Skip to main content

From Generalized Others to Social Networks and Groups to Social Structure and Culture

There are two transitions to larger structures. First, there is the move from generalized others to social networks and groups, and second, there is the move from social networks and groups to insitutions, structure and culture.[1]


The Move to Networks and Groups

The social psychology of framing performances of the “Me” and shaping the messages coming back to the generalized other increases or decreases cultural capital, emotional energy and a sense of opportunities as people join one group or another. These presentations of self by the “Me” and their being shaped by audiences in the generalized other create “practices” over time. Practices are a combination of the various behavior and actions that people take in the world (Giddens 1984; Schatzki 1994; Shove, Pantzar and Watson 2012). Although I do not take the ontological approach of practice coming first (Shatzki 1994; Bem 1972), the term “practice” is a better choice than beginning with norms, beliefs and roles, which give some precedence to premature structures rather than social construction.[2] Through interaction, practices create norms, roles and beliefs, but this is also done through the constraints and also opportunities that are provided by other people in each person’s generalized other. Some may willing comply with these external constraints but others may surreptitiously or directly battle against them. Practices, which are the behaviors exhibited in interaction, become more or less routinized since it is too much work to think through them with every interaction. As a result, they become routinized and guided by allegiances, alienation or disinterest in those others expressing constraints through the generalized other. Out of this may come patterns which may be called beliefs, norms and even roles, which intertwine with other’s beliefs, norms and roles to become organizations and institutions. If enough agreement is obtained we may have strong institutions and government with some social order. If enough agreement is not achieved, we may have fragmentation, conflict and even chaos (e.g. Iraq, Syria and Somalia during the recent disruptive periods in their histories). Thus, we do not have roles and institutions imposed on us. But also we are not left with Goffman’s dramaturgical theaters that do not add up to larger structures. With some social order, consensus obtain. With no social order, there may be much death and destruction.

Emergence vs. Predictability: In this shift to structure, one must be careful in the terminology used because it connects to highly differentiated theories on the freewill and determinism scale. It is easy to say that people form a self, attach themselves to groups, and then adopt the roles that determine their behavior, even with some resolutions of role conflict and role strain within a set of adopted roles. On the other hand, symbolic interactionism in Blumer’s version adopts an approach of emergent behavior and even self-perception theory saying that people act first with confused intentions and afterwards conclude why they acted the way they did (Bem 1972) and practice theory is not far behind this conception In table 5.3, I tentatively list these viewpoints toward emergent and predictable behaviors.

The most unpredictable are emergent behaviors (item 1) and the most predictable are the various determinisms including habitus (item 7). Many of these positions come from Max Weber (habit, convention, emotional action, tradition and rationality). However, roles presume an ontology that they exist in society, but the actor(s) who create them are somewhat vague. I maintain that such roles exist only in as much as a group promotes them such as religious organizations (family roles), employers (work roles), and political parties and the state (citizen and leader roles).

Instead of a priori roles, I would like to introduce a form of negotiated practice (3 through 6 in table 5.3). People negotiate their behavior (presentations of self as in “Me’s”) and then field feedback through their generalized others which may come close to roles. In some cases, this may look like role socialization or adoption. But in other cases, this may look like role resistance. In this second sense, people’s practices are more like role evasion. Many times at work in a factory, I have seen some workers ‘work hard” at “not working or “evading work.” While some might see this as resistance or rebellion, it was rather that they simply did not want to exert the effort to work (i.e., simple laziness). For example, Wally in the Dilbert comic strip evades as much work as possible much like the aptly named Albert Dolittle in My Fair Lady—“The Lord above made man with an arm of iron, but with a little bit of luck, with a little bit of luck, someone else’ll do the blinkin’ work!” Or look at the middle-class parenting styles over time of the “Just go outside and play” of the 1950s and 1960s, to parents who protect their children’s in driving them to sports, music lessons, and generally approximating if not being ‘helicopter’ parents. Upper-class social leaders may attempt to impose “etiquette” and specific rules for social behavior, but even there we have a few upper-class evaders and disrupters.

