What Can Interactionism Contribute to the Study of Inequality_ The Case of Marriage and Beyond.pdf - What Can Interactionism Contribute to the Study of

What Can Interactionism Contribute to the Study of Inequality_ The Case of Marriage and Beyond.pdf

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Symbolic Interaction, Volume 24, Number 4, pages 455–480, ISSN 0195-6086; online ISSN 1533-8665. © 2001 by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction. All rights reserved. Send requests for permission to reprint to: Rights and Permissions, University of California Press, Journals Division, 2000 Center St., Ste. 303, Berkeley, CA 94704-1223. Direct correspondence to Scott R. Harris, St. Louis University, Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, 221 N. Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, MO 63103; e-mail : [email protected] What Can Interactionism Contribute to the Study of Inequality? The Case of Marriage and Beyond Scott R. Harris Saint Louis University The equality/inequality dichotomy is a central concept in sociology and in the study of marriage. Almost all researchers, though, use their own pre- conceived de nitions and measurement strategies to identify equal and unequal states of affairs. An alternative approach, one that better accords with interactionist principles, is to privilege people’s interpretations of equality over analysts’. Drawing on interviews with individuals who de ne their own marriages as equal or unequal, I compare people’s stories about marital equality with scholars’ depictions. While some narratives resonate (in part) with the themes propounded by scholars, others do not. If people’s experiences of equality and inequality are to be taken seriously, then it is important to listen to what they have to say on the subject, as well as to how they say it. This is the distinctive contribution symbolic interac- tionists can make to the study of inequality. A fundamental problem of the 21st Century is the persistence and intensi cation of . . . inequality. . . . We see not only the color line of racism . . . but also other manifestations of social inequality. . . . Sociology . . . has often led the social sci- ences in exploring, documenting, questioning, and confronting major forms of inequality. ( Call for Papers , 95th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association) Social problems are fundamentally products of a process of collective de nition. (Blumer 1971:298) Symbolic interactionism . . . does not view meaning as ema- nating from the intrinsic makeup of the thing that has meaning. . . . One has to get inside the de ning process of the actor in order to understand his [or her] ac- tion. (Blumer 1969:4, 16) My juxtaposition of the year 2000 conference theme of the American Sociological Association with the thought of Herbert Blumer is intended to be jarring. Tradi- tional approaches to the study of inequality, I believe, almost always contradict the precepts of symbolic interactionism. When it comes to inequality, sociologists have underutilized and underdeveloped the perspective of interactionism. In what fol-
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456 Symbolic Interaction Volume 24, Number 4, 2001 lows, I will explain my contention and demonstrate the distinctive contribution an interactionist approach can make, using the substantive area of marital inequality as a case in point.
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