Michael R. Leming
Professor of Sociology
Sociology has been defined in many ways. We define sociology as
the scientific study of human interaction. There are two parts of
this definition that we will explore--sociology as (1) a scientific
endeavor, with (2) human interaction as the subject of investigation.
George C. Homans (1967:7) in The Nature of Social Science claims that any
science has two basic jobs to do: discovery and explanation. By the first
we judge whether it is a science, and by the second, how successful a science
it is. The first job is to state and test more or less general relationships
between empirical events of nature. The second task is to explain these
relationships within a theoretical context. A scientific explanation will
tell us why, under a given set of conditions, a particular phenomenon will
occur (Homans, 1967:22). In the process of discovery, the scientist is
attempting to formulate general statements concerning empirical variables
that can be verified by systematic observation.
Even though the claim has often been made that sociology and the other social sciences differ from the natural sciences because they use a radically different technique for doing research, Richard Rudner (1966:5) contends that the differences between the natural and social sciences are much less fundamental than a difference in methodology. Both the natural and social sciences use the same empirical methodology. This empirical methodology is based on observation and reasoning, not on supernatural revelation, intuition, appeals to authority, or personal speculation.
Sociology, as a science, aims at both discovering empirical regularities and explaining these regularities by referring to an interrelated set of empirical propositions, or statements of relationship. The goal of sociology is to produce a body of knowledge that will not only provide an understanding of the causal processes influencing human interaction, but will enable the sociologist to predict future social behaviors.
This is the basis for Homans' contention that sociology is scientific.
What makes a science are its aims, not its results. If it aims at establishing more or less general relationships between properties of nature, when the test of the truth of a relationship lies finally in the data themselves, and the data are not wholly manufactured--when nature, however stretched out on the rack, still has a chance to say ``No!''--then the subject is a science. By these standards all the social sciences qualify (1967:4).
Sociology shares with the other social sciences the scientific
epistemology (study of knowledge) and a concern for understanding
human interaction. The success of sociology, like any other science,
is judged by the explanatory power and predictive ability of the
body of knowledge produced by the research efforts within the discipline.
DEVELOPING SCIENTIFIC THEORIES
The goal of any scientific research is to produce a body of knowledge which will provide an understanding of present circumstances and predict future events. As a part of the body of knowledge, theories are explanations of phenomena by the use of a deductive system of empirical propositions. The three basic components of scientific theories are 1) a conceptual scheme, 2) a set of propositions stating relationships between properties or variables, and 3) a context for verification.
The Conceptual Scheme
Theoretical concepts provide the vocabulary for the theory. They are concepts having abstract properties and are not immediately verifiable by direct sensory observation. In 1958 Robert Winch developed a theory of mate selection in which he claimed that people are likely to marry individuals with similar social backgrounds but dissimilar personality types. In attempting to provide an understanding of the mate selection in middle-class America, Robert Winch (1958) was concerned with social rules or norms which required individuals to marry persons with whom they shared many group memberships. Winch claimed that these endogamous norms provided a "field of eligibles" for individuals in the "marriage market." It was Winch's contention that within this field of eligibles, one selects that person with a complementary personality type, thus providing the individual with the greatest promise of need gratification. The theoretical concepts of endogamy, personality type, and need gratification are all very abstract concepts and are not directly observable by the researcher.
In contrast observable concepts are those concepts which are immediately susceptible to direct sensory observation. Operational definitions convert theoretical concepts into observables by defining theoretical concepts in terms of procedures by which these concepts may be uniformly observed. Winch's theory of complementary needs says that one's field of eligibles would be an endogamous group of individuals of similar socioeconomic status. The concepts of occupational prestige, family income, and number of years of formal education are observables and often serve as indicators for the theoretical concept "socio-economic status."
The System of Propositions
In addition to the conceptual scheme, theory must possess a system of interrelated propositions, or statements of relationship between variables. The system of propositions serves to bring together the concepts of the theory. These propositions will usually vary with regard to generality. Therefore, the concepts of the theory are brought together and interrelated through the system of propositions.
To illustrate this point we will consider a set of propositions related to Winch's theory of mate selection based upon complementary needs. The following propositions are ordered, interrelated, and allow one to make deductive inferences:
Most Abstract Proposition Mate selection is governed by
rules of social
endogamy and the quest for complementary psychological needs.
Abstract Propositions People are most likely to marry a
spouse with similar
social backgrounds in the following areas: religious
preference, socio-economic status, ethnicity and race,
age, and place of residence.
People are most likely to marry a spouse with
dissimilar personality needs.
Concrete Propositions (Empirical Propositions)
Social similarities Jews, Roman Catholics, Amish, and Mormons
are most likely to marry persons who share
their religious preference.
There is a strong correlation between the age of the marriage partners.
There is a strong correlation between years of formal education of the marriage partners.
Blacks and Orientals are more likely to marry members of their racial group.
Marriage partners are more likely to be
complementary with regard to the following
personality needs: achievement, autonomy,
dominance, nurturance, status aspiration,
anxiety, emotionality, vicariousness, and status striving.
