Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that views society and its norms as products of everyday interactions of individuals.
I’ve always found the theory to be best understood in contrast to functionalism. In functionalism, society is believed to have been made by the elites and social institutions. To functionalists, we are just pawns with no power to change and shape our societies.
By contrast, from the perspective of the symbolic interactionism, it’s not the powerful and elites who shape society. It’s us! Every time we have a conversation with someone, we are participating in the production of culture (Powell, 2014). Every consumer choice we make (this brand, not that brand) or YouTube video we upload feeds into the cultural milieu, contributing to the process of building a shared society and culture.
This theory, originally formulated by George Herbert Mead, emphasizes that meaning is spread through language and symbols. Handshakes, words, sentences, and movies tell meaningful stories (Stryker, 2017). The power of this perspective is that we don’t just participate in society – we create it! Take, for example, each generation young people introducing new words into language or a new form of music emerging through a subculture that soon becomes a mainstream part of the wider culture in a society.
Key Themes in Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic Interactionism’s premise – that society is constructed through the everyday interactions of everyday people – has been used by a range of theorists, but there are some core key themes that underpin the theory overall.
Meaning, the first theme, plays a crucial role in symbolic interactions. We in society have created shared meanings that are passed-on through interaction (Powell, 2014).
We tend to understand an action or thing based on the meaning assigned to it. For example, if a person sees another person waving, they may interpret it as a greeting. Here, an interaction has led to a shared meaning. Thus, we can see that meanings form the basis of human interaction.
2. Language and Signs
In symbolic interactionism, language and signs are another crucial theme. Through a process of negotiation, people assign meaning to words and symbols (Stryker, 2017).
For example, an unfamiliar slang term may mean nothing to you, until a friend explains it. Thereafter, you have assigned meaning to that slang term and can understand what it signifies when used in a conversation.
Similarly, hand signals like the waving a fist have become meaningful – in the context of a waving fist, it generally means you are angry.
We can see here that words emerge and help us to generate meaning.
While symbolic interactionists have tended to focus on how meaning is produced through interactions, they also acknowledge that we can also have interactions with ourself in the form of thoughts (Quist-Adade, 2019).
Thinking, according to symbolic interactionists, is the internal conversation that employs symbols and language.
You can think of it as an internal discussion using symbols and meanings to know what’s happening around us. For instance, when deciding to join a gym or a fitness club, you would weigh the pros (like improved health) and cons (like fees and travel distance) before deciding.
4. The Self
The fourth theme of symbolic interactionism is the concept of ‘the self’. According to this theory, the self is a product of social interaction and continuously evolves based on experiences (Aksan et al., 2099).
For instance, if you realize that your jokes consistently make people laugh, you may perceive yourself as a funny person, incorporating it into your self-identity (Scott, 2016).
Similarly, if people don’t laugh at your jokes, you might start thinking you’re un-cool or un-funny. Importantly, we tend to determine our sense of self based upon how others interact with us and react to us. We’re fundamentally social selves.
I’ll cover this in more detail later when I explain the ‘looking glass self’ by Cooley.
5. Humans have Agency
The final theme in symbolic interactionism is the relation between human agency and society (Powell, 2014).
Symbolic interactionism argues that individuals are both products and producers of society.
While society shapes us through external influences and norms (such as the expectation to get a job), we also influence society by pushing back against these norms or creating new ones (like entrepreneurs forging new business paths).
This key theme is important because it differentiates symbolic interaction from the two other key sociological paradigms – conflict theory and functionalism (Quist-Adade, 2019). Both the other theories assume we lack much agency, meaning we are simply victims of institutions and norms that control us and restrain us.
Go Deeper: Symbolic Interaction Examples
1. George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead is instrumental in developing the groundwork of symbolic interactionism.
Mead posits that the mind and self-construct occur within social contexts. His contributions to the social and behavioral sciences pioneered the understanding that humans interact based on symbols that carry shared meanings.
For example, traffic signals red and green become symbols for stop and go, facilitating interaction between drivers on the road.
One of Mead’s significant contributions is the idea of the ‘self’ as a social structure (Powell, 2014).
He divided the ‘self’ into ‘I’ and ‘me’ components:
- The ‘I’ represents the spontaneous, unpredictable part of the self
- The ‘me’ represents the internalized societal expectations and norms. (Quist-Adade, 2019)
For instance, when deciding whether to donate to charity, the ‘I’ might be driven by natural compassion and the ‘me’ might consider societal expectations about its importance.
These concepts focus on the way individuals understand themselves and respond to situations based on their perception of societal norms, shaping our construction of social reality.
2. Herbert Blumer
Building upon the foundations laid by predecessors like Mead, Blumer further advanced the concept, giving it its name— symbolic interactions.
By his definition, this theory revolves around how individuals assign meanings to things, actions, and other people, then use these symbolic meanings to guide their behavior (Stryker, 2017).
A real-world example might be the symbolic meaning attached to a professional suit, often perceived as representing professionalism and seriousness.
Moreover, Blumer delineated three foundational premises for symbolic interactionism:
- First, human beings act towards things based on meanings they ascribe to those things.
- Second, the meaning of such things comes from social interaction.
