Chapter 6. Social Interaction

6.1. Micro-level Interaction

Social interaction is the process of reciprocal influence exercised by individuals over one another during social encounters. Usually it refers to face-to-face encounters in which people are physically present with one another for a specified duration. However, in contemporary society one can also think of social encounters that are technologically mediated like texting, zoom meeting, or direct messaging. In terms of the different levels of analysis in sociology—micro, meso, macro, and global—social interaction is generally approached at the micro-level where the structures and social scripts, the pre-established patterns of behaviour that people are expected to follow in specific social situations, that govern the relationship between particular individuals can be examined. However, as the sociological study of emotions indicates, the micro-level processes of everyday life are also impacted by macro-level phenomena such as gender inequality and historical transformations.


Emotional Life


Figure 6.4 A-maze-ing Laughter sculpture (2009) by Chinese artist Yue Minjun, Vancouver B.C. (Image courtesy of Ruth Hartnup/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

The study of micro-level interaction has been a rich source of insight in sociology. The idea that people’s emotions, for example, have a social component might not be all that surprising at first because often individuals are subject to having “emotional reactions” to other people, positive or negative. The other person, or the social situation itself, brings on an emotion that otherwise would not arise.

However, sociological research has shown that emotions also can have a systematic, socially structured quality which is not immediately apparent. Studies of face-to-face conversations show that the outward signs of emotion like smiling or laughing are not equally distributed. For example, the predisposition to show emotion by laughing in a conversation is structured by differences in gender, status, role, and norm. Robert Provine (1996) studied 1200 two-person conversations, observed discretely in public places like shopping malls. He discovered that when a woman was speaking and a man was listening the woman laughed more than twice as much as the man. Similarly when a man was speaking and a woman listening, she was still more likely to laugh than him.  “Female speakers laugh 127 per cent more than their male audience. In contrast, male speakers laugh about 7 per cent less than their female audience” (Provine, 1996). Provine suggests that this shows that males lead in producing humour while females lead in laughing at humour, but it might also show a pattern of social deference reflecting the unequal social status of men and women.

How a culture laughs, when it laughs and at what it laughs also varies through history. Jokes often hone in on what people are most anxious about as a culture. The Roman Classicist Mary Beard (2014) argues that while it is very difficult to go from the recorded literature to a confident appraisal of what laughter and its place in social life in ancient Rome was like, the nature of the jokes the Romans told reveals an anxiety about the ability to demonstrate identity unique to Roman culture. Many jokes had the common theme of “how do I know that I am me?” and “how can I prove to others that I am me?”

For example, “two friends meet in the street and one says to the other, ‘I heard that you were dead,’ and the other says, ‘I’m not dead, you can see me, here I am,’ to which the first replies, ‘But the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you are.’ “

This typical Roman joke refers to a cultural context in which demonstrating status was extremely important but official proofs of identity like passports or ID cards were minimal (Beard 2014).

The head of a statue with a blank expression.
Figure 6.5 The Emperor Commodus (depicted recently in the film Gladiator, 2000). Roman statues do not depict their subjects with smiles. What does the absence of a culture of smiling indicate about the emotional experience of everyday social interaction in ancient Rome? (Image courtesy of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 3.0

On the other hand, one rare account from ancient Rome in which the physical, bodily, uncontrollable nature of laughter is actually recorded was when the Emperor Commodus was playing at being a gladiator in the Roman forum. He decapitated an ostrich and threatened the Roman senators in the front row by waving its head and neck at them. What a modern audience would probably find horrifying or disgusting, the Roman senator Dio Cassius found so ridiculous he had to bite down on a laurel leaf from the wreath he was wearing to suppress his urge to giggle (Beard 2014).

What is perhaps even more significant with regard to the unique emotional life of the Romans is Beard’s claim that the Romans did not smile, or more accurately, that the expression contemporary people experience as smiling played no significant role in Roman facial communication. The Romans might have turned their mouths up at the corners but the smile was not a significant gesture in their social interaction. There are no accounts of smiling in Roman literature. The Roman words that are sometimes translated into English as smile are ridere and subridere which mean “laugh” and “little laugh” respectively; no word for smile exists. Beard concludes that the culture of the smile and the expectation of cheerfulness that figure so prominently in modern emotional life (smiling when meeting someone, smiling to show pleasure, smiling in photographs, etc.) did not exist in Roman life. Medieval scholars suggest that the culture of the smile was not invented until the middle ages (Beard 2014).

Raymond Williams referred to structures of feeling to capture large scale, societal shifts in people’s feelings or emotional responses towards things. These are “characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships” (Williams, 1977). They are structures in the sense that they are composed of sets of interlocking emotional components that go together, but in the moment they are also fluid and in process; difficult to define until after the fact.  Research into the transition from premodern to modern European family life, for example, indicates several changes in societal structures of feeling in the 18th and 19th centuries: the growing importance of romantic love in mate selection, of maternal love and commitment in child-rearing, of deep grief for the loss of a child, and of anger constraint and temper management within the family (Stearns, 2014). The emotional environment of family life became “warmer” as capitalist economic life became “colder” and more calculated. New humanitarian feelings of connection with the suffering of distant others also emerged, which fueled the 19th century movements for the abolition of slavery. Similarly, the emergence of nostalgia was a new structure of feeling at this time. People formulated emotional responses to the losses and displacements brought about by new patterns of migration, travel, urbanization and industrialization. Structures of feeling are a fluid component of collective life yet they lead to large scale social change. They impact how individuals feel and what they feel about.

