Encyclopedia of Sociology.  2007. London: Blackwell

Encyclopedia of Sociology.  2007. London: Blackwell

Microsociology, by Thomas J. Scheff

(Please note correction needed for my entry in the hardcopy version. In the first printing, the quotation from Milan Kundera, which should be four paragraphs long, was erroneously printed as only one paragraph. This error might lead to think the reader that I was plagiarizing the last 3 paragraphs. The publisher has promised me that the online version will be corrected immediately, and will also be corrected in the 2nd printing of the hardcopy version.)

The basic idea of a microsociology is to fill in the human detail that is missing from abstract representations of human beings and their societies. There have been three main approaches, the ethnographic, quantitative, and linguistic.

Ethnography fills in some of the details by close observations and reportage of behavior in context. One example is the study by Edwin Lemert of paranoia among executives in business organizations. By interviewing and observing only a few subjects, Lemert was able to make a signal contribution to the development of labeling theory.

Experimental studies  by Asch and others provide an important example of the use of the quantitative approach to show fine-grained aspects of context that influence conformity and non-conformity. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these studies was to show that a large minority of subjects are inappropriately influenced because of their blatant conformity.

Finally, discourse and conversation analysis of social interaction has demonstrated lawful regularities in linguistic sequences (such as questions and responses) that usually go unnoticed. Unlike the first two approaches, close readings of verbal texts reveals the otherwise invisible filigree that makes up the vital core of human relationships.

To this point, however, each of the three approaches is specialized to the point that important aspects are omitted. Ethnography is usually reported at the level of ordinary language, missing systematic observation and analysis of fine details. Quantitative studies are systematized, but leave out the details of context, sequence, and non-verbal components. Conversation analysis emphasizes system and sequence, but omits the link to the larger social context in which dialogue takes place. These omissions pose a crucial problem for sociology. How can we represent human reality in our studies?

In one of Kundera’s essays on the history of the novel he addresses the problem of accessing human reality (Kundera 1995, 128-129)

Try to reconstruct a dialogue from your own life, the dialogue of a quarrel or a dialogue of love. The most precious, the most important situations are utterly gone. Their abstract sense remains (I took this point of view, he took that one. I was aggressive, he was defensive), perhaps a detail or two. but the acoustic-visual concreteness of the situation in all its continuity is lost.

And not only is it lost but we do not even wonder at this loss. We are resigned to losing the concreteness of the present. We immediately transform the present moment into its abstraction. We need only recount an episode we experienced a few hours ago: the dialogue contracts to a brief summary, the setting to a few general features. This applies to even the strongest memories which affect the mind deeply like a trauma: we are so dazzled by their potency that we don’t realize how schematic and meager their content is.

When we study, discuss, analyze a reality, we ana­lyze it as it appears in our mind, in our memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting.

We can assiduously keep a diary and note every event. Rereading the entries one day we will see that they cannot evoke a single concrete image. And still worse: that the imagination is unable to help our memory along and reconstruct what has been forgotten. The present—the concreteness of the present—as a phenomenon to consider, as a structure, is for us an unknown planet: so we can neither hold on to it in our memory nor reconstruct it through imagination. We die without knowing what we have lived.

            How can a scientist or scholar capture reality, when we and the people whom we study usually cannot? As Kundera suggests, only the greatest of novelists, giants such as Tolstoy and Proust, have even come close, by reporting the evocative details of sight, sound, and context that we usually ignore or immediately forget.

            Kundera’s comments clarify and extend the Proustian quest, not only for the lost past, but for the lost present. Although most of Proust’s commentary concerns the recovery of the distant past, a few passages concern a past so immediate that it edges upon the present. For example, in the section called Within a Budding Grove, there is an incident in which the narrator, Marcel, finally meets Albertine, the girl he has been yearning for (and who later becomes the love of his life).

At first he is deeply disappointed with the meeting; the whole episode seems banal and empty; he and she both conventional and distant. However, that evening, as he reconsiders the meeting, he begins to remember the fine details of her gestures, facial expression, and inflections. She comes to life for him, in his “darkroom,” as he says, where he is able to develop the “negatives” of his impressions of her earlier in the day. By focusing on the details, he is able to regain a past so immediate that it points toward the possibility of recovering the present.

            Proust is still ridiculed for his seeming preoccupation with minutiae. A favorite jest is that it takes him fifteen pages to describe turning over in bed. This jest is a defensive maneuver, serving to protect the status quo described by Kundera.  Proust implies that the ability to recover even fleeting moments of the past and present are the sine qua non of the great artist: it is these recovered moments that breathe life into art.

            But why do we need the living present in the human sciences? Because it is needed to breath life into our enterprise also. Linking the minutia to larger wholes can restore human reality to the social sciences. This approach is a way of filling in the details of Proust’s method of “developing our negatives in our darkroom.”

Using transcripts or verbatim texts as data, one interprets the meaning of the smallest parts (words and gestures) of expressions within the context of the ever greater wholes within which they occur: sentences, paragraphs, the whole dialogue, the whole relationship, the whole culture and social structure. A central theme in the work of Spinoza was that understanding human beings requires relating the “least parts to the greatest wholes.” Microsociology proposes that this method may be carried out in disciplined program of inquiry.

Looking-Glass Self: Toward a Grounded Theory of Social Integration

Social relationships can be represented by two main dimensions, power and integration. Marx’s early work gave these dimensions equal attention, social class and rank representing power, alienation/solidarity, integration. But in his later work he focused almost entirely on the power dimension, leading to a huge gap in our understanding of social relationships. This essay suggests a path toward filling that gap.

