Family Crisis
Conflict Theories and Symbolic Interaction Theory

The Conflict Theories of Marx & Simmel

Focus: on the conflict of interest that is inherent in all groups and between all members of groups. This principle extends to the larger society in all its forms. There are two schools of thought that concentrate on the analysis of conflict in social groups - Marxian economic theory & Simmel's analysis of dyadic conflict .The Dialectical Change Theories (grand theories) include Dialectic Philosophies of Hegel (1820), the economic models of Karl Marx (1844), and Ralf Dahrendorf (1950s). These are the ideas that provided the basic tenets of communism as an economic form. The Conflict Management Approaches include Georg Simmel (1920), Lewis Coser (1964), and Jetse Sprey (1970s). These are the ideas that provided the basis for prescriptions for conflict resolution at the micro-level of social interaction (i.e., communication between husband and wife.).

Historical Perspective on Conflict Theory

Popularly seen as a 1960s reaction to Structural Functionalism, the manuscripts of Marx predate systems theory of any kind by about one hundred years, as does the work of Simmel. However, conflict theories were rediscovered after social science became somewhat disenchanted with Parsons. While it seems quite an intellectual stretch to include both aspects of conflict (i.e., enormous economic pressures on social structure versus individual personality conflicts), the two actually fit quite well. They are ends of a continuum. Marxist approaches to explaining the routines of social life are attractive, especially to younger intellectuals who search for simplistic answers to complex questions. Likewise, Simmel's ideas dealing with the fragility of dyadic (two-person) relationships and the inevitability of conflict are really a call for a sort of two-person form of communism. In the mid-1960s, with the bulk of western culture under fire for the social strain of that decade, social thinkers were searching for candidate theories to replace the functionalist perspective.

Where Structural Functionalism describes a teleological (i.e., explains the past & present in terms of the future) utopia in steady state equilibrium, Conflict theory describes a social structure prone to constant erosion and change. Here, social change is pervasive through inherent conflicts built into the system itself. Similarly, Conflict Management Approaches view the conflict that arises among members of small groups as inevitable and inherent in the small group itself. Sooner or later, two people will disagree, perhaps to the point of changing their personal relationship system. Conflict arises because of the differential distribution of social power, the powerful garnering the lion's share of all scarce resources for themselves. We may observe the differences in social power between the rich and the poor, men and women, or any given pair of individuals attempting to resolve problems particular to their relationship.

Conflict theories make many assumptions about the social world. Whether Marxist or not, conflict theories paint a picture of the self-interested individual operating to maximize his own rewards in a highly competitive world. This image is well defined in the basic assumptions conflict theorists are willing to hold:

Basic Assumptions about Human Nature:

  • -Human beings are essentially self-oriented, and inclined to pursue their own interests at the expense of others (also an assumption of social exchange theory).
  • -Human beings are symbol-producing/consuming creatures. Their environment is a symbolic one having no exact counterpart in objective reality (part of symbolic interaction theory).
  • -The human potential to hope and aspire (emotionally, economically, socially) seems unlimited given social conditions.
  • Basic Assumptions about Human Societies:
  • -Societies present organized systems of human survival, and reflect origins as well as predicted outcomes.
  • -Human societies operate under conditions of perpetual scarcity for most resources needed for the lives of their members.
  • -The continuous confrontations within and between societies are a necessary condition for growth and social change.
  • -Human societies consist of inherently unequal elements. The result of dealing with this inequality is social organization by classes: the haves & have not's, the satisfied & desirous, the males & females, the majorities & minorities, the rich & poor.
  • -Because of this inherent inequality and perpetual scarcity of resources, competition for power and material is endemic in all social systems.
Basic Assumptions About Understanding Human Relationships:
  • -Theories depicting an "orderly process" of human relationships are inadequate. Although any system is ostensibly orderly, relationships are complex enough to hide the conflict that exists.
  • -Society can be observed on two levels: the integration and functioning of social institutions AND the character of participation of individuals in institutions. Here the norms (rules of behavior) for participation and change come into play.
The importance of studying conflict lies in its value as a change agent. Every time conflict is resolved, the social system within which the conflict arose is forever changed. Changes and adaptations to the social system occur over time (just as the growth and change seen in dyadic relationships take time). Thus, an Evolutionary or Dialectic perspective is taken. Therefore, Conflict should be studied for its own sake. Conflict can be either resolved, or it can be managed. Management only eases tension for the time being, while resolution removes a particular point of conflict from the system. Conflict is normal, even inevitable, in every social relationship.

The family is not necessarily a group characterized by consensus. It may be held together by constraint or coercion. Harmony is not necessary for continuation of order in the family. Conflict may even strengthen relationships, making them rewarding in the final analysis. People enter most relationships as real or potential competitors, because resources are always perceived as limited. For example, in our discussion of love, isn't it apparent to the average love struck adolescent that love is in short supply and hardly ever rewarded? Thus there is always keen competition among boys and girls to impress each other with feats of strength and attributes of beauty and charm respectively. Later on, in marriages between high school sweethearts, other resources (e.g., money, decision-making power, time, and so on) become more salient and in short supply.

Disagreements result when one's feelings of being short-changed collide with the other's unwillingness to pay up. (i.e., "I think you love that job more than you love me!", "Why don't you ever take the time to romance me anymore?"). The processes of marriage and family development are viewed as part of the social system, within which members are facing the perpetual problem of coming to terms with each other's conflicting interests. It is through negotiation and compromise that change in the family occurs, allowing it to adapt to changing demands being made on it.

Marxian Conflict Theory
From Marx's writing, particularly The Elements of Marxian Conflict Theory - 1844, conflict is seen as a product of social living. It is almost a mechanistic view in which conflict is manufactured out of the competing interests of the capitalists and their workers (see Figure 9).

In order to make sense of Marxian concepts, one must adopt a certain style of thinking. The statement that each person's relation to production in the economy decides his or her social class, and thus, his or her social privilege, is a case in point. Marxists believe that one's social class position, under a capitalistic economy, determines the very thoughts that creep into one's mind. This is known as Material Determinism.

