Discussion questions, comments etc. for ARM week 3




I found my first foray into symbolic interactionism to be an enlightening one. Though I can see the tendency of the method to focus on the construction of meanings and identity to be both an asset and a potential frustrastion. For example, in the Brown article the elephant in the room (at least in my opinion) is that non-symbolic explanations for the phenomena get swept under the rug (socioeconomic disparity, domestic instability, etc.) but I can recognize how symbolic interactionism, in a beneficial way, helps us to look beyond such already established and accepted explanations and focus on how structures and practices may reinforce or discourage certain identity constructions.


I found the Gusterson piece the most interesting although I'm skeptical of his interpretations. I'm not sure I would have interpreted the presence of birth metaphors the same way. My gut feeling is that the author may have overly complicated the symbolic meanings for the sake of an more interesting analysis.  


Regardless, the idea of how to use symbolic interactionism is still very fuzzy to me. How do you decide which set of symbols to utilize in your analysis? Is it mostly determined by the data or the investigator? As well, had a hard time getting the big picture out of some of the articles. What motivates a symbolic interactionist approach for a particular problem? What kinds of questions can it answer that are more difficult via other methods?


All good questions Taylor - I spent some time this weekend flipping through a book my roommate is reading for her methods class over in the art department: Sara Pink’s “Rethinking Ethnography Through the Senses” which led me to a piece she had in edited volume called “Research Methods for Culture Studies” which breaks down chapter by chapter roughly 4 or 5 different core methods for that particular field.  Which is appropriate for what scenario seems to be a question addressed there as well but seems broken down into what your research objective is (in this book’s case: documenting lived experiences, identifying cultural production / consumption, categorizing/contextualizing visual/textual content, and engaging historical data.)  But the same questions arise - visual content can be (and usually is) historical, and is a cultural production, and is likely connected to a documented aspect of the producer’s lived experience.  So these are all intertwined.


Back to symbolic interactionism - I don’t know if this methodological tool could be, or was even meant to be, used alone.  It seems to me a useful tool for interpreting how identity is determined and reinforced internally - by groups, by members of those groups, also internally within the identity of the members - as opposed to using factual and comparative analysis where from an external perspective we say group A has X attributes and group B has Y.  This is a method for identifying self-placement.  I think this should then be used in combination with additional methods which deal with the elephants you mention thus identifying structural practices.


Points I found most interesting:


Suchman says on pg.4 “the argument is that speech act theory takes communication as an exchange of speakers-hearers' intent, while conversation analyses underscore the irreducibly interactional structuring of talk.”  


Brown states on pg. “relationships are constructed through the discourse processes in classrooms that are designed to reflect the discursive practices of the professional community of practice (scientists). Subsequently, the cultural practices of the science classroom are designed to assist students in their attempts to become literate members of the community of science by means of using a common language and ideology.”  Brown then goes on to basically say that if students do not identify with the culture from which the language is associated then the practices of that culture are perceived as having latent alienating and disassociating ‘intent’.


But, bringing this into the manipulating practice of self-determining DNA identity... when Brown’s students engage scientific discourse in hands-on activities the students feel more in control of their identification with scientific practice because it is not negotiated in terms of complicated language associated with scientists.  If scientific language appears foreign then this physical domain becomes a staging space to understanding those concepts as internally defined and thus accepted as deriving from personal intent.  


So then this becomes an interactional analysis of perceptions - what tools could possibly be combined with this - an additional method looking at access to equipment, educational programming structures, etc?


I share both Taylor’s concerns and Kirk’s perspective on this.  As someone with no sociological/anthropological background, I am left assuming that ethnographers get some training on how to spot symbolic identifiers or else that there are different sub-specialties that focus on specific types of symbolic flags (ie: language, fashion, home design, etc).  A good friend of mine recently completed fashion design school (after a B.A. in Asian studies) and we have had some enlightening conversations about the power of communications through clothing and adornment media.  But I would have had no idea as a naive observer how to read such communication without her explanations.  


Meanwhile, I definitely appreciate the usefulness of looking for symbolic interactions when observing subjects because “a picture is worth a thousand words.”  Additionally, symbolic interactionism relies not on static use of symbols, but on the identities and solidarity emerging from dynamic use of them; I like this.  Again, though, because this is second-order observation, it seems more difficult to train people in standardized ways.  (added after DB’s comment)  I see the usefulness, for those with good symbol identification training, to be a way to see “flags” for potential power inequalities or identity-politics issues - they can help you become aware of deeper or less obvious issues that would be missed by non-symbolic observations.


Brown’s article was interesting to me because it highlighted how even youths reflect a problematic perception of science experts in the United States.  On the one hand, there was a great deal of esteem at the intelligence and abilities of scientists expressed by the students.  My favorite quote was by Andy(AW): “‘A scientist is somebody that I think gets aggressive and does a lot of work.” (114) But on the other hand, scientists and science experts in general are placed on such a high pedestal that few of those students could identify with them.  Deja(DW) was the only one of the 46 students who said she “did science”(114), but even then she qualified her confident comment by saying she “would not really know it just off-hand.” (Does this support the unattainability of the status of “scientist,” or does that reflect female socialization?)  Add to this the differences in acceptance of DNA evidence by Oprah versus by other African-Americans (in “Oprah, 419 and DNA”), and I see a trend of such extreme esteem leading to otherness, unattainability, and alienation when looking at the science community.  


