensure consistency of front and back regions. If there is consistency, the individual presents a self that is really the self – being yourself. In the case of inconsistency, some of these may become apparent if the individual is unable to manage impressions well. The situation of stage-managed presentations by politicians to media is a case in point. Politicians attempt to present positive impressions as part of the front region, but where the back region is inconsistent with this, a slip of the tongue, or unsolicited information may reveal an inconsistency.
Goffman shows the ways in which the individual works to manage impressions and accomplish a successful presentation of the self to others. Much of this work is hidden, and one of the tasks of the sociologist is to observe social situations in order to make more visible some of the unexamined aspects of encounters. For Goffman, all the ordinary situations in which interacting individuals find themselves involve a lot of work on the part of the individual.
4. Role distance
Another example of Goffman’s approach is his examination of roles and role distance. Goffman notes (quote 6):
A status is a position in some system or pattern of positions and is related to the other positions in the unit through reciprocal ties, through rights and duties binding on the incumbents. Role consists of the activity the incumbent would engage in were he to act solely in terms of the normative demands upon someone in his position. Role in this normative sense is to be distinguished from role performance or role enactment, which is the actual conduct of a particular individual while on duty in his position (Encounters, p. 85).
One situation that Goffman examines in connection with roles is a merry-go-round. (See Encounters, pp. 97-100 for Goffman's analysis and Wallace and Wolf, p. 213 for a short description). A merry-go-round is a situation with a number of roles. The merry-go-round is a “natural and objective social unit.” It is a “situated activity system ... yet persons are placed on this floor and something organic emerges. There is a mutual orientation of the participants ... a meshing together of their activity” (p. 97). Role differentiation emerges - those who ride, those who watch, those who take tickets and operate the merry-go-round, and each of these roles implies a certain image of the self. “For the merry-go-round rider, for example, the self awaiting is one that entails a child's portion of bravery and muscular control, a child's portion of manliness, and often a child's title.”
Goffman examines role distance by considering people of different ages in their roles as merry-go-round riders. A two year old might find the prospect frightening and fight to stay off the merry-go-round horse – they may become frantic and have to be taken off. At ages three and four, there is still a challenge and the rider “throws himself into the role in a serious way ... passing his parents on each turn, the rider carefully lets go one of his hands and grimly waves a smile or a kiss” (p. 106). At age five, especially for boys, merely riding is not enough – parents are not likely to be allowed by the child to accompany them, one might keep time to the music by tapping his foot, another may lean back almost too far, etc. In this case the routine is accompanied by a self-image “an image from which he apparently withdraws by actively manipulating the situation” (p. 107). By age seven or eight, the child may ride with no hands and test limits. He may “try to show distance by handling the task with bored, nonchalant competence, a candy bar languidly held in one hand” (p. 108). At age eleven or twelve, the horse may became a race horse for the rider and the rider “is just old enough to achieve role distance by defining the whole undertaking as a lark, a situation for mockery” (p. 109). Adults have different methods of showing role distance – one may make a joke of fastening the safety belt, a dating couple ride adjacent horses hold hands to bring sentiment, not daring, to the situation, and so on.
Goffman defines role distance as “this ‘effectively’ expressed pointed separateness between the individual and his putative (commonly accepted) role” (p. 108). That is, “the individual is actually denying not the role but the virtual self (essence of self) that is implied in the role for all accepting performers” (p. 108). Goffman notes that while mastering riding the merry-go-round horse can be accomplished very easily and at a young age, “the task of expressing that it [the developmental task] is not [a challenge] continues for a long time to be a challenge and remains a full necessity.” As well, “the immediate audiences figure very directly in the display of role distance” (p. 109). Goffman further notes two ways of establishing role distance: (i) isolating oneself as much as possible for the situation, or (ii) projecting a childish self.
At the end of this essay, Goffman notes (quote 8):
if an individual is to show that he is a ‘nice guy’ or, by contrast, one much less nice than a human being need be, then it is through his using or not using role distance that this is likely to be done. It is right here, in manifestations of role distance, that the individual's personal style is to be found. And it is argued in this paper that role distance is almost as much subject to role analysis as are the core tasks of roles themselves. (Encounters, p. 152).
5. Gender advertisements (Adams and Sydie, p. 515)
Goffman’s earlier writings contain some analysis of sex and gender characteristics and relationships; in his later work, he expanded and developed his analysis of these relationships and their performance in society, providing interesting and insightful analyses. This is apparent in Gender Advertisements (1979) where Goffman presents photographs from advertisements that provide images of males, females, children, and relationships in social situations. These images are
illustrations of ritual-like bits of behavior which portray an ideal conception of the two sexes and their structural relationship to each other, accomplishing this in part by indicating, again ideally, the alignment of the actor in the social situation. (Goffman, 1979, p. 84).
While the advertisements portray ideal, artful, and “carefully performed poses,” these are reflections of the way individuals perform in social situations. He concludes
advertisers conventionalize our conventions, stylize what is already a stylization, make friolous use of what is already something cut off from contextual controls. Their hype is hyper-ritualization. (Goffman, 1979, p. 84).
For Goffman, each individual’s daily presentation in social interaction can be considered to be commercials, so that images in commercials are merely exaggerated expressions of daily performance. From this it could be argued that commercials are successful when they do this – portraying understandable and acceptable images of various aspects of life. As individuals, we recognize these images and, while television or magazine commercials are exaggerations, it is the daily acting out of similar forms of behaviour that advertisers build on.
