Critical Interactionism: The Microsociology of Domination


With every action, we make the world. With every action, we potentially make the world better or worse. Our ordinary activities count. For it is through these everyday behaviors that the social world is ongoing constituted as an orderly event. As I have suggested throughout this blog, it is through social practices in the mundane moments of social life that we "do modernity". But what are the historically specific social practices through which people assemble the scenes of action that make our society? More specifically, what are the social practices through which "societies structured in dominance" (Hall 1980) are produced and reproduced?


Critical Interactionism, roughly speaking, is the microsociology of domination. In this essay I hope to say a little bit about my vision of this approach to studying everyday life, and the type of social psychology and sociology I hope to advance. Looking at my blog entries for “Doing Modernity” over the past two months, I begin to see a particular perspective to the social world emerging.

Understanding Social Activity in its Context

Critical interactionism (CI), as I conceive it, focuses primarily on understanding social activity—what people do in concrete instances of social life. Whether in homes or at work, in coffee shops or shopping malls, on their way to work or playing with their children, or just sitting and watching television, people act and interact, and engage in social activity. In the last 25 years there has been a "practice turn" in contemporary theory (Theordore Schatzki 2001), in which social analysts have been increasing concerned with the character of situated activities in local settings.

CI is potentially interested in all aspects of social activity, including:
  • People’s “definitions of the situation”—their ways of interpreting what is going on;
  • Talk-in-interaction and other aspects of embodied activity, including eye contact, facial expressions and other forms of nonvocal activity; The temporal unfolding of the events (phases);
    How “context” shapes and constrains aspect of what’s going on, as well as how interaction produces and reproduces those contexts;
    Participation frameworks (Goffman);
    Lived experiences of what’s happening;
    Identities and self-concepts;
    Social bonds and social relationships;
    Subcultures and other organizational groupings;
    People’s use and interpretation of cultural objects, including popular media, visual representations, and textually-organized materials;
    Mobility
    People's use of space / place.

I want to begin my analyses with the acting person in a real-world situation and understand what they are doing, how they are doing it and, potentially, why they are doing it. I appreciate approaches that start with observations of situations—what we can see if we are witnessing the events we hope to describe. I have been greatly influenced by Harvey Sacks’s idea of creating a science based on natural observation and description of social activity.

Methodologically, I am most interested in observational approaches, including ethnography, autoethnography and video analysis. These research methods can help us to capture what's going on in all its glorious details. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1973) used the phrase "thick description" to discuss forms of social analysis that do not merely explain behavior, but its context as well, so that the behavior becomes meaningful to an outsider. These methods can be supplemented with other research tools, of course, which help us to understand what is going on (i.e., in-depth interviews, historical research, etc.).

I use the term "interactionism" to refer to the wide diversity of analytic approaches which have developed to examine social activity, particularly in the last 50 years, including symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, Goffman's dramaturgy and frame analysis, discursive psychology, interpretive interactionism, institutional ethnography. To my mind, these are all forms of interactionism, and while they are by no means all the same, and, in fact, come from very different analytic traditions, there has emerged some synthetic trends and cross-breeding.

Interactionisms typically focus on the nature of social interaction, interpretive procedures, and use of language. They also tend to examine people interacting together to organize their lives and assemble society, what symbolic interactionists call "joint actions". Erving Goffman developed an analysis of "the interaction order"--that realm of face-to-face activities involving others. With sharp observation skills, artfully thick descriptions, and powerful insights, Goffman demonstrated the usefulness of examining the ordinary situations of social life. Much of Goffman's work is very relevant for developing a microsociological approach to everyday life.
Initially, I was trained in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, and continue to be fascinated by language, talk and textuality. The “linguistic turn in the social sciences” has brought a level of detailed focus to the smallest aspects of activity, so that now a sophisticated literature exists on a wide variety of social practices as enacted in a wide variety of settings. Ethnographers need to pay close attention to the micro moments of the settings they investigate, and see the relevance of understanding the orderly ways in which social activity in those settings unfolds.