All levels of propositions comprising the theory are important. The most concrete propositions are important because without them theories cannot be evaluated by empirical data -- the essential test of any scientific theory. However, one of the goals of theory is to employ the smallest number of variables necessary to explain the dependent variable (Chafetz, 1978).
The Context for Empirical Verification
All scientific theories must have a context for verification -- theories must be testable to be valid. Empirical data must determine the truth or falsity of the propositions comprising the theory. Therefore theories must be grounded by empirical observation.
Since propositions are truth-asserting statements, they are amenable to empirical testing. That is to say, empirical research can determine whether or not the statements are true. However, not all of the propositions need to be verified through direct observation. Richard Braithwaite (1953:17-18) points out that one of the main reasons for organizing scientific propositions into a deductive system is that direct evidence for any of the empirical propositions of the theory will also provide indirect support for the untestable abstract propositions. Therefore, empirical evidence for any part of the theory will help establish the theory as a whole.
The most concrete propositions (the empirical propositions) of the theory are derived from the more abstract propositions to become the hypotheses to be evaluated by scientific research investigations. If one can demonstrate the truth of these statements with empirical evidence, we can say that indirect evidence exists for the more abstract propositions which cannot be evaluated by sensory data.
Therefore, if a scientific theory consists of propositions with a deductive structure -- from where all concrete statements can be derived, and provide evidence for the more abstract statements -- then the truth or falsity of the entire theory can be inferred by empirical research. (In reality, a theory can never be proved in any final sense. Rather, empirical evidence either supports a theory or fails to support it.) The scientific status of the theory will be determined by the quality and confidence one has in the objective evidence for the empirical propositions.
Unfortunately, in the case of Winch's view of mate selection based upon complementary needs, the empirical evidence provided by many research studies does not provide sufficient empirical support which would confirm this theory (see Chapter 7 for a review of these research studies). What seems to be a more accurate explanation of mate selection is that similarity exists in both the social backgrounds and personality types of married couples. Furthermore, couples sharing personality characteristics are more likely to experience greater marital satisfaction that exogamous couples.
In conclusion, scientific theories have three components -- a conceptual scheme, a system of propositions, and a context for verification. The model of a suspension bridge serves as a good illustration of the relationship between the three components of scientific theory. Bridges are constructed out of girders and rivets and tied into both banks of the river. Likewise, a theory consists of concepts ("rivets") and propositions ("girders") tied into an empirical base of support. It is the relationship between the components which makes for a bridge or theory. A disorganized pile of girders and rivets are not sufficient components for what we would call a bridge. Likewise, concepts, propositions, and observations are not sufficient in themselves for scientific theory.
FIGURE 1.1 Here
THEORETICAL PARADIGMS WITHIN
THE BODY OF SOCIOLOGICAL KNOWLEDGE
As previously stated, a body of scientific knowledge is a collection
of those statements of relationship (or propositions) for which there is
empirical evidence. It is organized in two ways. The first
is the unsystematic collection of all research studies dealing with a particular
content area published in research periodicals. For example, one
might expect to find all of the research investigations concerned with
mate selection to be published in a broad range of sociological and psychological
journals. However, one would be more likely to find them in one of
the following periodicals: The Journal of Marriage and the Family,
The Journal of Family Relations, The International Journal of Sociology
of the Family, Journal of Marriage and Family Counseling, The
American Sociological Review, The American Psychological Review,
Human Organization, The Journal of Social Psychology,
and The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology. Knowledge of this
type is there for all who will make use of it, and the only organization
of these findings would be found in the theoretical frameworks of
other research investigations and textbooks which cite these studies.
The second method by which a body of knowledge is organized is through a theoretical paradigm. Research studies sharing general commitments to methodological techniques, research assumptions, and levels of analysis are brought together to form theoretical paradigms. According to George Ritzer (1975:7)
A paradigm is a fundamental image of the subject matter within a science. It serves to define what should be studied, what questions should be asked, how they should be asked, and what rules should be followed in interpreting the answers obtained. The paradigm is the broadest unit of consensus within a science and serves to differentiate one scientific community (or sub-community) from another. It subsumes, defines, and interrelates the examples, theories, methods, and instruments that exist within it.
Sociology, like most other scientific disciplines, is a multi-paradigm
science. There is much debate over the number of paradigms existing
within the field of sociology, yet sociologists would agree that no single
paradigm is dominant within the discipline. Examples of these
theoretical traditions include structural-functional theory,
conflict theory, social exchange theory, and symbolic interaction
The structural-functional theory and conflict theory are generally concerned with group actions and societal structures and tend to be more macroscopic. social Exchange theory and symbolic interaction theory are the focus of analysis of behavior, attitudes, meanings, and values of individuals and tend to be more microscopic.
