The Sociology of Social Settings:
Symbolic Interactionism Among Strangers and Associates
Analyzing social settings in a sociological context can be best achieved by utilizing the different theoretical approaches in the three schools of thought. Conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and structural functionalism all assist theorists in compiling ideas to correlate bits of data to fit under each school‘s respective umbrella.. For example if one were to analyze the members of a college basketball team and job-seekers in a large corporation as members of distinct groups as part of a larger social setting, symbolic interactionism would best explain the imagined and real status of each member and could apply to all members. The other two theories would explain competition (conflict theory) and the need for hierarchy for groups to succeed (structural functionalism). However, the perception of each group and the interactions and symbols associated with their status best explains the achievement and mobility of the group.
Members of a college sports team, for this purpose we will analyze basketball players, all present a unified front with the display of identical uniforms, a common coach, and a media representation of the team that mirrors the teams successes of failures. Charles Cooley coined the phrase the “looking glass self” to convey the idea that one develops an idea of him or herself due to the reactions of those around them (Cooley, 196-199). Media portrayals of a team will give each player a sense of self and effect performance and further enhance of inhibit team success as a whole. As the interactions and symbols of success change from game to game, team players must evaluate and reevaluate their “looking glass self” to continue with their tasks. Ideas such as loyalty, team, and pride are all social constructs and are made by each individual within the team due to their interactions with each other and the outside world, who identify each member as a part of this group. Therefore, all associated with team involvement is constantly evolving due to its symbols and interactions. Conflict theory does not begin to encompass all members of the group as they will disperse in later life to fulfill differing roles in society due to economic success or failure, racial differences, and status (as some might not even graduate college). Conflict theory would be useful here to see where each member is placed in society and how they react to or reject one another. Structural functionalism would explain the importance of the coach, team leaders, and the school as a necessary form of checks and balances to achieve success bureaucratically. But this seems obvious and unworthy of further inquiry.
Another group to analyze are job-seekers in a competitive job market, who all face competition with one another to achieve the needed career goals of each member of this un-associated group. Conflict theory would simply overstate the obvious issue of competition and since members of this group do not share a common culture, the theory would not be beneficial. Structural functionalism would explain the need for some groups to hold powerful positions in the job world and for others to fulfill smaller roles, it would be useful only after analyzing the job-seekers success of failure to find a job and the position they are filling after the search. Therefore, symbolic interactionism, again, is most useful in explaining the relationships between job-seeker and a hiring party. Such symbols, such as accolades represented on a resume, the style of dress and language of the job-seeker, and the affiliations with other important and desirable members of society all influence hiring party decisions. The initial interaction of the interview process is the way by which the job-seeker and hiring party transcend from strangers to acquaintances and this is all constructed through interaction. Therefore, the symbols and interactions of the job-seeker are the ultimate determinate of career success or failure.
Symbolic interactionism is the favored of the three theories in these contexts and others. When analyzing social settings items like language, action, and interaction can only be explained by this theoretical position. Since society is made up of many different types of individuals it is the perceptions of the reality of their social status in the larger social structure that can explain both change and continuity. The mainstay of this approach is that society is not static, but constantly evolving, whereas the other approaches are meant to cover broad and constant states of society. Conflict theory places individuals in social settings in complex groups affording social status, race, inequality, and other issues. Each sub-group is in constant conflict with one another for power and equality. For this reason, no one group exists and instead what can be examined is many different groups, making social setting analysis extremely difficult. Structural functionalism would look at institutions more exclusively then the individuals within them. This approach overlaps conflict theory and demonstrates how institutions further inequality or balance society in an evolutionary fashion. Therefore when looking at individuals in a social setting, functionalism must take the larger structures (government, church, schools) into account and cannot fully explain group cohesion or tension in many social situations (such as within a job setting or other team environment). Symbolic interactionism remains the most favorable of all the schools as it can more easily be applied in broad and ambiguous settings.
Cooley, Charles. Human Nature and the Social Order. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press. (1983). 196-199.
Garner, Roberta. “Postwar Perspectives” in Social Theory: continuity and confrontation. Peterborough, Ontario, CA: Broadview Press. (2000). 307-309.
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