Self and Society

AutorHewitt, John P., 1941-
PealkiriSelf and society: a symbolic interactionist social psychology / John P. Hewitt
IlmunudBoston [etc.]: Allyn and Bacon, 1979. 2nd ed.
ViideHewitt, John P. 1979. Self and society: a symbolic interactionist social psychology. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Various kinds of concrete deprivations - of food, income, or other material conditions of life, of liberty, or of prestige - have existed and continue to exist among many groups, social classes, racial and ethnic categories, and other aggregates of people in this and other societies. Yet instances of widespread rebellion against such deprivations are relatively rare. Although sometimes people revolt, marching either with arms (as in revolutions) or with symbols (as in many nonviolent protests), the more common response is silent endurance of one's lot in life (Hewitt 1979: 4)
Dichotomy between armed/violent and symbolic/communicative forms of protests. A case comes to mind, a B. Dolan's music video, Film The Police, which instigates people to film the police action as a symbolic form of resistance to police brutality.
This book draws on the tradition of theory (and, increasingly, research) known as symbolic interactionism. The phrase, coined by Herbert Blumer, loosely designates the perspective adopted by several generations of sociologists whose intellectual debts are to Charles H. Cooley and especially to George H. Mead. What we undestand as social psychology in this book is roughly that body of sociological work which lies within the symbolic interactionist tradition. This is not to say, of course, that the interactionist approach is merely social psychological, for it addresses issues of social structure are persistence as well, but it is to say that the central concern of symbolic interactionists also are the central concerns of social psychologists, or ought to be. To the basic interactionist position of this book will be added, as appropriate, ideas imported from closely related orientations: phenomenology as sociologists understand it, ethnomethodology, Freudian theory, and role theory. Each has valuable contributions. (Hewitt 1979: 6)
Some notes on the theoretical outlook of this book, and symbolic interactionism generally.
Briefly stated, the paradox is this: Only individual, singly or jointly with one another, act. All else - society, culture, social norms, social structure, authority, power - is in the final analysis dependent on the actions of the individuals. Yet individuals act only because they acquire the capacity to do so as members of a society, which is the source of their knowledge, language, skills, orientations, motives, and many of the other capacities or dispositions they have. Society is temporally prior to individual conduct and it has only visible in conduct; it will persist long after the individual is dead. (Hewitt 1979: 7)
This might have been the correct answer to the sociosemiotic question of what is the minimum object of study for sociology. Most likely, the society as a whole. I wrote down the individual, because I value conduct more than society, but ultimately the interrelation - as has been done here - should be emphasized.
As an object of action, the self is in many respects like other objects: I act toward me (that is; I think about me, talk to me, feel good or ill about me, etc.) on the basis of what I mean to me. What I mean to me is derived from and sustained by my interactions with others, for whom I also am an object. As an object, both to myself and others, from moment to moment and depending on those with whom I am interacting. (Hewitt 1979: 14)
This is a hint towards the looking-glass self. This should be moled over with semiotic notions of subjectivity (the self as semiosis).
...[institutions] exist only insofar as their members act. As Pogo said, "We have met the enemy and he is us!" (Hewitt 1979: 18)
This brief quote made me think of how in many dystopic works the plotline consists of the protagonist realizing this.
What Mead had in mind by the conversation of gestures is well illustrated by two dogs encountering one another: One may growl and bare his teeth; the other responds in like manner and begins to advance; the first dog then lnuges at the other, and the fight is on. Each animal seems to respond to features of the other's behavior - in particular, to the initial parts of its act. The very beginning of a growl seems to set off a response in the other dog, and the beginnings of his response key the responseof the first dog.
This is a "conversation of gestures," so called because the beginning part of the act of one individual is a gesture - a sign - that signifies the impending act and keys an appropriate response. Interaction at this level involves, at best, responses to signs, where the signs (gestures) are actually a tiny fragment of an entire act to follow. Given a growl, the dog is conditioned to respond by attacking, because the growl is a sign of an attack onhim. There is no reflection, however, no "choice" on the part of the dog as to which response he will undertake. Given the gesture, the response is fixed, whether by conditioning or by genetics.
