Interactionism and Constructivism

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Interactionism and Constructivism
Faculté Faculté des sciences de la société
Département Département de science politique et relations internationales
Professeur(s) Rémi Baudoui
Enregistrement 2015
Cours Introduction to Political Science


We will first situate the production contexts of these two currents.

Interactionism developed at the beginning of the 20th century at the University of Chicago. The Chicago School is an intellectual movement that developed in Chicago between 1910 and 1920. It plunges us into a sociological question on the basic observation of the extraordinarily important change in the population of the city of Chicago. What was happening in Chicago between the 1880s and the 1920s was the transition from a classic city to a metropolis. The spatial configuration is changed as well as the social configuration.

It is around this problem that sociologists in Chicago will mobilize themselves. From then on, they will set out the first interactionist theories.

At that time, sociologists were struck by the phenomenon of the emergence of a new urban area characterized by new phenomena such as the question of migration, the industrial transformations of the city, the difficulties of social, professional and cultural integration (the latter difficulties push people to settle first by belonging to a community). These latter phenomena lead to an ethnicization of the city, where the city is an ethnic mosaic where everyone is in more or less open conflict with the next ethnic group, but also the appearance of a classic social disintegration for the benefit of the birth of individuals and as a result of the marginality of which crime and delinquency are part of the birth of gangs and the mafia.

Basically, the sociologists at the Chicago school will be pioneers in investigating the phenomena of which social deviance is a part: the fact that in an urban space, there are individuals who choose illegality in order to enrich themselves and prosper.

From the intellectual current of the Chicago School will emerge an important term, "interaction": individuals in a much more "loose" social situation, the social field, society and social relations will be structured by a principle of integration. This means that our behaviours are conditioned by the very nature of the exchange in which we are registered: an individual does not act alone, he always acts in an interaction with another. Thus, what is fundamental in the sociology of interaction is to question the behaviour of individuals according to this interaction logic and the reaction system in which they are immersed. Therefore, the interactionist system will favour the question of exchange in all its forms, since there can be no human relations without interactions between one individual and another.

The behaviour of an individual determines his interactions, he is never isolated in his social future and in the interpretation of his behaviour, whether it is right or wrong. In other words, the whole social system is always interactive, it is never constant. This question of interaction will be reflected in the foundation of the interactionist school. Very quickly, interaction from a theoretical point of view will strongly criticize functionalist theory, because interaction is not purely functional rationality, as functionalism suggests, but it is the domain of interaction, simulation and context.

There are four principles in interaction:

  1. there must be units that interact with each other: this is done individually or collectively;
  2. rules are needed to structure these logics of interactions: they can be explicit, such as public law rules or implicit rules that make a collective integrative phenomenon occur
  3. it is an orderly process: for example, the study of the relationship to violence takes place in a scheduling field;
  4. it proposes the very question of exchange: we are in an exchange system, it is a relationship of interactions.

Constructivism, for its part, developed in the 1960s and 1970s in the fields of sociology, philosophy and anthropology, but also linguistics. One of the authors of linguistics was Jean Piaget in Geneva who developed a theory of language as a constructed space.

The basic assumption is that all knowledge has a constructed and constructing character. Knowledge is not fragmented, it participates in the construction of knowledge, therefore, we are in a construction process because it builds, it is building, that is, it will allow us to build reality.

In constructivist theory, reality is not what we observe, it would be an object constructed by science, norms and rules. In order to understand reality, which is a social and normative construct, it is necessary to develop a scientific system of construction. To do this, we must be able to understand the scientific system by which reality was constructed. Then all knowledge builds a world, the reality in which we live is constructed and has a subjective character.

In other words, reality proceeds in a construction, the only way to access knowledge is to scientifically work on the construction of the will construct, it is the second level construction that means that if we want to understand the constructed reality in which we are we must develop a scientific apparatus that allows understanding the constructed reality. The fundamental assumption of the underlying constructivism is that basically, every society develops systems of perception of the world. Societies do not directly develop a reality, but it interprets the world according to constructed realities.

Constructivists say that reality is built over a long period and also involves multiple actors, it is a set of actors in a given society that constructs it. These theories question society and not the individual. These constructed realities have a structuring dimension of thought. If at any given time we are in a constructed reality, the coercive powers of political construction force us to conform to constructed reality.