Emile Durkheim's work served as the primary foundation for paradigms relating to group actions and societal structures. In attempting to differentiate sociology from social philosophy, Durkheim defined the discipline as the study of social facts. For Durkheim (1964) social facts are "any way of doing things (fixed or not) which are capable of exercising restraint upon the individual." He advocated that sociologists study social facts as if they were things. To accomplish this end, Durkheim (1964) formulated the following four guidelines in his Rules of the Sociological Method (originally published in 1895):
1. All preconceptions must be eradicated.
2. The subject matter for sociological research must be social facts directly observed.
3. Social facts must be viewed as a product of group experiences and not individual actions.
4. The cause of any given social fact must be sought in its preceding social facts.
Durkheim's (1964) claim that "society is a social system
which is composed of parts which, without losing their identity and
individuality, constitute a whole which transcends its parts'' exemplifies
that structural functional and conflict theories are primarily concerned
with group actions and societal structures. From this point of view, social
groups or collectivities (e.g., a particular nuclear family) cannot be
reduced to merely a collection of individuals, and social phenomena have
a reality of their own that transcends the constituting parts. Therefore,
sociological research from this perspective will study group related phenomena
(family systems, family structures, marriage dyads) rather than behaviors
of particular individuals.
Durkheim advocated the use of historical and comparative methods in sociological research. An example of this type of family research might be comparison of the size, structure, and function of colonial families of Concord (Massachusetts) with a similar contemporary analysis of families from the same city. Unlike Durkheim, many contemporary theorists employ the survey research design. The use of the latter techniques creates a problem for some; as George Ritzer (1975:27) says, "How can one study social facts (families) by asking individuals questions?" This issue might be more clearly understood by considering the analogy of the relationship between forests and trees. One can study forests in the United States and describe their sizes and distribution, their rates of reproduction, morbidity, and mortality, and the impact of acid rain upon them. However, to adequately understand a forest one must look at a few trees. The same may be true of families and individuals.
Structural-functional theory is concerned with explaining the persistence of social facts, social institutions and structures, and the stability of society. Conflict theory focuses upon the competition between the various parts, institutions, and/or structures within a given society and the coercive forces which allow societies to perpetuate themselves at times and change at others.
Structural-functionalists view society as a social system of interacting parts. The family as a social institution is analyzed from two perspectives:
1) How does the family contribute to the maintenance of the larger social system?
2) In what ways is the social institution of the family (as well as a given nuclear family) affected by its relationship to the larger social system?
Functionalists are interested in positive and negative (eufunctional
and dysfunctional) results of social interaction as well as the intended
and unintended (manifest and latent) consequences of social conduct.
A parent's working at two full-time jobs is eufunctional in that the family
income is increased but dysfunctional in that the parent's time with the
family is limited. A manifest function of attending a wedding is
to support the couple as they begin a new family, but a latent function
of attending a wedding is to strengthen the relationships which exists
within and between kinship and friendship groups.
If a structural-functionalist were interested in the function of parent-child relationships throughout the family life cycle, she or he might investigate the following questions:
1) How do children affect marital satisfaction over the life cycle?
2) How do children help to promote relationships between kinship groups (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, etc.)?
3) How do children contribute to and/or affect the relationships between families in a neighborhood?
4) How does the number of children affect family interaction patterns and group cohesiveness?
5) What is the role of children in supporting the elderly as they adjust to retirement roles?
6) Does the presence of a parent-child relationship facilitate bereavement in the death of a spouse?
The following reading provides an example of the way in which
a sociologist might describe the social structure and functions of
prostitution in and for society.
THE SOCIOLOGY OF PROSTITUTION
by Kingsley Davis
Where the family is strong, there tends to be a well-defined system of prostitution and the social regime is one of status. Women are either part of the family system, or they are definitely not a part of it. In the latter case they are prostitutes, members of a caste set apart. There are few intermediate groups, and there is little mobility. This enables the two opposite types of institutions to function side by side without confusion; they are each staffed by a different personnel, humanly as well as functionally distinct. But where familial controls are weak, the system of prostitution tends to be poorly defined. Not only is it more nearly permissible to satisfy one's desire outside the family, but also it is easier to find a respectable member of society willing to act as partner. This is why a decline of the family and a decline of prostitution are both associated with a rise of sex freedom. Women, released from closed family supervision, are freer to seek gratification outside it. The more such women, the easier it is for men to find in intimate relations with them the satisfactions formerly supplied by harlots. This is why the unrestricted indulgence in sex for the fun of it by both sexes is the greatest enemy, not only of the family, but also of prostitution....
But even if present trends continue, there is no likelihood that sex freedom will ever displace prostitution. Not only will there always be a set of reproductive institutions which place a check upon sexual liberty, a system of social dominance which gives a motive for selling sexual favors, and a scale of attractiveness which creates the need for buying these favors, but prostitution is, in the last analysis, economical. Enabling a small number of women to take care of the needs of a large number of men, it is the most convenient sexual outlet for an army, and for the legions of strangers, perverts, and physically repulsive in our midst. It performs a function, apparently, which no other institution fully performs.
Source: Kingsley Davis. 1937. "The Sociology of Prostitution."
American Sociological Review, Number 2 (October), pages 746-55.
While structural-functional theory focuses upon the issue of societal maintenance and social equilibrium, conflict theory is primarily concerned with issues related to social change and disequilibrium. Conflict theorists focus upon competition, conflict, and dissension resulting from individuals and groups competing over limited societal resources.
In emphasizing social change, conflict theorists interested in marriage and family issues attempt to understand the role of spouse or family member in promoting family disintegration and/or change. From this perspective, conflict theorists are more likely to view dominant family members as promoting family stability through the use of coercion and the exercise of power and authority. On the other hand, functional theorists would claim that the primary mechanism of social control is the socialization process which creates consensus within the family relative to shared values, goals, and norms.
