Where the west meets the Buddha | Daily News
Symbolic Interactionism and its relation to Buddhism

Where the west meets the Buddha

Until the industrial revolution positioned the west in an indefatigable point as against the east, both hemispheres remained the same. The mankind roamed the terrain with a similar goal.

The industrial revolution reshaped and redefined the mode of thinking in the west. Whereas the easterners considered man as an integral part of nature, the westerners developed a diametrically opposed prescription. They fragmented man from nature. The man became the subject that treated nature as an object. The west identified nature as an object requiring to be investigated. Any puzzle in nature could be solved by furthering the knowledge through various means, according to the westerners. The west developed and established various methodologies to engineer that ideology. The offshoot was quite evident. Subjects such as sociology, psychology and anthropology saw the light of the day.

As Dr. Tudor Weerasinghe maintains, the east was glued to the antecedent ideology on nature – that it is too vast a mystery to study which could never be demystified. This created the gulf between the east and west and two new concepts were originated. The eastern ideology was to be named Orientalism whereas the western rationalism named Occidentalism.

Occidentalism observed nature as a macro-concept and subjected it to analysis and research. Orientalism’s reaction to nature was largely individual. According to the eastern thought, man could not be severed from nature. It was a ‘dare’ attempt for the easterners. Since man is an integral part of nature, the focus was drawn to the ‘self’. The mainstream religions of the east such as Hinduism and especially Buddhism highlight self and mindfulness over the concept of nature or society in fragments. That a well-made man can result in a well-organised society was the Buddhist thought, whereas the west encompassing Marxism and contemporary ideologies, had society as a central point.

Structural functionalism

In such a backdrop, the latter stages of the 19th century witnessed the birth of structural functionalism. It was formulated as a macro-oriented concept in sociology and anthropology in order to redefine society as a broad structure built with interrelated components. Functionalism observed norms, customs, traditions and institutions as the integral elements of society as a whole.

This was the reasoning and thought that shaped the 18th and 19th centuries until George Herbert Mead took the ideology to a different plain. In that exercise, he made himself close to the Buddha’s teaching on ‘self’.

He developed a new theory of symbolic interactionism in his posthumously published work. Though it was his student, Herbert Blumer, who coined ‘symbolic interactionism’, Mead developed the framework of the theory. In this theory, seminal to the western philosophy, Blumer offers a triad perspective: humans interact with things based on meanings ascribed to those things; the ascribed meaning of things comes from our interactions with others and society; the meanings of things are interpreted by a person when dealing with things in specific circumstances.

Mead took the macroscopic perspective of sociology to a microscopic theory by laying emphasis on ‘self’. As Michael J Carter and Celene Fuller maintain in their research paper ‘Symbolic Interactionism’, the emergence of symbolic interactionism was a response to the mainstream perspectives on society that dominated sociology at the time. One dominant subject area that the two scholars refer to is structural functionalism.

The research paper goes into details:

“These dominant, positivist approaches tended to examine society from the ‘top down,’ focusing on the impact of macro-level institutions and social structures and how they impose on and constrain individuals. Departing from this tradition, symbolic interactionism was developed to understand the operation of society from the ‘bottom up,’ shifting the focus to micro-level processes that emerge during face-to-face encounters in order to explain the operation of society. For symbolic interactionists, the prevailing structuralist perspectives reified society as a constraining entity that ultimately defines an individual.

Symbolic interactionism moved away from such perspectives that (perhaps) provided over-socialized views of the individual to conceive the individual as agentic, autonomous, and integral in creating their social world.”

We can comfortably ascertain that the Mead-Blumer theory minimises the west-east chasm. Interestingly, Mead’s intellectual life bears similarities with that of the Buddha. Charles W Morris, in his introduction to George H Mead’s posthumously published work ‘Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist’, notes the following:

“There is no evidence that even an added grant of life would have seen the material brought to volume form by his hands. That he was not the writer of the system is to the fact that he was always engaged in building one. His thought was too rich in internal development to allow him to set down his ideas in an ordered array. His genius expressed itself in the lecture room.”

