Symbolic Interactionism, The Self and Its Troubles 4 lectures ESSEX 2017




Spring Term January 2017: Symbolic Interactionism, The Self and Its Troubles: weeks 17-20


The lecturer for weeks 17-20 is Ken Plummer and the lecture is Monday 16:00-16:50 in TC2.12 + 13.

Ken is a (retired) Emeritus Professor in Sociology and is not usually around on the campus. He taught at Essex from 1975-2005. You can always talk with him immediately after the lecture. He can be contacted at; but please only do this if your tutor is unable to help you.


Lecture 12 – An Introduction to Symbolic Interactionism and the Self – Key Themes (week 17 Jan 23rd)

Lecture 13 – Making the Narrative Self and the Embodied Self: Telling stories about sickness bodies (week 18 Jan 30th)

Lecture 14 – The Intersectional Self: The Politics of Self (Week 19 Feb 6th)
Lecture 15 – The Generational Self/ The Digital Self: Historical Changes of the Self (week 20 Feb 13th
(Week 21 – Reading Week – no lecture)



Essay Two is due: Thursday 23rd March 2017  (week 25) by 1pm
You must upload your assignment(s) onto the Coursework Submission system at: by the deadline(s) published in this module outline.

The SC213 lecture is on Monday 16:00-17:00 in TC2.12 + TC2.13

The Course Director is Shaul Bar Haim and some classes are taken with Cathy Duxbury who is a GTA.  You should contact them with issues.

Questions for Spring Term


  1. Choose one of the theoretical approaches (or theorists) covered in the Spring Term of the module, and critically assess how useful it may be for you on researching some aspect of your life or a social issue that concerns you. You could include a research proposal incorporating a review of the relevant literature, the research question(s) and/or hypotheses, the planned research method (e.g. how to collect data and engage in analysis), any anticipated difficulties, and projected findings.
  2. Choosing two symbolic interactionists, discuss how they perceived the dynamic relation between the self and society.
  3. Critically assess Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social interaction by considering how it may be applied to an understanding of social encounters in a particular setting of your choice—e.g. classroom, doctor’s surgery, a job interview, social media, etc
  4. Critically discuss what is meant by the politics of self/identity? Use one major example (e.g. gender, class, ethnicity, religion, queer) to illustrate your discussion.
  5. Critically compare any two of the following versions of self:

(a) The Narrative Self
(b) The Embodied Self
(c) The Intersectional Self

(d) The Generational Self
(e) The Digital Self

  1. Trace the historical transformations of the self during the ‘Industrial Period’. What problems do you encounter in attempting such an exercise?




Symbolic Interactionism, The Self and its Troubles


In this four-week section of the course, we will inspect the tradition of symbolic interactionism in social psychology (often called the sociologist’s social psychology) and examine the ways it analyses the self. It will introduce key early thinking: from William James, Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead through to Erving Goffman. Central to all this will be the idea of ‘the self’. We will briefly go on to consider more recent developments that link it to storytelling, the body and illness, intersectionality, the politics of the self, and the changing nature of the generational self in the modern world including the idea of the digital self.


You should start by aiming to make sure you have some ideas about the key themes of interactionism and be aware of some of the main thinkers in this tradition (see worksheet 1).

1. Symbols, Meaning and Narrative
2. Others and Reactions

  1. Process, contingency, flow
  2. Intimate familiarity, fieldwork, life story, and grounded observation
  3. Pragmatism and Humanism – people, practicalities and values

The core concept will be that of the self, and the four key lectures will also focus on the (i) nature of the contemporary self, and its (ii) workings, (iii) development, (iv) transformations and (v) politics. It starts to provide us with a grounded social psychology of everyday life.  Each will bring a specific focus: (a) the nature of the self and its dilemmas (b) the self as story and narrative  (c) body, illness and self; (d) the politics of the self and intersectionality; and (e) generational social change and the emergence of new theories and new selves, including the digital self. And ultimately the course will keep re-raising persistent dilemmas: inner/outer; core/uncertain; holistic/fragments; determined /voluntaristic; stable/changing; essence/constructed.