I do not believe that high-tech audio and video recording technologies have totally done away with the relevance of ethnographically-based symbolic interactionism, such as employed by Howard Becker, Anselm Strauss, or Tamotsu Shibutani. Excellent ethnographies are still emerging (See Duneier's Sidewalk, for example), but they can be greatly enhanced through the use to recording technologies (See Duneier and Molotch's "Talking CIty Trouble" 1999). Moreover, I believe that now that researchers are beginning to understand the fine-grained intricacies of social action, it has become harder for us as a community to simpely return to broad glosses of social activity. Increasingly we know that how exactly something occurred is very important, and that students of social action must pay close attention to the details.
For example, in the 1960s Anselm Strauss, one of the great interactionist ethnographers of the 20th century, used the metaphor of "negotiated orders" to describe organizational cultures. With today's recording technologies, we are now able to examine in detail what actual negotiations look like in occupational settings, including the sequential organization of instances of talk-in-interaction. This was my point in my paper “Negotiated Orders” (1994, Symbolic Interaction):

Whereas the "negotiated order approach" emphasizes the importance of communicative events in the constitution of organizational settings, there has been little attempt to formally describe the properties of talk that occur in these settings. This article demonstrates that detailed examination of the temporal unfolding of negotiative processes contributes to our understanding of the bundle of tasks which comprise organizational settings. Through close analysis of the negotiation of directives in paramedic calls for emergency field orders, I demonstrate that negotiation is more than a metaphor for describing organizational order; real-world negotiations are complex interactional processes which can be described in their rich detail (Mellinger 1994 abstract).

Rather than squabbling here about who is right on this issue, and who is wrong on that issue, I want to declare that there is currently a healthy diversity of interactionist perspectives. A number of sophisticated qualitative approaches have siginificantly developed our understanding of social activity. Denzin and Lincoln's Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research (Third Edition 2005) presents an excellent overview of contemporary debates in qualitative research methodologies.

I also have found much that is worthwhile in the tradition of "critical ethnography", such as Paul Willis’s Learning to Labor, Peter McLaren’s Life in Schools, and Michael Burawoy’s Manufacturing Consent. These works do not necessary draw upon interactionist approaches, such as symbolic interactionism, or ethnomethodology, but still capture a lot of the subtleties of social activity. Moreover, there is an exciting tradition of urban ethnographies that is worth paying attention to. You might have read my high praise for Mitch Duneier’s Sidewalk.

Theories of Action

Within the last 25 years there has been an explosion of interest in theories of social action. During the 1980s the "structure / agency debate" and the "micro / macro link" dominated much of contemporary social theory. The approaches of Garfinkel, Sacks, Goffman and other so-called "microsociologists" were increasingly read and discussed by most major social theorists (including Pierre Bourdieu, Jurgen Habermas, Randall Collins, James Coleman, Niklas Luhmann, and Anthony Giddens) and sophisticated treatments of their ideas emerged. The work of Anthony Giddens stands out as one of the best attempts to develop a sophisticated theory of action largely based on American interactionist sources. Drawing extensively upon both Garfinkel and Goffman to formulate an "analysis of strategic conduct", Giddens's The Constitution of Society (1984) outlines his structuration theory. "Agency"--our ability to act-- is now a major concept in contemporary social theory.

While I want to ground my analyses in the observation and description of social activity, I do not want my research methods to preclude my ability to critique what I am seeing. I want to have human liberation and emancipation as end goals to my work. The goal of critical interactionism, as I see it, is to understand and change the structures of domination as found in everyday life. I do not believe in “value-free” science, and hope that social science can produce insights that will make a better world, which brings me to my next topic.

On “Critical”

I take the term “critical” from the phrase critical social theory, which is what social scientists call all the lines of enquiry, stemming from Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism, which seek to understand the forces of domination in our world. I add to this tradition an interest inanarchist social theory.

“Critical” researchers focus on power, inequality, alienation and the destruction of our planet. Rather than merely celebrating modern social life, they have created a tradition of critical reflection on the social ills of our times. In sociological circles, this has lead to a particular focus on race / ethnicity, social class, gender and sexuality. Other forms of oppression are also worthy of exploration.

Basically, the term “critical” flags a concern for wanting to understand any way that people are oppressed by our modern ways of life. While Marx's historical materialism focused largely on capitalist domination and class struggles, and while these clearly remain central concerns in any critical analysis to modernity, there are other, often related issues, that demand our attention. Today there are many forms of critical social theory that have insights worth developing, including feminism, critical race theory, queer theory, post-structuralism, cultural studies, postmodernism,… I would hope to encourage an approach to understanding everyday life that would be theoretically-informed by dialogues with these traditions. These critical approaches are very sensitive to the role of industrial capitalism and patriarchy in modern social life.
While Critical Interactionism often begins with ethnographic studies of everyday life in modernity, closely observing workplaces, classrooms, coffee shops, street life and drug subcultures (for example), it seeks to offer an alternative to seemingly procapitalist analyses of the present by focusing on the everyday practices which constitute sites of oppression and domination.