Thus, factory workers share a set of cultural symbols in all aspects of life. The factory worker thinks different things compared to the owner of the factory - unless the worker and the owner are the same person. Get it? Workers possess the knowledge of production, little property, and all the labor, but do not possess the means of production (e.g., the hardware, real estate, and capital necessary to operate). However, the defined value of labor is dependent on the ruling class' perception of it--THE RULING CLASS' PERCEPTION OF THEIR VALUE! In order to maintain a capitalistic system, owners of production must justify their privileged position by "cheapening" the perceived value of labor, thereby devaluing its cost to the capitalist.

Economic scarcity keeps workers preoccupied with survival, while belief systems are in place for workers that actually serve the ruling class.

For example, the capitalistic value that leadership ability is "worth" more than the ability to operate a lathe or shape wood or clay serves the interest of the owners of production and keeps the cost of labor down. Management skills, on the other hand, are talents possessed by a select few who are bound by their gift to perform at higher levels of functioning, and deserve to be rewarded handsomely for their efforts.

The very conception of Family as an institution is seen by Marxists as a middle/upper class idea designed to "conservatize" the worker, and is a concept objectively found only in the upper class. The only social stratum in which the "traditional family ideal" can exist is in the relatively rich upper class. Here, rigid rules of socialization and gender roles are created, performed, and held up for the rest of society to emulate.

The male is the upper class - the one family member upon whom all family security rests, and the one who performs the really important work. While women are told that their "work" is equally important to the welfare of the family, it is in moments such as divorce, that women find that men (the ruling class) were not expressing their true values. Workers are always told how valuable they are to the company until such moments as lay-offs, plant closings and relocations reveal the true values of management regarding employees. At any rate, the management of the U.S. corporations that moved from the Rust Belt to the Texas/Mexico border are having a difficult time explaining how polluted air and water are really better for Americans in the long run. By the way - understand that putting workers in the street and moving to a location that is cheaper to do business is not a change, it is normal for capitalism. Any real change that occurs within social organization (or family organization - the manifestation of society) happens because of the system's proness towards

Dialectical Change:


According to dialecticians, any existing notion (thesis) always has an opposing notion (antithesis). These two ideas will come into conflict sooner or later in the minds of thinking individuals, resulting in a third option - Synthesis.

On a societal level, the conflicting interests of the capitalists and the working class will periodically clash, forming iterations of modified capitalism - each one leading closer to the abolition of all capitalistic ideas about ownership of property. Thus, history shows world economies to have evolved from Feudal systems through to shop keeper capitalism to modern capitalism, and on to communist revolution and stabilization in some cases. In modern capitalism, the manufacturer cannot pay his workers enough for them to buy the products they make and still make a profit for the company. Mass production must be supported by mass consumption in order to sell all products. Therefore, in order to satiate their growing appetites for profits, capitalists have to rely on foreign markets (imperialism) to expand resources and invite larger buying markets while relying on cheaper labor through colonialism for production. But even these new markets will become saturated eventually, making for keen competition between capitalists to eliminate each other. Which brings up the idea of Overproduction but that is another book.

You should be getting the idea that Marxian Conflict Theory poses determination of the individual's mind set as a result of their position on the social class continuum. Rich folks not only behave differently than working folks, they actually think differently. One group has different ideas compared to the other. The key here is that Marxists believe that the kind of work you do is what makes up your mind. Marxists would suggest that workers and capitalists REALLY do have conflicting interests.

The big difference here is also what Marxists would term the basic fallacy in Capitalism. It is this: the only way to raise the profits from selling of commodities is to lower the production costs (e.g., layoffs, wage cuts, longer working time, lowering the cost of raw materials). When profit rises by lowering wages, the potential buying power of the population is lowered. Wages are again cut to lower prices and raise profits, resulting in a smaller disposable income for workers ... beginning a deflationary spiral. The government's response might be to print more money to cover expenses which increase because there hasn't been a concomitant rise in general wealth (and increase in taxes). Workers are likely to revolt under deflation of their buying power, feeling generally deprived, except for the fact of their acceptance of the Ruling Class' religion, moral values, and family values.

Instead of revolting against an unfair social system which rewards those with the most wealth, we compete with each other for a chance to become wealthy. Make no mistake, Marxists believe that for continued success of capitalism to occur, there must be a large group of underpaid, uninsured, uneducated workers. Capitalism has always relied on free, or nearly free, labor, and it cannot continue without it.

Husbands and wives, men and women, boys and girls all have real conflict of interests, just as workers and capitalists do. In society, when the mounting conflict between the classes reaches intolerable levels, as the disparity between the social rewards of participation in the economy become too great, a revolutionary "synthesis" will occur to bring the group differences back into parity (or EQUITY). It works the same way for smaller groups, like families.


When a person uses objects in exercising his or her creative drives, objects become extensions of the person. When a person merely exchanges objects or vies to accumulate them, however, he or she becomes a slave to fortune and the accumulation of capital, thus objectifying their own existence. This is Marx's notion of Alienation , and it is the very foundation of Marxist philosophy. It is also, as it turns out, a major tenet in many religious philosophies, including good old Christianity. Because of the vast opportunity for alienation in a capitalist economy of any size, Marx was able to delineate four classifications, or types, of alienation.

1. Alienation from other people occurs when conflict between individuals results from competition for scarce jobs (workers). People in need of work for pay are placed in unnatural competition for those resources. What happens is that one's competition is perceived as subhuman, or of less valuable stuff. Interestingly, this is the fundamental opposing interest of workers and capitalists. One logical consequence of having workers compete is that it lowers wages, so it is of benefit to employers. Another consequence has been mass extermination (e.g., Jews in Nazi Germany, or the recent "ethnic cleansing" visited on former Iron Curtain countries).