Goffman argues there is a loose gearing … between social structures and what goes on in particular occasions of ritual experience” (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 213). Portrayal in these situations are often related to status, role, or social distance, and a means of visible, physical positioning may be used to indicate these. Height, centrality in the image, and placement above or beside another, may all be used to indicate relative social position. This is demonstrated by the bowing or holding head high in the picture in “the ritualization of subordination” and also in the images of family (photos 116 and 100-103). In the latter, the father is a little outside the circle of the rest of the family – perhaps demonstrating a real social distance and an ability to protect the family. When viewing such images, we may not consider them abnormal, because these images of the father match common understandings of the the role of father’s – at least at the time when Goffman obtained these images.
Goffman considers the natural sex differences to be significant “only because the culture makes them so” (Adams and Sydie, p. 515). There are natural and biological differences between males and females but it is social definition and social codes “which also establishes the conceptions individuals have concerning their fundamental human nature” (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 201). As an example, Goffman argues
Clearly on biological grounds, mother is in a position to breastfeed baby and father is not. Given that recalcitrant fact … father temporarily but exclusively takes on such tasks as may involve considerable separation from the household. But this quite temporary biologically-grounded constraint turns out to be extended culturally. A whole range of domestic duties come … to be defined as inappropriate for the male to perform; and a whole range of occupations away from the household come to be defined as inappropriate for the female. (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 201).
When considering social situations and gender performance, Goffman argues that it is not fruitful to search for natural expressions, since it is not clear what these might be. As individuals relate to each other, what is expressed “is the capacity and inclination of individuals to portrary a version of themselves and their relationships as strategic moments” (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 222). For Goffman,
what the human nature of males and females really consists of, then, is a capacity to learn to provide and to read depictions of masculinity and femininity and a willing ness to adhere to a schedule for presenting these pictures, and this capacity they have by virtue of being persons, not females or males. One might just as well say there is no gender identity. There is only a schedule for the portrayal of gender. … of the practice between the sexes of choreographing behaviorally a portrait of relationship. (Goffman in Lemert, 1997, p. 224).
6. Conclusion. Goffman's approach provides some examples and guidelines concerning how the self and personal style can be examined and analyzed to show the diversity of forms of action and interaction. Goffman shows how there are patterns to these, as much as to the norms and roles that have been part of the more conventional sociological approach. He does not provide an overall model of how the micro and macro approaches could be integrated. What he does present is the case for the autonomy and flexibility of the interaction order, that it can be examined systematically and meaningfully, and that this can be done within the social context of societal structures.
Goffman primarily analyzed the interaction order, constituting day-to-day and face-to-face interaction among acting individuals. While he recognized other orders and the structures associated with class, power, norms and roles, as individuals act in the interaction order there is a flexibility to these structures. That is, Goffman was interested in how performance is accomplished in practice, that is, how individuals interpret and perform roles, at the same time as they distance themselves from these. It is the flexibility of these that characterizes daily life and is the expression of individual personalities. Social change and social mobility may result from these aspects of role performance, although Goffman does not focus on this. But where a role is interpreted in many ways, or norms are stretched, this may lead to new roles and norms. For the individual, structures are a constraint, but they also present opportunities, and it is in role performance that these opportunities may be expressed.
Goffman does not connect the interaction order to other orders, such as the structures of society or intermediate level organizations, institutions, or systems. In that sense, Goffman’s analysis is incomplete, but perhaps no less complete than writers who analyze societal structures but not the interaction order. Connections between these are a concern of contemporary sociology – the issue of structure and agency.
The interaction approach examines the interaction order, because that is where society exists and is reproduced – in our daily activities. This reproduction is not necessarily in direct correspondence with the larger structures. That is, not all role enactment is an aspect of reproduction of structures – e.g. family roles are flexible and maintain family structures, but also alter them and provide new forms of family structure. It is important for sociologists to examine the assumptions underlying the interaction order (ethnomethodology) and consider how it works (symbolic interaction) in order to understand the larger structures. After all, it is the patterns and regularities that emerge from the myriad day-to-day interactions that constitute the structures of society. It is especially important to analyze these in a society with rapid social change and with high social mobility, since it is the performance of individuals in the interaction order that produce changes in these structures.
The symbolic interaction perspective did not explicitly consider women, and some feminists viewed this approach as male dominated, expressing how present structures of power are maintained through human interaction in the interaction order. Conflict theorists who consider the exercise of power as basic to understanding social relationships might have a similar approach. That is, symbolic interaction approaches tend to consider participants in the interaction order as more or less equal participants. This is not always the case for Goffman’s analysis, but the basic assumptions and methods of symbolic interactionists do not include power differentials. But this approach has proven to be flexible, and some more recent forms of symbolic interaction analysis have included situations where there is coercion, power differentials, or other forms of inequality. Goffman did some of this (asylums, prisons, male-female relations) and more recent contributions have come from Arlie Hochschild and Norman Denzin.
Blumer, H., "Society as Symbolic Interaction," in Arnold Rose, editor, Human Behavior and Social Processes: An Interactionist Approach, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 179-192.
Goffman, Erving, Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings, New York, Free Press, 1963. HM131 G54.
Goffman, Erving, Encounters: two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction, Indianapolis, Bobbs-Merrill, 1961. HM291 G58
Goffman, Erving, Gender Advertisements, New York, Harper Colophon, 1979.
Goffman, Erving, Interaction Ritual, Chicago, Aldine, 1967. HM 291 G59
Goffman, Erving, Strategic Interaction, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania, 1969. HM 291 G625
Lemert, Charles and Ann Branaman, The Goffman Reader, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1997.
Turner, Jonathan H., The Structure of Sociological Theory, fifth edition, Belmont, Ca., Wadsworth, 1991. HM24 T84
Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf, Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1995
Last edited March 17, 2003