According to theories of Symbolic Interactionism, what is and constitutes deviance? Discuss theory, method and 1-2 exemplary works from the tradition. Symbolic Interactionsim originated as a theory proposed by Blumer, built on the foundations of the philosopher; Mead’s and Cooley’s work. Symbolic Interactionsim takes the form of an outlook on society from a perspective of looking at the actions amongst those in society rather than looking at social laws and structures which govern society.
Blumer’s development of this theory was very much influenced by John Dewey’s thoughts of society.
Dewey stated that ‘human beings were best understood in relation to their environment’ (Dewey 1977) From this Blumer (1994:1) summarised “Symbolic Interactionism” as a study of human group life and conduct. Blumer (1994:2) came up with three main principles to this theory; meaning, language and thought. The first; meaning, states that individuals act towards people and things based on the meaning they have given to those people or things.
The second, language, enables people to express meaning through symbols and meaning arises through social interaction using language. Blumer’s ideas are taken from Mead on this principle. Mead (1934) says that naming assigns meaning and therefore naming is the core of human society and knowledge. It is through language that individuals identify meaning. The third principle is how these meanings are interpreted and understood through a thought process. Thought adjusts peoples understanding of symbols and this understanding evokes a role taking idea of different points of views being enacted.
Each individual point of view is expressed due to the interpretation of these symbols and is modified through each thought process and others reactions. Becker is one sociologist who agrees with Blumers outlook of society. He developed Blumer’s theory to look at the aspect of deviance in light of the Symbolic Interactionist theory, he states that ‘The deviant is one to whom that label has successfully been applied, deviant behaviour is behaviour that people so label'( Becker 1963:8). This is explained by the idea that the deviant act is not created by the individual but by the society around the individual deviant.
Societies create morals and values by which everyone participating in one such society must under take and is enforced by the groups members To step outside these ‘rules’ the person is seen to be committing a deviant act and is labelled thus. Yet this view, Becker argues ignores the idea that deviance is created by society and explains that ‘deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an ‘offender’ Therefore deviance is seen through the eyes of one who labels it, due to their own responses to an action.(Becker 1963)
Definitions of deviance vary from group to group, due to different groups having different structure as the functionalist would state, or due to different moral and value schemes that members of the group submit to, say the Symbolic Integrationists’. The gesture for meaning ‘good’ in England (the thumbs up symbol) is taken to be a positive rewarding symbol that each in the English culture understand, for a Brazilian, this same symbol is taken to be an abusive provocation.
These different symbols and understanding in different cultures separate the definition of deviance to the need to be referred to in cultural context. This fits well with Blumers model to suggest that the meaning of these symbols is first misunderstood, the symbol enacted therefore has two different meanings and therefore two different interpretation. Cooley (1907) suggests the idea of public opinion; the collection of a social consciousness with similar ideas a ‘co-operative activity of many minds’ .
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