Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that develops from practical considerations and alludes to people's particular utilization of dialect to make images, normal implications, for deduction and correspondence with others. In other words, it is a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shapes individual behaviors.
Symbolic interactionism comes from a sociological perspective which developed around the middle of the twentieth century and that continues to be influential in some areas of the discipline. It is particularly important in microsociology and social psychology. It is derived from the American philosophy of pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Herbert Mead, as a pragmatic method to interpret social interactions.
George Herbert Mead
Symbolic interaction was conceived by George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley. Mead argued that people's selves are social products, but that these selves are also purposive and creative, and believed that the true test of any theory was that it was "useful in solving complex social problems". Mead's influence was said to be so powerful that sociologists regard him as the one "true founder" of the symbolic interactionism tradition. Although Mead taught in a philosophy department, he is best known by sociologists as the teacher who trained a generation of the best minds in their field. Strangely, he never set forth his wide-ranging ideas in a book or systematic treatise. After his death in 1931, his students pulled together class notes and conversations with their mentor and published Mind, Self and Society in his name. It is a common misconception that John Dewey was the leader of this sociological theory; according to The Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, Mead was undoubtedly the individual who "transformed the inner structure of the theory, moving it to a higher level of theoretical complexity". Mind, Self and Society is the book published by Mead's students based on his lectures and teaching, and the title of the book highlights the core concept of social interactionism. The mind refers to an individual's ability to use symbols to create meanings for the world around him. Individuals use language and thought to accomplish this goal. Self refers to an individual's ability to reflect on the way that he/she is perceived by others. Finally, society, according to Mead is where all of these interactions are taking place. A general description of Mead's compositions portray how outside social structures, classes, and power and abuse affect the advancement of self personality for gatherings verifiably denied of the ability to characterize themselves.
Herbert Blumer, a student and interpreter of Mead, coined the term and put forward an influential summary: people act a certain way towards things based on the meaning those things already have, and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Herbert Blumer was a social constructionist, and was influenced by Dewey; as such, this theory is very phenomenologically based. Given that Blumer was the first one use symbolic interaction term, he is known as the founder of symbolic interaction. He believed that the "Most human and humanizing activity that people engage in is talking to each other" (Griffin 60). According to Blumer (86), human groups are created by people and it is only actions between them defined a society. He argued that with interaction and through interaction individuals are able to "produce common symbols by approving, arranging, and redefining them" (Blumer 86). Having said that, interaction is shaped by a mutual exchange of interpretation, the ground of socialization.
Two other theorists who have influenced symbolic interaction theory are Yrjö Engeström and David Middleton. Engeström and Middleton explained the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in the communication field in a variety of work settings, including "courts of law, health care, computer software design, scientific laboratory, telephone sales, control, repair, and maintenance of advance manufacturing systems". Other scholars credited for their contribution to the theory are Thomas, Park, James, Horton Cooley, Znaniecki, Baldwin, Redfield, and Wirth. Unlike other social sciences, symbolic interactionism emphasizes greatly on the ideas of action instead of culture, class and power. According to behaviorism, Darwinism, pragmatism, as well as Max Weber, action theory contributed significantly to the formation of social interactionism as a theoretical perspective in communication studies.
Assumptions, premises, and research methodology
Most symbolic interactionists believe a physical reality does indeed exist by an individual's social definitions, and that social definitions do develop in part or relation to something "real". People thus do not respond to this reality directly, but rather to the social understanding of reality; i.e., they respond to this reality indirectly through a kind of filter which consists of individuals' different perspectives. This means that humans exist not in the physical space composed of realities, but in the "world" composed only of "objects".
- Individuals construct meaning via the communication process.
- Self concept is a motivation for behavior.
- A unique relationship exists between the individual and society.
- We live in a society.
Having defined some of the underlying assumptions of symbolic interactionism, it is necessary to address the premises that each assumption supports. According to Blumer, here are three premises that can be derived from the assumptions above.
