Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that develops from practical considerations and alludes to people’s particular utilization of dialectto make images and normal implications, for deduction and correspondence with others. In other words, it is a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shape individual behaviors. It is a framework that helps understand how society is preserved and created through repeated interactions between individuals. The interpretation process that occurs between interactions help create and recreate meaning. It is the shared understanding and interpretations of meaning that affect the interaction between individuals. Individuals act on the premise of a shared understanding of meaning within their social context. Thus, interaction and behavior is framed through the shared meaning that objects and concepts have attached to them.
Symbolic interactionism comes from a sociological perspective which developed around the middle of the twentieth century and that continues to be influential in some areas of the discipline. It is particularly important in microsociology and social psychology. It is derived from the American philosophy of pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Herbert Mead, as a pragmatic method to interpret social interactions.
The term “symbolic interactionism” has come into use as a label for a relatively distinctive approach to the study of human life and human conduct (Blumer, 1939). With Symbolic interactionism, reality is seen as social, developed interaction with others. Most symbolic interactionists believe a physical reality does indeed exist by an individual’s social definitions, and that social definitions do develop in part or relation to something “real”. People thus do not respond to this reality directly, but rather to the social understanding of reality; i.e., they respond to this reality indirectly through a kind of filters or eyeglasses (perspectives). This means that humans exist not in the physical space composed of realities, but in the “world” composed only of “objects”. According to Blumer, the “objects” can be divided into three types: physical objects, social objects, and abstract objects.
Both individuals and society cannot be separated far from each other for two reasons. One, being that they are both created through social interaction, and two, one cannot be understood in terms without the other. Behavior is not defined by forces from the environment or inner forces such as drives, or instincts, but rather by a reflective, socially understood meaning of both the internal and external incentives that are currently presented (Meltzer et al., 1975).
Herbert Blumer set out three basic premises of the perspective:
Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
“The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.”
These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.
The first premise includes everything that a human being may note in their world, including physical objects, actions and concepts. Essentially, individuals behave towards objects and others based on the personal meanings that the individuals have already given these items. The second premise explains the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with other humans. Blumer, following Mead, claimed people interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. Their “response” is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols and signification, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions. Meaning is either taken for granted and pushed aside as an unimportant element which need not to be investigated or it is regarded as a mere neutral link or one of the causal chains between the causes or factors responsible for human behavior and this behavior as the product of such factors. Social interaction is the source of meaning, and out of which the typical communication media which have meanings, the language arises, and is negotiated through the use of it. We have the ability to name things and designate objects or actions to a certain idea or phenomenon. The use of symbols is a popular procedure for interpretation and intelligent expression. Blumer contrasted this process with behaviorist explanations of human behavior, which does not allow for interpretation between stimulus and response.
In Blumer’s third premise the idea of minding comes into play. Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation. Mead called this inner dialogue minding. Minding is the delay in one’s thought process that happens when one thinks about what they will do next. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out the meaning of a difficult situation. But first, we need language. Before we can think, we must be able to interact symbolically. The emphasis on symbols, negotiated meaning, and social construction of society brought on attention to the roles people play. Role-taking is a key mechanism that permits people to see another person’s perspective to understand what an action might mean to another person. Role-taking is a part of our lives at an early age. Playing house and pretending to be someone else are examples of this phenomena. There is an improvisational quality of roles; however, actors often take on a script that they follow. Because of the uncertainty of roles in social contexts, the burden of role-making is on the person in the situation. In this sense, we are proactive participants in our environment.
Sociological Paradigm : Symbolic Interactionist Theory
Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theory that focuses on the relationships among individuals within a society. Communication—the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is believed to be the way in which people make sense of their social worlds. Theorists Herman and Reynolds (1994) note that this perspective sees people as being active in shaping the social world rather than simply being acted upon.
George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) is considered a founder of symbolic interactionism though he never published his work on it (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). Mead’s student, Herbert Blumer, coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and outlined these basic premises: humans interact with things based on meanings ascribed to those things; the ascribed meaning of things comes from our interactions with others and society; the meanings of things are interpreted by a person when dealing with things in specific circumstances (Blumer 1969). If you love books, for example, a symbolic interactionist might propose that you learned that books are good or important in the interactions you had with family, friends, school, or church; maybe your family had a special reading time each week, getting your library card was treated as a special event, or bedtime stories were associated with warmth and comfort.
Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, while a conflict theorist studying a political protest might focus on class difference, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in how individuals in the protesting group interact, as well as the signs and symbols protesters use to communicate their message. The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a technique called dramaturgical analysis. Goffman used theater as an analogy for social interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” Because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds (Goffman 1958).
Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live.
Constructivism is an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans cognitively construct it to be. We develop social constructs based on interactions with others, and those constructs that last over time are those that have meanings which are widely agreed-upon or generally accepted by most within the society. This approach is often used to understand what’s defined as deviant within a society. There is no absolute definition of deviance, and different societies have constructed different meanings for deviance, as well as associating different behaviors with deviance. One situation that illustrates this is what you believe you’re to do if you find a wallet in the street. In the United States, turning the wallet in to local authorities would be considered the appropriate action, and to keep the wallet would be seen as deviant. In contrast, many Eastern societies would consider it much more appropriate to keep the wallet and search for the owner yourself; turning it over to someone else, even the authorities, would be considered deviant behavior.