Symbolic Interaction and Power: structure versus agency

Symbolic Interaction and Power: structure vs agency (First published in jimsresearchnotes 17 Dec 2009).

This is part 9 in a series of research notes on Structure vs Agency in urban research

The heritage of the Gouldner critique

One of the most persistent misconceptions concerning symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology by those unfamiliar with the perspectives is that it is about trivia – the details of middle class mannerisms, the presentation of self, image-projecting and identity-management – without relevance to wider social problems and social structure.

This misconception has been given some credence by Gouldner’s (1971) critique as well as by the critique of deviancy theory by the new criminology, though not by its successor, critical criminology (see 28 Oct jimsresearchnotes). It is also true that a very selective reading of the work of Erving Goffman (notably Goffman 1959) allows ill-willed critics to make such claims if they are prepared to give a distorted analysis of Goffman’s work.

The “passive agency” heritage of urban political economy

As Lebas (1977) observed, it is quite possible for political economy research to be based on class analysis and she points to an article by Ian Carter (1974) as an example of this in regional sociology. Yet the article was but a foretaste, and the book-length treatment (Carter, 1979) amply justifies her position. With rich detail of class conflict, everyday life and the struggle for survival in the northeast of Scotland, Carter (1979), republished as a paperback in 1997, is a brilliant study and should be essential reading for all urban sociologists.

The Community Development Projects (CDPs) at first promised to emulate Carter’s treatment of regional rural sociology with work on regional urban sociology, but in the end urban political economy chose another way, one that focused on the broad sweep of history at the expense of studies of the class struggle. How and why that happened would make a good evaluation study of the CDPs, especially by someone who had been involved in one of the projects.

So although most urban political economists are today at least vaguely familiar with symbolic interaction, the biases and focus of urban political economy since 1975 have etched themself deeply into the consciousness of its erstwhile supporters. In the short run there is little to be done about this other than wait until the generation-shift replaces the old political economists with younger urban sociologists, a process that has already started.

In this research note I want to counter those selectively-based claims by examining interactionist research that focuses on the dimension of power in relationships. I limit my examination to (1) the early work of Erving Goffman, (2) Negotiated Order Theory and (3) Gusfield (1963) as an early example of constructionist social problems. (endnote 1)

There is, of course, much work after this as well – in fact even more – but my main concern is to show, firstly, that such critiques were even at the time they were written quite simply wrong, a gloss that justified leaving the individual level aside and secondly, that in 1975, when the new urban sociology became urban political economy and rejected the urban managerial thesis, there was overwhelming evidence to show that much research was available – and had been available some 15 years earlier – on symbolic interactionism (and indeed phenomenology, ethnomethodology and microsociology in general : exchange theory, sociometry, reference group theory) – with a central focus on the exercise of power at the level of interpersonal interaction and in organisations and the professions. (endnote 2)

1. Erving Goffman on Total InstitutionsAn early book of key importance in this context is Goffman’s study of asylum inmates and staff (Goffman, 1961). Asylums is based on a year of observation in a psychiatric hospital, but includes references to a range of other kinds of institutions. Goffman developed the concept of a total institution to encapsulate the power dimension of a whole class of institutions of which psychiatric hospitals is but one. He defined it as follows:

“A total institution may be defined as a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life.” (Goffman, 1961 Introduction p.11) (endnote 3)

Goffman is clear that this is an ideal type (1961 p. 17). It is also a very broad definition, including many institutions, both voluntary and involuntary. Apart from asylums it includes other more or less involuntary “places of residence and work” such as prisons, prisoner-of-war camps, concentration camps and refugee camps. But it also includes more or less voluntary institutions, such as boarding schools, religious cloisters (both male and female), military establishments, isolation hospitals and sanatoria. Goffman draws on a wide variety of such examples, taken from autobiographies, fiction and other literary sources.

My use in the preceding paragraph of the expression “more or less” involuntary/voluntary highlights a crucial aspect of what Goffman was doing. For he invites us to question what “voluntary” and “involuntary” mean. In real life very few actions are completely one or the other, apart from those at the extremities of what is a highly complex continuum of social circumstances, actions, interactions and motivations.

It is impossible here to do justice to this complex and influential book. Its main thrust is the analysis of how, when first entering a total institution, new members are put through rituals of degradation and induction (such as head-shaving and being read the rules) and then adjust to coping with a life regulated by staff whose main task is to oversee and control inmates’ behaviour often down to the smallest details. This is part of what Goffman terms in his own study of mental hospitals “the moral career of the mental patient” (Goffman, 1961 pp. 115-156). It is also about how in a controlling environment inmates create a sense of identity. Another chapter is devoted to “The Underlife of a Public Institution: a study of ways of making out in a mental hospital” (Goffman, pp. 157-280), on how inmates avoid control measures and create small havens of privacy for themselves.

2. Negotiated Order Theory (endnote 4)

This originated out of the collaborative work of several researchers – sociologists, psychologists, psychiatrists – brought together by Anselm Strauss (footnote 5) (Strauss et al., 1963, 1964) and became a major theme in his life’s work (see Strauss, 1978, 1982). It is probably the closest that a symbolic interactionist – indeed any sociologist – has come to developing a theory linking micro sociology and macrosociology in a way that goes beyond a programmatic statement like figuration or structuration and provides the conceptual and empirical tools to carry out the necessary qualitative research.

