Interactional Perspective- What it is and the Basics


Interactionism is a theory within social psychology that claims that people’s behaviour depends upon the impact and effect of their environment. Behavior has to do with both the environment and people as they interact. Interactionism is one of the oldest perspectives in social psychology because it believes that behavior results from the environment and experiences one has within it.

Interactionism was first developed by Charles Cooley, who is often considered the father of modern sociology. He introduced this theory in 1902 when he published a book called Human Nature and Social Order. The book itself was based on the idea that what people are like is formed by social relationships.

According to Cooley, every person is a centre of the universe, and the person’s self must be understood as being defined by other people. This idea is known as the looking-glass self.

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Looking Glass Self

Figure : The Looking Glass Self Theory

The looking glass self is how people see themselves through other people’s eyes. It could be said that the ideas or beliefs we have of ourselves are derived from our interpretation of the response or reaction we gather from others.

From this perspective, it’s clear that human beings are a social species. We see ourselves in the way we believe other people see us, and because of this, we can feel self-confident or act in a shy, socially awkward manner.

According to Cooley, the self is composed of three parts which are:

  1. The Real Self – this is who people believe they are. It can also be called the true self.
  2. The Ideal Self – this is a person’s self-image of who they want to be.
  3. The Secret Self – this is what people think about the other two selves. It is unknown to the outer world, but thorough research can be found out (this part of self can be compared to the Freudian concept of id).

In the interactionism theory, the influence of other people is very important. It is believed that when a person makes a decision, they consider the reactions and feedback from other people.

The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

Figure: Symbolic Interactionism

George Herbert Mead was the founder of Symbolic interactionism, which is considered a branch of sociology (he also believed that this theory was not limited to the sociology realm). He had strong backing from Charles Cooley. George’s student Herbert Blumer also had a say in perspective.

Interactionists always attempt to understand human behavior by examining it in a social context. Their perspectives are distinguished from the biological, organismic, or cognitive schools of thought.

The symbolic interactionist perspective asserts that human beings are active, purposeful agents who seek to satisfy their needs and desires by using symbols, or signs, which they use to control their environment.

The symbolic interactionists subscribe to the concept of “symbolic thinking”–that is, the idea that human beings can use symbols to stand for objects, actions, and ideas. They believe that just as a symbol can represent an object or idea, objects and ideas can also represent symbols.

These interactionists maintain that human beings can use language to communicate ideas, information, beliefs, and values. Symbolic interactionists assert that people are not passive sponges who passively receive information through their senses. Rather, people actively select information from the world around them and transform it into meaningful symbols.

In addition, symbolic interactionists emphasize that people do not simply observe their environment; rather, they actively produce the social reality surrounding them.

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Symbolic Interactionism Principles According To Herbert Blumer

According to Herbert Blumer, the following principles are used by symbolic interactionists:

  1. Objects have meaning only because people attribute meaning to them. In other words, the objects or events are perceived as mean to something, and for human perception, these meanings are projected in them.
  2. People act toward things based on the meanings that these things have for them. In other words, they can be said to interact with their own ‘projections’ of meanings and things.
  3. The meaning of the social action is derived from and exists in the social interaction that it generates. In other words, because a relationship between two people is social, the meaning of their interaction goes beyond what either one of them brought into it.
  4. The starting point for understanding human behavior is the action itself. In other words, the first point of reference would be what a person does and not why he has done it.
  5. The most important thing about human beings is that they act toward things based on their meanings. These meanings derive from the social interaction that one has had with others.
  6. Human behavior is a function of what the actor does and the social context in which he does it and not of the internal psychological states of the actor.
  7. The emphasis is on a person’s view of the world. The way a person sees the world and not some supposed thing-in-itself is what matters.

Symbolic Interactionism and Social Psychology

According to George Herbert Mead, a person’s behaviour is largely determined by his response from others with which he interacts. The response a person receives from others decides his action and how he responds in turn to the action of others. If the response one gets is not what he expected, he would try to get it.

The response one expects from others is based on the social interaction that one has with other people. According to Herbert Blumer, the most important aspect of social interaction is the shared meanings. The meanings of objects and events arise out of social interactions in a social world.

