Social order through macroactions:
An interactionist approach

David R. Heise
Department of Sociology
Indiana University
Bloomington, IN 47405

Presentation at
Panel on Micro-Macro Processes and Social Order
Ninth Annual Group Processes Conference
August 21, 1996
New York, NY

Interactionist Approaches to Macro-Sociology

Interactionism in sociology emphasizes the force of shared culture and individual agency in human interaction. These simultaneous emphases offer a view of society as constantly reinvented by individual people applying their shared culture to solve immediate problems. In this view, society is the net outcome of active individuals dealing with daily challenges. The majestic order of society emerges from repetitive application of evolved cultural resources to frame and solve recurrent problems.

Being a committed interactionist, I appreciate the value of the perspective in understanding how social encounters unfold in a manner that is both creative and orderly. I am skeptical, though, about how helpful the approach has been in understanding macro sociological order. Explaining macro-sociological order as an emergence from culturally-constrained repetitions of individual activity strikes me as hand-waving unless we know how all the individual activities get coordinated. Consider this. Putting a couple of million Americans on Manhattan island and letting them interact does not make an operative New York City. The right people have to get to the right settings at the right times, they have to deal with various kinds of objects in the right ways, they have to coordinate their work with the work of others, they have to activate each other to keep different processes going. The people on Manhattan engage in creative interactions within a cultural framework, but some further discipline is required for the city to work - for example, for two million Manhattanites to get their dinners every evening.

The challenge is to maintain the crucial interactionist understanding that society emerges from creative activities of enculturated individuals while getting a serious grip on the intricacy and determinateness of large-scale societal processes. How do the minute-by-minute behavior inventions of millions of individuals culminate in the machine-like daily order that keeps Manhattanites fed, educated, entertained, policed, and so on? Instead of being an article of faith in interactionism, the emergence of order needs to be an object of examination.

Social Organizations as Instruments

I'm going to tell a true story from the wilds of southern Indiana. I hope it entertains a bit, but I tell it primarily to evince the manner in which macro-sociological phenomena emerge from individual actions.

As I was writing my statement for this panel, I looked out my window at trees that began leaning toward my house after an ice storm a few months before. "I'll cut down those trees before they cause damage," I thought. Now I do have a chainsaw, but climbing 70 foot trees towering over my roof with that roaring, ripping tool in hand is too dangerous for me. So how would I cut down the trees?

I set to work with a telephone rather than a chainsaw - a much safer tool! How do you cut down trees with a telephone? By calling Adams Arbor Care, Inc., of course! In deciding to use Adams Arbor Care rather than my chainsaw, I opted for a social tool rather than a mechanical tool in order to deal with this problem. I rented a social organization, just as I might have rented a bulldozer.

Actually, a telephone only serves as a bit of infrastructure in the process. Talking on the telephone was a way of aligning the social tool with my problem. In response to my call, Don, a senior forester whom I'd met on previous jobs, came out and gave an estimate of cost. I told him to proceed, and a few days later he sent three athletic and courageous foresters to scale my trees and get the work done.

I determined what work had to be done in my imagination, thinking logically forward from current conditions to future undesired happenings, and figuring out how to change current conditions so as to shape the future in a more desirable way. That is, I had trees leaning so far over my house that a storm could cause them to fall through my roof resulting in tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage and possible personal injury. To avoid that outcome, I identified trees that had to be cut down. The downed trees would generate a litter of brush and tree trunks, so I also decided that the waste should be converted to mulch and firewood. My definition of the job provided the overall plan of action. One of the men from Adams Arbor Care, acting as foreman, organized a sequence of activities and coordinated individuals to actualize my plan.

Thus, acting creatively with my culturally-based knowledge and skills, I used Adams Arbor Care to reduce my threatening trees to firewood and mulch. My action resulted in additional actions by skilled foresters creatively applying chainsaws, pulleys, and a gasoline branch shredder to accomplish my goals. By using a social organization as an instrument, I caused three foresters to work for hours on complex, interconnected activities at my house.

Using a chainsaw to do needed work offers an emotional charge - anxiety while applying the violent tool to logs followed by fatigued contentment when the roar is over and the work is done. (Macho self satisfaction comes in telling about it.) Affective states also are involved in using a tree service to do the work - wary attention to obvious and hidden costs while engaging the social organization, and jaunty humor on having accomplished much with little effort. In each action feelings are produced, and those feelings can help to affirm the kind of person we think we are. Thus, an action that uses a social organization is as much a personal action as one that uses a material tool.


