Studies in Symbolic Interaction: Volume 27

Cover of Studies in Symbolic Interaction

Table of contents

(26 chapters)

At the November 2002 National Communication Association Convention, The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction Affiliate sponsored a spotlight panel honoring the contributions of Laurel Richardson to symbolic interaction and communication. These sessions feature distinguished symbolic interactionists who have contributed to the study of communication and promoted interdisciplinary discussion between communication and symbolic interaction scholars. Under the leadership of Shing-Ling (Sarina) Chen, these annual sessions have become highlights of NCA meetings for ethnographers, symbolic interactionists, performance and cultural studies scholars. Following such esteemed honorees as David Maines (1999), Norman Denzin (2000), and Peter Hall (2001), the spotlight on Laurel Richardson produced another exciting program.

Week Fifty-Five of the War on Terrorism: America’s on-ending war against terrorism is in its 55th week. We are starting our second year with Bush at war. In the first year of Bush’s war Americans experienced considerable loss of personal freedom, witnessed major encroachments on civil rights, saw the President turn his back on the Koyto Treaty, observed major corporate scandals starting with Enron, watched the Republicans take control of the House and Senate, as Bush bullied the United Nations into supporting the call for regime change in Iraq. During the first year of Bush’s war, American foreign policy became more aggressive, with Bush claiming the right to attack any nation that might be a threat to America. America seems to be in a permanent war against the world.

Dressed in a mid-calf, purple cotton dress with a matching raw knit cardigan casually draped over her arm, Laurel enters the room. A large, loaded down, cloth bag hangs from her shoulder, and she clutches books and papers in both hands. I am struck, as always, by her presence. Appearing calm while rushing, she gracefully takes over the room. No, the room appears larger once she enters; Laurel opens space for those present.

While spending my mandatory year of fieldwork among the K’iche’ Maya of Guatemala I learned that a woman was planning to conduct a healing séance soon. So, one chilly evening my husband Dennis and I joined a small group of spirit seekers in an ancient adobe house. Its single room had a ten-foot ceiling with round rafters and tiny mica windows. Along the eastern wall, under a mass of dusty crepe-paper streamers, stood a rickety table covered with a long tapestry. In the center was an equilateral cement cross, embedded with green and blue stones. Stacked at each corner of the table and around the cross were strangely shaped quartz crystals, fulgurites, potshards, and black obsidian blades.

Dear Laurel,

This tribute essay to Laurel Richardson’s work is composed of a collection poems that respond to her own call for and use of the poetic in sociological and ethnographic research. The piece is divided into four sections (Poeticizing Theory, Poems on Academic Life, Love Poems, and Poems of Evaluation), each with the intent of employing poetry as a creative analytic practice so that I and the reader might take in more fully Richardson’s scholarship.

This piece is inspired, informed, and indebted to several of Laurel Richardson’s essays, including, “Resisting Resistance Narratives: A Representation for Communication,” “Afterwords: Replay,” “Afterwords: ‘Louisa May’ and Me,” “Speakers Whose Voices Matter,” “Writing Matters,” “Postmodern Social Theory: Representational Practices,” “Poetics, Dramatics, and Transgressive Validity: ‘The Case of the Skipped Line,’” “Educational Birds,” “The Collective Story: Presidential Address, North Central Sociological Association,” and “Afterwords: Sacred Spaces,” all from Fields of Play (1997) and “My Left Hand: Socialization and the Interrupted Life” (2000), “Meta-Jeopardy” (1998a) and “Politics of Location: Where Am I Now?” (1998b), all published in Qualitative Inquiry. This text is a response to Richardson’s (1997) invitation to experiment with form in order to create a “new communal understanding of what constitutes sociological ‘knowledge,’” an understanding that shows, performs (p. 80). My words are an offering, a small portrait of how Richardson’s feminism, both on and off the page, has shaped my understanding of our world and the place of a woman writing in it, of it.