The idea of the social bond can be seen as a way of representing integration in terms of alienation and its opposite, solidarity. The structure/process of actual social relationships involves mixtures of alienation and solidarity, and that the exact proportion can be determined through the analysis of verbatim discourse. The difficulty is that in order to carry out this program, one must enter a world that is all but forbidden in Western societies, the world of specific emotions and actual relationships.

Cooley (1922) provided an important step toward understanding social integration:


 "[The looking-glass self] seems to have three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his [sic] judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self]feeling, such as pride or mortification” (p. l84)

Cooley’s elements point to the basic components of social integration. The first two involve the imagination of the other’s view of self. The two elements combined can be called degree of attunement. The other component is made up of the emotional reactions that are real, not imagined, either pride or shame.

The first component, attunement, of “living in the minds of others, without realizing it,” as Cooley put it, is directly contrary to the very foundation of Western culture, violating the canon of individualism. Living in the minds of others implies that individuals, as well as being separate units, may also be united, at least momentarily, as a pair or member of a larger group. Although the idea of unity between two or more persons (collective consciousness) instead of separation is a staple in Eastern cultures, it is unacceptable to the extent of being taboo in Western thought.

Cooley’s focus on pride and shame is also a deviation. Western culture has at its center the embedded idea of the isolated, self-contained individual. The pride/shame component of social integration implies that our self-feelings are dependent on other people. For this reason, discussions of shame and its relatives are usually avoided, both in lay and social science discourse.

Goffman didn’t acknowledge his debt to Cooley, but his analysis of concrete examples led him to a deep exploration of the looking-glass self. Indeed, Goffman’s treatment of a large number of examples implies a fourth element. Cooley stopped at the third, with the experience of pride or shame. Goffman’s analyses, especially of impression management, imply a fourth step, the management of emotion.

Goffman had nothing to say about the pride option, but his examples suggest that actors usually do not accept shame/embarrassment passively. Instead they try to manage it, by avoidance, if possible. Most of the embarrassment/shame possibilities in Goffman’s examples are not about the actual occurrence of emotions, but anticipations, and management based on these anticipations. (In European languages other than English, the anticipation of shame/embarrassment is taken to be a shame variant, such as the French puedeur (modesty). This idea is expressible in English as “a sense of shame.”

Goffman’s examples further imply that if shame/embarrassment cannot be avoided, then his actors actively deny it, attempting to save face, on the one hand, and/or to avoid pain, on the other. It is Goffman’s fourth step that brings his examples to life, because it touches on the dynamics of impression and emotion management that underlie most moments of everyday life.

The Cooley/Goffman looking-glass self provides an underlying model of structure/process of social integration. Alienation/solidarity can be understood in terms of degree of attunement (Goffman called it mutual awareness), on the one hand, and the emotional responses that follow from it, on the other. Pride signals and generates solidarity. Shame signals and generates alienation. Shame is a normal part of the process of social control; it becomes disruptive only when it hidden or denied. Denial of shame, especially when it takes the form of false pride (egoism) generates self-perpetuating cycles of alienation.

Threats to a secure bond can come in two different formats; either the bond is too loose or too tight. Relationships in which the bond is too loose are isolated: there is mutual misunderstanding or failure to understand, or mutual rejection. Relationships in which the bond is too tight are engulfed: at least one of the parties in the relationship, say the subordinate, understands and embraces the standpoint of the other at the expense of the subordinate's own beliefs, values or feelings. The other is accepted by rejecting parts of one's self. In engulfed families, a child can only be "good" by blind obedience and conformity, by relinquishing its curiosity, intuition, or feelings.

This view of alienation is congruent with, and further develops, Durkheim's theory of social integration, which he derived from his study of the causes of suicide (1905). He argued that suicidal inclinations were generated by bonds that were too loose (egoism) or too tight (altruism). This theory extends Durkheim, by describing the microscopic components of this system, and also the structure of a secure bond, which Durkheim only implies, one that is neither too loose nor too tight.

            In this scheme, a secure bond involves a balance between the viewpoint of self and other. Although each party understands and accepts the viewpoint of the other, this acceptance doesn't go to either extreme: neither giving up major parts of one's own viewpoint out of loyalty (engulfment) nor discounting the others viewpoint (isolation).

The idea of balance leads to a crucial distinction between a secure bond (genuine solidarity) and an engulfed bond (blind loyalty). These two states are usually confounded in social science. Instead of seeing blind loyalty as a type of alienation (from self), it is seen as closeness. But the individual who is not attuned to self can’t be close (attuned) with anyone else either.

A second advantage is that this model of integration is grounded at both the interpersonal and the inter-group levels. The Kundrarian idea of the concrete reality of relationships can be implemented by close study of verbatim recordings at the interpersonal level, and by the close analysis of the texts of exchanges between leaders of groups at the collective level.

An example of dialogue between leaders of groups can be found in my analysis of the letters exchanged immediately before the beginning of World War I by the Kaiser of Germany and the Czar of Russia, and between the Kaiser the Prime Minister of England (Scheff 1994, pp. 82-84). Their letters betray some of the emotional bases of what turned out to be an unnecessary and ruinously destructive war.

The new version of microsociology proposed here can be applied both to interpersonal and societal interaction in a way that may afford a path to linking the least parts, words and gestures, to greatest wholes, abstract theories and social structures.


Durkheim, Emile. 1905. Suicide. London: Routledge. (1952).

Kundera, Milan. 1995.  Testaments Betrayed. New York: Harper-Collins.

Scheff, T. J. 1994. Bloody Revenge: Emotions, Nationalism, War. Boulder: Westview. (Re-issued in 2000 by iUniverse).

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