1. Introduction and Summary
Behavior: 1. Manner of conducting oneself in the external relations of life; demeanor, deportment, bearing, manners. ... 2. Conduct, general practice, course of action towards or to others, treatment of others ... 4. Handling, management, disposition of (anything), bearing (of body).... 5. transf. The manner in which a thing acts under specified conditions or circumstances, or in relation to other things.|
----The Oxford English Dictionary
Well, what does constitute social action or interaction? Is it simply behavior which involves people? Is it what we do to, towards, or with others? To answer such questions and understand the nature of a social act qua other kinds of behavior or events, we must examine the constituents of social acts, their foundation in our psychological field, and their characteristics, components, and patterns.
There are three constituents of social acts: agents, vehicles, and meaning. The agents are the actor and object of a social act, the one behaving and the other who is the object of that behavior; the vehicle is that physical condition, aspect, movement, or activity of the agents which has meaning for them. For example, the physical motion of scratching our head with our forefinger during a conversation is a vehicle conveying perplexity to another. The configuration of facial muscles and body postures are vehicles conveying happiness, sadness, surprise, and so on through the range of human emotions. And, of course, sound is a vehicle of language. Such vehicles only exemplify the obvious fact that physical objects are a medium of our sociocultural world. Traffic lights, a flag, a cross, a courthouse are all vehicles of meaning to us.1 I only mention this point to note that my use of the term vehicle extends beyond social interaction and embodies a fundamental characteristic of culture itself.
Besides agents and vehicles, meanings are a constituent of behavior.2 The relevant meanings stimuli can have were discussed in the previous chapters. In reference to behavior, there are the common or public meanings which interpret and define specific behaviors, such as sitting down, raising a hand, turning one's head, blinking, and so on. Then there is the complex of behaviors whose meaning constitutes a field of expression, a whole unified through the perception of intentions, causes, or reasons. This understanding of meaning provides a key to differentiating behaviors.
In sum, then, every "process of meaningful human interaction consists of three components, each component, in turn, being made up of many elements that determine its concrete forms. These components are (1) thinking, acting, and reacting human beings as subjects of interaction; (2) meanings, values, and norms for the sake of which the individuals interact, realizing and exchanging them in the course of the interaction; (3) overt actions and material phenomena as vehicles or conductors through which immaterial meanings, values, and norms are objectified and socialized" (Sorokin, 1969, pp. 41-42).
We take the position that the social sciences have to deal with human conduct and its common-sense interpretation in the social reality, involving the analysis of the whole system of projects and motives, of relevances and constructs.... Such an analysis refers by necessity to the subjective point of view, namely, to the interpretation of the action and its settings in terms of the actor. Since this postulate of the subjective interpretation is, as we have seen, a general principle of constructing course-of-action types in common-sense experience, any social science aspiring to grasp "social reality" has to adopt this principle also.|
----Schutz, 1953, p. 27
So far I have used the term behavior in a general and undifferentiated fashion. Behavior has involved any physical activity of ours, or lack thereof, such as a twitch, a yelp of pain, a conversation, a yoga position, a swim, or a smile. Even inaction can be behavior, as when a person fasts, ignores another, or remains perfectly still to avoid being heard.
The term behavior clearly subsumes a variety of activities that must be separated if we are to make useful sense out of social interaction and fields. First, behavior includes that which is directed by a our will, our conscious purposive or rational behavior, and our unconscious reflexes. A cry of pain, a sudden exclamation ("My God!), a twitch of an arm, a look of surprise, and so on are such reflex behaviors. Their meaning is entirely causal; they are simply the biophysical effects of some internal or external stimuli.
Now, let me put reflexes aside and deal with behavior directed by reasons or intentions, as exemplified in borrowing Mead's The Philosophy of the Act from the library. First, I leave my office and walk across campus to the library. Next, in the library I look in the card catalogue, find the correct stack and number, and search the proper shelves for the book. If it is there I fill out a card and take this with the book to the checkout desk so that the loan can be recorded. Finally, on leaving the library I show the book to a checker to prove that I have in fact borrowed it. Each of these activities is itself a cluster of determinable behaviors. Just the leaving my office phase of walking to the library involves getting up from my desk, moving around it, walking towards the door, closing it behind me, telling my secretary where I will be; and each of these activities again is separable into clusters of behavior. Simply getting up from my desk is a complex of coordinated and determinable separate movements.
Clearly, all these diverse behaviors are unified by "going to borrow a book." If someone asks what I am doing and I say "I'm going to borrow Mead at the library," no matter where in the process, my behavior at that moment makes sense to the other and he can predict my subsequent behavior to the point where I actually check the book out.
Consider another example. If anyone asks me what Joan is doing in cutting some meat on a plate in front of her at a restaurant, I will answer that "she is eating." But is she really? Is she not just cutting meat? Yes, at one level the complex of activities she is involved in comprises the behavior "cutting meat," and we could say that this was her intention. Yet, from the total field of expression consisting of Joan in a restaurant sitting at a table with food and implements before her and from the image she projects, we infer that the intention to cut the meat is really part of a whole intentional process we call eating.
