Theoretical Origins of Sociological Stress Research

While stress researchers take an eclectic approach to theory, both current traditions within sociological stress research draw primary inspiration from the social structure and personality tradition in sociological social psychology. The social structure and personality (SSP) tradition is concerned with the relationship between macro-social systems or processes and individual feelings, attitudes, and behaviors.3 The SSP perspective conceives of the world as a series of embedded circles with the individual at the core surrounded by progressively larger and more complex social groupings, including dyads, small groups, communities, organizations and institutions, and the larger social system. In much the same way that one can peel away the layers of an onion to reveal the inner core, SSP researchers attempt to trace the processes through which components of the social system influence individuals and, less often, through which individuals affect social systems (House, 1981; McLeod & Lively, 2003).

This tradition of research is distinguished from the general macro-micro project of sociology by its adherence to three analytic principles: the components principle, the proximity principle, and the psychological principle. The components principle stipulates that researchers identify the specific components of the social system that are most relevant to understanding the phenomenon of interest. The proximity principle directs our attention to the proximate social experiences through which macro-social structures impinge on individual lives, in particular, micro-interactions and small group processes. The psychological principle involves an examination of the psychological mechanisms through which proximal structures and processes affect individual attitudes, feelings, and behaviors. The application of this framework to sociological stress research is straightforward, with macro-social structures such as socioeconomic hierarchies influencing experiences within proximal social environments that, in turn, affect mental health.

3 Among SSP researchers, social structure is defined as "a persisting and bounded pattern of social relationships (or pattern of behavioral intention) among the units (persons or positions) in a social system" (House 1981, p. 542, emphasis in original).

By attending to these principles, stress research has made important contributions to sociological research on the nature of stratification hierarchies, their implications for daily life, and their effects on individual health and well-being. With respect to the components principle, stress researchers have disaggregated the dimensions of stratification that are linked with stress through analyses that estimate the associations of gender, race, income, education, and occupational status with stress exposure and coping resources (e.g., Kessler & Neighbors, 1986; McLeod & Kessler, 1990; Pearlin & Schooler, 1978; Turner & Avison, 2003; Turner, Wheaton, & Lloyd, 1995). These analyses reveal that the different components of socioeconomic stratification are related to stressful experiences in different ways. For example, income predicts the risk of marital separation/divorce but education does not, whereas education is a stronger predictor of negative events in one's social network (McLeod & Kessler, 1990). Women report more chronic stress and more negative network events than men, but do not report more events occurring to themselves (Turner et al., 1995). Similarly, stress research highlights the complexity of race as a system of stratification that is enacted within multiple levels of social life by documenting the mental health implications of both obvious and insidious forms of discrimination (Williams & Williams-Morris, 2000; Brown, 2003). In sum, stress research has contributed to general conceptual understandings of contemporary stratification systems by affirming their complex, multidimensional character (Mirowsky, Ross, & Reynolds, 2000).

Stress research has also contributed to many sub-disciplines of sociology through its systematic investigations of the proximal environments through which stratification affects health and well-being. Stressors are defined with reference to the geographic, organizational, and interpersonal contexts in which people live their lives, including the family, work, and neighborhoods (Aneshensel & Sucoff, 1996; Conger, Conger, Elder, Lorenz, Simons, & Whitbeck, 1992; Kohn & Schooler, 1983; Hill, Ross, & Angel, 2005). The resources with which people anticipate, avoid, and respond to stress are also attached to these contexts and are enacted within them. By defining and measuring major status-based experiences (e.g., financial deprivation), role strains and role conflicts (e.g., marital problems), and contextual stressors (e.g., neighborhood violence), stress researchers have taken from, and given back to, other sub-disciplines by developing tools with which to analyze the structure and content of major social organizations and institutions. For example, research on the stressful aspects of work environments has yielded a highly differentiated conceptualization of those environments that has informed research on work and occupations (Fenwick & Tausig, this volume).

