Micro-interactionism The legacy of Pragmatism
The legacy of
Cardinal numbers of Guaraní
(language of indigenous Paraguayans)
Can you fill in the blanks?
From structure to agency
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)
Unlocked the code of ancient languages
Claude Lévi-Strauss (born 1908)
Found hidden patterns of diverse myths
Emergence of structuralism in
• Karl Marx
“[People] make their own history, but they do not make
it just as they please; they do not make it under
circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly found, given and transmitted
from the past.”
(The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852)
Adolescent Karl: “But mom, I want to be an individual! Just like
Structure vs. Agency
What do YOU think?
Are our actions constrained by limits set in place by others so much so
that our path in life is narrow and predictable?
Do we have the ability to navigate the barriers in our way so that we
can forge our own path?
What might microinteractionists think?
Consider a maze:
What are your options?
What are your limitations?
How does structure confine, limit,
and determine our fate?
Path of least resistance
Question: Who creates the structure?
-What might microinteractionists think?
The legacy of Pragmatism
• “truth” is determined by the practical
consequences of our actions
– Challenges the idea that objects and ideas
have fixed “meanings”
– Explains how humans use symbols to
communicate and interact
– Identifies the existence of multiple social
Charles Sanders Pierce
• Born 1839, died 1914
• Mathematician, scientist,
• Things are true because we
believe them to be true.
• The meaning of objects and
actions are not fixed a priori
(in Latin, “from the former”)
• A chair
– What is this thing? How do you know?
• Does it mean the same thing to everyone? How
about a carpenter, a weary traveler, a cowboy in a
What a pragmatist might say:
• The objective reality, the fixed meaning of a
chair, depends on the practical consequences of
chairs in everyday life.
• Chairs are for sitting, until the day when people
know longer sit in them; at that point, their
• If meanings were fixed and unchanging, this
Use of symbols
• We can only communicate via symbols.
• Communication, therefore, is the use of
signs and symbols between people
– (semiotics = study of signs and symbols).
• Who determines meaning? Us. Humans.
Pragmatists and symbols
• Symbols only make sense in relation to other symbols
(just like words only make sense in relation to other
• A chair means what it does because we agree that it
does. In a sociological sense, it not only takes two to
tango, it takes two to make meaning.
• The symbol of “a chair” only makes sense in relation to
other symbols that represent things and actions, such as:
“to sit” and “furniture.”
Pragmatists and meaning
• If symbols only make sense in relation to other
symbols, then our social actions only make sense
in relation to the actions of others.
• We determine what actions to take by predicting
and anticipating how others will respond.
• The meaning of our own actions is therefore
partly determined by how others react to us.
Charles Horton Cooley
• Born 1864, died 1929
• Most famous idea:
“looking glass self”
• How do you see yourself through eyes of others?
• Thought exercise: picking out your clothes in the
• Born 1842, died 1910
• Offered a theoretical bridge
between Idealism and Pragmatism
• Argued for the existence of multiple social selves
-All guided by a unitary self (soul)
• Thought exercise: your social self in your parents
home vs a campus party.
George Herbert Mead
• Born 1863, died 1931
• Published little, but his ideas
were very influential (basis of
• Contribution: the social mind
– Role of games
– The “generalized other”
– The “me” and “I” of the “self”
• We account for the “generalized other” in our
own thoughts and actions.
• Allows us to “interact” socially even when we are
thinking by ourselves.
• Awareness of others helps us make sense of our
own identity (because our own “self” only makes
sense in relation to that of others).
How can pragmatism help us
understand the tension between
structure and agency?
• In order to understand why people do
what they do, we need to have an idea of
how they make decisions and what guides
their actions (i.e., why do they navigate the
structure the way they do?).
• The study of “phenomena.” More
specifically, the study of how people
subjectively interpret, experience, and
assign meaning to phenomena.
