An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology

An early version of this paper was published in jimsresearchnotes 5 April 2012

When I resigned from my lectureship at Aberdeen University to go to Minnesota it was to do a dissertation that was going to be a study of the Highland Clearances from a symbolic interactionist perspective. It would have to have been a historical study of the process of redefining clan chiefs as landlords so that clan members could be evicted just as if they were insecure tenants. It was based on published material, notably John Prebble The Highland Clearances Penguin, 1969 [1963], and Ian Grimble The Trial of Patrick Sellar Routledge, 1962.

All this can be read in ‘”Economic Interests” versus “Economic Pressures”‘: two case-studies of social change” Social Theory and Practice (Fall) Vol.2 No.2 pp.217-28) submitted before arriving at Minnesota and accepted for publication while I was there. So although the Scottish Highland Clearances provided the case study material the main purpose was to understand macro societal change in terms of symbolic interactionist concepts. It was an attempt to formulate a symbolic interactionist approach to macro sociology (hence the title of both this research note and the dissertation).

It comprised a conceptual conjunction between my undergraduate years at Leicester University (see the Leicester School of Sociology jimsresearchnotes, 15 Feb 2011) with Symbolic Interactionism at Aberdeen. Formative were Norbert Elias and Anthony Giddens, each developing their own concepts out of which developed, respectively, figurational sociology and  structuration theory. These two sociologist were still largely unknown in the early 1960s: Giddens because he was young and at the start of his career and Elias because although quite old even then had still not made an impact on the outside world.

Together these new developments reflected a wider concern in sociology to understand societal level processes in terms of human agency. This was to be the dominant concern of the 1960s, 1970s and the early 1980s, that in 1964 G. C. Homans in a now famous Presidential Address of the American Sociological Association wanted to bring individuals back into the central concern of sociology. The whole article can be read online:

The origins of this lay in the debates that must surely have been an important formative factor in the development of symbolic interactionism at Harvard University in earlier incarnations of the Sociology Department (such as Social Relations) around the work of Talcott Parsons and Structural Functionalism. This is an aspect that I know little about, but my impression is that Harold Garfinkel was a key interpreter of the way he used social psychology into arguing that society was not some mechanistic product of abstract theory but firmly anchored in individual perceptions. A good example of this has been Gary Alan Fine, who was a Harvard student in the social psychology programme. Barrington Moore Jr held a different position from Garfinkel in that he was a third major critic, but in the wider sense of showing how variety was the characteristic of differences between societies.

But above all, An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology was inspired by early interactionism with many references to symbolic interactionists, notably Kai Erikson, Edwin Schur, Edwin Lemert, Egon Bittner, Harold Garfinkel, Tom Scheff, Anselm Strauss, Howard Becker, as well as two 1971 mimeos by Aberdeen contemporaries, one being Norman Stockman and Bryan S, Turner “Ambiguities in the definition of the social” and the other by Phil Strong “Organisational goals and structure”.

My idea had been to use a method that kept the individuals in focus but linked the episodes of interaction together to form chains of encounters that affected one another. In these chains of encounters news of the outcomes spread to others to influence taken for granted beliefs either by weakening or reinforcing them, giving encounters new foci and new energy, or discouraging them. Rumour and self-confidence would be affected. Soldiers returning from the Napoleonic Wars brought new and often tougher perspectives that often strengthened the will to resist, while families used a variety of passive resistance actions to prevent the issuing of writs. Legal processes, such as the trial of Patrick Sellar, the outcome of which had a defining influence on both sides by setting legal precedents and by undermining the morale and determination of those resisting being removed.

In these encounters news of the outcomes spread to others to influence taken for granted beliefs either by weakening or reinforcing them. My argument was that this was the way in which lairds turned clan relatives into tenants who could be moved to other activities such as fishing or kelp, or evicted at will to make way for much larger sheep farms – less labour intensive than crofts but much more profitable for the land-owner. The Clan chiefs began to identify themselves with the Edinburgh and London ruling class and began keeping town houses to enable them to keep in touch with government decisions and to be ready to deploy their lawyers to defend their interests.

The attempt to integrate micro and macro levels and to do so in a symbolic interactionist perspective gave my dissertation its particular character. However, its prime purpose was the use of secondary sources on the clearances to develop an interactionist approach to macro sociology in which the individual level is integral to the macro explanation.

Gothenburg as the research turning point: In retrospect, going to Gothenburg for my dissertation proved to be a major turning point in the focus of my research in a number of respects, not least in terms of property tenure.

Gothenburg Sociology Department was also where I did much of the work on the Micro-Macro Distinction in Sociology, especially the article with the title “Perspectives on the micro-macro distinction”. It was published in November 1976 in The Sociological Review (this is a link to the somewhat fuzzy first page). 1976 was the same year as my dissertation was examined and passed.

At that stage I had no intention of including the second case-study of the failed attempt to Germanize the Ostmark in the 1972 Social Theory & Practice article, though my renewed interest in Germany took a new turn from my experiences in Gothenburg, as described on my IBF Home Page. There is also an early post in jimsresearchnotes on this with references: language and ethnocentrism, 20th July 2009.

I did not know it at the time, but my dissertation on the Highland Clearances was the first result of the symbolic interactionist diaspora from Aberdeen that resulted from the Programme Grant Illsley obtained for medical sociology. But it was first by only 2 years, Ian Carter’s book Farm Life in Northeast Scotland was published in 1979 and is a far more detailed regional empirical study. But Ian Carter was never, as far as I know, interested in symbolic interaction, and the perspective was not used in any of the books he published from New Zealand.

My dissertation was first and foremost a symbolic interactionist analysis of the micro-macro distinction applied to the Highland Clearances. It was this I hoped to do at Minnesota. But I was only there for little more than a year, so it never happened. As everything turned out I wrote the same dissertation in any case, except it was published in Gothenburg.

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