Social Worlds Essay

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The term social world is used in two main ways. First as in a generic reference to the immediate milieu of the focus of research – the specific situation or social context (e.g., the social world of antique collectors, professional baseball, or surfing). Subcultures are similar, but (sub)cultural studies generally focus on the subculture itself (members, what they do, how and why, etc.), such as “Deadhead” or “Trekkie” fandoms. In contrast, the generic use of social world usually points outward from the individuals or collectivities being studied to their salient contexts to situate them in sociocultural space and time.

Second, in explicit social worlds/arenas theory in symbolic interactionism, a number of elaborating concepts form a theoretical/analytical framework useful in empirical research, developed by sociologists Anselm Strauss, Howard Becker, Tamotsu Shibutani, and Rue Bucher. Social worlds (e.g., a recreation group, an occupation, a theoretical tradition) generate shared perspectives that form the basis for collective action. Individual and collective identities are constituted through commitments to and active participation in social worlds. Social worlds are universes of discourse – shared ways of making meaning. For Strauss, each social world has at least one primary activity, particular sites, and a technology for carrying out its projects. People typically participate in multiple social worlds simultaneously. Becker asserted that entrepreneurs, deeply committed and active individuals, cluster around the core of the world and mobilize those around them. Shibutani viewed social worlds as identity and meaning-making segments in mass society.

Complex social worlds characteristically have segments or subworlds that shift as commitments realign, Bucher noted. Two or more worlds may intersect to form a new world, or one may segment into two or more. Larger arenas are constituted of multiple social worlds focused on a particular issue and prepared to act in some way, usually in struggles for power and legitimacy. In arenas, Strauss argued, various issues are debated, negotiated, fought out, and manipulated by representatives of participating worlds and subworlds.

Methodologically, to understand a particular social world, one must understand all the arenas in which that world participates and the other worlds in those arenas and their related discourses. All are mutually influential – co-constitutive of the focal world. Social worlds and arenas become the units of analysis in studies of collective action and discourse. The boundaries of social worlds may cross-cut or be more or less contiguous with those of formal organizations. Society as a whole, then, can be conceptualized as consisting of layered mosaics of social worlds, arenas, and their discourses.

Social worlds/arenas theory is a conflict theory. There typically exist intra-world differences as well as more expected inter-world differences of perspective and commitment. For Strauss, negotiations-persuasion, coercion, bartering, educating, discursively and otherwise repositioning, etc. -are routine strategies to address conflicts. Clarke (2005) asserts that there can also be implicated actors in a social world, actors silenced or only discursively present, constructed by others for their own purposes. Star and Griesemer developed the concept of boundary objects for things that exist at junctures where varied social worlds meet in an arena of mutual concern (e.g., treaties among countries, software programs used in different settings, courses that are part of different majors). The boundary object is translated” to address the specific needs or demands of the different worlds involved.

The social worlds/arenas framework is the conceptual infrastructure of a new mode of grounded theory for qualitative research-situational analysis (Clarke 2005). Making maps of social worlds and their arenas is part of the data analysis, providing portraits of collective action at the meso level. The key analytic power of social worlds/arenas theory is the elasticity of the various concepts to analyze at multiple levels of complexity.


  1. Clarke, A. E. (2005) Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory After the Postmodern Turn. Sage, Thousand
  2. Strauss, A. L. (1993) Continual Permutation of Action. Aldine de Gruyter, New York.

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