How then do macro-sociological phenomena emerge from individual actions? Someone performs an action that uses a social organization, and that individual's action generates a concert of social activity. The next day someone else may perform the same action and the same concert of activity is repeated, varying some details. Individuals drive society by performing actions engendered in social organizations, and thereby individual actions yield macro-sociological process.

In an interactionist understanding of society, corporate entities like Adams Arbor Care, General Motors, or the U.S. Army are tools wielded in individual "macroactions." Only a few elite individuals can use huge organizations like General Motors or the U.S. Army. Many of us use small, special-purpose firms like tree services. Nearly everybody uses basic institutions like schools or McDonald restaurants. While elites move huge organizations through historic trajectories, we common folk repetitively use small organizations and institutions to produce the daily order of our civilization.

Individuals, not organizations, creatively apply culture and instigate action. Thus, in an interactionist framework, macroactions are the core elements of macro-sociology, not macroactors.

People learn what macroactions are available and how to perform them, so macroactions are an aspect of culture. In a sense, therefore, the macro social order does emerge from repeated application of culture. However, actions that instrumentally employ social organizations require substantial infrastructures for communication, transportation, and storage. In that sense the social order based on macroactions also emerges ecologically from the way things and people are distributed and networked. Meanwhile people in organizations work because of contingencies relating their actions to rewards and punishments, so the social order yielded by macroactions additionally emerges from an instated system of power and exchange. The notion of macroaction clarifies that the social order cannot emerge only from individual agency and culture. An ecology and power system also are required.

Final Remarks

Understanding macro-sociology in terms of macroactions has so many implications and potentials that it is an embarrassment to stop without alluding to more of them. However, it's also an embarrassment to behave poorly as a panel member and take more than my share of time. Therefore I will elaborate a little on power systems, then stop. Perhaps in discussion I'll have a chance to unfold more of the macroaction perspective for you.

There was nothing idealistic about those skilled and courageous foresters coming to my aid and removing tons of green-leaved Damocles sword from above my head. The men in Adams Arbor Care set themselves into motion that day because of a logical contingency regarding wages, set by their employer. They were subjects within an organizational power system based on exchanges of money - a power system I myself fed with a thousand-plus dollars. My use of their social organization aligned creative energies evoked by an incentive-based power system.

It's worth noting that collaborative productions also can be intrinsically mobilized. For example, immediately after the ice storm one of my neighbors needed to get out, and the rest of us gathered with our chainsaws in a spirit of neighborliness and camaraderie to clear the road from the valley. My neighbor got to use an ad hoc social organization as a tool to clear the road, free of charge since we neighbors were intrinsically motivated by our community identities.

Still, most organizational tools in complex civilizations are banded together by social power systems that mobilize people in work situations. Now this presents an interesting paradox for liberal sociologists. Many of us suspect and criticize power systems as a means of exploitation. Yet the macroaction framework reveals that power systems are essential to maintain organizations, and nearly all adults in a civilization are empowered by such organizations to some degree. Each and every one of us uses organizations that rely on social power systems.

I hope that this sets you musing on the costs and benefits of social power systems. If so, then this an excellent place for me to stop. I end with essential acknowledgements.

Alex Durig and I worked together for years developing the idea of macroaction. Our major statement about macroactions and related matters will be published soon in the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, in a special issue on organizations being edited by Kathleen Carley. William Corsaro has deepened my understanding of agency and culture in interaction, and Sheldon Stryker helped me comprehend how interactionists have dealt with macro-sociology.


Additional Topic for Discussion:
The Beneficiaries of Education

Organizations link collaborative productions together by designating a beneficiary of each action. The beneficiary gets the product of the action and uses it in another organizational activity. Since the product has to work in the later action, the beneficiary gets to set standards of quality for the earlier action.

Macroactions also have beneficiaries - the person who makes use of the final product. Here, too, the beneficiary sets quality standards, and the standards apply to the organization employed in the macroaction. We can assess whether an organization meets appropriate standards by examining the requirements of the beneficiary.

Let's use this framework to analyze the baffling problem of educational standards. A university is an organizational tool used to turn youths into educated adults. The question is: Who uses the product? Once we identify the beneficiary, we can infer proper standards.

Framing things this way, we see that there are multiple beneficiaries and therefore multiple standards.

So what are the proper standards of education? The answer depends on who is using the college graduates - parents, students, employers, or posterity. Inevitably there is dissension as each of these groups (including professors as the spokespeople for posterity) tries to impose its view.