2.. Alienation from the process of production occurs as assembly line workers, or assembly workers, fit their tiny effort into the larger whole product. Prior to capitalism, artisans and workers had their own tools and could control their work in terms of pace, wage, and form of the product. Put another way, if you had the choice and money was not a consideration, would you rather have a pair of hand made, and personally fitted, shoes, or a pair of mass produced ones bought at the local Cheap Zapatos outlet? By enlisting in the mass assembly line, workers could no longer identify their work. Imagine the auto worker of today, taking great pride in the knowledge that he (and several others like him) screw in tailgate bolts on pickup trucks for a living. What are the chances that this worker identifies with Henry Ford? Capitalism buys labor only, and it rewards labor with only money. For Marx, this is a form of prostitution.

3. Alienation from products of labor occurs because the capitalist owns the product after its completion. This weakens pride in work and quality of product. In fact, it was a principle of 19th century economics that workers were paid too much money if they could purchase the goods they produced. Workers often cannot afford to buy the very products they produce, nor can they produce products for themselves since the raw materials do not belong to them.

4. Alienation from one's self. Everyone has potential, and all should have the opportunity, to develop his or her talent. By replacing potential talent with a job dictated by capitalistic economy, an individual becomes estranged from a part of himself. When many are forced into roles that are not of their own choosing, or of their own true nature, there exists a condition of widespread self-estrangement. The worker is his true self only when away from work. Marxian theorists assume that humans work better without coercion.

To sum up, Marxist Conflict Theory maintains that the basic financial inequities between the owners of production and the workers (workers are part of the forces of production, along with the machines, the coal, and the steam engines) results in two different value systems existing in the same society. Because of disparities in the reward structure, working class people naturally (and most righteously) will feel that the society has used them up. Religion, family values, the work ethic are all devices used by the ruling class to blind working people to the reality of their situation. Working people become alienated from each other and their families until they realize, as a group, the truth and rise up in revolt (synthesis).

Simmel and the New Conflict Theorists

Georg Simmel (1920) opposed the view that conflict was destructive of old views, choosing to see conflict as positive, with the ability to strengthen social relations. Simmel follows an organismic world view, rather than the Marxian material determinism (mechanistic view). For Simmel, any social system, or social grouping, is designed to create and resolve dualisms (conflicting interests). He compares his notions of conflict and its positive outcome to disease in the human body. Just as disease is the first step in correcting one's health, so conflict is functionally positive to correcting problems in society. This is analogous to the biological building up of antibodies in the human system in order to fight off new diseases. Antibodies are present because we've been sick before. When a social system, such as the family, is threatened, three steps occur:

  1. System Boundaries are maintained.
  2. Values and morals are defined.
  3. Group ties are strengthened as conflict is resolved.
Simmel's presupposition is that humans have an innate disposition to be hostile mixed with a need for love and a rational mind. The differences between Marx and Simmel aren't that great, philosophically. In fact, both thinkers are wrestling with a good versus evil kind of mentality, with conflict being the evil that must be tamed. In practical terms, however, conflict ultimately results in violent revolution leading to structural social change for Marx. For Simmel, less intense, less violent conflicts promote solidarity, integration and orderly change of the system. For Marx, conflict is materially determined. For Simmel, it isn't the imbalance of resources but Man's hostile nature & lack of boundaries of relationships that are the source of conflict.

Lewis Coser on Simmel's Conflict Functionalism

Conflict serves many functions in normal society. Now get this--Coser was the first sociologist to conceptually remove the diametrical opposition of Marxist Conflict theory to Structural Functionalism. Both approaches fundamentally agree on the structure of social life, rights and obligations, and the very real way in which persons are forced to live their lives. As it turns out, according to Lewis Coser, the only difference between the two, aside from minor corollaries, is that Conflict theorists hold a value that S-F Theorists do not. According to Conflict theorists, the way things are working out is morally wrong, unfair, and bad for everybody except the very rich. Functionalists feel that the way things are working out is natural, and probably good for everybody.

Coser's Functions of Conflict in Society.
The Maintenance Function (previous chapter) defines violence and unrest in society as symptomatic of social illness. It is a warning to society to readjust itself before things blow wide open. Thus, society is a dynamic system, not a static one. The Causal Chain suggests that imbalances in the integration of constituent parts of a whole (society or family) lead to the outbreak of varying types of conflict among constituent parts. Think of a system of checks and balances, such as the stock market, or Nixon's Domino Theory in Southeast Asia. Conflict anywhere in the system causes temporary system wide recruitment of solutions, which, under certain conditions, cause increased flexibility and cooperation in structure, which increases the potential for conflict resolution.

The basic premise of all Conflict theories comes down to this: All social processes (including marriage and family processes) are viewed as systemic ones in which members and member categories (Moms & Dads) are facing the perpetual problem of coming to terms with each other's conflicting interests.

Conflict in a system is intensified in three ways. First, when there is intensification of deprivation, or the perception of deprivation, between subsystems (i.e., "His is bigger than mine!", "You can't cut funding in my district!", and so on) relations between system units (people) are strained. Second, when legitimacy of existing distribution of power and wealth is withdrawn or changed, as in a divorce, remarriage, a new governmental administration, system units tend to grab as much of the available wealth as possible. The third way is a mediator--increased conflict is dependent on the degree of emotional involvement of the system units. If emotional involvement is low, conflict will not escalate.

Jetse Sprey took conflict theory into the marital dyad.
Taking from Coser and Simmel's notions of the positive effects of some kinds of conflict, and using some of Dahrendorf's ideas, Sprey has calculated the nature of conflict in individual marriages. The terms below are part of a vocabulary of conflict based in part on the idea of the Causal Chain of marital conflict.

Competition - A state of negative interdependence between the elements of a social system. Competition describes both a systemic condition and is a statement of relationship. In family interaction, every instance will ultimately result in a reward for some member(s), at the expense of some other(s). Members are in competition for SCARCE RESOURCES (i.e., time, affection, money, power, prestige, knowledge, etc.).

Conflict - a confrontation between individuals, or groups, over scarce resources. For example, the conflict arising over controversial means or incompatible goals is really a dispute over who is getting what and how much! Conflict may range from the use of physical force to litigation to intimidation through threat of physical harm--from going to bed without your supper to threat of Nuclear war. The aim of conflict, as well as the aim of competition, is to win ... AT ALL COSTS! However, depending on the level of force used, the result may be the actual destruction of adversaries.

