Social interactions and social processes

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Belarus State Economic University



Minsk 2008

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the subjective aspects of social
life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social
systems. One reason for this focus is that interactionists base their
theoretical perspective on their image of humans, rather than on their
image of the society (as the functionalists do). For interactionists,
humans are pragmatic actors who continually must adjust their behaviour
to the actions of other actors. We can adjust to these actions only
because we are able to interpret them, i. e. to denote them symbolically
and treat the actions and those who perform them as symbolic objects.
This process of adjustment is aided by our ability to imaginatively
rehearse alternative lines of action before we act. The process is
further aided by our ability to think about and to react to our own
actions and even our selves as symbolic objects. Thus, the
interactionists sees humans as active, creative participants who
construct their social world, not as passive, conforming objects of

For interactionists, the society consists of organized and patterned
interactions among individuals. Thus, a research focuses on easily
observable face-to-face interactions rather than on macro-level
structural relationships involving social institutions. Furthermore,
this focus on interaction and on the meaning of events to the
participants in those events (the definition of the situation) shifts
the attention of interactionists away from stable norms and values
toward more changeable, continually readjusting social processes.
Whereas for functionalists socialization creates stability in the social
system, for interactionists negotiation among members of the society
creates temporary, socially constructed relations which remain in
constant flux, despite relative stability in the basic framework
governing those relations.

These emphases on symbols, negotiated reality and the social
construction of the society lead to an interest in the roles people
play. E. Goffman, a prominent social theorist in this tradition,
discusses roles dramaturgically, using an analogy to the theater, with
human social behaviour seen as more or less well scripted and with
humans as role-taking actors. Role-taking is a key mechanism of
interaction, for it permits us to take the other’s perspective, to see
what our actions might mean to the other actors with whom we interact.
At other times, interactionists emphasize the improvisational quality of
roles, with human social behaviour seen as poorly scripted and with
humans as role-making improvisers. Role-making, too, is a key mechanism
of interaction, as all situations and roles are inherently ambiguous,
thus requiring us to create those situations and roles to some extent
before we can act.

Social processes

Interactions between people are the framework element which serves as a
broad placeholder for social processes. Process (from Latin processus –
movement) is a naturally occurring or designed sequence of operations or
events, possibly taking up time, space, expertise or other resource,
which produces some outcome. A process may be identified by the changes
it creates in the properties of one or more objects under its influence.

Processes can be classified into singular, recurrent and periodic ones.
A singular process is the one which occurs only once. Few processes in
nature can be considered singular. Most processes found in nature are
recurrent, as they repeat more than once. Recurrent processes which
repeat at a constant rate turn to periodic ones. The more periodic is a
process the more useful it is as the basis of development.

Social processes are those activities, actions, events or operations
that involve interaction between people. Examples of social processes
are known: progress, regress, integration, adaptation, assimilation,
competition, facilitation, inhibition etc. As for interaction of
particular groups, it is determined by a common platform such as common
individual or group interest, values, way of life etc. Let’s take such
groups as the Moslems and football fans. If social behaviour of the
Moslems is directed by their national customs and traditions, such as
rejection from pork, social behaviour of football fans may be directed
by considerable differences which further differentiate fans, for
instance in Russia, as those who support the football club “Spartacus”
and those who support “The Central Sport Army Club”. It means that on
the basis of interactions the process of uniting of people, or
integration, may take place. But interactions may also entail
disintegration, and then, social behaviour of the individual or a group
may become deviant from norms and values of the given social milieu,
such as deviant after-match affairs between fans of different clubs.

But the given processes are associated not only with changing interests
or needs of a person but with interests of the social milieu which the
person is a part of. For instance, a worker was a part-time university
student, received a managerial qualification and moved up to a higher
social stratum, thus disintegrating with the representatives of the
lower stratum. At the same time he became a manager, learnt behaviours
followed by managers of a certain level (leadership, creativity etc) and
actively demonstrates them, thus, integrating with the representatives
of a higher stratum.

