Social Attitudes and Nonsymbolic Interaction

Herbert Blumer
University of Chicago

My chief interest in this paper is to treat in a more conspicuous fashion one phase of social attitudes and of their development that is usually ignored or given but minor consideration. I refer to their affective nature as set apart from their ideational content or symbolical character. In the usual discussions where some attempt is made to analyze the nature and, so to speak, to describe the structure of social attitudes, attention is given primarily to the symbolic character. In regarding the attitude as an orientation on the part of the individual, as a "set" of his musculature, as a tendency to act in a given way, or as an incipient preparation to a scheme of conduct, there is usually an implied emphasis on the meaning of the object or situation to which the orientation is had. It does not matter whether the "meaning" is lodged in the structure of nerve and muscle, as the physiologically minded incline to believe, or in a set of images or mental constructions, or in the object. The point is that the attitude as usually depicted represents a plan of action dependent upon the meaningful character of the object or situation toward which it is directed. As such the "symbolical" character of the object incorporated in the attitude as a plan of action receives the stress; the affective nature of the attitude is ignored or given minimal attention.

This point stands out more clearly in the treatment given to the way in which the social milieu enters into the formation of an attitude to give it its social character. This treatment usually is expressed in the declaration that the social milieu "defines" the relatively unformed activity of the individual. The responses of others to one's own activity are regarded as signifying the

( 516) line along which that activity may go. Here the thought is that these responses of others give the individual primarily a "realization," "interpretation," or "meaning" which represents the way in which the object of his act is socially interpreted and the way in which that object is likely to be construed on subsequent occasions. Hence the individual's attitude or approach to that object becomes organized on the basis of the symbolic character of the object as that has been outlined by the acts of others. To view the formation of attitudes in this way is not, in my judgment, intrinsically wrong, but it does tend, as remarked above, to emphasize the symbolic feature and to minimize the element of feeling.

It is this feeling side of the attitude that I wish to single out for consideration. I regard feeling as being intrinsic to every social attitude, and, as such, as differentiating attitudes from other types of orientation which in terms of definition would be regarded as attitudes by many writers. Common usage seems tome to carry an implicit recognition of the affective element. Thus we speak of attitudes toward such objects as parents, country, races, groups, and professions. Sentiments and feelings are involved in the relations to such objects. Contrariwise, we do not speak ordinarily of an attitude to such things as, let us say, pencils, chairs, or doorknobs. Certainly, to such objects people in our culture have defined ways of acting represented by tendencies, muscular sets, or orientations. But in common parlance such sets or tendencies are spoken of as attitudes only when they are marked by some feeling. Thus a person may dislike to use pencils, or an Oriental may have an aversion to chairs which he finds it torturesome to sit in. In these instances, one would, I think, immediately speak of attitudes. An affective element has entered in. It is the presence of this element which seems to justify one in speaking of a given orientation or activity tendency as an attitude.

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In the theoretical discussions of the nature of attitudes there is, of course, plenty of declaration that attitudes may be marked by strong feelings, and most of the testing devices, as I am familiar with them, proceed on the assumption of the presence of this character. Yet the general tendency is to think of feeling as an ex parte element which may be added to certain attitudes but which is absent from others; the essential part of the attitude is held to consist in its orientation, in the implied symbolic content determining its direction. Such a view I believe to be wrong. Feeling is intrinsic to every social attitude—it is not to be treated as an additional element fused into some symbolic structure which is to be regarded as central to, or as the corpus of, the attitude.

I am not concerned here with any serious effort to consider the peculiar role or function of the feeling or affective side of the attitude. I believe, however, that this role is quite important. It seems that it is the affective element which ensures the attitude of its vigor, sustains it in the face of attack, and preserves it from change. Common usage seems to have caught this recognition and given it expression in the popular realization that to change a person's attitudes one must change his feelings.

My purpose, then, is to call attention to two phases of attitudes : (I) a symbolic aspect represented in the specific direction of the tendency, and (2) an affective aspect assuring the attitude its liveliness, its movement, its vigor, and its tenacity.