Prominent sociologists have argued that the structure of feeling of contemporary society is defined by an emotional state of anxiety (Giddens, 1990; Beck, 1992). Anxiety is a future-oriented emotion aroused by uncertainty, unpredictability and lack of control. In a global context of existential crises including climate change, virus pandemics, economic crises, immigration and refugee flows, the ability to collectively understand and manage risk is compromised. Public trust in the numerous technical and expert systems which govern global life outside of or beyond individual control, is also shaken when these are revealed to be precarious. People become skeptical about scientific knowledge and public authorities, but because responsibilities for managing and understanding risks are increasingly downloaded onto individuals, the structure of feeling that emerges is a permanent, pervasive, low intensity anxiety. In moments of crisis, this drives the characteristic divide in contemporary Canadian emotional life between the demands for more caring institutional or collective responses and outbursts of violence and aggression towards authorities.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

The Emotional Life of COVID-19

Figure 6.6 The Corona Virus. Symptoms: Fever, Difficulty Breathing, Headache, and Tiredness etc. (Image courtesy MughalKings/Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 4.0


The Covid-19 pandemic crisis of the 2020s has been described as “the greatest mass emotional event since the Second World War” (Rebughini, 2021). It was a sudden, globally destabilizing state of emergency, which amplified the social dynamics of precariousness, uncertainty and insecurity driving the late modern emotional state of anxiety. Anxiety during the pandemic was not only about the risk of catching the virus or spreading it to vulnerable others, but also anxiety over the absence of social connection, the shut down of the economy, the collapse of supply chains, the loss of employment, the incapacity of scientists and public health officials to provide accurate and timely knowledge, and the proliferation of conspiracy theories, disinformation and dubious alternative treatments.

Measures of life satisfaction used to measure well-being indicate that, under the impact of the pandemic, life satisfaction in Canada declined by approximately 20% between 2018 and 2020 to the lowest level over the 2003to2020 period for which comparable data are available (Helliwell et al., 2020).

In a state of emergency, old norms of daily life that provide security and alleviate anxiety are suspended and people are confronted with no clear path to address a new, unknown situation. As a result, Rebughini writes:

The Covid-19 pandemic crisis is an all-pervading source of anxiety, in social relations, in terms of impact on economic and healthcare systems, and for its capacity to reveal situations of scientific and practical ignorance. In this respect, the emotional spread of anxiety is related to the questioning of scientific knowledge, to the political capacity to react to the crisis rapidly, and to the necessity that individuals reorganize their everyday lives on the basis of unclear dispositions (Rebughini, 2021).

Throughout late modernity the anxieties about hypothetical dangers posed by climate change, economic crisis, etc., have been managed on an individual and collective level by the belief in expert knowledge, technoscientific solutions and changes in lifestyle (Rebughini, 2021). Feelings of anxiety have been typically assuaged by shifting the dangers to the future. But the Covid-19 crisis revealed that instead of living in a knowledge-based society where dangers are known and controlled, society was largely ignorance-based. People suddenly discovered the extent of their ignorance and unpreparedness to deal with the viral condition.

As Williams (1977) argues, structures of feeling have the capacity to produce large scale social change. What the long term outcome of the feelings around Covid-19 will be is unclear, but the emotional division between the majority who support the public health measures and the skeptical minority who prioritize unrestricted personal freedoms has the potential to produce long term societal consequences. Firstly, it indicates the frailty of a common universe of factual reality. As discussed later in the chapter, social realities are constructed. But the Covid-19 crisis has shown that they are often constructed in “patches” rather than as one unified “common sense” (Lyotard, 1984). In a kind of tribalization of the social discourse, people begin to live in simultaneous but separate realities. This is an explosive situation as the work of the ethnomethodologist, Harold Garfinkel, shows that when people’s common sense understanding of situations are challenged, the emotional response is disorientation, bewilderment and anger (Garfinkel, 1967).

Secondly, the declining trust in the role of technoscience and of evidence based solutions to global problems, indicates a shifting relationship to modern science and its central role in advancing society. To exercise control over the risks they confront, laypersons try to assimilate expert knowledge and internalize it into their conduct of life. They reassert control over their powerlessness by creating new forms of popular skepticism: they become self-taught experts by trusting no one and relying on their own ability to vet contradictory sources of information. In the case of Covid-19, this has produced new sources of anxiety in the form of an infodemic — the massive amount of information, true and false, circulating around the disease (Pulido et al., 2020). No one truly knows who to believe about information that is nevertheless consequential to human health and decisions concerning future crises.

Feeling Rules

In fact emotional life follows detailed cultural scripts and feeling rules. Feeling rules are a set of socially shared guidelines that direct how people want to try to feel and not to feel emotions according to given situations (Hochschild, 1979). People are obliged to systematically manage their emotions in response to different social situations.

