Interaction Essay

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Interaction describes particular kinds of social relationship that are different from, but constitutive of, groups, organizations and networks. Interaction occurs when two or more participants are in each others perceptual range and orient to each other through their action and activity. It ends when the participants dissolve their mutual orientation and leave the social situation. Theories and studies of interaction largely focus on the possibility and conditions for the establishment of mutual orientation to situations and on the relationship between interaction and social structure and culture as well as organization and personality. A different strand of research considers mutual orientation as practical accomplishment and explores the social organization of actions through which participants ongoingly produce mutual orientation.

George Caspar Homans (1910-89) developed exchange theory as an alternative concept to Talcott Parsons attempt to bring about a theory that strives to integrate all the social sciences. He argues that interaction emerges because actors are rational decision-makers who aim to maximize their rewards when engaging in an exchange with others. His theory has been advanced by Peter Blau (1918-2002) and Richard Emerson (1925-82).

They attempt to integrate exchange theory with contemporary theories of social structure and power and begin to develop a theory of ”exchange networks. This theory has had a great impact on very recent concepts of the ”network society and the role of ”trust in the emergence of long-lasting social and economic relationships.

A very different approach to studying interaction was suggested by Erving Goffman (1922-82), who uses the metaphor of the ”theatre to explore social life. His ”dramaturgical approach investigates the techniques participants employ to manage the impression others have of them.

Herbert Blumer (1900-87) drew on George Herbert Mead s (1863-1931) theory of action to develop Symbolic Interactionism as a subfield of sociology and social psychology. It argues that people act in situations according to the meaning these situations have for them. The ”definition of the situation is produced in interaction with others. Hence, symbolic interactionist research is particularly interested in the interpretive processes by virtue of which participants negotiate the definition of the situation. They explore how the self and identity as well as meaning emerge in interaction between people. Coupled with Mead and others theoretical work at the University of Chicago Blumer s theory and empirical studies contributed to the emergence of the ”Chicago School of Sociology. Whilst the influence of the Chicago School has diminished since the 1960s their work on social interaction still greatly impacts the discipline of sociology.

A different approach to studing the process and organization of interaction has been developed by the so-called Iowa School. Founded by such eminent symbolic interactionists as Carl Couch (192594) and Manford Kuhn (1911-63), research at University of Iowa initially strived to develop ”scientific methods to explore the structure of the self and since the mid-1960s has introduced experimental methods to develop ”a set of universal social principles explaining how social units such as dyads and triads coordinate their activities.

Another influential body of research has emerged from Harold Garfinkel s (1917-) development of Ethnomethodology. In offering a critique of his teacher, Parsons, and by radicalizing Alfred Schutz s social phenomenology, Garfinkel has initiated a program of research that considers mutual orientation as a practical and social accomplishment. He began by conducting so-called breaching experiments that challenged people s trust in everyday situations. By virtue of these experiments Garfinkel has elaborated on the knowledge and the methods that people bring to bear when they produce their actions. These ”ethnomethods allow participants to ”fit in in social situations and account for incongruities with accounts for what is going on. Garfinkel s ethnomethodological program has given rise to various strands of research that significantly influence developments in sociology. The most famous area of research deriving from ethnomethodology is probably conversation analysis (CA). CA, developed by Harvey Sacks (1935-75) and his colleagues, is concerned with revealing the methods and procedures that people bring to bear in ”talk-in-interaction. It elaborates on the social and sequential organization of talk, and explores interaction. CA s preoccupation with talk explains why CA has gained a growing followership in linguistics and cognate disciplines whilst its influence on sociology is debatable.

Drawing on these developments in Ethnomethodology and CA more recently video-based studies of interaction have emerged. These scrutinize video-recordings of “naturalistic” social situations to reveal the interactional organization of talk, bodily and material action. It is particularly interested in the ways in which participants orient to and embed objects and artifacts as well as tools and technologies in their interaction with each other.


  1. Cahill, S. (2003) Inside Social Life: Readings in Sociological Psychology and Microsociology. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York.
  2. Couch, C. J. & Hintz, R. A. (eds.) (1975) Constructing Social Life: Readings in Behavioral Sociology from the Iowa School. Stipes Publishing Company, Champaign, IL.
  3. Heath, C. C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. K. (forthcoming). Video in [Qualitative Research: Analyzing Social Interaction in Everyday Life. Sage, London.

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