The description rings a bell for the Buddha’s followers. The Buddha was never bothered about preserving his teachings. He was more attentive to the fact that his followers are convinced of the true nature of the world and let them see the realistic phenomenon as it is. However, this is not an attempt to compare the intellect between the two thinkers. Yet, Mead bridged the east and west to a certain extent with his seminal theory of symbolic interactionism. The very title of his book deviates from Occidentalism and reaches for Orientalism. Mind the keywords used by him: mind, self and society. He lists them in a prioritised order. ‘Mind’ and ‘Self’ forerun society.

Throughout his 45-year ministry, the Buddha expounded this powerful concept of self. The Dhammapada, the best-known script of the Pali Canon, opens with a stanza that supports this theory:

“All mental phenomena have mind as their forerunner; they have mind as their chief; they are mind-made. If one speaks or acts with an evil mind, ‘dukkha’ follows him just as the wheel follows the hoofprint of the ox that draws the cart.”

Dr. Dharmakeerthi Sri Ranjan’s scrutiny on Mead’s theory of self leads makes the picture clearer.

“The self is a social emergent and process of social structure – social process. It occurs through the socialization process, not logical or biological preconditions. It arises from the process of social experience and activity. The self is a reflective process which distinguishes from each other – social and consciousness.”

On a macro-perspective, the self is a psychological concept. However, as the symbolic interactionists contend that the individuals form and shape the society – not vice versa – self needs to be studied in a sociological perspective. In order to incorporate this concept into a sociological context, however, you require a psychological background. Charles Morris identifies Mead as a pragmatist, philosophically, and a social psychologist, scientifically. Morris further contends that Mead belongs to the old tradition of Aristotle, Descartes and Russell in failing to see any sharp difference between science and philosophy. Mead was successful, however, when he introduced ‘self’ as an intersubjective concept to sociology.

Symbolic Interactionism, though came under criticism for its emphasis on ‘self’, evolved in its own right. Michael J Carter and Celene Fuller outline the journey in the following manner:

“Theory and research in symbolic interactionism has developed along three main areas of emphasis, following the work of Herbert Blumer (the Chicago School), Manford Kuhn (the Iowa School), and Sheldon Stryker (the Indiana School). Herbert Blumer coined the term ‘symbolic interactionism’ and was the first to formulate Mead’s ideas into a cohesive theory with specific methodological implications for the study. Kuhn and Stryker, while methodologically at odds with Blumer, share much of the same theoretical orientation as him, following Mead.”

Human behavioural patterns

Blumer argued that human behavioural patterns must be studied in forms of action. This shows the influential resemblance to the Buddha’s Kamma concept. The Buddha emphasised that we make the world with our thoughts. Elsewhere, he points out that the world exists in ourselves. ‘I’ and ‘we’ are the evident reference to ‘self’. Having said that, all the inanimate objects become what they are because of the self. If not for the self, the inanimate objects have no reason to exist.

Carter and Fuller take this point further with Blumer’s theoretical orientation toward symbolic interactionism which can be summarized through three premises: 1. human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them; 2. the meaning of things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others; 3. meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by a person in dealing with the things they encounter.

This can lead to a comparative study of Abhidharma, one of the three main sections of the Pali Canon. Abhidhamma, or the Higher Teachings of the Buddha, provides an explicit analysis of mind and matter leading to a microscopic investigation of the human being.

Mead contended that the proper understanding of self will take us to the development of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’. The ‘me’ is the self we portray as a collective in society. The ‘I’ is the response to the ‘me’. In simple parlance, ‘me’ is how we imagine the ‘generalised others’ see us. ‘I’ thinks and ponders on what those aspects hold. The generalized other is a subfield in symbolic interactionism which examines the thinking pattern of a person with common expectations that others have about actions and thoughts within a particular society. Here Mead posited that the individuals react to the expectations of others while centring themselves to the norms and values (which are essential elements of a society, according to Structural Functionalism theory) of a society.

Symbolic Interactionism has evolved a long excursion. It has birthed many subfields and theories as the world entered the 21st century. Significantly, this is where the west comes to an agreement with the east – essentially the Buddha’s teachings.


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