In these days the job situation in Germany is seriously bad. More than 4.3 million people are out of work, no matter what level of education they have. The situation in Eastern Germany, where there is an unemployment rate of up to nearly 20% is even worse, particularly for young people under 20, of whom 9.1% are unemployed (cf. Statistisches Bundesamt Deutschland). Although this is mainly a political and economical issue, the social importance of unemployment must not be neglected as realities of jobless people can be drastically altered , especially for those, whose life career was dominated by their work, no matter if they were in high or low positions. As Symbolic Interactionism is in the first place a theory about the everlasting process of social interaction between human beings, the unemployed individual in context to society seems to be worth discussing in this theoretical perspective.
So, this essay deals with the unemployed individual in society and their perception of reality during the phase of unemployment related to the main ideas of Symbolic Interactionism found in the book The Social Construction Of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge by P. Berger and Th. Luckmann first published in 1966. This book serves as a conception of the sociological theory of Symbolic Interactionism and its theoretical development.
The first chapter summarizes the major points of Symbolic Interactionism and chapter two deals with the idea of the “Other” within this theoretical approach. The third chapter examines the unemployed individual relating to their objective and subjective reality. Finally, chapter four presents the consequences of reality perception by unemployed individuals through social interactions and their relevance to society.
1. Symbolic Interactionism – A brief overview
Symbolic interactionism as a theory of socialization deals with the question of how individuals and groups interact, focusing on the creation of personal identity through interactions with others. Of particular interest is the relationship between individual action and society, this has to be considered as a corresponding process. Hereby the individual appears to be an acting organism, which is fundamentally social. Symbolic interactionism emphasises the idea that individuals become social beings only through interactions with others. Every interaction between individuals forms a society, as well as society forms the individual. The main statements of the perspective of Symbolic Interactionism can be summarized by concluding that every action of an individual causes a response in at least one other individual and is then reflected in the individual themselves, i. e. there occurs an immediate reaction to an individual’s action, which makes them capable to integrate an objective attitude towards their acting through others. This “dialectical process” contains “three moments” which are “externalization, objectivation and internalization” (Berger and Luckmann 1991, 149). Hereby language plays an important role as a significant symbol. This enables individuals to understand the meanings of certain actions. These meanings are socially constructed and therefore unstable and changeable.1 As human conduct then is constantly influenced by both, the individual’s own actions and the activities of others, society as a whole can be seen as an ongoing interactional process of mutual dependance. This process includes forming the identity of an individual by establishing the so called “Self”. According to Mead’s basic ideas the “Self” consists of the “I” on the one hand and the “Me” on the other hand. Acting as a response of the organism to the attitudes of others constitutes the “I”. The “Me” is the result of internalizing the attitudes of others towards the individual in their mind. This means, that an individual is not what they think they are, but what others think they are. Cooley (1902, 196) names this “the looking glass self”, what emphasizes, that an individual sees himself through the others by internalizing their reactions to their actions.
In short this means that the identity of an individual is determined by social interactional processes, which take place in society and thereby create society. Consequently society is perceived by the individual as reality. This reality is not an identical reality for every individual, but it is shared with other individuals and socially constructed. Therefore it can be assumed that society consists of different individual realities, which make the everyday life of every human being susceptible to change and in some cases even inconsistent and problematic, especially if conflicts or new objects confront the individual with his so far experienced reality.
2. The “Other”
This chapter shall point out what is to be understood as the “Other” in the perspective of Symbolic Interactionism.
First of all the theoretical development of the term “Other” has to be explained. The idea of it came into existence in the beginning of the twentieth century and it then was continuously reflected and reconsidered. The above-mentioned book by Berger and Luckmann can therefore be seen as a result of theoretical interactional processes. It deals mainly with processes of social interaction and socialization.
Some changes of the understanding of the “Other” took place during the theoretical development of Symbolic Interactionism. This shall be illustrated now. From today’s perspective Jane Addams, a social worker in Hull House in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century, can be considered to be a person who took the view of a symbolic interactionist because of her interest in democracy and its realization at that time in the context of relationships between underprivilegded and privilegded people. In her book Democracy and social ethics she does not give an exact definition of what the “Other” is, but if one is to interpret her work it includes all people, who are not equal in society and have no possibility to change their situation. The reference to Symbolic Interactionism can be seen in her suggestion that one should take the role of the other in order to understand the perspective of others. One should not act according to what one think is good for the others but according to what the others would choose for themselves. Cooley`s definition of the “Other” extends the idea of taking the role of the others. He introduces the idea of the so called “looking glass self” (Cooley 1902, 196) and sees the “Other” as a reflection of one individual’s behavior in a community, but not in society. Taking the role of the other includes empathy and sensitivity for them. Mead’s approach of the “Other” is more exactly defined as his idea deals with the forming of “Self” consisting of “Me” and “I” during an interactional process, in which the “Other” is an important mediator of action between the individual and society, i. e. as already mentioned above only through the reaction of the “Other” individuals are what they are. Goffman’s thesis about the “Other” also includes the model of taking the role of the other. He distinguishes between stigmatized and ‘normal’ individuals. Stigmatization means realizing what other individuals think about one individual. This is a dialectical process and the individual can take the perspective of both sides. Berger and Luckmann’s view of the “Other” consist of the assumption that this is an individual who was exposed to a mistake in sozialisation.
The common ground of the presented ideas of the “Other” is its characteristic of being socially constructed. The “Other” only becomes what it is through social interaction.
1 The view of social reality as a continously changing and fluid one is particularly emphazised by Negotiated Order Theory, which is grounded in Symbolic Interactionism. This is in the first place an approach that deals with interactional processes between individuals and institutions and points out the dependance of interactions upon given circumstances and conditions. Changing of interactions means also changing of meanings, e. g. different interpretations of formal rules. (cf. R. Day and J. V. Day: “A review of the current state of Negotiated Order Theory: an Apreciation and a Citique” The Sociological Quarterly (1977) Vol.18 pp.126-142.)