Professor Marshall

LESSON 5: Interaction Theory

Interaction Theory

By definition, using an interactionist lens requires us to ask the main question: How is the individual changing society? Interaction theories want us to see society and its structures as changing due to the interactions of individuals. This theory rests on the notion that PERCEPTION IS REALITY. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Interaction theory suggests that shared meanings based on symbols allows society to exist.
  2. How do we change? This theory states that reality can only be negotiated and changed when we agree on what symbols mean, and use them to advance our understandings of social reality.

Remember that this is a MICRO theory, which means the focus is on the the individual and how smaller group interactions change the structure of society.

Now, let's review some of the historical concepts which lay the foundation for contemporary interaction theory.

Historical Interpretations

Recall the basics of the major historical theoretical advances:

The roots of interaction theories can be found in the work of Weber and Simmel, and extend to Thomas, Cooley, and George Herbert Mead.

Recall that Max Weber's contribution of verstehen has had a huge impact on the way sociologists conduct their work:

Georg Simmel encouraged using a micro perspective at a time when the study of society was much more concerned with a macro perspective. He was a proponent of not only looking at how the structure influences the individual, but also how the individual impacts the social world.

William Thomas' main contribution to interaction theory is called the "Thomas Theorem. " It explains the power of perception by asserting that regardless of the reality of a sitution, if someone thinks its real, action and consequences will be taken based on the power of perception:


Charles Horton Cooley's main theoretical contribution is that of the "Looking Glass Self:"

So, as we now understand, Cooley's Looking Glass Self theory means that we change our behavior based on what we IMAGINE other people think of us whether our perceptions are correct or not! I'll bet if you think about this, you will see that there is some truth to Cooley's observations.

The most prolific historical contributor, however, is George Herbert Mead, who wrote extensively about the self:

Mead's Stages of the Self is a useful theory when studying the socialization processes of children, and anyone who had children knows that children often copy the behaviors of others. According to Mead, this is how children learn about what are "correct" and "incorrect" behaviors. Imagine the child who grows up in a home full of dysfunction--what does all of this strife do to the child, and more importantly, what messages does the child carry on into adulthood?

Symbolic interaction theory is so named due to its reliance on symbols--verbal language, body language, pictures and gestures--to advance society. Without symbols which we all understand and agree upon, society would be in chaos.

This theory is the closest sociology gets to psychology, and unlike the other historical theories (functionalism and conflict theory) this theory is MICRO in orientation. This means that rather than looking at the structures of society as more influential on the idividual, it takes into account the individual as having a major influence on the structure:

Micro Stick Man

Social-Social Psychology

Social psychologists are mostly interested in studying the social development of the individual, which means they give more attention to what's inside the head. Inside-the-head functions are your thought processes, your personality and how you change due to chemical actions inside your head. This orientation is directed toward YOU as an individual.

Sociologists are more interested in what's going on outside your head that influences your actions, thoughts and behaviors. So, sociological social psychologists wantto know how the structure, social settings and interactions you have with other people influence how you behave. This orientation is directed toward YOUR PLACE relative to external forces.

According to Kearl, "sociologically-inclined social psychologists are more likely to examine how individuals' perceptions, belief systems, moralities, identities, and behaviors are determined by their positions in society" (Kearl, 2010). They want to know about how you are socialized into your culture, how history and historical events have influenced you and your society, were you "fit" in relation to others and other groups, what roles you occupy and how your surroundings have influenced you over time.

Social psychology (both from the psychological and sociological perspectives) is a new academic discipline, and regardless of the orientation is interested in how the inside-the-head and the outside-the-head events that you experience can change group dynamics and society. Both are also interested in the concept of personality types. For a social psychologists, the interest is in how external infleunces change YOU, and for sociological social psychologists, the interest is in what kind of personality TYPES might prevail due to external conditions of structure.

Contemporary Interpretations

Herbert Blumer

Herbert Blumer carried on the work of George Herbert Mead, delving more deeply into the interactionist approach, and was the first to add the word "symbolic" in conjunction with "interaction" to essentially rename this theory from just "interaction theory" to "symbolic interactionism."