- Lastly, these meanings are modified through an interpretative process each person employs in their interactions with symbolic cues (Quist-Adade, 2019).
3. Charles Horton Cooley (Looking Glass Self)
Charles Horton Cooley (1902) enriched the dialogue on symbolic interactionism despite it not being formally established during his time.
However, his ideas greatly influenced the approach and off-shoot theories like role theory.
Specifically, his concept of the “looking-glass self” has been highly influential.
The “looking-glass self” theory states that individuals define their identity through the perception of how they believe others view them (Scott, 2016).
For example, if a student perceives that teachers consider him intelligent, he may internalize this image and reflect it in his actions, potentially resulting in better grades.
Furthermore, Cooley’s work in social organization noted the significance of communication in the formation of society. He believed that society is an interweaving and interworking of mental selves, emphasizing the power of interactions in shaping our identities and societal structure.
By weaving the threads of interaction, interpretation, and response, Cooley set the stage for a deeper understanding of society under symbolic interactions.
Symbolic interactionism generally favors the qualitative methodologies of participant observation, interviewing, and interpretive analysis. Such methods lend themselves well to the exploration of the subjective experiences and interpretations of individuals.
- Participant observation involves the researcher immersing themselves in the group or social setting being studied, directly observing and often participating in the actions of the group (Powell, 2014). For instance, a researcher exploring workplace dynamics may integrate themselves into a company, working alongside other employees. This method allows for direct examination of the group’s actions, interactions, and symbol uses in their natural context.
- Interviewing, another essential method used by symbolic interactionists, may conduct structured, semi-structured, or unstructured interviews to provide insight into an individual’s experiences, perceptions, and motivations. During the interview process, symbolic interactionists pay close attention to the language used by the interviewee, as language is a significant reflection of social symbols and processes (Quist-Adade, 2019). Candidate interviews for a job, for example, offer insights into the individual’s representation of self and societal values.
- Interpretive analysis involves the researcher unpacking the symbols, meanings, and interactions noted during data collection to make sense of social contexts and institutions (Stryker, 2017). This approach to analysis allows symbolic interactionists to move beyond basic descriptions of social phenomena, instead developing nuanced and thorough understandings of social life and human interaction.
These tools and methods, consistent with the tenets of symbolic interactionism, allow researchers to explore the intricate processes of interaction, interpretation, and adaptation by which individuals create and navigate their social realities.
Critiques and Criticisms
The most compelling criticisms of symbolic interactionism are:
1. Lack of Generalizability
The first criticism is the lack of generalizable findings. Due to its emphasis on qualitative methodologies and small-scale studies, symbolic interactionism often explores specific situations or small social groups (Powell, 2014). While these investigations yield in-depth analysis of these contexts, the findings may not transfer to larger populations or different environments. For example, a study analyzing the dynamics of a small rural community may not apply to a bustling urban city.
2. Limited Consideration of Macro Structures
Second, symbolic interactionism’s focus on micro-sociological factors has meant that it’s been criticized for its limited consideration of macro social structures, like institutions and societal norms, that exert considerable influence on individual behavior. Critics argue that while interaction and interpretation are crucial, societal structures and institutions (such as schools, government, or religion) greatly impact individual and group behavior. Thus, focusing solely on symbols and meanings may overlook these significant influences (Quist-Adade, 2019).
3. Subjectivity of Research
Third, symbolic interactionism is often critiqued for the subjectivity of its methodologies. This critique was most prominently pushed by Gouldner (1971) who saw qualitative research as a ‘crisis’ for sociology.
Because symbolic interactionism relies heavily on qualitative research methods and interpretation, it depends a lot on the researcher’s insights and interpretations. For instance, two different researchers might interpret the same symbolic communication in two entirely different ways (Stryker, 2017).
See Also: Limitations of Qualitative Research
4. Absence of Quantitative Measures
Fourthly, there is a criticism regarding the absence of quantitative measures (Powell, 2014). Symbolic interactionism, due to its inherent nature, doesn’t allow for quantifiable measurements or empirical credibility. This might make it harder to test the theories or to make wider and more objective conclusions about social phenomena.
5. Lack of Focus on Power Dynamics
Lastly, symbolic interactionism is often criticized for not adequately focusing on power dynamics. Critics argue that the theory does not sufficiently consider how differences in power affect communication and symbolism within social interactions (Stryker, 2017). For example, an employee and employer might interpret and produce symbols differently due to their power dynamics.
Aksan, N., Kısac, B., Aydın, M., & Demirbuken, S. (2009). Symbolic interaction theory. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 1(1), 902-904.
Cooley, C.H. (1902) Human nature and the social order. Charles Scribner’s Sons.
Gouldner, A. (1971). The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. London: Heinemann.
Powell, J. L. (2014). Symbolic Interactionism. Nova Science Publishers.
Quist-Adade, C. (2019). Symbolic interactionism: The basics. Vernon Press.
Scott, S. (2016). Negotiating identity: Symbolic interactionist approaches to social identity. John Wiley & Sons.
Stryker, S. (2017). Symbolic interactionism: Themes and variations. In Social psychology (pp. 3-29). Routledge.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]