Premise 1: "Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
The first premise includes everything that a human being may note in their world, including physical objects, actions and concepts. Essentially, individuals behave towards objects and others based on the personal meanings that the individual has already given these items. Blumer was trying to put emphasis on the meaning behind individual behaviors, specifically speaking, psychological and sociological explanations for those actions and behaviors are what Blumer focuses on.
Premise 2: "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
The second premise explains the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with other humans. Blumer, following Mead, claimed people interact with each other by interpreting or defining each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. 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. 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 1962). Meaning is either taken for granted and pushed aside as an unimportant element which need not to be investigated or it is regarded as a mere neutral link or one of the causal chains between the causes or factors responsible for human behavior and this behavior as the product of such factors (Blumer 1969).
Premise 3: "The Meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.
Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation (Griffin 62). Mead called this inner dialogue minding, which is the delay in one's thought process that happens when one thinks about what they will do next. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out the meaning of a difficult situation. But first, we need language. Before we can think, we must be able to interact symbolically (Griffin 62). The emphasis on symbols, negotiated meaning, and social construction of society brought on attention to the roles people play. Role-taking is a key mechanism that permits people to see another person's perspective to understand what an action might mean to another person. Role-taking is a part of our lives at an early age, for instance, playing house and pretending to be someone else. There is an improvisational quality of roles; however, actors often take on a script that they follow. Because of the uncertainty of roles in social contexts, the burden of role-making is on the person in the situation. In this sense, we are proactive participants in our environment.
The majority of interactionist research uses qualitative research methods, like participant observation, to study aspects of 1) social interaction, and/or 2) individuals' selves. Participant observation allows researchers to access symbols and meanings, as in Howard S. Becker's Art Worlds (1982) and Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart (1983). They argue that close contact and immersion in the everyday activities of the participants is necessary for understanding the meaning of actions, defining situations and the process that actors construct the situation through their interaction. Because of this close contact, interactions cannot remain completely liberated of value commitments. In most cases, they make use of their values in choosing what to study; however, they seek to be objective in how they conduct the research. Therefore, the symbolic-interaction approach is a micro-level orientation focusing on human interaction in specific situations.
Five central ideas
There are five central ideas to symbolic interactionism according to Joel M. Charon, author of Symbolic Interactionism An Introduction, An Interpretation, An Integration:
- "The human being must be understood as a social person. It is the constant search for social interaction that leads us to do what we do. Instead of focusing on the individual and his or her personality, or on how the society or social situation causes human behavior, symbolic interactionism focuses on the activities that take place between actors. Interaction is the basic unit of study. Individuals are created through interaction; society too is created through social interaction. What we do depends on interaction with others earlier in our lifetimes, and it depends on our interaction right now. Social interaction is central to what we do. If we want to understand cause, focus on social interaction.
- The human being must be understood as a thinking being. Human action is not only interaction among individuals but also interaction within the individual. It is not our ideas or attitudes or values that are as important as the constant active ongoing process of thinking. We are not simply conditioned, we are not simply beings who are influenced by those around us, we are not simply products of society. We are, to our very core, thinking animals, always conversing with ourselves as we interact with others. If we want to understand cause, focus on human thinking.
- Humans do not sense their environment directly, instead, humans define the situation they are in. An environment may actually exist, but it is our definition of it that is important. Definition does not simply randomly happen; instead, it results from ongoing social interaction and thinking.
- The cause of human action is the result of what is occurring in our present situation. Cause unfolds in the present social interaction, present thinking, and present definition. It is not society's encounters with us in our past, that causes action nor is it our own past experience that does. It is, instead, social interaction, thinking, definition of the situation that takes place in the present. Our past enters into our actions primarily because we think about it and apply it to the definition of the present situation.
- Human beings are described as active beings in relation to their environment. Words such as conditioning, responding, controlled, imprisoned, and formed are not used to describe the human being in symbolic interaction. In contrast to other social-scientific perspectives humans are not thought of as being passive in relation to their surroundings, but actively involved in what they do."
