Symbolic interactionism is a sociological and psychological theory that examines how individuals develop shared meanings and create social reality through communication and interaction. It focuses on the subjective interpretations and meanings that people give to symbols, gestures, and language in their interactions with others. Let’s explore this theory with some examples:
- Symbols: Symbols are crucial in symbolic interactionism. They are words, gestures, objects, or signs that carry shared meanings within a particular social group. For instance, a wedding ring is a symbol that represents commitment and marital status. It carries a specific meaning for those who recognize and understand its significance.
- Meaning: Symbolic interactionism highlights that meanings are not inherent in objects or actions but are socially constructed. For example, consider the meaning of a “thumbs up” gesture. In some cultures, it signifies approval and positivity, while in other cultures, it may hold different meanings or have no significance at all. The meaning assigned to the thumbs-up gesture is socially and culturally determined. (Avoid using thumbs-up in Sardinia, Italy!)
- Interpretation: Individuals interpret symbols and assign meaning to them based on their past experiences, cultural backgrounds, and social interactions. For example, the word “success” may have different interpretations for different individuals. Some may associate it with financial achievements, while others may see it as personal fulfillment or making a positive impact on others. The interpretation of success varies based on one’s experiences and values.
- Self and Identity: Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that individuals develop a sense of self and identity through social interactions. Others’ perceptions and interactions contribute to one’s self-concept. For instance, a person may develop a self-identity as an artist because others recognize and respond to their artistic abilities. The interactions and feedback from others shape their understanding of themselves.
- Social Interaction: Symbolic interactionism views social interaction as the core of social life. Through interactions, individuals engage in processes such as role-taking, negotiation of meanings, and the creation of shared realities. An example of social interaction can be observed in a job interview. The interviewer and interviewee engage in a dynamic interaction where they interpret verbal and nonverbal cues, negotiate meanings, and construct impressions of each other.
Symbolic Interactionism: key people
Important contributors to the theory of Symbolic Interactionism are:
- George Herbert Mead: Mead is considered one of the key founders of symbolic interactionism. His work focused on the role of symbols, language, and gestures in the development of self and social interaction.
- Herbert Blumer: Blumer was a sociologist who coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and further developed Mead’s ideas. He emphasized the importance of interpretation and meaning in social interaction.
- Erving Goffman: Goffman was a prominent sociologist who explored the concept of “dramaturgy” within symbolic interactionism. He examined how individuals present themselves to others, drawing parallels between social interactions and theatrical performances.
- Anselm Strauss: Strauss was a sociologist who, along with Barney Glaser, developed the grounded theory approach. Grounded theory is a research methodology often used within symbolic interactionism to explore social phenomena and construct theories from data.
- Charles Horton Cooley: Cooley contributed to symbolic interactionism with his concept of the “looking-glass self.” According to this concept, individuals develop their self-concept by imagining how others perceive them and by internalizing those perceived judgments.
Symbolic interactionism provides valuable insights into how individuals actively create and interpret meaning, how social order is established and maintained through interaction, and how individuals construct their identities within social contexts. By understanding the subjective nature of communication and the role of symbols, this theory helps us comprehend the complex dynamics of human interaction and the significance of shared meanings in our social lives.