To be a policy wonk for a moment, that trend directly feeds into the anti-science attitude found in America today, where “real” flesh-and-blood people don’t do science and thus keep their humanity and approachability.  To come around full circle, this is an excellent sort of case where using symbolic interactionism can help tell us a more accurate and nuanced story than we would have relying on literal or explicit observations alone.


P.S. I hope we can discuss the Gusterson article in more depth in class. It’s juicy.  It also reminds me both of my experiences in the Navy (doing a weapons range shoot) and “Dr. Strangelove: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.”


The most interesting article for me was the Brown’s article. I am personally interested in topics related to identity crisis or conflict due of my first hand experience. I wrote two articles about ICT and identity crisis in 2007 but I never publish them. Now I am thrilled that I can re-write these articles from an STS language; and here is my story :

When internet became popular in my country, which is famous for its restrictive regulations on freedom of speech, I became aware of another world which I never was exposed to it before. At the beginning internet was considered as a “harmless” technology and the government was not familiar enough of its “negative unintended consequences” (based on the dominant idea in my country ) , therefore people who can afford buying a computer and a modem could access easily to a high speed internet. Before delving into the world of internet, my definition of myself in the school and at the home was different. I had two different answers to “who am I? “ Regardless of my open minded parents who were emphasizing higher education and more freedom for women, at the school I was reminded all the time that I should follow the rules of a patriarchal religious society. At that time, I was feeling the conflict between my family’s principles and the larger society I was living there, but I thought maybe my family is an exception of the larger society which believes that women should be oppressed  , therefore my conclusion was that:  my family is a aberrant of a larger society. When internet came into our house and I was able to communicate with other “ non Iranian user” , I realized that my society is a an aberrant  not my family. However, my family defined internet as powerful tool for the empowerment of girls in our family, I developed a new identity which was in conflict with the larger society: I would like to call this new identity: web identity.  I don know whether I can generalize the expression of activists who were talking about their transformations from being naive to an enlightened persons to myself. ( Hunt&Benford, p 497) to myself too? My web identity constructed both an enlightened self and an oppositional self in the real world.

I think Internet is not an “ objective physical reality” ( Tolou& Ron ) I defined  new images of myself by the aid of Internet and  as a result of this a new identity. I entered into the process of “ objective self-fashioning” . ( Tolou & Ron ) As Sherry Turkle expresses that "we are moving from modernist calculation to postmodernist simulation, where the self is a multiple, distributed system"( Turkle, 1996), I had a different self of myself in the net.  For example all the time in chat rooms, I was wearing an imaginative looking avatar reconstructing me as a Persian girl with no Islamic dressing code. Internet became as a techno- cultural hybrid (Davis, 1998)  for me : a virtual public sphere which I had the chance of reconstructing my self and world, and a place in which I was endowed new chances of reflection, perception and social interactions.

I was thrilled of two features of the internet: its internationalization and increasing border-crossing mobility. These two features made internet a desirable place for me who was living in a socially closed society , who had an open minded poor family who can not afford  to travel virtually to the other worlds and meet new people and learn new perspectives toward life! At that time I considered myself as a lucky girl who has a “technology “ , but a year after using this technology, I felt how different I have become of my peer friends. My name was not “ Tahereh” anymore, I had chosen the name “ Sonia” , because most of my friends were my virtual non Iranian computer users. My friends in the real world gradually stopped hanging out with me, and whenever I asked why, they were laughing and replying:  “because you are a western girl…” whenever we wanted to make a group decision, they never involved mine because they were telling me “ Tahereh, you are different”  

As Hunt & Benford state  ‘ identity work is an interactional accomplishment, that is socially constructed... via words “ The words of my peers were a  signifinact factor in developing a new identity inside myself.


My “ self” ,  my psychological apparatus which allows me to think consciously about myself was in conflict with other’s selves. This conflict made my symbolic interactions with my peer friends complicated.

Here I would like to talk about Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of " the looking glass self" . This concept means that the self is a process in which individuals see themselves as objects, along with other objects, in their social environment and that the self emerges out of communication and interaction with others. In the looking-glass self a person views him or her self through others' perceptions in society and in turn gains identity.

