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Power and Inequality in Symbolic Interaction

This section interrogates the concept of power and its weak presence in symbolic interactionist theory, and then goes into the theory’s conceptions of inequality. It integrates a bargaining theory of power into symbolic interactionism, and alters the symbolic interactionist discussion of power by putting it into a context of social exchange and types of social mobility. The end result is a more nuanced and extended theory of power in society with elements of motivation at the individual and group level.


Power in Symbolic Interactionism via Social Exchange Theory

Symbolic interaction has a particular weakness concerning a concept critical to political sociology and that is the concept of power. George Herbert Mead does not say much about power in his social psychological theory, and when encountering the topic, the authoritative symbolic interactionist text by Sandstrom, Lively, Martin and Fine (2014: 177-184) after a very brief review of the concept largely embraces the social exchange theory of Richard Emerson (1962) that sees power as dependency.[1] This theory is elaborated by Samuel Bacharach and Edward Lawler (1980, 1981; Cook and Rice ) as power being the inverse of the number of valued alternatives that one may have in the sense of not being dependent on the relationship with the other. Relative power is the difference between your dependencies as compared to the other, and the other’s dependencies on you. In a formula this might be:


            Your Power                             =          1 / Other’s dependencies on you


            The other’s power                   =          1 / Your dependencies on the other


            Relative power in                    =          (Your power) – (Other’s power)

              a situation


One’s and the other’s alternatives are measured by the number of alternatives times their value, which is the value of the alternative times its probability.

            In other words, if you constantly depend on another person for food, income, entertainment and shelter (e.g., a child to a parent, or a worker to the managers of a company town), while you supply none of these and other values to the other, then your other has a high amount of power over you since they could deny you these values. Exchange theory then leads to bargaining processes, which will be discussed more fully in chapter 9 on the macro-level.

            There are some strong inclinations toward bargaining theory in symbolic interactionist theory. For instance, Anselm Strauss (1978; Strauss et al. 2017; Sandstrom et al. 2014: 185-86) speaks of a negotiated order and mentions bargaining. However, this negotiation is rather loose and not involved with a formal assessment of power. Not all interaction is bargaining, and if someone in our personal lives is constantly keeping score and pursuing the maximum goods and services in our relationships, we most often regard this person as a ‘taker’ who is too instrumentally interested in outcomes in a friendship relationship. However, when groups are involved in strategic action then these calculations, in as much as they can be made, become quite important. It is a further question of whether these negotiations or social bargains are involved with restricted or generalized exchange. Generalized exchange looks to the betterment of the group as a whole, while restricted exchange is about the individual gaining for themselves. However, Strauss does not go far with this conception of bargaining as it might appear in political action.

            A symbolic interactionist who does directly confront symbolic interactionism on questions of power is Lonnie Athens (1992, 1997). He questions George Herbert Mead’s predication of symbolic interaction as being based on “sociation,” which is the general consensual pursuit of cooperate social relations. Instead Athens prefers to see the pursuit of power as the basic motivating force for human beings and their groups. While this more or less goes back to Thomas Hobbes and “the war of all against all,” we do not have to flip flop on the basic motivations of humans and see that we all are motivated by both love and hate, cooperation or conflict, or caring and violence. We do not have to trade caring for power, and for the most part, we can see these two forces as being consubstantial in society.

            But Athens does point to a critical weakness of symbolic interactionism as he comes up with a contrary view of the “good socialization” process described by George Herbert Mead, which is the “process of violentization” thesis. In the end, I conclude that both Athens and Mead are right but both are also incomplete. When people engage in sociation often with generalized exchange they are interacting according to the process of ‘sociation.’ But when people engage in ‘strategic interaction’ they are following interaction through power, which may be conscious by tough negotiators or may have been socialized into them through ‘violentization.’ And further, there are processes in between. Nonetheless, Athens does present symbolic interaction with an initial approach to power, which this theory sorely needs.