How can I not be overwhelmed with excitement, pleasure, delight? To be feted by NCA-SSSI is wonderful enough by itself, but to be hear the stories, poems, performances, analyses of these creative-analytical people is a total treat. Their skills, talents, and generous spirits created wonderful pieces – pieces whose structures, metaphors, and topics resonate deeply with the work I’ve been working on. My faith in what some call “synchronicity” aboundeth.

It is an honor and a pleasure to commence this lecture series on symbolic interaction, society, and social change. The series is designed to present veteran scholars who have set new directions and explored new terrains with insightful, creative, and consequential analysis of critical social and sociological issues. Embedded in that intention is the desire to examine conditions and processes of social transformations and social action. I am deeply appreciative of the intellectual and material support from the Carl Couch Center for Social and Internet Research, the generosity of the Couch family, and the committed and energetic efforts of Professor Shing-Ling (Sarina) Chen in proposing and facilitating this venture. We also are indebted to the staff and officers of the Midwest Sociological Society and the 2003 Program Chair, Chris Prendergast, for providing encouragement and the program time for the lecture.

This paper is the initial published report of an ongoing research project focused on the occupational world and culture of the real-estate developer. 1 Data sources include intensive interviews with (mostly) California developers and associated occupational groups (e.g. architects, planners), participant observation of developer-oriented workshops and conferences, and diverse publications including: (1) the work of social science colleagues who have dealt – sometimes directly, mostly tangentially, with the topic; (2) biographies and autobiographies of contemporary and historic individuals who are “captured” by my classificatory scheme, that is, who I can clearly categorize as being in the development business or who are, at minimum, fellow travellers; (3) newspaper articles, columns, and op-ed pieces dealing with individual developers, with development projects and with support of or opposition to either; (4) social histories which capture the “who did what and when” details of growth and patterning of specific human settlements; (5) information available on the internet (and there is a great deal of it) dealing with both individual developers and with developer-related organizations; (6) publications (newsletters, journals, and so forth) of organizations which either directly represent or are enmeshed with or are in opposition to this occupational group; and (7) fictional works (films, short stories, TV, novels, newspaper and magazine cartoons, etc.) in which one or more of the characters is a developer.1 It is perhaps not surprising that this first report should deal with matters of symbolism, of imagery: As a self-identified symbolic interactionist and, more tellingly perhaps, as a student of Anselm Strauss, 2 Strauss’ Images of the American City (1961) and his edited, The American City: A Sourcebook of Urban Imagery (1968) were among the first works I encountered by him and they continue to be major influences on my thinking about urban matters of all sorts.2 these are the sort of issues that come most readily to mind whenever I am surveying data on almost any phenomenon. And while there are many, many other “stories” to be told about this occupation, I think it is fair to assert that all of them – or at least those dealing with the contemporary situation – will have to be understood against the backdrop of what I have come to think of as the developers’ “image problem.”

In what follows, I will first, overview my rationale for undertaking this study; second, provide some data to support the claims made by the title of the piece, i.e. that developers are seen as villains and that theirs is reasonably captioned a “stigmatized occupation” and then offer other data to question the accuracy of that image; third, propose a triplet of (among, undoubtedly, many other) reasons for this apparent mis-match between image and “reality”: and finally, in a concluding section, speculate a bit about consequences of this occupational stigmatization.

