The Interactionist Perspective: Part II: Phenomenology and Exchange Theory

Chapter 2: the Sociological Perspectives

Section 4: Phenomenology and Exchange Theory


As introduced in the last section, Interactionism makes the assumption that society is the sum of all interactions between individuals and small groups. It is a micro level perspective that focuses on human agency as the constructive force in society as opposed to the macro level perspectives like Functionalism and Conflict that focus on larger social and historical structures. 

The last chapter dealt with Symbolic Interactionist Theory. Symbolic Interactionists analyze human interactions in terms of their symbolic nature. It is through these symbolic interactions that one develops a sense of self and then expresses that self symbolically through further interaction. The symbolic interactions that work are repeated and reproduced and, it is through this process that society itself is created. So it’s a self reinforcing loop. We develop a sense of self through interaction with others based largely, but not exclusively, on previously successful symbolic interactions that we understand as society. In doing so, we perpetuate society. But we also slightly alter these symbolic interactions as we go along. So, like a variation of the Butterfly Effect, small changes in our symbolic interactions can translate into large changes in how individuals within a whole society interact. It’s really a fascinating theory. 

Symbolic Interactionism, however, takes some theoretical leaps when it comes to understanding how interactions between individuals translate into larger social structures. Many symbolic interactionists even deny the very validity of structure overall. But we do know that structure plays some role in shaping very real social outcomes. It’s like there is a missing link between the more radical symbolic interactionists and our experience with society writ large. 


Alfred Schutz

While the Symbolic Interactionists out of Chicago were making their mark on sociology, the Phenomenologists were continuing their analysis. Like all Action Theorists, phenomenologists are interested in how human actions influence society, specifically, how individual human beings actively produce meaning. Unlike the Symbolic Interactionists, who see human beings actively creating meaning through interaction, the phenomenologists see individuals as born into a pre-existing lifeworld, what Austrian scholar Alfred Schutz referred to as a Lebenswelt that they must actively make meaningful within their own consciousness. It’s a somewhat different frame.

Now while this lifeworld is not specifically the result of interaction, it is also not completely deterministic according to the phenomenologists. Individuals have their own way to interpret, accept, reject, redefine and modify their meanings. But in doing so, individuals are not just subjective actors, but intersubjective. In other words, they shape their meanings in such a way that allows them  to interact with others. To study this kind of social action, the phenomenologists try to bracket, or categorize the different ways in which societies assign meaning to the social world. 

So, the Symbolic Interactionists suggest that our understanding of the real world is symbolic and the result of our interactions. The Phenomenologists suggest that we develop an intersubjective understanding of reality within a lifeworld. But how? What is the process by which we develop a shared understanding of reality through which we can interact in any meaningful way?

The most influential theorists from this school of thought are Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann. They wrote a transformative book called The Social Construction of Reality.  According to the Social Construction Theory, reality itself is constructed through social processes. Berger and Luckmann postulate that human beings are born into a world in which certain human actions have become habitualized and institutionalized. In other words, the actions are habitual because they have been repeated so often that they become analogous to habits. These habits are then transmitted to others and formalized within institutions. Despite evolving from human actions, we as individuals see these actions as objective external realities. We then shape our own actions according to these standards. When such actions are reified, we see them as the only right and natural way to be. We define them as being part of human nature. So we may see human beings as naturally greedy, but that may be a construct resulting from a cultural history of acquisitiveness. Or we define humans as naturally monogamous or love as eternal. When we see someone who is especially charitable, we see them as either exceptional people, or possibly secretly using their charity to manipulate us. When our marriages fail, or our love fades, we define this as a personal shortcoming rather than as an inconsistency in the construct. The bottom line is that we tend to not question the construct, but rather shape our understanding of our experiences to the construct. Hence, what we know to be real is “constructed” by society. 

You can represent Social Construction with an actual construction in which the base is laid by repeated human interactions. These “habits” are reproduced through institutions that turn around and support an idea of accepted reality. Once this construct is set up, it is very difficult to see beyond the accepted reality. Difficult, but not impossible.

Take, for instance, our understanding of sadness. In American culture, sadness in men is often defined as a personal weakness. When boys are crying we may hear someone suggest that they “grow up.” “Be a man.” “Don’t cry.” Or even sympathetic people will advise us to “be strong”, another quality associated with masculinity.

Sadness, however, is a basic human emotion. We all experience sadness, but how we respond to sadness is based on how sadness is constructed for us. Men see few other men expressing sadness. They do see men expressing anger, or using humor to express their troubles. So this is how sadness is constructed for men–as a weakness. When men do openly express sadness, they may be defined as weak, words like “sissy” or attributions to their sexuality may be made. A great deal of effort is put into making men conform to the accepted construct.