In a group a number of dynamic processes may take place; some of them

· coercion on its members that enables to make them learn conformity and

· formation of social roles and distribution of group roles;

· changing of the activities of its members such as a result of
facilitation as the art of leading people through processes toward
agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation,
ownership and creativity, or as a result of inhibition that discourages
interaction and participation.

A well-known classification is that of R. Park who distinguished four
major social processes: competition, conflict, accommodation and
assimilation. He considered competition as the elementary universal and
fundamental form of social interaction and defined it as the struggle
for existence. Competition is interaction without contact when people
are competing for prized goods or values, but a particular person as the
individual unit is unaware of his competitors. Unconscious competition
may turn to conscious conflict and competitors identify each other as
rivals or as enemies. But it may take place only when the problems
arising among subjects of interaction are perceived by them as not
solved by any other means or perceived as a threat to their existence.

Accommodation means that individuals and groups get used to the conflict
situation, their interactions are temporarily fixed and controlled
through laws and norms. In accommodation the antagonism of hostile
elements is regulated, and conflict disappears as an overt action,
although it remains latent as a potential force.

In contrast to accommodation, assimilation is a process of
interpenetration and fusion in which individuals and groups acquire the
memories, sentiments and attitudes of other people and groups, and, by
sharing their experience and history, are incorporated with them in a
common culture.

R. Park asserts that social conflict is an indispensable attribute of
social interactions between individuals, groups and communities. It may
come about when there is no consent between people, or the individual is
fighting for his rights, or it is necessary to defend the homeland from
a foreign attack etc. If in the result of the conflict the individual
managed to defend his rights, he considers the conflict as a positive
event. No doubt, many theorists such as G. Spenser, K. Marx, M. Weber,
R. Dahrendorf viewed conflict not only as a stimulus of social
development but as a norm of social relations and a normal state of the
society. L. Gumplowicz, L. Coser and R. Park considered conflict as the
uppermost element of social interaction. Their views on the issue gave
shapes to conflict theory which states that the society or organization
functions in such a way so that each individual and group struggle to
maximize their benefits, which inevitably contributes to social change
such as change in politics and revolutions.

There are various types of conflict differentiated by its basis, for
instance, due to the object conflicts may be seen as economic,
political, familistic, religious and ideological; due to the subject –
intrapersonal, interpersonal, intragroup, intergroup, ethno-national,

Russian sociologists Yu.G. Volkov, A.V. Popov and others suggest the
following classification: cognitive conflict as struggle of people’s
opinions which may turn to struggle of personalities, or interpersonal
conflict, which may develop into a conflict between personality and
group, and further into intergroup conflict and finally, to a social
conflict as a clash between various social communities (classes,
nations, states or social institutions).

American sociologist L. Coser classifies conflicts as realistic and
non-realistic ones. Realistic conflicts are oriented to achieve a
definite outcome, and the reason for their emergence may become
inequality as a distinction of any society, for example, unequal
distribution of some resources or benefits (power, wealth, territories)
among participants, failure to satisfy their needs etc. Non-realistic
conflicts may be brought about by accumulated negatives emotions,
offence, hostility and the like. It means that an acute conflict
interaction can become not the means to achieve a definite result but
the end in itself.

Conflicts can also be destructive when they break effective interaction
and bring harm to the both interaction partners, and constructive
enabling to identify contradictions and solve them, develop forward,
correct interactions etc. L. Coser stresses that conflict can’t entail
only positive or only negative consequences; it produces both of them

Any conflict is represented by individuals with their social
orientations, values, opinions and expectations that’s why it is always
bound to subjective estimations and realization by people that their
interests are in contradiction with the interests of other individuals,
groups, communities or societies. This proposition differs from the
Marxist conception arguing that economic inequality is at the heart of
all societies. The dominating class owns means of production that’s why
it exercises social control over other classes. As soon as the
proletariat realizes its oppressed position, its relations with the
dominating class are becoming more and more conflictive that leads to
social revolution. As history shows, the Marxist ideological conception
which emphasized the absolute character of economic relations and
ignored subjective estimations and forms of behaviour in real social
life, turned out groundless.