These realities structure thought in the same way as each person's cognitive apprehensions. There are two important dimensions:

  1. constructivism will question itself to the comparative dimension of constructed realities: if societies construct constructed reality, what is interesting is to compare them and what are the different realities at stake that put into place different structures and possible conflicts.
  2. the great field of constructivist analysis is international relations because they will be able to highlight territorial, spatial or cultural systems, different constructed realities and therefore conflicts.

Constructivist theory leads us to think of space as constructed realities in relation to each other.

Let us recall that the interactionist theory criticizes functionalism, because one reasoning only by function, one evacuates the question of the individual since interactionism fundamentally implements the interactions of individuals in social and political systems.

The constructive theory will first of all be critical of structuralism because constructivism considers that it is a very fixed vision of the perception of the development of societies, it will say that we forget the questions of the arrangement of reality, but it will also criticize systemicism, because it is much more in the singular analysis of specific cases. In international relations, certain specific situations will be analysed in the context of constructivism. We are really in something that breaks with structuralism, functionalism and systemicism.

The Interactionist Theory[edit | edit source]

Back in the day: Chicago School[edit | edit source]

At the beginning of the 20th century, Chicago moved from the city to the metropolis with a massive influx of foreign immigrants which led to racial conflicts, the establishment of ghettos, poverty, prostitution and juvenile delinquency. There will also be violent racial riots.

It is a very new sociology because at the beginning of the 20th century we did not have a sociology of deviance which was on the side of lawyers and repression. Basically, the novelty is to question the social and marginal configurations that will revolutionize the field of knowledge in sociology, particularly by the fact that we will realize that there are rationalities that also pass through the interactionist question.

It is an attempt to understand and solve social problems based on the lives of uprooted people.

The major themes are racial and ethnic minorities, the marginal man, the city, deviance or crime and delinquency.

The study of minorities shows that interaction systems are very strong because they are defence and protection systems. The sociology of the Chicago School will study all these questions and show that there are systems of action, of solidarity in interactive logics and which are true modes of collective functioning.

Among the keywords of interactionism are:

  • Socialization: all the mechanisms by which individuals learn social relations between men.
  • Symbolic interactionism: the idea that individuals do not suffer social facts, but that they produce them through their interaction. It is a very dynamic interpretation, individuals are actors in the social field, but they are not necessarily subject to the social field, they produce it themselves through their interaction.
  • Participant observation: the interviewer gets involved in the group he is studying.
  • Social Darwinism: Darwinism is based on Darwin's theory of natural selection to describe the behaviour of individuals in society.
  • Functionalism: theory that considers the social system as a unified whole, all the elements of which are necessary for its proper functioning.
  • Ethnomethodology: sociological approach focusing on the knowledge and capacities of each member of society.
  • Urban ecology: sociologists try to explain the perpetual recomposition to which the city of Chicago is subjected.
  • Disorganization: the decline of the influence of collective values on the individual as a consequence of rapid changes in the economic environment.

Erwin Goffman (1922-1982): the staging of everyday life[edit | edit source]

Erwin Goffman.

Goffman was to publish a very important work after studying sociology in Toronto and at the University of Chicago, but who also taught in Berkeley and Philadelphia. He will work on the question of illness and social phenomena as well as on the psychiatric hospital in order to study the interactionism that is built either on the one hand with medical power or with other patients. His hypotheses is published in his book "The staging of everyday life" is that every individual is an actor, we are all actors who are actors of comedies and in theatrical performance, at every moment we must expose our character through a ceremonial and with techniques of representation.

Goffman's constructivism is that we all put ourselves in positions of construction as subjective beings and as social beings. He himself will take up the question of reality by saying that all reality has two meanings:

  • representations of reality: one represents reality;
  • the reality of representations: from the moment a collective field of representation is created, these representations acquire an active reality; representations of reality have been created and finally become accepted. This means that as individuals we work with representations.

He wonders about the importance of public space. For Goffman, the public space and a theatre stage. The individual is conceived as an actor performing in front of his audience. The role of the spectator is extended to any person in a daily activity.

For Goffman, there are three skills in which reality is played out: cooperation (1), commitment (2) and absorption (3).

Public space means that we are both spectators and actors: at the same time, we manufacture them and at the same time they are inscribed in constructed realities. It has interactions that are going to be cultural.

