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Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective on self and society based on the ideas of George H. Mead (1934), Charles H. Cooley (1902), W. I. Thomas (1931), and other pragmatists associated, primarily, with the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The central theme of symbolic interactionism is that human life is lived in the symbolic domain. Symbols are culturally derived social objects having shared meanings that are created and maintained in social interaction. Through language and communication, symbols provide the means by which reality is constructed. Reality is primarily a social product, and all that is humanly consequential—self, mind, society, culture—emerges from and is dependent on symbolic interactions for its existence. Even the physical environment is relevant to human conduct mainly as it is interpreted through symbolic systems.

Importance of Meanings

The label symbolic interactionism was coined by Herbert Blumer (1969), one of Mead's students. Blumer, who did much to shape this perspective, specified its three basic premises: (1) Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them; (2) the meanings of things derive from social interaction; and (3) these meanings are dependent on, and modified by, an interpretive process of the people who interact with one another. The focus here is on meaning, which is defined in terms of action and its consequences (reflecting the influence of pragmatism). The meaning of a thing resides in the action that it elicits. For example, the meaning of "grass" is food to a cow, shelter to a fox, and the like. In the case of symbols, meanings also depend on a degree of consensual responses between two or more people. The meaning of the word husband, for example, depends on the consensual responses of those who use it. If most of those who use it agree, the meaning of a symbol is clear; if consensus is low, the meaning is ambiguous, and communication is problematic. Within a culture, a general consensus prevails on the meanings associated with various words or symbols. However, in practice, the meanings of things are highly variable and depend on processes of interpretation and negotiation of the interactants.

The interpretive process entails what Blumer refers to as role-taking, the cognitive ability to take the perspective of another. It is a critical process in communication because it enables actors to interpret one another's responses, thereby bringing about greater consensus on the meanings of the symbols used. The determination of meanings also depends on negotiation—that is, on mutual adjustments and accommodations of those who are interacting. In short, meaning is emergent, problematic, and dependent on processes of role-taking and negotiation. Most concepts of symbolic interactionism are related to the concept of meaning.

Situational Definitions

The importance of meanings is reflected in Thomas's (1931) famous dictum: If situations are defined as real, they are real in their consequences. The definition of the situation emphasizes that people act in situations on the basis of how they are defined. Definitions, even when at variance with "objective" reality, have real consequences for people's actions and events.

The definitional process involves the determination of relevant identities and attributes of interactants. If, for example, a teacher defines a student as a slow learner (based on inaccurate information), her discriminatory behavior (e.g., less attention and lower expectations) may have a negative effect on the student's intellectual development, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy. This process, in combination with interactionist ideas about self-concept formation, is the basis of the labeling theory of deviance. Labeling theory proposes that a key factor in the development of deviants is the negative label of identity imposed on the person (e.g., "criminal," "pervert") who engages in deviant behavior (Becker 1963).

Defining a situation is not a static process. An initial definition, based on past experiences or cultural expectations, may be revised in the course of interaction. Much of the negotiation in social situations entails an attempt to present the self in a favorable light or to defend a valued identity. Erving Goffman's (1959) insightful analyses of impression management and the use of deference and demeanor, as well as Marvin Scott and Stanford Lyman's (1968) examination of the use of excuses, justifications, and accounts, speak to the intricacies involved in situational definitions. Where power or status disparities exist, the dominant interactant's definition of the situation likely prevails.

Self-Concept Formation

Along with symbols, meaning, and interaction, the self is a basic concept in symbolic interactionism. The essential feature of the self is that it is a reflexive phenomenon. Reflexivity enables humans to act toward themselves as objects, or to reflect on themselves, argue with themselves, evaluate themselves, and so forth. This human attribute (al-though dolphins and the great apes show some evidence of a self as well), based on the social character of human language and the ability to role-take, enables individuals to see themselves from the perspective of another and thereby to form a conception of themselves, a self-concept.

Two types of others are critical in the development of the self. The significant other refers to people who are important to an individual, whose opinions matter. The generalized other refers to a conception of the community, group, or any organized system of roles (e.g., a baseball team) that are used as a point of reference from which to view the self.

The importance of others in the formation of self-concepts is captured in Cooley's (1902) influential concept, the looking-glass self. Cooley proposed that to some extent individuals see themselves as they think others see them. Self-conceptions and self-feelings (e.g., pride or shame) are a consequence of how people imagine others perceive and evaluate them. Within contemporary symbolic interactionism, this process is called reflected appraisals and is the main process emphasized in the development of the self.

