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Symbolic Interactionism Theory & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Oct 12, 2021


Key Takeaways:

  • Symbolic interactionism is a social theoretical framework associated with George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) and Max Weber (1864-1920).
  • It is a perspective that sees society as the product of shared symbols, such as language. The social world is therefore constructed by the meanings that individuals attach to events and social interactions, and these symbols are transmitted across the generations through language.
  • A central concept of symbolic interactionists is the Self, which allows us to calculate the effects of our actions.
  • Symbolic interactionism theory has been criticized because it ignores the emotional side of the Self as a basis for social interaction.

Definition and Key Principles

Symbolic interactionism theory assumes that people respond to elements of their environments according to the subjective meanings they attach to those elements, such as meanings being created and modified through social interaction involving symbolic communication with other people.

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true.

Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical framework in sociology that describes how societies are created and maintained through the repeated actions of individuals (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

In simple terms, people in society understand their social worlds through communication — the exchange of meaning through language and symbols.

Instead of addressing how institutions objectively define and affect individuals, symbolic interactionism pays attention to these individuals’ subjective viewpoints and how they make sense of the world from their own perspective (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

The objective structure of a society is less important in the symbolic interactionist view than how subjective, repeated, and meaningful interactions between individuals create society. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation.

According to Blumer (1969), social interaction thus has four main principles:

  1. Individuals act in reference to the subjective meaning objects have for them. For example, an individual that sees the “object” of family as being relatively unimportant will make decisions that deemphasize the role of family in their lives;
  2. Interactions happen in a social and cultural context where objects, people, and situations must be defined and characterized according to individuals’ subjective meanings;
  3. For individuals, meanings originate from interactions with other individuals and with society;
  4. These meanings that an individual has are created and recreated through a process of interpretation that happens whenever that individual interacts with others.

History

The first person to write about the principles underlying Symbolic Interactionism was George Herbert Mead (1934). Mead, an American philosopher, argued that people develop their self-image through interactions with other people.

In particular, Mead concentrated on the language and other forms of talk that happens between individuals. The “self” — a part of someone's personality involving self-awareness and self-image — originates in social experience.

Charles Horton Cooley (1902) used the term looking-glass self to convey the idea that a person's knowledge of their self-concept is largely determined by the reaction of others around them. Other people thus act as a 'looking-glass' (mirror) so that we can judge ourselves by looking 'in' it.

An individual can respond to others’ opinions about himself, and internalize the opinions and feelings that others have about him.

Beginning in the 1960s, sociologists tested and adopted Mead’s ideas.

There are three main schools of Symbolic Interactionism: the Chicago School, the Iowa School, and the Indiana School. These schools stem from the work of Herbert Blumer, Manford Kuhn, and Sheldon Stryker, respectively.

Blumer’s Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism

Blumer invented the term “Symbolic Interactionism” and created a theory and methodology to test Mead's ideas. Most sociologists follow the work of Blumer (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Blumer emphasizes how the self can emerge from the interactive process of joining action (Denzin, 2008; Carter and Fuller, 2015). Humans constantly engage in “mindful action” that construct and negotiate the meaning of situations.

According to Blumer (1964), all studies of human behavior must begin by studying how people associate and interact with each other, rather than treating the individual and society as entirely separate beings (Meltzer and Petras, 1970; Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Society itself is not a structure, but a continual process of debating and reinventing the meaning of actions. An action that has a meaning in one context, or in the interaction between any two individuals, can have a completely different meaning between two different individuals, or in another context.

Society is about as structured as individuals’ interactions among themselves (Collins, 1994). Because meaning is constructed through the interactions between individuals, meaning cannot be fixed, and can even vary for the same individual.

People who perform actions attach meanings to objects, and their behavior is a unique way of reacting to their interpretation of a situation (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

There is no way to describe how people will generally respond to a situation because every interaction an individual has with an object, situation, or somebody else is different. This is why, according to Blumer, behavior is changing, unpredictable, and unique.

To summarize Blume’s view on Symbolic Interactionism (Blumer, 1969), people act toward objects in a way that reacts to the meanings they have personally given to the objects. This meaning that people are reacting to comments from the social interactions that person has with others; and meanings are confronted and modified through a continuous interpretive process that the person uses whenever they deal with things that they encounter (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Blumer strongly believed that the idea that science was the only right vehicle for discovering truth was deeply flawed. Because all behavior happens on the basis of an individuals’ own meanings about the world, Blumer believed that observing general behavioral patterns was not conducive to scientific insight (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Rather, Blumer aimed to attempt to see how any given person sees the world.

Methodologically, this means that Blummer believed that it is the researcher’s obligation to take the stance of the person they are studying and use the actor’s own categorization of the world to capture how that actor creates meanings from social interactions (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Iowa School of Symbolic Interactionism

Blumer’s de-emphasis of logical and empirical ways of measuring human behavior provoked responses from theorists who wanted to create a rigorous system of techniques for examining human behavior.

