Sociology 319

February 1, 2000

Symbolic Interactionism

Perhaps the most important and enduring sociological perspective from North America has been that of 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. 227). 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 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.

While the symbolic interaction perspective is sometimes associated with Mead, 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 Holton and Cohen argue that Blumer took only certain ideas from Mead, it was the specific aspects developed by Blumer that formed 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 (i) human interaction, (ii) interpretation or definition rather than mere reaction, (iii) response based on meaning, (iv) use of symbols, and (v) 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). Holton and Cohen note that Blumer made this theory more individualistic and less concerned with larger social processes than did Mead.

Plummer (Ch. 8 of the Blackwell Companion) notes four characteristics of the symbolic interaction perspective. Some of these were illustrated in the reading from Simmel, and the symbolic interaction perspective derived at least partly from Simmel (p. 229). Plummer notes the following characteristics (pp. 223-225).

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. 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 process 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. 224). The symbolic interactionist studies and analyzes 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 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. The concern is with 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 world is an active one and society is this active social world.

3. 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. 224). Actions are not individual actions 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, with the mutual response and adjustment of the actor and others considered. The self if one which emerges not just from the individual, but with how others see the person, and how the person responds to and develops his or her own responses to this.

4. 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 what actually occurs as humans interact. While the symbolic interaction perspective may seem 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. 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.

Erving Goffman

One of the sociologists who used the symbolic interaction approach to examine human interaction in social settings was Erving Goffman. Goffman did not develop a theoretical approach that would explain all parts of the social world, but he developed an analysis of the interaction order – social situations or "environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence" (Goffman Reader, p. 235). These are the situations where we spend much or most of our life – in face-to-face activities involving others, whether these be everyday social situations, situations within organized structures (jobs, school), or unusual social situations (accidents, weddings, funerals). Goffman excels at observation, description, and insight, analyzing how people interpret and act in ordinary situations, and he provides guidelines concerning how to examine social situations. One of my colleagues recently read some articles by Goffman, noting how he sometimes became overly formal in his writings, and suggested that it is unfortunate the Goffman did not become a novelist rather than a sociologist.

Erving Goffman (1922-1982) was born and raised in Alberta, and attended the University of Toronto and the University of Chicago. He became a professor at Berkeley and later at the University of Pennsylvania. Goffman's best known work is The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959). In addition to the ordinary situations of everyday life, Goffman also examined unusual situations such as prisons and asylums, total institutions, using these to show how individuals used various means (many unauthorized) to maintain their sense of selfhood. He also using these settings to illustrate aspects of everyday life, and the unexamined asumptions that we all make in the various situations and encounters in which we find ourselves.

The handout from Goffman is "On Face-Work" a paper originally written in 1955. This was fairly early his career and lays out some of the ways in which people present a face or image of the self in social relationships, interactions, and encounters. Goffman continued to develop similar ideas to those in this article, with a more systematic analysis of social interaction in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. This book employs the model of the theatre or theatrical performance as a means of analyzing how we develop and present ourselves to others. This approach is sometimes called dramaturgy and focuses on the techniques people use to convey impressions and create their self. In that book and in "On Face-Work" Goffman examines processes and procedures that are associated with social interactions. It is these that build and maintain the social world.

In this article, look for the four themes identified by Plummer. Also attempt to identify and consider a variety of other themes, concepts, and issues that are addressed in the article. Some of these are:


Notes on "On Face-Work" from Interaction Ritual, pp. 5-45.

Pages 5-15

Interaction order. This is the world of face-to-face social encounters that is the topic of the article. Mediated contacts could be mail, memoranda, telephone, or electronic messages.

Line. Actor adopts or develops a pattern of verbal (language) and non-verbal (gestures) acts that portray his or her version of the situation, others, and self. Goffman makes particular note of the "evaluation of the participants, especially himself" so that the line presents a view of the self, and this line must also deal with how others view the actor (last line of 1st paragraph). Note that the line taken may be conscious or less conscious, in that the line is what does take place, whether or not it is intended. Also note the active nature of the interaction order and how the patterns of the act is worked out in the line. Note how the themes of Plummer are illustrated in this paragraph.