Finally, stress researchers have given careful attention to the nature of psychological experience as well as to the processes through which proximal stressors affect mental health. With respect to the former, sociologists have questioned dominant psychiatric conceptualizations of mental health and asserted the relevance of more generic forms of distress and of positive mental health (e.g., Horwitz, 2002; Keyes, 2002). By so doing, sociologists aim to broaden the realm of psychological experiences worthy of research attention.

With respect to the latter, stress research illustrates the relevance of self-constructs as mediators in the association between stressful experiences and mental health (Pearlin et al., 1981; Williams & Williams-Morris, 2000), and the importance of identity to definitions and responses to stress (Thoits, 1992, 1995; Burke, 1991). In their early analysis of the stress process, Pearlin and colleagues (1981) demonstrated that stressors have implications for mental health, in part, because they are associated with declines in self-esteem and mastery. Similarly, Williams and Williams-Morris's (2000) review highlighted the centrality of internalized racism to the processes through which racism affects mental health (see also Brown, Sellers, & Gomez, 2002). Thoits (1992) and Burke (1991) applied different versions of identity theory to the stress process but came to similar predictions: stressors that challenge valued identities have the most profound implications for distress. Research on self and identity in the stress process complements basic social psychological research by providing further evidence that the self is both social product and social force (Rosenberg, 1979) and by specifying the processes through which the self responds to threats.

In sum, stress research demonstrates the profound implications of stratification hierarchies for individuals. These hierarchies have effects that move beyond their narrow domains (e.g., status attainment processes) into the most personal aspects of people's lives. These contributions conform to social stress research's goal "to identify elements of social life that have dysfunctional consequences" (Pearlin, 1999, p. 410) as well as to social structure and personality's traditional emphasis on the macro-determinants of individual feelings, attitudes, and behaviors (House, 1981).

As impressive as these contributions are, they nevertheless yield a surprisingly sterile portrait of the stress process. SSP-oriented research has yielded thorough definitions and descriptions of the components of the stress process, but little understanding of how the process itself works—of the underlying interpersonal and self processes through which stressors come to have meaning for individuals and, thereby, influence their physical and emotional well-being. We believe that integrating the tenets of symbolic interactionism, the other major theoretical tradition within sociological social psychology (House, 1977; Stryker, 1977), into stress research would yield a richer understanding of the social origins of the stress process.

The social structure and personality framework and symbolic interactionism offer complementary insights into the nature of macro-micro relations. Social structure and personality research encourages careful identification of the macro-and meso-structures that are implicated in individual outcomes as well as precise estimation of the relative contributions of these structures to explaining variance in those outcomes. Perhaps by necessity, its tenets bias models of the stress process towards unidirectional causal influences that begin with macro-social conditions and end with the individual (Thoits, 1994). In contrast to the social structure and personality tradition's "top-down" view of macro-micro relations, symbolic interactionism emphasizes meaning construction and creativity in human action—the interpersonal and self processes through which people make sense of their worlds and act towards them.

Following from these basic claims, we offer a complementary, but distinct, vision for stress research which emphasizes the centrality of meaning negotiation to the stress process. More explicitly, we contend that, although the stress process is importantly shaped by broad structural and cultural imperatives, its social origins cannot be revealed by consideration of those imperatives alone. Rather, what makes the stress process "social" is that it is constructed and enacted in interpersonal inter-actions—in dyads, small groups, organizations, and social institutions—the proximal environments of the social structure and personality tradition. These meso-level interactions—where society meets the self—have received surprisingly little attention from sociological stress researchers. They are important both because they are the sites in which structural and cultural imperatives become most directly visible, but also because they form the basis of meaning construction. Our vision suggests new directions for research that would enhance our understanding of how people respond when confronted with potentially stressful events, and that would contribute to important theoretical debates within sociology.

We begin our argument by introducing three foundational tenets of symbolic interactionism: the centrality of meaning to human life, the interactional basis of meaning construction, and the self. We then turn to a description of how meaning, interaction, and self have been conceptualized by stress researchers in the past and of new opportunities that would arise from taking the insights of symbolic interac-tionists seriously. Our arguments build on the work of previous scholars (see, for example, Thoits, 1995b; Pearlin, 1999), to present a more general theoretical argument for the integration of diverse theoretical frameworks within sociological social psychology.

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