Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Interactionism is an approach to sociology that argues people act as a result of their interaction with other people.

explanatory context

Interactionism was an early and influential attempt in the United States to develop a science of sociology.


Of importance to this approach is W. I. Thomas' notion of the 'Definition of the Situation', which suggested that people define the world and their situation in it in order to make sense of it. Early interactionism, via the work of Thomas, involved a nomothetic view of sociology based on empiricism, but one mediated by a concern that mental capacities be incorporated. Individuals through 'attitudes' can transcend social 'values' and indeed transform these attitudes. Causal relations need to take account of this.


To understand the social phenomena one needs to be able to explore the structural determination of action and the social psychological. This may best be done by concentrating on the individual case and relating the biography to its social constraints as manifest in social values. Interactionists, such as Thomas, argue that the incorporation of meaning into the causal process is fundamental. Attitudes and values both effect social action. In order to attain social control through a knowledge of social laws then it is essential that the cause of a social or individual phenomenon should be sought in a combination with social and individual phenomena.


This interactionist analysis of social activity, using values and attitudes, implies an holistic approach involving the contextualisation of social problems. Interactionists were concerned with close scrutiny of larger social processes. This is at variance with the later developments in the qualitative tradition that tended to investigate group, rather than societal processes.


These early approaches to interactionism retained a commitment to a positivistic science. It aimed at hypothesis formulation, definition of social facts, establishing social laws, rigorous methodology, precision and the development of social theory via 'scientific generalisation'. The idea of the potential discovery of social laws (especially for the Chicagoans) was not a mechanistic analysis. Interactionists were opposed to the idea that social activity was caused mechanistically at either a personal or social level. Interactionism aimed at a 'value neutral' sociology, which while questioning social values made no attempt at a structural critique.


A more detailed account of the development of interactionism at Chicago is outlined in the entry on Chicago School

analytical review

Crossman (2013) described the interactionist perspective as follows:

The interactionist perspective is one of the major theoretical perspectives within sociology. It focuses on the concrete details of what goes on among individuals in everyday life. Interactionists study how we use and interpret symbols not only to communicate with each other, but also to create and maintain impressions of ourselves, to create a sense of self, and to create and sustain what we experience as the reality of a particular social situation. From this perspective, social life consists largely of a complex fabric woven of countless interactions through which life takes on shape and meaning.


Richard Schaefer (2017):

Interactionist perspective: A sociological approach that generalizes about fundamental or everyday forms of social interaction.

associated issues


related areas

See also


social disorganisation

symbolic interactionism

Researching the Real World Section


Crossman, A., 2013. 'Interactionist perspective', available at, accessed 9 March 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Schaefer, R. T., 2017, 'Glossary' in Sociology: A brief introduction, Fourth Edition, originally c. 2000, McGraw-Hill. Available at, site dated 2017, accessed 11 June 2017, not available 7 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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