Thus, the position I espouse here is that roles exist in as much as groups try to impose them, but people and their generalized others negotiate these roles. On the other hand, there are purposeful role and rule breakers such as Donald Trump and Charles de Gaulle who engaged in ethnomethodological breaching experiments as they break roles and with their norms on a regular basis with both being termed ‘authoritarians’ (Black 2020; Fenby 2013). And many times, they seem to have an overall goal, but their immediate actions are “by the seat of their pants” or according to practice or self-perception theory. Yet others follow roles and rules assiduously. Or concerning intentions, Lyndon Johnson proclaimed in school that he would be president someday, but Angela Merkel who seemingly fell into the role of being Chancellor through chance but with some ruthlessness are certain points in time (Caro 2012; Qvortrup 2016; Mushaben 2017). Other opposites are Thomas Jefferson who sought the presidency, and Ulysses Grant who never imagined that he would be a politician much less a two-term president who implemented reconstruction (Wood 2009; Chernow 2017). Thus, my position is that there is great variance in practices vis-à-vis any roles that might be said to exist, and I see “practiced roles” which are followed, evaded, adjusted and sometimes totally breached. But in any case, people must encounter, shape and make-sense of their milieu through their generalized others.

Phases of Group Formation: From this modified position on norms and roles involved with practices, there is a four-part group formation and social network process: family, school, work, and private associations, especially political parties. First of all, most humans are birthed into a group called a ‘family.’ This group has specific roles—mother, father, son, daughter, grandmother, grandfather, etc.—that are negotiated and variable. However, they are reinforced by other kin (e.g., you are a great or terrible mother or father, or dutiful, spoiled or ungrateful child). Politics may be discussed at the dinner table or on car trips, and the sons and daughters become aware of their parent’s political positions before they know much about policy. These roles are later reinforced by schools, churches, mosques or temples and by neighbors (F1, G0), but they are strongly mediated by the family.[3]

Second, most children go to school. Within their familial constraints, children negotiate informal friendship networks which then tend to achieve greater power than the family over the teenage and young adult years. This is somewhat described by Randall Collins (2002) interaction ritual chains (Figures 5.3 and 5.4). A well-noted finding is that during this period teenagers may rebel against their parent’s political positions though this can be slight to catastrophic. In sociological parlance: initial or primary socialization gives way to secondary socialization outside the family. During this period in middle-school and high school student may belong to various youth groups and sports teams that are life training or quasi-preparatory membership for more serious group roles where they may have to conform to make a living at work and form their own family. Thus, this first stage is formal group one to social network one (G1 to SN1).

            In the third phase, most young adults go to work, which can overlap greatly with the initial social network where friends follow each other to work (or not), young people join formal groups that employ them in trading friendship for group roles in providing goods and services for a wage. At work they generally perform in a specific way, which may be tightly or loosely coupled. If they are too loosely-coupled they may be fired, simply not promoted, or they may become independent contractors or entrepreneurs. Within these more formal roles they meet many others and through their interactions with them they form informal social networks based on positive and negative generalized others (Homans 1950). Thus, they move from formal group two to informal social network two (G2 to SN2). The process may be reversed in some cases where the first social network of friends and acquaintances joins a firm or government agency and they precede the second group’s informal networks. However, they most generally encounter new people they incorporate into positive or negative generalized others. The process may also occur more categorically with SN1 not being the same people as SN2, but the same gender, racial, ethnic, or religious categories may inhabit the work groups presenting the possibilities for ties among more or less homogenous groups.

            In the fourth phase, a smaller but still substantial percentage of people form an attachment to political parties. This results in citizens forming positive and negative generalized others based on political agreements or disagreements. Based on positive generalized others supporting one political ideology or party over another, citizens in these social networks and work groups may individually argue for the positions of their favored political policies or positions, contribute money to political parties, actively campaign for a candidate, or even become an official in a party (e.g., precinct captain). Discussion in social networks whether in or outside of work most often is not frequent, but it tends to be intensified during elections campaigns (especially for presidents, senators and representatives) and in the midst of crises such as wars, economic downturns, riots and protests, and other salient events. Each persons’ political identity then becomes formed (see chapter 6 for the conditions for switching identities).

            At this point we can integrate social identity and social categorization theory that is clearly focused on how individuals form, encounter, join and accept certain groups. The theory was formulated by John C. Turner in European and Australian psychology.[4] The theory works with the “I,” and “Me” but instead of a generalized other it uses ‘We’ and ‘They,’ which is not quite as precise but still quite similar (Haslam, Reicher and Reynolds 2012; Reynolds 2018; Turner 2006). However, its important contribution comes in how people have a propensity to form groups, both in-groups and out-groups. So they do not just join a group (as in differential association), but they live within groups to varying degrees and adopt large amounts of their values, norms, ideologies and in some cases roles. Social identity is formed in groups (composed largely of framed generalized others) that may be rational, emotional and traditional in various ways. Individual members categorize their identities as influencing, conforming, and altering those group identities. Thus, individuals are active vis-à-vis their group memberships, but they are also influenced by them. Venturing further into prejudice theories, individuals do not see group malleability as a problem because group change can be a positive force for society and not just degradation (Reynolds et al. 2016). Thus, group membership not only creates personal identities, but also forges a social identity. This goes beyond just focusing on one’s personal self.

