Symbolic interactionism: Artful inquiry

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<ul><li><p>organizations, and communities [2,3]. Kobayashi shows that asuccessful quest to understand seppuku requires a full acquaint-anceship with three communities: the larger society and its</p><p>development of an intense fever. Motome who once scoffed atronin who feigned a desire to commit suicide sees no alternatives.Lacking the means to even pay a physician, he gambles that his</p><p>Patient Education and Counseling 73 (2008) 173174</p><p>lab</p><p>n</p><p>l seBushido code, a set of moral directives promoted by the inuentialsamurai class; the Iyi clan, proud of their martial skill and favoredby the Shogunate; and the ronin (unemployed retainers) of thelong-dissolved Fukushima clan seeking meaningful roles andaction in a community that considers them obsolete.</p><p>Interactionists afrm the methodological principle that scien-tic inquiry must be capable of reecting process, or change [2].Mechanical models of discrete human behavior do not capture theemergent and continually constructed nature of conduct and socialinteraction [3,4]. Images of biological aging, developmentalprogression, individual careers, and generic social processes are</p><p>request for a place to commit suicide honorablywill instead enablehim to obtain essential resources. In the penultimate scene,Tsugomo indicates that the coerced suicide was an act of Iyidishonor. Refusing to grant Motome a two-day reprieve to makearrangements that might save his dying wife and son andcompelling Motome to use a bamboo blade demonstrated theinhumanity and cruelty of the clan. Tsugomo also offers a secondand surprising interpretation of the seppuku. He interprets theson-in-laws suicide and the subsequent death of his daughter andgrandson as calls to join the family in the afterlife. He admits thathe lied about his intention to kill himself and laughs that he has cut</p><p>0738-3991/$ see front matter 2008 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.doi:10.1016/j.pec.2008.09.003Guest Editorial</p><p>Symbolic interactionism: Artful inquiry</p><p>This editorial is the rst in a series on different approaches to</p><p>qualitative methodology. James A. Forte is Associate Professor at</p><p>Salisbury University, Maryland, and has written extensively on the</p><p>theory and history of Symbolic Interactionism.</p><p>What is the meaning of a ritual act of suicide committed by ayoung samurai? This is the question that the lmmaker, MasakiKobayashi, investigates in his classic movie, Seppuku (also knownas Harakiri). For me, Kobayashi is a consummate symbolicinteractionist, and I will argue that his lm is a powerful andmoving portrait of a vulnerable family because of Kobayashisadherence to the same methodological principles that guidequalitative researchers.</p><p>Using a screenplay from the distinguished screenwriter,Shinobu Hashimoto (Ikiru, Rashomon, The Seven Samurai), thedirector carefully sets the context for the lms action. We areplaced in Japan in 1630. The Tokugawa Shogunate is consolidatingpower, disbanding all but a few clans, and enforcing peace. Tens ofthousands of samurai, retainers to the great clans, are nowunemployed, and prohibited by the communal codes fromaccepting work as menial laborers. Interactionist researchers alsosituate their topic of study in a particular context (cultural,ecological, and political) and historical time. Blumer, the interac-tionist who best articulated ourmethodological premises, assertedthat actors cant be understood independent of a contextualbackground including the world of objects, the sets of meanings,and the schemes of interpretation that they already possess(p. 20) [1].</p><p>For interactionists and the director Kobayashi, another criticalelement of context is community membership. Human life isinherently social [1], and actors guide themselves, individually andcollectively, by the symbol systems and interpretive processescentral to their salient memberships and learned through socialexperiences in signicant relationships, small groups, formal</p><p>Contents lists avai</p><p>Patient Educatio</p><p>journa l homepage: www.emore apt [5]. Kobayashiworks backward in revealing the processesleading to the destruction of the Hanshiro family. The father,Tsugomo Hanshiro, arrives at the court of the Iyi clan, and requestssupport for his last act, suicide. The clan counselor recounts rst atale of another ronin, Motome, who had recentlymade an identicalrequest. In ashback narrated by the counselor, we see the clandemand that Motome proceed with the suicide and the act iscompleted gruesomely. Motome has only a bamboo blade fordisemboweling himself and must bite off his tongue to end theagony and bleed to death. After hearing this story, Tsugomo revealsthat Motome was his son-in-law. Tsugomo then makes use of thecontemporary rules of etiquette, and persuades the assembledhouse of Iyi to listen to his familys story. In a second ashback,Tsugomo narrates the details of the Tsugomos family decline infortune and status (eviction, continued unemployment, and sale ofvaluable possessions) followed by the physical decline ofTsugomos daughter and grandson, and by Motomes misguidedand fatal steps toward securing the services of a doctor.