Face. This is the image of the self that is presented. Goffman here connects it to approved social attributes, although later he notes how it may not always be the approved or expected attributes that are portrayed. Face is what other assume and it is the image that others see or consider to have been expressed by the actor. Note "effectively" (2nd line of last paragraph, p. 5) so that it is what is portrayed, not necessarily what was intended, that is, it is the image of self portrayed.

Emotion. p. 6. Emotions and feelings become attached to the particular image presented, so that the actor may feel good or feel bad, depending on how the image unfolds and what the encounter produces. If the encounter proceeds very well, the actor feels good, whereas a poor playing out of the encounter may produce bad feelings. By focusing on emotions and feelings, the implication is that some of this is fairly spontaneous or produced without strong conscious considerations, rather it is the act itself which creates the image and feelings.

Commitment. By entering into encounters, the actor has a commitment to his or her own face and to the face of others. All of these are social constructs, spontaneous and part of the situation, not some predetermined set of unchangeable personal attributes. At the same time, the "rules of the group and the definition of the situation" that are important in how face and images of self are viewed, so that norms and institutions are important considerations here.

Maintaining Face. An internally consistent face is one whereby the actor is in face or maintains face. But the internal consistency involves not just the actor and "is something that is not lodged in or on his body" (p. 7), rather the internal consistency involves judgements and evidence from others. That is, it is both the actions of the actor, but also the perception and view of others, through "the flow of events in the encounter" that establishes whether or not face is maintained. This is a strong praxis orientation in which social interaction is necessary and is the means by which consistency is established.

Institutional. Goffman notes that these encounters are generally within certain legitimized institutional contexts, so that there may be a limited range of possible forms of action. The actor does have choice concerning the lines and faces, but within a particular order. While there is freedom for individuality, Goffman considers there to be sets of rules which govern the range of possibilities. Note though that these are a long way from Durkheim’s social facts or Parsons’s norms, in that the social actor has considerable flexibility and spontaneity, and perceptions and responses of others are important aspects of these encounters.

The line and face also connect the self to a larger world. Any single activity or encounter produces a certain line and face, and these have implications beyond this encounter. It may be by "discrediting" possession of certain attributes that the individual makes this connection. For example, a bureaucrat may present a particular face that is expected, but may show himself or herself to be flexible and understanding, thus showing in a negative manner the wider attributes usually associated with the position. In later works, Goffman extends this idea into role distance – how individual actors fill certain roles but also are able to distance themselves from the role. This connection to a wider world may be to the past or the future, showing a continuity of lines and faces, or to events and situations outside the immediate interaction order.

Wrong Face. (p. 8). Information that discredits the actor’s face or is inconsistent with the face of the actor may come forward from external sources or from inadvertent slips by the actor. Goffman makes reference to some of these on p. 14, as faux pas, gaffes, or boners. Alternatively, the actor may be out of face if he or she has no line to present – taken by surprise, unprepared, or unfamiliar with the situation or encounter. While the actor may express "confidence and assurance" when in face, when in wrong face or out of face, the actor may feel dissonance within himself or herself, or may feel shame, inferiority, or may have other bad feelings. Again note how Goffman connects internal emotions with lines and faces that emerge from interaction.

Poise. (p. 9). In contrast to feeling shame, the actor may always present an impression of confidence, in situations when in or out of face. Note Goffman’s emphasis on presentation of the self.

Social Face. (pp. 9-10). In this section, Goffman discusses some of the meaning of the social self – the impressions and images that the individual actor is expected to live up to, and how this is regulated internally and externally to the individual. In the middle of p. 9, there is reference to the "social code of any social circle" – a self-image that the actor has presented and which he or she is expected to live up to. In the interaction order the actor sustains these images through expression (expressive order), to be consistent with the actor’s face. Various possible emotional responses occur: pride (if duty to self), honour (duty to wider social units), or dignity (if handled with poise). For Goffman, the self is the individual’s personal possession, in that it defines the individual and provides the individual with "security and pleasure." But he also notes that it is social, it is given to the individual by others, and can be withdrawn by them. That is, if the self is the images of self that are perceived by others as the face of the individual, then this can be maintained or destroyed. In any case, it is a social self – connecting the individual to social interaction and the wider society. There is no self without social interaction, so the self is flexible but also constrained.