General Reading


I do not suggest you purchase any books for this section of course, but use web sites and the library for research.
On symbolic interactionism, here are some general library texts to examine for relevant ideas

Joel Charon                                                   Symbolic Interactionism: An Introduction, an interpretation, an integration ( any edition: the 9th edition was in 2009)
John P Hewitt                                               Self and Society, 8th edition, 2002

Alfred Lindesmith, Anselm Strauss & Norman K Denzin Social Psychology 8th edition.


On the self, see

Anthony Elliott                                             Concepts of the Self 3rd edition (2013)

Erving Goffman                                           The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium          The Self We Live By (2000) Oxford
Anthony Elliott & Charles Lemert            The New Individualism 2006 2nd ed

Background Web Sites – look at:
The Symbolic Interactionist Tradition

A simple general introduction is


Society for the Study of Symbolic Interactionism:

This is really an organizational web site, only of passing interest to students starting out. But you could briefly look at it:



You might find some of the material on Ken Plummer’s web site to be of use in writing essays? The site is:

See especially on symbolic interactionism

I have extensive bibliographies on my web site. See:

On narrative research and critical humanism

On narratives and illness

Manifesto for Stories

Manifesto for Critical Humanism

On Transplant writing, see:




Week 17

An Introduction to Symbolic Interactionism and The Self: Key Themes


After some brief introductions, this week will explore the symbolic interactionist approach in social psychology. Associated initially with the ideas of William James, Charles Cooley, George Herbert Mead, it focuses on symbols and meanings, interactions – processes & flows, reactions and others. Human life is grounded in daily practical activities. The theory is a humanistic one –focusing upon human creativity and actions and highlighting human values: care, dignity, empathy, fairness. Its central concept is the self, seeing the formation of the self through processes of interaction. Herbert Blumer has been a major interpreter of Mead’s work and is often said to be the founder of the tradition, as he coined the term ‘symbolic interactionism’. We will detour into the work of Erving Goffman (who is not strictly a symbolic interactionist at all, but is often mistakenly classified as such); and introduce some of his linked ideas on dramaturgy and the presentation of self. Ultimately, how does this lead to contemporary concerns with empathy and our reflexive processes in everyday life? And indeed the rise of a critical humanism?


Key terms

Symbolic interactionism; action; meaning, symbol; self; I and Me; other; Generalized Other; role taking; empathy; reflexivity; dramaturgy; impression management; process; contingency; partipant observation; field work; life story research; critical humanism


Discussion Points

  • What are the key themes of symbolic interactionism?
  • Trace the emergence of symbolic interactionism.
  • Who am I? A test
  • Analyse the versions of self in the work of James and Mead
  • What is ‘the looking glass self”?
  • What is the I and the Me?
  • What is role taking?
  • What is empathy?
  • Is the self socially constructed?
  • What is the “dramaturgical self”?



On Symbolic Interactionism, see Ken Plummer A World in the Making:  Symbolic Interactionism in the Twentieth Century
This is a fuller version of the article published in Bryan S Turner ed  The Blackwell Companion to Sociology 2nd edition Blackwell  (2000)  Pages  193-222

The classic introduction is:
Herbert Blumer                                            Symbolic Interactionism
(And for an account of his work, see Plummer, in Stones, Key Sociological Thinkers).

For general background, see :

Nancy Herman & Larry Reynolds            Symbolic Interaction

Joel Charon                                                   Symbolic Interactionism, 7th edition 2000

John P Hewitt                                               Self and Society, 8th edition, 2002

Ken Plummer (ed)                                       Symbolic Interactionism Vols 1 and 2

Norman K Denzin                                       Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies
The original classics are:

George Herbert Mead                                Mind, Self and Society

William James                                               Principles of Psychology

Charles Cooley                                            Human Nature and Social Order Organization

For discussions of Mead’s work see:

Filipe Carreira da Silva                                G. H. Mead: A Critical Introduction

David Miller                                                  Mead: Self, Language and World


The Self

Some general tours and guides on the Self include

Anthony Elliott                                             Concepts of the Self 3rd edition