Blumer sees people as ACTORS rather than being ACTED UPON, and this is the foundation of all interaction theories. Where macro theories see individuals as being acted upon by the structure of society, interaction theories see the individual as the SOURCE of action. Blumer argues that INTERPRETATION must be taken into account when trying to figure out how society changes:

Blumer Equation

Blumer says that we need to keep in mind three basic premises when thinking about the importance of meaning:

Blumer's Premises

  1. Humans act based on meaning: I only do something or react a certain way because I have a meaning for things--without meaning, there is no reason for me to do anything.
  2. Meanings happen between people: when you and I interact, meaning happens; in other words, while I have meanings for things, I only have those meanings because I have interacted with other people. Meaning is created when I interact with you.
  3. Meanings are changed through interpretations: New meanings happen when we have an interaction.

While functional theorists would assert that there is a PROPER action to be taken after I have an interaction with you, interaction theorists would assert that behavior cannot be spelled out beforehand because, at some point during the interaction, the meaning of the interaction is interpreted by you and I and then we act. Since so many of the interactions we have with each other are brand new to us we cannot, according to the interactionist approach, have any sort of social "script" to use when deciding how to act--we have to interpret the situation before we can decide what to do.

The Straightjacket of Structure

Blumer viewed the structure of society as a straightjacket. While he views the structural elements of society as essential (the roles we play, our status, bureaucracies, authority, etc.) he does not see these elements as determining behavior. He does not see interactions between these structural elements as ACTION--he views the interactions of people as essential to the functioning of (and UNDERSTANDING of) society. He asserts that the interaction analysis is the key component to understanding a situation--and he further asserts that the more unstructured a situation, the more we have to rely on our ability to interpret it to put it into some sort of perspective. We can think about what Blumer implies by thinking about acts which happen in society which are so completely heinous or aggregious that we have to ponder how they could happen:

Blumer asserts that the structure cannot help us to interpret these types of events; it is our own perceptions and our ability to empathize with others which will assist us in understanding the reality of others--and therefore the reality of our own lives.

→ FUNCTIONAL theorists assert that there are APPROPRIATE choices to be made in every situation.

→ FUNCTIONAL theorists assert that APPROPRIATE choices are based on social norms.

→ INTERACTION theorists assert that choices can only be made based on individual interpretations of events.

→ INTERACTION theorists assert that we cannot know what is APPROPRIATE ahead of the event as we cannot have the same set of experiences as any other individual.

How do Interactionists Conduct Research?

To understand the ways that interaction theorists do their research, we must compare and contrast the two types of reasoning that are used by sociologists when they begin a research project:

In addition to deductive and inductive reasoning, a very new, cutting edge design has recently emerged. It is known as the "Spiraling Approach:"

So, as you can see, these three approaches (deductive, inductive and spiraling) are very different from each other. It is the job of a researcher to know which approach is the best for each specific research project. Macro level theorists (functional, conflict and evolutionary theorists) will tend to gravitate toward deductive reasoning. Interactionists and phenomenologists may opt to use an inductive approach. Feminist theorists and rational choice theorists may lean toward a spiraling approach. Knowing which approach suits which theories and which research comes with practice.

For interactionist theorists, Blumer said that there are two basic modes of inquiry. We can envision these two modes as stages of a research project:

There are drawbacks to every type of research--none is perfect. For interactionists, there are three main concerns to any research project:

Dramaturgy and Interaction Order

Erving Goffman is perhaps one of the most interesting of the contemporary interaction theorists. His work has had a great influence on how we study social interactions, beginning with the concept of Dramaturgy:

He also made an attempt to illustrate how micro-level interactions influenced the structure of society in his work on the Interaction Order:


You can see how interaction theories changed the focus of sociology from the MACRO to the MICRO perspective. Critics of interaction theories assert that individuals have little to no impact on the structure of society, but interaction theorists point out that individuals are the "glue" which defines the structure. Without small group interactions, there would be no need for society to exist,

While theorists tend to align themselves with a particular level of analysis (MICRO or MACRO) and a specific set of theories (functional, conflict, evolutionary, interactionist, etc.) it is a good habit to be in to use all of the major theories to shed light on social reality.