Symbolic interactionism, some critics assert, doesn’t attend to the “big picture”

Update: I originally uploaded this post on February 23, 2014. At that time, I though Erving Goffman was primarily about the ‘dramaturgical perspective’ and ‘symbolic interactionism.’

Since then I’ve learned there’s much more to Goffman than that. Recently I’ve been doing a lot more reading of works by Goffman along with articles about his work. For example, I’m recently been reading an online article published 2023 by David Inglis and Christopher Thorpe:

Beyond the “inimitable” Goffman: from “social theory” to social theorizing in a Goffmanesque manner

An excerpt reads:

Probably the most ubiquitous essentialist reading of Goffman involves claiming he was ultimately a Symbolic Interactionist. This is the predominant representation of him in textbooks (Brown, 2003; Carrothers and Benson, 2003). But this is an interpretation which Goffman explicitly distanced himself from, indicating that Symbolic Interactionism was too vague on how interactions were concretely organized (Verhoeven, 1993, p. 334–5). For Rawls (1987, p. 145), it is Goffman’s (1983) proposal of the notion of an interaction order sui generis which distinguishes him from most brands of interactionist sociology, as the latter do not consider interaction as a domain per se, but instead study how interactions either reproduce or create social institutions.

Moreover, Symbolic Interactionism has various constituent features, and to label Goffman in that general way does not indicate which of these features he was most influenced by. One element is the social behaviorism of George Herbert Mead, where visible conducts are examined rather than internal states of mind. Goffman (1967, p. 3) could be described as adopting such a behaviorist approach in at least some of his work, such as Interaction Ritual, which begins by identifying—in the gendered parlance of the time—the object of study not as “men and their moments,” but rather as “moments and their men.”

Goffman has also been portrayed as essentially a social structuralist (Gonos, 1977; Denzin and Keller, 1981). This interpretation appeared as a reaction to the Symbolic Interactionist one. As Smith (1999, p. 4) notes, “structuralist readings applaud Goffman’s sociology for downgrading individual agency by insisting on the determinative role of occasions, frames, and associated semiotic codes.” He adds that “this is useful to a degree but unfortunately neglects Goffman’s compensatory awareness of interactants’ capacity to improvise creatively when faced with insults, duress, frame ambiguities, and the like.”

An earlier post about Goffman is entitled:

Erving Goffman began his graduate work in Chicago in 1945

I’ve bought a copy of Greg Scott (2006) and find Scott’s overview of Erving Goffman’s biography and writings makes for a good read. I speak about the latter study in the post (see link above this paragraph) about Goffman’s graduate work.


I was interested to come across a blurb about symbolic interactionism. The blurb refers to what are perceived as limitations of the theory:

“Critics of this theory claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation – the ‘big picture.’ In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the larger issues of society by focusing too closely on the ‘trees’ rather than the ‘forest’. The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions.”

That’s an interesting blurb.

These are, possibly, valid criticisms. I look forward to learning more about such critiques.

The larger issues – the matters that entail the “big picture,” however such a picture is defined – are important. Even here, however, in my view, symbolic interactionism is of relevance.

For one thing, warfare and all that goes with it is concerned, among other things, with “total institutions,” a term that Erving Goffman – who had some connection to symbolic interactionism – introduced. Military history is part of the “big picture.”

As well, economic forces, some would argue, and some would agree, are an integral part of the “big picture.” The discussion concerning the usefulness, or lack of usefulness, of the term “neoliberalism” is an important one. Symbolic interactionism is in a position to make a significant contribution to the discussion.

Frame analysis

Erving Goffman, whose work was at times within the symbolic interactionist frame of reference, contributed significantly to our understanding of what frame analysis entails. I would argue that framing and frame analysis are a central concern of a “big picture” analysis.

Figure and ground

The “big picture,” as I understand, is also concerned with the fact that figure can readily be  transformed into ground, and ground can be readily transformed into figure. This is a central argument of Art and Illusion (1960) by Ernst Gombrich.

Framing in photography

Framing is central to the photographer’s choice of what constitutes figure and what constitutes ground. This is a subject that the curator of photography John Szarkowski has analyzed capably, as in The Photographer’s Eye (1966).

Still photography is related, in turn, to cinema, which is, as Mark Cousins notes in The Story of Film (2004), “a medium which began as a photographic, largely silent, shadowy novelty and became a digital, multi-billion-dollar global business” (p. 7).

We can add that, as Steven Ascher and Edward Pincus note in The Filmmaker’s Handbook (2013), “the old, hard distinctions between filmmakers, video makers, and digital video artists no longer apply” (p.1).

However we use terms related to movies, moving pictures, cinema, and the like, I would argue that online videos, political and commercial advertising on television and online, and news reporting, are, indeed, part of the “big picture.” They are also amenable to symbolic interactionist frame analysis.

The Maltese Falcon

Critics have noted that The Maltese Falcon (1930) is the outcome of a “big picture” analysis by Dashiell Hammett of the political situation that arose as a consequence of social, political, and economic developments after the end of the First World War. The novel was adapted as a movie, The Maltese Falcon (1941). The movie works great on its own terms, yet it’s also relevant to keep in mind that the storyline originated as a “big picture” political analysis by the author.

It may be added that Hammett’s political analysis of 1920s world politics wouldn’t find traction among observers close to a century later. In fact, it may not have had much traction in the period when Hammett was writing.


Some contextual remarks are in order.

Erving Goffman’s application of frame analysis is made within the context of the social sciences as a formal discipline. Goffman made a point of not discussing his political views. We do not, to my knowledge, have a written record of how he felt about political matters or controversies.

Dashiell Hammett was a novelist and screenwriter. His political views were well known. He did not address frame analysis within the framework of the social sciences. Nor did the next two authors:

Ernst Gombrich was an art historian. He addressed art history within the context of art history and psychology. He also wrote about history in the wider sense.

John Szarkowski was a curator, photographer, critic, and historian.

In the wider sense, each of these authors engaged very effectively in frame analysis, a key component, as I understand, of symbolic interactionism as practised by social scientists such as Erving Goffman.

Neoliberalism as essentially contested concept

Writers who are concerned with enhancing the general usefulness of “neoliberalism” as an essentially contested concept are also concerned with frame analysis, a way of seeing that is at the heart of symbolic interactionism, from what I can gather.

Some critics, such as Jonathan Swarts (2013), argue that “neoliberalism,” as defined by some writers, is dedicated to a form of “rhetorical coercion” wherein the power of narrative trumps the power of fact and evidence. I mention that because much is at stake, with regard to such “big picture” topics – topics to which framing analysis can be profitably applied.

Collapse of an Empire: Lessons from Modern Russia (2007)

On first thought, a study such as Collapse of an Empire (2007) may prompt the view that framing analysis is at times besides the point. When a political and economic system is “unstable by its very nature,” as a blurb for the book (see link at start of this paragraph) notes, you’re dealing with questions regarding politics and economics. That’s the primary narrative.

Yet, even here, the framing matters. The frame of reference that is brought to bear regarding economic matters determines how those matters are addressed. In Collapse of an Empire, according to a jacket blurb by George Soros, Yogor Gaidar argues persuasively that today’s Kremlin leaders – as a consequence of a characteristic and ingrained worldview – “are heading down the same economic path that led their Communist predecessors to disaster.”

These are thoughts that occur to me regarding the blurb mentioned at the beginning of this blog post.

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