Ian Burkitt                                                     Social Selves

Steph Lawler                                                 Identity: Sociological Perspectives
Richard Jenkins                                            Social Identity
Susie Scott                                                     Negotiating Identity: Symbolic Interactionist approaches to identity
Kathryn Woodward ed                              Identity and Difference (1997: Sage)

Stuart Hall & Paul du Gay ed                     Questions of Cultural Identity (1996: Sage)


Going On Line
A very basic web site statement on the self is:


Look at the section on self in:


William James on the Self



George Herbert Mead:

Quick summaries can be found at:
You can find Mead’s Mind, Self and Society at:

Click to access bu000001.pdf


A Note on the work of Erving Goffman

A key figure in this tradition is often seen to be Erving Goffman, although he is not any kind of straightforward symbolic interactionist.  He focuses primarily on the day-to-day workings of the self, including issues of disclosure and secrecy. How are we to study everyday life and its shifting selves?


Goffman has written many books: we focus on the earlier ones:

Erving Goffman                                           The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life

Erving Goffman                                           Asylums

Erving Goffman                                           Encounters

Erving Goffman                                           Relations in Public


For commentaries on Goffman, see:

Greg Smith                                                    Erving Goffman (2006)

Charles Lemert &
Ann Branaman eds                                      The Goffman Reader

Thomas J Scheff .                                          Goffman Unbound!(2006) Paradigm

Jason Ditton ed                                             The View from Goffman

Paul Drew et al                                             Erving Goffman

Phil Manning                                    Erving Goffman

Susie Scott                                                     Making Sense of  Everyday life



Week 18 Making the Narrative Self and the Embodied Self: Telling stories about sickness bodies


This week will focus on three core themes linked to symbolic interactionism: how does the self develop? how we come to tell stories of this self? and how does the self becomes embodied? How do acquire a self? how do you tell the stories of your self, and how does this include your body?  The notion of narrative is becoming increasingly popular amongst sociologists, psychologists and social psychologists. We will discuss the problem of biography, text and narrative. The dynamics of ‘reading the self’ will be explored, and a social model of reading considered. You may be asked to write a very short ‘story of your life’; and you will hear the story of Ken Plummer constructing a story of his own ‘sick self’ and illness.  Hopefully you will come away from this week with a sense of how stories play a role in building the self and how the self becomes embodied. A number of dilemmas of narrative theory and self-theory will be raised for you to think about.


Key terms

Narrative, story, life story; auto/ethnography; embodiment; narrative medicine; moral career;


Discussion Points

  • How does the self develop?
  • What is Mead’s account of self-development?
  • What is the Narrative Self
  • Discuss the idea of ‘the stories we live by’ (Mcadam)
  • What is the Embodied Self
  • What is the case for and against ‘auto/ethnography’?
  • Consider any illness you have encountered and ask how narrative medicine might help you in understanding this.




See: Ken Plummer  (2012) “My Multiple Sick Bodies: Symbolic Interactionism, Auto/ethnography and Embodiment” in Bryan S Turner Routledge Handbook of Body Studies p75-93

And on line at:
On Transplant writing, see:

I also have extensive bibliographies on my web site.

On narratives and illness


Further Reading

The Narrative Self
James Holstein and Jaber Gubrium          The self we live by (2000) Oxford

Dan McAdams                                              Power, Intimacy and the Life Story

Dan McAdams                                              The Stories we Live By: Personal Myths and the Making of the Self (1993): Guildford

Gary Kenyon & William Randall               Restorying Our Lives (1996) Praeger

Norman Denzin                                           Interpretative Biography

Catherine K Riessman                                Narrative Analysis

Ken Plummer                                               Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to Critical Humanism

Ken Plummer                                               Telling Sexual Stories


The Embodied Self
A major recent area of interest has been the idea of the body and emotions. How do these link with the self? In this session we will take a major case study of health and illness to review these issues. A key focus will be the work of Arthur Frank. See his writings in:


Arthur W Frank                                          The Wounded Story Teller: Body Illness and ethics (1995) Chicago

Arthur W Frank                                           The Renewal of Generosity: Illness, Medicine and How to Live (2004) Chicago

Arthur W.Frank                                          At the will of the body: Reflections on illness Houghton Mifflin 2002


Going On Line See also:


Website of  Arthur W Frank :

Talking with him at a sociological meeting in 2014: see ttps://



Journal of Narrative Medicine is called  Intima: find it at


See Rita Charon: Honoring the stories of illness
Narrative Medicine

Rita Charon.                                                 Narrative Medicine: Honoring the stories of illness (2006) Oxford.

