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symbolic interactionism

  A diffuse tradition of social theory which regards the social world as a social product, the meanings of which are constituted in and through social interaction. Craib (1984, p. 72) claims that symbolic interactionism conceives of social life as a conversation: \'the social world shows the same qualities of flow, development, creativity and change as we would experience in a conversation … [and] the world is made up of conversations, internal and external\'. Other analogies can be equally salient, however, and Geertz (1983, ch. 1) speaks of a \'refiguration of social thought\' around the interpretation of social life variously conceived as a game, as a drama and as a text. Whatever the difficulties of unambiguously characterizing symbolic interactionism — Rock (1979) speaks of its \'deliberately constructed vagueness\' — most commentators would have agreed that it had its origins in the Chicago school of sociology in the1920s (see pragmatism). Contrary to the conventional wisdom of much mainstream urban geography, the Chicago School was not uniquely concerned with the development of a human ecology based on brute Darwinian competition (cf. Darwinism; Social Darwinism): Park and Thomas in particular treated communication as \'fundamental to the existence of society\' (see Jackson and Smith, 1984, pp. 79-80). Important though these foundations were, however, the principal architect of symbolic interactionism is usually taken to be Mead. It was his Mind, self and society, composed posthumously from students\' lecture notes and published in 1934, which was used — particularly by one of his students, Blumer, who coined the term \'symbolic interactionism\', whereas Mead himself always referred to his \'social psychology\' — to formalize its fundamental tenets. According to Craib (1984, p. 73; see also Blumer, 1969), these are as follows:

{img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them; {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } These meanings are the product of social interaction in human society; and {img src=show_image.php?name=2022.gif } These meanings are modified and handled through an interpretative process that is used by each individual in dealing with the signs each encounters.Craib claims that these three postulates roughly correspond to the three sections of Mind, self and society, but that it is now clear that such a summary does considerable violence to the integrity of Mead\'s work. Joas (1985) has warned that:

[Symbolic interactionism] cannot be regarded as the authoritative interpretation of Mead\'s thought. For this theory\'s understanding both of social organization and of human needs, its reduction of the concept of action to that of interaction, its linguistic attenuation of the concept of meaning, and its lack of any consideration of evolution and history are enormous deviations from Mead\'s positions and, furthermore, achieved by means of an extremely fragmentary appropriation of Mead\'s work. Only those aspects of Mead\'s thought that are completely ignored by symbolic interactionism make it possible to correct this tradition\'s \'subjectivist\' features. (pp. 6-7)Within human geography, interactionist perspectives have opened up three progressively wider avenues of inquiry. First, a number of authors have continued the ethnographic tradition of the Chicago School to provide compelling accounts of the social construction of specific milieux (for a review, see Jackson, 1985; cf. ethnography). Second, a more formal thematization of the social construction of place has been proposed. Hence, for example, Ley (1981) identifies a major focus of humanistic geography as a recovery of \'the relationship between landscape and identity\'. In some part following Mead, Ley argues, its central argument is that: \'[P]lace is a negotiated reality, a social construction by a purposeful set of actors. But the relationship is mutual, for places in turn develop and reinforce the identity of the social group that claims them.\' Third, and spiralling away from propositions of this sort, is a series of more inclusive theorems about the constitution of society. Elements of interactionism can be found, in their most general form, in Schutz\'s constitutive phenomenology and in Giddens\'s structuration theory, both of which had a major impact on the development of post-positivist human geography, but it was undoubtedly Berger and Luckmann\'s The social construction of reality (1967) which provided at once the most comprehensive and the most focused engagement of human geography with interactionism. Acutely critical of what elsewhere he calls the \'superorganic\' (see Duncan, 1980), Duncan (1978) notes that:

Interactionism … posits no separation between the individual and society; individual selves are socially constructed. The self is largely a product of the opinions and actions of others as these are expressed in interaction with the developing self … With interactionism there is no need for a transcendental object such as an abstract notion of culture [or] society … to mediate between the individual and society. (p. 269)(See also Ley, 1982; for a critique, see Gregory, 1982.)

These social constructions constitute a taken-for-granted world, Duncan continues, and this is, at least in part, \'dependent on one\'s relation to a place and the persons associated with that place\'. Although Berger and Luckmann said nothing about such relations, Duncan shows how such a place-specific perspective on \'the stranger\' or \'the outsider\' prompts a recognition of what he calls \'the social construction of unreality\' (emphasis added). What Berger and Luckmann (1967) do acknowledge, however, is the importance of routinized and repetitive social conduct to the continuity of social life: \'The reality of everyday life maintains itself by being embodied in routines, which is the essence of institutionalisation. Beyond this, however, the reality of everyday life is ongoingly reaffirmed in the individual\'s interaction with others\' (p. 169). This makes it possible to rework their formulations to incorporate the time-space paths traced out in Hägerstrand\'s time-geography. Although Berger and Luckmann regard the \'spatial structure\' of everyday life as \'peripheral to our present considerations\', therefore, Pred (1981, p. 7) regards this as a serious mistake:

[W]hat is wanting, among other things, in the Berger-Luckmann formulation is a spelling out of the detailed means whereby the everyday intersections of individual biographies with institutional activities, at specific times and places, are rooted in previous intersections, at specific times and places, yet simultaneously serve as the roots of future intersections between particular individuals and institutional activities.Using time-geography in this way, Pred claims, it is possible to expose \'the workings of society\'. (See also pragmatism.) (DG)

References Berger, P. and Luckmann, T. 1967: The social construction of reality. London: Doubleday. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books. Blumer, H. 1969: Symbolic interactionism: perspectives and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall. Craib, I. 1984: Modern social theory: from Parsons to Habermas. Brighton: Wheatsheaf; New York: St. Martin\'s Press. Duncan, J.S. 1978: The social construction of unreality: an interactionist approach to the tourist\'s cognition of environment. In D. Ley and M. Samuels, eds, Humanistic geography: prospects and problems. London: Croom Helm; Chicago: Maaroufa, 269-82. Duncan, J.S. 1980: The superorganic in American cultural geography. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 70: 181-98. Geertz, C. 1983: Local knowledge: further essays in interpretative anthropology. New York: Basic Books. Gregory, D. 1982: A realist construction of the social. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 7: 254-6. Jackson, P. 1985: Urban ethnography. Progress in Human Geography 9: 157-76. Jackson, P. and Smith, S.J. 1984: Exploring social geography. London: Allen and Unwin. Joas, H. 1985: G.H. Mead: a contemporary reexamination of his thought. Cambridge: Polity Press, see especially ch. 5. Ley, D. 1981: Behavioural geography and the philosophies of meaning. In K.R. Cox and R.G. Golledge, eds, Behavioural problems in geography revisited. London: Methuen, 209-30. Ley, D. 1982: Rediscovering man\'s place. Transactions, Institute of British Geographers NS 7: 248-53. Mead, G.H. 1934: Mind, self and society. Chicago: Chicago University Press. Pred, A. 1981: Social reproduction and the time-geography of everyday life. Geografiska Annaler 63B: 5-22. Rock, P. 1979: The making of symbolic interactionism. London: Macmillan. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield.

Suggested Reading Anderson, K. 1987: The idea of Chinatown: the power of place and institutional practice in the making of a racial category. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 77: 580-98. Craib (1984), ch. 5. Duncan (1978). Jackson and Smith (1984), 79-86.



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