Symbolic Interactionism Definition
Symbolic interactionism is a major theoretical perspective in North American sociological social psychology that studies how individuals actively define their social reality and understand themselves by interacting with others. Symbolic interactionism has its origins in pragmatism, the American philosophy of how living things make practical adjustments to their surroundings. American sociologist and pragmatist philosopher George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is generally identified as the founder of this theory, although the term symbolic interactionism was actually coined by Mead’s student, Herbert Blumer, who formally articulated Mead’s ideas following his death.
Symbolic Interactionism Assumptions and Implications
According to symbolic interactionism, social reality is not fixed and unchanging. Instead, people are continually constructing (and reconstructing) the meaning of their social lives through interacting with others. An essential component of this creative interaction is the use of symbols. Spoken or printed words are symbols, as are many nonverbal gestures. Symbols in their various forms are the basis of social life because they create a shared meaning in both the expresser and the recipient. When socializing, people interpret others’ expressions and respond on the basis of this interpreted meaning. However, the meaning of these words and gestures may differ depending on the social context. For example, the question “Do you want to spend the night at my place?” may have a very different meaning when spoken by a romantic partner rather than by a platonic friend.
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To understand others’ intentions during social interactions, Mead argued that people engage in role taking, which is imaginatively assuming the point of view of others and observing their own behavior from this other perspective. Mead believed that through such symbolic interaction, humans cease being puppets controlled by environmental strings and, instead, become coactors who have control in creating their social reality. Thus, unlike many social scientists who believe that society dictates meanings to people, inter-actionists believe that meaning emerges and is transformed as people interact. Although society does shape the conduct of its individual members, those same individuals have the capacity to shape society by redefining their social reality.
Reflected Appraisal and Self-Development
Through symbolic interaction, individuals also develop a sense of themselves as they learn to use symbols, but this self-development occurs in stages. Mead asserted that children become selves as they begin taking the role of other people in their play activities. The roles they adopt in the first stage of self development, the play stage, are those of specific others, such as parents and siblings, and they can only adopt one role at a time. For example, after disobeying a family rule, a young child may spontaneously adopt the perspective of “Daddy” and reprimand himself or herself. Through such role taking, children develop an understanding of societal norms, and they develop beliefs about themselves, which are largely a reflection of how they believe others evaluate them. This reflected appraisal is an important determinant of the beliefs and attitudes that form people’s self-concepts. In other words, individuals develop a sense of themselves as they learn to see themselves the way they believe others see them.
As children mature, Mead stated that they learn to take the role of many others simultaneously and, as a result, the self becomes more cognitively complex. In this second stage of self-development, the game stage, they can engage in complex activities (often in the form of games) involving the interaction of many roles. An example of such role taking would be people playing soccer. To play effectively, players must understand how everyone on the field is related to one another, and each player must cognitively adopt these multiple roles simultaneously. Mead stated that as the self becomes increasingly complex, older children begin responding to themselves from the point of view of not just several distinct others, but from the perspective of society as a whole. By internalizing the attitudes and expectations held by the larger society— what Mead called the generalized other—the person becomes a mature self.
Presentation of Self and Social Roles
The emphasis that symbolic interactionists place on symbols, negotiated reality, and the ever-changing social construction of society explains their interest in the social roles people play. Erving Goffinan, a prominent theorist in this tradition, suggests that social life is like a theatrical performance, with people behaving like actors on stage playing prescribed roles. Goffman’s approach is called dramaturgy, and it focuses on the techniques people use to manage the impression they make on others by carefully constructing and monitoring their presented selves. According to Goffman, while “on stage,” people act out “lines” and attempt to maintain competent and appropriate presented selves. In observing this performance, the audience generally accepts the presented selves at face value and treats them accordingly because to do otherwise would disrupt the smooth flow of social interaction. Figuratively “booing” performers off stage by rejecting their presented selves typically occurs only when performers are so incompetent that they cannot adequately play their roles.
Symbolic Interactionism Research Focus
Because symbolic interactionists view human societies as consisting of actively created realities among individuals, their research focuses on observable face-to-face interactions. Furthermore, because symbolic interactionists believe that social reality is continually being modified, they tend to shift their focus away from stable norms and values in society toward more fluctuating and continually adjusting social processes. Regarding the scientific methods employed by symbolic interactionists, they tend to rely on participant observation, although some interactionists employ surveys, interviews, and experiments. This emphasis on participant observation is based on the belief that close contact and immersion in the everyday lives of participants is necessary for understanding the meaning of actions, the definition of the situation itself, and the process by which actors construct the situation through their interaction. Symbolic interactionists have been criticized for being overly subjective and impressionable in their reliance on qualitative methods, as well as being somewhat unsystematic in their theoretical formulations. However, although more quantitatively oriented social psychologists find fault in this methodology, symbolic interactionists contend that their approach allows them to watch behavior in its “wholeness,” providing the full context in which to understand it.
- Goffman, E. (1958). The presentation of self in everyday life. Edinburgh, UK: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.
- Hewitt, J. P. (2003). .Self and society: A symbolic interactionist social psychology (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.
- Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Stryker, S. (1980). Symbolic interactionism: A structural version. Caldwell, NJ: Blackburn Press.