Arthur Kleinmann.                                      The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing And the Human Condition ((1988) Basic Books

Erving Goffman                                           Asylums (1961/Penguin:1968).

Stigma (1963/Penguin:1968)     Classics!


On Auto/ethnography (and illness)

Carolyn Ellis                                                 Final Negotations: A story of love, loss and chronic illness  Philadelphia: Temple University Press (1995) – classic early account and she is a leader in this field

Carolyn Ellis & Art Bochner                       Composing ethnography 1996 – series of essays ‘doing it’ Special issue: Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (Vol 35 No 4, August 2006)



Week 19 The Intersectional Self: The Politics of Self


In this week we will continue considering some ideas about symbolic interactionism and the construction of the self in more detail, continuing to link to how our stories and narratives become political and shape our politically aware selves. This often leads to a particular kind of politics known as identity politics. Marx introduced I really with his ideas of class-consciousness – and how a class became aware of itself. It has more recently been striking in feminism, race politics, religion, queer politics and postcolonial politics – and social movement politics much more generally. We will locate the general dynamics of some of this. This also raise issue of what might be called ‘intersectional politics’: the politics of class ( class identity) gender (feminism and the men’s movement), race  and ethnicity, queer /gay politics, disability politics, nationalist politics. Social psychology provides the basis for understanding contemporary political actions.


Key ideas

Self-reflexivity; moral career; epiphany; status passage; political selves and identities;  intersectionality; class consciousness; gendered self; racialized self; queer self; religious self; national self; subaltern; post colonialism.
Discussion Points

  • What is self-reflexivity?
  • What is intersectionality- who developed the idea and why?
  • How are identities created around class, race, gender, religion, sexuality, age, disabilities and nationalities?
  • What is the role of social movements in all this?
  • What phases might these go through?
  • What might be the value of ideas of career, status passage and epiphany?
  • How are identities become constructed around key political troubles such as class, race, gender, sexuality or nationhood?


Thinking about Intersectionality

A basic, short and straightforward introduction to the idea of intersectionality can be found at Intergroup resources at:

For more details
Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality: “I wanted to come up with an everyday metaphor that anyone could use”

Article at:
Justice Rising: moving intersectionally in the age of post-everything
Podcast at:

See also: Hancock, A. M. (2016).                Intersectionality: an intellectual history. NY : Oxford University Press.
Tracy Michelle                                              The Intersectional approach
Davis, Nira Yuval                                         The Politics of Belonging


Case studies?

There is a very wide range of material and resources that could be drawn upon here so I cannot really provide a useful reading list here. I suggest you make connections with your other courses – for example if you are studying social divisions, ethnicities, human rights, sexualities, gender or religion, you could make good links to the debates there.


For examples:
Joseph E. Davis ed (2002)    Stories of Change: Narratives and Social Movements
Ken Plummer (1995)           Telling Sexual Stories:  Power, change and social worlds Part 2

Kenneth Mostern (1996)     Autobiography and Black Identity Politics

Collins, Patricia Hill  (1999, 2001) Black Feminist Thought
Phillip Hammack & Betram J Cohler eds (2009) The Story of Sexual Identity: narrative perspectives on the gay and lesbian life course

Peter Nardi and Beth Schneider eds Social Perspectives in Lesbian and Gay Studies: A Reader.   see Parts 2 and 3 on Identities and Movements

Week 20: The Generational self/ The Digital Self: Historical Changes of the Self


This week will look at how the self might have changed through history – with a view to sharpening up how we understand what is going on today. Is there a new kind of self in the making? This focus upon the transformation of the self will move us from a presumed classical or traditional model of the self towards a distinctively different one in the modern period. It will ultimately pose the question as to whether selves and identities are shaped by generational cohorts and that each of these brings the potential, for misunderstandings, even conflicts. Each generation shapes new self forms , creating recently a world of postmodern identities, fragmented selves, individualized selves, maybe even narcissistic selves. Contemporary debates focus on newly emerging generational selves:  which will make us look at the consuming self, the mediated self, the celebrity self and, centrally, the digital self.