Returning to our example of parent-child relationships throughout the family life cycle, a conflict theorist might investigate the following questions:
1) What are the dysfunctional consequences of children for marital satisfaction over the family life cycle?
2) What role conflicts are created at the birth of the first child for married couples who must now take on parental roles?
3) How do children contribute to conflicts between adults in the neighborhood?
4) What are the problems created by the presence of children in the relationships between the couple and the members of their kinship and friendship groups?
5) How do particular parent-child relationships contribute to increased competition for affection among family members?
6) How do children contribute to increased competition for scarce financial resources of the family?
7) How does the death of a parent create sibling rivalry among the children, and how does the death of a child create marital problems for the parents?
The following reading is an example of conflict theory's approach applied to family behavior related to the division of family property at the reading of the will.
WHAT'S FAIR IS FAIR
Even where a will or the law of intestacy calls for equal division of a bequest among a group of beneficiaries and the beneficiaries accept the principle of equal division, conflict may occur. Some possessions are indivisible but desirable to more than one person, such as a prized antique clock. Problems may arise in the attempt to divide valuables equally. Under what circumstances can a treasured rocking chair and a family Bible be divided equally between two or more family members?
If all beneficiaries want fair treatment and a will attempts fair
treatment, conflict may occur because beneficiaries have different
perceptions of what is fair. Fairness can mean that something is
divided equally, but fairness also takes into account various principles
of deservingness or right; a division of an estate can be fair without
being equal. Because fairness can be determined on many different
bases, there may be many competing interpretations on what is fair.
The following list, derived from the work of Marvin Sussman et al.
(1970) and from interviews carried out during our research, indicates
some of the competing principles for determining if the outcome in
inheritance is fair.
1. Long residence in a house confers some right to it.
2. Last name identity with the deceased confers some rights to the property of the deceased.
3. Blood relationship confers some rights.
4. High frequency of contact with the deceased confers some rights.
5. Material support of the deceased confers some rights.
6. Co-residence with the deceased confers some rights.
7. Having given the deceased a thing confers rights to its return.
8. Need arising from relative poverty, handicap, minorhood, orphan status, or infirmity confers rights.
9. Contribution in building the deceased's estate increases rights.
10. Kinship closeness confers rights.
11. Previous perceived underinheritance increases rights.
12. Overinheritance reduces rights.
13. Hostile relationship with the deceased reduces rights.
14. Congenial relationship increases rights.
In addition to people having discrepant interpretations of what is equal or what is fair, there will be instances where equality and fairness may be competing principles. Some individuals will believe that the estate should be divided equally, while other individuals will believe that it should be divided on the basis of what is fair, though fairness may be perceived differently by different persons.
Because there are so many possible interpretations of what is fair or what is equal and because people often seek fairness or equality, a dispute may not be resolved easily. Disputes over inheritance may be one of the major reasons for adult siblings to break off relationships with each other. In some cases the inheritance dispute may be the final battle between competitive siblings, and in that sense it resembles the ``last straw'' reported in breakups in other close relationships (Hill, Rubin, and Peplau, 1976; Nevaldine, 1978).
Sandra L. Titus, Paul C. Rosenblatt, and Roxanne M. Anderson, ``Family
Conflict over Inheritance of Property,'' The Family Coordinator, July 1979,
pp. 337-338. Copyrighted 1979 by the National Council on Family Relations,
3989 Central Ave. N. E., Suite 550, Minneapolis, MN 55421. Reprinted by
Theories like social exchange and symbolic interactionism differ from structural functionalism and conflict at two crucial points. The first is that social exchange and symbolic interactionism would contend that the essential feature of society is its subjective character. Social facts do not have any inherent meaning other than that which humans attribute to them. W. I. Thomas argues that if people define situations as real, they will be real in their consequences. This argument is a basic premise of social exchange and symbolic interactionist paradigms. This principle totally rejects Durkheim's Rules of the Sociological Method which would restrict sociology to the study of objective social facts. Social exchange and symbolic interactionism would contend that all social facts are either intrasubjective or intersubjective.
WORDS AND MEANINGS
and Pus ...
Dung, Spit and Afterbirth.
Kiss, Mood, and Friendship.
Fun, Sing, and Beachball.
Divorce, Poverty, Hospital.
No. That's not right at all. You cannot
String words together
And say They're bad
Where are the verbs?
Who are we talking about?
What are the circumstances?
Vomit is beautiful to a mother whose child
Had just swallowed a pin.
Love is pain if you are a third party,
Outside, looking in.
Death is very nice for someone very old,
Very ill, and ready.
And surely you've danced with a clod.
Or had a sad spring.
No, Words aren't sad
Or I am.
Or he is.
W. A. Armbruster. 1972. Reprinted from A Bag of Noodles. St. Louis: Concordia, p. 8. Copyright 1973 Concordia Publishing House. Reprinted by permission from CPH.
The second distinguishing feature of the social exchange and symbolic interaction paradigms is the methodological unit of analysis -- the individual. These approaches will emphasize individual behavior over group actions and societal structures.