R. Dahrendorf expressed another view considering as the basis for
conflicts such political factors as struggle for power, prestige, and
authority. To his mind, conflict may emerge in all social groups and
communities where there are relations of domination and submission. But
in this conception the factor of consciousness plays a leading role as a
person must realize his position, compare it with the other
participant’s position and form directions to struggle for power,
authority, prestige etc.

Modern conflict theory is based on the following four primary

1. Competition. Competition over scarce resources (money, leisure,
sexual partners etc) is at the heart of all social relations.
Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relations.

2. Structural inequality. Inequalities in power and reward are built
into all social structures. Individuals and groups that benefit from any
particular structure strive to see it maintained.

3. Revolution. Change occurs as a result of conflict between competing
interests rather than through adaptation. It is often abrupt and
revolutionary rather than evolutionary.

4. War as the extreme form of conflict. Even war is a unifier of the
societies involved, as well as war may set an end to whole societies.

As in any structure there is always a reason for a conflict situation to
appear, world community would have to be in a permanent state of “war”.
To avoid social conflicts systems of social, cultural and legal norms
regulating interactions are created, both the forms of expressing
disagreement and levels of tolerance in social relations being settled.
In international relations such are diplomatic notes of protest against
some violation in the relations between the states, economic embargo

There are various methods to avoid acute forms of social conflicts. The
first constructive method is deviation from the conflict interaction,
excluding demonstration of one’s own success, advantages, benefits etc.
in order to humiliate the partner so that he isn’t able to resist.
Another often applied method of settling conflicts is of opposite
character – it is coercion which turns to military affairs with making
use of military forces when interethnic and interstate contradictions
become sharp. Former Yugoslavia is an example. Other constructive
methods to settle a conflict are as follows: compromise when agreement
is achieved by making mutual concessions; negotiations implying that
mutual benefit is found after existing differences are accepted and
shared by both parties. In interethnic and interstate conflict an
effective method is trying mediation – applying to the third party or
mediator who is not directly involved in the conflict so as to cease
fighting and start cooperating. The mediator remains neutral and helps
the parties to work out what they think would be the best solution. When
disputing parties fail to reach a settlement through mediation,
arbitration or court is the last resort for them to settle a conflict.
Arbitration is a number of procedures of conciliatory character
exercised by formally authorized establishments or agencies such as
labour courts.

Although conflicts are impossible to avoid, one should keep in mind the
methods which enable to turn hostile antagonisms of interests into a
constructive way and settle them for the common good.

Peculiarities of social interaction in a transitive society

In the history of our country the 1990s were marked by the collapse of
the Soviet Union, emergence of independent states which started cardinal
reforms aimed at qualitative transformation of the society. Such
reforms, however, were of a complicated and contradicting character. The
society happened to be in a deep structural crisis which embraced all
spheres of social life: political, economic, spiritual etc.

A transfer to a market entailed changes in the employment structure
which caused redistribution of labour from the state and agricultural
sectors to the private one. Under the Soviet power value and normative
stereotypes in employment oriented individuals to stability and
invariable guarantees. The whole system of material and moral rewards
which was aimed at consolidating employees’ professional and
qualification positions in production, helped to fix them to the working
place, restrain non-sanctioned social and labour mobility etc.

In a transition period the main social contradiction emerged in
employment is that, on the one hand, a market model lets the person’s
economic initiative and his independent choice of job develop free. The
respondents assert that as a result of reforms they have got chances to
create a new life and manifest their gifts.

On the other hand, in a transition to a market economy when people’s
behaviour began to be regulated by norms and orientations of labour
which are quite different from those established over the years of
Soviet power, a lot of people had not only to change their social and
professional statuses, but in most cases move to a lower stratum after
they became unemployed, and then they had to get a new qualification
which, as a rule, didn’t require their education or acquired
professional knowledge.

As the social status of a person is primarily determined by his
professional and job level, the causes for growing conflict situations
at all levels of social interactions in a transitive society have become
clear. When the head of the family has been out of job for a long time,
it may lead to destroying his family; in this case an interpersonal
conflict takes place. Representatives of lower classes are forming
negative views about unemployment, wealth in general and successful
businessmen in particular. It means that in the society there are causes
for an increase of group conflicts, too.

