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Symbolic-interactionism is a dynamic theory of society that emphasizes process and change over institution and structure. In Symbolic Interactionism, Joel Charon describes the theory and applies it to a more general study of sociology. In Terrorism and the Politics of Fear, David Altheide applies various theories of sociology including symbolic-interactionism toward understanding how a society collectively agrees upon fear-based symbols and messages.
In Chapter 11, "Society," Joel M. Charon defines society from a symbolic-interactionism perspective. The symbolic-interactionism perspective defines society as "individuals in action," as opposed to a static entity (p. 152). Emphasizing the interactions between individuals, or between individuals and entities, the symbolic-interactionism approach stresses factors like social processes and social change. According to Charon, there are three qualities of society that make it viable from a symbolic-interactionism perspective. These three qualities include ongoing social symbolic interaction; cooperation or interdependence; and culture.
Ongoing social symbolic interaction refers to the symbolic means of communication that are critical to any social organization, even the smallest and loosest relationships. Communication is symbolic in the sense that words, actions, and other symbols impart a collective meaning. There are agreements as to what words and actions mean, and the act and result of that agreement is the solidification of society. A culture could not exist without ongoing symbolic interaction. Symbolic interaction includes role definition and role taking by individual members of the society. Roles are highly symbolic.
Cooperation and cooperative action refer to the fulfillment of either individual or collective goals via individual action. The goals do not have to be shared in precisely the same way, and the individuals participating in the society might have different goals. Yet the individuals in the society are willing to pool resources including information and energy, so that together they can accomplish individual goals. There are certainly shared values that enable cooperative action. Society is viable when individuals "work together despite their personal differences" (Charon p. 155). Societies are formed when individuals act cooperatively and interdependently. Cooperation requires ongoing communication (such as ongoing social symbolic interaction), mutual role taking (also a form of symbolic interaction), defining others as social objects, defining social objects together, and developing goals in interaction (Charon p. 155-156).
Culture is the final of Charon's three components of society. Culture is what develops over time, as ongoing social symbolic interaction and cooperative action take place. When a new social group is formed, it might not have a culture. As the individuals participate in the group over time, cooperating and interacting symbolically, a culture is formed. This is a group consensus over things like values and goals. The culture promotes itself through worldview and shared perspectives. Culture may be described as a frame of reference.
Part of the culture's frame of reference depends on how it defines the in-group and out-group. One aspect of culture is the "generalized other," which is a "socially created conscience" that dictates norms, procedures, rules, and taboos (Charon, p. 158). Self-control is partly a result of heeding the messages of the generalized other -- which is like Freud's superego. When the generalized other is weak, the culture can fall apart. Demoralized members of the group can also cause the culture to break down, as the generalized other becomes delegitimized. Therefore, conformity is a necessary component of culture and society.
For the symbolic interactionist, culture is not a static force. Rather, culture is continually being created and re-created as individuals redefine the boundaries of the group and of the generalized other. The symbolic interactionism perspective is a dynamic perspective because it acknowledges the complex and changing nature of society. Even the seemingly static emblems or institutions in a society such as gender, race, class, and power are continually being negotiated, re-negotiated, defined, and re-defined. As Charon puts it, all aspects of culture are negotiated -- aspects of culture are being agreed upon continually by the individuals comprising the society.
Society is "any instance of ongoing social interaction that is characterized by cooperation among actors and that creates a shared culture," (162). Within the society, there may be any number of smaller groups or sub-cultures. One individual can easily be a member of several different societies concurrently. The individual needs to feel a sense of meaning and camaraderie to participate in the group and ultimately, to sustain that group. "Ultimately, they need to believe that their place in the group is necessary for the group's continuation,"…[continue]
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