According to Goffman, these systems of interactions are invested by speech, because it is fundamental in the interaction and by the body, i.e. in the movements of the body and its ability to adapt. We are in a field of interactions, gestuality of the body and language that allow us to define pluralities of situations in which we collectively manufacture devices of recognition of action and development.

The Symbolic Interactionism[edit | edit source]

Goffman will say that public space favours the construction of the avoidance theory. The avoidance strategy is when one feels the threat; the threat can also be completely of the order of the representation that refers to the constructed reality. However, there are also many other avoidance strategies.

What we observe in the sociological field and which is important in the political field is that the principle of interaction is also in the political field which also works through interaction.

Interactionist thinking is interesting because it shows that on the political level we are well in a field where situations are negotiated. This means that when we work from an interactionist point of view on the political field, we will work on a space for debate and not on something closed.

All individuals follow rites of interaction; it will give three situations that undermine the interactive ritual. Often, the interaction is ritualized, it does not reveal spontaneity. Goffman identifies rites of rupture with the classical authority that disrupts the ritual order:

  • offense and reparation: one can escape interaction because of violence or significant force ;
  • desecration: rejection of rules of interaction that go beyond ritual;
  • Abnormality: these are symptoms that damage the rules of interaction, it is a rupture of ritualized integration.

The constructivist theory[edit | edit source]

The origins: the epistemology Alfred Schütz (1899 - 1959)[edit | edit source]

Alfred Schütz.

One of the origins and epistemology that is the science of language. Schütz is a philosopher and sociologist who fled Nazism by taking refuge in the United States. In Goffman's lineage, he will question the scientific construction of constructed reality. In other words, he will ask himself what a thought object is.

In science, a thought object is a constructed object. Basically, when we want to capture a social reality, we will make a constructed object. In order to observe a new phenomenon, it will be necessary to build a scientific device to analyze it. Science is a constructed object whose function is to try to understand a social reality itself constructed: the objects of thought constructed by the researcher in the social sciences must be based on constructed objects, which means that any scientific approach is constructed.

The big question is going to be to analyze reality which is itself a construct. For Schütz, the object of science is second-degree construction. We are in a double constructivist logic and then this object of social science has for only object to understand the constructed reality such as it gives itself to understand and not such as it gives itself to see. Here too, there is a significant gap between what we see as subjective and what is actually constructed, but above all, constructivist scientific tools must be developed.

This shows that we are in a philosophical and epistemological reflection of the relationships between our capacities to construct modes of analysis and the capacity to understand the construct of the society in which we are.

John Searle's language philosophy[edit | edit source]

John searle en 2005.

John Searle is an American philosopher who will work on the question of language and will publish in1995 The construction of social reality[1]. He will assume that just like Piaget that language is a construction, it is fundamental because it allows dialogue. Language is a construction insofar as it is thanks to the fact that we have acquired it, that we can exchange, discuss and negotiate.

On the other hand, language participates in its own way in the social construction of reality. Language is not simply a framework for exchange, but a tool for building reality.

The etymology says a lot about the ability to use it as a scientific object and tells a lot about its weaknesses and conceptual strengths. By working on language, we work on a strong object that allows us to understand the construction of a statement and thus the conception of reality.

Not only does language allow us to understand ourselves, but it participates in the social construction of reality.

Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman: "The social construction of reality"[edit | edit source]

For Berger and Luckman, language remains fundamental, reality is a social construct and the object of the social sciences can understand reality through language. If we have understood how this reality was made, then we have the means to understand the world in which we live and to understand the weight of norms and institutions in making this reality.

Berger and Luckman ask how reality is constructed? They postulate that the foundation of knowledge of everyday life is language, other parts than society as objective reality subjects the individual to power and that society as subjective reality is identification with the other.

From the point of view of political science, every society must subject the individual to power: we are all subject to power and to the social construction of reality that is not external to us, but we will participate in it through the question of power.

Power is the construction of rules and norms that are in fact behaviors; basically, a society or a state function from the construction of norms that make social reality function to build. In other words, it is a constructed social reality.

Secondly, society's stake must stick to the constructed social reality. Therefore power is the fact that we will have to make individuals stick to this constructed social reality. Power will have a dimension or institution of gathering in relation to an ideal of constructed social reality. He who breaks the constructed social reality can be condemned to death as Galileo was.