Notably, Manford Kuhn (the Iowa School) and Sheldon Stryker (the Indiana School) used empirical methods to study the self and social structure (Kuhn, 1964; Stryker, 1980; Carter and Fuller, 2015).

To Kuhn, behavior was “purposive, socially constructed, coordinated social acts informed by preceding events in the context of projected acts that occur.” Social interaction can be studied in a way that emphasizes the interrelatedness of an individual’s intention, sense of time, and the ways that they correct their own systems of meanings.

Small groups — groups with, for example, two or three people — to Kuhn, are the focus of most social behavior and interaction. Social behavior can be studied both in the greater world and within the confines of a laboratory, and this combination of approaches can lead to being able to identify abstract laws for social behavior which can apply to people at university.

And lastly, sociologists must create a systematic and rigorous vocabulary to deconstruct and create a system of cause and effect to how people form meaning through social interactions than social psychologists had before (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

One example of how Kuhn’s methodology deeply contrasts with that of Blumer's is the Twenty Statements Test.

In the Twenty Statements Test, Kuhn asked participants to respond to the question, “Who am I?” by writing 20 statements about themselves on 20 numbered lines.

Researchers could then code these responses systematically to find how individuals think about their identity and social status in both “conventional” (e.g. as a mother, spouse, or teacher) and idiosyncratic ways, while still allowing for enough freedom for researchers to discern how individuals interpret meanings in their world (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Indiana School of Symbolic Interactionism

In contrast to Kuhn, Stryker of the Indiana School of Symbolic Interactionism emphasizes that the meanings that individuals form from their interactions with others lead to patterns that create and uphold social structures (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

In particular, Stryker focuses on Mead’s concept of roles and role-taking. A social role is a certain set of practices and behaviors taken on by an individual, and these practices and behaviors are regulated through the social situations where the individual takes on the role (Casino and Thien, 2009).

The roles that individuals have are attached to individuals’ positions in society, and they can be predictors of their future behavior.

To Stryker, the social interactions between individuals — socialization — is a process through which individuals learn the expectations for the practices and behaviors of the roles that they have taken on. Individuals identify themselves by the roles they take in social structure, and the beliefs and opinions that others’ identify them with become internalized.

These internalized expectations of how someone with a particular set of roles is supposed to behave becomes an identity (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

In contrast to the Chicago and the Iowan schools of Symbolic Interactionism, the Indiana school attempts to bridge how people form a sense of meaning and identity on an individual level with the roles that they fill in the greater society.

Examples and Implications

Politics and Identity

In a classic symbolic interactionist study, Brooks (1969) reveals how different self-views correlate with right or left-wing political beliefs. Brooks describes these political beliefs as political roles.

Traditionally, sociologists viewed social beliefs and ideology as a result of economic class and social conditions, but Brooks noted that empirical research up to the 1960s considered political beliefs to be a manifestation of personality.

To symbolic interactionists such as Brooks, political beliefs can be seen as a manifestation of the norms and roles incorporated into how the individual sees themselves and the world around them, which develops out of their interactions with others, wherein they construct meanings.

A political ideology, according to Brooks, is a set of political norms incorporated into the individual’s view of themselves. Although people may have political roles, these are not necessarily political ideologies — for example, for some in the United States who are apathetic about politics, political beliefs play at most a peripheral role in comparison to the others that they take on; while for others — say activists or diplomats — it plays the central role in their lives.

Brooks hypothesized that those with right-wing political views viewed their sense of self as originating within institutions. To these people, identity centers around roles in within conventional institutions such as family, church, and profession, and other roles are peripheral to the ones they hold in these institutions.

Left-wingers, conversely, identify themselves as acting against or toward traditional institutions. All in all, according to Brook, those with left-wing ideologies identify themselves through a broader range of central statuses and roles than those belonging to the right-wing (Brooks, 1969).

Brooks interviewed 254 individuals who, for the most part, voted regularly, contributed money to political causes, attended political meetings, read the news, and defined themselves as having a strong interest in politics.

He then used a scale to observe and measure how the participants saw themselves in their political roles (asking questions about, for example, contentious political policy).

He then used Kuhn’s Twenty Statements Test to measure how individuals identified conventionally within institutions and idiosyncratically.

All in all, Brooks found that confirming his hypothesis, most left-wing ideologies included fewer descriptions of traditional institutions in their self-definition than average and most right-wing ideologies included more descriptions of institutions in their self-definition than average.

Not only did this provide evidence for how people formed identities around politics, but Brook's study provided a precedent for quantifying and testing hypotheses around symbolic interaction (1969).