Conflict Resolution - the end of the state of conflict, and the process of conflict, via the elimination of the disputed issue, resulting in Consensus. Conflict Management implies the continued existence of the underlying competitive structure (i.e., agreeing to disagree). In fact, people have an enormous capacity to live in Consensus when they really don't agree on much. There are at least two meanings given to the concept of consensus. First, it is the existence of a common awareness or knowledge of given issues, values, and norms among the membership of a community. More often than not this is perceived, rather than actual unanimity. The second meaning is that we see things the same way, through a process of discussion and debate. This requires conversion rather than just winning the argument, and is the way to achieve Conflict Resolution.

A third approach, not to consensus, but to uneasy peace, is through the use of Negotiation and Bargaining. This is an exchange process designed to reach a collective agreement (see Exchange theory). The style of negotiation depends on family rules. Power and Influence are attributes of either individuals or relationships, and are very much a part of the bargaining process. Identification of powerful individuals in a relationship identifies only the potential for the exercise of power. The actual use of power is dependent on an actor's ability to manipulate resources at hand. These can be absolute (i.e., money, physical strength), or relative to the relationship (i.e., value of interaction between partners, which is symbolic in nature).

Aggression and Appeasement can be either destructive or constructive, depending on the appropriateness within a given conflict setting. Starting a fight, being cranky, overbearing, attacking with the rational intention to harm are forms of aggression. Aggression is an attempt to get others to behave to suit one's own advantage (affirm one's own rights or interests). Appeasement is a response to aggression and either a statement of the power structure in a relationship, or an admission of guilt. Threats are aggressive messages that communicate the delivery of some form of punishment or deprivation to others. Promises may have the same form as threats, but carry the potential for reward/appeasement instead of cost. Threats and Promises must be tempered with awareness for the realization of their desired effect. Empty promises and idle threats can heighten conflict, and reduce the probability of a compromise. The purpose of aggression and appeasement is not in their execution, but in their coercive effects on others.

Types of Marriage and Family Conflicts

Differences in a marital system's characteristics will influence the type of conflict that may occur. Endogenous conflicts are those in which the situation is defined as a conflict by agreement between the people involved. These are also known as Structural Conflicts, or relationship oriented conflict. A divorce concludes the awareness of sexual infidelity and disagreement about its relevance because we have laws and norms regarding the sexually exclusive nature of marriage. This is the "You've hurt me by your actions, but we can work things out by talking." type of conflict.

Exogenous conflicts are those in which there is no pre-existing system for the resolution of this type of conflict. With this, the "I hate your guts" kind of conflict, there is little to be discussed. Exogenous conflicts are also known as Instrumental Conflicts.

Symmetrical structures are those in which members of the marital dyad have the same resources and perceive their power base as equal. Escalation of conflict here might result in rapid coming to blows and violence because each believes he or she can win. Asymmetrical structures are those in which members of the marital dyad do not have the same resources, which results in some variation of a dominant/submissive relationship. Escalation of conflict is not as likely because one member is perceived as more power.

Within either symmetrical or asymmetrical marital structures, Issues Oriented Conflict will reside. This is conflict over specific situations or events--conflict over the disposition of family resources, for example. The autonomy issue--distance regulation in systems language--is one. The "privilege" issue--money, power, resources--is another. Both autonomy and privilege issues are accounted for by Dahrendorf, who simultaneously sees all conflict and the social order as resulting from the Unequal Distribution of Authority in society. Just as the authority structure of bureaucracies serves as the principle basis for conflict in the larger society, so is the authority structure of "normal" marriages and families (patriarchy in our society). Unlike the secondary, bureaucratic, relationships of inter-institutional interaction, primary relationships (i.e., husband/wife, parent/child) are characterized by level of intimacy.

Intimacy presents a superficial contradiction. The more self-disclosure of one member to another, the stronger the feelings of investment and concern. Strong feelings can easily turn from strong feelings of love to strong feelings of hate. Additionally, the intimate relationship is characterized by members' frequently being in close proximity to each other. Repeated interaction facilitates the maladaptation of communication patterns.

Another aspect of primary relationships is that their conception is mutually negotiated between members, as is described in W.I. Thomas's Definition of the Situation: "Things perceived as real will be real in their consequences." Perception defines the consequences of our actions. The difference between primary conflicts, and conflicts between secondary relations is the difference between Games (intimates at play) and War (persons unknown to each other engaged in mortal combat). The inherent instability of dyadic relationships is evident: It takes two to maintain a marriage - only one to end it.

The conflictual process is the process whereby two or more members of the family negotiate a solution to conflicting beliefs (i.e., that what one desires is incompatible with what the other wants). Conflict develops over a difference in attitudes or values. He wants more freedom, she wants to be closer. Conflict will develop when a person's self-esteem is threatened as well. Conflict, according to these theorists, is inevitable because the family system experiences some constant level of friction due to continually 1) changing social circumstances and 2) continually maturing family members.

Stages of the Conflictual Process in the Marital Dyad

Prior Conditions Stage. All family action has a history of events leading up to its observation. Given a family's rules and communication patterns, conflict arises out of a perceived violation of family rules, competition for scarce resources, undesired dependence of one member on another, or memory of previously unresolved family arguments.

Frustration/Awareness Stage. The prior condition becomes unbearable in the minds of the dissatisfied, and is characterized by frustration, a growing awareness of being threatened (the unhappy one), a growing awareness of being attacked by the unhappy one, message responses to frustration. The unhappy one may back off several times before the next stage.

Active Conflict Stage. conflict may be played out as calm, precise arguments or animated screaming matches, depending on the family's rules for handling disputes. This stage marks clear escalation from beginning hints of dissatisfaction to stronger tactics. Coalitions may be drawn and sides taken.

Accommodation/Solution Stage. Compromises occur, declaration of terms are made, negotiation occurs, or various management strategies are used here.

Follow- up/Aftermath Stage. This stage allows for entrenchment of family rules for conflict management, and includes re-eruptions, settlement, holding of grudges and hurt feelings.

