Symbolic interactionism
Symbolic Interaction, also known as interactionism, is a sociological theory that places emphasis on micro-scale
Microsociology is one of the main branches of sociology, concerning the nature of everyday human social interactions and agency on a small scale. Microsociology is based on interpretative analysis rather than statistical or empirical observation, and shares close association with the philosophy of...

 social interaction to provide subjective meaning in human behavior, the social process and pragmatism
Pragmatism is a philosophical tradition centered on the linking of practice and theory. It describes a process where theory is extracted from practice, and applied back to practice to form what is called intelligent practice...



The theory originated with two key thinkers, Max Weber
Max Weber
Karl Emil Maximilian "Max" Weber was a German sociologist and political economist who profoundly influenced social theory, social research, and the discipline of sociology itself...

 and George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead
George Herbert Mead was an American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist, primarily affiliated with the University of Chicago, where he was one of several distinguished pragmatists. He is regarded as one of the founders of social psychology and the American sociological tradition in general.-...

. George Herbert Mead was the front man with this theory and believed that the true test of any theory was that "It was useful in solving complex social problems" (Griffin 59). He was a social activist, and as such this theory is very phenomenologically based. He believed that the "Most human and humanizing activity that people engage in is talking to each other" (Griffin 60). Herbert Blumer
Herbert Blumer
Herbert George Blumer was an American sociologist. Continuing the work of George Herbert Mead, he named and developed the topic of symbolic interactionism. According to Blumer himself, his main post-graduate scholarly interests were symbolic interactionism and methodological problems...

, a student and interpreter of Mead, coined the term and put forward an influential summary of the perspective: people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Blumer was also influenced by John Dewey
John Dewey
John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey was an important early developer of the philosophy of pragmatism and one of the founders of functional psychology...

, who insisted that human beings are best understood in relation to their environment. Yrjo Engestrom and David Middleton explain the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in the communication field in a "variety of work setting including, courts of law, health care, computer software design, scientific laboratory, telephone sales, control, repair, and maintenance of advance manufacturing system.

Basic Premise and Approach

Herbert Blumer (1969) set out three basic premises of the perspective:
  • "Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
  • "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
  • "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."

Blumer, following Mead, claimed that people interact with each other by interpret[ing] or 'defin[ing]' 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
Sign (semiotics)
A sign is understood as a discrete unit of meaning in semiotics. It is defined as "something that stands for something, to someone in some capacity" It includes words, images, gestures, scents, tastes, textures, sounds – essentially all of the ways in which information can be...

, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions (Blumer 1962). Blumer contrasted this process, which he called "symbolic interaction," with behaviorist
Behaviorism , also called the learning perspective , is a philosophy of psychology based on the proposition that all things that organisms do—including acting, thinking, and feeling—can and should be regarded as behaviors, and that psychological disorders are best treated by altering behavior...

 explanations of human behavior, which does not allow for interpretation between stimulus and response. Blumer believed that the term symbolic interactionism has come into use as a label for relatively distinctive approach to the study of human group life and human conduct. (Blumer, 8). Other scholars he credits in this field are, Mead, Dewey, Thomas, Park, James, Horton, Cooley, Znaniecki, Baldwin, Redfield, and Wirth.

The emphases on symbols, negotiated meaning, and social construction of society brought on attention to the roles people play. Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman
Erving Goffman was a Canadian-born sociologist and writer.The 73rd president of American Sociological Association, Goffman's greatest contribution to social theory is his study of symbolic interaction in the form of dramaturgical perspective that began with his 1959 book The Presentation of Self...

 (1958) was a famous social theorist who studied roles dramaturgically, through the analogy of theater, to describe human social behavior as roughly following a script and humans as role-playing actors. 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. There is a 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.

Research and Methods

Sociologists working in this tradition have researched a wide range of topics using a variety of research methods. However, the majority of interactionist research uses qualitative research
Qualitative research
Qualitative research is a method of inquiry employed in many different academic disciplines, traditionally in the social sciences, but also in market research and further contexts. Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such...

 methods, like participant observation
Participant observation
Participant observation is a type of research strategy. It is a widely used methodology in many disciplines, particularly, cultural anthropology, but also sociology, communication studies, and social psychology...

, 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.
Sociological subfields that have been particularly influenced by symbolic interactionism include the sociology of emotions
Sociology of emotions
The sociology of emotion applies sociological theorems and techniques to the study of human emotions. As sociology emerged primarily as a reaction to the negative affects of modernity, many normative theories deal in some sense with 'emotion' without forming a part of any specific subdiscipline:...