George Ritzer (1975:85-86) rightly credits the writings of Max Weber as the exemplar of the social exchange and symbolic interaction paradigms. The essence of Weber's analysis of social action was the meaningful action of individuals. Weber (1966:88) defines social action as human behavior to which the acting individual attaches subjective meaning and which takes into account the behaviors of others.
Weber advocated "interpretative understanding" (Verstehen) as the research methodology for investigating social action. The interpretative understanding approach requires the researcher to develop an empathy for the subjects he or she studies. At times this will require the investigator to enter the subjective world of the subject by participating in this person's life experience. A Native American proverb encourages us not to judge the behavior of others until we have walked a mile in their moccasins. In this context, interpretative understanding attempts to describe and explain social behavior from the perspective of the subjective meanings of the actors' intentions for their behavior. Today, contemporary sociologists utilize the Verstehen approach as they employ participant observation research techniques. We will now consider social exchange theory and symbolic interaction theory.
Social Exchange Theory
There are two traditions followed by social exchange theorists. The first is consistent with principles of behavioral psychology and stresses psychological reductionism and behavioral reinforcement techniques. The early mate selection research of Willard Waller (1951) concerned with the "principle of least interest" is in this tradition because it focuses upon human behavior that is rewarded or punished by the behavior of other persons. Waller's studies of dating on American college campuses concluded that men were more likely to invest themselves (financially and emotionally) in relationships with women in order to gain physical affection, while women were more likely to become sexually involved in order to receive attention and commitment from the males. Waller claimed that the person who has the least interest in continuing the relationship is able to control the relationship and exploit the other partner.
The second type of social exchange theory is that which has been influenced by the work of Peter Blau (1964) and is committed to many of the assumptions held by symbolic interactionists. Social exchange theories of this type would contend that human behavior involves a subjective and interpretative interaction with others which attempts to exchange symbolic and non-symbolic rewards. It is important that such social exchange involves reciprocity so that each interacting individual receives something perceived as equivalent to that which is given.
From this perspective, individuals will continue to participate in social situations as long as they perceive that they derive equal benefits from their participation. For example, the social exchange theorist would contend that an abused spouse will stay in a violent marriage because she or he will perceive that even a bad marriage is better than the alternative. When this perception changes, the relationship may end.
THE PARTNERS MUST INVEST AN EQUAL SHARE
Hopeless, you say? I'm not the sort of fool That likes his ladies difficult and cool. Men who are awkward, shy, and peasantish May pine for heartless beauties, if they wish, Grovel before them, bear their cruelties, Woo them with tears and sighs and bended knees, And hope by dogged faithfulness to gain What their poor merits never could obtain. For men like me, however, it makes no sense To love on trust, and foot the whole expense. Whatever any lady's merits be, I think, thank God, that I'm as choice as she; That if my heart is kind enough to burn For her, she owes me something in return; And if in any proper love affair The partners must invest an equal share.
Source: Jean Baptiste Poquelin de Moliere. 1955. The Misanthrope. Translated into English by Richard Wilbur, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, Publishers, page 80.
Social exchange theorists would also point out that specific rewards (status, esteem, love, money, etc.) may be more applicable in one exchange over another and may have differing values for each participant (Eshleman, 1994). An enabling spouse and an alcoholic partner may both find benefit in a relationship when they feel that they are needed.
Using our example of parent-child relationships throughout the family life cycle, a social exchange theorist would be interested in the following research questions:
1) Why do parents take on the additional responsibilities of raising children?
2) What rewards and costs are involved in the parent-child relationship?
3) Do husbands and wives receive differential rewards from the parent-child relationship?
4) If a child becomes a financial and/or emotional burden, do the parents become less satisfied with the parent-child relationship?
5) In what ways do families attempt to deal with rivalries which exist between siblings for parental attention or affection?
6) Are adult children who care for their elderly parents more likely to receive a greater share of their parents' inheritance than those children who do not participate in the terminal care?
The following excerpt from Arlie Hochchild's (1989:3-4) research on two-career and two-job families provides us with an example of exchange theory's perspective on the expressions of gratitude between spouses.
THE ECONOMY OF GRATITUDE
The interplay between a man's gender ideology and a woman's implies a deeper interplay between his gratitude toward her, and hers toward him. For how a person wants to identify himself or herself influences what, in the back and forth of a marriage, will seem like a gift and what will not. If a man doesn't think if fits the kind of "man" he wants to be to have his wife earn more than he, it may become his "gift" to her to "bear it" anyway. But a man may also feel like the husband I interviewed, who said, " When my wife began earning more than me I thought I'd struck Gold!" In this case his wife's salary is the gift, not his capacity to accept it "anyway." When couples struggle, it is seldom simply over who does what. Far more often, it is over the giving and receiving of gratitude.
Source: Arlie Hochschild. 1989. The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home, page 18. New York: Viking Books.
Symbolic Interaction Theory
The foundation of symbolic interaction theory is that symbols (meaning) are a basic component of human behavior. People interact with each other based on their understanding of the meanings of social situations and their perceptions of what others expect of them within these situations. Stressing the symbolic nature of social interaction, Jonathan Turner (1985:32) says: ``Symbols are the medium of our adjustment to the environment, of our interaction with others, of our interpretation of experiences, and of our organizing ourselves into groups.''
