Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction

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The study of every unit of social organization must eventually lead to an analysis of the interaction of its elements. The analytical distinction between units of organization and processes of interaction is, therefore, not destined to divide up our work for us. A division of labor seems more likely to come from distinguishing among types of units, among types of elements, or among types of processes. 

Sociologists have traditionally studied face-to-face interaction as part of the area of “collective behavior”; the units of social organization involved are those that can form by virtue of a breakdown in ordinary social intercourse: crowds, mobs, panics, riots. The other aspect of the problem of face-to-face interaction—the units of organization in which orderly and uneventful face-to-face interaction occurs—has been neglected until recently, although there is some early work on classroom interaction, topics of conversation, committee meetings, and public assemblies. 

Instead of dividing face-to-face interaction into the eventful and the routine, I propose a different division—into unfocused interaction and focused interaction. Unfocused interaction consists of those interpersonal communications that result solely by virtue of persons being in one another’s presence, as when two strangers across the room from each other check up on each other’s clothing, posture, and general manner, while each modifies his own demeanor because he himself is under observation. Focused interaction occurs when people effectively agree to sustain for a time a single focus of cognitive and visual attention, as in a conversation, a board game, or a joint task sustained by a close face-to-face circle of contributors. Those sustaining together a single focus of attention will, of course, engage one another in unfocused interaction, too. They will not do so in their capacity as participants in the focused activity, however, and persons present who are not in the focused activity will equally participate in this unfocused interaction. 

The two papers in this volume are concerned with focused interaction only. I call the natural unit of social organization in which focused interaction occurs a focused gathering, or an encounter, or a situated activity system. I assume that instances of this natural unit have enough in common to make it worthwhile to study them as a type. Three different terms are used out of desperation rather than by design; as will be suggested, each of the three in its own way is unsatisfactory, and each is satisfactory in a way that the others are not. The two essays deal from different points of view with this single unit of social organization. The first paper, “Fun in Games,” approaches focused gatherings from an examination of the kind of games that are played around a table. The second paper, “Role Distance,” approaches focused gatherings through a review and criticism of social-role analysis. 

The study of focused gatherings has been greatly stimulated recently by the study of group psychotherapy and especially by “small-group analysis.” I feel, however, that full use of this work is impeded by a current tendency to identify focused gatherings too easily with social groups. A small but interesting area of study is thus obscured by the biggest title, “social group,” that can be found for it.

November 18
Ravenio Books
Bartrand Byl

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