, deviance
Deviant Behavior
Deviant Behavior is an interdisciplinary journal which focuses on social deviance, including criminal, sexual, and narcotic behaviors.The journal is published by Taylor and Francis, Inc., and was ranked 41st out of 46 psychology journals and 46th out of 90 sociology journals in 2004 by the...

Criminology is the scientific study of the nature, extent, causes, and control of criminal behavior in both the individual and in society...

, collective behavior
Collective behavior
The expression collective behaviour was first used by Robert E. Park, and employed definitively by Herbert Blumer, to refer to social processes and events which do not reflect existing social structure , but which emerge in a "spontaneous" way.Collective behavior might also be defined as action...

/social movement
Social movement
Social movements are a type of group action. They are large informal groupings of individuals or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change....

s, and the sociology of sex. Interactionist concepts that have gained widespread usage include definition of the situation
Definition of the situation
The definition of the situation is a fundamental concept in symbolic interactionism advanced by the American sociologist W. I. Thomas. It is a kind of collective agreement between people on the characteristics of a situation, and from there, how to appropriately react and fit into it.Establishing...

, emotion work
Emotion work
Emotion work 'is understood as the art of trying to change in degree or quality an emotion or feeling'.It may be defined as the management of one's own feelings or as "work done in a conscious effort to maintain the well being of a relationship"; though some would 'reserve the term emotion work for...

, impression management
Impression management
In sociology and social psychology, impression management is a goal-directed conscious or unconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people about a person, object or event; they do so by regulating and controlling information in social interaction...

, looking glass self
Looking glass self
The looking-glass self is a social psychological concept, created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902 , stating that a person's self grows out of society's interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to people shaping themselves based on other people's perception, which...

, and total institution
Total institution
A total institution is place of work and residence where a great number of similarly situated people, cut off from the wider community for a considerable time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life...

. Semiology is connected to this discipline, but unlike those elements of semiology which are about the structures of language, interactionists typically are more interested in the ways in which meaning is fluid and ambiguous.
Ethnomethodology is an ethnographic approach to sociological inquiry introduced by the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel . Ethnomethodology's research interest is the study of the everyday methods people use for the production of social order...

, an offshoot of symbolic interactionism, questions how people's interacts with can create the illusion of a shared social order despite not understanding each other fully and having differing perspectives.
Harold Garfinkel
Harold Garfinkel
Harold Garfinkel was a Professor Emeritus at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is known for establishing and developing ethnomethodology as a field of inquiry in sociology.-Biography:...

 demonstrated this by having his students perform "experiments in trust," called breaching experiments, where they would interrupt ordinary conversations because they refused to take for granted that they knew what the other person was saying. They would demanded explanations and then explanations of the explanations (Garfinkel 1967) to gain understanding of each other's definitions and perspectives. Further and more recent ethnomethodologist research has performed detailed analyses of basic conversations to reveal the methods that turn-taking and alternative conversational maneuvers are managed.

New Media

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 .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 as well as those in face to face interactions. 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 interactionists are often criticized for being overly impressionistic in their research methods and somewhat unsystematic in their theories. 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,although a fairly substantial minority. Much of criticism arose during the 1970s in the U.S.
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...

 when quantitative
Quantitative research
In the social sciences, quantitative research refers to the systematic empirical investigation of social phenomena via statistical, mathematical or computational techniques. The objective of quantitative research is to develop and employ mathematical models, theories and/or hypotheses pertaining to...

 approaches to sociology were dominant. Perhaps the best known of these is by Alvin Gouldner
Alvin Ward Gouldner
Alvin Ward Gouldner was born on July 29th, 1920, in New York and died on December 15th, 1980. He was professor of sociology at Washington University in St...


Framework & Theories

Some critiques of symbolic interactionism are based on the assumption that it is a theory
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

, 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 symbolic interactionism). Thus, specific theories, hypotheses, and conceptualizations must be (and have successfully been) derived from the general framework that symbolic interactionism provides before interactionist theories can be assessed on the basis of the criteria a good theory (e.g., containing falsifiable
Falsifiability or refutability of an assertion, hypothesis or theory is the logical possibility that it can be contradicted by an observation or the outcome of a physical experiment...

A hypothesis is a proposed explanation for a phenomenon. The term derives from the Greek, ὑποτιθέναι – hypotithenai meaning "to put under" or "to suppose". For a hypothesis to be put forward as a scientific hypothesis, the scientific method requires that one can test it...

), or interactionist-inspired conceptualizations can be assessed on the basis of effective conceptualizations. The theoretical framework, as with any theoretical framwork, is vague when it comes to analyzing empirical
The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation or experimentation. Empirical data are data produced by an experiment or observation....

