Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

February 13, 2006

Symbolic Interactionism


Readings for this week:  CST, chapter 8; two readings from Goffman; reading from Hochschild.


A.  Introduction


The approaches discussed earlier this semester – Parsons, critical theory (Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Habermas), class locations (Wright), and world-system theory (Wallerstein) are primarily macro-theoretical approaches.  Each of these theories or theorists developed an approach that attempted to explain social relationships by concentrating on systems and society as a whole.  While these approaches included some discussion of individual action (Parsons) and social interaction among individuals in small groups (Habermas), they primarily focus on the structures and institutions in society as a whole and on historical change and stages of historical development.  These system approaches recognize that social relationships, institutions, structures, and society are a result of individual social action and interaction, but they concentrate their analyses primarily on the patterns and structures that emerge from these actions and interactions.  As a result social systems, class structures and locations, totalization, administration, and world-system are the focus of these approaches. 


The next few weeks we will concentrate on theories and theorists who deal primarily what can be termed the interaction order – the social relationships people enter into on a day-to-day basis, as they attempt to survive and build a good or better life form themselves through interaction with others, responding to others, and entering into joint actions with other.  These approaches are sometimes termed micro-theoretical approaches in that they deal with individuals and relations among individuals in ordinary, everyday settings, in small groups, and in institutions such as family.  They address issues of socialization, development of self, interpretations of meaning and symbols, social action and interaction, gender relations, and emotions.   


The systems approaches may not provide a good explanation of day-to-day actions, activities, and interactions among individuals.  At the same time, the interactionist approaches may not provide a good explanation of the structures of society and how these affect the individual.  This gap is sometimes referred to as the agency-structure issue, and some theorists have attempted to simultaneously address both agency and structure.   Giddens is one example of such a theorist. 


The interactionist tradition emerged in the United States and is a key contribution of North American sociologists to sociological theory.  It traces its roots in the pragmatist philosophers and social scientists such as Peirce, Dewey, Cooley, and Mead, all from the United States (late nineteenth and early twentieth century writers).   These writers developed approaches that sought “to unify intelligent thought and logical method with practical actions and appeals to experience” (Plummer, p. 227).  Pragmatism suggests a practical approach to social relationships, aiming to deal with issues as they emerge, solving problems in a practical manner, and using the abilities and knowledge developed through prior experiences.  Rather than arguing that there are eternal, unchanging forms of truth and reason, a pragmatic approach suggests that truth emerges from “concrete experiences and language, in which a truth is appraised in terms of its consequences” (Plummer, p. 197).  These pragmatists were concerned with practical action, democracy, and social progress. 


Adams and Sydie also relate the approach to the Chicago school of sociology (pp. 164-165).  In 1890, the department of sociology at the University of Chicago was founded by Albion Small.  This department was dominant in American sociology for 40-50 years, until Parsons and Harvard University became more influential.  The Chicago school also had an impact on Canadian sociology and one of the major figures in the Chicago school (Ernest Burgess) was from Canada.  One of the major figures in the Chicago school was Robert Park (1864-1944). After working as a journalist, he graduated from the University of Michigan, studied in Germany with Simmel, and obtained a doctorate at Heidelberg in 1904.   Park looked on “the city as a giant social experiment, consisting of different worlds, neighbourhoods, and groups which are connected to each other and in conflict with each other” (Knapp, p. 175). Some of Park’s ideas were derived directly from Simmel. Park told his students:

Go sit in the lounges of the luxury hotels and on the doorsteps of the flophouses; sit on the Gold Coast settees and on the slum shakedowns; sit in the Orchestra Hall and in the Star and Garter Burlesk.  (Knapp, p. 174).

In order to understand society, Park considered it necessary to study the city, the structure of the social world in which people live, and the relationships of people to each other – using “the ‘moving camera’ of the naturalistic approach to catch life as it was happening” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 195). He emphasized communities and changes in these, how individuals were shaped by and integrated into these communities, and how people and groups formed communities. Park stressed the importance of both social research and social reform. For Park and others in the Chicago school, the city was “a social laboratory in which human nature and social processes could be examined” (Shore, p. 127). These researchers were also concerned with the “expanding metropolis and the influence it exerts over contiguous regions” (Shore, p. 121).


Another Chicago school sociologist was W. I. Thomas (1863-1947), co-author of the two volumes of The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918, 1920), an important empirical study of immigration and immigrant adjustment in the United States.  W. I. Thomas, along with Dorothy Swaine Thomas, noted how individuals involved in interaction define the situation as important in understanding how interaction occurs.  If the individual defines situations as real, they are real in their consequences (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194).  Sociological researchers must “pay attention to subject meanings or definitions” in order to understand human activity (Wallace and Wolf, p. 194).  The Thomases noted that individuals can ignore a particular stimulus or examine and deliberate concerning a situation, before taking action (or not acting).