This essay is an exercise in imaginative historiography. Its purpose is to modify the boundaries between sociology, social work, and literature that have become impediments to the pursuit of socially responsible scholarship; its goal is to create an analogue in the past for a field that many revisionists wish to create in the present – a field of cultural inquiry in which knowledge is considered both cognitive and emotional, methods are imaginative, and results are meant to improve human relations. In the past I posit as a “working hypothesis” (in Mead’s sense of the term) for this field, I bring together figures, specifically Jane Addams and the nineteenth-century playwright Joanna Baillie, whose contributions to sociology and literature are being separately but not jointly recovered. I examine three key similarities that make Addams and Baillie kindred spirits: they cultivated sympathy as a way of knowing and acting, and made it the basis for social change; they preferred situational problem-solving to theory-building; they used drama for value inquiry and morality construction. Throughout, I also allude to affinities with the thought of Mead, affinities that are important for avoiding gender essentialism in this argument. I illustrate the combined use of problem-solving, sympathy and drama by linking Baillie’s plays on criminality with Addams’s and Mead’s efforts at criminal justice reform and with present-day efforts to move from an ethics of justice to an ethics of care. By bringing Baillie to Hull-House and considering how she might have contributed to the work of Addams, Mead, and their associates, I construct a precedent for transdisciplinary cultural inquiry.

Despite the attention that Charles Sanders Peirce and Herbert Blumer dedicated to semiosis, symbolic interactionism still clearly lacks a theory of the sign. Attempts to appropriate Saussurean semiology and deconstruction have been made, but these have often resulted in, respectively, denying the importance of interaction and interpretation, or in implying the demise of meaning. In this article I propose an interpretive analytics of the sign by building upon Peircean semiotics and social semiotics. I examine the sign as a tripartite process of relations among object, representamen, and interpretant and analyze processes of production, distribution, and consumption of signs, and how these processes are shaped by power dynamics. I discuss how socio-semiotic codes are constituted through specific ideological discursive practices, and how these discursive practices are contingent on exo-semiotic conditions. Finally, I reflect on the importance of this approach for the continued growth of symbolic interactionism.

In this article I analyze the official portrait of U.S. President George W. Bush to exemplify my previous theoretical elaboration of an interpretive analytics of the sign based on socio-semiotics and symbolic interactionism. President Bush’s official portrait is analyzed paradigmatically and syntagmatically as a complex multimodal text. I examine this sign diachronically by reflecting on the processes of production, distribution, and especially consumption of the portrait occurring throughout his tenure and within the exo-semiotic context of the American and World society at the turn of the millennium. In particular, I focus on the socio-semiotic process of interpretation by building upon Start Hall’s coding/decoding model. Thus, I offer an overview of how hegemonic, oppositional, and negotiated codes are constituted by and in turn constitute discourses about the objects represented in this picture. In conclusion, I examine how social semiotics can be used to view semiosis as an everyday socio-political performance.

A lament of the educated during the past few decades has been over the incursion of work into private life. In the modern industrialized world, where consumer pleasures and entertainments abound, it is ironic that those best positioned to purchase them are often too engrossed in work to take the time to do so. The most skilled, privileged and well-remunerated in our society are consumed by work. In the nineteenth century, for the most educated and privileged to be so occupied would have meant social exclusion. Paid work (or sold-time) was a form of debasement; it brutalized the mind making the individual unfit for the enjoyment of social virtues (Mills, 1956, pp. 215–218; Sombart, 1915, p. 18). Now, 100 years later, the circumstances are neatly inverted. Work is a source of social status and privilege and those without work are devalued and excluded. Nikolas Rose (1990, pp. 160–161) describes the modern “world of work” as “a realm in which productivity is to be enhanced, quality assured and innovation fostered through the active engagement of the self-fulfilling impulses of the employee.” In other words, the individual’s desires for “autonomy” and “creativity” map neatly onto the organization’s search “for excellence and success.” It is an elective affinity as elegant as Protestantism with capitalism.

This paper presents the experience of proximity to death in old age in light of ancient ritual practices. Characteristic mechanisms of coping with impending death among the elderly are discussed from the perspective of rites of passage. In accordance with Van Gennep’s model, this paper postulates that the subjects belong to a “death culture” characterized by patterns of “separation,” “transition” and “fusion.” A comparison of funeral and burial rites with daily practices of the elderly offers an interpretation deriving from the domain of ritual symbolism and provides an opportunity for a renewed examination of gerontological approaches and concepts. The discussion will focus on the term “dignity of the dead” which sheds light on patterns of separation from reality espoused by the subjects. The paper asserts that the ritual perspective offers an empathic framework for understanding the predicament of the elderly at the end of their life.

