Symbolic Interactionist Theory
Researchers can examine the interaction between individuals and their society with the help of symbolic interactionist theory. According to this perspective, communication-or the exchange of meaning through language and symbols-is how people make sense of their social worlds. The perspective of Herman and Reynolds (1994) sees people as actively shaping their world rather than as passive recipients of society’s action. This approach examines society and people from a micro-level perspective. It’s believed that George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was one of the founders of symbolic interactionism, although he never published any of his work about it . Herbert Blumer (1900–1987) was the student who popularized Mead’s theory and interpreted his work.
Three Premises of Symbolic Interactionist Theory
“Symbolic interactionism” was coined by Blumer, who identified its three basic premises as follows:
1) Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things:
In the first presumption, we include all that a human observes in their world, including physical objects, actions, and concepts. A person’s behavior towards objects and others is determined by the meanings he or she has already attached to them. Blumer was emphasizing the meaning behind individual behaviors, specifically explaining them from a psychological and sociological perspective.
2) The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society:
In the second premise, the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises from, the social interaction between humans. According to Blumer, individuals interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions. They do not react directly to one another’s actions, instead they react based on the meaning they attribute to them. In other words, human interaction is mediated through symbols and significations, by interpretation, or by understanding the meaning of one another’s actions. Meaning is either dismissed as unimportant and not worth investigating, or it is viewed as a mere neutral link or causal link between the causes or factors responsible for human behavior and the behavior as a product of such causes.
3) These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters:
Thinking is described by symbolic interactionists as an inner conversation. He called this inner dialogue minding, which is the delay in one’s thought process that occurs when one thinks about what they will do next. As the person encounters things, he or she uses an interpretive process to handle and modify these meanings. Whenever we find ourselves in a challenging situation, we naturally talk to ourselves to figure out what the situation means.
We need language to do this. Thinking is only possible by using symbols. Through an emphasis on symbols, negotiated meaning, and social construction of society, the roles people play were brought into focus. By taking on the role of another person, people are able to see what an action might mean to another person. Our lives are filled with role-playing at an early age, for example, playing house and pretending to be someone else. Although actors often follow a script, roles have an improvisational quality. As a result of the uncertainty of roles in social contexts, it is up to the individual to make their own decisions about roles. As a result, we play an active part in our social environment.
When applying symbolic-interactionist thinking, social scientists examine patterns of interaction between individuals. Studies often focus on observing individuals interacting with one another. While a conflict theorist may focus on class differences in a political protest, a symbolic interactionist may be more interested in how protesters interact as well as the signs and symbols protesters use. Sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922-1982) developed the idea of dramaturgical analysis based on the importance of symbols in society.
As Goffman used theater as an analogy for social interaction, he noticed that people’s interactions followed cultural “scripts.” Because it is unclear what role each person will play in a given situation, they must improvise according to circumstances. Since a symbolic interactionist perspective seeks to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live, symbolic interactionist studies are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews and participant observation.
Criticism of Symbolic Interactionist Theory
- Sociologists argue that the theory is too broad in its scope to offer clear direction on how to understand how reality is constructed socially. People who use the framework say it is a good foundation for theories and that it does not claim to be specific enough to be used alone.
- A second criticism is that the data used to support the approach is qualitative rather than quantitative. Quantitative data can be tested and proven to be accurate. Quantitative data would include numbers that can be measured, such as survey data that produces results by counting answer choices by participants, for instance.
Symbolic Interactionist Theory Quiz
Which of the following is an example of a symbolic interactionist theory of deviance?
What are the distinguishing features of a symbolic interactionist theory of social deviance?