Interactionism (sometimes known as interpretivism) is a generic sociological paradigm that brings under its umbrella a number of subperspectives:

* Phenomenology
* Ethnomethodology
* Symbolic interactionism
* Social constructionism

Interactionism has become one of the dominant sociological perspectives in the world today. It is a theory based on social interaction, and it was first linked to the work of the German theorist Max Weber. It promotes the idea that nothing in society is determined, and that people can break free of a label as individuals. This is sociology on the micro-level. Critics would say that it is merely a mild form of postmodernist theory, however it has in recent times incorporated Marxism and New Right theory Fact|date=April 2007.

Interactionist theory has grown in the latter half of the twentieth century, having its roots in America. It can be noted how close the ideas do link to the concept of the American dream, with the individual having the power to change society and indeed history from below, rather than being manipulated from above. Therefore in the world of sociology, it is a theory which studies individuals and how they act within society.

George Herbert Mead, as an advocate of pragmatism and the subjectivity of social reality, is considered a leader in the development of interactionism. Herbert Blumer expanded on Mead's work and coined the term "Symbolic interactionism".

In the philosophy of mind, the position labeled interactionism is a form of property dualism, which in turn is a form of emergent materialism.


Interactionism is micro-sociological and believes that meaning is produced through the interactions of individuals.

The social interaction is a face-to-face process consisting of actions, reactions, and mutual adaptation between two or more individuals. The interaction includes all language (including body language) and mannerisms. The goal of the social interaction is to communicate with others. If the interaction is in danger of ending before one intends it to, it can be conserved by conforming to the others' expectations, by ignoring certain incidents or by solving apparent problems. Erving Goffman underlines the importance of control in the interaction. One must attempt to control the others' behaviour during the interaction, in order to attain the information one is seeking and in order to control the perception of one's own image. Important concepts in the field of interactionism include the "social role" and Goffman's "presentation of self".

Interactionist methodology

Interactionists want to understand each individual, and how they act within society. In extreme cases, they would deny class as an issue, and would say that we cannot generalise that everyone from one social class thinks in one way. Instead they believe everyone has different attitudes, values, culture and beliefs. Therefore it is the duty of the sociologist to carry out the study within society. They set out to gather qualitative data.

Rejection of Structuralist methods

Interactionists reject the approach of gathering statistical (quantitative) data, a method preferred by structuralists. These methods include; experiments, structured interviews, questionnaires, non-participant observation and secondary sources.They have a few basic criticisms, namely:
*Statistical data is not "valid". This is to say that these methods don't provide us with a true picture of society on the topic being researched.
*Research is biased and therefore not objective. Whilst the sociologist would be distant, it is argued that a hypothesis means the research is biased towards a pre-set conclusion.
*Information gathered is a "snapshot" of society. Questionnaires, surveys or structured interviews can only give a picture of how a person feels at a specific moment in time, and not how attitudes and values change over time.
*People can be categorized into their answers to surveys, etc. This is because they must choose from a limited range of answers. Interactionists believe this means that people firstly may not understand, and secondly, may be "boxed in" to answers they don't necessarily agree with.
*They reject all forms of experiments, seeing them as "artificial". A more mild form of experiment, the field experiment takes place in the subject's natural surroundings. This method was supported by David Rosenhan in 1973. This is again rejected by Interactionists, who claim it is artificial, and also raises ethical issues to experiment on people.

Preferred Interactionist Methods

Interactionists prefer several methods to contrast with Structuralist methods, namely; unstructured interviews, covert participant observation, overt participant observation, and analysing historical, public and personal documents by content analysis.

Interactionist methods generally reject the absolute need to provide statistics. Structuralists argue this allows cause and effect to be shown Fact|date=April 2008, as well as isolating variables so that relationships and trends can be distinguished over time. Instead, interactionists want to "go deep" to explain society. This draws criticisms such as:
*Information and sociological research cannot be compared or contrasted, hence we can never truly understand how society changes. Data is not reliable.
*The information that is gathered is interpreted (hence the name "Interpretivist") by a sociologist, therefore it isn't objective, but biased.

Despite these criticisms, interactionist methods do allow flexibility. The fact that there is no hypothesis means that the sociologist is not rooted in attempting to prove dogma or theory. Instead, researchers react to what they discover, not assuming anything about society. This is arguably why some theorists have turned to this method. Fact|date=April 2007

Case Studies

*Field Experiments: David Rosenhan 1973. Studied the treatment of mental health in California and got 8 normal researchers to carry out the study at 12 hospitals. Critics say the method is unethical, and the vast majority of Interactionists concur.Fact|date=September 2008
*Unstructured interviews: William Labov 1973. Study of socio-linguistics. Joan Smith 1998. Aaron Cicourel and John Kitsuse 1963 ethno-methodology study in American schools. Howard Becker 1971.
*Participant Observation: John Howard Griffin, Michael Haralambos.

Interactionist links to other theories

Interactionism, or the idea that individuals have more awareness, skill and power to change their own situation, links to several other theories.

Marxist Interactionists


Pluralism is the idea that the "public gets what the public wants." It is the notion that our lives offer choice like a representative democracy. This idea of consumer choice means that each individual has power as a consumer to change any aspect of life if he/she wishes to do so. The situation that exists is, according to the theory, a reflection of the norms, values and beliefs of the majority of people. It fits with the idea of individual power, although interactionist sociologists may not accept the idea that we are all labeled as "consumers".

See also

* Symbolic interactionism
* Phenomenology
* Ethnomethodology
* Social constructionism
* Situationism

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