For example, we often speak of “having the right” to feel angry at someone. Or we say we “should feel more grateful” to a benefactor. We chide ourselves that a friend’s misfortune, a relative’s death, “should have hit us harder,” or that another’s good luck, or our own, should have inspired more joy. We know feeling rules, too, from how others react to what they infer from our emotive display. Another may say to us, “You shouldn’t feel so guilty; it wasn’t your fault,” or “You don’t have a right to feel jealous, given our agreement” (Hochschild, 1979).

As Hochschild argues, the fact that people are even able to distance themselves enough from their feelings to recognize that something like a set of feeling rules may or may not apply in certain situations is a product of the modern “ironic” posture towards the self, quite foreign to traditional cultures.

Making Connections: Sociology in the Real World

Do Funeral Selfies Violate Deeply Held Feeling Rules?


Funeral Service at Arlington National Cemetery
Figure 6.7 Do funeral selfies violate deeply held feeling rules? (Image courtesy of MudflapDC/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0


An example of issue that revolves around feeling rules is the controversy that emerged over people, generally teenagers, or millennials, posting selfies at funerals. Selfies are the photographic self portraits taken with camera at arms length to be shared on social media. Taking and posting selfie photographs on social media like Instagram is commonly regarded as a frivolous, if not a purely narcissistic and self-absorbed pastime. A headline in the Huffington Post read, “Funeral Selfies Are The Latest Evidence Apocalypse Can’t Come Soon Enough” (Huffington Post, 2013). Taking selfies at funerals is seen to violate deeply held views about the solemnity and emotional tenor of funerals and the etiquette of mourning.

A commentator on an article that defended funeral selfies stated the problem clearly:

But I can’t comprehend WHY you would be taking pictures of yourself if you’re so deep into the grieving process. It does not compute. When my mother died six years ago … I didn’t decide to whip out my phone and take photos of myself in my cute outfit or pretty makeup …. I didn’t even think about that stuff. I was too busy grieving the loss of someone that I loved. I just don’t understand how taking a selfie has anything to do with the grieving process. It’s just wildly inappropriate imo [in my opinion]. It bugs me that they don’t think of this before they post the damn pic or don’t care (Doughty, 2013).

For this commentator, it is not just that selfies are seen as frivolous, but that the people taking them do not know how to feel the appropriate feelings. She sees this as a character defect.

The defender of funeral selfies, a mortician herself, makes a similar argument but from the other side of the issue. Breaking the feeling rules of funerals is not good etiquette but reflects “our tragic disengagement with the reality of death” rather than a personal defect. “Modern death practices in the West, created by the funeral industry, have given teenagers diddly squat to do when someone dies” and therefore their feelings have no support in collective ritual (Doughty, 2013).

Emotional Management

Emotions are therefore subject to more or less conscious practices of emotion management, the way individuals work on producing or inhibiting feelings according to the social expectations of different situations. They are not as natural, spontaneous or involuntary as popularly assumed. Moreover, this intimate and personal component of life is subject to macro-level processes like commodification. In post-industrial societies, services—nursing and care professions, flight attendants, call center employees, waiters, sales clerks, teachers, community policing officers, therapists, etc.—increasingly require expertise in the use of emotional labour. Sociologists speak of emotional labour “when deep gestures of exchange enter the market sector and are bought and sold as an aspect of labour power” (Hochschild, 1979). Managing emotion according to meticulous protocols becomes part of the job description because emotional tonality is part of the commodity being sold.

The philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1992) also noted the emotional or affective nature of power. He drew on Spinoza’s distinction between joy and sadness as affects that express the feelings of power and powerlessness respectively. Power for Deleuze is defined as the sense of being able to do something; feeling uninhibited. Powerlessness on the other hand is the sense of being unable to something; feeling blocked. When a person feels joy, they feel themselves to be at the maximum of their power of action; they feel that they have fulfilled one of their abilities. Joy is the expression of the experience of feeling empowered. When a person feels sadness they feel separated from their power of action; they feel that they failed to do something they could have done because of circumstances, inhibitions, or because they were prevented or forbidden from doing it. Sadness is the expression of the experience of feeling disempowered. Deleuze argues that sadness is therefore the effect of a power that is exercised over people; they are prevented from realizing or fulfilling their powers of action. In Deleuze’s analysis contemporary manifestations of power–the power of various types of tyrant, judge or priest in particular–are accompanied by techniques that strip people of their powers of action (joy) and instill feelings of impotence, inadequacy, guilt, indebtedness, and bad conscience.

As Brym et al., (2013) argue, “the common sense view of emotions as unique, spontaneous, uncontrollable, authentic, natural, and perhaps even rooted exclusively in our biological makeup proves to be misguided.”

Social Constructions of Reality

Mimes making faces
Figure 6.8 According to sociologists, reality is constructed through interactions with others. To what degree is this like the fanciful realities of mimes who make their own worlds through gestures and physical comedy? (Photo courtesy of Jan Lewandowski/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

How do sociologists explain large scale social structures starting from the point of view of micro-scale social interactions? In 1966 sociologists Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann wrote The Social Construction of Reality. They asked, how do institutions actually arise? If an institution is essentially just a collection of interacting individuals,  how do they come to appear as “given, unalterable or self evident”?  Berger and Luckmann argued that the objective reality of society, (i.e.,Durkheim’s “social facts”), is created by humans and human interaction, through a process of habitualization. If society and its institutions seem to be objective social facts that exist externally to individuals, they become that way through an ongoing process of creation and forgetting. Habitualization describes how “any action that is repeated frequently becomes cast into a pattern, which can then be … performed again in the future in the same manner and with the same economical effort” (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Not only do people construct their own society, but they accept it as it is because others have created it before them. Society is, in fact, “habit.”