The terrain of everyday life is often missed by radical intellectuals. Struggles against domination must occur here--in the home, corporate offices, shop floors, ... wherever people live and work and love. Close examination of the local practices that make up ordinary reality are essential to understanding what is specific about this historical conjuncture. The topics of domination and oppression are often missed by microsociologists and other interactionist researchers. Yet, their intense focus on the situated character of social practices offers powerful insights into the hierarchical and dominating structures of modern society. By combining the deep and persistent concerns for domination of radical intellectuals with the close observation of social practices in everyday life, critical interactionism has the potential to reveal crucial aspects of social settings which will hold the potential for revolutionary change.

Let me make a comment on the importance of cultural studies for critical interactionism. Cultural studies is largely an interdisciplinary movement drawing upon multiple research methodologies to examine the relationships between cultural practices and power. Cultural studies examines the social and cultural contexts of culture and is committed to a moral evaluation of modern society and a progressive line of political action. Cultural studies has highlighted the role of popular media culture in our lives, and has created semiotic approaches to ideological representations. This focus on media discourses and how audiences interpret their meanings is wholly consistent with the critical interactionism I advocate. I appreciate Norman Denzin’s call for an interactionism informed by cultural studies (See his Interpretive Interactionism 1989).

Critical interactionism is centrally concerned with the radically contextual, historically specific character of social practices. This concern is found in both cultural studies and ethnomethodology in different forms.

Some topics that critical interactionism might find useful for exploring include:
alienation and misery in everyday life;
doing inequality--that is, the social processes through which inequality is reproduced (Michael Schwalbe et al. 1999);
"doing hierarchy"--what does hierarchical social organization look like? ;
doing gender / doing power / doing difference (West and Zimmerman 1987; West and Fenstermaker 2001);
a phenomenology of the "lived experiences" of oppression and domination;
hegemony-in-action, that is, how dominant ideologies becomes "common sense"; "how ideologies work";
the "manufacture of consent" by workers under capitalism(Burawoy 1979); "observing the labor process";
how resistance to oppression occurs (Willis 1977; Mellinger 1998);
how interactional processes are involved in the school's sorting of students (Mehan 1991);
the "framing" (Goffman 1974) of political issues by social movements (David Snow);
performance strategies in the context of political economy (T.R. Young, 1990, The Drama of Social Life).

One idea is to take the interaction units outlined in Goffman's "the interaction order" (1983) and consider how power and domination might enter in to these forms of social relationship. How, for example, is domination done is service encounters, meetings, people-processing encounters, ordinary conversations, etc.?

In future blog entries I hope to lay out some of the guiding premises of my critical interactionism. These include:
The materialisms of G.H. Mead and Karl Marx are central to my perspective, and need to be examined, contrasted and explicated more carefully;
The semiotics of Charles Peirce informed pragmatism, symbolic interactionism, and critical discourse analysis--all guiding perspectives to critical interactionism;
The concern for language-in-use derives from Wittgenstein, Sacks, and Garfinkel;
The concern for the reproduction of social structures through situated activity finds a clear resonance with Anthony Giddens's majestic theory of structuration;
Erving Goffman's pioneering research on "framing", performance, "the interaction order" and other key concepts are crucial to this approach.
I have found much inspiration for this approach in the work of Harvey Molotch, Dorothy Smith, Michael L. Schwalbe, TR Young, Norman Denzin, Mitch Duneier, Paul Willis, Michael Burawoy, Peter McLaren, Howard Becker, Candace West and Don Zimmerman. These are some of the great scholars I hold as "exemplars" of critical interactionism.

Conclusion

Critical interactionism, as I use the term, draws upon diverse approaches to understanding social activity, and to critique our modern social organization, and hopefully point the way to more liberating futures. While I want to examine the minutiae of everyday practices, I want to simultaneously challenge the regressive political background that guide these practices. I think I have through this blog laid out my interests in studying a wide range of human behaviors. In particular, I tend to advocate approaches to social activity in which researchers have to get close to the people they are studying--in depth ethnographic studies of particular subcultures, for example. I also appreciate studies which pay close attention to the particulars of situated activity and informed by micro linguistic studies of everyday life.

RESOURCES

Michael L. Schwalbe. 1985. The Psychosocial Consequences of Natural and Alienated Labor.
__________ (2007). Rigging the Game: How Inequality is Reproduced in Everyday Life.
T.R. Young's Red Feather Institute
_____________(1990). The Drama of Social Life: Essays in Critical Dramaturgy.
Sarah Fenstermaker and Candace West. (2002). Doing Gender, Doing Difference.
Norman Denzin.
Norman Denzin. Interpretive Interactionism.
James A. Forte. Theories for Practice: Symbolic Interactionist Translations.

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