From the symbolic interactionist perspective, human beings are autonomous agents whose actions are based upon their subjective understanding of society as socially constructed reality. Randall Collins (1985:200) makes this point in the following statements:
Each individual projects himself or herself into various future possibilities; each one takes the role of the other in order to see what kind of reaction there will be to this action; as a result each aligns his or her own action in terms of the consequences he or she foresees in the other person's reactions. Society is not a structure, but a process. Definitions of situations emerge from this continuous negotiation of perspectives. Reality is socially constructed. If it takes on the same form over and over again, it is only because the parties to the negotiation have worked out the same resolution and because there is no guarantee that they cannot do it differently next time.
The symbolic interactionist perspective can be summarized
in what some have called the ISAS paradigm statement--Individual-level
behavior is in response to Symbols, relative to the Audience, and
relative to the Situation. ``ISAS'' stands for the four basic components
(see Vernon & Cardwell, 1981).
Family behavior and the behavior of individuals within the family is in response to meaning, relative to the audience and to the situation. Family behavior is shared, symboled (given meaning), and situated. It is socially created and not biologically predetermined.
Symbols Interaction is a dynamic, flexible, and socially created phenomenon. Meaning is socially created and socially perpetuated; it is preserved in symbols or words. However, preserved words have to be rediscovered and reinterpreted if they are to be continually used in human interaction. Generation after generation repeats the process with a somewhat different content--no book means the same to every reader. Similarly family behavior and meanings are dynamic phenomena.
Audience-Related Behavior As we relate to each other in normal social relationships talking is the most common form of interaction. Even if we do not convey meaning to others with words, other people understand our meanings with their own words. In making decisions about the meaning of death, one can, in effect, consult established words, other people, the self, or situational conditions. If one is interacting with one's sibling, one can make decisions about how one treats one's brother or sister by observing the how other people treat their siblings. The audience involved may be one's spouse, members of one's family of orientation, peers, or even strangers.
Sibling behavior is always influenced by the social audience involved in the interaction context. How you treat your sibling also influences how he or she will interact with you. As in all other forms of social behavior, family members always watch for social cues in deciding how to act.
The Situation Where family interaction takes place is also given meaning. If my family of procreation (my wife, my children and myself) are visiting my parents (my family of orientation) and are guests in their home for a period of days, the patterns of interaction are very different from the situation where my parents are guests in our home or from the situation when I visit the home of my wife's parents. The manner in which family members define the situation (and respond to it) will have a tremendous impact upon their behavior.
Like other meanings, the definition of the situation is an attempt by the individual to bring meaning to his or her world. Since the situational definition always involves selective perception, each family member will assign meaning to the environment and will respond to this symbolic reality. The situation to which the person responds does not have existence independent of his or her definition. Therefore, each family member will interpret the environment differently. This accounts for the different experiences of family members even within the same home.
If one were to study parent-child relationships throughout the family life cycle from the perspective of symbolic interactionism, the following questions might be investigated:
1) How and why do parents tend to symbolically identify with their children's accomplishments and/or failures?
2) How do children function as "significant others" or "social audiences" for parents?
3) How do parental roles stabilize the parent's conception of self over the family life cycle?
4) What are the various cultural meanings attributed to children, and how do these meanings affect patterns of family interaction?
5) As parents socialize children, in what ways do they also internalize society's values and norms for themselves?
6) How does a child leaving home, or the death of a child, diminish conceptions of self for parents?
The following reading provides an example of the way in which symbolic interactionists understand the social process of family creation.
THE POWER OF ADOPTION: BIRTHright or birthRIGHT?
by Glenn M. Vernon and Michael Leming
The symbolic interactionist perspective helps us understand what happens in the process of family creation. In order to function as a family, all family members have to be adopted. In marriage, a male and a female typically adopt each other as family --or as husband spouse and wife-spouse -- so that from the two persons, one family can be created. The adoption process is reciprocal in that each is both an "adopter" and "adoptee" at the same time. We jointly create family entity. The meaning is shared by both spouses. Each individual must also label themselves a s a family member or as a spouse.
In adopting my spouse "self" or role, I have to define myself as someone's spouse. Therefore, I define myself in terms of the other. This role of spouse is social in nature and requires two persons adopting each other, and thus sharing a social role. It is the sharing of meaning which is essential in the family adoption process or in family creation.
The ability to create "we" identities is a prior requisite of family creation and child adoption. With this symboling ability, the children and the parents know of their multiple identities. Each is both one person as well as one part of one family. Each learns how to activate different identities in different situations.
In a two-child (or more) family, the parents, from the perspective of the children, become "our" parents. For family functioning, it is the adoption and acceptance of a family identity which produces the "our" in either direction. For the biological offspring of the parents, two types of synthesizing or merging are involved. In biological conception there is a biological synthesis or merging in which what was two becomes one. The merging of adopting of the husband and wife into one family is the foundation from which the children acquire "our," joint or multiperson parents--our mother and our father.
