Against the Symbolic Interactionism Dogma? Radical Interactionism enters into force

This book review by Yves Laberge in Symbolic Interaction deals with what he terms radical interactionism, generalising to symbolic interactionism. This is something I have been aware of in my own writings – it is what I refer to in this blog as critical criminology. My reason for using such a much narrower definition is that I have been much influenced by the new criminology of Jock Young and the influence of critical criminology on my writing. But radical interactionism is probably a more accurate description.

“Against the Symbolic Interactionism Dogma? Radical Interactionism Enters into Force”

Yves Laberge

Centr’ERE-UQAM, Canada

Radical Interactionism on the Rise

Edited by Lonnie Athens. Emerald Group Publishing Limited: Bingley, Series: “Studies in Symbolic Interaction,” Vol. 41, 2013, xi+46 p. ISBN: 9781781907849.

The advent and recognition of an emerging theoretical approach, Radical Interac- tionism, is not achieved yet as fierce resistance still occurs among many die-hard soci- ologists who remain blindly faithful to G. H. Mead’s founding texts, many of which were posthumous. Even though he did not use the term as such, George Herbert Mead (1863 to 1931) did not oppose to the fundamentals of Radical Interactionism; he just did not pay much attention to these dimensions that would be developed afterwards. Nowadays, just like old Marxists never turn away from The Communist Manifesto, or similarly to those Freudians who only rely on Freud by the book and nobody else, too many sociologists seem to be reluctant to consider alternative approaches, or even concepts not considered by Mead in his undoubtedly founding, yet unfinished theoretical reflection on Symbolic Interactionism. As such, Radical Interactionism is not new in itself; its salient idea can be found in Robert Ezra Park’s books from 1950 and in his previous writings: “Of course, Park went beyond Mead by not merely advocating, but actually putting forth methodological directives for the development of a naturalistic form of inquiry as an alternative methodology to positivism for carrying out sociological research” (8).

Radical Interactionism focuses on two neglected dimensions in Symbolic Interac- tionism: dominance and power (8). This is not fortuitous. As a tentative explanation, I will propose a hypothesis not contained in the book Radical Interactionism on the Rise. It is interesting and telling to observe that the focus on domination and power have traditionally been fundamental in conflict theory traditions (and furthermore within Marxian philosophy and Marxist approaches) in Sociology and Political Science; this is true almost everywhere, but to a lesser degree in the United States. There was a time around the 1950s when English translations of books by Marx were, to say the least, suspect to be found in American classes and uncommon in public libraries. In this touchy context, studying themes of dominance and power in the U.S. academia was of course not impossible, but more often it had to be done indirectly; and even though there were precursors and exceptions, these trends in conflict sociology blossomed relatively later in North America, only from the 1930s, for example when members of the Frankfurt School came to their exile in New York City. In some way, it was through the late rereading of contemporary foreign philosophers (such as Adorno, and later Foucault, Louis Althusser, Marcuse, and most poststructuralist thinkers) that a whole new generation of American students were introduced to Marx and Marxist concepts such as dominance and power, often relying on European the- oreticians others than Marx and Engels. In a similar fashion, Cultural Studies (under the influence and inspiration of Gramsci) helped as well in its redesigned approaches on hegemony and power during the following decades. Incidentally, Gramsci’s use of hegemony is echoed here in Chapter 5 (153).

The five core components of Radical Interactionism are highlighted in the first pages (16): first the consideration of Robert E. Park (1864 to 1944) as precursor of Radical Interactionism (even from the late 1920s), secondly the focus on the themes of dominance and power, then the insistence for the mandatory inclusion of dominance and power in every analysis of any social interaction, plus a special attention given to “the impact of individuals’ and groups’ unstated assumptions on their interaction with one another,” and finally the avoidance or freeing from patterns like linguistic phenomenalism, considered as a “trap” by radical interactionists (1).

Radical Interactionism on the Rise contains eight chapters by eight contributors proposing various theoretical examinations plus two case studies. For example, Chapter 3 demonstrates how Radical Interactionism can explain “science as a field of struggles” and scientific practice as a privileged site for domination and hegemony (65). Another comparative chapter analyses Paul Willis’s 1977 book Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs accordingly to both approaches, Symbolic Interactionism and then Radical Interactionism, with significant differences in the outcomes. Further on, Chapter 6 uses Radical Interactionism in the analysis of the TV series Mad Men with a focus on dominance and demeanor. The last chapter discusses and opposes two trends: Radical Interactionism and neo-pragmatism, the latter being seen as too far from social inquiry (218). However, this collection of essays is not a unanimous praise for Radical Interactionism as some critiques are raised, for example in Chapter 7 that uses a feminist perspective. The most rewarding passages of this book explain the limits of Mead’s reasoning and how his followers (and some dissidents) added to his theoretical insights (36).

Maybe the term itself of Radical Interactionism needs to be rethought; like an accusation, the label “radical” is always attributed to an extreme opponent, and rarely self-given. Radical Interactionism is obviously seen as being “radical” by its opponents such as the conservative tenants of Symbolic Interactionism; but one might ask, “Radical” compared to what? Or from which point of view can one say this approach is radical? Is it because it is opposed to an unchanged tradition from almost one century ago?

All in all, Radical Interactionism on the Rise is a very strong and refreshing book that intelligently actualizes G. H. Mead’s intuitions. Experienced sociologists who are already familiar with Symbolic Interactionism will find here an important questioning of this approach, which is being aptly revisited and constructively criticized. Likewise, scholars seeking a much needed critique of G. H. Mead’s position will appreciate this nuanced discussion about the intuitions of a man who at 68 died too soon to explore and reconsider all the dimensions he once put into light, as proven by the number of his posthumous books. On the other hand, students in pragmatics or in social psychology will appreciate Chapter 4 dedicated to John Dewey’s conception of dominance (as opposed to Marx’s definition), although they might find these conceptual debates less meaningful for pragmatism’s sake. On the down side, the absence of an index is a pity in such a book that needs to be differentiated from a special issue of an academic journal. Very few typos remain (Norman Denzin’s name is misspelled once, 19). In summary, because of its welcome renewal of microsociology and the original proposals brought by all contributors, this Radical Interactionism on the Rise will be essential for university libraries in English-speaking countries, but neither for col- leges nor public libraries. It would serve as well as a mandatory addendum to any seminar on microsociology for the salient issues explored and debated here.


Yves Laberge is a Canadian sociologist; he holds a Ph.D. in sociology and completed post-doctoral research at CNRS in Paris. He is currently a member of the Centr’ERE-UQAM, a research center dedicated to Environmental Education and Eco-Citizenship. He is as well Senior Book Series Editor for an academic Publisher, the “Presses de l’Université Laval”, in Québec City, and serves on the board for six peer-reviewed journals on four continents. Yves Laberge contributed more than 200 entries in some twenty encyclopedias and dictionaries during the last 20 years.

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