In the context of interpersonal conflicts’ increase in the world the
number of deviants who consider themselves outside formal social
structures (for instance, criminals, dope fiends, homeless, alcoholics)
is increasing in transitive countries, too. These people do not share
and demonstrate norms and values dominating in the society, they reject
them and generate hostility to others. Although in small numbers these
inevitable products of social life, which is now becoming more and more
complicated, don’t make social relations seriously destabilized, at the
micro-level those subjects always produce conflict situations. Growth of
interpersonal conflicts in post-soviet societies is also caused by
non-critical perception of Western countries’ experience which has fixed
different ideals of a strong man (gangster, killer etc), by collapse of
the previous system of values and borrowing of a new system of norms and
patterns of behaviour heterogeneous to Slavonic culture.

Basic concepts

Accommodation – a form of social interaction when individuals or groups
get used to the conflict situation, their interactions are temporarily
fixed and controlled through the laws and norms.

Action – movement with a meaning and purpose.

Arbitration – a number of procedures of conciliatory character exercised
by formally authorized establishments or agencies such as labour courts.

Assimilation – a process of interpenetration and fusion in which
individuals and groups acquire the memories, sentiments and attitudes of
other people and groups, and, by sharing their experience and history,
are incorporated with them in a common culture.

Coercion – making use of military forces when interethnic and interstate
contradictions become sharp.

Competition – an elementary universal and fundamental form of social
interaction, the struggle for existence (by R. Park).

Compromise – a method to solve a conflict when agreement is achieved by
making mutual concessions.

Conflict – a form of social interaction when actors identify each other
as rivals or as enemies because the problems arising among them are
perceived as not solved by any other means or perceived as a threat to
their existence (by R. Park).

Constructive conflict – conflict enabling to bring about contradictions
and solve them, develop forward, correct interactions, etc.

Destructive conflict – conflict which breaks effective interaction and
brings harm to the both interaction partners.

Deviation – a method to settle a conflict when one avoids from a
conflict interaction, excluding demonstration of one’s own success,
advantages, benefits etc. in order to humiliate the partner so that he
isn’t able to resist.

Interpersonal (face-to-face) interaction – observable interaction among
people in dyad, triad and between one to many.

Group interaction – observable interaction among members of a group when
both the group’s social orientations and values shared by all or most of
its members are manifested.

Mediation – applying to the third, neutral party, or mediator who is not
directly involved in the conflict so as to cease fighting and start

Non-realistic conflict – conflict caused by accumulated negatives
emotions, offence, hostility and the like (by L. Coser).

Realistic conflict – conflict oriented to achieve a definite outcome,
and the reason for its appearance may become inequality as the
distinction of any society (by L. Coser).

Social action – a person’s movement with a meaning and purpose that
requires a response from another person.

Social behaviour – action addressed towards other people.

Social contact – a pair of social actions.

Social interaction – a dynamic, changing sequence of social actions
between people (or groups) who modify their actions and reactions due to
the actions undertaken by their interaction partner(s).

Social relation – a multitude of social interactions, regulated by
social norm, between two or more people, each having a social position
and performing a social role; a stable system of regulated interactions
between two or more partners on the basis of a certain platform (i. e.

Social process – those activities, actions, events or operations that
involve the interaction between people.

Societal interaction – indirect interaction bearing on the level of
community and society.

Additional literature

1. Blau P. Exchange and Power in Social Life. (3rd edition). – New
Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers, 1992. – 354 p.

2. Bourdeiu P. Logic of Practice. – Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990. – 382

3. Coser L. The Functions of Social Conflict. – Glencoe, Ill: Free
Press, 1956. – 188 p.

4. Durkheim E. The Division of Labour in Society. – New York, NY: Free
Press; 1997. – 272 p.

5. Durkheim E. Suicide. – New York, NY: Free Press; 1951. – 345 p.

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