Berger and Luckmann (1966) describe three separate processes through which “society” is accomplished: externalization, objectivation and internalization. Firstly, in externalization, human activity and labour create products that are separate from the creator. This is evident in commodity production when cars and other things are produced and then sold on the market, but it also applies to the production of social agreements, job descriptions, social roles, technical knowledge, managerial decisions, memoranda, rules, systems and so on. These are created by individuals through various social processes but then stand independently from them. Secondly, in objectivation, products of human creation obtain the character of objects which act back on the creators. Once a rule is established for example, it acts upon people, as if through its own agency, and constrains the lives of the people it rules. Thirdly, in internalization, the objective world is “retrojected” into consciousness through socialization. People internalize the rules and accept them as the guiding principles of their behaviour.

For example, a school exists as a school and not just as a building because students, teachers and others agree that it is a school. They create the school and formulate expectations about the type of activities and relationships that will go on there. They interact “in school” in regular patterns according to this construct. If the school is older than the student, it was created by the agreement of others before the student enrolled. In a sense, it continues to exist by consensus and habit, both prior and current. This is an example of the process of institutionalization, the act of implanting a convention or norm into society that is repeated through time. Bear in mind that the institution, while socially constructed, is still quite real.

Another way of looking at this concept of socially constructed reality is through W. I. Thomas’s notable Thomas theorem which states, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences” (Thomas and Thomas, 1928). That is, people’s behaviour can be determined by their mutual definition of the situation  rather than by any independent or “objective” criterion of reality. Once the definition of the situation is established, people act according to it. It is real in its consequences. In the school for example, there is an agreed upon rule of etiquette between students and teachers, which could have been formulated otherwise. This definition of the situation is inter-subjective in the sense that it is based on a subjective understanding shared mutually by multiple individuals,  but it is also real in its consequences. If a student or teacher steps out of line at school there are sanctions of varying severity. Thomas states therefore that moral codes and social norms are created by “successive definitions of the situation.”

Howard Becker (1963) elaborates on this idea in his theory of labeling and deviance (see Chapter 8. Deviance, Crime, and Social Control). If someone violates a particular rule it does not mean they are deviant in other respects. But being labelled “deviant” by authorities (police, parents, teachers, etc.) initiates a chain of consequences for the individual, which makes it difficult for them to participate in conventional groups and activities (like holding a job or going to school) with the “normals.” The individual is also subject to common popular diagnoses about why they have “gone” that way — e.g., “he is a bad seed,” “she is weak willed,” etc. — which furthers the perception that they are an outsider. These factors in turn make it more difficult for the individual to conform to other rules which they had no intention of violating. The individual is placed in an increasingly untenable position in which it becomes increasingly likely they will need to resort to deceit and rule violation. “Treating a person as though he [or she] were generally rather than specifically deviant produces a self-fulfilling prophecy” (Becker, 1963). A teenager who is repeatedly given a label — overachiever, player, bum, delinquent — might live up to the term, even though it was not initially part of their character.

Figure 6.9 The story line of a self-fulfilling prophecy appears in many literary works, perhaps most famously in the story of Oedipus. Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father and marry his mother. In going out of his way to avoid his fate, Oedipus inadvertently fulfills it. Oedipus’s story could be read as a parable about the social construction of reality. (Photo courtesy of Jean-Antoine-Theodore Giroust/Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

This concept is further refined by sociologist Robert K. Merton in his definition of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Merton explains that with a self-fulfilling prophecy, even a false idea can become true if it is acted on. Merton gives the example of a “bank run.” Say for some reason, a number of people falsely fear that their bank is soon to be bankrupt. Because of this false notion, people run to their bank and demand all their cash at once. As banks rarely, if ever, have that much money on hand, the bank does indeed run out of money, fulfilling the customers’ prophecy. Similarly, the role of “investor confidence” was prominent in the promotion of unsupportable investments that lead up to the financial crisis of 2008. Investor confidence is another social construct, which is “real in its consequences” but based on a fiction.

Social reality is constructed by an idea which people follow. The idea does not need to be correct to be followed. This is a key component in people acting on conspiracy theories. A conspiracy theory is an explanation of events based on the belief that a group of actors have colluded in secret to reach malevolent goals (Bale, 2007). There have been actual conspiracies at the highest level of politics and commerce, the Watergate scandal of the 1970s and the 1950-1960s collusion between American automakers to prevent installation of catalytic converters and other technologies to reduce pollution are examples. More frequently, conspiracies about the “deep state” or international agencies seeking world domination are fabricated but consequential when people believe them. The most tragic example of this was the fake 19th century “Protocols of Zion”  text, which German Anti-Semites and eventually the German Nazi Party claimed was evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy for global domination.