 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 asRole Theory
Role theory
Role theory is a perspective in sociology and in social psychology that considers most of everyday activity to be the acting out of socially defined categories . Each social role is a set of rights, duties, expectations, norms and behaviour a person has to face and to fulfill...

 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.

Social Structure

In addition to methodological criticisms, critics of symbolic interactionism have charged that it is unable to deal with social structure
Social structure
Social structure is a term used in the social sciences to refer to patterned social arrangements in society that are both emergent from and determinant of the actions of the individuals. The usage of the term "social structure" has changed over time and may reflect the various levels of analysis...

 (a fundamental sociological concern) and macro 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
Structuralism originated in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure and the subsequent Prague and Moscow schools of linguistics. Just as structural linguistics was facing serious challenges from the likes of Noam Chomsky and thus fading in importance in linguistics, structuralism...

 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 (Kuhn and McPartland, 1954) formulation which is often referred to in sociological literature as the "Iowa School." Negotiated Order Theory" also applies a structural approach.

The work of structural interactionists such as Stryker and Kuhn has had a significant influence on subsequent symbolic interactionists, some of whom use survey research and experimental methods (whereas "Chicago School
Chicago school (sociology)
In sociology and later criminology, the Chicago School was the first major body of works emerging during the 1920s and 1930s specialising in urban sociology, and the research into the urban environment by combining theory and ethnographic fieldwork in Chicago, now applied elsewhere...

" interactionism following Herbert Blumer's version relies on ethnography and qualitative in-depth interviewing). But Chicago School or "processual" versions of interactionism currently maintain greater recognition and influence within sociological teaching and research, presented in some texts and coursework as if they were the only variations of symbolic interactionism that exist. This fuels criticisms of the symbolic interactionist framework
Conceptual framework
A conceptual framework is used in research to outline possible courses of action or to present a preferred approach to an idea or thought. For example, the philosopher Isaiah Berlin used the "hedgehogs" versus "foxes" approach; a "hedgehog" might approach the world in terms of a single organizing...

 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. The published literature indicates that structural and processual variations of interactionism are both alive and well in sociology, as is the Blumerian tradition of interactionism, and interactionism has been used more explicitly and more frequently in psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

 and anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

 as well. 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." Many scholars do not know they are applying interactionist ideas in their own theoretical
The English word theory was derived from a technical term in Ancient Greek philosophy. The word theoria, , meant "a looking at, viewing, beholding", and referring to contemplation or speculation, as opposed to action...

 assumptions and formulations..

Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is the scholarly association for symbolic interactionists. SSSI holds a conference in conjunction with the meeting of the American Sociological Association
American Sociological Association
The American Sociological Association , founded in 1905 as the American Sociological Society , is a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the discipline and profession of sociology by serving sociologists in their work and promoting their contributions to serve society.The ASA holds its...

 in August and sponsors the Couch-Stone Symposium each spring. It also sponsors the journal Symbolic Interaction.

See also

  • Social interaction
  • Social action
  • Labeling theory
    Labeling theory
    Labeling theory is closely related to interactionist and social construction theories. Labeling theory was developed by sociologists during the 1960's. Howard Saul Becker's book entitled Outsiders was extremely influential in the development of this theory and its rise to popularity...

  • Edward T. Hall
    Edward T. Hall
    Edward Twitchell Hall, Jr. was an American anthropologist and cross-cultural researcher. He is remembered for developing the concept of Proxemics, a description of how people behave and react in different types of culturally-defined personal space...

  • Extension transference
    Extension transference
    Extension transference is a term used to describe the symbolic sub-division of a particular goal or purpose so that the sub-divided concepts seem fragmented from the original purpose....

  • Sandbox play therapy
  • Generalized other
    Generalized other
    The generalized other is a concept introduced by George Herbert Mead into the social sciences, and used especially in a field called symbolic interactionism...

  • Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science
    Phronetic social science is an approach to the study of social – including political and economic – phenomena based on a contemporary interpretation of the Aristotelian concept phronesis, variously translated as practical judgment, common sense, or prudence. Phronesis is the intellectual virtue...

  • Coordinated Management of Meaning
    Coordinated Management of Meaning
    Coordinated management of meaning , is a practical theory that sees communication as doing things fully as much as talking about them. "Taking the communication perspective" consists of looking at communication and seeing it as a two-sided process of coordinating actions with others, and ...

Further reading

Reprinted in Blumer (1969).
  • Blumer, Herbert. (1971). Social Problems as Collective Behavior=2006(translated in Japanese), Journal of Economics and Sociology 66(
  • Plummer, Kenneth. (1975). Sexual stigma: An interactionist account. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Liamputtong, Pranee & Ezzy, Douglas. (2005). Qualitative Research Methods. New York: Oxford University Press.

External links

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