Sunday, March 4, 2018

Stryker, Sheldon. 1980. Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version

Stryker's book on symbolic interactionism is one of the driest books I have ever attempted to read. Therefore, I am going to summarize part of it here to hopefully save myself from having to ever re-read it.

Stryker begins by noting that symbolic interactionism, as he means it, is a "frame of reference" or "perspective" but not a "theory" (p. 8). Why? Because theories are falsifiable (p. 10). That is, you can test a theory and, if it is false, you can prove it false with evidence (p. 8). What he offers as the symbolic interaction frame of reference is not falsifiable. Also, a frame of reference does not exclude other frames of reference (p. 9). That is, they can both be true.

Next, he gives his perspective on science. Specifically, a theory can be considered true even if it does not explain every single case (p. 11). This is first because "no two events or behaviors are precisely alike" and second because "science can never comprehend events or behaviors in their full complexity" (p. 11). Therefore, he rejects a "deterministic" view of science (p. 10-11); that is, he rejects the idea that "it must be possible to explicate a complete set of causes sufficient to account for every case without exception of some behavior" (p 11). Instead, he says it is enough for science to explain "some regulatory in the behavior one is interested in" (p. 11).

Next, Stryker begins to trace the intellectual history of symbolic interactionism. The term was created by Herbert Blumer in 1937. However, the line of thinking that led up to Blumer's work is a long one, beginning with the Scottish moral philosophers David Hume, Frances Hutcheson, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson "and others" (p. 16). These men were empiricists (p. 17). "They denied that men were motivated by reason, but they saw the source of human action variously in sympathy, common sense, moral sense, belief, instinct, and habit" (p. 17-18). Additionally, they believed that "psychology itself could not be comperehended without taking into account the facts of human association" (p. 18). In other words, if you want to understand the psychology of any one human, you have to also understand their interactions with other humans.

Here is a summary of their contributions:
  • Adam Smith: People understand if their own conduct is acceptable by seeing how others react to it. The reactions of others serve as a sort of mirror. (p. 18) Sympathy allows us to empathize - to feel the emotions someone else is feeling (p. 19). "Society becomes a vast network of interpersonal communication through which the participants are controlled by the approval and disapproval, the desires and evaluations of others" (p. 19).
  • David Hume: Humans are dependent on family and community for survival. They develop sympathy, the "psychological tendency to share the feelings of others" even if others' feelings are very different from one's own (p. 19).
  • Adam Ferguson: He wrote about instinct vs. habit. If people have instincts, they also are free to act differently from them. It's difficult to tell habits from instincts even though habits are acquired through human interaction and instincts are innate. If we could distinguish between them, Ferguson believes "habit has a larger role in human behavior than does instinct" (p. 20).
  • William James: Very influenced by Darwin, wrote about instinct vs habit, consciousness, and the self. James says that instinct is "the faculty to produce certain ends, without the foresight of these ends and without prior learning" (p. 21). He believes instincts are "superseded" by habit, defined as "behavior learned and modified (and modifiable) by experience. The basis of habit is memory" (p. 22). "Human beings can and do develop attitudse and feelings about themselves and see themselves as they see any other object in the external world" (p. 22). James distinguishes between four different types of selves: the material self, the spiritual self, the social self, and pure ego (p. 22). Stryker is interested in the social self. It appears that the social self is the idea of you that each person who knows you has in their mind? (p. 23). In any case, one has a different social self for each different group of people whose opinion one cares about, and if their opinion of your social self is harmed, then you are harmed (p. 23). People naturally want "to be recognized by other human beings" and that is the basis for self esteem. But James divides self esteem into two parts. The "subjective" part is your aspirations (how you want to be seen); the objective part is in "the recognition one gets from others" (p. 23).

I think this is likely a very poor description of the work of William James and his social self, and my understanding of what Stryker wrote may be inaccurate. I don't know that I can make more sense of it from Stryker's words without actually reading what James wrote in Principles of Psychology (New York: Holt, 1890), Vol II, p. 291-294.

James Mark Baldwin
Next in Stryker's line is James Mark Baldwin (p. 23-24). He modified James' concept of the self but believed the entire self is "social in its origins" (p. 24). He posited three stages children go through: projective, subjective, and ejective. The first consists of "becoming aware of others, drawing distinctions between them and objects, and differentiating among others" (that is, telling different people apart). Second, the child imitates the behavior of others and learns that there are feelings associated with that behavior (p. 24). Last, the child learns that other people have feelings too. Baldwin's work influences Cooley and G.H. Mead.

John Dewey
Dewey believes that social customs are collective habits (p 24). Habits are the basis of individual personality formation, and customs are the basis of social organization, but because customs are collective habits, "the individual cannot be set in contrast to society; there can be no deep chasm or fundamental opposition between the self and social order; and personality develops within a social context" (p. 24). I'm skipping about a page of Dewey but Stryker highlights two ideas from his work. First, "his rejection of the conception of society as a monolithic structure" because "society consists of many associations and not a single organization" (p. 26). Second, Dewey insisted that social science and philosophy focus on "everyday situations and problems" (p. 36).