The self is considered a social product in other ways, too. The content of self-concepts reflects the content and organization of society. This is evident with regard to the roles that are internalized as role-identities (e.g., father, student). Roles, as behavioral expectations associated with a status within a set of relationships, constitute a major link between social and personal organization. Sheldon Stryker (1980) proposes that differential commitment to various role-identities provides much of the structure and organization of self-concepts. To the extent that individuals are committed to a particular role identity, they are motivated to act according to their conception of the identity and to maintain and protect it, because their role performance implicates their self-esteem. Much of socialization, particularly during childhood, involves learning social roles and associated values, attitudes, and beliefs. Initially this takes place in the family, then in larger arenas (e.g., peer groups, school, work settings) of the individual's social world. The role identities formed early in life, such as gender and filial identities, remain some of the most important throughout life. Yet socialization is lifelong, and individuals assume various role identities throughout their life course.

Socialization is not a passive process of learning roles and conforming to other's expectations. The self is highly active and selective, having a major influence on its environment and itself. When people play roles, role-making often is as evident as is learning roles. In role-making, individuals actively construct, interpret, and uniquely express their roles. When they perceive an incongruity between a role imposed on them and some valued aspect of their self-conception, they may distance themselves from a role, which is the disassociation of self from role. A pervasive theme in this literature is that the self actively engages in its own development, a process that may be unpredictable.

Divisions Within Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is not a homogeneous theoretical perspective. Although interactionists agree that humans rely on shared symbols to construct their realities and on the methodological requirement of understanding behavior by "getting inside" the reality of the actor, substantial divisions remain within this perspective. The main division is between those who emphasize process and those who emphasize structure in studying human realities. The former, associated with Blumer (1969) and known as the Chicago School, advocates the use of qualitative methods in studying the process of reality construction within natural social settings. The latter, associated with Manfurd Kuhn (1964) and labeled the Iowa School, advocates the use of quantitative methods in studying the products of social interaction, especially self-concepts. The differences between these two schools of symbolic interactionism reflect the fundamental division in the social sciences between humanistic/interpretive orientations, which align with history and the humanities, and positivistic orientations, which align with the physical sciences. Both of these orientations to symbolic interactionism are evident in marriage and family studies, although the structural orientation predominates.

Symbolic Interactionism and Family Studies

Symbolic interactionism has been an important theoretical perspective in family studies since its early development in the 1920s and 1930s (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). William Thomas and Florian Znaniecki's (1918–1920) monumental study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, was an early application of some of the main themes and concepts of the perspective. This study focused on the adjustments and transformations in personality and family patterns in the Polish peasant community in the course of immigration to the United States during the early 1900s. Processes of socialization, adaptation, definition formation, role-making, and self-concept development were major themes in their analysis.

Ernest Burgess, however, was the first to call for the systematic application of "processual" symbolic interactionism to family studies. He proposed that the family can be viewed as "a unity of inter-acting personalities" (Burgess 1926), a little universe of communication in which roles and selves are shaped and each personality affects every other personality. Unfortunately, few heeded Burgess's call to study the dynamic interactions of whole families (for an exception, see Hess and Handel 1959). It is impractical for most family researchers to study whole family dynamics over time. Burgess's own empirical studies mostly used conventional survey methods and measurements in studying marital adjustment (Burgess and Cottrell 1939), and reflect a more structural interactionism (i.e., emphasis on social structure rather than process) characteristic of the Iowa school.

Another pioneer in the symbolic interactionist approach to family research was Willard Waller (1937, 1938). Waller used qualitative methods (e.g., case studies and novels) to study family dynamics, particularly processes of interpersonal conflict, bargaining, and exploitation. His principle of least interest suggests that the person least interested in or committed to the marital or dating relationship has the most power in that relationship and frequently exploits the other. The theme of conflict and exploitation was prominent in his analysis of college dating patterns in the 1930s. Reuben Hill, who shaped much of the contemporary research on the family, reworked Waller's treatise by shifting the focus from a conflict and process orientation to a relatively structured developmental perspective emphasizing family roles and a more harmonious view of family life (Waller and Hill 1951).