But the possession of symbols gives rise to a new form of social interaction - to what Herbert Blumer coined "symbolic interaction." Suppose we have two (human) boxers in the midst of a bout. One begins to move his arm in the initial phase of a body blow and the other responds automatically with a defensive reaction, perhaps lowering an elbow to fend off the blow. If only this happens, we still have a conversation of gestures. But something else may occur: the boxer may see his opponent's first move in a certain way, decide that it is not indicative of a body blow but is instead a ruse designed to throw him off balance so another punch can be landed, and react ina way calculated to counter the ruse.
If the latter occurs, we have an instance of symbolic interaction, in which one boxer has interpreted the actions of the other. To say he has "interpreted" is only to say that he has designated the other's movement symbolically - he has thought to himself "ruse" and acted accordingly, rather than responding blindly. The movement is objectively there, but its intent has been designated by the boxer, and his response is thus to his own designation of the stimulus rather than to the raw stimulus itself. (Hewitt 1979: 32-33)
This is comparable to Peirce's understanding of signs and symbols. Also brings up yet again the question of instrumental vs communicative, or in simpler words, of the non-sign ("raw stimulus") vs sign ("designation"). This is a complicated topic and should be reserved with gentle care.
A crucial part in the interpretation of the conduct of others is played by the overall configuration of acts, objects, and joint actions perceived by the individual. This configuration is termed the definition of the situation. This concept, which will be discussed in greater detail in chapter four, refers to the fact that social interaction does not occur in an abstract vacuum, but in very specific, concrete, and (usually) well known situations to which people bring a variety of expectations and preconceptions. (Hewitt 1979: 55)
The definition of the situation has so many different definitions. An idea would be to compare this notion to another used for similar purposes: context. The history of these terms might be quite interesting. Right now it seems that situation and context differ temporally: situation encumbers the here-and-now, yet context seems to encumber also what surrounds the here-and-now of the situation. It is just a hunch, a feeling.
Withdrawing recognition of others also is costly because it may, in time, lead to a shrinking of the circle of others with whom the person customarily associates and with respect to whose judgments and self is continually reaffirmed. As Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills have indicated, the avoidance of interaction with negative others leads to a retreat to a circle of "confirming intimate others." [from their Character and Social Structure] As the individual moves through successive stages in the life cycle, he may encounter so many negative images of self that more and more people are seen as insignificant. Eventually, the person may find only a small circle of confirming others in whose company a positive self-conception can be sustained. In the extreme, the person may retreat to a private fantasy world where no real others are encountered, only imagined others who always give positive appraisals. (Hewitt 1979: 110)
A negative aspect of #avoidance. Both the positive and negative should be considered when avoidance becomes the object of discussion (if and when it does).
Two factors are of central importance in this level of negotiation (which might be designated quite simply as "politics").
The first is self-interest. Given the multitude of units and individuals that make up a society, the interests of particular units or individuals are rarely felt (by them) to coincide with one another, and often not with those of the society as a whole. Physicians may feel greater loyalty to their profession than the particular hospotal in which they have privileges; Roman Catholics may find it in their interest to support state aid to private schools, while Protestants oppose such assistance, perhaps on constitutional grounds, or perhaps only because it will aid Catholics. City politicians may oppose changes in the distribution of state or federal assistance to cities if such changes will reduce their control over how the money is spent or eliminate its value as political patronage. The pursuit of self-interest, along with the need to negotiate between competing interests, is inherent in the problem of maintaining social order.
The second negotiating factor of importance is power. Individuals and collectives obviously are not equal in their capacity to influence one another or to pursue their interests successfully. Rather, through a variety of means, individuals and groups exercise power over one another - they pursue their goals successfully without securing the consent of others. The resources of power are varied, ranging from naked force to the control of information and knowledge, the dispensation of rewards by controlling jobs and financial resources, and the manipulation of symbols. (Hewitt 1979: 192)
Two aspects of "politics": self-interest and power. The first comes quite close to the 'we/they' opposition while the second implies that power is essentially capacity to influence.