Theories of Exchange in Social Psychology

            There are two types of exchange that can be applied to symbolic interactionism. The first type is restricted exchange that is best characterized by market exchange whereby one gives money for some goods or services. The exchange is usually short (money paid for material objects, knowledge or personal services) and both parties are self-interested. Sometimes these exchanges are made more long-term, but they are carefully guarded by contracts assuring each party’s interests are protected. Much of this type of exchange is linked to rational action as per Max Weber’s concepts of rationality. The second type of exchange is generalized exchange. This is when direct reciprocity is not expected except in a rather indirect way. It is a form of group exchange where one person gives to another, who then in turn gives to a third person. The same would apply to group exchange. Generalized exchange is more community and group interested rather than self-interested.

            Political sociology can use these exchange processes to show how various political interactions can be negotiated. In table 5.1, I present eleven different exchange relationships divided between restricted and generalized exchange, but I will only go over the main points.


In restricted exchange, there are six different types from individual to various types of group and societal exchanges (1, 3 to 6 in Table 5.1) (Ekeh 1974: 46-52; Janoski 1998: 77-82). One important type of restricted exchange involves an important time dimension (see 2 in Table 5.1). For instance, if the exchange takes place repeatedly over time, norms evolve about the relationship. Trust may develop. In another way, a gift may be given to the taker, but the giver extracts a promise of a favor in the future. Recall, the Mafia Don played by Marlon Brando in the opening scene of The Godfather taking care of an Italian father’s wish to revenge the shabby treatment of his daughter by some Anglo-boys. Afterwards, he says that no payment is necessary, but:

“Someday, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do a service for me.

But until that day, accept this justice as a gift on my daughter’s wedding day.”

And you know that the funeral director will not only do it to repay his debt, but if he does not, the Don will most certainly take a pound of flesh.[2] Second, there are individual to group exchanges whereby a group might give a loan to an individual, and then the group expects payment by a particular date. Third, there are individual to societal exchanges whereby an individual agrees to various terms with a larger societal group. For example, an individual receiving unemployment insurance promises to be ready and able to work, and to search for work and fail in order to receive the benefit. Fourth, there are two kinds of group-to-group exchange. These may be negotiated by a leader but the followers know the terms of the agreement and are quick to point out any violations. The two types are when the groups overlap or they do not. Exclusive group negotiations may be harder to maintain than overlapping negotiations. This type of exchange is favored by rational choice proponents and economists who see it as the paramount exchange that exists in markets. Economists would like to apply restricted exchange to all types of social exchange (e.g., Gary Becker’s rational account of marriages and partnerships, and also sociobiological theories that see couples maximizing their gene pools for reproduction).

In generalized exchange, there are five different types (Ekeh 1974: 50; Janoski 1998: 82-85). First, in chain exchange (item 7) one person gives to another who then gives to a third party, and this continues to include more and more people as in “pay it forward.” Second, there are individual to closed group and open group exchanges (items 8 and 9). These can be seen in birthday parties in a family (group to individual that is closed by family members) or birthday parties at work where the exact people in the group may be constantly changing as employees come and go. Group to group generalized exchange can occur also through mutually exclusive groups (item 10) or overlapping groups (item 11).

Generalized exchange was promoted by Malinowski’s Kula Exchange in The Argonauts of the Western Pacific, and by studies of gift exchange with specified shells as the gift. Also, Richard Titmus in the The Gift Relationship (1997) describes the difference between exchanging blood based on it being a gift or being paid for the donation. It is also discussed in a rather ethnomethodological form in Josh Pacewicz’s Partisans and Partners (2016), though the gift relationship large resembles these other generalized exchange forms. In it, gifts can be used to benefit the whole community through philanthropy, but they also may serve to create patrimonial relationships. For example, consider the following:

In Chapel Hill in the early 2000s, an African-American nurse promises to buy her daughter a dress for the prom, but her choice at a reasonable price at the department store is deemed mundane by her daughter. The daughter complains to her grandmother, who has been an underpaid domestic for many decades to a prominent old and respected family. The grandmother mentions the specific dress that the young girl wants at the most expensive boutique in town, and the scion she works for says, “I know the owner of the store; I can talk to her.” The grandmother then tells her granddaughter that the dress has been marked down by 70% of the original price so that it is the same price as the department store dress. The mother reluctantly buys the dress for the ecstatic daughter, but angrily tells her mother (the daughter’s grandmother) that the scion has “underpaid you for years, and that this is exactly what keeps us in our place.”