The response one expects to receive from others is also based on other people’s meaning to it. According to George Herbert Mead, the meaning that one gives is determined by the response he expects from others. If the other person responds positively or negatively, then he develops a positive or negative attitude.

According to symbolic interactionism, the response one expects from others becomes the meaning of one’s action. A person acts differently if he gets what he expects than if he does not get it.

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The Significance of the Symbolic Interactionist Perspective

The symbolic interactionist perspective uses empirical observation and experimentation to study human behavior. It is based on the principle that objects in themselves have no meaning, and hence the meaning is bestowed by human beings themselves.

This perspective is most significant in terms of its contribution to social psychology. Its strength lies in social psychology because it focuses on two main areas: social behavior and the social environment.

Social Behavior

Since social psychologists stress the significance of social factors in human behavior, human interactions form the basis of their theories. They emphasize the behavior of individuals rather than the internal mechanisms or structures.

Social behavior is understood in the light of the responses received from other individuals. The symbolic interactionist perspective emphasizes that human behavior is a function of the response one gets. The response one expects from others is based on the shared meanings through social interaction.

According to the symbolic interaction theory, social behavior can be understood in mutual responses and reactions. Social psychology deals with the nature and function of human behavior from the interactionist perspective. Both sociology and psychology employ the perspective and has applied it to their specific fields.

The Social Environment

The social environment is a concept that is central to the symbolic interactionist perspective. The environment is taken as a given and does not change, thus giving people a constant frame of reference. It is also a shared environment, and it consists of the meanings that people have about things and events around them.

This perspective is significant because it provides an understanding of the importance of the social context in which individuals exist and live through their interactions with other people. Through this understanding, symbolic interactionists focus on the influence of society and social institutions on human behavior.

Sociologists link the environment to the process of socialization. Through this process, people learn to interpret and respond meaningfully to their environment. They learn to understand symbols that others use and the meaning of their behavior.

The process of socialization shapes a person’s personality. Symbolic interactionists stress the importance of social structure and the social system. The interactionists propose that individuals are moulded by the society in which they grow up. They get their identities, personality, and values from society.

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The Social System and Society

Figure: Components of a society

According to symbolic interactionists, a social system functions through the shared meanings of its members. The behavior is regulated through social norms, and there is a consensus around them.

The interactionists believe that society develops laws and common practices to regulate interactions and ensure stability. The rules specify what people should or should not do.

Community members follow and enforce these rules to maintain social norms. The interactionists are especially interested in the way the behavior of individuals is shaped by the system in which they live.

The social system is the interaction pattern between different groups, classes, and other types of members with common values and norms. It is important because it shapes the behavior of members.

The system is composed of institutions, such as families, schools, and businesses. It also regulates the behavior of individuals. Children learn gender roles, conflict resolution, language and other key values from a tender age.

Social institutions are powerful because they provide a stable framework for social interactions.

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The Symbolic Interactionism and Identities

This perspective presents people’s identities in three forms, namely personal, situated, and social.

Personal Identity

Personal identity is the particular and unique self-concept that an individual has in a particular context. It is also known as psychological identity, private personality, and subjective identity. This identity is shaped by the family environment where one grows up. It also includes ethnic, religious, and national identities.

Personal identity refers to how the individual thinks and feels about himself in relation to their social context. For a person’s needs or want to be fulfilled, they must be able to define themselves.

People derive personal identities from subjective interpretations and evaluations of social meanings. The subjective interpretations vary from individual to individual since everyone has a different experience with the social world.

These identities are not fixed, but they can be changed and modified over time through the experiences of the individuals. Their identity is being influenced by other people, objects and events in the environment. Personal identities are usually linked to traits such as personality, gender roles, sexual orientation and others.

Social Identity

This identity is the self-categorization or classification of individuals into certain groups based on social attributes such as sex, race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth.

From the social identity perspective, people have three types of social identities. They include personal identity, social role, and group membership.

Group membership

As a person belongs to various groups, they often have multiple identities with distinct characteristics. A person may identify themselves as a woman, mother, an employee, and so on.

This theory emphasizes the importance of “social categorization.” Social categorization is the process that helps us to classify people into various categories. This theory can be linked with social identity theory as they share similar perspectives of human behavior.