Key Ideas

Historical self; Generational self; Traditional, modern and postmodern selves; self identity; reflexive self; saturated self; individualism; narcissism; mediated self; consumer self; postmodernism; digitalism; digital self; cyborg

Discussion Points

  • What is a generational self?
  • Trace the historical transformations of the self during the ‘Industrial Period’. What problems do you encounter in attempting such an exercise?
  • What is a classical traditional self?
  • What is a modern self?
  • Is there a post-modern self?
  • What key social changes are bringing about changes in the human self?
  • How is celebrity and media changing the self?
  • How is consumerism and commodification changing the self?
  • How is digitalism changing the self?


Key possibilities reading for this week include:


Anthony Elliott & Charles Lemert            The New Individualism
Deborah Lupton                                          Digital Sociology
Sherry Turkle                                               Reclaiming Conversation
Danah Boyd                                                  Its Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens

Here are some of the classic writings that will help you understand what a Traditional self might look like:


David Riesman                                             The Lonely Crowd

Peter Berger                                                  The Homeless Mind

Richard Sennett                                            The Fall of Public Man

Christopher Lasch                                       The Culture of Narcissism

Roy Baumeister                                            Identity : Cultural Change and the Struggle for Self

Louis Zurcher                                               The Mutable Self


As modernity turned to postmodernity, or late modernity, identity once again became the topic of much analysis. For useful guides to all this, see:
Anthony Giddens                                        Modernity and Self-Identity
James Holstein                                             The Self We Live By
Kenneth Gergen                                          The Saturated Self

Eva Illouz                                                      Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, emotions and the culture of self help

Madan Sarup                                    Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World


On Generational Self, see:
Ken Plummer (2010) ‘Generational Sexualities, Subterranean Traditions and the Hauntings of the Sexual World: Some Preliminary Remarks’ Symbolic Interaction Volume 33, No 2 Spring 2010. P163-190    And on line at:

New Selves
Again the writing on new selves is vast. If you are studying  media or digital technology, you will be familiar with readings that you can bring to this section of this course. But as one example of the contemporary self-debate consider that of the Digital Self. Just how is the Internet, mobile phone and platforms like Twitter and Facebook, shaping our new self?

For reading here, see:

Deborah Lupton (2015)                               Digital Sociology, London: Routledge.
Deborah Lupton (2016)                               The Quantified Self

See also her website:

This Sociological Life at:
Shanyang Zao  (2005)                                  ‘The Digital Self ‘ Symbolic Interaction Vol 28, Issue 3, p387-405
is an early article that connects symbolic interactionism to the digital self. It can be found at:

Click to access Digital_Self.pdf

Sherry Turkle (2012)                                     Alone Together (2013)
Sherry Turkle (2015)                                    Reclaiming Conversation (2015) are leading recent texts on the ‘on line self’.
You can find interviews and summaries of her work on her web site at:
See also:
Cynthia Carter Ching, Brian Foley eds (2014) Constructing the self in a digital world
Bernard Harcourt (2015)                             Exposed : desire and disobedience in the digital age

Mary Chayko (2017)                                   Superconnected: the internet, digital media, and techno-social life
Danah Boyd                                                  It’s Complicated

Howard Gardener                                       The App Generation

Mizuko It et al (2013)                                   Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out
Lawrence Scott (2015)                                 The Four Dimensional Human

Back, L & N. Puwar (2013)                          Live Sociology, Sociological Review;June 2012p1-206

Carr, N (2011)                                               The Shallows: How the Internet is Changing the Way we Think, Read and Remember


Ken Plummer January 4th  2016

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