Social Animals – an examination of theories of social interaction, by Phin Upham
How influenced are we by the world around us? How much are our personality, our observations, our actions, and even our thoughts are deeply influenced by what we believe will be effective or by the norms of the social world around us. Phin Upham reviews some of the seminal pieces on the topic.
A deep claim in sociology argues that what we think is personal is actually social, what we think is free is actually heavily guided, what we think is “me” is actually “us.” In an attempt to free itself of what it perceived of the shackles of religion American sociologists, psychologists, and philosophers like Dewey, James, Goffman and Austin embraced a more rationalistic, science based, methodologically rigorous form of pragmatism. This, along with some heavy German influences, led to theories that we are not guided by some higher power, nor are we Godly individualists, but rather we are part of a whole, living in a sea of others and responding to this reality.
Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Society gives us a picture of man in a world where the surface and the purpose are not obviously one. We ask “how are you” we intent to express our interest in another’s inner being. Goffman goes on to show that the form of society shapes our actions such that we are constantly aware and “presenting” ourselves to others. We have a kind of “presented self” which we try to act and make others believe. Constantly and always, we try to manipulate others into this belief and they do the same to us. I would also hypothesize that a Red Queen sort of expansion of this pattern, perhaps, causes an escalation of this buildup and can explain some of our oddest and most intricate social phenomena. These simple building blocks make up our complex reality, chaos theory in the social realm. Goffman theorizes that these feelings can be conscious or unconscious, “sometimes the individual will act in a thoroughly calculating manner, expressing himself in a given way wholly in order to give the kind of impression to others that is likely to evoke from them a specific response he is concerned to obtain. Sometimes the individual will be calculating in his activity but be relatively unaware that this is the case” and sometimes he will act according to a tradition or pattern whether or not he intends to be seen in this light (6). Goffman’s model of human behavior depends on what motive an individual has in a situation. If one wants to come off as bored, happy, “cool,” powerful, attractive, etc. an individual will pass on these clues in the form of semiotic behavior.
Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construct of Realty and Robert Merton’s The Self-Fulfilling Prophesy both see reality as socially constructed, but in a subtly different way. Berger and Luckmann’s view is more epistemological in nature. They see the “true” world as non-useful, perhaps even non- sensical, way of speaking. They instead argue that knowledge has as much to do with how realities are “knowing” in society. Knowledge for a monk and a businessman, as they put it, is a different body. Subjective meanings, human activities, become the objects and truths and objects of the world, not vice versa. This question has been batted around in Philosophy for centuries with no really satisfactory result. This piece adds to sociology by showing that even the tokens of the world itself, and the truths of our knowledge, cannot be seen as removed form the social reality. One can give oneself a headache if one asks if the previous statement is in fact true (a meta-truth). The logic of the statement it is itself objectively, and necessarily true, but by the content of the statement it is not. Merton, on the other hand, has a more limited and practical scope as his thesis. He warns that our perception of reality can often shape that reality to fit our perception. If we see one group as stupid we will not bother to educate them, discriminate against them in highly intellectual jobs, and then it is little wonder when objective measures reflect subjective beliefs. We can create our reality through social mechanisms that reinforce psychological biases. This seems to make a lot of sense, though some obvious exceptions stand out. Some groups, the Jewish people, for example, have persevered and overcome grievous social biases by constructing internal social mechanisms to preserve learning and skills and by creating their own closely knit system of values and self-images. Merton’s piece serves as a warning for sociologists who crunch data to reach objective results or reinforce theories.
Randall Collins presents perhaps the most structurally explanatory model. He attempts to explain all actions, thoughts, and behaviors in society, or so it seems. He hypothesizes that classical economics fails to explain human action because it is overly physical in its orientation. He constructs a psychological system of rewards and goals that explains the “altruistic” and “non-calculating” aspects of human behavior. Interaction rituals serve as socially created and personally created actions or series of actions (or thoughts) that serve to generate a variable level of emotional energy. Different actions, or thoughts, give individuals different levels of EE and this emotional buzz motivates then to keep acting. Individuals apportion their time to maximize their overall flow of EE, over the short term and by investing in the long term.
Randall Collins, Four Sociological Traditions, read again pp. 203-234, and also Chapter 4: The Microinteractionist Tradition.
Stephan, W.G. (1987). The contact hypothesis in intergroup relations. In C. Hendrick (ed.), Group Processes and Intergroup Relations. Newbury Park: Sage Publications (pp. 13-40).
Robert K. Merton, “The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy.” In Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press, 1968, pp. 475-490.
Peter L. Berger & Thomas Luckman, The Social Construction of Reality. New York: Anchor, 1966, pp. 1-18.
Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Woodstock, NY: Overlook, 1973, pp. 1-76.
Randall Collins, “Emotional Energy as the Common Denominator of Rational Action.” Rationality and Society 5(2) (April 1993):203-230.
Phin Upham has a PhD in Applied Economics from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania). Phin is a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org