The sociologists who developed the symbolic interaction perspective include Blumer, Becker, Goffman, Denzin, and Hochschild.   Some of the characteristics of the symbolic interaction perspective are an emphasis on interactions among people, use of symbols in communication and interaction, interpretation as part of action, self as constructed by others through communication and interaction, and flexible, adjustable social processes.  Its concern tends to be the interaction order of daily life and experiences, rather than the structures associated with large scale and relatively fixed social forces and laws.  It may not appear to be theoretical in the same sense as the macro-theoretical approaches.   Instead it is closely tied to social practice and a study of how people interact with each other.


The symbolic interaction perspective can be summarized as having the following four characteristics (Plummer).


1.  Symbols.  While the social world is composed of material and objective features, what distinguishes humans is their extensive and creative use of communication through symbols.  The history, culture, and forms of communication of humans can be traced through symbols and it is through symbols that meaning is associated with interpretation, action, and interaction.  While symbols such as language may appear to have fixed and unchanging forms, the symbolic interaction perspective emphasizes the shifting, flexible, and creative manner in which humans use symbols.  The process of adjustment and change involve individual interactions and larger scale features such as norms and order.  Habit, routine, and shared meanings occur, but how “these are always open to reappraisal and further adjustment” (Plummer, p. 224).  Symbolic interactionists study and analyze the processes involved in all aspects of the use of symbols and communication.


2.  Change, adjustment, becoming.  The symbolic interactions perspective considers people as active agents, but different from the rational, self-centred, autonomous, individual of nineteenth century liberalism.  People are actors or agents and the social world is an active one – with constant adjustment and organization as essential features of social interaction.  The self is created through such interactions; this is not a fixed and inflexible self for an individual, but one that is constantly adjusting to how others act and respond.  The concern of interactionists is how the self develops, how individual lives develop a biography, how social order is constantly created, and how larger social forces emerge from these. 


3.  Interaction.  This perspective is primarily concerned “with the joint acts through which lives are organized and societies assembled” (Plummer, p. 224), rather than focusing merely on the individual and his or her choices and actions.  That is, social action is more than a result of individual decision-making and action, as may be the case in rational choice models, meaning in the Weberian sense, and the unit act and chains of action of Parsons.  Rather, from the interationist perspective, actions are always joint, with the mutual response and adjustment of the actor and others a necessary aspect to consider.  A individual does not develop a self in isolation, but the self emerges from responses of others to a person, and from the way that person responds to and develops his or her own responses to others. 


4.  Empirical.   A major reason that symbolic interactionism has remained an important approach is its attention to what actually occurs as humans interact.  While the symbolic interaction perspective may appear to lack well developed concepts, logical models, or theoretical rigour, it makes up for this by studying social interaction of actual people in the social world.  That is, the symbolic interaction approach may be less theoretical and more empirical than the approaches studied earlier – with a focus on examining, understanding, and attempting to explain how humans interact in concrete social situations.  Given that it concerns human interaction, of which all of us are part, the raw materials for study of this interaction are available to anyone.  At the same time, the study of social interaction requires careful observation, an ability to pay attention to detail, a sympathetic approach to examining how interaction occurs, and a questioning of the accepted and routine.  While it may be difficulty to abstract from the perspective of each sociologist, empirical study must move beyond the prejudice and bias of the observer. 


B.  Blumer


Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) was a student and later a professor at the University of Chicago who continued and developed the ideas of George Herbert Mead.  Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism in 1937 (symbol and interaction as two parts, Adams and Sydie, p. 165), keeping this sociological perspective alive through the early 1950s at Chicago, and then in California where he was a professor at the University of Californa in Berkeley.  His ideas were important in the development of sociology in North America, countering the dominant approach of Parsons and playing a major part in developing the symbolic interaction perspective as a major school of sociological thought.  


Note:  See February 13 handout – quotes from Blumer and Goffman.


He defines symbolic interaction as follows (quote 1):

The term “symbolic interaction” refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings.  The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or “define” 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, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions.  This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior.  (Blumer, p. 180).

