Process and product in social theory

Reading: Cicourel, Aaron. 1993. “Aspects of structural and processual theories of knowledge.” In Calhoun, LiPuma, and Postone (Eds.), Bourdieu: critical perspectives, 89–115. University of Chicago Press.


A paradox:

When people interact with one another, they rely on the habits and expectations that they have learned by experience. We classify people and social situations based on the categories we know — “Are we on the record?” “Is this a date?” “Are you speaking as my accountant, or as my friend?” — and this classification guides what we say and how we interpret what we hear. Context, social roles, and unexpressed ideologies direct and limit the shape of the interaction.

At the same time, each instance of human interaction is improvised on the spot; co-constructed, as the jargon puts it. Speakers give one another subtle cues that indicate their current understanding of facts and social relations — think of the difference between “Oh, I didn’t know that” and “Well, I didn’t know that,” or between “Hey bro, can I bum a quarter” and “So sorry to bother you, but…” Naturally, this improvisation is based on a shared repertoire — if you don’t have a shared system, you can’t communicate at all — but people choose from the options that the system offers, according to their own goals and preferences. The way we get into the “date” or “on-the-record” frame is by making a choice, with each word we say, that we are going to play the appropriate role.

The first of these perspectives is a “structural theory,” meaning that interaction is considered to take place within preexisting social structures, and the second is a “processual theory,” according to which social relationships emerge from interaction as it progresses. The question is how to combine these two different ways of understanding social interaction. Even though they seem complementary, they lead to different ways of understanding some very important questions. For example:

  • When we talk about an individual’s knowledge of social structures (their habitus) what are we talking about exactly? Is it myths and belief structures? Scripts and schemas of how interactions “typically” proceed — how to “do” a coffee shop transaction or a job interview, or to tell a good story? Strategies for figuring out whether or not you have to do what someone tells you to do, and whether you can order them around?
  • How do children acquire knowledge of social structures? If you use interactional processes as your starting point in research, it’s hard to get enough data to illustrate any clear trends. On the other hand, if you start with the structures, it’s hard to avoid circular reasoning: “we know what they’re going to learn because we see that they have learned it.” Most of the interesting research in this area is by developmental psychologists, but they tend to ignore the existence of social structures, including their own power to give children instructions in the context of an experiment.
  • What is the role of social power in determining what structures are learned and who has access to them? Structural approaches tend to see it as a foregone conclusion that the important structures are those that powerful people use. On the other hand, from the process side, individual interactions don’t usually show any overt reference to differences in social power (you could infer them, but based on what?).

Cicourel says that the problem is one of research methods. When you’re a person interacting with other people, these questions of power and structure and process don’t occur to you — it’s all just “common sense.” Even when you’re a researcher, it’s difficult to know what you’re seeing because you’re Doing Science, and what you’re seeing through the lens of your own “common sense.” So let’s take a step back and see what we can observe about how “common sense” is learned by children. Rather than looking at how children are forced to conform to external social forces, we should think about how this process looks from their point of view, not just from a developmental psychology point of view, but also including how children learn about social power relations.

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