Social Interaction

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The Social Psychology of interaction has been widely adopted as the basis for

understanding social interaction [see, for example, Argyle (1969, 1973)]. The

motivation is to understand the making of a life among others, yet today, almost

all of the others are strangers to us. In this perspective, the terms “interaction”

and “communication” are often used almost synonymously. For example, in

Porritt (1990), in guiding the behaviour of healthcare professionals in situations

of distress and ill health, communication is taken to be the basis (means) of

interaction. A social relationship is a case of enduring social interaction

(temporally extended, with a shared history, and surviving of interruptions of

face-to-face contact), although Goffman (1961) does not accept that a

relationship is merely a “two-person” group — the two forms are distinct and

different. Later in this discussion, we will consider an alternative Social Systems

explanation [drawn from the work of Niklas Luhmann (1995)]. Bales (1999)

has made extensive studies of social interaction systems in which “situations”

are comprised of multiple systems of interacting persons, and has developed a

range of instruments of social interaction analysis. Others have studied human

interaction as discourse [see van Dijk (1997) for example].

In the sociological tradition, symbolic interaction examines how each actor

takes account of each other’s meanings as well as their respective acts. In the

behavioural perspective on interaction, it is assumed that each actor relates only

to the overt behaviour of the other participants. For the adherents to symbolic

interactionism, society exists as individuals in interaction. For Simmel [see

Ritzer (1992)], society is merely the name for a number of individuals

connected by interaction. These individuals are constituted only in their

interactions. This is a step forward from imagining autonomous selfs whose

actions bear upon each other. Such actions are understood as either expressive

(an end in themselves) or instrumental (as means to an end). Simmel was

concerned with the effect of spatial conditions on social interaction (in terms of

social, physical, and psychological distance). Interaction is the mutual regulaInformational

tion in which two persons are within one another’s perceptual fields and signal

their responsiveness to one another.

In this view of social interaction, at what point does mere co-presence escalate

into interaction and communication? How does this come about? The unit of

analysis is the interactor, with attention paid to such dimensions of interaction

as actor style, purpose, reason for (interaction), motivation, outcome, manner

of (interaction), and the characteristic features of the interaction event. Forms

of interaction include exchange (economic aspect of society), conflict (state or

regulatory aspect of society), and friendship (characterised by intensifying

interaction). Interaction within a community (with known others) differs from

that with strangers. People interact with each other to conduct, and participate

in, one or a combination of four basic types of relationships, seeking, making,

sustaining, repairing, adjusting, judging, construing, and sanctioning their

relationships. Fiske’s (1992) work identifies the modes of interaction as

communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing.

These are implemented differently in different social domains and in different

relative degrees in different cultural groups. Domains of the complex realm of

social interaction include: exchange, decision-making, moral judgement, selfpresentation,

consumption, and conversation.

Taken as a (social) process, interaction can be understood as productive or

reproductive of some “things:” meanings, interests, negotiation, closure, and so

on. Thus, we can speak of “productive interactions,” as well as of “unproductive,”

“reproductive,” or “destructive” interactions. Alternatively, is an interaction

a “thing” (social event) or a property of a thing?

In sociological thinking, society is understood as a stable and integrated system

— conditions brought about through social interaction. Studies have investigated

how interaction creates, fits into, reproduces, functions within, or

contributes to the social system. It is assumed in these inquiries that order,

stability, structure, coherence, and organization arise from face-to-face communication.

Order is assumed in symbolic interactionism (e.g., Mead), role

theory (e.g., Turner), dramaturgy (e.g., Goffman), and phenomenology (e.g.,

Berger & Luckman and Garfinkel, following Schutz). Supposedly, then, ICT

enables, accelerates, and connects by creating and extending a social web in

society. Smith (1992) challenges this by emphasizing instability. He argues

convincingly that interaction is best understood as a self-organising system,

rather than an idealized arrangement of “actors” performing “roles” (in a society

constituted as a system of roles). Commonly, interaction produces not order

but misunderstanding, discomfort, estrangement, and conflict — rather than

meaning and understanding. We yearn for the interaction, but we don’t feel

good about what happens, so we interact in ways that don’t require engagement!

People interact with norms and rules in mind — they have interactional

expectations (of sincerity, brevity, openness, intimacy, and so on). Following

Elias’ (1939) resolution of the problem of dichotomising the psychological and

the sociological, Stacey (2003) explains the “organisation” as patterns of

meaning in iterated interaction, as patterns of power relations sustained in selforganising

patterns of communicative interacting or conversation/meaning in

which human identities emerge. The individual is the singular and the social is

the plural of interdependent people. Learning is the activity of interdependent

people.