This affective aspect of the attitude is not only slighted in definition—it has not been given due consideration in the discussions of the process of interaction out of which attitudes arise. Here again the treatment has been weighted heavily on the side of the symbolic content, stressing the formation of the attitude on the level of communication; i.e., in terms of definition or of the conveying of a meaning. Such treatment has not given proper recognition to the fullness and diversity of what

( 518) takes place in interaction, and so has yielded, in my judgment, only a partial statement of what is involved in the formation of attitudes.

While we have only limited knowledge of what occurs in the interaction between human beings, I think one can recognize that the process has at least two levels, levels which perhaps represent extremes, with different admixtures of the two in between. I prefer to call the two levels the symbolic and the non-symbolic. Little need be said here of symbolic interaction, since this is the one phase of interaction which has been given a great deal of treatment in the literature, although with results that are none too convincing. It is usually what is considered under the rubric of communication where that term is used carefully and with circumspection. Suffice it to say that on this level individuals respond to the meaning or significance of one another's actions. The gesture of the other is subject to interpretation which provides the basis for one's own response. We may say, roughly, that at this level of interaction the stimulus-response couplet has inserted a middle term in the form of interpretation which implies some checking of immediate reaction, and leads, as suggested, to directed response upon the basis of the meaning assigned to the gesture.

Interaction on its nonsymbolic level operates, in my judgment, in an intrinsically different way. It is marked by spontaneous and direct response to the gestures and actions of the other individual, without the intermediation of any interpretation. That there is involved a lively process of interaction of this sort when people meet is, I think, undeniable, although it is difficult to detect. People are unaware of this kind of response just because it occurs spontaneously, without a conscious or reflective fixing of attention upon those gestures of the other to which one is responding.

It is this nonsymbolic phase of interaction that should be con-

( 519) -sidered with reference to the formation of the affective element of social attitudes. It is from this type of interaction chiefly that come the feelings that enter into social and collective attitudes. They arise from the unwitting, unconscious responses that one makes to the gestures of others. To state this point is one thing; to prove it, another. However, I believe a good case can be made for the assertion, and an appreciation of its validity can be given, by considering the phenomenon of impression, especially the formation of first impressions. It is a familiar experience in meeting people for the first time to discover in one-self immediate likes or dislikes, without any clear understanding of the basis of these feelings. Something in the form of a spontaneous and undirected response has taken place, establishing a feeling and providing a basis for one's judgment. Even when one can give some explanation of his feelings in terms of traits of the others, most frequently the designation of the traits follows the having of the feeling. Seldom, I think, in the give and take of social intercourse, is the having of impressions dependent upon a prior analysis of the symbolic value of the other's traits. An individual who approached all his social relations solely on the premise of such a preliminary analysis would, I think, be exceedingly awkward in making adjustments, assuming that he could get along at all. The very nature of first impressions seems to me to point to their immediacy.

There is presupposed here a direct and spontaneous response to others which analysis can show more easily to be unwitting than to be conscious. Such impressions, it should be remarked, are not trivial. That they provide the immediate bases for the direction of conduct is clear; that they are less readily changed than formed I think will also be found to be true. Their consideration suggests that it is probably the organization set up by unwitting response which is the foundation of social attitudes; it is such organization that has to be changed if any significant alteration is to be made in these attitudes.

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This suggested relation of the affective aspect of social attitudes to nonsymbolic interaction invites further analysis. On its stimulus side nonsymbolic interaction is constituted, I believe, by expressive behavior; i.e., a release of feeling and tension, to be distinguished as different from indication of intellectual intention, which properly comes on the symbolic level. Expressive behavior is presented through such features as quality of the voice—tone, pitch, volume—in facial set and movement, in the look of the eyes, in the rhythm, vigor, agitation of muscular movements, and in posture. These form the channels for the disclosure of feeling. It is through these that the individual, as we say, reveals himself as apart from what he says or does. Expressive behavior is primarily a form of release, implying a background of tension. It tends to be spontaneous and unwitting; as such, it usually appears as an accompaniment of intentional and consciously directed conduct.

