The interactionist perspective in sociology sees social phenomena as a product of the interaction between an individual and their immediate situation.
It is a theoretical framework that argues that all social processes, such as identity formation and cooperation, are derived from social interactions. Within these interactions, the meanings subjectively held by individuals play a central role.
Interactionism emphasizes the agency of the individual, suggesting that they are active in shaping and being shaped by the social context (instead of being passive recipients). However, this focus on agency can sometimes overlook the larger social structures in society.
We will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the interactionist perspective later. First, let us learn about the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
What is the Interactionist Perspective? (Definition)
Herbert Blumer defined the interactionist perspective as a framework that
“emphasizes the subjective meaning of social action as the basis for understanding social life” (1969).
The “subjective meanings” emerge through interaction. The primary concern of the interactionist perspective is to analyze these meanings of everyday life through close observation. By doing so, it tries to understand the underlying forms of human interaction.
The interactionist perspective has its roots in the philosophical writings of George Herbert Mead. It was also heavily influenced by pragmatism and the Chicago tradition of sociology. Herbert Blumer expanded on the work of Mead and came up with symbolic interactionism.
Interactionist Perspective Examples
- Performing Gender: Individuals actively perform gender through their appearance, behavior, and interactions. Judith Butler argued that gender is not a fixed identity; instead, gender is socially constructed. It is a performance that is continuously shaped by social interactions (1990). Similarly, West and Zimmerman said that, instead of “being” a certain gender, we are constantly “doing” a gender (1987). There are certain characteristics associated with each, and people are expected to adhere to them.
- Identity Formation: Our identity is formed by the interpretation of cultural symbols and our interactions with others. Charles Cooley developed a concept known as the “looking-glass self”, which explains how our sense of self is intimately linked to others. There is no such thing as a solitary ‘self’—we are always connected and shaped by ‘others’. Just like a mirror’s reflection, our selfhood depends on the perceived responses of others: “each to each a looking glass reflects the other that doth pass.”
- Online Presentation: Interactionalism can help us understand people present themselves on social media. Hewitt sees identity in 3 categories: situated, personal, and social (2007). Situated refers to our ability to see ourselves as others do; personal identity is how we differentiate ourselves; social identity is how we make connections with others. On social media, we present our identity through posts or stories. When we tag others, we are enacting our social identity. And when we defend our arguments in comments, we are engaging with our situated identity.
- Social Roles: Social roles are developed through interactions, and symbolic interactionalism allows us to dissect them (Lopata 2003). A social role begins when an individual starts interactions with other people, and these people create a social circle in which the initiator is the central terminal. The roles in social groups are then formed based on the interactions between the central figure and other participants.
- Internalization of Expectations: People’s expectations of the reactions of others often get internalized. For example, Bruce Link and his colleagues conducted an experiment to test how such expectations impact mental health stigma (2015). They found out that, although high levels of internalized stigma were rare, most participants experienced the anticipation of rejection, stigma consciousness, and perceived devaluation discrimination. These were linked to issues of withdrawal and self-esteem.
- Rosenhan Experiment: One of the field studies of interactionism was done by David Rosenhan to examine the treatment of mental health in California. Rosenhan’s participants faked hallucinations to enter psychiatric hospitals but then acted normally. The hospitals still diagnosed them with disorders and kept them admitted. So, the labels given to an individual by the social context determine how they are treated. Later, Rosenhan attacked psychiatric diagnosis and their dehumanizing patient care.
- Symbols & Meanings: Interactionism highlights how human beings are distinctively “symbol-manipulating animals” (Scott, 2014). Unlike other animals, humans can use symbols, which allows them to produce culture and transmit their complex histories. Interactionalism studies how people give meaning to their bodies, their situations, and the wider contexts they inhabit. Researchers can gain access to these symbols and meanings through strategies like participant observation.
- “Emotional Labor”: In The Managed Heart, A.R. Hochschild discusses how people manage emotions in the workplace. Hochschild introduces the concept of “emotional labor”, referring to the efforts we make in regulating our emotions and bringing them in line with the expectations of others. For example, flight attendants are always expected to exhibit calmness and professionalism. From an interactionist perspective, Hochschild’s work highlights how social context shapes our emotional behavior and requires us to navigate a complex set of expectations.
- Forms of Social Life: While interactionism is deeply concerned with the micro-level analysis of social interactions, it also looks beneath these to determine underlying patterns/forms of social life. So, they may study the lives of doctors, musicians, terminally-ill patients, etc., and still manage to find the common patterns among these seemingly disparate groups. In other words, through interactionalism, we can learn about “generic social processes” (Scott, 2014).