Strauss et al (1964) is a study of the different treatment ideologies in the wards of two Chicago psychiatric hospitals at a time when psychiatric treatment was undergoing major changes, with competing conceptions of what was most appropriate, roughly classified as somatotherapy, psychotherapy and sociotherapy (Strauss et al 1964 p.4).

The researchers conceived of “…the organization as an arena in which ideologies are put into operation, clarified, modified, and transformed.” (Strauss et al, 1964 p. 14) between the senior medical staff – psychiatrists, nurses, psychologists and social workers, as well as non-professionals such as aides or attendants – in the various wards and departments in which decisions were made as to what procedures to adopt or implement.

In this sense, then, ideologies were always “in process”, alliances between staff formed and reformed from case to case and in the light of experience. A negotiated order is always to a degree unstable (and hence “in process”) as staff move, resign, retire, change their views, etc. and new staff with different views replace them.


“We might define “the structure of the hospital” at any point in time as the total of all its rules, agreements and understandings – of whatever kind. Some are so transitory, however, that one might well be reluctant to call them aspects of structure; when the researcher looks for them, they have disappeared almost before he can observe them. But of course, even the firmest rules and concordance are eventually subject to change. Whether one chooses to call the totality of agreement by the name of “structure” or reserves the term only for the most stable or universal features, one nevertheless must focus upon the negotiative and bargaining processes. For these processes are of utmost importance; not only because the work of the hospital gets done largely through them, but because, through them, personnel and organization both become prepared for change – indeed change “in process.”” (Strauss et al, 1964 p. 16)

3. Gusfield on the exercise of power by vested interests influencing social policy

Gusfield (1963) is an early study of the way organised protest can have a major impact on society, to the extent of being able to change a law through campaigning, in this case, the alcohol laws through the introduction of Prohibition. The rise and fall of social problems became a major interest as a result of this research.

The main areas in which the exercise of power has been an early and central concern to symbolic interactionists are (1) the professions, notably through the work of Eliot Freidson, (2) health and (3) deviance.


(1) Constructionist studies of science and technology – Kuhn (1962) notwithstanding – was just a few years too late to be included in this overview of perspectives contemporaneous with the replacement of the new urban sociology with urban political economy around 1975.

(2) Many microsociologies were spawned in the early postwar period but only symbolic interactionism and social constructionism have survived, even flourished. Homans, Blau, Moreno, and others would make an interesting study of the rise and fall of microsociologies. The journal Sociometry lasted the longest of these, but was ultimately absorbed into social psychology, losing its sociological concern for relating the micro and macro levels, until finally redefined to include micro sociology.

(3) pagination from the 1987 Peregrine Books reprint of Goffman (1961)

(4) Lists of references, including one on the negotiated order, can be accessed and downloaded via the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction website.

(5) This link is to a University of California San Francisco website dedicated to Anselm Strauss and his life-work (he died in 1996). It includes a Festschrift and several obituaries, including contributions from his students, notably Kathy Charmaz and David Maines who became prominent symbolic interactionists, and a collection edited by Adele E. Clarke with contributions by the generation following. Strauss’ urban sociology has a section of its own, of 2 books and 3 articles.


Carter, Ian (1974) “The Highlands of Scotland as an underdeveloped region” pp. 279-312 in Emanuel de Kadt (ed) Sociology and Development Routledge

Carter, Ian (1979) Farm Life in Northeast Scotland 1840-1919: the poor man’s country John Donald, Edinburgh (paperback edition 1997)

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Doubleday, New York

Goffman, Erving (1961) Asylums: essays on the social situation of mental patients and other inmates Chicago University Press

Gouldner, Alvin (1971) The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology Heinemann, London

Gusfield, Joseph (1963) Symbolic Crusade: status politics and the American temperance movement University of Illinois Press, Urbana

Kuhn, Thomas S. (1962) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions University of Chicago Press

Lebas, Elizabeth (1977) “Regional Policy Research: some theoretical and methodological problems” in Michael Harloe (ed.) (1977) Captive Cities: Studies in the Political Economy of Cities and RegionsWiley, London (Ch. 3 pp. 79-88)

Strauss, Anselm L.; Leonard Schatzman, Danuta Ehrlich, Rue Bucher, Melvin Sabshin (1963) “The hospital and its negotiated order” in Eliot Friedson (ed) The Hospital in Modern Society Free Press, New York pp.147-169

Strauss, Anselm L.; Leonard Schatzman, Danuta Ehrlich, Rue Bucher, Melvin Sabshin (1964) Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions Free Press, New York

Strauss, Anselm (1978) Negotiations: varieties, contexts, processes & social order Jossey-Bass, San Francisco

Strauss, Anselm (1982) “Interorganizational negotiation” Urban Life (October) Vol.11 No.3 pp.350-367

Each Post is a freestanding short paper that has not been peer reviewed before publishing. Notes may combine into the equivelent of a working paper for seminar purposes.

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