Theories of social structure and personality, group processes, and symbolic interactionism in social psychology
Whatever field of study we discuss, a researcher has opportunity to choose not only a subject area, a research question or research methods, but a general approach to studying an issue. In any field, scholars have different views on what perspective should be chosen for study and what issues should be emphasized. Sociological social psychology is not an exception: scholars study individuals in their social context from three general perspectives, each of which implies focusing on a particular aspect of an individual’s existence in groups and the society: symbolic interactionism, social structure and personality, and group processes (Rohall, Milkie and Lucas 13).
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These three perspectives offer researchers three different approaches to study individuals’ interaction, behavior, and development within groups; each of the perspectives focuses on a separate link of the interaction chain “individual-group”. Symbolic interactionism presents individuals as active participants in constructing society who “negotiate the meanings of social life during their interaction with other people” (26).
Thus, an individual is not just an object, a recipient, but a constructor, a contributor, a creator. Symbolic interactionism implies that it is impossible to study an individual without his/her social context, as well as to study society regardless of individuals that are a part of it and create it (27). Social structure and personality is the approach that emphasizes the impact of social forces, such as status, roles, and social networks on individuals in the context of their social lives (52). The group processes perspective rather focuses on groups than on individuals: it implies studying interactions and processes within groups, interaction between groups et al (ibid.).
To determine which of these perspectives is the most useful, let me allude to the definition of sociological social psychology. As marked in (Rohall, Milkie and Lucas 12), the focus of sociological social psychology is the impact of social forces on “individuals’ life”; in turn, the word “life” here includes a range of components, which are attitudes and views, behavior and decisions et al. Considering all said above, symbolic interactionism is the perspective which is to certain extent outstanding and offers insights that other two perspectives omit.
While the group processes perspective focuses on the phenomena emerging within a group and are characteristic to a group itself, and social structure and personality reflects changes in an individual’s behavior connected with his/her social life, symbolic interactionism goes further and spreads its focus to an individual him/herself. This is in fact the manifestation of the “psychological” component in sociological social psychology.
For a sociological research, it is important to collect the data and process it, which is actually answering the questions “what?”, “how?” etc; however, significant difficulties appear when researchers try to interpret the data, or answer the question “why?”. Approaching closer to an individual’s soul is rather in the focus of psychology than of sociology. I understood this while studying sociology during the semester; that is why I single symbolic interactionism out among three abovementioned perspectives. Like psychology itself, symbolic interactionism as a perspective of sociological social psychology also approaches to an individual’s inner world.
For example, if one gets a position of a “boss” within one group, his/her behavior may significantly change, like Corporal Bain who “started barking orders” on his subordinates (37) (the case is the example of the social structure and personality perspective). However, can we know for sure what the background of this change is? On the one hand, a new superior maybe revel in his new position and his power; on the other hand, he may be afraid of his new responsibilities and thus be trying to gaining authority.
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On contrary, in the example of a young woman who felt a strong interest to dancing (26) (an example that refers to symbolic interactionism), we see not only the phenomenon of sharing interests within a group (she and her boyfriend), or impact of group communication on behavior (taking dancing lessons to be able to dance with a boyfriend), but a change in an individual’s views: dancing becomes interesting and pleasant for her. This is the component that is not covered by two other perspectives; that is why the symbolic interactionism perspective is so important and useful.
Society convincing people to conform to appearance norms
Deviance is often associated with immoral behavior or breaking laws. Agents of social control put effort into maintaining the existing social order; they prevent, detect, and stop deviant actions in the society (Rohall, Milkie, and Lucas 196). These actions are important for the society’s balanced existence, as they protect their members from the offense or just emotional discomfort. However, deviance is not always dangerous or illegal; in sociology, this notion is used to identify any kind of behavior or actions that do not fit well-known social norms and the social order; thus, such innocuous issues as an expression of one’s emotions or one’s unusual appearance can be also classified as deviance.
It is quite interesting that the interaction between a “deviant” individual and the community around him/her may have different “directions”. On the one hand, society contributes to making deviance a part of an individual’s identity: first, his/her actions are classified as deviant; second, an individual him/herself is characterized as deviant; third, an individual begins to consider him/herself deviant and starts thinking about it as about a norm (193).
However, on the other hand, society may put effort into bringing a “deviant” individual back to the norm and making him/her accept these norms as a part of his/her identity. Obesity is the case of “deviance” that illustrates all mentioned above quite precisely: being an innocuous characteristic of an individual, obesity is nevertheless an object of others’ strong attention, as well as a good target for them in terms of “bringing deviance to the norm”.
The interaction between an obese individual and society is also fulfilled in both directions. On the one hand, the society contributes to presenting obesity as deviation and to the understanding of this issue by obese people themselves: first, obesity is associated with such negative notions as “not beautiful”, “not healthy”, “lazy” through interactions in society, mass media et al; second, an obese person becomes a “target” for his/her “normal” environment; third, a person begins to think about his/her obesity as about deviation.
At the same time, unlike in the case of, for example, a student taking drugs who starts considering his deviance a norm (Rohall, Milkie and Lucas 191), obese people do not accept their appearance as a norm; labeling them as “obese” does not work like in other cases connected with deviance like described in (Brezina and Aragones 513-535).