Much contemporary family research from a symbolic interactionist perspective deals with some type of role analysis, such as how the roles of husband and wife are defined during stages of family life; how gender role conceptions affect the definitions of spousal roles; how the arrival of children and the transition to parental roles change role constellations and interaction patterns; how external events (e.g., parental employment, natural disasters, migration) and internal events (e.g., births, deaths, divorces) affect role definitions, performance, stress, or conflict; and how these role-specific variables affect the attitudes, dispositions, and self-conceptions of family members (Hutter 1985). The concept of role is also important for most of the major sociological perspectives (e.g., structural functionalism, social exchange theory, and even conflict theory). The symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes the processes of role-making, role definition, role negotiation, and role identity within the family (Hochschild 1989).

A large area of symbolic interactionist research deals with socialization—the processes through which personalities and self-concepts are formed, values and attitudes are transmitted, and the culture of one generation is passed to the next. The socialization of children is one of the few remaining (and the most critical) functions of the family in modern societies. It has received considerable attention from researchers. A symbolic interactionist perspective on child socialization encompasses a broad range of processes and outcomes involved in integrating the newborn into its family and society. Most of the socialization research has focused on the development of some aspect of the self (e.g., self-esteem, gender, and filial identities). The research indicates that positive reflected appraisals from parents along with parental support and the use of inductive control have positive socialization outcomes for the children's self-concept (Gecas and Schwalbe 1986; Peterson and Rollins 1987).

The socialization process is highly reciprocal; parents and children affect one anothers' self-concepts. The high levels of reciprocity characteristic of family socialization processes (and a hallmark of symbolic interactionism) are rarely reflected in family research, although researchers are increasingly sensitive to it. A focus on reciprocity is more evident in research where identity negotiation is problematic, as in the case of lesbian motherhood (Hequembourg and Farrell 1999) or in the case of immigrant families where parents and children must renegotiate their roles in unfamiliar cultural contexts (Hyman and Vu 2000).

In addition to pursuing traditional interests in family studies, mostly in the United States, symbolic interactionists are increasingly pursuing cross-cultural and international research. In the area of self and identity, for example, Steve Derne (1999) shows how male filmgoers in India use their interpretations of Western films to both maintain and enhance their sense of male privilege. This research demonstrates how, when exposed to cultural perspectives that may threaten their own self-concepts or ethnic identities, people engage in interpretive processes that serve to incorporate these ideas into existing self-structures. Research in Nigeria (Rotini 1986) has shown how car ownership, an influential status symbol, shapes personal interactions among the owners of different types of cars and how the infiltration of new technologies into cultures can alter role-relations in social institutions such as the family, law, and religion.

Cross-cultural research also explores how family relations are conducted within specific ethnic domains, and how the cultural contexts in which communication occurs shape family interactions and identity negotiations (Luo and Wiseman 2000). Mzobanzi Mboya (1993), for example, offers a compelling study of the ways that the self-concepts of South African adolescent schoolchildren are related to their perceptions of parental behavior. Simon Cheng's (2000) research on the child socialization mechanisms used by Chinese families who have immigrated to the United States demonstrates how ethnic identities are socially constructed, negotiated, and maintained through parent-child interactions that occur in heterogeneous cultural milieus.

Broadly speaking, social movements, national dilemmas, international conflict, and the flow of international immigrants frame the symbolic domains in which families live. Immigrant families and children encountering cultures and lifestyles that are vastly different from their own struggle to realize new opportunities and to maintain their own ethnic identities and integrity (Zhou 1997). Global social movements such as the women's movement offer opportunities for women to reconstruct their identities and, in doing so, to reconstruct the institution of the family itself (Ray and Korteweg 1999).


Many areas of family research reflect symbolic interactionist ideas, often in diffuse and diluted form. For instance, in much of the research on marital satisfaction, marital quality, patterns of dating and mating, and various family-relevant attitudes (e.g., premarital sex, abortion), symbolic interactionist ideas are likely to be implicitly rather than explicitly stated and tested. Although this may hinder the development and refinement of symbolic interactionism, it can also be viewed as an indication of the success of this theoretical perspective—that many of its concepts and ideas have become a part of the common wisdom of family studies. The theory's use in family research across cultural domains also points to the broad applicability of its fundamental premises and constructs.