Men who are sad often behave in such a way that isolates them…which only exacerbates the sadness. This isn’t something that is part of a man’s basic nature. It is how our society has “constructed” the reality of sadness and masculinity.

Think about the consequences here. Expressing sadness is a way to communicate your need for support from other people. It’s a way to bring sympathetic people to you because that helps alleviate sadness. Men, however, are socialized to use anger or humor, interactions that tend to push people away and isolate the man…the exact opposite of what would actually help him. Men would be better served seeking social and emotional support, but instead feel obligated to deal with sadness alone. Think of this in terms of real life crises like unemployment, post traumatic stress, divorce, personal loss. It’s a condition that I like to call social schizophrenia, when the social construct contradicts or is inadequate for effectively responding to the lived experience. Is it any wonder that alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and even mortality rates for men are so high. Recent trends show increased mortality in white men. Furthermore, this is not the way it has to be. Masculine heroes of ancient times were known to lament sorrow, such as the famous Lament of Achilles upon the death of his friend Patroclus. 

Now social constructs are not set in stone. Groups called Moral Entrepreneurs can challenge the established constructs and bring about social change. These Moral Entrepreneurs may be members of a group willing to challenged the constructs or values accepted by the group, or they may be leaders of social movements, like Martin Luther King Jr, who are willing to challenge how “realities” like race are constructed. Moral Entrepreneurs can be instruments of social change…or may be defined as criminals.

Image below: The Social Construction Parable of the Tree

Harold Garfinkel

Another branch of interactionism is called Ethnomethodology pioneered by sociologist Harold Garfinkel. Whereas phenomenology overlaps with philosophy and psychology, ethnomethodology is specifically sociological. Ethnomethodologists are interested in the actual methods through which human beings create meaning in their everyday lives. They often focus on the unwritten rules and scripts that we use to do just that.

Ethnomethodologists understand that there are few times that human beings are interacting spontaneously. Instead, we tend to follow certain prescribed rules for each interaction and even follow well rehearsed scripts. When you walked into your classroom for the first time this year you already knew what you were going to see and how you were going to respond. You were going to see chairs and desks lined up. The really good chair is behind the big desk, but you are not going to sit there. You know, without being told, that’s not your chair. When someone walked into the classroom, seeing you for the first time in a couple of months, they were going to say either, “how was your summer?” in which case the answer was a variation of a pre-set, “great! How ‘bout yours.” or they might say, “Oh…you have this class, too.” in which you respond to the obvious. 

If we didn’t have these prescribed patterns and scripts everyday living would require a lot of energy. Think about walking into a classroom that did not have desks or chairs. You would stress. You would not know what to do. Your default would be to lean against the far wall. 

Well this is the centerpiece of ethnomethodology. Garfinkel liked to analyze the responses of people when the script is flipped or when the the established rules are ignored or altered. these are called Breach Experiments. One example is stepping onto an elevator and facing the wall instead of the door as is prescribed. How do people around you respond? When talking to someone, instead of looking them in the eye, or looking at the floor, look at the top of their forehead. There’s a bunch of ways to do this. My junior year math class once turned our desks around and faced the back of the room when Mr. Morris had stepped out for a minute. His response was a perfect bit of data for an ethnomethodologist. The point is to have fun, but to also challenge the taken for granted scripts and rituals that we follow.

Norms about personal space are among the most personal, yet most subjective. The rules are not written down, but they are pretty strict. So violating personal space is a common breaching experiment

[Aside: I suspect Garfinkel came up with this because he had a twisted sense of humor. Indeed, the Breaching Experiments are the premise of popular shows like Candid Camera or Punk’d and is often the pretext for comedy routines.]

Anthony Giddens: What the heck, Tony! Why such a complicated theory?

Anthony Giddens, drawing on a number of academic influences, including phenomenology, ethnomethodology, structuralism and many others approaches, has formulated an innovative theory called Structuration. Giddens attempts to bridge the gap between the micro-level interpretivist approach and the macro-level structuralists. To do this, Giddens suggests that structure actually has a dual nature, what he calls the Duality of Structure. Social structures are the medium for achieving a particular end, but they are also the outcome of doing so. 

It seems complicated, but it’s not. [See the slideshow below] When you go to school, you are getting an education. The structure, school, is the medium by which you are getting an education. By doing so, you’re confirming and defining the rules of education. So going to school is the medium, but is also the definition of what an education is, setting up those coming after you to go to school to get their educations. 

So, in essence, Giddens is redefining what a structure is. According to Giddens, a structure is composed of rules, or the techniques and procedures of social action as well as the Resources, or the capability of making things happen. School, as a structure, has a curriculum, as well as teachers and classrooms and books and computers that you can access to seek an education. 