Similarly, Josh Pacewicz (2016) shows how the old rich partisans made philanthropic gifts to keep town members in their debt, but these donations are small fractions of their total wealth. But on the other hand, the one large factory owner who does not give to the community was ostracized from society and politics.

            Restricted and generalized exchange relate to how generalized others are constructed. Most often, more distant others are in restricted exchange relationships. There is a bond but it is contingent on tit-for-tat exchange. Closer relationships like kin and close friends are more often in a generalized exchange relationship with a high degree of bonding in long-term relationships. However, there are some people who are always in the restricted exchange mode (e.g., what have you done for me lately?). Their generalized others will have fewer long-term relationships and rely on a constant influx of new exchangers. More recently, Monica Whitman (2021) has shown that a strong norm of reciprocity will have powerful effects leading to social trust and generalized exchange for the betterment of the group. However, a weak norm of generalized reciprocity (i.e., restricted exchange) will create weaker social bonds. We will refer to those who operate with more restricted exchange as opportunists in the next chapter on citizen selves.


Social Exchange in Symbolic Interaction with Bonding and Bridging Capital

            Social exchange theory and symbolic interactionism are often thought of polar opposites, and in some ways they are. However, in this book, I find that they can be profitably put together or synthesized. A major difference between the two concerns how strategic people can be. Following Goffman and bridging Mead and Athens, there seem to be two modes of behavior: (1) a general form of sociation where people generally intend to get along with each other as friends and associates, and (2) a strategic form of interaction that looks more like bargaining behavior where one has a sense of seeking specific monetary or other gains. The two types of behavior have two different types of exchange. In every day “go along with the flow” and follow established norms of proper conduct, citizens pursue a form of generalized exchange whereby the good of the community is pursued. This generalized exchange does not demand immediate payback and helping one may lead to them helping another so that the initiator of the exchange does not expect immediate payback. The other form of strategic exchange is much narrower in scope and as a result it is called restricted exchange. Social exchange is more generalized exchange as one might pursue in one’s family or friend network. More market exchange, often among strangers, is restricted exchange where one expects immediate payback. Or if the exchange is to take place over a long period of time, perhaps for loans and bond purchases, the arrangement is firmly structured with a contract that covers many different aspects of the exchange.

            Social networks of kin and association in social mobility settings can occur in different formats according to bonding and bridging capital. Here are four examples with disguised names except for the last one. First, Helen Hilton marries a musician who then becomes a factory worker. Her idea for social mobility is to work herself at the telephone company and maintain kinship and neighborly social relations. She informally entertains family and friends in a manner that reflects her idea of prevailing ‘respectable’ social norms of her community—nothing more and nothing less. Second, Beverly Johnson comes from an ethnic and lower-middle-class family and marries a man whose family has a prominent background. While her husband’s father dies soon after they are married, she entertains guests with the purpose of advancing her husband’s sales career in business machines. This involves two aspects of networking. Among her kin, she aims to keep the family together for over 50 years with parties with over 60 people. Among her husband’s business associates, it consists of being the “life of the party” and maintaining long-term friendships with business associates. While the women largely stay at home, the male members of this kin group help each other to gain high paying jobs within the same industry as her husband with one becoming quite wealthy. Eventually, they become upper-middle class by maintaining both their kinship and business ties by emphasizing positive family and business generalized others. Third, the eldest son of a middle-class family, George Wilson, becomes a personal injury lawyer and is quite successful. In one way or another, George convinces his three brothers and one sister to also become personal injury lawyers. The firm of Wilson and Wilson become quite successful, and eventually the younger brothers and two children who become lawyers then expand the business to six other states. Their motto, “Wilson and Wilson, For the People” dominates the airwaves on TV and the internet decrying the greed of insurance companies. They then become one of the largest legal firms in a 10 state area. And lastly, Joseph P. Kennedy was the son of a successful Irish businessman. Although Boston elites tended to discriminate against the Irish, some Irish social entrepreneurs become more powerful over time. Joseph married Rose Fitzgerald, the daughter of the then Irish Mayor of Boston. After a successful business and political career, he promoted his sons as politicians. Although the favored Joe Jr. died in World War II, Joseph Kennedy’s sons John F., Robert and Ted Kennedy had peak political careers. Rose Kennedy kept the family strongly united with frequent family gatherings (Patterson and Fagen 2020). One could make a similar comment about the Bush family as a political dynasty (Baker 2008). 

