Lecture Notes in Micro-sociology

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This writing is an extention of lecture notes on “Modern Sociological Theory” taught by Magnus Haglunds at Stockholm University.

Micro-sociology deals with sociological phenomena at more or less individual level. Differing from macro-sociology which puts its analysis largely on macro level such as structure, law, religion, etc, micro sociology very much employs the concept of social meaning, action, and interaction.

Started in 1964, when George Homans gave a speech in American Sociological Association’s meeting under the title “Bringing Man Back In”, micro-sociology was then popularized by Chicago School. Big names like Simmel, Thomas, Park, Mead, Blummer were among the earliest of micro-sociological theorists. Randall Collins defines a micro phenomena as “anything what people do, say, and think in the momentarily flow of experience”. It clearly has to do with a mind and how people think.

Though a binary concept between micro and macro was established, in fact, there is considerably no clear distinction among the two. You might say Durkheim, for example, is better categorized in the macro, whereas Goffman is in the micro. But the fact that Durkheim also talked about beliefs and rituals in his ‘Elementary Form of Religious Life’ shows his attempt to enter into individual level. Meanwhile Goffman in “The Presentation of Self” talked about the idea of total institution which is very useful tool for analyzing extra-individual phenomena.

Simmel’s question on “How Society Possible?” is perhaps a good start to understand what micro-sociology is. Simmel argues that society is all about social interaction. By interaction he only means a face-to-face interaction. Individuals are capable of interacting not only to others but to him or herself as well. A man, myself, for instance, is only one copy with unique biography. Hence I am only one, but at the same time I can also be categorized by gender, class, nation, etc, which means I am not the only one.

Micro-sociology is dealing with the self. This idea of the self is often refered to Mead’s “Mind, Self, and Society”. According to Mead, the self has a pure capability of reflection, and it leads to the possibility of consciousness. Society cannot be properly understood by simply ignoring the idea of self consciousness into account since the link between individual and society is filled with consciousness. Besides Mead, other micro-sociological theorists providing insightful tool of analysis were Thomas and Goffman. We could of course mention Schutz and Blumer, but to me personally, their analysis is more philosophical rather than sociological. Let us let them behind.

Thomas’ famous idea is about the definition of situation. He believes that human actions cannot be separated from the way in which actors define the situation. By situation we mean a certain kind of condition occurs in a certain space and time. Thomas said “if men define a situation as real, it is real in its consequences”. It means that an interpretation of the situation by actors leads to real action. But Goffman in some sense seems to disagree with it. He in fact believes that “the definition was in charge of the situation, not defined by people”, meaning that situation is not pre-defined. Goffman elaborates the in charge-definition through his idea of role distance.