Understanding Everyday Life: A Critical Interactionist Approach to Social Psychology (Syllabus 2008)



Social Psychology is a very broad topic concerned with many aspects of human behavior. I see it as representing some of the greatest wisdom about the human species as distilled through the ages. It is one of the social sciences, along with anthropology, political science, economics, sociology, psychology, human geography, ethnic studies, women’s studies, criminology, etc. All of these disciplines seek to understand the complexity of the human condition. While solid lines of demarcation may have at one time separated these academic disciplines, that is no longer the case. We live in an age of blurred genres and interdisciplinarity.

Social Psychology is centrally concerned with interpersonal relationships and processes. It examines the reciprocal relationship between individual selves and society—how does society influence the individual and how do individuals influence society. Perhaps “influence” is too weak a word. Later we will conceive of society as produced and reproduced in concrete instances of social activity through mundane interactional and interpretive processes and procedures.

Social psychology is actually two distinct yet overlapping fields of study. It exists at the intersection of sociology and psychology, and draws upon both disciplines, as well as other social scientific approaches. The ways that social psychology developed in sociology and psychology are very different, yet the topics they explore are often similar.

Some of the differences are methodological. Psychological social psychology is more “quantitative”, meaning that the data the studies are concerned with are quantified, or turned into numbers. Psychological social psychology usually tests cause and effect relationships in laboratory settings. As with psychology as a discipline, psychological social psychology is more concerned with the appearance of rigor, reliability, and validity. Psychology argues that it is more “legitimate” and “statistically valid”. Sociology believes that knowledge without meaning is worthless, and has probably solved more “real issues”.

Sociological social psychology is much more concerned with becoming a “natural observational science” (Sacks 1984). For me, this means that researchers are more likely to use observational research methods, such as ethnography (also called fieldwork, or participant observation) and the use of video and audio recordings of “naturally occurring settings”. Of course, these are generalizations and many counter-examples could be located.

Subject matters are also distinct. Psychologically-oriented social psychologists emphasize the individual in society and their sociologically-oriented brethren emphasize the structure of society itself. Other differences exist.

In their book Two Social Psychologies, Stephan and Stephan argued that:

Psychological Social Psychology:

  • Attempts to understand and explain how the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of individuals are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others (Gordon Allport’s famous definition)

  • Social influence at the individual level

Sociological Social Psychology:

  • Concerned with social experience stemming from individuals’ participation in social groups
  • Interaction with others
  • The effects of cultural environment on both social experience and interactions with others
  • The emergence of social structure from these interactions

Both approaches have contributed important understandings about the nature of everyday social life. Our emphasis will be on sociological social psychology. In particular we will forge a “critical interactionist” perspective, drawing upon several “micro” sociological approaches, including symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and other action-oriented approaches.

Micro-Sociology: The Social Psychology of Everyday Life

“Social life is part of every individual and every interaction, not only of the large-scale affairs of governments, economics, and complex organizations. Sociology that focuses primarily on persons and interpersonal relations is called “micro-sociology” (Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, Virk 2007, p 25).

Another way to differentiate social psychology is to draw attention to the scale of its research concerns. “Macrosociology” is usually defined as examining the broader structures, social institutions, and global and historical processes of social life. In general, functionalism, systems theories, Marxism and other conflict theories are regarded as macrosociology, whilst symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology and exchange theory are regarded as microsociological.
Of course, not all sociology is on one side or the other, and the history of sociology can be seen as an ongoing dialogue between system-level researchers and agent-level researchers, and the best of social theory, including Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, have found sophisticated ways to address this tension.

Calhoun et al. (2007) state that microsociology is characterized by three elements:
  1. the “emphasis on the face-to-face social interaction of human agents rather than on the workings of the social system as an abstract entity” (2007: 26);
  2. the “emphasis on meanings rather than functions” (p. 27);
  3. the emphasis on “lived experience rather than an abstracted (or reified) concept of “society” (p. 27).

There are several major microsociological approaches.

