Symbolic interactionism, or interactionism for short, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. This perspective has a long intellectual history, beginning with the German sociologist and economist, Max Weber and the American philosopher, George H. Mead, both of whom emphasized the subjective meaning of human behavior, the social process, and pragmatism. Herbert Blumer, who studied with Mead at the University of Chicago, is responsible for coining the term, "symbolic interactionism," as well as for formulating the most prominent version of the theory (Blumer 1969).
Mead is generally regarded as the founder of the symbolic interaction approach. George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy and spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago. Mead's major work is Mind, Self and Society, a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934, a work in which he emphasizes how the social world develops various mental states in an individual.
Mead looked on the "self as an acting organism, not a passive receptacle that simply receives and responds to stimuli" (Mead 124), as Durkheim may have thought. People are not merely media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, but that "we are thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others" (Mead 145). For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus. Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions. Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals. Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to do this. While humans may do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that it is only humans that can adjust actions by using significant or meaningful symbols. As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner.
The self is the central social feature in the symbolic interaction approach. Instead of being passive and being influenced by values or structures, Mead considers the self as a process that is active and creative Ð²Ð‚â€œ taking on the role of others, addressing the self by considering these roles, and then responding. This is a reflexive process, whereby an individual can take himself or herself to be both subject and object. This means that "the individual is an object to himself, and, so far as I can see, the individual is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself" (Mead 148).
Interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems. One reason for this focus is that interactionists base their theoretical perspective on their image of humans, rather than on their image of society (as the functionalists do). For interactionists, humans are pragmatic actors who continually must adjust their behavior to the actions of other actors. In Peter BergerÐ²Ð‚â„¢s sixth chapter of Invitation to Sociology, he discusses how life is really a stage and we are actors who either faithfully play the role or not. We can adjust to these actions only because we are able to interpret them, i.e., to denote them symbolically and treat the actions and those who perform them as symbolic objects. This process of adjustment is aided by our ability to imaginatively rehearse alternative lines of action before we act. The process is further aided by our ability to think about and to react to our own actions and even our selves as symbolic objects. Thus, the interactionist theorist sees humans as active, creative participants who construct their social world, not as passive, conforming objects of socialization.
For the interactionist, society consists of organized and patterned interactions among individuals. Research by interactionists focuses on easily observable face-to-face interactions rather than on macro-level structural relationships involving social institutions. This focus on interaction and on the meaning of events to the participants in those events (the definition of the situation) shifts the attention of interactionists away from stable norms and values toward more changeable, continually readjusting social processes. Whereas for functionalists socialization creates stability in the social system, for interactionists negotiation among members of society creates temporary, socially constructed relations, which remain in constant flux, despite relative stability in the basic framework governing those relations.
These emphases on symbols, negotiated reality, and the social construction of society lead to an interest in the roles people play. Erving Goffman, a prominent social theorist in this tradition, discusses roles dramaturgically, using an analogy to the theater, with human social behavior seen as more or less well scripted and with humans as role-taking actors. Role-taking is a key mechanism of interaction, for it permits us to take the other's perspective, to see what our actions might mean to the other actors with whom we interact. At other times, interactionists emphasize the improvisational quality of roles, with human social behavior seen as poorly scripted and with humans as role-making improvisers. Role-making, too, is a key mechanism of interaction, for all situations and roles are inherently ambiguous, thus requiring us to create those situations and roles to some extent before we can act.
Interactionists use the term reference groups in place of institutions. Institutions provide procedures through which human conduct is patterned, compelled to go, in grooves deemed desirable by society. And this trick is performed by making these grooves appear to the individual as the only possible ones (Beger 87) Reference groups are social organizations and the same way institutions make up the society, reference groups created by interactions amongst people lead to the construction of the society. Some reference groups have conflicts and are Ð²Ð‚?dysfunctionalÐ²Ð‚â„¢ and some are stable and have uniformity of consensus. However, the central feature of all the groups is that they are in a continual process of change and transformation gyrating from micro social interactions. Hence as people communicate with one another they bring about social change and this change affects the reference group, which in turn plays a role in defining society.
An important part of the interactionist perspective is the significance of symbolic communication. Herbert Blumer, outlined three core principals of symbolic interactionism. These were meaning, language and thought. The principal of meaning is central to human behavior. To humans people and things have meanings and each human reacts and behaves according to the meaning he has assigned to people and things. Language facilitates meaning by giving it a way to negotiate meaning through symbols. The process of naming is important because it assigns meaning and therefore naming through language becomes the basis for human knowledge. The act of speech involves language a form of symbolic interaction. (Blumer 152).
It is the principal of thought which eventually gives the Interaction perspective the quality of stating that the society is dynamic and change is continuous. The process of cognitive thinking develops and modifies each individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s interpretation of symbols. The process of thought is a major research area for contemporary sociological theories. In thought a mental conversation takes place in which an individual can assume different roles and imagine different situations and points of views. Humans have the ability to convey their thoughts in the form of language.
Everyday interaction involves the self-concept and identity which is formed by individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s interaction with the society. As a result an individual develops powerful themes of social class, power and dominance, age, gender and ethnicity. All these themes have an impact on an individualÐ²Ð‚â„¢s interaction with others. Throughout his life an individual develops an understanding of moral values, how families behave, religion and laws. Because the society is dynamic and change is continues laws and values change and religious beliefs occupy different levels of importance for different people. The interactionist approach investigates how people interact, and interpret theirs and other peoples actions. Their interactions within a reference group such as family will define the culture, belief and actions of the group and therefore the consequences of individual actions will be felt in the larger social group.
The reality of groups and society exists in the mind of the individual; if the actors believe that the groups are real then the groups exist. In symbolic interaction a group develops a negotiated consensus about what is real and society becomes a social construction. Society and its organizations is basically the outcome of past symbolic interactions and negotiations. Social change does not happen when external factors change rather it happens when people assign new meanings to situations and therefore act accordingly.
For Berger, the individual who is conscious of his own freedom does not stand outside the world of causality, but rather perceives of his own volition as a very special category of cause (Berger 123). Thus freedom is not the absence of society; freedom is a conscious relation to one self, a self-consciousness of choice. Thus, if "definitions" are coercive, we help to co-define them, helping to "trap" ourselves. Society needs our compliance and thus, we can redefine. Historical process reveals that social structures are not eternal. Were "concocted by human beings. Since men created all social systems, it follows that men can also change them (Berger 128). Berger believes that society defines us, but is in turn defined by us meaning that society needs us to exist at all. Berger says that we are drama actors playing a part with full consciousness of what we are doing through a transformation of consciousness. To be self-conscious agents in conditions, not all of our own choosing, but which are still the creation of others and ours previous actions or inactions.
Berger, Peter. 1963. Invitation to Sociology: A Humanistic Perspective. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.
Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goffman, Erving. 1958. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.
Mead, Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press