The decisive antidualism in Bourdieu’s thought permits searching for the complementary traits of his theory of symbolic social system and symbolic interactionism, rather than opposition. The theory of the symbolic social system, which is characterized by the double structure of meanings in the order of social relations and its symbolic representation in the narrower sense, has many convergent points of view with the symbolic interactionists’ perspective, starting with the category of habitus. Conceptual frameworks of structuralist constructivism and symbolic interactionism have one major difference – in Bourdieu’s theory the individual self is not inscribed. There are, however, strong common premises in terms of epistemology, theory of meaning and social ontology. Both epistemologies are antidualistic and relativistic (antiessentialism). Both approaches are based on a common theory of the social origin of meaning (anticognitivism). Both social ontologies are constructivist (social construction of reality). However, Bourdieu’s concept of symbolic struggle for control over the commonsense world-view introduces a new, political dimension to interpretive sociology.

In our paper, Randy Starr, who was found not guilty by reason of insanity for committing murder, tells his life story with my help. Our collaboration helps erase the fictitious line traditionally drawn between subject and analyst in life stories. We cover the period from his early childhood to his late twenties when he committed the homicide that led to his involuntary commitment to a state’s mental health system. In telling his life story, we vividly describe his passage through the four stages of the violentization and later descent into “self disorganization,” which is seen as a normal part of the process of dramatic self change. It is made clear by us that the severe self disorganization into which he descended did not originate independently from his violentization, but instead was a direct by-product of it. We conclude that he should have been adjudged a “disorganized dangerous violent criminal” and found “guilty, but in need of and susceptible to treatment.” A plea is made to make this verdict available to judges and juries in such cases.

In Dr. Norman Denzin’s graduate seminar “Interpretive Interaction,” the semester was spent reading, discussing, and debating various methods proposed as alternatives to the constraints and false promises of the “scientific” methods often taught in home departments. The class experience is, therefore, open to experimental ideas and formats while working toward one’s preparation for the final performance that uses a method discussed in class. Dr. Denzin’s task for us was to use an epiphanic experience having to do with race as a point of inspiration for our pedagogical performance texts. Having been much influenced by the critical study of whiteness by intellectuals like James Baldwin, W. E. B. Dubois, Toni Morrison, David Roediger, Franz Fanon, and bell hooks my text was fundamentally informed by their messages: whiteness is problematic for people of color as well as whites in that it creates false distinctions and categories preventing us from seeing each other, let alone ourselves. This creates an asymmetric relationship of power between races often resulting in violence (both physical and psychological), reinforcing historical structural inequalities or creations of new ones, and inherent essentialist rifts in perceptions between races.

By informing their children that Black women, Black men and Black children had no human integrity that those who call themselves white were bound to respect. And in this debasement and definition of Black people, they debased and defamed themselves. And have brought humanity to the edge of oblivion: because they think they are white. Because they think they are white, they do not dare confront the ravage and the lie of their history. Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers. Because they think they are white, they are looking for, or bombing into existence, stable populations, cheerful natives and cheap labor. Because they think they are white, they believe, as even no child believes, in the dream of safety. Because they think they are white, however vociferous they may be and however multitudinous, they are as speechless as Lot’s wife – looking backward, changed into a pillar of salt…It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves. – On Being “White”…and Other Lies, James Baldwin (1984), Essence in Black on White edited by David Roediger. To be a jazz freedom fighter is to attempt to galvanize and energize world-weary people into forms of organization with accountable leadership that promote critical exchange and broad reflection. The interplay of individuality and unity is not one of uniformity and unanimity imposed from above but rather of conflict among diverse groupings that reach a dynamic consensus subject to questioning and criticism. As with a soloist in a jazz quartet, quintet or band, individuality is promoted in order to sustain and increase the creative tension with the group – a tension that yields higher levels of performance to achieve the aim of the collective project. This kind of critical and democratic sensibility flies in the face of any policing of borders and boundaries of “blackness,” “maleness,” “femaleness,” or “whiteness.” – Race Matters, Cornel West (2001).“Since you’ve gone liberal I was going to get that book by that O’Reilly character, thought that would be real funny. We watch him almost every night.” My grandma laughs at her joke. I laugh along and say, “I’m glad you didn’t waste your money.” It’s her phrasing that catches me. I’ve gone somewhere? If so I’ve been there a while, why is everyone just now noticing? Maybe post September 11th America has highlighted my refusals to wave the flag, and they can no longer ignore me in their own “good” conscience. Or maybe in this post September 11th America I have become more adamant to be heard. The more I think about it, the more appropriate it seems. I feel like I have gone somewhere and keep getting farther away.