  1. Symbolic interactionism developed on the basis of the work of George Herbert Mead, and was heavily influence by Herbert Blumer. The key idea here is meaning—people act in any situation based on the meaning, or “definition of the situation”, they have of that situation.
  2. Social Phenomenology, or social constructionism, emphasizes close observation of human experience and the ways that basic categories of understanding are formed. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s book The Social Construction of Reality (1966) emphasizes the socially created nature of social life. As they state: “Society is a human product. Society is an objective reality. Man is a social product.”
  3. Ethnomethodology is a term coined by Harold Garfinkel to describe his approach to analyzing the methods people use in everyday life to make sense of their practical actions. Ethnomethodology was initially influenced by the phenomenology of Alfred Schutz.
  4. Conversation analysis emerged out of ethnomethodology and still draws significant inspiration from this approach. It has developed a rigorously empirical approach to examining “talk-in-interaction”, and has produced detailed studies of a wide variety of situated actions, often focusing on the sequential organization of talk and nonvocal actions. It was pioneered by the work of Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.
  5. Erving Goffman produced a very influential microsociological approach to studying face-to-face social interactions. Almost single-handedly, he opened up for investigation the systematic nature of “the interaction order”. Drawing upon Emile Durkheim’s social theory, Goffman demonstrated that much of interaction is ritualized in ways that reinforce the social order and prevent it from becoming disruptive. His “dramaturgical” approach examined the presentation of self in everyday life—that is how we show ourselves to others strategically.

Dramaturgy is an approach to social analysis in which an analogy is drawn between everyday life and the theatre. Social action is regarded as a “performance” in which actors play parts, and stage-manage their actions, seeking to shape the impressions they convey to others (impression management).

During the 1980s, much theorizing revolved around the so-called “micro-macro link”, and significant attention was devoted to exploring how to synthesize these somewhat distinct forms of sociological analysis. Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration emerged as one of the most powerful syntheses of micro and macro social concerns.

Structuration theory attempts to transcend the traditional division between action and structure by focusing on “social practices” which are seen as producing and produced by structures. For Giddens, structures are the rules and resources produced and reproduced by social actors in their practices, and do not exist as something external to actors.

My Approach to Teaching

I hope that you will explore these issues yourself both in the readings that I have offered to you, and through the internet, and other scholarly resources. There are many web pages especially devoted to research in social psychology. Let us share with one another what we are finding!

I have chosen not to assign a textbook for this class, although several good ones exist. In particular I like Spencer Cahill’s Inside Social Life: Readings in Sociological Social Psychology (2003, Fifth Edition, Oxford University Press.) Often, textbook end up costing over $100, for information that is available for free on the internet. My primary concern in not ordering a textbook was saving you, the student, money. I hope that positives outweigh the negatives on this issue.

“Wikipedia” is a particularly high-quality research tool. If you have never heard of “ethnomethodology”, for example, put the words “ethnomethodology” and “wikipedia” in your search engine (www.google.com seems to be the best, but I also like www.alltheweb.com) and read the entry. I personally spend hours each week just “googleing” subject matters, and I will assume that you will too.

Try to find a couple of additional outside overviews of social psychology. I have provided you with the one from Professor Kearl at www.trinity.edu/~mkearl/socpsy-1.html but many other good ones are out there. Again, I hope you take the initiative to search the web and share with us that which you are finding.

Check out:

I assume that you are a self-motivated, self-directed adult learner who is taking this class because you want to learn about the subject matter. I assume that you intend to give this class you best efforts and that you hope to get an outstanding evaluation. I assume that you do not think the same ways as I do, and that your interests may not be exactly the same.”

You will see the word “critical” a lot in my presentations. I believe that the role of the social psychologist is to be a critic of the social world, to constantly probe and ask difficult questions, and not be content with simple answers or the “received wisdom” of conventional society. Much of what passes as common sense is ideological distortion and cultural mythology. To these ends, I hope to use “critical thinking”—philosophical tools which help us examine and evaluate all ideas.

“Critical thinking is that mode of thinking—about any subject, content or problem—in which the thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully taking charge of the structures inherent in thinking and imposing intellectual standards upon them” (Richard Paul and Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking 2002, p1)

You will see that my general orientation to sociology seeks to combine insights from many diverse strands of social science. In my approach to understanding everyday life, I draw upon several microsociological traditions, including symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and the work of Erving Goffman to understand the nature of social activity in concrete instances of social life. I use the broad term “interactionist” to describe these microsociological traditions.

