Symbolic interactionism has been an important theoretical perspective in family studies since its early development in the 1920s and 1930s (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki's (1918-1920) monumental study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, was an early application of some of the main themes and concepts of the perspective. This study focused on the adjustments and transformations in personality and family patterns in the Polish peasant community in the course of immigration to the United States during the early 1900s. Processes of socialization, adaptation, definition formation, role-making, and self-concept development were major themes in their analysis.
Ernest Burgess, however, was the first to call for the systematic application of "processual" symbolic interactionism to family studies. He proposed that the family can be viewed as "a unity of inter-acting personalities" (Burgess 1926), a little universe of communication in which roles and selves are shaped and each personality affects every other personality. Unfortunately, few heeded Burgess's call to study the dynamic interactions of whole families (for an exception, see Hess and Handel 1959). It is impractical for most family researchers to study whole family dynamics over time. Burgess's own empirical studies mostly used conventional survey methods and measurements in studying marital adjustment (Burgess and Cottrell 1939), and reflect a more structural interactionism (i.e., emphasis on social structure rather than process) characteristic of the Iowa school.
Another pioneer in the symbolic interactionist approach to family research was Willard Waller (1937, 1938). Waller used qualitative methods (e.g., case studies and novels) to study family dynamics, particularly processes of interpersonal conflict, bargaining, and exploitation. His principle of least interest suggests that the person least interested in or committed to the marital or dating relationship has the most power in that relationship and frequently exploits the other. The theme of conflict and exploitation was prominent in his analysis of college dating patterns in the 1930s. Reuben Hill, who shaped much of the contemporary research on the family, reworked Waller's treatise by shifting the focus from a conflict and process orientation to a relatively ...
What is conflictionist theory and how it relates to family dynamics.