Other factors in family conflict include a family's patterns of conflict, such as fighting styles. A family may fight using reciprocal conflict in which opponents trade "licks". A family may use convergence on solutions, in which the couple work together to find solutions to their differences. In either case, the introduction of hurtful remarks further complicates the possibility of conflict resolution. Further, the human need for intimacy is often powerfully conciliatory. This need to be loved may invite the danger of momentary "make ups" which fend off the possibility of real conflict resolution. Making up too soon will almost guarantee a later fight or disagreement.

Roles and Rules in Family Conflict

Position oriented families require service to the roles each conflict member occupies (e.g., "I'm your mother - Don't talk back to me!"). Person oriented families tend toward consensus and understanding of each family member as an individual, and family rules are more flexible here. There are also socioeconomic factors, such as the adequacy of income versus the amount of money a given family earns.

Despite personal inclinations to avoid conflict, Sprey and others see conflict between intimates as having positive outcomes. Differences between family members can be aired, and resolution tends to make for a stronger family unit. Here's a listing of elements of positive conflict, or fair fighting.

  1. A sequential communication exchange in which each participant has equal time to express his or her point of view.
  2. Feelings are brought out and not suppressed.
  3. People listen to each other with empathy and without constant interruption.
  4. Conflict remains focused on the issue and doesn't get sidetracked into other previously unresolved areas.
  5. Family members respect differences in opinions, values, and wishes.
  6. Members believe that solutions are possible and that growth and development will take place.
  7. Some semblance of rules has evolved from past conflicts.
  8. Members have experience with problem solving as a process to settle differences.
  9. Little power or control is exercised by one or more family members over the actions of others.
These positive outcomes can occur only if fair fighting rules are obeyed, and if both partners are interested in resolving their differences. Of course, these two elements are not always present in the disagreeing family's interrelationships. We don't always see the problem in the same way. Sometimes we just don't want to see it.

Symbolic Interaction Theory (SI)

Focus: The meanings of language and artifacts determine our thinking and conceptualization of social relationships. The idea is that humans interact with each other using agreed upon sets of symbols. Symbolic Interaction Theory is very useful in explaining several aspects of human development and social/ interpersonal interaction. It is a social-psychological theory that attempts to conceptualize human conduct at a relatively complex level. The broad conceptual units of the theory are: the role - the unit of culture (anthropology), the position - the unit of society (sociology), self-the unit of personality (psychology).

Concepts of socialization, personality development, and self-reflection detail the process of humanization in the social sense. Concepts of self modification of behavior during interaction and the highly salient notion of symbol exchange as the currency of conversation and intimacy both inform a discussion of the dynamic nature of social interaction.

SI Theory has its origins in the Chicago School of Social Philosophy, and includes James Baldwin, G. Stanley Hall (the father of adolescent psychology), William James (American Pragmatism), & John Dewey (co-architect of the American education system). These American thinkers began research around the turn of the century, dealing with the development of personality and self-consciousness. Departing from the earlier work of Freud, the mind of the Chicago School strongly emphasized the environmental effects on socialization, with an even stronger emphasis on the culture. They also developed the American education philosophy, and began to formalize educational psychology into a discipline of study. Out of the Chicago School was born the only purely American philosophy - pragmatism - central to which is the belief that human beings find meaning in the symbols with which they communicate with one another. Their basic view was that through interaction with others in any given cultural setting, individuals negotiate the meaning of a host of symbols, using them to guide and evaluate their lives. Further, MEANING only exists because each individual CREATES it--one symbol at a time.

Definitions for Symbolic Interaction Theory (SI).
It is important to aim for precision in definition of some key terms in any discussion of SI theory. While attempting to explain the development of personality in social terms, this philosophy actually creates a taxonomy of symbols. Therefore:

A Role is the smallest unit of society--a unit requiring precise socialization. A role is a patterned sequence of learned actions or deeds or feelings performed or felt by a person in an interaction situation. Any Item of Behavior must be placed in some Self-Other Context to be understood.

A Position in a social structure (a.k.a. status) is a system or set of rights and obligations--a set of acquired anticipatory reactions or expectations.

A Symbol is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention (traditional use). The meaning of any symbol is socially agreed upon. This means that everyone generally agrees that the symbol in question carries the same meaning for the majority of members of society. Get it? In order that we understand the development of the individual, we must consider the individual in relation to his or her significant others.

Symbolic Interaction Theory asserts that human individuals develop their personalities through interaction with others, by exchanging meaningful symbols with each other for the purpose of defining themselves.

To fully analyze social interaction in terms of its symbolic nature, we must have firm notions about:

      1) The nature of assigning meaning to objects.
      2) The nature of personal evaluation of meanings.
      3) The sources of innovation (how meanings change).
Symbolic Interaction Theory, then, describes the way we confer, converse, have social intercourse with, and otherwise bother each using symbols as our relational currency:

"So, I was talkin' with this guy, and he was, like, you know, lookin' at me stupid. You know what I mean? Like, he wasn't gettin' a damn thing I was sayin'. So, I thumped him twice on the forehead and said, Hel-lo! Anybody Home in There?" While Structural-Functional theory mainly considers the macrosocial end of the theoretical spectrum, and Conflict theory tries to consider both macro and micro ends, Symbolic Interaction attempts to explain the dyadic part (microsocial) of the spectrum with very definite connections to the larger cultural imperative. Symbolic interaction assumes the culture exists and that it determines much of our behavior. This is getting deep, so let's begin with a rather narrow discussion of religion to illustrate the general way SI theory explains and describes personality development. I'm going to belabor a point here, but don't make the mistake that I am attempting to persuade you to adopt a particular religious point of view, because that would deny SI its descriptive power.

