|A behavior is always to be taken transactionally: ie., never as of the organism alone, any more than of the environment alone, but always as of the organic-environmental situation, with organisms and environmental objects taken as equally its aspect.
—- Dewey and Bentley, 1949
It is now time to define social interaction. As previously discussed, behavior comes in many forms–blinking, eating, reading, dancing, shooting, rioting, and warring. What then distinguishes social behavior? Behavior that is peculiarly social is oriented towards other selves. Such behavior apprehends another as a perceiving, thinking, Moral, intentional, and behaving person; considers the intentional or rational meaning of the other’s field of expression; involves expectations about the other’s acts and actions; and manifests an intention to invoke in another self certain experiences and intentions. What differentiates social from nonsocial behavior, then, is whether another self is taken into account in one’s acts, actions, or practices.
For example, dodging and weaving through a crowd is not social behavior, usually. Others are considered as mere physical objects, as human barriers with certain reflexes. Neither is keeping in step in a parade social behavior. Other marchers are physical objects with which to coordinate one’s movements. Neither is a surgical operation social behavior. The patient is only a biophysical object with certain associated potentialities and dispositions. However, let the actor become involved with another’s self, as a person pushing through a crowd recognizing a friend, a marcher believing another is trying to get him out of step, or a surgeon operating on his son, and the whole meaning of the situation changes.
With this understanding of social, let me now define social acts, actions, and practices. A social act is any intention, aim, plan, purpose, and so on which encompasses another self. These may be affecting another’s emotions, intentions, or beliefs; or anticipating another’s acts, actions, or practices. Examples of social acts would be courtship, helping another run for a political office, teaching, buying a gift, or trying to embarrass an enemy.
Social actions then are directed towards accomplishing a social act. So long as their purpose is a social act, actions are social whether involving other selves or not, whether anticipating another’s acts, actions, or practices. The actions of an adolescent running away from home and living in a commune for a year to prove his independence to his parents and those of a physicist working in an isolated laboratory for years on a secret weapon for U.S. defense are both social. And no less social are the actions of a girl combing her hair to look attractive for her date.
But there are nonsocial acts, such as aiming for a college degree, trying to enhance one’s self-esteem, planning to go fishing, intending to do scientific research on the brain, and so on. No other self is involved in these acts, but may be involved in the associated actions. Are such actions social if the act is not? Of course. Regardless of the act, associated actions are still social if oriented to another’s feelings, beliefs, or intentions, or if they anticipate another’s acts, actions, or practices. For example, in trying to achieve a college degree, usually a nonsocial act, we may have to consider a professor’s perspective in answering an exam, or an adviser’s personality before selecting him.
Finally, there are social practices. These are rules, norms, custom, habits, and the like that encompass or anticipate another person’s emotions, thoughts, or intentions. Shaking hands, refusing to lie to others, or passing another on the right are examples. Not all practice, however, is social. Drinking and smoking habits can be manifest while alone, and many norms can be practiced without thought to others, such as using the proper utensils when dining alone.
We thus can discriminate social acts, actions, and practices. What then is social interaction?
Social interactions are the acts, actions, or practices of two or more people mutually oriented towards each other’s selves, that is, any behavior that tries to affect or take account of each other’s subjective experiences or intentions. This means that the parties to the social interaction must be aware of each other–have each other’s self in mind. This does not mean being in sight of or directly behaving towards each other. Friends writing letters are socially interacting, as are enemy generals preparing opposing war plans. Social interaction is not defined by type of physical relation or behavior, or by physical distance. It is a matter of a mutual subjective orientation towards each other. Thus even when no physical behavior is involved, as with two rivals deliberately ignoring each other’s professional work, there is social interaction.
Moreover, social interaction requires a mutual orientation. The spying of one on another is not social interaction if the other is unaware. Nor do the behaviors of rapist and victim constitute social interaction if the victim is treated as a physical object; nor behavior between guard and prisoner, torturer and tortured, machine gunner and enemy soldier. Indeed, wherever people treat each other as object, things, or animals, or consider each other as reflex machines or only cause-effect phenomena, there is not social interaction. Such interaction may comprise a system; it may be organized, controlled, or regimented. It is not, however, social as I am using the term.