Adoption involves symbols, not biology. Symboled adoption can't extensively, directly influence biological factors but can have a significant impact upon the meaning of biology. Symboled factors can have a significant indirect influence. The impact of meaning is illustrated in birthright patterns in which the consequences stem for the "rights" not directly from the birth.
"Birth rights" may be involved in the adoption process of those who are born into a group. Some interpretations of birth rights emphasize the birth component (BIRTH rights), with the implication that it is the biological birth per se which establishes the family rights of the individual. Actually, it is just the reverse. Symbolically-socially established "rights" have to be given to persons born into a family if they are to participate in meaningful family behavior. This emphasizes "birth RIGHTS" rather than " BIRTH rights."
Rites of passage or religious rituals, such a baptism or infant dedication, may be used by members of the family to firmly establish the child's family identity and its corresponding rights and obligations. Engaging in such behavior communicates membership meaning to the one joining, to those who are already members, and to the general society as well.
The very young child usually does not have the opportunity to learn or think in any terms other than the family into which he or she was adopted. That is "the world" -- the experienced world for that child. For their children, the parents are the "world builders."
In order for this process to be as effective as we have described, adoption has to include a voluntary, free will, or intentional component. the adoption must also be accepted by the significant persons involved in the process--the social audience. If there were some biologically given parent-child behavior, drive, or mechanism; the adoption process, as we have described it, would not be necessary. However, it is possible to have nominal (in name only) family membership, without commitment between the family members. Such a relationship, as in the case of abandonment, is usually considered marginal to kinship behavior.
INDUCTIVE AND DEDUCTIVE
APPROACHES TO THEORY CONSTRUCTION
Scientific theories can be expanded by employing both inductive and deductive strategies. Induction is the logical process by which empirical generalizations are inferred from specific observations and research investigations. In this process, researchers will provide evidence for the support of a number of concrete statements. Combining these statements one can form general conclusions which will summarize all of the empirical statements with one or more abstract propositions. For example, if one were to discover that mental health was considerably better for elderly people who were married, owned pets, and/or were involved in social organizations, then one might infer that social relationships have a positive effect upon mental functioning. This explanation is an addition to the body of scientific knowledge concerning the mental health of older people.
Deduction is the process of reasoning from general statements to concrete situations. Deduction is important in theory building because specific hypotheses and scientific predictions are derived from abstract propositions. For example, if good mental health is a function of social relationships, we could hypothesize or predict that elderly residents who frequently interact with neighbors, friends, and/or family members would have better mental health than older people who do not.
We can now see that the processes of induction and deduction interact, and in so doing, contribute to theory building. Induction will provide new abstract statements from which one can deduce additional hypotheses to be verified by empirical research. Once verified, empirical propositions serve as the source from which explanations are inferred.
Warnings for Interpreting Research
1) Don't believe everything you read; be somewhat skeptical. Be cautious not to be a "Chicken Little." Just because something hits you on the head, do not immediately go running through the chicken yard shouting, "The sky is falling!" First of all, look up to make sure the sky is not falling before you act like the paranoid little chick. Be careful as to what your source is before you swallow it hook, line and sinker.
Though the Kinsey studies of male and female sexual behavior are often quoted, and are indeed a classic study, read these findings with some caution. Kinsey's sample was composed largely of volunteers (many of whom were imprisoned at the time). Perhaps it is a certain kind of person who will talk about his or her premarital sexual behavior, thus giving a bias to the results. In asking persons to recall their first sexual experiences (some of his respondents were near 80), many do not have very accurate memories about something that may have happened years ago. Kinsey had difficulty with definitions. What he meant by a particular term was not the meaning of many respondents. His definition of social class was limited to one variable.
2) Weasel words and shrewdly chosen qualifying words make a statement technically correct but misleading. It is not a lie, but can imply something that it is not. A woman in a Geritol television commercial for those with "tired blood" says, "After only nine bottles of Geritol, I feel better already." After nine bottles of anything, one would like feel different, if for no other reason because of the passing of time. The ad did not say you would feel better because of Geritol, it simply implied such.
A recent foot powder ad says, "Brand XYZ foot powder may help reduce foot odors." It does not say the foot powder will reduce foot odors, only that it may reduce them. It may not reduce them also!
3) Watch for quotes out of context. For the thief who is also religious, he or she may quote the Bible as saying, "Let him who stole, steal...." This is solid advice for the thief, if it is taken out of context without completing the sentence which reads, "Let him who stole, steal no more."
Former President Jimmy Carter's "lusting in his heart" statement in a Playboy interview prior to being elected President almost lost him the election. This isolated statement was extracted from a very lengthy article of which "lusting in his heart" was only a very small statement.
4) Look carefully at sample sizes. "This bread is better than any other bread tested." How many other breads were tested? Was it one or maybe two? Perhaps the "other" bread was a week old and molded. Surely brand X tastes better than that old loaf.
An aspirin ad read, "Nine out of ten doctors recommend brand X." How many physicians were in the sample? It could be interpreted as 90 percent of the 450,000 or so physicians in the United States or it could literally refer to a total of ten doctors; and nine of those could possible work for the company!
A headline several years ago read, "One-third of Johns Hopkins Coeds Marry Professors." One could conclude that a sizable percentage of coeds at this university marry professors. Actually, of the three female students at Johns Hopkins University at that time, one of them did marry a professor. Thus, one out of three is correct.
