Interactionist theories are different in scope to the type of Structuralist theories that we have considered. While Interactionists write about much the same type of things as their Consensus and Conflict counterparts, the theoretical emphasis is different. This is something that we now have to elaborate when we look at the various ways that Interactionist sociologists have interpreted the concepts of culture and identity.
In general, Interactionist perspectives tend to concentrate upon relatively small-scale levels of social interaction (between individuals, small social groups and so forth) and, for this reason, they are sometimes referred-to as a micro level of sociological analysis. We can begin this brief overview of Interactionist theories of culture by identifying a number of the basic characteristics of human cultures.
It is a product of social interaction. That is, cultures develop out of the way people act towards one another in a way that involves both purpose and meaning.
For example, using the classroom as an example, teacher and students interact educationally in a way that has some purpose. My intended purpose might be "to teach sociology" and your purpose might be "to learn sociology", although we can't take this for granted since some of you may be here for the purpose of keeping warm. This interaction also has some meaning for each of us and at a guess most of us would probably agree that the meaning of this interaction is educational.
I have used the word "guess" deliberately because it illustrates the idea that we can never be certain of the purpose and meaning of any form of social interaction. This is because we are unable to know what someone else is thinking. The most we can do, therefore, is observe the behaviour of others and make assumptions (or educated guesses) about what they are thinking (their purpose and meaning) when they do something. For example, I assume that you turn-up to each of your classes for the purpose of studying Sociology (but I could be wrong).
What if, for example, you have arrived here with different assumptions about the purpose and meaning of this interaction?
What would happen if I assume I am here to teach you Sociology, but you each assume you are here for a different purpose (one of you assumes it is a party, another assumes it is a wedding, yet another assumes this is a public lavatory). If this were the case, then the meaning of this situation would be different for each of us and our behaviour, based on this meaning, would probably result in total confusion.
This example may be ridiculous (and we'll look at why in a moment), but it illustrates the potential for confusion that always exists in human interaction. If every time we tried to interact we had to check that:
the same purpose and
the meaning of the situation was more or less the same for everyone,
then very little in the way of purposeful human interaction would be possible.
The question to answer, therefore, is how do we avoid these problems? Many animals, for example, avoid them because their behaviour instinctive. Their behaviour in any situation is governed by genetically predetermined responses to certain forms of stimulation. Many cats, for example, signal to another animal that they do not intend to attack it by raising their tail vertically. This is an instinctive action that does not have to be learnt - the cat instinctively knows that this is the correct signal to give in a non-threatening situation. This is efficient, but limiting.
A system of behaviour based on simple signals limits the ability of animals to develop beyond very simple groups, mainly because they lack the ability to communicate and share anything beyond a relatively simple set of meanings.
Humans, on the other hand, can solve these problems by taking advantage of two major biological advantages we have over most animals:
Firstly, the ability to communicate through language (perhaps the ultimate system of shared meaning). This allows us to develop meaning in our behaviour.
Secondly, the ability to remember meanings and act purposefully on the basis of this stored cultural knowledge.
These abilities mean we can develop cultural systems that can be learnt through a socialisation process. Thus, our ability to communicate symbolically (through words, gestures, looks and so forth) gives us the ability to develop very rich cultures that may be unlimited in scope. This gives us the ability to control and shape our environment (both social and physical) in ways that are unimaginable for animals.
Symbols are different to signals since:
a. A symbol does not need any direct relationship to the thing it symbolises. For example, the symbol "elephant" only means "a large animal with four legs, big ears and a long nose" because that is what we have learnt to interpret it as meaning. It could equally mean "a small furry animal with two legs".
b. Symbols can be related to one another to create very complex ideas and meanings.
An example of the way we both communicate symbolically and use this ability to create very complex cultural rules and meaning might be:
Imagine you were standing at traffic lights waiting to cross the road. If you see a car go through a red light you may interpret that behaviour as "wrong" (because it is dangerous) / "illegal" (because it breaks the law). If, however, the car has a flashing blue light and a wailing siren you may interpret that behaviour as "understandable", because you assume the police officers in the car have a very good reason for acting both dangerously and illegally.
This also illustrates the idea of symbolic meanings, since there is no absolute relationship between a "red light" and the action "stop"; it is only because we have been socialised to make an association between the two things that a red light actually means stop to us.
Someone from a society where cars do not exist would not associate red traffic lights with "stop" or "it's dangerous to cross the road when the light is green" because that symbolic association between the two things would not be a part of their "symbolic system of meaning" (or culture).
The ability to develop shared meanings is the key to understanding human interaction. Our ability to think (our consciousness) is both the problem and the solution, since what we effectively do, according to Interactionists, is to create a sense of society and culture in our minds. We behave "as if" these things physically exist.
Thus, the world humans inhabit is a social construction. This involves the idea that society is a product of our ability to think and express our thoughts symbolically. The things that we recognise as being "part of our society" or "part of our culture" are simply products of our mind.
This is one reason why Interactionists reject the idea that society has an objective existence that is separate from the people who, through their everyday relationships, create a sense of living in a society. Society is an elaborate fiction we create to help us make sense of our relationships and impose some sort of order on them.
We create this fictional universe to make social life possible, since without a sense of shared meanings about what we see and do, interaction would, at best, be very difficult and, at worst, impossible. Cultures, therefore, represent the general store of shared meanings that people create to give them a feeling of having things in common and as the basis for constructive social interaction.
For example, think of any dealings you have had with people who do not behave in ways that conform to your cultural expectations. People who are drunk, for example, frequently fail to observe expected cultural norms and this makes it very difficult for us to interact with them on anything but a very basic level of understanding.
The Social Construction of Meaning.
As we have seen, humans have the ability to impose a sense of order and predictability on a potentially disordered and unpredictable social world by creating shared meanings about situations. This system of meaning (culture) involves the standard sociological ideas of role play, values and norms, but the question to finally consider is how do we go about the task of creating a culture in the first place?
In simple terms, therefore, we have to consider the process whereby individuals "agree to agree" about what they are doing (the purpose of interaction) and why they are doing it (the meaning of interaction).
Interactionists generally start to explain this process by referring to the concept of a definition of the situation. That is, how we define a situation affects how we behave when we are in that situation. We can look at this process in more detail in the following way.
To make sense of the confusing world that we experience on a daily basis, Interactionists argue that we use a process of categorization and labelling. That is, as we interact we categorise similar experiences (or phenomena) in some way. For example, we create categories of people based around our perception of them as:
Male or female.
Young or old.
Employer / employee.
Traffic warden / police woman.
Husband / wife.
Each category of related phenomena is like a little box that we hold inside our mind and, for our convenience, each little box has:
a. A name or label that identifies it for us (for example, the label "mother").
b. A set of social characteristics inside. That is, a set of related ideas that we associate with the label on the box.
Thus, when someone we meet reveals one of their social labels to us ("I'm a mother", for example) we mentally "open the box" that contains our store of knowledge about "motherhood".
This might include objective (factual) information (a mother is someone who has given birth to a child) as well as subjective (based upon opinion or values) information (I love my mother so all children love their mothers; a mother has a duty to look after her children and so forth).
By categorising the social world we give it the appearance of order and regularity, since when we meet people we are able to interact with them on the basis of the "general things that we know about this type of person".
When we meet a police officer, for example, we might give them an exaggerated respect because we realise that they have the power to arrest us if we do not give the appearance of recognising their authority.
The socialisation process, therefore, is one that focuses on the teaching and learning of common cultural meanings, since this is the basis for all meaningful social interaction. One of the most important things we learn, in effect, is how to recognise different situations and how we are expected to generally behave in that situation.