Central interactionist themes
To Herbert Blumer's conceptual perspective, he put them in three core principles: that people act toward things, including each other, on the basis of the meanings they have for them; that these meanings are derived through social interaction with others; and that these meanings are managed and transformed through an interpretive process that people use to make sense of and handle the objects that constitute their social worlds. Keeping in mind of Blumer's earlier work, David A. Snow, professor of Sociology at the University of California, suggests four broader and even more basic orienting principles: human agency, interactive determination, symbolization, and emergence. Snow uses these four principles as the thematic bases for identifying and discussing contributions to the study of social movements.
- Human agency
Human agency emphasizes the active, willful, goal seeking character of human actors. The emphasis on agency focuses attention on those actions, events, and moments in social life in which agentic action is especially palpable.
- Interactive determination
Interactive determination specifies that understanding of focal objects of analysis, whether they are self-concepts, identities, roles, practices, or even social movements. Basically this means, neither individual, society, self, or others exist only in relation to each other and therefore can be fully understood only in terms of their interaction.
Symbolization highlights the processes through which events and conditions, artifacts, people, and other environmental features that take on particular meanings, becoming nearly only objects of orientation. Human behavior is partly contingent on what the object of orientation symbolizes or means.
Emergence focuses on attention on the processual and nonhabituated side of social life, focusing not only on organization and texture of social life, but also associated meaning and feelings. The principal of emergence tells us not only to possibility of new forms of social life and system meaning but also to transformations in existing forms of social organization. (Herman-Kinney Reynolds 812-824).
New media is a term used to define all that is related to the internet and the interplay between technology, images and sound. As studies of online community proliferate, the concept of online community has become a more accepted social construct. Studies encompassed discursive communities; identity; community as social reality; networking; the public sphere; ease and anonymity in interactions. These studies show that online community is an important social construct in terms of its cultural, structural, political and economic character.
It has been demonstrated that people's ideas about community are formed, in part, through interactions both in online forums and face-to-face. As a result, people act in their communities according to the meanings they derive about their environment, whether online or offline, from those interactions. This perspective reveals that online communication may very well take on different meanings for different people depending on information, circumstance, relationships, power, and other systems that make up communities of practice. People enact community the way it is conceived and the meaning of community evolves as they come up with new ways to utilize it. Given this reality, scholars are continually challenged to research and understand how online communities are comprised, how they function, and how they are connected to offline social life.
Symbolic interaction theory was discussed in "The Cyberself: The Self-ing Project goes online, Symbolic Interaction in the Digital Age". Robinson discusses how symbolic interaction theory explains the way individuals create a sense of self through their interactions with others. However, she believes advances in technology have changed this. The article investigates the manner in which individuals form their online identity. She uses symbolic interaction theory to examine the formation of the cyber "I" and a digital "generalized other". In the article, Robinson suggests individuals form new identities on the internet. She argues these cyber identities are not necessarily the way the individual would be perceived offline.
Symbolic interactionists are often criticized for being overly impressionistic in their research methods and somewhat unsystematic in their theories. It is argued that the theory is not one theory, but rather, the framework for many different theories. Additionally, some theorists have a problem with symbolic interaction theory due to its lack of testability. These objections, combined with the fairly narrow focus of interactionist research on small-group interactions and other social psychological issues, have relegated the interactionist camp to a minority position among sociologists (albeit a fairly substantial minority). Much of this criticism arose during the 1970s in the U.S. when quantitative approaches to sociology were dominant. Perhaps the best known of these is by Alvin Gouldner.
Framework and theories
Some critiques of symbolic interactionism are based on the assumption that it is a theory, and the critiques apply the criteria for a "good" theory to something that does not claim to be a theory. Some critics find the symbolic interactionist framework too broad and general when they are seeking specific theories. Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical framework rather than a theory (see Stryker and Vryan, 2003, for a clear distinction between the two as it pertains to interactionist-inspired conceptualizations) can be assessed on the basis of effective conceptualizations. The theoretical framework, as with any theoretical framework, is vague when it comes to analyzing empirical data or predicting outcomes in social life. As a framework rather than a theory, many scholars find it difficult to use. Interactionism being a framework rather than a theory makes it impossible to test interactionism in the manner that a specific theoretical claim about the relationship between specific variables in a given context allows. Unlike the symbolic interactionist framework, the many theories derived from symbolic interactionism, such as role theory and the versions of Identity Theory developed by Stryker, and Burke and colleagues, clearly define concepts and the relationships between them in a given context, thus allowing for the opportunity to develop and test hypotheses. Further, especially among Blumerian processual interactionists, a great number of very useful conceptualizations have been developed and applied in a very wide range of social contexts, types of populations, types of behaviors, and cultures and subcultures.