According to Blumer, the characteristics of this approach are:

  • human interaction
  • interpretation or definition rather than mere reaction
  • response based on meaning
  • use of symbols
  • interpretation between stimulus and response 

Blumer proposed an interpretive model for sociology which “inserts a middle term into the stimulus response couplet so that it becomes stimulus-interpretation-response” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 206).   This can be pictured as follows:


            Stimulus                                  Interpetation                              Response


For the symbolic interaction perspective, acting people are the basic units of human society.  Blumer's view of human society is that it consists of acting units and acting people, and all activity in society springs from such acting units.  These acting units imagine taking on the role of others, using interpretation, and considering meaning in action.  Blumer describes society as follows (quote 2):

Human society is to be seen as consisting of acting people, and the life of the society is to be seen as consisting of their actions.  The acting units may be separate individuals, collectivities whose members are acting together on a common quest, or organizations acting on behalf of a constituency … There is no empirically observable activity in a human society that does not spring from some acting unit.  This banal statement needs to be stressed in light of the common practice of sociologists of reducing human society to social units that do not act – for example, social classes in modern society.  (Blumer, pp. 186-7).

For Blumer, society is patterns of joint action and interaction, where participants take account of each other.  The content of social encounters in different situations and contexts is different in that there is communication within the self and between selves with “selecting, checking, suspending, regrouping, and transforming meanings in terms of the social context and the individual’s intentions and interests” (Blumer quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 166).


Premises of the Symbolic Interaction Approach


Blumer’s approach has three premises or assumptions.  These are as follows (listed in quote 3, from Adams and Sydie, p. 166):


a. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them.  Human consciousness, the ability of humans to indicate something to themselves about their surroundings leads to the possibility of meaning.  Individuals in any situation are surrounded by myriad characteristics of their environment, but certain of these are meaningful.  Blumer terms this indicating something by taking things from the setting – indications such as a knock at a door or the appearance of a friend (Wallace and Wolf, p. 209).  The things extricated from the setting may be gestures, sounds, material things, or what symbolic interactionists call symbols.  The individual takes note of these, has an understanding of them, notes them to himself or herself, and makes decisions concerning how to proceed.  That is, the individual interprets these things as meaningful symbols and uses the symbols in action.


b. The meaning of things arises out of the social interaction one has with one’s fellows.  Things do not have inherent meaning in and of themselves, but the meaning is socially created, through experience with these as one interacts with other individuals and groups in society.  For example, if one does not know a particular language, the sounds uttered by others speaking that language have no meaning for the individual, they are merely sounds.  Gestures and practices from other cultures, such as religious or patriotic symbols and rituals, have no meaning for those not familiar with them.  But practices, symbols, and gestures of the type frequently experienced generally have meaning for the individual. 


Two issues emerge.  First, it may be difficult for an individual who is part of the social world in which the symbols were developed and used to comprehend them.  While a sociologist may need to put himself or herself in the position of the individual using the symbol to understand it, it may also be necessary for the sociologist to adopt a certain distance or method by which the symbol can be identified and examined.  Second, while the meaning of the symbol is likely to be developed on the basis of common understandings, there may not be agreement concerning the purpose or appropriateness of the symbol.  For example, I may have an understanding of the meaning of the national anthem in the United States, but I may not wish to stand, take off my cap, or place my right hand across my heart.  That is, commonly understood meanings imply that the individual must have had enough interaction with others to understand the thing, but it that does not mean that the individual accepts or adopts the symbol or its commonly understood purpose.


c. The meanings of things are handled in and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with things he encounters.  The symbolic interaction perspective considers meaning to be much more flexible than in the structural or Weberian approaches.  That is, through interaction with others, the individual understands the common meaning associated with the symbols, but may modify and changes this, in a flexible way.  The same symbol may have different meanings in different settings, for different individuals, and depending on how the individual interprets the setting.  For example, a familiar gesture from a friend may take on a different meaning if one feels somewhat estranged from the friend than if there have been smoother relations.  Particular words and phrases may be appropriate in one circumstance and not in another – e.g. calling people by their first name may be a problem in formal settings. 


Blumer noted how the meanings are a result of a dialogue with oneself.  That is, when responding in a particular way to a symbol, the individual notes the symbol and, however quickly or unconsciously, develops a particular response.  This stage of interpretation between stimulus and response involves some dialogue with oneself, considering what was meant by the symbol, what one wants to portray in a response, how the other person will understand and interpret the response, and what is the most appropriate response in the circumstance.  All this is done in a dialogue with oneself. 




Blumer, H.  1963.  “Society as Symbolic Interaction,” in Arnold Rose, editor, Human Behavior and Social Processes: An Interactionist Approach, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 179-192.

Knapp, P.  1994.  One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory, Harper-Collins, New York.

Plummer, Ken.  2000.  “Symbolic Interactionism in the Twentieth Century,” from Bryan S. Turner, The Blackwell Companion to Social Theory, second edition.  Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers, pp. 193-222.

Shore, Marlene.  1987.  The Science of Social Redemption: McGill, the Chicago School, and the Origins of Social Research in Canada, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

Turner, Jonathan H.  1991. The Structure of Sociological Theory, fifth edition, Belmont, California.  HM24 T84

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf.  1995.  Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.


Last edited February 13, 2006