Considerateness. Here Goffman moves in a somewhat different direction, beginning to examine how social interaction is played out in practice. For the most part, people attempt to save the face and perhaps identify with others in encounters. For the most part, such interactions do not humiliate actors, but attempt to provide a way "to maintain both his own face and the face of the other participants" (p. 11). It is this "mutual acceptance" of lines and faces that maintains social interaction, preserves the feelings and faces of each of the participants, and allows the interaction order to continue. The faces presented are maintained and built upon, so this provides continuity in social interaction (top of p. 12). While some may be cold and heartless, and sometimes face is discredited, Goffman focuses on the ways in which face tends to be maintained.

Rules. Following Goffman’s observation that there is a certain order and continuity to social interaction, he begins to examine the ways that such interaction proceeds, considering the procedures associated with the interaction order. Much of the remaining part of the article considers these methods and procedures. The praxis view of social action is well demonstrated here, and at times Goffman sounds more like an ethnomethodologist than a symbolic interactionist.

On p. 12, Goffman notes that maintenance of face is not the objective of social action. There are various goals that the actor has – gaining an income, achieving friendship, pursuing spiritual values, or pursuing various personal emotional goals – and face-saving is not the objective, but rather part of the code or rules that actors use in social interaction.

Face-Work (pp. 12-13) is the general designation for the actors social praxis. That is, the individual must work at presenting images of self, saving face, adjusting to possible loss of face, or being poised when face is threatened. By studying the rules and codes of face-work, the sociologist can understand how social interaction proceeds. On p. 13, Goffman discusses various social skills and standard practices. These are partly individual but are also associated with the individual but part of the social culture of which the person is a part. These are social in that they must be learned, and they are social in the sense that they protect own’s own face and also the face of the other participants in social encounters. Various possible ways in which this may break down are mentioned on p. 14, but again Goffman notes how there are procedures that deal with these threats. On p. 15 he notes that one means is that of avoidance.

Face-work is an active process, one where the agent is an active individual. But the actor is not just an individual – face necessarily involves others and social interaction, so the focus for the social actor and his or her social self is always on the nature of the interaction. These also provide an idea of Goffman’s approach to agency and structure – actors exist within these structures and institutions, but are active agents dealing with situations and encounters. Much of what Goffman says is reminiscent of Simmel, but with the emphasis more on the interaction order in the case of Goffman.

Pages 30-33:

This section deals with some of the procedures used in social interaction to maintain the face of the self and the face of the other, to avoid embarrassment and shame.

Tact. Being tactful and providing various hints are procedures that people use in social interaction. Reciprocal self-denial, running oneself down, praising the other, and negative bargaining are all noted here.

Socialization is necessary in order to prepare the actors for such social situations.

The section beginning on p. 33 notes further procedures – using signs and symbols, various conventions, etc.

Self. Goffman notes that he has been using the self in two senses – (i) as image, deriving from the perceptions and responses of others that create the face of the person, and (ii) the actor as a player in a game or set of rituals. This may be similar to the I and the me of Mead, but with Goffman’s theoretical discussion of the player less clear than the self as image. At the same time, Goffman does consider various aspects of the player, by focussing on the emotions of the individual – embarrassment, shame, pride, etc. so that he has developed a somewhat better explanation of the inner aspect of the self than have some other writers. What Goffman discusses in this section on pp. 31-3 is the fragility and limits of the self, and how the interaction order has certain mechanisms, check and balances (p. 33) to maintain the rituals and preserve the self. Some of these mechanisms are cooperation, signs and symbols, and well understood practices.

Encounters and Ritual Order. This discussion is continued in the following pages and concludes on pp. 41-4. People cooperate, avoid places where they are not wanted, talk in half-truths, etc. People work hard at face-work, attempting not to overstep accepted bounds. The ritual order then is that of maintaining face – "what will sustain for the moment the line to which he has committed himself and through this line to which he has committed the interaction" (p. 44).

Social Self. Pp. 44-5.


Last edited on February 3, 2000.

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