John Dewey, developer of pragmatism term claims that the humans are able to adopt themselves and also transform themselves to adjust and adopt. Mind is the process of thinking, which involves thinking about the potential consequences of an action and responses. The mind adjusts. When I left the country because of the identity conflict I had faced, I pondered why my mind did not adjust ! It was hard for me to construct and align a coherent “ collective identity” ( Hunt& Benford).

when I was reading this week’s papers, I was re-explaining the behaviour of the subjects of these papers from the aforementioned concepts. How do  weapon scientists , Oprah, Nigerian users and urban students in the science class define their “selves” based on other’s definition;how  do they feel and express an” oppositional identity” ( Odumosu & Eglash)


I cannot generalize my own case study to the other people but  my hypothesis for the class to discuss is that:

------- Internet technology can deconstruct the picture of women-hood among oppressed women in a way that the adjustment of their mind to the dominant social symbols becomes difficult, therefore they may develop an oppositional identity in themselves which hinders their interactions with their peers.

external references:  

1- Turkle, S. 1996 Who am We? , Wired, Vol. 4, Nr. 1: 148

2- Davis, E.1998. Techngnosis. New York: Harmony Books

David B.

I have found that symbolic interactionism provides a great set of tools to discuss what happens after you have accounted for the institutional settings that support systematic racism, or post-colonial oppression of the global south by the north, or sexism.  As we talked about in the first class, you should have lots of tools in your tool box, and I’ve always seen symbolic interaction as a sort of finishing tool.  Its good for describing how but often times, as Taylor and Kirk have pointed out, not so much the macro-level underlying “why”.


Personally, I found the Brown piece to be really helpful to my own research. I can personally attest to the fact that students react very different to different patterns of speech and even the cadence of how you present ideas.  The fact that science and inner-city youth have very different social worlds, is supported by factors that can be explained through symbolic interactionism, but also a lot of other forces that aren’t directly a part of the exchange of meaning-laden artifacts.  But once these two worlds are constructed, the symbols simultaneously represent this separation while marinating it.  The utterance of “high pressure zones are characterized by concentric rings of rising isobars and low precipitation” alienates students as it reinforces the use of those terms.  One problem I did have with Brown however, was his choice to be the researcher AND the teacher.  I feel as though this double roll prevents him from commenting on the interaction between the student and teacher.


Suchman was interesting, but I actually felt that the case could have been described better with a Bourdieuian habitus.  



It seems that the Brown piece is getting the lion’s share of the discussion love here, so I’ll cover that once I respond to a few things that have been covered thus far.


A question that I find most interesting is “how do you decide which set of symbols to utilize in your analysis” and it really directs me back to the imagery chapter of “Tricks of the Trade”. We have many different kinds of symbols that we kick around all the time for experiencing and thinking about the world, but those are not always correct of informed by the realities of the people we study. So, naturally, we’ll bring our own ideas about what are important symbols to bring to the field because of the research that we have done leading up to the site or from the culture that we reside in, but we have to be open to seeing the important symbols that the people are studying respond to. For example, working in a middle school, I find that I have all these ideas about stratification between students and teachers, the powerful and powerless, as well as this strong sense that mainstream pop culture symbols (Twilight, Harry Potter, Justin Beiber, etc) will be important cultural references. However, when I’m there in the classroom, I’m struck that those things are part of a middle class culture that I also participate in, but the majority of my students hold awareness of these things, but do not use them as a way of constructing their identities. Or perhaps, they develop their identities in opposition of this mainstream culture. They often use things  I might have considered as being of fading importance (e.g. gangster rap, skateboarder culture, etc.) as still culturally significant, although reformulated.  A high value is also placed on ins and outs of their own local social interaction. Symbolic interaction gives me an insight into the way that their identities are constructed as they interact with some symbols and not others that are a part of their consciousness. It’s not the only tool that I use to understand their social world, but I consider it an important if I’m going to take their social worlds and meanings as seriously as they do. A tendency exists (embedded, I feel, in calling them subjects) to see a one way relationship between the people we study and the culture they exist in, or sort of wind up and releases to bump into each other in a sort of a vibrating football game (http://youtu.be/0lD53RITYps) unless you can engage their world on the terms they see it.


I like Brown’s article because it’s relevant to my own personal research experience, and I think it’s a good thing to bring with us into any situation where cultural discourses come into play esp. with their related power differences. The students point to the symbols of science practice and Brown makes those his symbols of analysis. However, I think his design hinges heavily on the Hands-on vs. Taking notes division in science without really opening up what does Hands-On mean? Are the interactions with scientific equipment (beakers, test tubes, balances) what people are taking from this to mean hands-on science, or does it mean any activity that steps away from the recognized pattern of sit, listen, write? I am curious if doing a low-tech version of a traditionally conceived of high-tech science activity are equal as a part of this research’s design.


Odumosu and Eglash’s method of doing symbolic interactionism is different from Brown’s, but is still an effective way of doing this kind of analysis, I think. It does of job of letting the subjects speak about the way the construct meaning  while interacting with symbols and events in the world without having to directly communicate with the people speaking. It helps, however, that they’re already talking about what the controversy around the content of Oprah’s program on Nigerian Scams means to them and how they’re responding to it. I wonder how much we see people being reflexive in this kind of discussion. Never the less, I think that Brown, Odumosu and Eglash, and Suchman are all giving us different flavors of symbolic interactionism to chew around a little bit.