</p><p>Interactionists study the conuence of symbols and interac-tion. Generally, actors act according to the meanings assigned toobjects composing their worlds [6]. Therefore, most socialinteraction is symbolic. The researcher assumes a doublehermeneutic role [3] and endeavors to interpret actors whothemselves interpret the objects in their world. Group life is madeintelligible and the veil covering the subjects interpretations ofevents, objects, and persons is lifted [1,2]. In three importantscenes, Kobayashi reveals the varied meanings assigned toMotomes act of seppuku. In an early scene, the clan counselorconfers with his three lieutenants. They agree during thisinteraction to demand thatMotome carry out his stated intentions.His suicide will be a message to other beggars that the Iyi clan willnot yield to extortion and give money as a way to avoid unseemlysuicides. A second scene starts with the Hanshiro childs</p><p>le at ScienceDirect</p><p>and Counseling</p><p>vier .com/ locate /pateducou</p></li><li><p>off the topknots (hair fasteners symbolizing samurai masculinity) sensations, fear of long-lasting pain, confusion about how</p><p>Editorial / Patient Education and Counseling 73 (2008) 173174174of the three lieutenants before he came to the courtyard. This is ahumiliation to the clan worse than the killing of the lieutenants.Tsugomo also announces that he intends to die ghting not by hisown hand. He kills four Iyi warriors, wounds eight other retainers,and topples the statue of their samurai warrior acts symbolizingthe hallow claims of the Iyi clan to martial valor. They can barelysubdue a starving and old ghter, and the clan must use ries notswords to kill Tsugomo.</p><p>Articulating another methodological principle of interaction-ist research, Tsugomo chastises the clan for harshly judgingMotome without any effort to take his position and understandhow hunger and poverty could drive even a samurai to betray thecode of conduct prized by his group. The researcher like the judgemust engage in taking the role of the acting other [2] andview the world from the subjects point of view [2]. Byimaginatively entering into the perspectivewhich instigates andguides the other in acting and grasping what is subjectivelyintended by the actor [6], the interactionist scientist increasesthe close, deep, and intimate contact with symbolic interactionnecessary for accurate understanding. The director Kobayashiapplauds the interactionist strategy for gaining interpersonalknowledge. Through his character Tsugomos words, the directorcondemns the authoritarian and compassionless leaders of the Iyipower structure for its decit in the area of sympathetic roletaking.</p><p>Social science, Blumer wrote is an approach designed to yieldveriable knowledge of human group life and human conduct(p. 21) [1]. The rst methodological principle of interactionistscience is Respect the nature of the empirical world andorganize a methodological stance to reect that respect [1].Humans are distinctive in their symbol creating and symbolusing capacities. Therefore, the study of any aspect of human liferequires a methodology radically different from that used by theadvanced physical sciences. Interactionism offers a methodol-ogy that captures the qualities (immediacy, complexity, unique-ness, and symbolic mediation) of lived experience.</p><p>It may seem odd that I have presented a lm as an exemplar ofthis methodological approach but Kobayashis brilliant linkage ofthe Hanshiro familys troubles to societal transition in 17th centuryJapan and to the particulars of communities governed by a samuraiethos, his thick description of the social processes associated withstatus degradation, his detailed and multi perspectival analysis ofthe symbolic meaning of public suicide, and his call for justicetempered with the compassion and decency obtained throughverstehen summarize well the basic tenets of the interactionistapproach to artful scientic inquiry.