5) Catch phrases in writings can produce inaccurate results. To suggest that one is gay, has AIDS, and is a member of the Communist Party can conjure up all sorts of negatives for many people. A catch phrase to which the public is already conditioned should be used with caution.
Some more fundamentally-oriented Protestant groups in the United States will not say the Apostle's Creed because of the phrase "holy catholic church." They do not want to say, "I believe in the holy catholic church." What they do not know is that "catholic" means "universal," not the Roman Catholic Church!
6) Loaded questions can give very biased results. By phrasing the question in a certain way, one can skew the respondent's answers. For example, to ask a man "Have you already beat your wife today?" produces a no win response. If one responds to this question in the affirmative, it implies that he beats his wife. If he answers negatively, it could imply that he simply has not had time to beat her yet today.
THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN THEORY AND RESEARCH
In this chapter issues in theory construction have been discussed. First we explored the three basic components of scientific theories -- conceptual schemes, sets of propositions, and the contexts for empirical verification. Then we described the manner in which scientific theories are organized into paradigms. We discussed the following theoretical traditions: structural-functionalist theory, conflict theory, social exchange, and symbolic interaction theory. Finally, we discussed inductive and deductive approaches to theory construction and the process of social science research. However, two major questions remain unanswered: "What is the role of sociological theory in conducting social research?" and "How does social research result in sociological theory building?"
To answer these questions we will turn to some of the early but important writings of Talcott Parsons (1938) and Robert K. Merton (1967). Parsons (1938:13-20) listed the four principal functions of theory for social research as follows:
1. Theory can tell us what "social facts" are worthy of social research. There are no facts without theories.
2. Theory can enable us to organize research findings and conclusions.
3. Theory can help us determine gaps in scientific knowledge and provide us with suggestions for further research investigations.
4. Without theory it is impossible to impute causality to the relationships between concepts and sets of interrelated propositions.
To these functions of theory, Merton (1967:151-152) adds three others.
1. Theory can extend empirical generalizations as abstractions of a higher level are formulated.
2. If theory consists of a set of interrelated propositions, and one derives a new proposition from the theory, then any evidence supporting the deduced proposition will provide confidence for the propositions from which it was derived.
3. By providing a rationale, theory introduces a ground for prediction which is more secure than mere empirical extrapolation from previously observed trends.
Merton (1967) in his now famous essay "The Bearing of Empirical
Research on Sociological Theory" suggests that social research also
provides many important functions which help to shape the development
of sociological theory. According to Merton (1967:157), research
initiates, reformulates, deflects, and clarifies sociological
Empirical research not only tests theoretically derived hypotheses, it originates new hypotheses whenever unexpected observations are made. It is this serendipitous (accidental discovery) pattern to which we referred when we discussed the role of induction in theory construction.
Research reformulates sociological theory whenever new data exert pressure on the researcher to reconceptualize the variables under consideration. Merton (1967:162) points out that sometimes conceptual schemes do not adequately take all facts into account -- they consider some data irrelevant. When new research emphasizes the importance of these data, the conceptual schemes must be extended and reformulated in order for the theories to become more inclusive.
New methods of empirical research and developments in technology often change the foci of theoretical interests. Today it is possible with the use of a computer and sophisticated statistical techniques to investigate new theoretical issues which were not within the reach of sociologists of an earlier era. For example, regression equations and path analytic techniques make it possible for the researcher to test entire theoretical paradigms while controlling for the influences of many intervening variables. Scientific developments of this type are bringing about new directions in social scientific inquiry.
As research attempts to verify theories, it is necessary to clarify concepts and the types of relationships existing between variables. In meeting these demands, research provides for greater clarity and increased specificity for sociological theory.
As we have demonstrated throughout this chapter, the relationship between research and theory is symbiotic -- research is essential in theory construction and theory guides and makes research more fruitful. Both research and theory (discovery and explanation) are the most important endeavors in the conduct of social scientific inquiry in family research.
THE RESEARCH MODEL FOR THE CONDUCT OF INQUIRY
IN THE SOCIOLOGY OF THE FAMILY
FIGURE 2 HERE
The diagram above illustrates the stages in the process of conducting social research. The research process is illustrated as having the form of a circle or ellipse. One can enter the research process either by beginning with the body of knowledge (theory) or by starting with an untested research hypothesis or "an intuitive hunch." If one begins with theory, research becomes a deductive
exercise; to begin with a research hypothesis involves an inductive procedure.
If we arbitrarily begin the research process by formulating a research hypothesis, our second step will be to provide both theoretical and operational definitions for the concepts of the hypothesis. After this has been accomplished, it is now possible to state the hypothesis in the form of an empirical proposition.
It is at this point that we enter into the process of empirical verification. Sampling and research design procedures will enable us to select a population for study and a method by which data will be collected.
After these procedures have been determined, data will be collected and analyzed. As the final step, the research conclusions will be used to build or modify the theoretical body of sociological knowledge. To illustrate the process of social science research on the family please refer to Appendix 1 at the end of this book.
Go back to Sociology 371 -- Research Methods
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