Social interaction

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Critically examine how sociology discusses social interactions (or social relations) and the role these interactions play in shaping the notion of self and/or identity.

Social interaction involves people communicating face-to-face, acting and reacting in relation to each other using verbal as well as non-verbal cues. Every social interaction is characterised and dependent on people's distinct positions in terms of their statuses, their standards of conduct - or 'norms' - and their sets of expected behaviour - or 'roles' (Furze et al., 2008: 115). Furze et al. identify three major modes of social interaction, each of which is not without its limitations. This essay will suggest that perhaps there is a need for a refinement or refashioning of existing approaches to the study of social interaction due to such limitations. In addition, the inexplicable link between notions of the self, individual identity and the social realm will be established, namely through the work of Richard Jenkins.

Exchange theory involves social interactions which trade in attention and other valued resources. As an important social force that cements social interactions, it is a competitive exchange of resources. People communicate to varying degrees to extract some sort of benefit from interactions, one that is often of an economic nature. For example, a brief everyday interaction between a supermarket shopper and the cashier could be subject to this theory.

Rational choice theory describes how interacting people will always try to maximise benefits and minimise costs to themselves. That is, everyone wants to gain the most from their interactions - socially, emotionally, and economically - while paying the least.

Dramaturgical analysis describes the way in which social interaction involves a constant role-playing, an approach that was first developed by sociologist Erving Goffman (1959). He likens the presentation of the self in everyday life to that of actors in a theatre. We are constantly engaged in role-playing which is most evident when we are 'front stage' in public settings (Furze et al., 2008: 127). We learn, socialise and adopt roles so that we know what is considered acceptable behaviour in the public domain. We take these on through the various institutions of socialisation, such as the family, the school and the media, for example.

Furthermore, Goffman's analysis problematises Pierre Bourdieu's theory of power, practice and conflict theories of social interaction. Conflict theory emphasises that when people interact, their statuses are arranged in a hierarchy and the degree of inequality strongly affects the character of social interaction between the interacting parties (Bourdieu, 1977). On the other hand Goffman implies that such cues can be manipulated and misinterpreted. For example, a luxury car may signify wealth but if it were in fact stolen property then its public impression contradicts the actual status held by its owner.

These theoretical frameworks for social interaction, then, are important to sociology because they have been developed in an attempt to explain how we live with each other in various forms of social relations. The idea of face-to-face relations is a much broader idea now than, say, around 20 years ago where avenues for social interaction such as the Internet and mobile phones were. It is mostly structured around norms and status we carry, for example. The ever-increasing popularity over the past five years of Internet Social Networking Sites such as Facebook and Twitter, for example, complicate Goffman's notion of the front stage-backstage binary.

The notion of the self in an early historical sociological view was that there was a separation between society and the self. C. Wright Mills (1959) as well as Emile Durkheim in the example of suicide maintain that, certainly, the public world (socio-cultural world) and the private self are always interconnected (Geary, 2009). We are shaped by a specific set of forces which locate the self in and of particular sets of circumstances and this is what is what is referred to as the process of socialisation. We develop a sense of self by how we perceive the other.

Identifying ourselves or others is a matter of meaning, and meaning always involves interaction: agreement and disagreement, convention and innovation, communication and negotiation (Jenkins, 2004: 4). Identity formation, then, is almost always already part of social and cultural relations or interactions. To identify the self and the so-called other person, according to Jenkins, relates to the way meaning-making impacts on us, as well as the way we alter such meanings. The individual and the collective are routinely entangled with each other and the three approaches - exchange theory, rational choice theory and dramaturgical analysis - outlined by Furze et al. are some examples. These must accommodate the fluidity of identity and notions of the self.