Microinteractionist: Meanings through Interactions

Four Sociological Traditions When Collins wrote his seminal piece entitled ???The Four Sociological Traditions??? (1994), his purpose was to show how philosophy from the 19th century could provide the basis for present and future social research. He did this by surveying ideas of prominent 19th century philosophers and creating a historical framework in which he could classify such ideas into ???traditions???. As we are interested in the ???Microinteractionist Tradition???, one way to define this tradition is by differentiating it from the other three, namely the Conflict Tradition, the Rational/Utilitarian Tradition, and the Durkheimian Tradition. The key difference lies of this tradition lies in how microinteractionists do not see social life as being defined in a fixed way. Explaining this, Collins states that people never have fixed social interests or that they should never be placed in fixed social structures. Instead, individuals are continually constructing social life by the interactions with people within different contexts. It is these interactions which shape how individuals give meaning to themselves and their environment.

Looking at the characteristics of microinteractionism, research in this tradition requires being close to the observation of interactions, in fact, mostly at the participant level. Furthermore, such research tends to be qualitative rather than quantitative, especially since these research methods are ethnographic in nature. Lastly, as research that requires being on-the-spot where interaction happens, the work tends to be original, primary research rather than comparative, secondary research such as those in the Durkheimian tradition. Since social life is dynamically co-produced, repetitive patterns do not happen all the time, in fact even mundane activities can have new significance. Simply put, microinteractionists tend to be more open-minded about the possibilities in a given social setting. Schools of thought within this realm would include symbolic interactionism, phenomenology, and ethnomethodology.

Originating from German objectivists, it is the American pragmatists who received ???microinteractionism??? and transformed it from mere ideas into workable sociological theories around the 20th century (p.182). By pragmatism, William James argued that ???ideas are not copies of external objects but rather that truth is simply a form of action, consisting of idea that work, that bring about the consequences we desire??? (p. 186). This pragmatist philosophy can be seen as being about individualism with an absence of the sense of social structure. Interestingly, we can see a parallel in these pragmatist theories and U.S. democratic libertarianism movement.

Some noteworthy theories that emerged from the American pragmatists include Cooley???s ???looking glass self??? (1902), which stems from the idea of children having imaginary conversations with playmates. Although superficial, I find Cooley???s idea genuine and exciting as he explains how ???my association with you evidently consists in the relation between my idea of you and the rest of my mind??? (p. 192). In this phenomenological perspective, Cooley states that an individual only encounters one???s idea of other people, never the people themselves. Their physical bodies are only there to provide a center to crystallize our sentiments of them.

Mead was more sophisticated than Cooley as shown through his Theory of the Social Mind. He assimilated Peirce???s theory of meaning and explained that ???the ???self??? is something that is reflexive, that can be both a subject and an object, and that can make an object for itself??? (p. 194). There are times when we can refer to our physical body parts as ???self??? and times when we get absorbed with work or a dream that we forget our ???self???. Also unlike Cooley, Mead suggests that each individual has ???multiple selves???, according to the different relationship with different people. He also see people around oneself as ???the generalized other???, which refers to what one believes is the attitude of the whole community.

Another key pragmatist concept came in the form of Symbolic Interactionism, which was founded by Herbert Blumer (1979). The first premise was that people act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them. Second, such meanings emerge from social interactions that one has with his mates. Third, meanings and managed through an interpretive process which first identifies the things around him that has meanings, then the individual would select, check, suspend, regroup, and transform these meanings in light of the situation in which he is placed and the direction of his action (p. 105). Blumer emphasized spontaneity and indeterminateness in his ideas and illustrated this by denouncing functionism and stating that it was unrealistic to play with abstract categories. Blumer added that questionnaires and interviews are unrealistic because they abstract out the real situations in which people act. People would behave in response to the act of answering a question rather than to the real situation.

To conclude, let us refer to Vygotsky???s ???Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes??? (1978) to see how another philosopher would run parallel to this the concept of microinteractionism. Vygotsky???s goal was to determine how traits are formed and developed through the course of an individual???s lifetime. He spoke of the transformation of practical activity by illustrating how a child would use a tool similar to apes before he or she is able to speak (preverbal period). However, once he or she is capable of speech or use of signs, the action becomes transformed and organized along entirely new lines (p. 24). It is this ability to speak that the child starts to master his own behavior, specifically, producing the intellect to possess the uniquely human form of the use of tools which is intended for productive work. As one can clearly see from Vygotsky???s work, it is the spontaneous interaction with others which is significant in deciding how we define ourselves and our environment. Such meanings are never fixed and will always be dynamic according to our interactions.

03-1 Collins, R. (1994). The microinteractionist tradition. Four sociological traditions (pp. 242-290). New York: Oxford University Press.

03-2 Mead, G.H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago. Selection.

03-3 Blumer, H. (1979). The nature of symbolic interactionism. In C.D. Mortensen (Ed.), Basic readings in communication theory (pp. 102-120). New York: Harper & Row. (Orig. 1969.)

03-4 Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Selection.

3 thoughts on “Microinteractionist: Meanings through Interactions

  1. KEVIN 2 – A-

    This is, generally speaking, a fine response. You do put forth an organizing theme or principle (i.e., that these can be seen as departures from other forms of theory), but because it is more theme than thesis, not all of your discussion ties back to it clearly. It feels much more like summary than disucssion. That’s OK, summary can be a good thing — as Mills suggests! — but at times it feels more like your notes than your “story” of what is going on.

    > “traditions”.


    > “Microinteractionist Tradition”,

    “Microinteractionist Tradition,”

    > The key difference lies of this tradition lies in how microinteractionists


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