            Each one of these families utilized various aspects of generalized exchange in what they perceived as their social mobility prospects. All of the families used internal generalized exchange which can be referred to as bonding capital (Putnam 2000, 2020). Those families who engage in ‘bridging capital’ to go outside their kinship groups are even more successful in bringing their families more advancement in social mobility. Helen Hilton engaged in the least ‘bridging capital’ to higher social classes. Beverly Johnson combined bonding and bridging capital to maintain family solidarity and to advance her husband’s career (since the husband’s father died early, this limited greater bridging capital) both through the absence of the father and the tendency for widow’s sociality being restricted (i.e., there is no husband to promote and her lowered income makes the husband’s mother a bit downwardly mobile). And the Kennedy example, which of course is well known, shows how promotion can even lead to the Presidency of the United States.

This does not mean that all social mobility in families is tied to generalized exchange. There are also many examples of people gaining great wealth or political influence through more restricted exchange. For an auto example, Ford Motor Company has had many Ford family members running the company; however, General Motors has had only one Sloan in the form of  Alfred P. Sloan who had no children and his foundation operates on the East Coast. However, if a family member ignores his brothers and sisters, he will need to make up for “bonding capital” with an extensive focus on “bridging capital” to a higher social class. Generally, the talents or genius for bridging capital of a rising executive will need to be stronger than those rising through bonding capital in family promotion.[3] Also, similar processes can develop with a tight knit group of friends from high school or college. In network terms, these processes are more reliant on ‘strong ties’ than ‘weak ties’ (Granovetter 1973).


Inequality and Social Mobility in Symbolic Interactionism

Michael Schwalbe and five others present a theory of critical interactionism on how inequalities are created in society, and these can also be related to social mobility. They see four factors as being important in the creation of inequality: oppressive othering, boundary maintenance, emotion management, and subordinate adaptations (Schwalbe et al. 2000; Sandstrom et al. 2014: 46-47; Reynolds 1987). Oppressive othering penetrates the generalized other of Mead and indicates that people may promote or justify their positions in society by providing “looking glass-self” messages to others that they are inferior, inept, unworthy or otherwise inferior to themselves. The purposes of these oppressions are boundary maintenance processes to indicate that the oppressors belong to a superior group and the subordinates belong to a less worthy group. The whole process of oppressive othering is linked to highly charged emotions on the part of both the oppressors and the subordinates. And the subordinates react to oppressive othering in a number of different ways. All too often, the processes of the generalized other are portrayed as ‘supportive othering’ such as mothers and fathers interacting with their children in the socialization process. Oppressive othering has been largely ignored as a general social process though labeling theory comes close to it. However, I want to move Schwalbe et al.’s view of inequality further in the direction of social mobility.

      Schwalbe et al. (2000) provide a more nuanced view of oppressive othering by viewing different attributions with external and internal reactions from generalized others. This is presented in table 5.2 along with material from Jonathan Turner and Jan Stets (2004).

Reading across the table’s columns, the first three rows represent higher status persons, and the latter three rows are lower status persons. In row 1 (items 1, 2 and 3) high status persons who feel that their status is based on ability engage in self-justified othering where they are validated, and they develop powerful virtual selves. These people are very self-confident and quite connected. In row 2 (items 4, 5 and 6) high ranking people have largely inherited their rank by ascriptive principles and they rely on their traditional positions but may need to engage in defensive othering and internalization, In row 3 (items 7, 8 and 9), some people have high rank due to bias and discrimination and they are quite insecure and very much subject to downward mobility. In their fearful position, they intensify their oppressive othering through discrimination with high intensity and emotion. Their internalizations are highly manipulative and can often be violent because they are located closest to the boundary between high and low status, and they know it. They must struggle to keep their high status.

