Reading Guide to: Fisher, B and Strauss, A 'Interactionism', in Bottomore, T and Nisbet, R (eds) (1991) A History of Sociological Analysis, London: Macmillan.
The interactionist tradition is bifurcated, with some following Mead (Symbolic Interactionists), and others following the Becker and Goffman tradition. The notion of a Chicago School seems to hold them together, but also conceals the differences between them.
The tradition was always a pragmatic movement, subject to evolution and change. Rapid changes in the USA at the turn of the century placed on the agenda problems of integration, democracy and instability. He became the role of an intellectual elite to try and find solutions. The possibilities of reconciling the claims of different groups in the national interest is what dominated the early work.
The main issues were to try and explain change, rationalisation, creativeness, association and constraint. Thomas and Park saw changes developing out of self interest, involving the rational adjustment of different social groups, in the spirit of Economic Man. Greater individualism was going to lead to new institutions, more rational ones, and to a new emphasis on creativity in social life. Social organisations were to be developed to prevent conflict, leading to a classic conception of the problem as involving social order on the one hand and freedom on the other. Social sciences were needed to try and establish the precise nature of constraints, and to encourage freedoms by overcoming both determinism and laissez-faire and idealist solutions, such as those legislative changes which were not based on analysis. [This seems to be an identical role for social science to that proposed by J S Mill in the UK].
Thomas and Park held issues in common, including the prospect for social reform, an interest in science and agency, and a preference for particular modes of social change. Taking these in turn:
(1) Thomas thought that the prospect for social reform lay in human nature as the universal basis for equality. Evolution would produce change, although social factors affected the rate of change. This led him to consider that there were advanced social groupings with a leading role, such as the nation state, which would use reason rather than coercion, favour altruism rather than selfishness, and develop voluntary forms of co-operation and consensus. He thought that an adequate analysis required a social psychology to explain why and how human beings made decisions, excepted changes, and developed progressive forms. Park was more conservative, and saw evolution as not so progressive, not so influenced by human actors, but with a more of an ecological dimension. Some shift to social and rational factors rather than ecological and natural ones was detectable, however. The possibilities for progress arose from Dewey, providing for a possible level of communication and awareness, a subsequent community of discourse, promoting social reform and education, and able to overcome racial, linguistic, or ethnic barriers. Park's social psychology aimed at understanding rather than stereotyping, and was designed to help people break out of tradition, to add knowledge to their natural sympathies towards consensus. Prospects for social reform were still limited, minimalist, and possibilitarian, however, and constantly threatened by ecological, natural, and evolutionary forces, and the tendency to develop conflict. Individualisation helped, since it broke with tradition and encouraged independence. The enlightenment of elites was crucial, and this was to be achieved through social science. Some contradictions remained, however.
(2) Both Thomas and Park were interested in science as the basis for correct and useful action. Thomas wanted to develop a comparative method in order to clarify the factors enabling progress. These were to be drawn from different disciplines, but united by sociology, which focused on the whole. Social psychological analyses became possible in a social context, via the use of life records. This was not subjectivism, however. The capacity to respond to social contexts was determined by both social constraints and by social psychological capacities. Not everyone was able to grasp the issues and to see how needs were to be integrated and balanced [especially the lower orders]. Park was more interested in the usefulness of sociology rather than in its scientific status. He saw it as helping to uncover the big picture and as investigating possible universals of human nature. His own work was both synthetic and popular. Park saw a role for social researchers as 'news gatherers' [bringing back news from the exotic European subcultures in the suburbs of Chicago, via early ethnographic studies]. Park remained vague about the prospects for actual social change based on any underlying social laws.
(3) In terms of suitable social agents, Thomas stressed the role of leadership and elitism to push on evolution, and classified different types of leader. The modern type needs interaction with followers in order to achieve some social balance. For Park, there were ambivalences, and leaders were seen as the focus of movements, rather than having a causal role, a much more functionalist and deterministic analysis. He also wanted to encourage effective interaction, and saw it grounded in a democratic community rather than in the style of leadership.
(4) The mode of social change varied according to where conflict was mostly likely to be encountered. Thomas considered that educational and other institutions were the most likely focus, while Park took a broader interest in cities and their ecology. Parks all the urban newspaper as a major institution, and urban life itself as educational, as experiential. Both believed it necessary to wait for a democratic public to develop.