When I was a boy, growing up in West Texas, the only Catholics I ever knew were Hispanics. Having never met a Polish-American or Italian-American, Catholics were, in my limited experience, Spanish speaking people. In fact, there were two distinct types of Hispanics in my environment: Predominantly Baptist families whose native language was English, and predominantly Catholic families whose native language was Spanish. In my experience, there seemed to be a certain superstitiousness about the Hispanic-Catholic view of religion. As a boy, I felt sorry for them, because they were so wrong-headed in the way they believed. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I knew in my heart that if a person misbehaved and didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior, that person wouldn't go to heaven when they died. What I didn't understand is that, while we all went to the same public schools, played on the same playgrounds, and essentially grew up in the same hot, hostile environment, my Hispanic-American Catholic friends really had different origins. Their historical roots were in the unique mixing of ancient Aztec, American Indian, and Middle Ages Spanish religious cultures. They just happened to be going to my school.

Once I asked my friend Bobby Castro what would happen if he quit being a Catholic. He said he would go to hell. This puzzled me greatly because, according to my pastor, Brother Edwards, Bobby was on the fast track to hell just as sure as he wore that graven image around his neck. While I would often pray before a math test, or before a fist fight after school, Bobby prayed only in church, or at least while holding his crucifix in his hand. Later on everything became clear to me because I asked questions, made lists, wrote down the dilemmas and showed them to people who ought to know the answers. Everything became clear to me because I listened to the faulty logic, sweeping generalizations, and otherwise fuzzy thinking of those people who ought to know. I would later come to understand this process of repeated observation and generalization as inductive logic.

Which is the more correct way of thinking--the Catholic belief system or the Protestant one (for our purposes, other religions aren't considered here)? Now think about the fundamental difference between the two forms of Christianity. Both use the same holy text as their guidebook, both entertain devotion to the same deity, and both use the same lessons to inform their congregates on matters of morality and right living. Isn't it redundant of our culture to have two religions that are so similar?

Perhaps there is something in all the significant symbols used by each group to inform behavior and apply meaning to everyday life. The meaning underlying the symbols alerts us to the very different approaches each group takes in thinking thoughts, living lives, and using language. For example, the main symbolic artifact for each is the cross, symbolizing the sacrifice Jesus made for others--a major teaching of the New Testament. The symbolic difference may be that for Protestants the cross is empty; while for Catholics the crucifix graphically illustrates the suffering image of the deity. No need to wonder how tough it is to die like that. He's right there on the cross for you to look at anytime.

Think like a social scientist with a symbolic interactionist perspective on social life. You would ask, "What significance does this obvious symbolic difference have for the two groups of believers?" For one thing, Bobby Castro prayed directly into his crucifix, while my prayers were sort of transmitted out into the atmosphere. Bobby prayed prayers that were all written out, even recorded in a prayer book, while mine were extemporaneous (i.e., "Oh. God! Please don't let me fail this algebra test.").

But there are similarities between the two groups too. The larger group, Christians, which encompasses both subcategories of Protestant and Catholic, all believe that Jesus Christ was a prophet who lived roughly two thousand years ago, and was the actual son of God. God, of course, is believed by these people to be the supreme being, all powerful creator of the universe. Jesus Christ, by all reports, was very vocal during his young adulthood; and because of his outspokenness in the context of a highly politicized era of the Roman Empire, was incarcerated, tried for heresy and riotousness, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Normally, this form of execution is painful enough, with victims eventually dying from asphyxiation. In the case of Christ, there was an unexplainable departure from the usual crucifixion process in that the victim was actually nailed to the cross, instead of simply being bound to it. This is the event around which the early Christian Church was formed and flourished for 1600 years. This was the one very big idea that, for a long time, dominated the thoughts of the masses.

Take a little ride with me now. During the sixteenth century, Christianity underwent the Protestant Reformation. It was a time in which the Very Big Idea was splintered into two smaller ones - Protestantism and Catholicism. Among the differences (some say the biggest difference) between the two ideas was the sacramental nature of marriage and the issue of divorce. But the fundamental difference relevant to the discussion of religious artifacts is the recasting of old ideas in new ways, giving them new meaning. While Catholics continue to this day to use the crucifix, complete with an image of Jesus in pain and suffering, the Protestant cross is empty.

When Catholics pray in front of their religious symbol, they gaze upon the tortured image of the son of God. Protestants have no such reminder. Catholics seem to emphasize the event of the crucifixion, noting that Christ's life was painful so that they would not have to suffer so much. In other words, the purpose of religion is to give us an outlet for our troubles. Protestants emphasize the resurrection of Jesus after death (the cross is empty), symbolic of the promise made to them that after a sorrowful life on earth, there is continued life after death for those who believe. Catholics are, then, a little more concerned with the here and now, getting through life by depending on God to help. And they tend to manifest their need for God to intervene in their lives by using a variety of artifacts that show their devotion--dash board saints, candles with biblical scenes painted on them, medals bearing the likenesses of saints, prayer cards, and other equipment. Protestants are a little more concerned with the hereafter--heaven. Like news commentator Paul Harvey says, "now you know the rest of the story". While none of this explanation is absolutely true for all members of a religious sect, there may be enough truth in the story to begin to understand something about socialized differences between nearly similar folks.

While each of us may harbor individualized, or unique, meanings for each of the common symbols above, it is clear that all of us must hold some common meaning for each in order for the symbols to be useful in everyday life. The true meaning of love, money, friendship, patriotism, being a good sport, and self-esteem is carried in the emotional content WE place in symbols that represent those ideas or values. While we can always find individuals who put different meaning into any given symbol, there must be a dominant meaning that is shared by most all in the culture in order for it to be significant in its social use. Now, reach into your pocket and pull out your mahdulla, wind its whanzer very tight and let it zrooomballa across the fletznerzam. Different culture - different words. Here are some of the basic assumptions of Symbolic Interaction Theory. S-I theorists like to see individual development as determined socially. They view socialization as grooming individuals for interaction with each other.

