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Symbolic Interactionism- Definition, Theorists, & Examples


Symbolic interactionism suggests that people are constantly trying to figure out how their behavior will impact the thoughts and emotions of others.

We do this all day long – we figure out whether or not we should smile at someone or whether we should do something nice for another person. According to symbolic interactionism, it is impossible to figure out what another person thinks as you can’t read their mind. 

However, you can notice how they are interpreting your behavior and shift accordingly. You might not know what someone else is thinking when looking at you, but you can figure out what their face or body language is telling you. In this post you will learn more about symbolic interactionism and how it applies in society today. 

SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM is a sociological perspective that focuses on how individuals use signs or symbols to create shared meaning between themselves and others.

This perspective argues that humans are born into a shared culture and learn the interpretation of various signs throughout their lifetime. In some cases, these symbols may have become so accepted that we might be unaware of them.

For example, you likely know what a stop sign looks like (and thus how to interpret this symbol), but you probably have rarely thought about what the colors red and yellow mean (e.g., “stop” or “caution”).  We’ll delve more into this theory in this guide; you’ll be a professor in symbolic interactionalism by the time you’re done reading!

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What’s the Meaning of Symbolic? How Does it Relate to Interactionism?

Symbolic refers to how we interpret language, things/objects, and actions. This doesn’t mean that these three types of symbols are somehow separate – they form a type of unity through their shared meanings.

Symbols provide us with a way to interact with each other – if it weren’t for symbols and the interpretations that we give them, we wouldn’t be able to experience social life. 

Symbolic interactionism suggests that we make meaning out of our experiences with other people. We create a shared reality when we interact and, therefore, understand what it means to “be social”. We learn how to interpret the signs around us through socialization (i.e., learning from others).

If I ask you what a stop sign symbolizes, you might say that it means “stop”. This answer isn’t based on just your thinking – you learned what this symbol meant by interacting with other people.

For example, when someone points to a stop sign and yells “stop!” or puts up their hand in the shape of an “x” (an old hand signal used to command a horse to stop), you know that they mean “stop”.

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What is a Theory?

A theory is a formal way of viewing the world that can be applied to specific situations. In theory, you could have many different theories about how people interact in social life.

Theories are based on assumptions (what the theory assumes to be true) that might not necessarily hold up in reality. These assumptions should be tested to see if they are valid or not. If the theory is not valid, it can be modified or discarded.

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What is Interactionism Theory?

Interactionist theory is a sociological framework that views humans as active agents who cause change within society. Unlike other sociological perspectives, which focus on the macro-level of society (e.g., social institutions), interactionism considers the ‘micro’ level to examine behavior between individuals.

The central assumption of symbolic interactionism is that meanings are created as people act and react to one another. As a result, there’s no universal definition of anyone phenomenon – they are created through interaction. Symbolic interactionism reflects the social world in which people live, and their interpretations of these symbols define their actions and words.

Symbolic interactionism emphasizes the idea that culture is created from shared meanings. This perspective on life also maintains that people act within this culture, and their actions are largely based on these shared meanings. 

For symbolic interactionists, the starting point for understanding human behavior is to be found in how individuals make sense of what they encounter. This approach to life is known as subjective meaning – what we hold within our minds about behaviors, objects or signs.

Humans rely on these subjective interpretations of the world around us because they help us make sense of social life and past experiences.

These meanings are thus provided to us when we are growing up through interactions with those around us (our family, friends, teachers), and as we grow older, we develop a more complex understanding of the world.

A symbolic interactionist perspective maintains that individuals construct their realities using the available information and then act according to it.

This type of perspective is based on the idea that people don’t simply react to their surroundings, but rather they use their past experiences as a guide for how to behave (these guides are known as schemas). Schemas provide individuals with a framework through which they can make sense of possible behaviors.

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What Are Examples of Symbolic Interaction Theory?

An example of a symbolic interactionist perspective is one from the game “The Sims”. In this version of reality, you make all decisions about where your characters live, what they do, and who they interact with (This is an oversimplification!). The characters also have autonomy, which means that you can’t control their thoughts or actions.

Another example of symbolic interactionism is the social script theory. This theory suggests that people have certain expectations about how any given situation should unfold, and they act in ways to reinforce those expectations. Think about when you’re at a restaurant – everyone has a general idea of how they are supposed to behave (whether or not it’s true). 

Another example is Goffman’s theory of footwork. In this theory, people are constantly performing actions that they hope will reinforce their social identity. For example, imagine you’re wearing a fancy suit – while walking around, you might walk with an extra bit of confidence because you want others to see your status as higher than theirs (your footwork would be “upward”). 

In another example, imagine that you wear a t-shirt and jeans. In this case, your footwork would be “downward”, as you don’t want people to see any cues about your identity (e.g., they shouldn’t know you have money or status). 

Theories of symbolic interactionism suggest that people spend their entire lives trying to manage and control how others view them, or rather the interpretations associated with them. 

