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Ritzer: Contemporary Sociological Theory Book Cover
Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics, 2/e
George Ritzer, University of Maryland

Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life

Chapter Overview

Chapter 6 - Overview

Contemporary Theories of Everyday Life

This chapter deals with the way that contemporary sociological theorists have described aspects of our everyday life. It examines concepts from early symbolic interactionism, delves into dramaturgy, describes ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, and introduces the social exchange and rational choice theories of human behavior.

Symbolic Interactionism

Following Mead, symbolic interactionists believe that the task of sociology is to study the ways in which interaction, and the symbols involved in it, shape selves and social life. Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) introduced the idea of the looking-glass self. He argued that we use other people as “mirrors” to determine whether we are in fact the kind of selves that we believe ourselves to be. Intimate face-to-face groups that Cooley called primary groups are very important to the development of self. These provide a link between the individual and the social by instilling group values in the self. Cooley also introduced the methodological idea of sympathetic introspection to argue that, in order to understand the operation of mental processes, sociologists needed to place themselves in the minds of those being studied. Robert Park (1864-1944) further developed this technique by promoting the method of fieldwork. In fieldwork, the sociologist goes into the field to observe people in their everyday activities.


Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was a symbolic interactionist whose most recognized research extended the understanding of the self by using a dramaturgical metaphor. Following early symbolic interactionists, Goffman argues that the self is torn between the desire to act spontaneously and the desire to follow social expectations. According to the dramaturgical metaphor, individual attempts to follow social expectations are best understood as dramatic, or theatrical, performances. In these performances individual actors strive to convince others that they are indeed consistent and stable selves who play their social roles well. Extending the dramaturgical metaphor even further, Goffman argues that the social world is composed of front stages, back stages, and regions outside of either the front or back stage. The front stage is the social region where fixed, and socially recognizable performances unfold. The backstage includes spaces where performers are not observed by their audience and, as such, performers can reveal facts and engage in actions that might otherwise undermine the integrity of a front-stage performance. Outside regions are those regions that are neither a front nor a back. They are irrelevant to the performance. Although much symbolic interactionism emphasizes the creative role that individual actors play in interpreting and constructing their social world, Goffman also argues that front stages can become institutionalized and thereby impose roles and expectations upon individuals. This introduces an important structural element to Goffman’s symbolic interactionism.

Much of the activity in everyday social life includes efforts to present idealized images of self to others in front-stage performances. The attempt to maintain an ideal performance and to correct for threats to that performance is called impression management. One impression management technique is called mystification. In these cases, performers restrict the contact between themselves and their audiences in order to limit the chances that audiences will recognize errors in their performances. Finally, even in those cases where errors are evident in an actor’s performance, audiences regularly overlook or explain away these errors in order to keep the illusion of the performance alive. As such, Goffman underlines the symbolic interactionist point that social life is not merely composed of the actions of individuals, but depends upon the cooperation of teams of individuals.

Goffman also developed the concepts of role distance and stigma. Role distance describes the degree to which individuals separate themselves from the roles that they play. The term stigma describes the situation in which there is a gap between what a person ought to be and what a person actually is in social life. People are stigmatized when they are not able to play the social roles assigned by a society. For example, people who have lost their noses are not able to maintain the ideals of beauty that are generally expected in North America. While much of Goffman’s work on stigma describes the way that people with obvious stigma try to manage or hide their stigma, he also suggests that all people are stigmatized at some time and in some setting.

Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis

Harold Garfinkel (1917- ) is the founder of a field of study called ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology is a theory that describes the variety of techniques that people use to understand, and make their way through, everyday life. One of the ways that people make sense of their lives and relationships to others is through accounting practices. These are the various ways in which people justify or make sense of their actions to themselves and others. Ethnomethodologists argue that accounts are reflexive, which means that by offering accounts of ourselves to others, we also change the situation and the possibility for interaction within that situation. Ethnomethodologists have also used breaching experiments to understand the way that people construct social reality. In these studies, ethnomethodologists engage in activities that violate the taken-for-granted assumptions of everyday life, and watch to see how other social actors repair or reconstruct the breach in the social fabric. These studies show how people order their everyday lives and how they cope with challenges to that everyday order. Garfinkel has also shown how the presumably natural category of gender is socially constructed. In his interviews with Agnes, Garfinkel learned that gender is a social accomplishment that requires constant attention to the commonplace practices that allow people to pass as men or women.

Exchange Theory

George Homans (1910-1989) developed an exchange theory of everyday behavior that grounded itself in the propositions of behaviorist psychology. Homans was a psychological reductionist, which means that he believed that sociological phenomena could be explained through the more basic principles of psychology. In particular he drew on the behaviorist theory of operant conditioning to argue that individual behaviors are learned when particular behaviors are reinforced through interactions with the environment. Psychological behaviorists, such as B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), studied pigeons or rats in interaction with their environment. In contrast to Skinner’s study of individual behavior, Homans was interested in what is called reciprocal behavior. He studied the way that human beings interacted with one another and, in particular, the way that the activities of two or more people reinforce or punish the behaviors of others. Despite his interest in interpersonal interaction, Homans believed that sociology did not need to invent new theories to understand social interaction. Rather, by extending basic behaviorist propositions, he argued that he could explain all social behavior. These propositions underlined the importance of concepts such as response generalization, stimulus discrimination, reward, punishment, cost, and profit to the understanding of everyday behavior. In short, Homan’s theory views the actor as a rational profit-seeker who is conditioned to seek particular rewards over others.

Rational Choice Theory

James Coleman (1926-1995) was very influential in the development of rational choice theory. Not unlike Homans’s exchange theory, Coleman’s rational choice views the individual as a rational profit seeker. However, where Homans’s theory is rooted in behaviorist psychology, Coleman’s theory is rooted in neoclassical economics. Rational choice theory assumes that people act purposively in order to maximize individual goals. Actors’ efforts to achieve these ends are constrained by two factors. First, some actors have greater access to resources than others. As such, individual behavior is based on the calculations that people make as they try to balance their access to resources against the opportunity costs that are involved in trying to realize certain ends over others. Second, individual action is constrained by the social institutions that restrict the choices that people can make in achieving their ends. These choices are also shaped by the kinds of information to which individual actors have access. Coleman argues that rational choice theory provides a potential bridge between microsocial behaviors and macrosocial structures. Although his focus on the choices made by individual actors makes Coleman a methodological individualist, Coleman argues that the aggregate behavior of individual actors leads to the emergence of systems of action, or social structures. In other words, the individual effort to maximize personal gains creates social structures that condition the kinds of choices individual actors are able to make.