            Workplaces with citizens being constrained by organizational rules, norms, and organizational vocabularies but also facing change are the forges of inequalities at their most formative stage (Simon 1947, Perrow 2014). In their award-winning book, Daniel Tomaskovic-Devey and Dustin Avent-Holt (2019) show how relational inequalities are created inside organizations, which are not the only venue for inequalities but they are the most important sites for exploitation and social divisions since they involve concrete wages/salaries and statuses. Accordingly, organizations generate resources (monetary, cultural, social, etc.) that some employees can obtain and others cannot. These more skilled, privileged or connected employees make legitimate claims for continued access to these resources (e.g., higher pay, promotions, high prominence, and status recognition). Some employees are “othered” as less competent and even degraded (Schwalbe et al. 2000; see the previously discussed Figure 5.2 that describes the othering process in detail). These othered employees are limited or prevented from accessing organizational resources, and sometimes they are fired. For instance, GE under Jack Welch fired the lowest performing 10% of its workforce each year, and Amazon does the same for its lowest 6% (Long 2021). This process of “othering” operates through Max Weber’s processes of “social closure” (1978), thus contributing to their negative generalized others and creating “othered” groups of employees often implying that their characteristics in the general population are also less valued (i.e., often implying that blacks or women in general simply cannot do the job).

The more skilled or privileged others make many of the organizations resources their own, and in the process “exploit weaker actors in production and exchange relationships” (Tomaskovic-Devey and Avent-Holt 2019: 6, 107-133; Royce 2018). As Charles Tilly explains,

“Exploitation… operates when powerful, connected people command resources from which they draw significantly increased returns by coordinating the efforts of outsiders whom they exclude from the full value added by that effort” (1998: 10).

The mechanisms for gaining privileged access are in the “relational claims-making” processes that is inherently interpersonal and negotiated (2019: 162-194), and they rest on the persuasive use of cultural, social, violent (physical force or police power) or symbolic capital (see Figure 3.1). Advantages in these cultural, status and material resources are distributed through a created ‘legitimacy’ in the distinctions of ownership, occupation, education, citizenship, gender and race. The categorical distinctions of class and status are the basis for “claims-making” that is organizationally-based and institutionally-supported, and then amplified by whatever skills the privileged may possess. Thus, organizational and institutional fields are influenced by categorical/ascriptive and earned/achieved forces. However, the success or failures of particular employees are not deterministically formed, but constitute part of “what is possible” (Foucault 1999:92; 1998). It is up to the actors who may be merit-based high performers or ascriptively-protected elites who just hang on their status to use their tools and resources through interaction ritual chains to invent local strategies or follow dull patterns of action. In this way, “relational inequalities” are created in labor markets and organizations with a great deal of closure but not hermetically-sealed as a certain amount of circulation of elites is allowed. Citizens initially advantaged by skills and/or more experientially-advantaged in understanding and using organizational resources gain power in the organization and in labor markets, both internally and externally.

The Move to Social Structure and Culture

            From social networks and organization, I move to social structure, which has unfortunately lived a highly influential but static life in theory. The repetition of schemas, rules, roles, rituals, and accessing resources in groups and social networks provides the basis for institutions and then structures. The results of this patterning create the impression that social structures of capitalism, the state, family, the legal system, the education system and so forth are rather rigid, and a “social cage” or “habitus” for citizens.

However, William Sewell Jr. (2005: 139-142) emphasizes the agency of individuals in social networks and small groups to constantly change these patterns to support, alter and sometimes dismantle these structures. He provides five rules about structure in order to prevent the reification of this term. First, there are a multiplicity of structures, and second, they frequently overlap or intersect. For instance, trade unions, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the courts all play a role in employee protection. Third, schemas as individual roles and strategies of knowledge about structures and culture are highly ‘transposable’, which means that they can be altered when structures conflict or underperform. This enables a high degree of agency which may be used to support, supplant or abandon specific structures. For instance, individuals need for information has largely abandoned newspapers in their print form and moved on to the internet even though many are less informed because of the shift. Fourth and fifth, resources are often unpredictable and can have multiple meanings (polysemy). Sewell (2005: 142) sees resources as embodying cultural schemas, and cultural schemas implying various uses of resources, which relates to my discussion of political economy and culture in the first chapter. He states that “Any array of resources is capable of being interpreted in varying ways, and therefore, of empowering different actors and teaching different schemas” (2005:142). The result is that at particular points in time within given contexts, certain actors are able to trigger agency to transpose schemas and use resources to change structures, and in the process, to create a new array of schemas and distribution of resources. These changed structures then are subject to these five principles again as initiators try to maintain and defend these new structures against other conservative or new change agents. Nonetheless, the structures of inequality provide general though malleable constraints on action.

