Role taking and structure

I have to admit I like concept of symbolic interactionism that sociology/criminology uses as one of the theories to describe and peer into any social situation without prejudice. The mind that was able to come up with had to be free. If I didn’t know better I’d say Mead was watching stars in the night sky and feeling minuscule or doing some sort of drugs. Symbolic interactionism is just a theory, enlightened mind trying to convey something. I guess this brilliance rubs off in some way providing a glimpse into how relative is the meaning of it all where we struggle with pain. None of the theories can encompass gestalt of life, but they can be useful for understanding (self) imposed shackles of life. If just for a moment mind is able to shed constrains of roles, history, education, customs, culture, religion and be free – it’s a great moment.

Following is excerpt from “The Person in Social Psychology” by Vivien Burr.

In order to carry out a role within any social situation, a person must first have some conception of what kind of situation is at hand, since different situations contain different potential roles for participants. The person must therefore define the situation. The definition of the situation is a key concept for symbolic interactionism. People can be expected to behave differently according to whether they define a situation as, for example, ‘a chat with a friend’ or ‘a consultation with a therapist’. But the definition of the situation as it is used in psychology has a one-sided, intra-psychic character. It appears as a cognitive quality of the individual, rather like an attitude or opinion, and is represented as a discrete event; the individual takes a view on ‘what is going on here’ and then acts accordingly. For symbolic interactionism, situations can only ever be mutually defined by the participants involved in them. Furthermore, this definition is constantly under production by all parties, constantly monitored and liable to breakdown. Because of the reciprocal nature of roles, no-one can be sure of acting appropriately or of being allowed to play a particular role unless all share the same definition of the situation. This does not mean that all parties in an interaction somehow mysteriously find themselves agreeing about ‘what is going on here’. There may be conflicting definitions in operation. But if one’s own definition is at odds with that of other participants, this will necessarily have implications for the viability of the roles that they are attempting to play. Thus there will then usually ensue a good deal of effort directed at establishing and maintaining a mutually agreed or negotiated definition, including the use of role-distancing described earlier. is used in psychology has a one-sided, intra-psychic character. It appears as a cognitive quality of the individual, rather like an attitude or opinion, and is represented as a discrete event; the individual takes a view on ‘what is going on here’ and then acts accordingly. For symbolic interactionism, situations can only ever be mutually defined by the participants involved in them. Furthermore, this definition is constantly under production by all parties, constantly monitored and liable to breakdown. Because of the reciprocal nature of roles, no-one can be sure of acting appropriately or of being allowed to play a particular role unless all share the same definition of the situation. This does not mean that all parties in an interaction somehow mysteriously find themselves agreeing about ‘what is going on here’. There may be conflicting definitions in operation. But if one’s own definition is at odds with that of other participants, this will necessarily have implications for the viability of the roles that they are attempting to play. Thus there will then usually ensue a good deal of effort directed at establishing and maintaining a mutually agreed or negotiated definition, including the use of role-distancing described earlier.

Thus, if we encounter a situation in which it is not clear who occupies what positions and plays what roles, we turn our attention to figuring out these matters. We decide who around us has authority over us, to whom we are supposed to address a question, as well as who we are in the eyes of others. And if we find ourselves in a situation that is so ambiguous that there is no structure to it, we create one. A newly formed group, for example, may be quite undifferentiated, but before long some people become leaders and others followers, some are active and some are not, some take on this task and others that one. In short, we look for structure, and where we do not find it, we create it.

But roles and the definition of the situation exist in a chicken-and- egg relationship, so that, although our definition of the situation indicates to us our possible role and its attendant expectations, we also define the situation through our observation of the roles apparently adopted by others. We ourselves help to create that definition through our own adoption of certain postures, in the way we present ourselves – through the role we claim for ourselves in that interaction. A situation is therefore necessarily a socially negotiated event; it cannot exist simply at the level of an individual’s psychology. Roles, too, are never simply prescribed and then enacted. Symbolic interactionism refers to role-making as well as role-taking to emphasise the fluidity and adaptability of the roles we play

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