Moreover, although collective behavior often is defined in contrast to institutional behavior, an additional kind of differentiation between the two often is implicit. Beginning with the responses of men such as Gustav LeBon to the social disorders of the French Revolution, collective behavior often has been thought of as basically antisocial, destructive, irrational. Such phrases as "mob psychology" and "crowd psychology" convey the essence of this view of collective behavior, which is seen as conduct stripped to its bearest impulsive origins, bringing out the words in people, and as occuring only when social order disintegrates (or itself leading to the disintegration of social order). (Hewitt 1979: 199)
This is a familiar account of collective/social action. Compare this to: "any large aggregation of individuals - "of whatever characters composed" - is by its very nature unstable and volatile, since collectivities are likely to be dominated by emotions and swayed by passions and sentiments rather than guided by reason and interest" (Iancu 2009: 18).
This variable response to deviance as a controlling identity is worth stressing, for it suggests that the personal discredit attendant on deviant labeling is always a relative matter. Although the interactionist approach to deviance often is called "societal reaction" theory, because it emphasizes the effect of definitions on the phenomenon, it is rare that the reaction to deviance occurs at a fully "societal" level. Rather, particular groups and categories of people within the society react to various forms of conduct in different ways. Thus, not only are there pressures on anyone labeled as deviant to accpet the deviant label, but there also are resources available for resisting such definitions of the self. The person labeled deviant generally has access to some social circle that will define the conduct in question in terms that vary from the deviant label. Thus, for example, homosexuals are likely to turn to one another for supportive definitions of their sexual orientation. Juvenile delinquents typically construct in each other's company a set of justifications of their conduct that define it in terms other than delinquency. (Hewitt 1979: 230)
This made me think of how anarchists quibble with defining themselves as anarchists. Some simply avoid it, others come to grips with it by denying it being deviant, reloading the "lovers of chaos" definition with "lovers of freedom" for example.
Indeed, it ought to be stressed that what is true of deviant acts is true of all acts: any act lends itself to a great variety of interpretations, depending on the context of the act and the imputations others make about it. A wink may signify a multitude of intentions, as may prolonged eye contact between members of the same or opposite sexes, and a host of other nonverbal behavior. Moreover, more complex acts may be subject to a variety of interpretations. Is a man taking a typewriter home from work in order to do work or to seal it? Is a youngster driving a car on his way home in the family automobile or taking a ride in a stolen vehicle? The meaning of acts is a function of how observers act toward them, and how acting persons in turn respond. (Hewitt 1979: 236)
The ambiguity of winks seems to be notorious (cf. well known case by Cliffort Geertz). It is interesting how most of these kinds of examples (a routine situation becoming problematic, for example) are based on nonverbal behaviour.
Some references:
  • Ernest Becker, The Birth and Death of Meaning (New York: Free Press, 1962).
  • Leslie A. White, "Four Stages in the Evolution of Minding," in Sol Tax (ed.), The Evolution of Man, vol. 2 of Evolution After Darwin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969).
  • Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969). TÜR
  • George H. Mead, The Philosophy of the Act, edited and with an introduction by Charles W. Morris (Chicago: The Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1939).
  • Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (New York: Scribners, 1902). TÜR
  • Peter McHugh, Defining the Situation (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1968).
  • George H. Mead, The Philosophy of the Present (Chicago: Open Court, 1932)
  • Alfred Schutz: On Phenomenology and Social Relations, Helmut Wagner (ed.), (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970).
  • Alfred Schutz, "Common-sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action," pp. 203-346 in Maurice Natanson (ed.), Philosophy of the Social Sciences: A Reader (New York: Random House, 1963).
  • Richard E. Dawson and Kenneth Prewitt, Political Socialization (Boston: Little, Brown, 1969).
  • Ralph H. Turner and Lewis Killian, Collective Behavior. 2nd ed. (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1972).


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