Other examples include Goffman’s concept of “face“. In this theory, people look for ways to maintain their face (i.e., preserve a positive image) in the eyes of others. For example, in business settings, people will wait for a formal introduction before shaking hands with someone else because this is the accepted way to do things (it preserves their face).

According to some symbolic interactionists, humans attempt to control what they perceive as “the image that goes off in other people’s heads”. In this way, we are constantly trying to manage the meaning of our identity in the eyes of others.

What Was the Purpose of Symbolic Interactionism?

Symbolic Interactionism began to flourish in the early 1900s when many sociologists were getting tired of studying large groups. It was argued that it was difficult to generalize the thoughts and behaviors of a wide variety of people in one group, making more sense to focus on individuals. Symbolic interactionism focuses its attention on people’s everyday lives and how culture is created from shared meanings. 

Symbolic interactionism suggests that we constantly make sense of everything in the world around us. This perspective supports the idea that people have expectations about how things should be and act accordingly. Thus, humans are constantly creating their meanings, and they also try to influence the way other people view them. 

What Are Some Principles of Symbolic Interactionism?

1. As a general rule, symbolic interactionism suggests that everyone is constantly acting to maintain their identity. In this way, people are not born with pre-existing social identities; instead, they are shaped through the meanings and definitions others assign to them.

This meaning often begins early on in life as children try to figure out how they fit in with their peers in social groups.

2. Symbolic interactionism is also associated with the idea that human beings have an inborn desire to belong. This theory suggests that everyone wants to be accepted and liked by others, but they still want to feel unique (it’s a balance between conformity and deviance).

For example, people will sometimes conform to social norms to fit in with the crowd, but they want to deviate from those same norms and express their individuality. 

3. Symbolic interactionism is also associated with some specific concepts that are used to define everyday interactions between people. For example, Goffman studied face work, which he defined as the ways people manage their social image in everyday interactions. This concept applies to nonverbal cues (e.g., things we do with our bodies that convey a message).

Interactions between people are also studied in terms of dramaturgy. In this case, it refers to the ways that individuals utilize situations and events to engage others. In this way, situations are often created and managed for dramatic effect.

4. Symbolic interactionism also suggests that people view all aspects of the world symbolically. According to this theory, everything is open to interpretation, and in some cases, it is completely constructed by those who study it (e.g., social behavior). 

In short, symbolic interactionism focuses on how people interact and communicate with one another, and it is associated with some specific sociological concepts.

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Who is the Founder of Symbolic Interactionism?

The founder of symbolic interactionism is George Herbert Mead.  George Herbert Mead was born on December 16, 1863, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. As a child, he demonstrated an active interest in the world around him and would often entertain his family with stories of what was going on at school or among his friends.

His father was a professor at Amherst College, where Mead began studying when he was 14 years old. He was an excellent student and eventually became a professor at the University of Michigan. In 1894, he published his first book about the process of social interaction called, Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. 

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How Are Symbolic Interactions Defined?

According to sociologist Clifford R. Shaw, symbolic interactionism is a perspective in which human beings create reality through their interactions with others.

As people interact with one another, they create shared meanings of the world around them – and this reality becomes more solid as these symbols are repeated over time.

The most basic building blocks of this perspective are micro-interactions. These interactions involve nonverbal communication between individuals. Although it may seem like a small detail, eye contact is an example of a nonverbal interaction that creates meaning in symbolic interactionism.

Communication is often defined as a process in which one person sends out a message and another person receives and interprets it. However, symbolic interactionism argues that human beings often create their interpretations within the messages they send and receive.

This means that communication is not always a straightforward process of sending out a message and then receiving a matching one in return. In some cases, this is true – but especially when people interact with strangers or people they don’t know well, communication is often a two-sided process of creating meaning.

In other words, when we are communicating with someone else (whether face-to-face or over the phone), we are also trying to create shared meanings about what’s going on between us and how we feel about each other.

For example, if a man and a woman talk to each other, they may be doing more than just telling each other what’s happening. They are also creating ideas about their relationship with one another based on how the conversation progresses.

The use of eye contact, gestures, and tone can create meaning, which is an important part of communication from the perspective of symbolic interactionism.

In terms of symbolic interactionism, the social world is made up of symbols. According to sociologist Robert K. Merton, “All objects that have meaning and significance define a unique culture for the person who experiences them.”

In other words, the things that are important in our lives (such as family, friends, jobs, careers, community service, and religion) shapes how we think about ourselves, each other, and the world.

What Are the Main Ideas of Symbolic Interactionism?

The principle idea of symbolic interactionism is that reality is not “out there” waiting to be explored; rather, the meaning of the world begins in social interactions. The beliefs people hold about themselves and their place within society are learned by participating in everyday conversations with those around them.

Through these interactions, people develop a sense of self based on their interpretations of their experiences within a particular society.

In addition to defining such notions as self and society, symbolic interactionism also focuses on the meaning people assign to social interactions.

When people encounter strangers in their daily lives, they may try to make sense of these encounters by creating assumptions about who the other person is and what they’re trying to communicate.