Structures, however, only exist when people are accessing them. Your school is not, according to Giddens, a school when you are not there learning. It’s just a building. In many communities, a school building may be used as a shelter during times of emergencies, or a meeting hall during public debates. Structures do not have an external existence except in creating memory traces of workable interactions. Interaction between teachers and students in what becomes known as a school building encourages those who want an education to come to the school, and those who want to teach to seek employment at the school and thus perpetuates the structure of a school, which furthers the learning interactions. 

Another aspect of the Duality of Structure is that structures are both enabling and constraining of human agency. Schools make it easy and efficient to become educated and earn the credentials of an educated person. If a person wants to be considered educated, they can choose to go through a schooling structure. However, other options, say reading all of the books in your local library, are not available for becoming educated. You may gain knowledge, but you cannot gain the credentials, or the recognition as an educated person without going through the accepted structures. So individuals have choices, but those choices are limited by the available structures. 

Exchange Theory

A final form of interactionism is called Exchange Theory. This particular theory that emerges from the Utilitarian tradition and the research of Georg Simmel suggests that interactions can be understood as a form of exchange in which the participants seek reciprocal benefits.

Peter Blau

Peter Blau highlights the similarities between social and economic exchanges. First, exchange theorists assume that the actors are entering into the exchange rationally. Secondly, when offered alternatives, the actors will tend to choose those exchanges that maximize personal satisfaction, usually among those who are of equal power and ability to contribute. Thirdly, there is a point of Marginal Utility in which the value of the exchange decreases as the benefits increase. When we enter into an interaction, we make some assumptions based on the concept of exchange. First, we expect that what we are offering in the exchange will be reciprocated and that that reciprocation will be fair. Also, as with economic exchanges, there may be imbalances based on the relative value of the exchange between participants, the availability of alternatives and the willingness on the part of one actor to use force and coercion against the other.

Exchange theorists acknowledge that there are some differences between economic and social exchange. 1. Social exchanges are are less specific. Economic exchanges are based on currency and contracts, social exchanges are not defined in advance and there is no defined concept of “repayment” or “credit/debit.” The value of the exchange is purely subjective. 2. Social exchanges are premised on trust while economic exchanges are not. 3. Social exchanges are meaningful and significant while economic exchanges are not. In other words, the meaning of the social exchange is significant beyond the transaction itself. One is building emotional ties, signifiers. Economic exchanges are not meaningful beyond the the exchange itself. You make the sandwich, I buy it. Done. 4. The value of the social exchange is intrinsic in the participants. Everyone brings something to the table that is considered of value. The value of the economic exchange, however, is based on an external medium of exchange, the currency. 

Sociologist Karen Cook elaborated the importance of Exchange Networks. Let’s say you really want tickets to a sold out concert. Your friend Steve “Knowsaguy” who can get you in. You don’t have to know the same guy Steve does for you to benefit from the exchange. Steve becomes your intermediary. In that way, you and the guy Steve knows are connected. 

Randall Collins

Of course, exchange theory has a difficult time explaining things like altruism or why people remain in abusive and exploitative relationships, self destructive behavior or why we even have children or pets.  Randall Collins tries to solve this problem with his concept of Emotional Energy. According to Collins, human beings may not be entirely rational, but rather emotional when making these exchange decisions. When we enter into an interaction, or, as Collins calls it, an Interaction Ritual, we are exchanging emotional energy. We enter into any Interaction Ritual with a certain stock of Emotional Energy, the energy we are able to put into an interaction, and cultural capital, our level of competence in the ritual. Under the right conditions, these Interaction Rituals will increase our Emotional Energy and Cultural Capital and empower us to participate in the ritual again and, perhaps, to engage in other Interaction Rituals. Collins sees these strings of Interaction Rituals as Interaction Ritual Chains, which are the basic structures of society. 


As you can see, the Interactionist perspective is a very flexible and multifaceted perspective. There are a lot of theories and many of them overlap and play off each other. This may be because the focus of interactionism is human behavior, and human beings are really complicated phenomena. Getting the kind of detailed research on human interaction, as opposed to larger social structures, has sparked a great deal of innovation in the field of sociology, not the least of which is the development of new methods for doing valid and reliable research, like ethnographies and empirical observation techniques and standards for drawing objective conclusions.  

The interactionist perspective has also inspired introspection within the field through scholars who have offered some critiques of the social sciences as a whole and sociology in particular. These scholars challenge us to change our academic focus to take a wider worldview and more expansive concept of humanity into account. The next two lectures will focus on two of these critiques, Feminism and Postmodernism. 

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