Figure 6.10 “Pizzagate” conspiracy protest, March 25, 2017. “Conspiracy theories are consequential as they have a real impact on people’s health, relationships, and safety; they are universal in that belief in them is widespread across times, cultures, and social settings; they are emotional given that negative emotions and not rational deliberations cause conspiracy beliefs; and they are social as conspiracy beliefs are closely associated with psychological motivations underlying intergroup conflict” (Prooijen & Douglas, 2018). (Image courtesy of Blink O’fanaye/Flickr.) CC BY-NC 2.0

A more contemporary cycle of conspiracy began with the QAnon conspiracy “Pizzagate.” This started in 2016 with the Wikileaks theft and release of emails from John Podesta, the then chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 U.S. presidential campaign (LeFrance, 2020). Podestra had emailed with the owner of Comet Ping Pong, a pizza restaurant in Washington, DC., about fundraising events. The anonymous “Q” on the 4chan imageboard website started the rumour that these emails were evidence of secret, ritualistic child abuse by various Democratic party and celebrity elites taking place in the basement of the restaurant. The restaurant does not have a basement and the rumours were completely fabricated, but an ordinary citizen, Edgar Maddison Welch, believed them, armed himself with weapons, entered the restaurant and threatened staff and customers until he realized his mistake. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he admitted after being taken into custody by police (LeFrance, 2020). The conspiracy was false, some might say completely ludicrous, but it was real in its consequences. People periodically continue to gather outside the restaurant to protest the non-existent underground pedophilia ring (Schaffer, 2021). In Canada, there were approximately 100,000 members of Canadian QAnon Facebook groups in 2020 (Remski, 2021).

Symbolic Interaction

How does a definition of the situation come to be established in everyday social interaction? Social interaction is in crucial respects symbolic interaction–interaction which is mediated by the exchange and interpretation of symbols. In symbolic interaction, people contrive to reach a mutual understanding of each other and of the tasks at hand through the exchange and interpretation of symbols and gestures. Only on this basis can a coordinated action be accomplished. The process of communication is the central quality of the human social condition. Social interaction depends on communication.

George Herbert Mead (1934) argues that people often act as if an idea they have “in their head” defines who they are and what the situation in front of them is. But ideas are in fact nebulous. They have to be confirmed by the others in the situation before they can become “real” or “actual.” Therefore, communication is central to defining social situations and making them “real.” Moreover, communication operates less on exchanging fully formed ideas and more on indications or gestures of meaning that call out responses in others. One person says “Hello” in the expectation that the other person will say “Hello” in response. The meaning of the exchange of  “Hellos” is established when both parties recognize and define the situation as an encounter. If the 1st person then indicates with their body language that they are on their way somewhere, they call out a response in the 2nd person to release them from the encounter. If the 2nd person complies, they mutually define the situation as a “brief encounter.” If the 2nd person lingers, then the situation can become  awkward, and further explanations are required to redefine the situation.

Herbert Blumer (1969) clarifies the three parts of this communication processes as follows. The speaker’s own and the other’s actions might be physical but they are also symbolic in that they refer beyond themselves to meanings which call out for the response of the other: (a) they indicate to the other what they are expected to do, (b) they indicate what the speaker plans to do, and (c) on this basis they form a mutual definition of the situation that indicates how a joint action will be agreed upon, carried out, and accomplished. Until each of the “indications” is confirmed by the other, the situation is undefined and no coordinated joint action is possible. A robber tells a victim to put their hands up, which indicates (a) what the victim is supposed to do (i.e., not resist); (b) what the robber intends to do (i.e., take the victim’s money), and (c) what the joint action is going to be (i.e., a robbery). Blumer writes: “If there is confusion or misunderstanding along any one of these three lines of meaning, communication is ineffective, interaction is impeded, and the formation of joint action is blocked” (Blumer, 1969).

In this model of communication, the definition of the situation, or mutual understanding of the context and tasks at hand, arises out of ongoing communicative interaction. Situations are not defined in advance, nor are they defined by the isolated understandings of the individuals involved. They are defined by the ongoing indications of meaning given by participants and the responses by the others. “Such a response is its meaning, or gives it its meaning” (Mead, 1934). Even the most habitualized situations involve a process of symbolic interaction  in which a definition of the situation emerges through a mutual interpretation of signs or indications.

Making Connections: Sociological Research

Conversation Analysis

Figure 6.11 In this conversation, how do the body gestures indicate the meaning of what is being said. How do you “read” body gestures?  (Image courtesy of Search Engine People Blog/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Examine a recent conversation in which you participated. If possible, record it or write it out.

  • Did your conversation result in a “joint action” in the sense defined by Mead and Blumer? What was the joint action accomplished in this conversation (e.g., a casual passing of time, a game, a decision, a command, a fight, a work task, an agreement to disagree, etc.)?
  • Compare a recent joint action you were involved with at home, at work, or in a recreational setting that failed (i.e., in the manner Blumer describes). Along which of the three “lines of meaning” did it fail? Did you or someone else fail to express their intentions clearly? Did the others fail to interpret the intentions correctly? Was the definition of the situation unclear or ambiguous?
  • How did you get from “a” to “b” in the conversation? To what degree did your conversation proceed as a conversation of indications or gestures?  Did the conversation unfold according to your initial intention or your initial opinion about things (i.e.,according to the “indication” you expressed)? On the other hand, in what way did you have to modify your line of conversation as a result of the responses of the other person, and vice versa? In what way was the course, meaning, or content of the conversation socially determined through the process of conversation itself?
  • With respect to any specific statement made in the conversation, is Mead right in saying that it is only the response of the other that “gives it its meaning”? If you said, “it’s a nice day,” does this require confirmation from the other person to make it so? Does the meaning of a statement like that change according to the other person’s response? Maybe they do not think the days is nice. What does this imply for the social nature of conversation and language? Is it ever possible to refer to fixed meanings or already existing definitions of the situation in particular social settings? Or is meaning always unfixed or “emergent,” waiting to be discovered at the outcome of an interaction?
  • In light of the concept of communication described by Mead and Blumer, define what is meant by “symbol” and what is meant by “interaction” in the term symbolic interaction. How was your conversation a symbolic interaction?