Symbolic interactionism is often related and connected with social structure. This concept suggests that symbolic interactionism is a construction of people's social reality. It also implies that from a realistic point of view, the interpretations that are being made will not make much difference. When the reality of a situation is defined, the situation becomes a meaningful reality. This includes methodological criticisms, and critical sociological issues. A number of symbolic interactionists have addressed these topics, the best known being Sheldon Stryker's structural symbolic interactionism and the formulations of interactionism heavily influenced by this approach (sometimes referred to as the "Indiana School" of symbolic interactionism), including the works of key scholars in sociology and psychology using different methods and theories applying a structural version of interactionism that are represented in a 2003 collection edited by Burke et al. Another well-known structural variation of symbolic interactionism that applies quantitative methods is Manford H. Kuhn's formulation which is often referred to in sociological literature as the "Iowa School". "Negotiated order theory" also applies a structural approach.
Language is viewed as the source of all meaning. Social constructionist Herbert Blumer illuminates several key features about social interactionism. Most people interpret things based on assignment and purpose. The interaction occurs once the meaning of something has become identified. This concept of meaning is what starts to construct the framework of social reality. By aligning social reality, Blumer suggests that language is the meaning of interaction. Communication, especially in the form of symbolic interactionism is connected with language. Language initiates all forms of communication, verbal and non-verbal. Blumer defines this source of meaning as a connection that arises out of the social interaction that people have with each other.
According to social theorist Patricia Burbank, the concepts of synergistic and diverging properties are what shape the viewpoints of humans as social beings. These two concepts are different in a sense because of their views of human freedom and their level of focus. According to Burbank, actions are based on the effects of situations that occur during the process of social interaction. Another important factor in meaningful situations is the environment in which the social interaction occurs. The environment influences interaction, which leads to a reference group and connects with perspective, and then concludes to a definition of the situation. This illustrates the proper steps to define a situation. An approval of the action occurs once the situation is defined. An interpretation is then made upon that action, which may ultimately influence the perspective, action, and definition.
Sheldon Stryker, an influential social constructionist on social interactionism, emphasizes that the sociology world at large is the most viable and vibrant intellectual framework. By being made up of our thoughts self-belief, the social interactionism theory is the purpose of all human interaction, and is what causes society to exist. This fuels criticisms of the symbolic interactionist framework for failing to account for social structure, as well as criticisms that interactionist theories cannot be assessed via quantitative methods, and cannot be falsifiable or tested empirically. Framework is important for the symbolic interaction theory because for in order for the social structure to form, there are certain bonds of communication that need to be established to create the interaction. Much of the symbolic interactionist framework's basic tenets can be found in a very wide range of sociological and psychological work, without being explicitly cited as interactionist, making the influence of symbolic interactionism difficult to recognize given this general acceptance of its assumptions as "common knowledge".
Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction
The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is an international professional organization for scholars, who are interested in the study of Symbolic Interaction. SSSI holds a conference in conjunction with the meeting of the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Study of Social Problems. This conference typically occurs in August and sponsors the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction holds the Couch-Stone Symposium each spring. The society provides travel scholarships for student members interested in attending the annual conference. At the annual conference, the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction sponsors yearly awards in different categories of symbolic interaction. Additionally, some of the awards are open to student members of the society. The Ellis-Bochner Autoethnography and Personal Narrative Research Award is given annually by the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction affiliate of the National Communication Association for the best article, essay, or book chapter in autoethnography and personal narrative research. The award is named after renowned autoethnographers Carolyn Ellis and Art Bochner. The society also sponsors a quarterly journal, Symbolic Interaction. The organization also releases a newsletter, SSSI Notes. Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction has also the European branch. It organizes each year the conference that integrates European symbolic interactionists.
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