On the other hand, society creates prerequisites for bringing obese people into the “norm”. If we omit such factors as genetics and health problems and consider obesity from a social perspective, it is reasonable to state that the theory of social bond (Leppel 520) works in this case. The theory includes four elements, which are: attachment, involvement, commitment, and belief. Attachment is an individual’s ties to his/her environment that do not give him/her opportunity to become deviant; involvement is the notion that characterizes time spend by an individual in the “normal” environment; commitment characterizes society’s efforts put into the maintenance of the norm; belief is an individual’s confidence in the norm.
It is possible to say that society’s commitment to the prevention of obesity is quite intense nowadays. Numerous programs are aimed at making people aware of the negative consequences of obesity and helping obese people lose weight. The website of the Camp Shine meets you with the “before” and “after” images of a boy who says, “You bet I’m happy! I lost 30 lbs in 8 weeks…”, and with a neat, eloquent slogan, “You’re going to look great after a summer at Camp Shane!” (Camp Shane). This information creates a connection between small weight, looking great, and being happy. The rhetoric of the website demonstrates that obesity is deviance and encourages children to come to the camp and lose weight. Thus, the perception of obesity as deviance and a good fit as beauty becomes a part of their identity.
The effect of insider/outsider status on the information collected in social psychological research
The steps of the scientific method used in social sciences do not differ from those used in natural sciences: a researcher chooses a subject of his/her investigation and fulfills research to get the necessary background; then, a hypothesis is formulated and tested by experimenting, observation et al; finally, the data is analyzed, and the results are communicated. At the same time, research in social sciences has certain peculiarities, as the object of study is a human with his/her peculiar views and beliefs, thinking, psychics, and soul.
Research may be complicated by a researcher’s prejudices and beliefs, a participant’s resistance to an investigation, cultural differences, and many other factors. During taking the course of sociology, I had the opportunity to compare applying social psychological principles to my life and then to the lives of other people, and to see the significant difference between these two practices: when working with myself, I have quite a full notion of my thoughts and beliefs, and understand myself well; at the same time, when we study other people’s lives, it is much more difficult to understand the real background of their behavior.
To cope with the barriers mentioned above, a researcher may use the advantages of different research methods available for him/her, for example, a survey or an interview, an unobtrusive or an obtrusive observation, an experiment, a case study. Each of these methods has its specifics and offers a different role to a researcher. Particularly, when he/she observes participants’ behavior, he is in the role of an “outside observer”. He/she has the opportunity to prepare for observation using outlining issues that he/she will pay attention to based on the purpose of the research; during the observation, he/she records the events that he/she considers important.
At the same time, several challenges are peculiar to this method: for example, some important things may leave beyond a researcher’s attention, or a researcher may perceive or record the events incorrectly; besides, it is quite difficult to understand the cause and effect connection when we talk about people’s behavior. “What caused a participant’s actions?”, this question is difficult to answer in case observation is fulfilled.
Thus, a researcher will interpret the data based on his perceptions and results of other researches. Another research method used in social sciences is a survey that gives a researcher opportunity to ask individuals about their perceptions. In this case, a researcher has a chance not only to learn facts but also to understand their causes and effects, as well as a participant’s perception. For example, in (Rohall, Milkie, and Lucas 191), we see the example of a student who explains his “path” to the status of a deviant individual; only an interview or a survey allows collecting this kind of data; observation of young people considered deviant would not provide a researcher with this material.
At the same time, surveys and interviews also have their challenges: first of all, a researcher should prepare a list of relevant questions that will help him/her to collect useful information and not omit important aspects; secondly, it is necessary to remember that “said” is not equal to “true”: if a participant of research expressed some idea about him/herself, it does not mean that he/she is genuine, or he/she may not understand him/herself well and distort the reality.
Thus, considering that many research questions require collecting different kinds of information, a researcher has to conduct different kinds of investigation and combine their results. At the same time, as we have discussed in Question 1, sociological social psychology differs from sociology by allowing taking a step closer to understanding one’s inner world. Having observed peculiarities, pluses, and minuses of different research methods, we may conclude that for social psychology, a survey or an interview may provide more useful information, as observation helps to see “what”, and a survey is a way to get the answer to the question “why”.
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Surveys and interviews help a researcher understand the hidden motives of participants’ actions and learn more about their attitudes, emotions, and thoughts. Besides, if a researcher works with several participants who belong to one group, he/she will have the opportunity to compare their responses and make interesting conclusions about peoples’ interaction in the group.
Brezina, Timothy, and Amie A. Aragones. “Devils in Disguise: The Contribution of Positive Labels to “Sneaky Thrills” Delinquency”. Deviant Behavior 25 (2004): 513-535.
Camp Shane. n.a. n.d. Web.
Leppel, Karen. “College Binge Drinking: Deviant Versus Mainstream Behaviour.” The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse 32 (2006): 519-525. Print.
Rohal, David E., Melissa A. Milkie, and Jeffrey W. Lucas. Social Psychology: Sociological Perspectives. 2nd ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2011. Print.