There is, I think, common recognition that expressive gestures are especially effective in catching attention and creating impression. Stripped of expressive features, the act of the other person is not likely to incite or inspire, is missing in dramatic qualities, and requires some coercion of attention in order to be held before one. All of us have had experience with discourse whose symbolic content may have been of intrinsic merit but which failed to gain attention and failed to make an impression. Likewise, to take a contrary example, we are all familiar with the speaker, orator, or lecturer whose display of interest and enthusiasm, whose use of dramatic utterance, and whose lively play of expressive gesture all combine to overshadow a meager symbolic statement. It is the overtone of expressive gesture which makes the stimulation fascinating and effective.

Expressive gestures seem to enjoy a special uniqueness in gaining ready and immediate responsiveness. Speaking metaphorically, one might declare that human beings are delicately

( 521) attuned to one another on the level of expressive behavior. They seem to be especially sensitive to such display on the part of others. Expressive behavior exerts a claim on one's attention; to ignore it usually requires some act of decision, some justification to oneself as to why one' does not attend to it.

The peculiarity of nonsymbolic interaction, then, is that on the side of both stimulus and response it is spontaneous, direct, and unwitting, and that it operates between the parties as a rapid and especially facile channel peculiarly congenial to human beings. Because it is expressive on one side, it is likely to be impressive on the other. The disclosure of affective states on the one side seems to arouse and influence feelings on the other side.

It is my belief that it is just this nonsymbolic phase of interaction which has been ignored in the usual theoretical discussions of how attitudes are formed inside of a social milieu. The treatment, as suggested above, in so far as it has risen above the mere statement that there are action and reaction, has tended to treat this formation on the symbolic level in terms of the defining activities of others, or the conveying of a meaning to the individual, which gives direction to his act. And most sophisticated attempts to change or transform attitudes have followed this theoretical lead by placing reliance on a symbolic content which conceivably might yield the individual a new picture of the object in question. Yet it is my feeling that both this theoretical interpretation and the practical efforts based on it seriously ignore the affective aspect of attitudes. The feeling element is a basic part of the attitude and has to be changed in order to have guarantees of a genuine transformation.

I think this change is likely to be made effectively on the nonsymbolic level and not by merely seeking to convey a new interpretation of the object. We are familiar with the frequent futility of trying to change a person's attitude through some

( 522) form of intellectual conversion. One may convince him in argument, yet his feelings remain untouched. He retains, even though in a perturbed form, his previous attitude, with the original orientation to action which it stood for. However, the disclosure of feeling through some form of expressive behavior readily touches affective states—awakening, setting, disturbing, or modifying them.

These remarks concerning nonsymbolic interaction are tantamount to declaring that in group life there is a collective interplay of feeling which constitutes a milieu for the affective life of each one of us, and so for the development of our social attitudes. It is inside of such a texture of expressive behavior that our social feelings are nurtured—its absence leads to their impoverishment or decay. Our attitudes, or their affective side, are sustained through the reinforcement we receive from the disclosures of feeling in the expressive conduct of others.

To refer to the expressive behavior of others as forming a collective texture is not to speak in idle metaphor. I should like to point out that expressive behavior is regularized by social codes much as is language or conduct. There seems to be as much justification and validity to speak of an affective structure or ritual in society as of a language structure or pattern of meanings. Almost every stabilized social situation in the life of a group imposes some scheme of affective conduct on individuals, whose conformity to it is expected. At a funeral, in a church, in the convivial group, in the polite assemblage, in the doctor's office, in the theater, at the dinner table, to mention a few instances, narrow limits are set for the play of expressive conduct and affective norms are imposed. In large measure, living with others places a premium on skill in observing the affective demands of social relations; similarly, the socialization of the child and his incorporation into the group involves an education into the niceties of expressive conduct. These affective

( 523) rules, demands, and expectations form a code, etiquette, or ritual which, as suggested above, is just as much a complex, interdependent structure as is the language of the group or its tradition.

The view which I am suggesting in this discussion is that social life in human groups can be viewed in one of its aspects as a network of affective relations, operating in the form of expressive stimulation and impressive response. It is this non-symbolic interaction which seems to form the setting for the formation of the feelings which are intrinsic to and basic to social attitudes. My foregoing remarks are chiefly as a series of conjectures, but they will suffice, I think, to call attention to a primary phase of social attitudes which seems to be unduly ignored in current theoretical discussions.


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