The Radical Roots of Symbolic Interactionism

Early symbolic interaction was strongly influenced by critical criminology. Edwin Sutherland was both a critical criminologist and a symbolic interactionist:

Edwin Hardin Sutherland (Gibbon, Nebraska August 13, 1883 – October 11, 1950 Bloomington, Indiana) was an American sociologist. He is considered as one of the most influential criminologists of the twentieth century. He was a sociologist of the symbolic interactionist school of thought and is best known for defining white-collar crime and differential association, a general theory of crime and delinquency. Sutherland earned his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago in 1913.” (

He is probably best known for his book White Collar Crime (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York 1949), but also together with Donald R. Cressey for Principles of Criminology (1934) and work on the sub-cultures of criminality.

This tradition was continued by early symbolic interactionists, especially in the work of Howard S. Becker, best illustrated by his article “Whose Side Are We On?” Social Problems, 14 (Winter, 1967) pp. 239–47. Becker’s home page is worth visiting as he was publishing as early as 1951: “The Professional Dance Musician and His Audience,” American Journal of Sociology, LVII (September, 1951) pp. 136–44. Like Sutherland and Cressey he worked within the tradition of the study of sub-cultures, empirically studied in the ethnographic tradition applied to jazz musicians, trainee doctors (Boys in White), and other sub-cultures. Ethnographic qualitative sociological research became the methodological trademark of the symbolic interactionist perspective.

Another landmark publication was by Harvey A. Farberman’s article on criminogenic market structures: “A Criminogenic Market Structure: the Automobile Industry” The Sociological Quarterly Volume 16,  Issue 4pages 438–457September 1975. See also the post on Peter M. Hall and his work on applying Symbolic Interactionist analysis to Politics”, and in the same post a brief discussion of Erving Goffman on “cooling out”“Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure”.

Total Institutions: Erving Goffman was also a pioneer of the study of the total institution. His 1961 book Asylums began an era in critical criminology that examined the total institution as a concept. Goffman also suggested that the concept of total institution could be applied to a wide range of organisations in which individuals live their entire round of life, either temporarily or permanently. This includes an astonishing variety of institutions. Here are some of them in the Wikipedia item on Total institutions:

Total institutions are divided by Goffman into five different types:[3][9]

  1. institutions established to care for people felt to be both harmless and incapable: orphanagespoor houses and nursing homes.
  2. places established to care for people felt to be incapable of looking after themselves and a threat to the community, albeit an unintended one: leprosariumsmental hospitals, and tuberculosis sanitariums.
  3. institutions organised to protect the community against what are felt to be intentional dangers to it, with the welfare of the people thus sequestered not the immediate issue: concentration campsP.O.W. campspenitentiaries, and jails.
  4. institutions purportedly established to better pursue some worklike tasks and justifying themselves only on these instrumental grounds: colonial compoundswork campsboarding schoolsships, army barracks, and large mansions from the point of view of those who live in the servants’ quarters.
  5. establishments designed as retreats from the world even while often serving also as training stations for the religious; examples are conventsabbeysmonasteries, and other cloisters.

This is a substantial extension of the concept of the original mental hospital, applying it to the round of life in any institutional context. It also marks the beginning of the end of indoor relief for the poor and its replacement with outdoor relief (the Speenhamland system and subsequent solutions funded by local taxes).

No doubt this varies, in the USA from one state to another and in the UK from one local authority to another. But at the very least it marks the end of indoor relief for all but the criminally defined. Prison security was, if anything, tightened and physical restraints made more effective, despite the ending in Britain of the transportation of convicted men and women to colonies in other continents.

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