How does reality translate into everyday life?

This means that at Berger and Luckman, societies, like language, are based on stocks that define and adapt behaviour in everyday life. We are going to have two important phenomena, the institutionalization process and the legitimization process.

The process of institutionalization is the fact that any society must channel the behaviour of individuals into a social order. The individual's relationship with society will be institutionalized through habituation and the division of tasks. Habit is a repetition and the transmission of its values and ways of thinking will be transmitted as a legacy to those who come behind us and must adopt the same behaviors of this constructed social reality. The concept of transmission becomes a fundamental concept for any society, because if it can no longer transmit the constructed social reality and can no longer transmit its modes of representations, governments, actions and efficiencies.

The social world cannot be separated from human activity and the question of governmentality. They will describe a social world as a world of institutionalization and integration sedimented by language and traditions that are legitimation.

In all societies, there is symbolism, especially at the level of government and power, it is a manifestation of a continuity that is on the side of the construction of social reality.

The legitimation process creates a process to legitimize. It is necessary to remain in the universe of the symbol in order to permanently legitimize the collective function of integration of individuals in the face of this constructed social reality. We are in a process of permanent legitimation of what needs to be done and which imposes prohibitions on everyone. This process creates legitimacy and acceptance for all.

We see that the purpose of this process is to make all elements of society accept this constructed social reality.

Constructivism in the theory of international relations[edit | edit source]

This theory will conceive that the field of international relations is not an established field, but in permanent construction, in this framework constructivism theory brings us back to the side of a process in action, that is to say that what we will analyse at a given moment describes the field of international relations as a field in movement. In other words, constructivist theory describes the field of international relations as a field in perpetual motion according to interactionist strategies.

We must, therefore, understand mobility and strategies. In an interactionist field, strategies can evolve.

The constructivist hypothesis will be to say that the fundamental issue depends on several levels:

  • role of actors: they interpret situations. From then on, we are in a field of interactions that always proceeds from the social construction of reality, it is a construction. There are situations that evolve through the role of actors in given times and circumstances. First, we must understand the role, the regulations, the values and the ideologies in international relations, knowing that this is not necessarily enough because we may have opposing ideologies.
  • He understood how these social realities are constructed.
  • understand the scope of interactions that exist in the field of international relations because it explains strategies at the global level.

Constructivism is interesting because it puts us in a set of considerations, of continuity of continuous movements in the field of international relations. It will oppose functionalists in the field of international relations, we cannot simply, but also in terms of interactions that may be ideological of long duration, but there may be interactions of circumstances in relation to a given problem. But also criticizes systemicism which is an approach that will develop at the end of the 1980s at the end of the Cold War when we can no longer understand the composite field of multilateralism. One may wonder how to understand the complexity of the field of international relations if not by coming back to the question of the interaction of actors in the field of international relations.

Basically, he abandons the great pre-structured narratives in order to question a social reality of actors. It is a critique of a classic theory of international relations to return to the complexity of the field of international relations by also putting into crisis concepts such as the concept of anarchy. In fact, there is never anarchy, it is itself a construction. This means that in a state in a situation of anarchy it is necessary to reflect on how this situation was constructed.

In the field of international relations there are national actors, but they cannot exist as such if they are not interacting. We are in a world of coaction or co-sharing of national action that allows us to understand the complexity of the field of international relations. If we take the issue of actors, we also take the issue of power relations.

Anarchy according to constructivist theory is not a previous pre-social state, it is something that is something that is also a result and therefore anarchy in international relations also results from a process.

In the field of international relations, constructivist theories appear: they will think about the reality of structures and conflicts and also think about intersubjectivity, that is, the fact that we are in representation and how certain countries can allow themselves to characterize another in the name of the interpretation of their own development.

Constructivists advocate that the general principle at the global level is state sovereignty, but that it is, in reality, subjective, that is, a function of what the actors recognize. There are explicit but also implicit rules that must be accepted as in interaction and if these rules are not accepted then there may be specific forms of reactivity in the field of international relations.

Above all, it is the analysis of the process of construction of social identities and actors of modern politics and then how according to these rules and these enormous how actors and agents interact and influence each other or fight each other.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Searle, John R. The Construction of Social Reality. New York: Free, 1995.