 For example, when two men meet on the street, they may make assumptions about each other based on their appearance and the way they are dressed. A man in a business suit might be assumed to be successful and wealthy – while another man wearing jeans and a T-shirt might be viewed as someone poor or unemployed.

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What is the Importance of Symbolic Interactionism?

The symbolic interactionist perspective helps us better understand the process by which people create their understanding of reality. 

Symbolic interactionist theory is important because if we can understand how people come to understand the world around them, we can better explain why individuals hold particular beliefs and act in certain ways.

With this perspective on life, it is believed that people affect one another through their interactions. Their actions can sometimes be unintentional, but they have consequences for their individual lives and other social units.

People act within this culture, and their actions are largely based on these shared meanings.  

This perspective supports the idea that people are active agents who cause change within society. Another way to look at it is this: People’s actions (and the signs involved) have consequences for their individual lives and other social units.

The most fundamental principle of symbolic interactionism can be expressed in one simple sentence: “People act toward things based on the meanings that these things have for them.” The meaning that something has is based on how people interpret it. 

What Are the Three Premises of Symbolic Interactionism?

According to sociologists Howard S. Becker and Blanche Geer, symbolic interactionism has three main premises:

1. Reality is created through social interactions.

2.  As people interact with others, they create shared meaning from the symbols involved in these conversations (and symbols are actions or things that have meanings attached to them).

3.  These shared meanings are what define social behavior and the actions of individuals.

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How Do You Interpret Symbolic Interactionism?

Symbolic interactionists interpret three main things in their research: behavior, people’s self-concepts and identity, and the social world. These scholars are interested in the social interactions that create and shape these things. 

The symbolic interactionist perspective lends itself to interpretive research styles because it focuses on how people create meaning within social interactions and derive their sense of self from their meanings about themselves and their environment.

How Does Symbolic Interactionism Influence Family Decisions?

Symbolic interactionism is used in sociological research to help understand how certain family decisions are made. For example, understanding how families interpret their realities can provide helpful information for clinicians who work with these families on family interventions and treatment plans.  

Family decision-making is a major area in symbolic interactionist research. According to sociologist Sharon Hays, families make decisions based on social interactions and their shared meanings of the world. For instance, since many adoptive parents don’t have biological children, they must create a new reality about the meaning of what a family is and how to raise one. 

According to Hays, decision-making in adoptive families is based on;

(1) Their shared belief that it’s acceptable for them to create a family by adopting children who are not related to them biologically, and

(2) Their shared understanding of what it means for a child to be raised by two parents. 

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How Do Symbolic Interactionists View Society?

According to Herbert Blumer, society is not a collection of individuals. Rather, it comprises people who share common beliefs and meanings for the symbols they encounter regularly.

Because our collective understanding of these signs develops over time and changes with each new generation, social structure can also be considered an ongoing process involving creating and manipulating shared meanings. 

Symbolic interactionists view society as made up of constantly interacting with each other and creating shared meanings. This focus on the creation and manipulation of meaning gives symbolic interactionism a strong foundation in symbolic analysis.  

Symbolic Interactionist Theorists

There are many symbolic interaction theorists whose work is used to help explain the development of society and behavior. Herbert Blumer (1898-1962) was an early theorist who focused on what he called “interactionalism,” which describes how people acquire social meanings from their interactions.

According to Blumer, social meanings are created throughout our everyday conversations.

In addition to describing how people create social behavior based on their interactions with other individuals, he also describes how society creates its shared meaning of certain events or signs that affect us all.

For example, the meaning of “9/11” was very different for people who lived in New York City at the time than it was for someone else who lived far away from that tragedy.

The symbolic interaction theory helps sociologists better understand how people develop a self-concept or perceive themselves to other people and society as a whole. 

Herbert Blumer’s emphasis on how individuals use symbols within a social context is key to symbolic interactionism.

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What is the Reason Why Labeling is Important to Understand Symbolic Interactionism?

Labels are used to describe how the actions of a person or group of people can be understood differently depending on who does describe. In theory, if person A interacts with person B and gives them a label based on their behavior toward that person, then when another person (C) interacts with the same person (B), they will use the label A gave to understand B’s behavior.

The labelling theory is also important because it describes how we all identify ourselves and others in social interactions, which can influence our social behaviors. The labelling theory shows how actions are better understood when they are being perceived through the social structures in which they occur.

Understanding symbolic interaction theory and labelling theory has important implications for scholars who study other social institutions, such as schools, hospitals or government agencies. It also applies to understandings about conflict resolution strategies between nations or organizations that are at odds with each other.

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When you are interacting with another person, you learn how to interpret the signs around us through socialization. In other words, we create a shared reality when we interact and understand what it means to “be social.”

Symbolic interactionism suggests that everyone is constantly acting to maintain their identity. It’s important for marketers to remember this because they must also take into account how people make meaning out of their experiences – not just what the product or service does but also who offers it as well.

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