Roles and Status

People employ many types of behaviours in day-to-day life. From the point of view of micro-level sociology, roles are patterns of behaviour expected of a person who occupies particular social status or position in society. They are held in place by ones own and others expections of how people in that role are supposed to behave. Currently, while reading this text, readers are playing the role of a student. They are expected to be reading in a certain way, linking ideas together and remembering information. However, the reader also plays other roles in their life, such as daughter, pet owner, boyfriend, neighbour, or employee. Each of these other roles comes with a set of expectations as well.

These various roles are each associated with a different status. Sociologists use the term status to describe the access to resources and benefits a person experiences according to the rank or prestige of their  role in society. Some statuses are ascribed — those that individuals do not select, such as son, elderly person, racial minority member or female. Others, called achieved statuses, are obtained by personal effort or choice, such as a high school dropout, self-made millionaire, or sociologist. As a daughter or son, one occupies a different status than as a drop out or millionaire. One person can be associated with a multitude of roles and statuses. Even a single status such as “student” has a complex role-set, or array of roles, attached to it: roles in the classroom, in study groups, in interactions with university administrators and student loans officers, in solicitations from credit card companies, in getting bus or movie discounts, in earning tuition, etc. (Merton 1957).

If too much is required of a single role, individuals can experience role strain. Consider the duties of a parent: cooking, cleaning, nursing, driving, problem solving, tears drying, moral counseling—the list goes on. Similarly, a person can experience role conflict when one or more roles are contradictory. A parent who also has a full-time career can experience role conflict on a daily basis. When there is a deadline at the office, but a sick child needs to be picked up from school, which comes first? When a parent is working toward a promotion but their children want them to take them to hockey practice several times a week, which do they choose? Being a college student can conflict with being an employee, being an athlete, or even being a friend. People’s roles in life have a great effect on their decisions and on who they become.

Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Figure 6.12 William Shakespeare (1564-1616). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) Public Domain

Of course, it is impossible to look inside a person’s head and study what role they are playing. All sociologists can observe is behaviour, or role performance. Role performance is how a person expresses their role. Describing it as a “performance” emphasizes that individuals use certain gestures, manners, scripts and “routines” to act out their roles. But they also seek to influence others in their enactments of specific roles. They perform for audiences of various sorts. In this sense, individuals in social contexts are always performers.

The focus on the importance of role performance in everyday life led Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a framework called dramaturgical analysis. It represents a sociological reflection on the famous line from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.”

Goffman used the theater as an analogy for social interaction. Dramaturgy in theater is the art of dramatic composition on stage. He recognized that people played their roles and engaged in interaction theatrically, often following common social scripts and using props and costumes to support their roles.  For example, he notes that simply wearing a white lab coat brings to mind in the observer stock images of cleanliness, scientific modernity, scrupulous exactitude and authoritative knowledge. In England in the 1950s, even chimney sweeps and perfume clerks wore white lab coats as props “to provide the client with the understanding that the delicate tasks performed by these persons [would] be performed in … a standardized, clinical confidential manner” (Goffman, 1959). Whether the perfume clerk was clinically competent or not, the lab coat was used to bolster the impression that they were. Today, even without the lab coats, an analogous repertoire of props, sets and scripts are used to convey the clean, clinical, and confidential tasks of the perfume clerk.

A man stands in front of a tall shelf of glass perfume bottles. He pours perfume from a large bottle into palm-sized bottles.
Figure 6.13 Perfume shop in Mumbai, India. (Photo courtesy of monika.monika/Flickr.) CC BY 2.0

Scripts and props are important in social encounters, because, as noted earlier, individuals are constrained to present a “face” that represents how they want the others to see them. They appear “in-face.” They present themselves to others as they hope to be perceived. “First impressions” and “getting off on the right foot” are therefore crucial for the way the events during a social interaction unfold.  Individuals project an image of themselves that, once proposed, they find themselves committed to for the duration of the encounter. If a person presents themselves as a “know-it-all,” then they have to follow through on knowing it all or else they will end up “shame-faced.”

Their presentation therefore defines the situation but also entails that certain lines of responsive action will be available to them while others will not. It is difficult to change ones mode of self-presentation midway through a social interaction. The individual’s self-presentation therefore has a promissory character that will either be borne out by the ensuing interactions or discredited. In either case, it commits the performer and the audience to a certain predictable series of events no matter what the specific content of the social encounter is.