      In the bottom half of the table that describes low status, there are also three reactions. In row 4 (items 10, 11 and 12), people with low rank view their social position due to their lack of ability, and they engage in accepting the other imposed upon them by higher ranking people. They have deference and may have shame, but they seek to avoid these emotions by building negative subcultures where they are accepted with their deficiencies. In row 5 (items 13, 14, and 15) people may be of low rank because of accidents or bad luck. They largely do not see their bad luck as deserved but nonetheless “it is what it is.” They will often engage with higher ranked persons with cooperation and attempts at patronage and opportunism. They are not as subordinated as those with degraded status, and they may achieve some limited mobility. In row 6 (items 16, 17 and 18) lower status persons with perhaps certain abilities and talents that they themselves recognize view their low status as being due to discrimination and bias coming from higher status persons. They engage in counter-othering which is the angry rejection of the imposed reflected appraisals of high-status people that intend to demean and reject them. They actively construct a generalized other that recognizes their abilities and rejects oppressive othering, and they often will create positive sub-cultures among other low status but talented people that reflect their own more positive views (through ressentiment which was discussed earlier). Their chances of positive mobility are greater.

      This view of othering interacts with social mobility. The merit-based high-status persons and the low-skilled degraded low-status persons will most likely stay where they are in the social structure—one feeling superior and the other deferential. The middle category of high and low status persons could move up or down depending on the circumstances. But it is the high ranking but protected people and the low-ranking discriminated people who are the most likely to engage in social mobility conflicts. The merit-based elites may protect the less able elites, and the discriminated subordinates with abilities may encourage the deferential people with hope. These reactions will also relate to the processes of positive, negative, and neutral generalized others discussed in the previous section. The low-status people will have negative generalized others vis-à-vis the high-status othering persons. They will develop positive generalized others with the subcultures that they may produce. But again, the social mobility boundary is fought most between row 3 of the vulnerable high-status people, and row 6 of the discriminated against but talented low-status persons.

      Differentiating these relationships gives meaning to positive and negative types of generalized others in the social mobility process. One might say that this looks a bit like Robert Merton’s theory of deviance (1938); however, the big difference is that Merton focused on blockages that exist but said little about the motivation and process by which they are accepted or overcome, and nothing about the emotions that they generate. Schwalbe et al.’s (2000) view of blockages goes beyond Merton to state that higher elites impose oppressive othering on low status people through emotion, discrimination, and self-processes of internalization or counter-othering. Thus, the social mobility process is not just a reaction to blockages, but it is a creative process of external valuation through generalized others, and internal identification through self-processes. Thus, social mobility is not just achieving skills by merit, but it is also about “self-work” or “personhood” about countering and converting elite processes of oppressive othering with generalized others.

However, theories of political sociology cannot assume unrelenting social mobility for everyone since most social mobility is relational. This means that for those who go upward on the social scale, some will go downward. And downward mobility is much more painful than lack of mobility. Consequently, it is also important to focus on the higher status persons who are subject to downward mobility because they will also be highly defensive, resistant and even violent. As we have seen with the Trump-base, many of these people state “I want my country back” and “Make America Great again.” While one might self-righteously declare them as unjustified, they do not agree, and they are a political force to be reckoned with. In a sense, they are saying “I want my social mobility back” or “I don’t want others to be rising above me with their own social mobility.” On the other hand, those on the bottom may make the claim that upward mobility has no effect on others at the top, but relationally, this is not the case.

[1] I use exchange theory since it is better suited to my purposes than Collins’ rather short discussion of power and status rituals (2002: 111-114; 348-349). Collins’ theory is based on people being “unequal in their resources”, which links to power resources theory but he is a bit vague about the connection.

[2] Later on, Don Corleone does call in the favor to take care of a dead body using the man’s funeral parlor.

[3] In the profession’s literature, a particular profession often engages in a “professional project” to raise the status of the group as a whole. Medical doctors rising above homeopaths with the Flexner Report are a good example, but the process also applies to nurses seeking bachelor’s degrees to promote the status of RNs (Larson 1977; Abbott 1988). These are examples of generalized exchange through acquaintances rather than family. Further examples can be seen in the development of trade unions.