For the Process of Socialization: Basic Assumptions

  1. Humans live in a symbolic environment as well as a physical environment, and acquire complex sets of symbols in their minds.
  2. Humans evaluate symbols and make evaluative distinctions between symbols.
  3. Human conduct is organized and directed in terms of social acts.
  4. Humans are reflexive, and their introspection gradually creates a definition of self.
  5. Born asocial, an individual creates a self (personality) consisting of different parts.
  6. The individual is an actor as well as reactor.
  7. Society precedes individuals and is transmitted by individuals.
  8. Society and man are the same thing.
  9. The human mind is malleable.
  10. Human beings hunger for interaction with their kind, much the way they hunger for food, thirst for water. We find interaction with each other delicious.
What all this means is that concepts like family, love, mental illness, spouse abuse, healthy family functioning, are all concepts that carry symbolic weight in the minds of a society's members. None of these concepts exist outside the mind. Instead, all are symbols that represent something else by association, resemblance, or convention. When we laugh at a joke, cry at a movie, become outraged over a news story, we are symbolically interacting with our fellows and sharing in a culture that provides meaning to events. Everyone has laughed at the cartoon character who is fearful of ghosts and gets so scared that he repeatedly runs into things. The cartoon character's dilemma is funny to us because we ourselves have been scared enough to do stupid or silly things.

Consider once again, the The Situational Hypothesis: "Things perceived as real will be real in their consequences." - (W.I. Thomas, 1923). Here's another true story, this time about the Ponototoc Snake House. In our culture resides all kinds of faulty information about snakes. They are characterized as evil, dangerous, slimy, and filthy, and they are even said to have carried away infants. The human fear of snakes is documented throughout psychology, but probably our culture is responsible for it. There was a family who somehow got the idea that their house was infested with snakes (Hopper, 1992). No one had actually seen a snake in or near the house and there was no physical sign of snakes to be found. Still, the more they thought about their troubles, the more they all agreed that they were living among poisonous snakes. They said they could smell snakes in the house (snakes have no distinctive odor), and that they could hear them crawling around at night (snakes are pretty quiet crawlers). Snake experts analyzed the property and found no sign. But the fear of snakes persisted among the family members. The only solution to their problem, they concluded, was to buy a mobile home to live in, and to burn their house to the ground, furniture and all. After the blaze, family sanity returned and they lived happily, though very cramped, ever after.

If a person only partially believes in ghosts (in this case - snakes that aren't there), depending on the way his or her culture portrays the apparition, that person will behave as if ghosts are real and apparent in the everyday world. Placed in the right context, a ghost becomes a Significant Symbol (i.e., a symbol that draws out the same emotional appeal in the majority of individuals).

Two early social thinkers had influence on this old theory. Charles H. Cooley (1864-1929) & George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). Cooley saw society as a whole greater than the sum of its parts, and took an organic world view versus a mechanistic one. Cooley's main contribution to SI theory was the Looking Glass Self, which states that with no sharp distinction between the individual and society, the self (personality) is simply a product of social interaction. "Society and the Self are twin born." There could be no sense of "I" without a correlative "You, We, They, He, or She". All images of the self are personal interpretations of one's social reflection in his self-conscious model:

Self Consciousness is arrived at via:

    • Our imagination of our appearance as an object to another person.
    • Our image of the other person's evaluation of our appearance.
    • Our feelings about the other's perceived evaluation.
Because we cannot process our reflection from every potential interaction partner, we come to depend on the judgments of a few important or significant others. Thus becomes possible the familiar concepts from Structural-Functional Theory - primary and secondary groups.

The Primary Group is the device through which our culture is transmitted. Through interaction with parents, we acquire language (the second in a series of artificial symbols, the first being the meaning associated with feelings we get from nurturing behaviors of our parents). After rudimentary language acquisition, we move in larger circles (e.g., playmates, kindergarten, first grade and on to high school, college, job, and paying taxes.). As we grow and develop (as we are socialized), we encounter Secondary Groups--the educational system, business associates, and governmental agents. Members of our Primary group serve as socialization agents, those who groom us for interaction with the larger, Secondary, society. George Herbert Mead explained this process of socialization.

George Herbert Mead's contributions to social theory are legion. The most important was his theory of socialization, or humanization (also known as The Generalized Other theory of personality development). Those of you with a familiar reading of Piaget will find Mead interesting. Like Piaget, Mead asserts that socialization occurs through a maturational process. Through interaction with others we pass through three stages of social and personal development (see Figure 11 below).

Figure 11 - Mead's Generalized Other.

  1. Egocentric Stage 0-2yrs - The child is unaware of any other personality and behaves as though he is the center of the universe.
  2. Play Stage 2-7yrs - The child moves through rapid emulation of roles it perceives - rapid role changes (e.g., cowboy, fireman, prize fighter, super hero, doctor, etc. Through the practice of "pretending" to be others, the child begins to understand the concept of "others".
  3. Game Stage 7-80++ yrs - The maturing individual perceives other's expectations, and self's rights, gradually acquiring the ability to take the role of the generalized other, which is simply an amalgamation of all the socially appropriate values and behaviors necessary for optimal social adaptation and interaction.
This acquisition of the Generalized Other Role is due to the uniquely human ability to use symbols (e.g., language, face, signs, signals, etc.), and to abstractly understand the Inner self, or the "I". Incidentally, our failure to recognize this fact, while simultaneously becoming a master of it, accounts for all of the pain, confusion, and heartache that each of us encounters between the ages of 1 and 99 years. We fall prey to so many manipulations of our hearts and minds:

Advertising, "How to be your own best friend", "Women who love too much." Men who love but just can't commit! The Oprah Winfrey Show, The Peter Pan Principle. Co-Dependence and You! Transactional Analysis, Psychoanalysis, Country Music ... and so on.