The audience of a performance is not passive however. The audience also projects a definition of the situation through their responses to the performer. In general, it is normal for the audience of a performance to try to attune their responses as much as possible with the performers self-presentation so that open contradiction in the interaction does not emerge. The rules of tact dictate that the audience accommodates the performer’s claims and agrees to overlook minor flaws in the performance so that the encounter can reach its conclusion without mishap.

Goffman points out that this attunement is not usually a true consensus in which everyone expresses their honest feelings and agrees with one another in an open and candid manner. Rather, it is more like a covert agreement, much like that in a theater performance, to temporarily suspend disbelief. Individuals are expected to suppress their real feelings and project an attitude to the performance that they imagine the others will find acceptable.  They establish a provisional “official ruling” on the performance. In this way social encounters work based on a temporary modus vivendi or “working consensus” with regard to “whose claims concerning what issues will be temporarily honoured” (Goffman, 1959).

As everyone who has been in an awkward social situation knows, the stakes of mutual accommodation in social interactions are high. Events that contradict, discredit or throw doubt upon the performer threaten to disrupt the social encounter. When it happens, this results in a kind of micro-level anomie or normlessness, which is characterized by a general uncertainty about what is going to happen and is usually painful for everyone involved.

When these disruptive events occur, the interaction itself may come to a confused and embarrassed halt. Some of the assumptions upon which the responses of the participants had been predicated become untenable, and the participants find themselves lodged in an interaction for which the situation has been wrongly defined and is now no longer defined. At such moments the individual whose presentation has been discredited may feel ashamed while the others present may feel hostile, and all the participants may come to feel ill at ease, nonplussed, out of countenance, embarrassed, experiencing the kind of anomie that is generated when the minute social system of face-to-face interaction breaks down (Goffman, 1959).

As a result, the logic of social situations dictates that individuals are continually obliged to manage the impression they are making on the others. Impression management often involves using the same type of “props” and “lines” as an actor, but also various defensive strategies like avoiding certain topics of conversation that might discredit the actor’s face or status. It is also in the interest of the audience to accommodate the performance, as far as is practicable, through various protective practices (e.g., tact, willful ignorance, etc.). Social interactions are not governed by truth so much as by preventative practices employed to avoid embarrassments.

This led to Goffman’s focus on the ritualized nature of social interaction—the way in which the “scripts” of social encounters become routine, repetitive, and unconscious. They follow predictable forms to avoid social breakdowns. For example, the ritual exchange in passing, “Hi. How are you?” “Fine, how are you?” is an  exchange of symbolic tokens, ordinarily empty of actual content, (i.e.,one does not really want to know how the other is in any detail), which indicates sufficient mutual concern for the other that it stands in for a complete social interaction. Nothing is substantially exchanged, but a ritualized acknowledgement of the other is accomplished.

Nevertheless, the emphasis in Goffman’s analysis, as in symbolic interactionism as a whole, is that the social encounter, and social reality itself, is open and unpredictable. It can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, they have to improvise their role as the situation unfolds. Each situation is like a new scene in a play, and individuals perform different roles depending on who is present.Face to face interaction relies on a continuous process of mutual interpretation, of signs given and signs received. Social reality is not predetermined by structures, functions, roles, or history, even if it often draws on these in the same way actors draw on background knowledge and experience in creating a credible character.

Front Stage and Back Stage

Erving Goffman
Figure 6.14 Erving Goffman (1922–1982). “We move into the world as individuals, achieve character, and become persons” (Goffman, 1959). (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.) CC BY-SA 3.0

Goffman observes that face-to-face performances usually take place in highly bounded “regions”—both spatially and temporally—which the impressions and understandings fostered by the performances tend to saturate. A work meeting takes place in a board room for a specified period of time and generally provides the single focus for the participants. The same can be said for dinner in a restaurant, a ball hockey game or a classroom lecture. Following his theatrical metaphor, Goffman (1959) further breaks down the regions of performance into front stage and back stage to examine the different implications they have for behaviour.

The front stage is the place where the performance is given to an audience, including the fixed sign-equipment (props) or setting that supports the performance (the raised podium of the judge’s bench, the family photos of the living room, the bookshelves of the professor’s office, etc.). On the front stage the performer puts on a personal front (or face), which includes elements of appearance–uniforms, insignia, clothing, hairstyle, gender or racial characteristics, body weight, posture, etc.–that convey their claim to status, and elements of manner–aggressiveness or passivity, seriousness or joviality, politeness or informality, etc.–that foreshadow how they plan to play their role. The front stage is where the performer is on display. They are therefore constrained to maintain expressive control, as a single note off key can disrupt the tone of an entire performance. A server, for example, needs to read the situation table-by-table in walking the tricky line between establishing clear, firm, professional boundaries with the paying clients, (who are generally of higher status than the server), while also being friendly, courteous and informal so that tips will be forthcoming.

The back stage is generally out of the public eye, the place where the front stage performance is prepared. It is also the place where “the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course” (Goffman, 1959). The waitress retreats to the kitchen to complain about the customers, the date retreats to the washroom to reassemble crucial make-up or hair details, the lawyer goes to the reference room to look up a matter of law she is not sure about, the neat and proper clerk goes out in the street to have a cigarette, etc. The back stage regions are where props are stored, costumes adjusted and examined for flaws, roles rehearsed and ceremonial equipment hidden–like a good bottle of scotch one is saving for a special occasion–so the audience cannot see how their treatment differs from others. As Goffman says, back stage is where the performer goes to drop the performance and be themselves temporarily: “Here the performer can relax; he can drop his front, forgo speaking his lines, and step out of character” (Goffman, 1959).

