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Symbolic Interactionism

Updated: 3 October 2015

Symbolic Interactionism is an Interactionist approach in Sociology – although it also has a strong influence in Social Psychology, particularly in the use of phenomenonology to exolore the unique experience of the individual. It contrasts with approaches like Marxism and Functionalism which seem to suggest that people are like puppets controlled by the relations of  production or the pattern variables,  Rather than people slotting into their respective slots in the structure of society, Interactionism sees ‘society’ as being created by people actively working at relationships and thus morphing and changing as the dynamics of those relationships morph and change. Symbolic Interactionism is about creating and responding to symbols and ideas (memes). It is this dynamic that forms the basis of Interactionists’ studies.

Sociological areas that have been particularly influenced by Symbolic Interactionism include the sociology of emotions, the sociology of health and illness, deviance and crime, collective behaviour/social movements, and the sociology of sex. Interactionist concepts that have gained widespread usage include definition of the situation, emotion work, impression management, looking glass self and total institution.

Symbolic Interactionism derived initially from the writings of George Herbert Mead (1934). He argued that people’s selves are social products – but that these selves are also purposive and creative. In many ways he anticipated Susan Blackmore’s (1999) concept of the selfplex. Mead said that individuals give meaning to the world by defining and interpreting it in certain ways. The world is never experienced directly but always through the ideas (frames of reference) that we have about it – see NLP+ Communication Model. In this respect, Mead is anticipating L Michael Hall’s (1995) concept off meta-stating.

It was a student and interpreter of Mead, Herbert Blumer (1963), who coined the term ‘Symbolic Interactionism’. He claimed that people interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other’s actions – effectively meta-stating – rather than reacting to the actions themselves. Their ‘response’ is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. According to W I Thomas (1923), how people define the situation – the sense they make of it  – is what they will respond to, not the situation itself. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols and signification, by interpretation or by ascertaining the meaning of one another’s actions Blumer contrasted this process, which he called ‘symbolic interaction’, with Behaviourist explanations of human behaviour which don’t allow for interpretation between stimulus and response.

Blumer (1969) set out 3 basic premises of the perspective:-

  1. “Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.”
  2. “The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.”
  3. “These meanings are handled in and modified through an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.”

The theory of Symbolic Interactionism has 3 core ideas:-

  1. The symbol: the world around us consists of millions of unique objects and people. Life would be impossible if we treated every separate thing as unique. Instead, we group things together into categories which we then classify – memeplexes in Blackmore’s terminology. Usually we then give each group a name (which is a label or symbol). Examples of symbols include ‘trees’, ‘women’, ‘gay men’, ‘terrorists’. A symbol may evoke an emotional response; they are not necessarily neutral terms. The world is composed of many symbols, all of which have some meaning for us and suggest a possible response or possible course of action. However, the choice of action that we feel is appropriate may not be shared by everybody.
  2. The self: in order for people to respond to and act upon the meanings that symbols have for them, they have to know who and what they are within this world of symbols and meaning. Someone cannot decide how they should behave until they  know who they are and, therefore, what is appropriate for them to do in certain circumstances. Crucially, this involves us being able to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Effectively this is the construction of the selfplex. Blumer suggests that we develop this notion of the self in childhood and, in particular, in games-playinq. Nancy Eisenberg, Randy Lennon & Karlsson Roth (1983), in their work on moral reasoning, support this by noting that it is through interaction with other children, that we learn empathy. When engaging in a ‘game’ with others, we learn various social roles and also learn how these interact with the roles of others. This brings us to the third element of Interactionism: the importance of the interaction itself
  3. The interaction: the most important element of Symbolic Interactionism is actually the point at which the symbol and the self come together with others in an interaction. Each person in society must learn (again through games) to take the viewpoint of other people into account whenever they set out on any course of action. Only by having an idea of what the other person is thinking about in the situation is it possible to interact with them. This is an extremely complex business – it involves reading the meaning of the situation correctly from the viewpoint of the other (What sort of person are they? How do they see me? What do they expect me to do?) and then responding in terms of how you see your own ‘self’ (Who am I? How do I want to behave?). There is clearly great scope for confusion, error and misunderstanding. Accordingly people in an interaction must actively engage in constructing the situation and reading the rules and symbols correctly if the interaction is to be productive for all parties to it.

Goffman and the Dramaturgical Approach
Although he claimed not to have been a Symbolic Interactionist, Erving Goffman (1959) was heavily influenced by Symbolic Interactionism in his studies of people’s interaction in a number of settings and is recognised as one of the major contributors to the perspective.