After one comes to understand the expectations society demands, the "self" can be seen in two parts: the "I" and "me". This accounts for Self-consciousness:

Actions, symbols, and others become "significant" precisely because of our ability to generalize, abstract, and communicate about and through them. Significant action is recognized because we understand where the motivation to action derives. Significant symbols occur if I call out in another, the same response I call out in myself by using a specific symbol. The Process of Interaction defines who we are (to others and ourselves). The "I" is the emergent product of prior interaction. The "me" is reflected behavior, generalized to the next interaction. Thus, roles become objectified and idealized as they are learned, then performed. Consider this interaction model: S = our self-concept at any given time

      • P = our perceptions of other's responses
      • A = other's actual responses, and
      • B = our behavior, what we say.
      • The theory has it that: S >B >A >P know as the interaction process where:
      • B = I've never felt this way about anyone else before
      • A = (thinks: how flattering! I think I'm going to blush)
      • P = (thinks: that seemed to work - she didn't hit me or run away)
      • S = (thinks: I'm pretty good at this)
      • B = You make me feel ...... so alive
      • A = (thinks: I do have that effect on people)
      • P = (thinks: she's buying it!)
      • S = (thinks: I have her wrapped around my finger)
      • B = I'd like to have sex with you right now!
      • A = (thinks: you wish! Not if you were the only person on earth!)
      • P = (thinks: Oops! Too much - Too soon)
      • S = (thinks: I'm a failure - back up!)
      • B = I'd like that very much - But I respect you too much to use you like that.
The nice thing about symbolic interaction theory is that it answers the Hobbesian Question--"If it is human nature to be aggressive, then why does not civilization end in an all out war of all against all?" Symbolic interaction allows that an unwritten code of conduct exists by virtue of our presence among our fellows. It is through our interaction with others that culture is transmitted - that the rules of society are maintained - that the rules of society are changed as the conditions for action and survival change. Thus: society and the individual are the same. My values, by and large are also society's, or I wouldn't hold them.

Three Big Ideas in SI Theory: Mind Self & Society

Mind uses symbols to designate objects in the environment, the meaning of which is completely constructed by the individual. Mind inhibits inappropriate lines of action by using imaginative rehearsals. Self emerges as the individual acts symbolically toward himself and others. The self is simply a continually redefined role repertoire. Society is simply organized patterns of interaction among diverse individuals. Roles are similar enough in the collective of minds for empathy to take place. Society is nothing more than the collective shared meaning of the rules by which we interact. The interaction between the ever present society and all its social control agents, the developing self, and the individual mind that constantly mediates between social and personal mandates is also Mead's definition of symbolic interaction.

The Social Construction of Intimacy

As we have argued here, unless there is general consensus among the persons in a society concerning the meanings we give to objects, events, and situations in our lives--unless we generally agree on the meaning of symbols--social life would be impossible. The definitions we give to intimacy depend on 1) the general values of the society in which we live, and 2) the more specific values of the groups to which we belong or with which we identify. It is in this rootedness in socially shared definitions that we are allowed to carry intimacy beyond the assertion that each human relationship is unique. We are in love, or are friendly, with a person precisely because we have given the relationship that interpretation. Walster (1974) suggests that in order to experience passionate love, one must first have learned the proper meanings associated with specific physiological feelings. "Your eyes meet, you smile warmly at each other, and as you approach one another, oblivious to those in the room, you begin to experience increased heart and respiration rates, flushing of the face, dryness of the mouth, and slight body tremors--lust or love at first sight."

Moving from strangers to intimates - we expect to fall in love, have sex, and get married within well recognized time frames. Adults often characterize teenagers' first attempts at establishing an intimate relationship as "puppy love", because they are socially defined as too young to experience the real thing. They don't think so! On the other hand, persons who remain unmarried past their late twenties may be considered "problems" by parents, relatives, and friends. Society has a very narrow path for us to think on. The Romantic Ideal has it that there is only one person in all the world that we are meant to love--that, although love is blind, we will recognize our true love at first sight. Though we are taught the romantic ideal, society provides us with many potential lovers.

For example, Kierkegaard thought the proposition that first love is the true love to be very accommodating and could come to the aid of humankind in various ways. If a man is not fortunate enough to get possession of what he desires, then he still has the sweetness of the first love. If a man is so unfortunate as to love many times, each time is still the first love ... One loves many times, and each time one denies the validity of the preceding times, one will maintain the correctness of the proposition that one loves only once. (1959). Nice idea, but even Kierkegaard was smart enough never to try that jazz in divorce court.

Impression Management

All of us manipulate identity information to present the proper first impression. It is this deliberate identity manipulation early in a relationship that frequently leads at some point to the declaration "I thought I knew him/her but I didn't." Throughout the whole period of courtship persons tend to offer idealized images of themselves and largely to accept the idealized image others offer. Break-ups occur at socially convenient times (e.g., spring break, Christmas, end of the term, summer, graduations). It is love according to popular culture's presentation of love. The same goes for sexual expression. We must ignore the fact that we become sexual through a learning process. What we think of as being sexual, what turns us on, even the belief that we are "horny" as a result of sexual deprivation, all reflect culturally defined and learned ideas about sexuality. Clearly persons must define a situation as sexual before sexual activity will occur.

To understand how persons produce sustained human relationships, we must consider the subtle fashion in which persons "use" institutions that were not designed to function as meeting places for unmarrieds. We must consider how small stores, taverns, laundromats, clubs, and the like become places for establishing potentially intimate relationships. It is fair to infer that persons can tolerate only so much impersonality in their relationships. Perhaps at the height of feelings of depersonalization and lack of integration, persons will seek out alternatives in the environment to provide them with just the kinds of relationships they seem to be denied. As a person's needs demand it, they will assign new meanings to, and make different usages of, existing institutions. This is elegant evidence to prove that we are active participants in the construction of our social worlds. We can even divide intimacy into several subcategories:

    1. Emotional Intimacy - listening and caring
    2. Social Intimacy - spending time together
    3. Sexual Intimacy - sex is exciting prospect
    4. Intellectual Intimacy - mutual thinking through
    5. Recreational Intimacy - similar interests in activities.
How do we go about meeting people? In our society, we have very definite norms (also known as behavioral guidelines) that govern initial meetings. In our society, it is a norm violation to initiate conversations with strangers. We distrust strangers. Speaking to strangers involves RISK of ridicule and rejection. Therefore: In the beginning of an encounter we tend to be a little reserved, hesitant, and uncertain. All this diminishes as we get to know the other. Notice that our intentions are almost always disguised. A boy might be thinking, "I want Sex Now", but he manages to move in more socially acceptable ways to get his needs met.