Sociology 319

January 31, 2003


Symbolic Interactionism


A. Introduction


1. Overview


Probably the single most important and enduring sociological perspective that emerged and continues in North America is symbolic interactionism.  It traces its roots in the pragmatist philosophers such as Peirce, Dewey, Cooley, and Mead.  As Plummer notes, “it seeks to unify intelligent thought and logical method with practical actions and appeals to experience” (p. 197).  The sociologists who developed and have continued this 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 individuals and others in flexible, adjustable social processes through communication and interaction.  Writers from this perspective examine and analyze the interaction order of daily life and experiences, rather than the structures associated with social systems or large scale and relatively fixed social forces and laws.  While the interaction order may be the basis of systems and structures, and human action in the interaction order is guided by social rules in the context of resources and constraints, systems and structures are not a primary focus of symbolic interactionists.


The symbolic interaction perspective emerged from the sociological analysis of Mead, and it was Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) who took Mead’s ideas and developed them into a more systematic sociological approach.  Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism in 1937, 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.  While Cohen (p. 87) argues that Blumer selectively interpreted Mead’s analysis, from Mead he emphasized the importance of social interaction, significant symbols, meaning, communication, taking on the view of the other, and the self as process.  These became the basis for later symbolic interaction approaches.  Blumer notes:


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

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).  Cohen notes that Blumer made this theory more individualistic, less connected to biological dimensions, and less concerned with larger social processes than did Mead. 


2. Characteristics of approach


Plummer (Ch. 7 of the Blackwell Companion) notes four characteristics of the symbolic interaction perspective.  Some of these are illustrated in the reading from Simmel, and the symbolic interaction perspective derived at least partly from Simmel (p. 199).  Plummer notes the following characteristics (pp. 194-196).


a. Symbols.  While the social world is built around and 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.  At one level symbols may seem fixed, but the symbolic interaction perspective emphasizes the shifting, flexible, and creative manner in which humans use symbols.  The modification of language, which can occur rapidly and continuously, demonstrates the flexibility of symbols created by humans, and the connection of such symbols with the ongoing activities and experiences of humans in interaction in the social world.  Processes of adjustment and change involve individual interactions and larger scale features such as norms and order.  Plummer notes how habit, routine, and shared meanings occur, but how “these are always open to reappraisal and further adjustment” (p. 194).  The symbolic interactionist studies and analyzes the processes involved in all aspects of the use of symbols and communication.


b. Change, Adjustment, Becoming.  The symbolic interactions perspective considers people as active agents, but quite 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, but it is not necessarily a fixed and inflexible self, but one that is constantly adjusting to others, and requires interaction and communication with others.  Recall that, for Mead, the self is a social process – engaged in interaction, internal conversation with oneself, and in a continual dialogue with others.  Symbolic interactionists analyze how the self develops, how individual lives develop a biography, how social order is constantly being created, and how larger social forces emerge from these.  For the symbolic interactionist, the social world is an active one and society is this active social world.


c. Interaction.  Plummer notes that this perspective is not just concerned with the individual or with society, but “with the joint acts through which lives are organized and societies assembled” (p. 195).  Actions are not conscious, individual actions within a set of constraints, as in rational choice models, nor with personal meaning in the Weberian sense, nor with the unit act of Parsons.  Rather, actions are always joint actions of two or more social actors, with the mutual response and adjustment of the actor and others an essential aspect of any social action.  The self emerges not merely from an individual, nor is it only an aspect of a single individual.  Rather, it involves consideration of how others view a person, and how the person responds to and develops his or her own responses to this.  Plummer notes that “we can never be alone with a ‘self’” (p. 195).  In terms of an overall perspective on the social world, this approach is concerned with “collective behavior” and the social world as active and interactive.


d. Empirical.  Perhaps one of the main reasons that symbolic interaction has remained an important theoretical influence during most of the twentieth century is its attention to how individuals interact in social situations and what occurs as humans interact.  This perspective is never distant from social action in everyday life, and does not produce abstract, universal, theoretical musings.  As a result, the symbolic interaction perspective may seem to lack well developed concepts, logical models, rigour, or an integrated theoretical perspective, it compensates by studying social interaction of people in the social world.  Given that it concerns human interaction, which is something that any student of sociology is part of, the raw materials for study of this interaction are available to anyone.  At the same time, the study requires careful observation, an ability to pay attention to detail, and a consideration 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.  In the case of writers such as Mead, Goffman, Hochschild, or Denzin, it is the careful attention to social detail, circumstances, and processes that makes their analysis valuable and insightful.


3. Influences


Plummer traces the intellectual history of symbolic interactionism to three major sources – the pragmatic approach of Dewey, Cooley, James, and Mead (pp. 197-9); the direct fieldwork empirical study of urban and modern life by Park, Thomas, Burgess, and Wirth (pp. 200-202); and study of the forms (as distinguished from content) of social life and interaction in modern society by Simmel.  It is the latter that is examined first in these notes.  Analysis from each of these influences is concerned with social detail and careful observation, along with description and analysis.  For the most part, the symbolic interaction perspective does not analyze the social world in a quantitative manner, but is qualitative and interpretive, and attempts to provide rich or thick descriptive analysis.


Last edited January 31, 2003


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