Goffman’s work, which has been called the Dramaturgical Approach, is based on similar ideas to Symbolic Interactionism in ‘that he explores how people perceive themselves and then set out to present an image of themselves to others. Goffman suggests that people work out strategies in dealing with others and are constantly altering and manipulating these strategies – impression management. People’s facial movements, body language, speech content, style, etc, are coordinated in an attempt to convey a particular impression. The environment – eg: office, lounge, doctor’s surgery – may even be dressed with the appropriate props to support the impression – eg: white coat and medical books for a doctor.

In many ways Goffman’s ideas have been taken forward by Robert Dilts (1990) in his Neurological Levels model, where the Identity has to be aligned with the Environment for healthy mental functioning.

The basis of Goffman’s ideas is that social interaction can best be understood as a form of loosely scripted play in which people (‘actors’) interpret their roles – although Goffman does not rule out people being innovative in their role. Obviously people are more likely to be innovative in their roles if, at the time, they are driven by ‘warm’ self-expressive vMEMES rather than ‘cool’ conformist/self-sacrificial vMEMES.

Goffman (1972) postulates that, just like actors backstage dispense with the role they have presented onstage, people have ‘back regions’ (people and contexts) where they dispense with most of their impression management. However, just as actors still play a role to each other backstage, in the back regions it may that people never dispense totally with impression management – even with their closest confidantes.

Evaluation of Symbolic Interactionism
Interactionism provides a rich insight into how people interact in small-scale situations. However, as a theory it is rather limited in scope and is as much psychological as sociological. A key criticism is that it fails to explore the wider social factors that create the context in which symbol, self and interaction all exist and the social implications of this. This means that it has no explanation of where the symbolic meanings originate from. Also it fails completely to explore power differences between groups and individuals…and why these might occur.

Some of these criticisms – especially in terms of the power to manipulate symbols – were answered, at least systemically, by Howard Becker (1963) and other writers working with Labelling Theory. Effectively an offshoot of Symbolic Interactionism, Labelling Theory focuses on explaining why some people are ‘labelled’ as deviant and how this impacts on both their treatment by others and their perception of themselves – see SocioPsychological Factors in Crime. It also has an application to the way people with mental health problems are labelled – and the stigma that comes from that. See What is Mental Illness? Becker specifically introduces the notion of power into his derivative of Symbolic Interactionism and demonstrates. how more powerful groups are able to brand certain activities or individuals as deviant, with consequences that are likely to benefit themselves and harm those labelled deviant. One particular study which combines these is his analysis of the imposition and repeal of the laws on prohibition (making alcohol manufacture and sales illegal) in the USA in the early 20th Century. He showed how powerful groups came together, based on a mixture of genuine zeal and self-interest, to introduce the prohibition laws, and he explores the consequences for society. It is, therefore, possible to apply Symbolic Interactionism to broader social situations and also to include power in the analysis.

Becker’s idea of the powerful labelling and then stigmatising certain groups has been taken forward by Stanley Cohen (1972) in his concepts of moral panics and the scapegoated folk devils.

What Symbolic Interactionism doesn’t attend to is the motivations of those in the interaction. Those approaching it from the cool vMEMES – especially PURPLE and GREEN – are likely to run an Others-oriented meta-programme and thus try to understand the other’s perspective. However, those approaching the interaction from the warm vMEMES are likely to run a Self-oriented meta-programme and be focussed on their own needs and perspectives, rather than the other’s. RED might even struggle to have any interest at all in the other’s perspective! So the view of interactions that Symbolic Interactionism tends to present clearly does not pay enough attention to the motivations of the participants in the interactions and the power dynamics their motivations create.

The criticism that Symbolic Interactionism doesn’t address societal structures is tempered by locating the perspective in the Lower Quadrants of 4Q/8L, developed by Don Beck (2000b, 2002b) from Ken Wilber’s All Quadrants/All Levels (1996) approach. The concerns of Symbolic Interactionism, by and large, are never going to be those of Functionalism. While the latter is concerned with the structure of institutions in society and their functions and, thus, sits in the Lower Right Quadrant, the former concerns itself with the meanings groups and sub-groups in society make of what’s going on. This is a cultural phenomenon and, as such, belongs in the Lower Left. Symbolic Interactionism also feeds into the new science of Memetics and the study of the way meaning is spread as a kind of cultural virus. Like Memetics, Symbolic Interactionism also feeds into the Upper Left as it needs to understand meaning to the individual as well as the group.


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