• Lightning bolt exercise
• How can it be interpreted objectively and
– meteorologist vs. cave dweller
• Born 1899, died 1959
• Part time banker
• Influenced by Weber’s concept
• Our understanding of the social world is
• Signs, symbols, and gestures do not have a
• You see a person chopping wood in the
– What are they thinking?
– What are they trying to accomplish?
– What is their motive?
• What are the clues you use to better
understand the woodcutter?
– Put yourself in their position (take their role)
– Interpret contextual clues (signs, symbols,
– Superimpose your own experiences and
Limits of subjective understanding
• “The subjective meaning that the
interpreter does grasp is at best an
approximation to the sign-user’s intended
meaning, but never that meaning itself, for
one’s knowledge of another person’s
perspective is always necessarily limited.
For exactly the same reason, the person
who expresses himself in signs is never
quite sure of how [they are] being
How can phenomenology help us
understand the tension between
structure and agency?
• If the meaning of signs, symbols, and
gestures can vary within a given structure
depending on the context, then the way we
act towards them may also change.
– Question: under what conditions might we
expect individuals to exercise their agency
differently within the same structure?
• Ex: university registrar
Peter L. Berger and
• Published in 1966
• Made famous the (now ubiquitous)
term “social construction”
• Their theory answers the question: where did our
social reality come from? Who made the structure
we now navigate?
– their answer: us!
Social Construction of Institutions
• Begin as merely “habitualized” actions
• Patterned actions are first “taken-forgranted” until they eventually “harden”
and “thicken” (p.47)
Social Construction of Institutions
• Interaction rules that serve as the basis of
institutions were originally a conscious
agreement among actors. However, over time,
people do not question their origin.
– “Since they had no part in shaping it, it confronts
them as a given reality that , like nature, is opaque in
places at least” (p.46-7).
• With age, institutions become more rigid and
– “it becomes real in an ever more massive way and it
can no longer be changed so readily” (p.46).
• "If [humans] define situations as real, they are
real in their consequences.“
– William I. Thomas The child in America: Behavior
problems and programs. (1928)
• Question: Have you ever witnessed the social construction of
an institution? If so, what have been the real consequences
for people who conform/deviate from the institution?
• Born 1900, died 1987
• Played professional football
– with now defunct Chicago Cardinals
• Pupil of George H. Mead
• Coined the term “Symbolic Interactionism” and
characterized the theory as a summary of Mead’s
• "Human beings act toward things on the basis of
the meanings that the things have for them"
• "The meaning of such things is derived from, or
arises out of, the social interaction that one has
• "These meanings are handled in, and modified
through, an interpretive process used by the
person in dealing with the things he/she
Why is Blumer important?
• Symbolic interactionism gives sociologists
a framework for understanding why
people navigate the prevailing social
structure the way we do.
– When people are given two, seemingly, equal
choices, why pick one over the other?
• It depends on how THEY interpret the options in
front of them. We need to see the world through
THEIR eyes, instead of imposing our own ideas
Blumer’s methodological position
• Quantitative vs. Qualitative research
– Which might Blumer prefer? Why?
Respect the empirical world
• “If the scholar wishes to understand the
action of people it is necessary for him to
see their objects as they see them. Failure
to see their objects as they see them, or a
substitution of his meanings of the objects
for their meanings, is the gravest kind of
error that the social scientist can commit”
• Born 1922, died 1982
• Studied under Everett Hughes at
– (a colleague of Blumer)
• Most famous contribution: dramaturgy
• Argued for a renewed focus back on the
influence of structure on everyday interactions.
• “Ordinary social intercourse is itself put
together as a scene is put together, by the
exchange of dramatically inflated actions,
counter-actions, and terminating replies.
Scripts even in the hands of unpracticed
players can come to life because life itself
is a dramatically enacted thing. All the
world is not, of course, a stage, but the
crucial ways in which it isn’t are not easy
to specify” (p. 64).
“Parking lots” and “cloak rooms”
Authentic vs Cynical presentations of self
Onion or artichoke
• According to Goffman, is their a “true”
• Is there a director behind the scenes
instructing all the actors?
• Are there as many “selves” as there are