For this reason, The Self and Political Role is often considered to be a classic study in the Iowa school of Symbolic Interactionism (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

Gender

According to West and Zimmerman’s (1987) Doing Gender, the concepts of masculinity and femininity are developed from repeated, patterned interaction and socialization.

Gender, rather than an internal state of being, is a result of interaction according to symbolic interactionists (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

In order to advance the argument that gender is a “routine, methodical, and reoccurring accomplishment” West and Zimmerman (1987) takes a critical examination of sociological definitions of gender.

In particular, they “contend that the notion of gender as a role obscures the work that is involved in producing gender in everyday activities.” Children are born with a certain sex and are put into a sex category.

Gender is then determined by whether or not someone performs the acts associated with a particular gender. Gender is something that is done, rather than an inherent quality of a person.

West and Zimmerman analyze Garfinkel's (1967) study of Agnes, a transgender woman.

Agnes was born with male genitalia and had reconstructive surgery. When she transitioned, Agnes, West and Zimmerman argue, had to pass an “if-can” test.

If she could be seen by people as a woman, then she would be categorized as a woman. In order to be perceived as a woman, Agnes faced the ongoing task of producing configurations of behavior that would be seen by others as belonging to a woman.

Agnes constructed her meaning of gender (and consequently heer self-identity and self-awareness of gender) through projecting typically feminine behavior and thus being treated as if she were a woman (West and Zimmerrman, 1987).

Geography

Although few geographers would call themselves symbolic interactionists, geographers are concerned with how people form meanings around a certain place.

They are interested in mundane social interactions, and how these daily interactions can lead people to form meanings around social space and identity. This can extend to both the relationships between people and those between people and non-human entities, such as nature, maps, and buildings.

Early geographers suggested that how people imagined the world was important to their understanding of social and cultural worlds (Casino and Thien, 2020). In the 1990s, geography shifted to the micro-level, focusing — in a similar vein to Symbolic Interactionism — on interviews and observation.

Geographers who are “post-positivist” — relying primarily on qualitative methods of gathering data — consider the relationships that people have with the places they encounter (for example, whether or not they are local to that place).

These relationships, Casino and Thien (2020) argue, can happen both between people and other people in a place and between people and objects in their environment.

The Self and Identity Formation

A large number of social psychologists have applied the symbolic interactionist framework to study the formation of self and identity.

Three largest theories to come out of these applications of Symbolic Interactionism are role theory, Affect Control Theory, and identity theory. Role theory deals with the process of creating and modifying how one defines oneself and one’s roles (Turner, 1962).

Meanwhile, Affect Control Theory attempts to predict what individuals do when others violate social expectations. According to Affect Control Theory, individuals construct events to confirm the meanings they have created for themselves and others.

And lastly, identity theory aims to understand how one’s identities motivate behavior and emotions in social situations.

For example, Stryker et. al. studied how behavior is related to how important certain identities someone has are in relation to other identities (Carter and Fuller, 2015).

For example, someone who identifies heavily with a religious identity is more likely to, for example, go to religious services than someone who is not (Stryker and Serpe, 1982).

Architecture

Mead (2015) has long posited that people can form identities from the interactions between non-human objects and themselves as much as from their interactions with other humans.

One such example of sociologists studying how the interactions between non-humans and humans forms identity apply to architecture.

Smith and Bugni (2011) examined architectural sociology, which is the study of how socio-cultural phenomena influence and are influenced by the designed physical environment.

This designed physical environment can be as far ranging as buildings, such as houses, churches and prisons; bounded spaces such as streets, plazas, and offices; objects such as monuments, shrines, and furniture; and many elements of architecture design (such as shapes, size, location, lighting, color, texture, and materials).

Smith and Bugni proposed that symbolic interaction theory is a useful lens to understand architecture for three reasons. First of all, designed physical environments can influence people’s perception of self and people can express and influence themselves through designed physical environments.

Secondly, designed physical environments contain and communicate a society’s shared symbols and meanings (Lawrence and Low, 1990). And thirdly, the designed physical environment is not merely a backdrop for human behavior, but an agent to shape thoughts and actions through self-reflection (Smith and Bugni, 2011).

Rather than forcing behavior, architecture suggests possibilities, channels communication, and provides impressions of acceptable activities, networks, norms, and values to individuals (Ankerl, 1981).

People’s interactions with architectural forms can influence, rather than determine, thoughts and actions.

Crime

The definition of deviance is relative and depends on the culture, time period, and situation. Howard Becker’s labeling theory (1963) proposes that deviance is not inherent in any act, belief, or condition; instead, it is determined by the social context.

Edwin Sutherland’s differential association theory (Sutherland 1939; Sutherland et al. 1992), which asserts that we learn to be deviant through our interactions with others who break the rules.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a student at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Oct 12). Symbolic interactionism theory & examples. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/symbolic-interaction-theory.html

References

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