However, the implications of Goffman’s dramaturgical approach are that one is always playing a role. Even backstage the performer is not necessarily able to be their “true self.” Firstly, role performances are often performed as part of a team “whose intimate cooperation is required if a given projected definition of the situation is to be maintained”–the restaurant staff, the law office, the husband and wife team, etc. As Goffman describes, this means that team members are involved with each other in a relationship of reciprocal dependence, because any team member of a team has the power to give away the secrets of the show, and reciprocal familiarity, because team members are all “persons in the know” and not a position to maintain their front before each other. This entails that even backstage they are obliged to demonstrate their allegiance to the team project and play their respective “back stage” roles.

Secondly,  whether one plays one’s role sincerely–by being fully taken in with one’s own act–or with a degree of cynicism or role distance–aware of acting a role that one is not fully identified with–the self is never truly singular or authentic in Goffman’s view. There is no single, authentic self free of the obligations to perform. The self is just a collection of roles that people play out for others in different situations. Think about the way one behaves around coworkers versus the way one behaves around one’s grandparents versus the way one behaves with a blind date. Even if one does not consciously try to alter their personal performance in each situation, the grandparents, coworkers, and date probably see different sides of one. Back stage or front stage, the self is always an artifact of the ongoing stratagems of accommodation and impression management involved in the social interaction with particular persons.

Goffman concludes that the self is, on one side, “an image pieced together from the expressive implications of the full flow of events in an undertaking,” and on the other, “a kind of player in a ritual game” (Goffman, 1972). The self is essentially a mask: a persona.

It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves (Park quoted in Goffman, 1959)

Goffman’s point here is not that individuals are completely inauthentic or phony. “In so far as this mask represents the conception we have formed of ourselves—the role we are striving to live up to—this mask is our truer self, the self we would like to be” (Goffman, 1959).

The Individual and Society

Figure 6.15 The individual and society. (Image courtesy of Stefan Klauke/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Many sociological findings like the ones surveyed in this chapter strike the newcomer to the discipline as counter-intuitive because people in modern society are so steeped in a certain way of thinking about themselves as unique individuals. This way of thinking is what Goffman called the “schoolboy attitude”: the idea that individuals make their way in life and establish their identity and their merits by personal effort and individual character (Goffman, 1972). In this way of thinking, the individual is understood to be independent of external influences; as having a private subjective interior life of memories, impressions, feelings, fantasies, likes and dislikes that is their s alone. The individual makes free, rational, and autonomous decisions between different courses of action and is therefore individually responsible for their decisions and actions, etc. From this perspective, the individual is unique, and their authenticity resides in finding and expressing this uniqueness. “Be yourself!” might be the dominant message we receive through childhood and adolescence, if not beyond.

However, these ideas about the individual are social.  They go back to the political and ethical philosophies of the 18th century Enlightenment, the aesthetic reaction of the 19th century Romantic movement, and before that to ideas of self-cultivation from the Rennaissance and earlier Stoic practices of the ancient Greeks and Romans. What this means is that the modern idea of the individual is not a product of universal “human nature” or of unique personal self-discovery but a type of relationship to the self that emerges under specific historical conditions. People make themselves into individuals using a model of individuality which is socially approved. The inquiry of micro-level sociology is to examine the various ways in which the individual is produced in social interaction, just like any other human artifact.

One aspect of late modern society has in fact been the proliferation of practices of the self such as mindfulness exercises, life long learning, or crossfit training in which people seek to consciously modify their individuality and individual potential. Practices of the self are shared ways in which people freely or voluntarily act upon themselves to transform themselves (Foucault, 1994). Today people are confronted with an array of competing options for engaging in practices of the self including various forms of counseling and therapy, meditation practices, yoga, martial arts, dieting, fitness regimes, different systems of health management, as well as numerous spiritual practices adopted in ‘do-it-yourself’ fashion from the world religions.

In Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979), there is a scene in which Brian addresses the crowd of disciples that have assembled outside his window. He implores them to be themselves and not to follow him.

Brian: Look, you’ve got it all wrong! You don’t need to follow ME, You don’t need to follow anybody! You’ve got to think for your selves! You’re all individuals!
The Crowd: Yes! We’re all individuals!
Brian: You’re all different!
The Crowd: Yes, we are all different!
Man in crowd: I’m not…
The Crowd: Ssssh!

The Python troupe put their finger on the paradox of the modern idea of the individual. The idea of the modern individual is to be defined by ones uniqueness and difference from all others. In a sense, one is socially obliged to be an individual in a manner that forces one to conform to the crowd. There is no individual choice in the matter. Moreover, as Goffman would have it, to be “an individual” is to make a claim for one’s uniqueness and authenticity before others using a common, shared repertoire impression management stratagems to demonstrate it. Paradoxically, to be different means to be the same in many important aspects.


Figure 6.16 We are all individuals! (Image courtesy of RXAphotos/Flickr.) CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Introduction to Sociology – 3rd Canadian Edition Copyright © 2023 by William Little is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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