(5) When considering their legacy, it is clear that both writers identified contradictions in terms of progress and its limits, and in the combinations of social and natural factors. This produced different sorts of problems for their students, and those students handed on problems for functionalism and for Meadianism. There are four main examples:
(a) Janowitz offered a functionalist interpretation of Thomas, with even more functionalist-type constraints on active human beings, leaders and definers [of reality, that is -- one of Thomas's famous dictums is, of course 'If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences'. As the above discussion indicates, there is no warrant for seeing Thomas as a full-blown action theorist, however]. The threat to the community was a major theme for Janowitz, leading to an active support for parliamentary democracy and democratic institutions.
(b) Blumer stressed conflict and pluralism as progressive, and began a shift to study group interaction, in industrial relations, for example, refereed by the US government, as a progressive force. He also took an interest in group encounters in race relations, on the same grounds.
(c) Hughes stressed the limits of group change, picking out the gloomier aspects of Park. He saw occupational groups as limited and restrictive in their attempts to keep space, survive, and exclude others. The good side was that professional occupational groups were experiencing demands to make them accountable, especially if sociologists began to expose and democratically discuss them. This is one strand in Goffman's similar attempts to debunk professionals. There are hints of structural determinism in Goffman too, in Asylums, for example, but generally structures are seen as constraints or enablers rather than determinants. This leads to Goffman seeing deviance as indicative of normal action [the 'marginal strategy', as it is sometimes called -- we study deviants in order better to understand conformity]. Goffman retains a general and vague notion of the community, however.
(d) Becker remained vague too. He saw deviants as separate groups rather than members of one community. The study of interaction was not aimed at Enlightenment, as in Thomas, but in uncovering injustice rather than acceptance and pluralism. This is more like English liberalism (481). As Gouldner argued, understanding might not prevent incorporation and further labelling, and abstract considerations of all marginal groups assuages guilt [see also Becker's response]. Knowledge was needed to replace those false perceptions which enable oppression, and it is the role of sociology to reveal these false perceptions. Genuine contact with groups like deviants was preferable to abstract moralising, and all such groups would be studied rather than just those that administrators were interested in.
Mead was always marginal to the Chicago School. He did not really develop a systematic framework for his social psychology. He was not keen on sociology. He also shared an evolutionary tone, and an interest in the development of shared discourses, but this only produced a general and vague support for progressive policies. He was especially hostile to determinism in Freud, whom he saw as a biological determinist. He did have a special influence on the emergence of perspectives such as those developed by Becker, and symbolic interactionism eventually was to dominate theoretical discussions. Blumer's influence was responsible for the emergence of the active, voluntarist themes as a reaction against functionalism.
However, symbolic interactionism still underemphasises the issues of structure and constraint. These themes are taken up in Mead, but this is less well-known. This ambiguity has led both to marxist criticisms, and attempted syntheses with marxism, via the work of the young Marx. The concept of structure was addressed more explicitly in the new generation, but there was also a return to the earlier work of Thomas and Park, which was less open to this notion. Other criticisms include the lack of causal adequacy, and the complaint that there is very little social theory (which was Merton's position).
Some interactionists have attempted a synthesis with the macro level analysis, such as when Goffman links with functionalist anthropology. But the real problems lie back in the old tradition:
(a) On the issues of progress, freedom and constraint, there was an attempted resolution through the notion of evolutionism. As the capacity to make rational choices developed, so progress would be made. But the analysis was always rather arbitrary in terms of what counted as progressive or regressive forces. Get-out clauses were available from discussions of cultural lag, or the view that evolution was only long-term and so on. Occupational life offered a good case study for the analysis of these trends, but the wider context was always muted.
(b) In studying the processes of change, interactions and encounters were always over-emphasised, at the expense of detailed institutional changes, for example. Indeed, there was a lack of a theory of institutions altogether. Interest lay in responses to institutions, and the issue of how institutions actually worked was only hinted at, and never developed.
(c) The attempt to establish consensus through rational encounters led to problems of non consent, leadership, and marginality. The old assumptions of an underlying altruism and trend towards democracy came under challenge by Becker and Goffman.
(d) In discussing the limitations on social change, the normal limitations were barely studied at all [some sort of marxist analysis here?], although the interactional limitations were usefully sketched.
(e) Power is a category which pre-exists reason and rational action, but a consensual motion of social order predominated, where conflict was seen only as functional. Power is still seen as a matter for last resort even for Becker.
(f) Intellectuals had a role in developing sociology as a science, but they were also seen as news gatherers. Technical issues finally emerged, though, as the problems of sociology came to the fore: it was seen as a source of privileged knowledge rather than commonsense, and as an integrative force, although it became increasingly criticised from within, and some criticism came from other sociologists.