According to this theory, humans are naturally motivated to know about their identity and who they are. They want to find out what social groups they belong to and their roles in each group.

Social categorization helps people understand how other people perceive them and how they are seen in social settings. It helps them to find out more about their reputation and popularity among other people.

Social Roles

A social role is a set of expectations that are usually associated with a certain social status. These expectations motivate people to behave in specific ways.

The main focus is the behavioral aspect of social roles. It is an individual’s status, functions, and performance on certain tasks that define their roles.

The expectations and obligations associated with the role affect interpersonal relationships, group memberships, self-identity, and inter-role behavior. For an individual to have a clear vision of their role, they must see themselves in others’ perspective. Due to this, they can have a better understanding of their relationship with other people and groups. A good example of social role is Sick Role.

As social roles are concerned, there is the concept called “role distance.” This is the gap between the individual and the social roles they play. When an individual’s role distance is greater than their real personality, it is said that the person has a greater “role distance.”

Situated Identity

Situated identity is the self in a social context. As individuals go through various experiences in different situations, this influences their identity development.

According to this theory, identity development is influenced by social context. An individual’s “situation” refers to their physical environment in which they are doing something and interacting with other people. The ” social context” is the surrounding individuals and how they react to a person’s situation.

The situated identity theory suggests that an individual’s identity develops through a series of experiences. This theory takes into account the social factors in the person’s life that affect their situation.

The main idea here is to focus on the individual’s social context and how this affects them. It is limited to the contexts in which they are situated and the contexts that they create.

This theory has a lot of implications for learning opportunities in schools. By having a strong sense of identity, students can develop their skills and knowledge in certain areas. There is also an advantage for them to discover their talents in learning.

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Post-modern Applications of the Interactional Perspective

Interactional perspective is associated with multiple fields of study such as anthropology, social psychology, and sociology. This theory also has some post-modern applications.

In recent years, the focus has shifted from the structure of society to the people who make up a community. This is also what post-modernism promotes.

The post-modern theory promotes the social construction of reality in which people are affected by other people’s perceptions of them. The interactional approach has a great application in this theory because of its particular attention to individual perceptions.

Social constructionism is concerned with how people develop world views due to their interaction with other people and how these views affect them in different aspects of life.

This theory suggests that people’s social identities have a huge impact on their interactions in society. Through these interactions, they can learn more about their community and give meaning to their own lives.

Post-modernism is great in explaining how individuals with different social identities interact and how these interactions affect them. What one individual experiences may be different from another individual, but they both have a meaning in affecting the community.

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An Overview of The Society for The Study of Symbolic Interaction(SSSI)

This society is a non-profit organization established in 1957. It is composed of various scholars from different fields who share the same interest in symbolic interactionism.

Their main objective is to promote the study of symbolic interactionism and related fields. The society publishes a journal called Symbolic Interaction which serves as their main information resource. It also has various conferences and workshops that help facilitate the study of these theories.

The SSSI provides a venue where scholars from different fields can learn more about these theories and share their work. It also provides a community that encourages the exchange of knowledge and gives a venue for collaboration among scholars.

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Criticism of the Perspective

The following are some of the weaknesses of the symbolic interaction perspective:

  • It does not consider the influence of biological factors in the development of behavior. A person’s biological factors may determine how they interpret things.
  • It focuses only on two roles in social interaction: the actor and the interpreter of meanings. It does not consider other roles, such as that of the agent.
  • The perspective ignores the complexity of society. Members of the society have different meanings of events in their lives.
  • The symbolic interaction perspective does not consider the influence of socialization on how people interact with their environment.
  • It overlooks the uncertainty and the chances of getting wrong meanings in social interaction.

The symbolic interactionist perspective is limited because it does not consider other factors in the development of behavior. These other factors help explain why people behave differently and how they behave in specific situations.

This perspective is based on the assumption that people can perform abstract thinking and separate themselves from their environment.

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Symbolic interactionism is significant in terms of its contribution to social psychology, sociology, and anthropology. However, it suffers from certain weaknesses that affect its utility in comprehensively explaining human behavior.

The way people interact and learn from each other is influenced by more factors than this perspective explains. However, the theorists did their best to dissect the main principles of social interactions.

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