The Micro-Macro Distinction in Sociology: a symbolic interactionist approach

First Published in jimsresearchnotes 15 May 2012

This was the title of a manuscript I tried to get published as a book. I can’t remember which publisher I sent it to, but it was turned down.  Although the title was the same as the article published in The Sociological Review in November 1976, “The Micro-Macro Distinction in Sociology“, the book manuscript added the sub-title to indicate my primary interest was symbolic interaction, just as it had been for the dissertation.

The manuscript included the following chapters from the original typed manuscript, with chapter summaries. I then make some post hoc observations:

1. Perspectives on the Micro-Macro DistinctionExamines the different ways in which levels of analysis have been handled in sociology from Durkheim to the present (the chapter was an extended version of the November 1976 Sociological Review article). An Abstract can be read on my Uppsala University Home Page. The article was written and submitted from the Department of Politics at Adelaide University, Australia, with helpful comments on the pre-publication draft from Roy Fitzhenry. 

2. Conceptions of Micro Structure: Critical examination of micro sociology and its failure to integrate with macro sociological analysis. Starts from the emerging debates on “sociological” and “psychological” social psychologies, including G. H. Mead, Anselm Strauss, Norman K. Denzin and  Jack D. Douglas.

3. Conceptions of Macro StructureOn the attempts from macro sociologists to develop an autonomous societal level without reference to micro processes at the level of individuals in interaction.

4. The Emergent Properties of InteractionDefines the concept of “emergent properties” in terms of the effect of micro processes on macro structures, and considers how a combination of negotiation analysis and network analysis can be used to study the emergent properties of interaction. This was along the lines of my doctoral dissertation An Interactionist Approach to Macro Sociology. 

5. Towards a Sub-MacrosociologyApplies the framework outlined in the previous chapter to landlord-tenant relationships to show how networks of interpersonal negotiation have a direct effect upon macro structures within which such micro processes occur.

Some post hoc Observations: My dissertation at Gothenburg University was planned out before going to Minnesota, and then on leaving for Sweden it was more or less decided by the absence of interactionism in Gothenburg Sociology. An American visitor, Charles Anderson, was particularly helpful. I know of no other symbolic interactionist attempt to  study the Highland Clearances in terms of interaction chains.

Retrospectively, the concept of sub-macro sociology is probably the closest that I came to the symbolic interactionist concept of mesostructure. This was first published, as far as I can tell, by David R. Maines (1979) “Mesostructure and Social Process” Contemporary Sociology , pp. 524-527, a lead contribution to a review symposium on Anselm Strauss Negotiations, Varieties, Contexts, Processes and Social Order Jossey-Bass, San Francisco 1978.

The same applies to the work of Goffman. Frame Analysis, though published in 1974, has since been subjected to considerable controversy and third-party post hoc refinement. P. M. Strong’s obituary of Goffman Strong (1983)  and the 1985 Dingwall and Strong critique of the limitations of Negotiated Order Theory agree that Goffman had only begun his exploration of manners and the dramaturgical metaphor. Anne Rawls (1987) “The Interaction Order sui generis is probably the best analysis, centring on a comparison of Frame Analysis and Giddens’ theory of structuration. Yet I would note that The Constitution of Society (1984) has as its sub-title “Outline of the Theory of Structuration”. So it was only intended as a first book on structuration, which left it very programmatic in nature. Subsequent publications instead moved on to other issues (notably gender).

The theory of structuration that Anthony Giddens developed was programmatic and did not involve enough emphasis on interpersonal interaction to anchor it firmly in the symbolic interactionist tradition. But of course by 1977 or 1978 Anthony Giddens’ The Constitution of Society: outline of the Theory of Structuration (Polity Press, 1984) was still six or seven years from publication.

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