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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



The Faultline of Consciousness: A View of Interactionism in Sociology by David R. Maines (Sociological Imagination and Structural Change: Aldine de Gruyter) In this compendium of related and cross-referential essays, Maines draws from the pragmatist/symbolic interactionist assumptions of Blumer, Strauss, Couch, and others to formulate a consistent new view of the entire field of sociology. Suitable for courses in social theory, qualitative methods, social psychology, and narrative inquiry, this volume will change the way people look at interpre­tive sociology.


This is not a theory; it is a characterization or a series of declarations about human beings and what they do. It suggests that the starting point for sociological inquiry, as Dewey told us long ago, is with ongoing activity. Humans are naturally active, and it is a disservice to sociology to ask questions about why they are active, because such questions lead us into answers like "God made us that way," which sidetrack us into unproductive discussion. So, the fundamental interactionist insight has al­ways been that sociology deals with a species of animals who are self­aware and who can use that awareness to form their activity.

Another fundamental interactionist insight is that when people do things together they can create enduring group formations, such as divi­sions of labor, rules for inheritance, wage-labor relations, or ideologies. These are instances of group characteristics that influence human conduct and indeed are not reducible to the traits of individuals making up the group or society. It does not take a Durkheimian or a "macrosociologist" to recognize that group structures are real and that they can influence what we do. The interactionist, however, is reluctant to reify those structures by treating them solely as independent variables in a linear causal model. Rather, those group properties are structurations, to use Giddens's term. Divisions of labor, for instance, are group structures that are perpetuated and kept in place through human activity in which people recognize task specialization in relation to other specializations, who are sufficiently aware of the situation as one of divided labor, and who define that situa­tion either as acceptable or inevitable. Just as clearly, divisions of labor can change so gradually that people are imperceptibly aware of that change or they can be completely dismantled by administrative decree. There clearly is nothing particularly noteworthy about these observations, except to say that they are rather obvious sociological expressions of pragmatist principles, and that the interactionist over the years has steadfastly insisted on seeing human group life in all its forms as a dialectic of creativity and sedi­mented consequences of ongoing human activity.

From the inception of the perspective, interactionists have been both catholic in scope and very curious about exploring the common and / or new ground with other perspectives. One result of that breadth of per­spective has been the identification of various categories of interactionist thought. I do not here refer to the unfortunate and mistaken distinction be­tween the so-called Iowa and Chicago schools from which many sociologists got the highly distorted idea that Manford Kuhn was "scientist" and Herbert Blumer was a "humanist." Rather, it is the idea that there exist many versions of interactionism, which have been labeled as structural, phenomenological, semiotic, behaviorist, postmod­ern, Simmelian, dramaturgical, Marxist, Weberian, and feminist inter­actionism. It is not at all clear what these designations mean in and of themselves, but I am certain that they are nowhere close to being "schools" of thought that are somehow distin­guishable from one another and that represent divergent paradigmatic approaches.

I mention these versions, because it is against the backdrop of their con­temporary articulation that I have written this book. Indeed, this book is "my view" of the bearing of interactionism on sociological inquiry, and, as my subtitle suggests, the interactionism that can be found in general soci­ology. My view, however, is most certainly not yet another "version" of in­teractionism that I offer in competition with the other versions. Instead, it is a kind of invitation to reconsider the promise of sociology. What the spec­ifications of all these versions of interactionism tell me is not just that there is diversity within interactionism, but that there are tremendous numbers of sociologists who are dealing with interactionist ideas in serious ways. Seen in this light, the central feature of interactionism is not its parochial­ism, as some have characterized the perspective, but its vitality, breadth, and capacity to frame analytic issues for a diverse sociology.

My audience for this book consists of those who work in the area of gen­eral sociology. I am frankly rather unsure of what the term "general soci­ology" exactly means, but whatever it is I am certain there is a healthy diversity within it also. In reflecting on it, though, I think that general so­ciology includes interactionists and noninteractionists alike, and refers to those scholars who focus their work on the topic of people doing things to­gether and who try to understand better what happens when people do that. They also recognize that in various ways collectivities are forms of ac­tivity and that under certain conditions those collectivities themselves can act just like individuals do. Furthermore, these scholars understand well that human group life is probabilistic and that some measure of uncer­tainty exists in every social arrangement. Accordingly, I think of general sociology as a broad-based attempt to understand and ideally explain the problem of order. Order, or sufficiently regular and predictable patterns of events, is problematic precisely because of the inefficiency and inadequacy of the structures and arrangements that humans develop as a means of guaranteeing order. The problem of order therefore consists of the simul­taneous presence and operation of predictability and unpredictability, of boredom and chaos, and I think that general sociology is an area of inquiry involving scholars who pursue answers to that problem.

I consider myself a general sociologist, in fact, as a sociologist first and an interactionist second. My conviction is that the interactionist perspec­tive, in its broadest terms, is exceedingly useful for asking questions and framing answers to various instances of the problem of order. Moreover, I thoroughly agree with Herbert Blumer's position that should interaction­ism be shown as inadequate, then it "should be thrown ruthlessly aside". While some critics of interactionism clearly have expressed the view that such a time has come and gone, I will present evidence in this book suggesting that not only are those critics misguided, but that inter­actionism may well be becoming more useful and significant to the devel­opment of general sociology. My overriding view in this book, suggested by its title, is that sociologists over the years have learned a way of talking about themselves and their discipline in a way that has compartmentalized interactionist work and relegated it to the margins of scholarly considera­tion2 while simultaneously and unknowingly becoming more interaction­ist in their work. This drift toward interactionism, however, is a fractured and relatively unproductive process because the prevailing rhetoric of in­teractionist marginality, expressed not only by noninteractionists but by some interactionists as well, masks that very trend. This drift and its frac­tures, I think, rests at what I call sociology's "faultline of consciousness."

This book is organized as an expression of my view of the centrality of interactionism to general sociology. Each chapter, most of which are orga­nized into three major sections with an introductory essay, is designed to do a certain amount of work in the articulation of this view. Chapter 1 pre­sents a definition of the basic point of view of interactionism, discusses and refutes a range of common professional stereotypes about the perspective, and then shows some evidence that sociology is becoming increasingly in­teractionist but is largely unaware of that trend. My argument obviously is not definitive, but I am confident that it is sufficiently well-grounded to justify further inquiry into the proposition.

The first major section of the book, Theoretical Concerns, consists of chapters on Mead, Park, and Blumer. As I explain in the introduction to this section, these chapters address the awareness context element of my proposition of interactionism's growing centrality. Being a naive idealist, sociology has been a social constructionist one for most of the past century, an use the metaphor of the "edges" of interactionism to discuss the faultlin of consciousness and how it has played out in several areas that interationism has touched.


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