I would like to push this a bit further. Between individual and small group action there is a transmission phase whereby practices by themselves or in and around roles are transformed into patterns, repertoires and organizations.

At the top of the figure are the more disconnected aspects of behavior. Societies differ in the transmission of behaviors into structures. Some societies at certain times have loose social structures. People’s practices tend to skirt around attempts to put them into roles with norms, and they show very high variation in their adherence of roles, and even the existence of roles may be questioned. Many parents are responsible to their children, some are hit-and-miss, and others abandon the role. Some workers attempt to follow the rules and others evade them. A large percentage of citizens willingly pay their taxes while in other contexts citizens will do their utmost to avoid taxes and hide taxable income. Hence there is a very high amount of variation in behaviors or practices. In a tight social structure, most people follow what they believe roles and norms to be. Sanctions are stronger both informally (social pressure) and formally (state or organizational sanctions. Practices in the first instance do not congeal into common repertories of action, and practices in the second instance create concrete structures. Further, these processes may change over time in societies. The transmission of practices into structures is a process that occurs at different levels and in different stages that depend on imposing social closure. Individuals in their social interaction will have commonly held private beliefs without action, commonly held expressed beliefs with mild action, strongly held beliefs with shallow action, and firm beliefs with frequent action. The more people hold common beliefs and take action, the more organizations and movements will be guided by those beliefs and behaviors. This will lead to more social closure for groups and organizations, and these groups and organizations may or may not coalesce into larger movements or organizations. This is where structure is created.

However, structure is not automatic or is looser than one might expect. Practices may be highly individuated or patterned behaviors. The movement of practices to actual roles, which are more tightly constructed, may or may not happen. And sometimes there may be tightly coupled practices into roles in one areas (students or employees) while loosely coupled in other areas (religions neighborhoods, citizens with patriotism, voters, etc.). For example at the societal level, US Americans and to a lesser extent Germans tend to pay their taxes (0.05 and 1.9% of GDP tax evasion rates from 1999-2010), whereas Italians (4.0%), Greeks (4.8%) and Mexicans (6.8%) are noted for much higher levels of tax evasion (Buehn and Schneider 2012, Tables 3 and 4). Within each of these countries, beliefs in merit, democracy and trust in government promote paying taxes, which involve generalized exchange, while libertarian ideologies avoid citizenship duties and obligations like paying taxes with preference for atomized liberty and restricted exchange.[5]

The practice-role channel may be more analogous to the interweaving, entwining, and interpenetrating connections of behavioral practices than any direct transmission. Practices combine more like the twisting, splicing or mediated behavior rather than the old functionalist idea of everyone falling into roles though the ideas of role strain and role conflict are helpful. Thus practices may be neutral toward the entrainment of roles, sometimes finding commonly and connections and at other times being resistant to much generalization and consensus. Political, economic and cultural movements are then moments when power can be used and expended to move a sufficient number of people into the intertwining of practices that create some aspects of change or efforts to resist change. And in large part, these movements are the intertwining of people’s positive generalized others, often in response to some negative generalized other that may be domestic or foreign.

[1] I do not claim to solve the micro-macro problem, but in these next two sections, I do indicate how this theory would approach the topic.

[2] Practice theory has some excellent points; however, assuming that every interaction is largely unknown makes social interaction seem rather uninformed. Every interaction is not a mystery only revealed in practice. People do have selves with embedded values, beliefs, and histories. Daryl Bem’s (1972) self-perception theory does the same ontological ordering and I can accept this as happening at times, but it does not characterize all interaction. People do have motivations, intentions, and accumulated experiences. Further, power is weakly developed in practice theory (Watson 207; Ortner 2006).

[3] In the next few paragraphs, F stands for family, G for group, and SN for social network. Groups have more stringent boundaries than social networks.

[4] John C. Turner only published one article in an American journal. This may be why most sociologists of the symbolic interaction stripe, have not recognized his work.

[5] These numbers refer to individual tax evasion and include the self-employed. Tax morale refers to citizens willingness to pay taxes controlling for enforcement threats, and the following factors increase this morale: meritocracy, support for democracy, age, trust in government, being female, being religious and having greater education (Daude 2012; Luttmer and Singhal 2014). Each of these factors tend to involve generalized exchange rather than restricted exchange. Governments may increase morale by recognizing compliant taxpayers or the use of shaming (e.g., visits from the singing eunuchs in India). Business tax avoidance and evasion is another matter with the proliferation of offshore tax shelters.