Postmodern informed sociologists advocate the study of oppressed and disenfranchised groups. Yet, they never go beyond the boundaries of the commonly researched groups – women, deviant subcultures, homeless, minorities and the like. What about the wicked? Howard Becker wrote about individuals being labelled by society as deviant, but in postmodern society people are also labelled by mass media. Stepmothers have been labelled for a long time as wicked. Indeed, in many fairy tales they are lumped together with witches. Tom Stoppard re-wrote Hamlet from the viewpoint of two minor characters, Rosencranz and Guildersten. Here, in a more modest way, I look at the Snow-White caper from the viewpoint of the wicked stepmother.

Sociology has a long and ambivalent relationship with the literary and aesthetic form. Commonsense readings of the novel assume its unproblematic structure as a linear narrative. Yet every novel alerts its readers to the constructed nature of social reality and identifies many of the effects of power, privilege, gender, class, desire, resistance, subversion and so on. As such a novel has the capacity to force a confrontation with fundamental, and Jameson (1981) would suggest, enduring human concerns. The novel can strip away a sense of familiarity with everyday habits, and in so doing, it can replicate the sociological process of denaturalization or defamiliarization, and allow the reader to see how ideas come to circulate, dominate and frame the ordinary world. Accordingly, David Lodge comes to the conclusion that “narrative is one of the fundamental human tools for making sense of the world.”

By examining a controversial and much debated novel like American Psycho around which a great deal of social commentary already exists, and by applying the arguments of Lodge, Jameson and others, we understand better how a work of art simultaneously functions as a deconstructive tool of the social. On this basis, when American Psycho generated a great deal of cultural anxiety in the cultural commentators of the day, it suggests that it had succeeded in denaturalizing the world, and in revealing the residual violence in an affluent, comfortable citizenry that was not expected to harbor such hostilities. American Psycho presented a disturbing “symptomatology of the times.” This capacity of the popular novel to inform on the zeitgeist makes an author such as Bret Easton Ellis a maven of our times whose products we should thus incorporate into the conceptual tool kit of any formal human studies.

This project emerged from my desire to better understand the role of popular culture narratives in the dynamic and continual process of self-formation and symbolic interaction. While I could have chosen many popular source narratives to be the site of my inquiry, I chose the work of jazz-folk-punk singer-songwriter AnI DiFranco for a number of personal, academic, and socially relevant reasons.

This autoethnographic poem explores my gendered experience as a twenty-something academic. Sport, family, and disability shaped my gender identity. Life in the academy and traditional heterosexual love expectations later tested my understanding of self and the role of femininity as a cultural construct. Building on and inspired by the work of Susan Krieger (1996), The Family Silver: Essays on Relationships Among Women and Ruth Behar (1993), Translated Women: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story and their exploration of gender and sexual identity within the academic and modern life, this poem attempts to navigate the tensions of womanhood, gender identity, feminism and the self in the late 1990s and 2000s.

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