See also:Family Roles; Family Theory; Gender Identity; Relationship Theories—Self-Other Relationship; Role Theory; Self-Esteem; Socialization; Transition to Parenthood


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symbolic interactionism

symbolic interactionism A leading American social psychological theory which focuses upon the ways in which meanings emerge through interaction. Its prime concern has been to analyse the meanings of everyday life, via close observational work and intimate familiarity, and from these to develop an understanding of the underlying forms of human interaction. Heavily influenced by pragmatism, the Chicago tradition of sociology and the philosophical writings of George Herbert Mead, the term itself was coined by Herbert Blumer in 1937.

The theory has four key foci. The first highlights the ways in which human beings are distinctly symbol-manipulating animals. It is through symbols that they, alone of all the animals, are capable of producing culture and transmitting a complex history. Interactionists are always concerned to study the ways in which people give meaning to their bodies, their feelings, their selves, their biographies, their situations, and indeed to the wider social worlds in which their lives exist. Research strategies such as participant observation are employed, which enable the researcher to gain access to these symbols and meanings, as in Howard S. Becker's Art Worlds (1982) and Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart (1983). There is a broad affinity here to semiology, but unlike at least some positions in semiology which seek the structures of language, interactionists are more concerned with the ways in which meaning is always emergent, fluid, ambiguous, and contextually bound. R. S. Perinbanayagam has provided an important account of meaning in interactionism in his book Signifying Acts (1985).

This leads to a second theme: that of process and emergence. For the interactionist, the social world is a dynamic and dialectical web, situations are always encounters with unstable outcomes, and lives and their biographies are always in the process of shifting and becoming, never fixed and immutable. Attention is fixed, not upon rigid structures (as in many other versions of sociology), but upon streams of activity with their adjustments and outcomes. Concepts such as career, negotiated order, becoming, encounters, and impression management are central to this approach.

A third focus of interactionism highlights the social world as precisely that—interactive. From this point of view there is no such thing as a solitary individual: humans are always connected to ‘others’. The most basic unit of interactionist analysis is that of the self, which stresses the ways in which people can (indeed must) come to view themselves as objects, and assume the role of others through a process of role-taking. This idea is clarified in Charles Horton Cooley's notion of the looking-glass self and Mead's more general idea of ‘the self’.

A fourth theme, derived from Georg Simmel, is that interactionism looks beneath these symbols, processes, and interactions in order to determine underlying patterns or forms of social life. Interactionists seek ‘generic social processes’. Thus, while they may study the life-experience of doctors, dance-band musicians, drug-users, and the dying, they can detect common processes at work in all such seemingly disparate groupings. A good example is Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss's Status Passage (1967), which provides a formal, interactionist theory of status changes.

Symbolic interactionism developed in the University of Chicago, in the first few decades of this century, and first achieved prominence when the Chicago School came to dominate early American sociology. However, it again became very influential during the 1960s, as a challenge to the dominance of Talcott Parsons and Grand Theory (sometimes being referred to, during the heyday of functionalism, as ‘the loyal opposition’). It was particularly influential in the development of the labelling theory of deviance, but also in such fields as occupational research (Everett Hughes), medical sociology ( Anselm Strauss), and in the study of classroom interaction. Strauss has pioneered a number of developments in interactionist theory. From his early work on identity (in Mirrors and Masks, 1969) to his formulation of the concept of negotiated order, his work exemplifies a major methodological concern with qualitative research (usually, for him, in medical settings), the development of appropriate strategies for doing such research (the so-called grounded theory approach), and the building of case-study theory which moves beyond itself into a more formal sociology. His work on dying patients (with Barney Glaser) is an exemplary study of all these concerns (see, for example, Awareness of Dying, 1967, Time for Dying, 1968, and Anguish, 1977

In the 1970s interactionism attracted considerable criticism for its neglect of social structure, power, and history. More recent interactionist writings have shown this critique to be misguided; and, in the process, have revitalized the theory. For example, Sheldon Stryker has attempted to enunciate a version of symbolic interactionism which more clearly relates the conventionally microsociological concerns of that perspective to the organizational and societal levels of analysis, mainly by an imaginative restatement of role theory. In particular, Stryker has been concerned with the idea of ‘role-making’, the active creation of roles (rather than mere ‘taking’ of them), where some social structures permit more such creativity than do others (see, for example, Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version, 1980

In the 1990s interactionism has provided analyses of a range of new phenomena, and has become more theoretically sophisticated (some might say eclectic) in creating links to post-modernism (in the work of Norman Denzin), feminism, semiology, and cultural theory. The best collection of interactionist writings, and one which gives a good indication of the tradition's virtues and limitations, is Ken Plummer's Symbolic Interactionism (2 vols., 1990). See also FORMALISM; GOFFMAN, ERVING; KUHN, MANFORD.