- Role Making: Recent works of interactionalism, such as those of Sheldon Stryker, discuss the concept of “role-making”, highlighting how ongoing negotiations construct social roles. It refers to the active creation of roles, instead of simply “taking” predefined ones. Stryker argues that some social structures permit more creativity than others. He also adds that individuals are motivated to construct social roles that are aligned with their “self-concept”, that is, their beliefs about themselves.
Strengths of the Interactionist Perspective
The interactionist perspective has several strengths, such as its focus on subjective experiences, the emphasis on the free will of individuals, etc.
Interactionists reject quantitative/statistical data because they believe that these do not give a true picture of society. They also question its claim to objectivity, suggesting that the existence of a hypothesis (as in the Rosenhan experiment we discussed above) implies that such methods are biased.
Instead, they focus on the subjective experiences of individuals. This, according to interactionists, provides a more nuanced understanding of social behavior. They use methods such as unstructured reviews, covert participation observation, etc.
Moreover, as Mead argued, interactionism also emphasizes the agency of individuals: people are not passive recipients of social roles but actively shape these through their interactions with others.
Weaknesses of the Interactionist Perspective
Despite its strengths, the Interactionist Perspective has been criticized by various scholars for neglecting the larger social structure and the role of power.
Interactionism is concerned with micro-level social interactions, and it is quite useful for explaining how individuals interpret & create meaning through everyday interactions. But, as Giddens argues, this often limits its ability to see larger structures & processes in society (1979).
A related criticism is that, since interactionism does not take into account broader social phenomena, it fails to recognize the role of power and inequality in shaping social interactions. The focus on the subjective experiences of individuals makes it overlook the larger power structures shaping those experiences.
Finally, some scholars criticize the interactionist perspective for overemphasizing the free will of individuals (Collins, 1990). It is primarily concerned with the immediate situation, but this often fails to recognize how social structures shape and constrain that agency.
Summary Table: Strengths and Weaknesses of Interactionism
|Strengths of Interactionism||Weaknesses of Interactionism|
|The focus on human experiences and subjectivity can unveil data and insights that other perspectives cannot.||Does not take into account broader social phenomena.|
|Provides a more nuanced understanding of social behavior.||Fails to recognize the role of the power of social structures in shaping social interactions and inequality.|
|Emphasizes and acknowledges the agency of individuals.||Overemphasizes the free will of individuals (Collins, 1990) and doesn’t say enough about how agency is restricted.|
|Interactionism is concerned with micro-level social interactions, and it is quite useful for explaining how individuals interpret & create meaning through everyday interactions.|
Other Sociological Perspectives
The interactions perspective is one of three core sociological perspective. The others are functionalism and critical theory. The three are shown and compared below.
|Sociological Paradigms||Major assumptions|
|Functionalism||Social stability is a prerequisite for a healthy and strong society. Social institutions (e.g., education, religion) contribute towards social stability. Abrupt social change imperils social order. (See more: examples of functionalism)|
|Conflict theory||Society is built upon enduring and pervasive inequality on the basis of social class, gender, race etc. Structural social change is required to create an egalitarian society. (See more: examples of conflict theory).|
|Symbolic interactionism||We construct society through a range of symbols (e.g., words, gestures) and social interactions. People make up their roles as they interact. They do not merely fit in the positions that society set out for them.|
The interactionist perspective argues that interactions (characterized by subjectively held meanings) are central to understanding social phenomena.
Instead of relying on statistical data, interactionism tries to closely observe and intimately familiarize itself with everyday life processes. It analyses the meanings present in them and then tries to expand them into underlying patterns/forms of social life.
Interactionism focuses on the subjective experiences of individuals and highlights their agency. But this can sometimes make it overlook larger social structures and the role of power in society.
Becker, H. S. (1963). Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Free Press of Glencoe.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. University of California Press.
Butler, J. (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge.
Collins, R. (1990). “On the microfoundations of macrosociology”. American Journal of Sociology.
Cooley, C. H. (1902). Human Nature and the Social Order. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Doubleday.
Giddens, A. (1979). Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. University of California Press.
Hewitt, J. P. (2007). Self and Society: A Symbolic Interactionist Social Psychology (10th ed.). Allyn and Bacon.
Hochschild, A. R. (1983). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling. University of California Press.
Link, Bruce, Jennifer Wells, Jo Phelan, Lawrence Yang. (2015). “Understanding the importance of ‘symbolic interaction stigma’: How expectations about the reactions of others adds to the burden of mental illness stigma.” Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. American Psychological Association.
Lopata, Helena (2003). “Symbolic Interactionism and I”. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.
Scott, John. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.
Stryker, Sheldon. (1980). Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. The Blackburn Press.
West, C., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1987). “Doing Gender”. Gender & Society. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243287001002002