On "Interactionism"



Throughout "Doing modernity" I have sought to advance a critical interactionist perspective.  It is my contention that in order to eliminate domination and oppression we need to understand how they are accomplished in and through everyday situations and everyday cultural artifacts.  We also need to understand acts of resistance and the practices that are used to accomplish liberation, social justice and equality.


I have used the term "interactionism" broadly to describe approaches to understanding society that focus on social interaction--the stuff we do in everyday encounters with others.

Chatting with our friends at a coffee shop, giving directions for the copy machine to a co-worker, telling our child not to walk out into the street, we engage in talk-in-interaction.  Talk makes things happen.  And not just talk--our bodies, facial expressions, eye contact and other non-vocal activities accompany, amplify and articulate the messages we are trying to get across. It is activities and practices that people use to do stuff that is my concern.



In American sociology, "symbolic interactionism" has a long and esteemed history and I have learned much from the hugely insightful writings of Mead, Cooley, Blumer, Denzin, Becker, Shibutani, Scheff and others, and I seek in incorporate these insights into my work.

My Initial training was in Ethnomethodology, and Garfinkel and his allies centrally shaped my understanding of the world and sociology.  Ethnomethodologists turn the "problem of order" on its head. rather than asking how people respond to an order already "out there", Ethnomethodologists seek to comprehend how that order is "constituted" through the situated activities of ordinary people in concrete instances of social life.

A lot of research in sociology approaches the orderliness of the social world only through elaborate theoretical constructions or through aggregates of social phenomenon (usually quantified).  And while much is learned doing this, ethnomethodology wants to locate that orderliness in the lived details of (even) single instances of social life.

I have also been greatly inspired by Erving Goffman's notion of the "interaction order" and have continually returned to his masterful studies of face-to-face encounters. A brilliant writer with keen observational skills and theoretical sophistication, Goffman continues to be worth re-reading.  Within the last decade, we have been blessed with several new books on Goffman, including those of Thomas Scheff, Gregory Smith, Javier Trevino and others.

I greatly appreciate the "ecumenical" spirit of British sociologist Paul Atkinson, whose book with William Housley, "Interactionism: An Essay in Sociological Amnesia" is filled with insight.  They state that the term "interactionism":

"can be used more broadly and inclusively to refer to the sociological study of social interaction and social encounters, the investigation of micro-sociological phenomenon such as face-to-face interaction, the social construction of selves and identities, the structure of everyday knowledge, and the ordinary realities of mundane activities in social groups and institutions" (p. 37).

As a definition of interactionism, I could not do better.  Atkinson and Housley acknowledge that ethnomethodological investigations have greatly informed and enriched the interactionist perspective.  Of course, this is coming from a couple of "Brits" on the other side of the atlantic.  Our American symbolic interactionist brethren often seem less willing to concede the insights of Garfinkel and his "bastard" gang (as Garfinkel referred to us).


"Critical interactionism" seeks to radically renew our sensitivity to power and oppression in all forms and modes of social organization.  The emergent properties of domination-as-it-happens occur at diverse levels of order which all need to be subject to sociological scrutiny.

Critical interactionism is sensitive to how power works in indigenous orders of action, meaning and representation, and provides a reflexive and complex means to investigate social organization and the fluidity of late modernity.  The formal methods and formal analysis used by Conversation Analysts to describe the observable details of actual events is, to me, the "Gold Standard" of micro-ethnographic and observational social science.


It is to this type of science of social life that I want to graft an explicitly "critical" concern.  In a society filled with so many ills, describing the social world as it happens is not enough!  We must figure out how so many get held down and how they might lift themselves up.


The point of these Critical Interactionist studies is to discover the oppressive and liberatory things that people do in real-world situations, and the methods they use to produce the hierarchical orderliness of everyday social life, as well as how the hierarchical order is resisted and overturned. Societies "structured in dominance "(Stuart Hall) are the practical accomplishment of people in everyday situations.

Inspired by Harvey Sacks, I argue that a science of social life must be able to deal with the concrete details of actual events.  Sacks advocated a natural observational science of human behavior.  I appreciate that sentiment greatly.  I believe that we need to extend that observational practice and focus it explicitly on injustice, inequality and domination.

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