Sociology Index

DEFINING THE SITUATION

Defining the situation is the idea of framing a situation. The term 'defining the situation' was first used by William Isaac Thomas who was one of the foremost American sociologists. Defining the situation refers to the process through which humans go when trying to comprehend the social situations in which they find themselves and deciding on what values and norms are relevant in guiding social interaction.

The structural view in 'defining the situation' tends rather to focus on the situation individuals are in, not on their definition of the situation. If one contrasts macro-structural studies and symbolic interactionism, the concept of 'defining the situation' is associated with symbolic interactionism. William Isaac Thomas brought the concept of social situation to the center of social psychology.

In 'defining the situation', the situation is the set of values and attitudes with which the individual has to deal in a process of activity and with regard to which this activity is planned and its results appreciated.

That is the construction, presentation, and maintenance of frames of interaction. The situation in defining the situation includes three varieties of data. One, there are "the objective conditions under which the individual or society has to act, which at the given moment affect directly or indirectly the conscious states of the individual or the group. Two, there are the pre-existing attitudes of the individual which at the given moment have an actual influence upon his behavior. Three, the clear conception of the conditions and consciousness of attitudes. 

The definition of the situation is very important. To understand a person's behavior in any situation it is necessary to know how he defines the situation, that is, what attitudes does it arouse in him and what meanings does it have for him.

William Isaac Thomas summarizes the functional aspects of defining the situation as follows: An adjustive effort of any kind is preceded by a decision to act or not act along a given line. Thus, the definition of the situation is seen to play a vital role in every human decision involving interpersonal relationships.

The Thomas Theorem and the Matthew Effect, the phenomenon where "the rich get richer and the poor get poorer", an essentially methodological observation draws upon the basic substantive concept of "defining the situation."

Denzin has pointed out in response to the “over-cognitive conception of man” in symbolic interactionism, the process of defining the situation involves interpretations based on intense feelings as well as on deliberate cognitive interpretations.

In almost every problem solving methodology the first step is defining or identifying the problem. It is the most difficult and the most important of all the steps. It involves diagnosing the situation so that the focus on the real problem and not on its symptoms.

Defining the Situation: The Organization of Meaning in Social Interaction. Peter McHugh. American Journal of Sociology. Volume 75, Number 1, Jul., 1969. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.; Fourth Printing edition (1968).
This is a study of the "definition of the situation" and how it may arise, change, and dissolve. The definition of the situation has usually been taken for granted as a subject of study. The work reported here thus starts by asking, first, how such a phenomenon as the definition of the situation is possible; and second, what happens to social interaction when the definition fails? Certain dimensions of social time and social space are necessary components of the definition of the situation, and the definition of the situation is in turn a necessary component of orderly social interaction.

DEFINING THE SITUATION IN SOCIAL INTERACTION
Katsutoshi Kirita
Abstract: The theory for defining situations is an approach which examines the connections between human subject, situation and scheme. The aim of this paper is to relate implications of this theory to social interaction by viewing the situation as a drama.

This theory emphasizes the actor who is trying to define the situation. He has :

1) reflective subjectiveness in relation to his selection of both the situation's definition and his method of its performance, and

2) performative subjectiveness in relation to the maintenance and transformation of the public definition of the situation.

The schemes for defining the situation are symbolic, which result in a fictiveness and multiplicity of reality ; in other words, each social situation is possibly defined by several schemes. Not only is each actor individually capable of possessing differing views, but by sharing a public view they are also collectively able to transform a primary definition into a secondary one.

A social situation provides the actors with a given restraint. They accept the situational restraint as their implicit premise and negotiate with each other according to this premise.

In this way, defining the situation in social interaction begins with this shared premise and ends with the negotiated result. Social interaction in this sense can be understood as a drama of negotiation which will maintain or transform the premise ; the negotiation has both “structure” and “process”. Furthermore, in the course of social interaction an actor's performative subjectiveness is destroyed (“victim drama”) or is preserved (“ritual drama”).

By choosing to define the situation as a drama, we capture the reality of the negotiation and yet maintain sufficient distance from it. While we are able to approach close enough to examine social interaction, we must be careful not to become entangled in it.