Charles Horton Cooley
Up to this point, most of the people noted are philosophers and psychologists. Cooley brings their work into sociology (p. 26). To Cooley, each of us has a conception of society in our mind. Stryker has a very good paragraph about this (which he calls a "subjectivist" perspective) that seems worth sharing:

"It is this way of thinking about social relationships that has been criticized as solipsistic. That is, if imaginations are the solid facts of society, it seems to follow that there are as many societies as there are individual imaginations. If our imaginations differ, how can we get beyond these differences and to what do we refer these differences in order to build general knowledge in society?" (p. 27).

Cooley, while never naming Adam Smith as an influence, ran with his concept of the looking glass self. Stryker describes Cooleys ideas as, "The self is a social product; it is defined and developed in social interaction" (p. 28). Cooley believed the social self has three components: "our imagining how we appear to another person, our imagining that other person's judgment of our appearance; and some self-feeling, such as pride or mortification, that arises from these imaginations" (p. 29).

Last, Cooley believed that the "primary group" of each of us as children - the family, the play group, and the neighborhood - are the most important to the development of each individual's self (p. 29).

William Isaac Thomas
Whereas Cooley was concerned with the formation of self in childhood, Thomas was concerned with it in adulthood (p. 30). We can thank W.I. Thomas for the term "the definition of the situation" (which I usually associate most with Goffman). Stryker writes, "It is the task of sociology to analyze behavior, the forms taken by the processes of adjustment of people and groups to other people and groups. Adjustment processes necessarily occur in situations; that is, adjustment processes are responses to objective circumstances in which individuals and groups are embedded" (pp. 30-31). However, each of the people has their own subjective interpretation of what is going on - the definition of the situation (p. 31). Their own subjective interpretation of the situation is their reality.

What's more, one's subjective reality is socially acquired: "Children... are always born into an ongoing group that has developed definitions of the general kinds of situations faced and has formulated rules of conduct premised on these definitions: moral codes are the outcome of "successive definitions of the situation."" (pp. 31-32). He continues, "Children cannot create their own definitions independently of society, or behave in those terms without societal interference" (p. 32). Furthermore, if an individual tries to create their own definition spontaneously, they tend to do so for hedonic reasons (what feels good), whereas society sets its definitions based on utilitarian reasons (what is good for society). Therefore, socialization is the process of "bringing the person to interanlize societal definitions" (p. 32). But what does the word "situation" mean? Well, apparently that was never terribly precise and it sort of shifted around throughout his career (p. 32).

George Herbert Mead
Mead is the most important precursor to symbolic interactionism. "Picking up from Dewey, he argues that persons initiate activity that relate to themselves and the environment; that is, the persons do not simply respond to external "stimuli" existing apart from the activity. Activity begins with an impulse without ordained end, and the humans seek to satisfy that impulse by adjusting behavior to the objects in the environment. Those objects become stimuli through functioning in the context of the act, during which they may become defined as relevant to the completion of the act" (p. 36). Therefore, as one feels hungry and looks for food, objects in the environment that were just sitting there as objects (berries) "become redefined as food. Stimuli acquire meaning in the course of activity (p. 36).

When completing an action requires other humans, Mead calls that a "social act." Social acts occur over a period of time and the early stages are "gestures" (making a fist is a gesture indicating that a punch is coming next) (p. 36-37). And here's where we get closer to symbolic interactionism itself. "Communication between persons involves a "conversation of gestures"" (p. 37). And some gestures acquire the same meaning to both parties, the one doing the gesturing and the one on the receiving end. These are "significant symbols" (p. 37). Language is "a system of significant symbols" and it allows us to understand other people's point of view, including how they see us. Taking on someone else's point of view is called "role-taking" (p. 37).

Because I am lazy, I will refer you to this Khan Academy video on Mead's work. Going off the material in the video, it is the "I-me" dialectic - the continued back and forth between the I and the Me - through which society continually shapes the self (p. 39).

Role Theory, Etc
Stryker says that the intellectual lineage traced above culminates in what Herbert Blumer calls symbolic interactionism. But there's another lineage with no main figure associated with it leading to another variant of symbolic interactionism. It comes from role theory (p. 39). The main idea here is that there is an objective reality that exists in society apart from individual actors definitions of the situation. Here, he brings in the work of Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and Ralph Linton (p. 40).

Georg Simmel
According to Simmel "society is neither a mere collection of individuals... nor an entity existing apart from individuals" (p. 41). It is "the name for a number of individuals, connected by interaction" (Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, 1950, p. 11). Simmel writes of "sociation," defined as "the interaction of minds, the conscious association of persons" (p. 41). In joining society, an individual gives up some of his or her individuality to meet the demands of society, but the individual remains unique (pp. 41-42).

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