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GORDON MARSHALL. "symbolic interactionism." A Dictionary of Sociology. 1998. Encyclopedia.com. 28 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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Interactionism, Symbolic

Interactionism, Symbolic


Symbolic interactionism is centrally but not exclusively concerned with the interpretive study of urban life. The American sociologist Herbert Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism in 1937, initially using it to refer to the study of the symbols and meanings that operate within specific social groups. He also emphasized the importance of the ideas of Charles Horton Cooley. Thirty-two years later Blumer published Symbolic Interaction, a book that clarifies the central ideas of the perspective, emphasizes that the origins of the approach are found in George Herbert Meads work (rather than in Cooleys), and advocates the use of an eclectic set of qualitative methods without completely ruling out quantification. Blumers interpretation of and extension to Meads work also connected symbolic interactionism to the empirical interests of the Chicago school of sociology, the first major body of works specializing in urban sociology that arose during the 1920s and 1930s.

Symbolic interactionism has also retained its initial connection to the Progressive politics of the early-twentieth-century United States that were favored by many of the sociologists in Chicago during this time. Blumers 1969 formulation of symbolic interactionism stresses three premises and six root images. The three premises are: (1) human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them; (2) meanings are derived from social interaction and group life; and (3) these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he [or she] encounters (1969, p. 2). The six root images stress that social life is a group activity that is structured by layers of meaning. These meanings are incorporated into any groups understanding of physical, social, and abstract objects. Group members initially learn these meanings through childhood socialization processes and, over time, each group member develops a sense of self through both role taking and the internalization of the group into his or her own identity. This activity is not a mechanical process: People remake their social worlds collaboratively and Blumer stressed that symbolic interactionists must be aware of the fact that although social interaction is regulated, routinized, and therefore stable, it is not fixed.

Blumer believed that symbolic interactionism was an alternative to three rival approaches: mainstream sociological research with its emphasis on quantification and variable analysis; the structural functionalism of Talcott Parsons; and psychoanalysis. Contemporary sociologists, notably Gary Alan Fine in his 1993 work and David Maines in 2001, argue that the symbolic interactionist perspective has been incorporated into mainstream sociology. However, according to Maines, this incorporation is not widely acknowledged and has therefore produced a fault line that runs through the discipline. Fine argued that the contemporary relationship between symbolic interactionism and contemporary sociology is unclear because symbolic interactionism has simultaneously been fragmented, expanded, incorporated, and adopted by sociologists of very different persuasions. In Fines view, symbolic interactionists themselves have become intellectually promiscuous (1993, p. 64).

In 1954 Manford Kuhn and his associates quantified traditional interactionist concerns, thus paving the way for contemporary quantitative studies of self and identity, notably by Peter Burke and Sheldon Stryker, both in 1980. Symbolic interactionists have also explored theoretical intersections, not only to structural functionalism and psychoanalysis, but also to semiotics, feminism, poststructuralism, and other traditions of thought. The journal Symbolic Interaction is a major resource for those interested in this perspective.

SEE ALSO Blumer, Herbert; Groups; Mead, George Herbert; Parsons, Talcott; Sociology


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Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Burke, Peter. 1980. The Self: Measurement Implications from a Symbolic Interactionist Perspective. Social Psychology Quarterly 43: 1829.

Denzin, Norman. 1992. Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fine, Gary Alan. 1993. The Sad Demise, Mysterious Disappearance and Glorious Triumph of Symbolic Interactionism. Annual Review of Sociology 19: 6187.

Kuhn, Manford, and T. McPartland. 1954. An Empirical Investigation of Self-Attitudes. American Sociological Review 19: 6877.

Maines, David. 2001. The Faultline of Consciousness: A View of Interactionism in Sociology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Manning, Philip. 2005. Freud and American Sociology. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.

Stryker, Sheldon. 1980. Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version. Reading, MA: Cummings.

Turner, Jonathan. 1974. Parsons as a Symbolic Interactionist: A Comparison of Action and Interaction Theory. Sociological Inquiry 4: 283294.

Wiley, Norbert. 1994. The Semiotic Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Philip Manning

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