</p><p>In two papers in the current issue of Patient Education andCounseling the symbolic interactionist approach is illustrated. InListen to your body, Fredriksen, Moland, and Sundby use aninteractionist research methodology to study pelvic girdle pain(PGP) and its meaning to Norwegian pregnant women [7]. Reportsof subjective experiences of pain are inherently ambiguous, andthe researchers explore how women participate in web-mediatedand mutual aid interaction processes to make sense of bodilysensations. The researchers place the womens search for inter-pretive clarity in the context of a health care system providingconictingmessages about the reality and health risks of PGP and aworkplace and family culture expecting womeneven whenpregnantto carry a double workload. From the qualitativeanalysis of 1650 contributions by participants in online discussiongroups, themes of uncertainty about how to label new bodilymuch discomfort should be tolerated before seeking specialprivileges, and the skeptical and infrequent acknowledgementof the pain by healthcare professionals emerged. In a concludingdiscussion, the researchers relate the interpretive dilemmas ofpregnant women with pelvic girdle pain to gender inequality andto medically inuenced discourses of normality that slightwomens own denitions of their bodily experiences. The researchsuggests how policy reform in the medical arena might be guidedby qualitative research and the intimate familiaritywith the healthand illness meanings of pregnant women resulting from the studyof their symbolic interaction. I would add that this research mightalso guide the leaders of online and face-to-face mutual aidcommunities as these leaders attempt to appreciate the perspec-tives of members trying to make intelligible hard to dene orsocially contested physical conditions.</p><p>Verdonk and her colleagues provide an excellent example of theuse of symbolic interactionism theory and methodology forunderstanding the workplace challenges faced by women report-ing mental health symptoms [8]. The structural symbolic inter-actionist framework and the literature on role identity, roleconict, andwork-related problems are carefully summarized. Theresearchers interview a purposive sample and use a set of questionsto explore the participants illness, sickness absence, and return toemployment. The study presents a grounded theory of the phasesof work-health reconciliation. These phases include: starting acareer; the emergence of stress related to conict between workroles and other roles; reporting sick as a strategy to manage roletensions and negative self images; the reconstruction of newmeanings for life goals and careers; and renewed efforts to returnand succeed in the workforce. The phase theory is richly illustratedwith quotations. Verdonk et al. amplify their theory by discussingthe factors (personal values, degree of isolation, gender-basedlifestyle preferences, and national policies) conditioning womensattempts to make sense of and cope with their health troubles asthese interact with the performance of work roles. The studyconcludes with sickness-management recommendations for therolepartners (employers, counselors, andphysicians) of temporarilydisabled women.</p><p>References</p><p>[1] Blumer H. Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall; 1969.[2] Denzin, NK. The research act: a theoretical introduction to sociological meth-</p><p>ods. Chicago: Aldine; 1970.[3] Prus R. Symbolic interaction and ethnographic research: intersubjectivity and</p><p>the study of human lived experience. Albany, NY: State University of New YorkPress; 1996.</p><p>[4] Athens LH. Blumers method of naturalistic inquiry: a critical examination. InDenzin NK, editor. Studies in symbolic interaction. vol. 5. Greenwich, CT: JAIPress; 1984. p. 24157.</p><p>[5] Denzin NK. The logic of naturalistic inquiry. Social Forces 1971;50:16682.[6] Baugh Jr K. The methodology of Herbert Blumer: critical interpretation and</p><p>repair. NY: Cambridge University Press; 1990.[7] Fredriksen EH, Moland KM, Sundby J. Listen to your body A qualitative text</p><p>analysis of internet discussions related to pregnancy health and pelvic girdlepain in pregnancy. Patient Educ Couns 2008;73:298304.</p><p>[8] Verdonk P, de Rijk A, Klinge I, de Vries A. Sickness absence as an interactiveprocess: gendered experiences of young, highly educated women with mentalhealth problems. Patient Educ Couns 2008;73:30511.</p><p>James A. Forte</p><p>Department of Social Work, Salisbury University,</p><p>Salisbury, MD, United States</p><p>E-mail address: jamesforte@mac.com</p><p>14 September 2008</p></li></ul>

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