To this interactionist label I have added the modifier “critical” to show my interest in creating a social psychology in dialogue with critical theory and critical social theory. Critical social theories are centrally concerned with how power operates, and processes of domination. This tradition also focuses on issues of race, class, gender, sexuality and other sites of oppression. In analyzing the production of social reality in everyday life we cannot loose site of the context in which this production occurs--advanced industrial societies in late modernity marked by gross inequalities. Privilege and oppression are not always readily visible nor acknowledged, and we need an approach that underscores how are lives are shaped in powerful ways by modern industrial capitalism.

Critical theory is most closely identified with the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, although its origins are found in Western Marxism generally. The phrase is now employed to discuss diverse forms of thinking usually in a dialogue with Marxism. Some of the ideas which have been linked to Marxism include Freudian psychoanalysis, systems theory, feminism, communication theory. Some important critical theorists include Gyorgy Lukacs, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin, Antonio Gramsci, Jurgen Habermas.

Critical interactionism is one form of critical social psychology. There are other social psychologists working within other traditions who also attempt to infuse social psychological research with critical themes, including, for example, feminist developmental psychologists, such as Carol Gilligan, or anti-racist standpoint theorists, such as Patricia Hill Collins.

Critical social psychology refers to diverse approaches which take an “engaged, anti-discriminatory and anti-essentialist standpoint, in order to understand and explain psychological phenomena as inseparable from the social order…Critical social psychologists challenge psychology’s individualistic focus, its assumption of a rational, unitary, autonomous and (usually male) subject and its appropriation of a natural science paradigm within which human behavior is decontextualized” (Jary and Jary 2000, p126).

I envision the educational process as potentially liberating and emancipatory. In these regards I have been by influenced by Paolo Friere and “critical pedagogy”. Critical pedagogy is an approach to the educational proces which attempts to help students and educators question and challenge domination, and the practices and beliefs that dominate. The goal is to develop critical consciousness by going beneath surface meanings, dominant myths, received wisdom and cultural ideologies to understand deep meanings, social contexts, and root causes. Social psychology can help to free us of the chains of modern life.

About Me

I was born in Springfield, Massachusetts and received a Bachelor’s in Business Administration (B.B.A.) from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I spent a fifth undergraduate year studying art history and theatre at the University of Paris—Sorbonne, earning a Certificate in French Language and Civilization. I attended graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara, receiving my M.A. and Ph.D. in Sociology. I have taught at the Berkeley, Santa Cruz, and Santa Barbara campuses of the University of California, the Fielding Graduate University (Educational Leadership and Change Doctoral Program), and Ventura College.

My graduate work was in ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, and symbolic interactionism—all forms of “microsociology”. I have been fortunate enough to work with many luminaries in these fields, including Don Zimmerman, Harvey Molotch, Tamotsu Shibutani, Don Cressey, Thomas Scheff and Anthony Giddens. I have done research on 911 calls, medical communication, psychiatric intake interviews and classroom settings. I also employed critical discourse analysis to study news stories, and have published research on gang murder stories and AIDS obituaries in the Los Angeles Times. For six months, I did participant observation of clerical workers in a large aerospace firm.

To see a list of my publications, click here:

I have spent many years as an anti-oppression educator and have published extensively on racist imagery in American popular culture.

My current work is a participant observational study of the methamphetamine subculture in Ventura California. I am completing a book, entitled Dancing With Dionysus: A Sociological Memoir of Methamphetamine Use, which examines the everyday world of the “tweaker scene”, including how people enter and exit that social world, and the norms and values of that subculture. I draw upon “critical interactionism” for this study.

I am a visual artist, working with many media including acrylic paint and Prismacolor Markers.

I work as a counselor and case manager for New Beginning Counseling Center, aiding homeless and recently homeless (especially dually diagnosed) people find housing, jobs and acquire life skills.

I am completing my certification in alcohol and drug counseling at SBCC.