We can therefore divide nonreflex behavior into two kinds: that associated with the process of achieving some intention and that describing the intention itself. As does Alfred Schutz (1967), I will call actions those behaviors leading to the accomplishment of some intention; the behavior describing the intention itself I will call the act. Thus, Joan's eating is the act, her cutting meat is an action; my borrowing Mead's book is an act, my leaving my office to do so is an action. Similarly, trying to get a college degree is an act, going to classes, taking exams, and so on pursuant to that degree are actions; weakening a government is the act, calling and going on a general strike are the actions; stabilizing nuclear deterrence is the act, the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks between the Soviet Union and the United States are the actions.
What is act and actions will of course depend on context. At the most comprehensive level, most behavior can be considered actions towards the act of achieving, maintaining, and enhancing self-esteem. This act itself integrates a variety of other intentions associated with roles, sentiments, needs, and attitudes. Thus, we can say that to develop our self-esteem we go to church, study for a college degree, and take a part-time job. Similarly, each of these separable acts unifies a lower cluster of acts, such as going to the library, buying Sunday clothes for church, and driving to work. Thus actions at one level of intentions can be acts at another. What is act and action depend on the perspective we as actor, social scientist, or percipient bring to bear on it:
"What are you doing?" we ask.
"Going to buy some steaks at the market," Mary responds.
"But I thought you couldn't afford steak."
"I know, but my husband got promoted and I want to celebrate."
"Well, I want him to feel good."
"Look, if I can't spend some money once in a while regardless of cost, what's life worth anyway?"
To this point I have argued that the meaning of behavior consists in whether it is reflex, action, or act; that is, in whether behavior is causal or intentional. What about following the rules of chess, shaking hands, putting a napkin on one's lap, deriving a mathematical theorem, standing up for one's rights, doing one's duty, and so on, which are behaviors explained by reasons? For these I will use the term practice.
Practice will refer to behavior that is customary, conventional, habitual, rule following, normative, or moral.3 One may ultimately construe such behavior as being controlled by will and thereby directed to doing what is right and proper. But generally such diffuse intentions are latent, to surface only if pushed by a "But, why are you doing this?" question. Rather, practice is usually routine, without thought. A bowl of soup and a cup of coffee are drunk differently because . . . , well, they are.
So far, then, our perspective is a dynamic field consisting of perceived situation, personality, expectations, and behavioral dispositions. And our manifest behavior is a resultant of the relationship between our personality and situation on the one hand, and expectations and behavioral dispositions on the other. This analysis is insufficient to define the social act, however, since behavior is too broad a concept, covering physical reflexes, habits, custom, actions, and so on. Therefore, behavior itself must be analyzed for the socially relevant distinctions that will enable me later to define the social act and social interactions.
First, behavior has been treated as any activity of ours or lack thereof. Second, such activity or inactivity can be meaningfully understood in four ways, corresponding to the meanings the perceived field of expression of another can have. These kinds of behavior and their meanings are laid out below.
- (causal meaning) that behavior which is the effect of some previous discrete event, such as a startled jump caused by a loud noise.
- (intentional meaning) that behavior describing some intention, aim, plan, and so on, such as campaigning for mayor.
- (intentional meaning) that behavior directed towards the achievement of some intention, aim, plan, and so on, such as giving speeches because one wants to be elected mayor.
- (rational meaning) that behavior which follows rules, custom, habit, norms, or morality, such as being honest because that is the right thing to do.
* Scanned from Chapter 8 in R.J. Rummel, The Conflict Helix, 1976. For full reference to the book and the list of its contents in hypertext, click book. Typographical errors have been corrected, clarifications added, and style updated.
1. "All sensory overt actions, material objects, and physical, chemical, and biological processes and forces used for the externalizing, objectifying and socializing of meanings are vehicles of meaningful interaction. As such they compose the third universal component of sociocultural phenomena. The schema of meaningful interaction is as follows: Subject A objectifies his meaning N in a vehicle X, in oral or written form; the vehicle X comes into contact with the appropriate sense organ of B and is perceived; and in the mind of B it is retransformed into the meaning N. Languages, both oral and written; gestures and pantomime; music and other meaningful sounds; paintings and sculpture; and such material objects as tools, implements, machines, weapons, clothing, buildings, monuments, cultivated fields, paved roads, and artificial dams--in brief, all material phenomena essential to the meaningful interaction of human beings--are vehicles of sociocultural phenomena" (Sorokin, 1969, p. 52).
2 . Using the term mentality to refer to that which endows "objective" social relationships with "color," "evaluation," and "qualification," Sorokin points out that: "Without this mentality these relationships do not and cannot have any social meaning or sense. Without it the relationships between the patient and the surgeon operating on him and between a knifer and his victim look alike. In their sociocultural sense, these two relationships are as different as they can be. 'Pure behavior' divorced from the mentality becomes a mere 'reaction' or 'motion,' devoid of any sociocultural meaning. The same can be said of all social relationships. For this evident reason, the phenomena of social relationships are always the phenomena of 'mentality' " (1957, p. 436).
3. By practice I also mean Weber's traditional type of behavior. "Strictly traditional behavior ... lies very close to the borderline of what can justifiably be called meaningfully oriented action, and indeed often on the other side. For it is very often a matter of almost automatic reaction to habitual stimuli which guide behavior in a course which has been repeatedly followed. The great bulk of all everyday action to which people have become habitually accustomed approaches this type" (Weber, 1947, p. 116).