Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Symbolic Interactionism and Expectation States Theory: Similarities and Differences

Academic journal article Sociological Focus

Symbolic Interactionism and Expectation States Theory: Similarities and Differences

Article excerpt

Theories in the expectation states theoretical research program are often seen as based on the orienting strategy of symbolic interactionism. Certainly there are similarities. For example, both consider the actor's definition of the situation central to accounting for behavior. Both emphasize the situational specificity of behavior. While there are similarities, there are also several differences, including conflicts in assumptions about continuity in the definition processes and about the awareness of the actor of the operation of these processes. This paper spells out each of the similarities and differences between the state activating approach of expectation states theory and symbolic interactionism. It does not draw any conclusion about whether expectation states theories are "really" based on symbolic interactionism or not. However, it does indicate that these theories are probably more closely related to Simmel's form of interactionism than to Blumer's version.

Many programs of theory and research in sociology and social psychology are tied to particular perspectives or orienting strategies. Thus, we have a functional theory of stratification (see Davis and Moore 1945), a behavioral theory of deviance (see Akers 1973), and a Marxist theory of class conflict (see Marx 1848). Investigators working with these theories have generally seen themselves as contributing to the articulation, development, and justification of the strategies embodied in the theories. In fact, work on the strategy ordinarily precedes work on the specific theory. Thus, the theories generated are intended not only to provide explanations of the social processes they encompass, but to serve as demonstrations of the value of the underlying strategies as tools for sociological analysis. Davis and Moore's theory was as much about functionalism as it was about stratification.

Theory and research in expectation states theory (EST) has generally not followed this pattern (see Wagner and Berger 2002). No specific strategy or perspective served as the foundation for work in the program, from Berger's seminal 1958 doctoral dissertation forward. Instead, foundational principles were permitted to emerge from the work itself. As concepts and propositions proved their utility across an ever broader range of explanatory situations (as, for example, with the notion of an expectation state itself), their strategic importance became established. Elements of a working strategy evolved from the actual practice of theory building and theory testing. (See Berger, Wagner, and Zelditch 1992 for an explication of many of the emerging elements of an expectation states working strategy. See also Berger, Wilier, and Zelditch 2005.)

To be sure, some metatheoretical principles have been consciously employed in building theories in the expectation states program from the start. For example, the idea of isolating different social processes and developing abstract and general theories to account for them has been central to every theory constructed in the program. However, no single set of preestablished metatheoretical principles from any of the extant orienting strategies has guided the development of the EST program. Expectation states theories are not "exchange" theories, "interactionist" theories, or "functionalist" theories.

Nevertheless, as the expectation states working strategy has developed, ideas consistent with the principles of one or another orienting strategy have emerged. Astute observers might plausibly identify elements in the program that are shared with exchange or interactionism or functionalism. However, expectation states theory does not share all of its framework with any established strategy. EST is a "hybrid" strategy; it has emerged from the elements of several different strategies.

In this article I will compare and contrast elements of the EST working strategy with those of symbolic interactionism. However, one of the problems that arises in comparing expectation states theory with symbolic interactionism is that interactionism has taken so many different forms over the years. …

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