Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory based on our interactions with symbols, hence the name ‘symbolic interactionism’. ‘Symbols’ refers to a wide variety of things. Some of the things which are considered ‘symbols’ include:
- Image symbols such as logos
- Facial expressions
- Statuses and social standing
The concept of symbolic interactionism is considered to have originated from George Herbert Mead however the use of the term first came from Herbert Blumer. It was Blumer who generally put Mead’s ideas into a collected, workable form. So, although I reference Blumer here, many of the ideas are actually Mead’s.
Blumer argued that things (symbols) are given meaning and these meanings are negotiated and produced from our interactions with others. Subsequently, the meanings given to symbols are then interpreted by others in a given circumstance. Ultimately, this is how we come to understand the world in which we live. Here is how Herbert Blumer (1969: 78-79) outlines symbolic interactionism:
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.
Further, this is also why symbolic interactionism is sometimes referred to as a ‘microsociology’, because it considers our interactions with symbols at the micro-level. Micro-level just means looking at the small details of society rather than the big picture of macrosociology. This particular debate, the ‘macro-micro’ debate, can also be seen in Fine (1993: 68-69). One argument considers that it is the micro-interactions around symbols and symbolic meaning which come to ultimately structure society at the macro-level. In other words, society as a whole is built on these micro-interactions between individuals and symbols.
Clarifying the Symbol
Blumer (1969: 80) gives a specific interpretation of symbols. He states that:
First, to indicate something is to extricate it from its setting, to hold it apart, to give it a meaning or, in Mead’s language, to make it into an object.
In other words, when we are consciously aware of some thing, we indicate it and through this indication to ourselves we separate the thing from its environment and translate it into an object. We then apply meaning to the object or interpret meaning from the object. It is important to understand this aspect as it feeds into the three premises of symbolic interactionism.
The Three Premises of Symbolic Interactionism
The three premises of symbolic interactionism are outlined by Blumer (1969: 82):
that human society is made up of individuals who have selves (that is, make indications to themselves);
that individual action is a construction and not a release, being built up by the individual through noting and interpreting features of the situations in which he acts;
that group or collective action consists of the aligning of individual actions, brought about by the individuals’ interpreting or taking into account each other’s actions.
The first premise again shows that we indicate things in the environment to ourselves. The second premise argues that we build up a kind of mental schema about these things and we come to interpret them by actively engaging and experiencing them subsequently giving them meaning. The third premise simply reiterates that this meaning is then shared amongst others and we come to an agreement about what the symbol does and should mean. We are active agents in this process.
Symbolic interactionists consider individuals and groups to be active participants in shaping society. This is quite an important element as it supports the idea of individual agency. Agency in layman’s terms means that individuals are capable of making decisions and taking responsibility for their actions; in other words, free-will. Some other theories may not agree with this idea and argue that individuals have little ability to shape the world around them. Again, this same debate plays out in symbolic interactionism. There is some conflict around whether it is structure that directs the individual or whether it is the individual which directs structure. In the first, individuals have much more agency, and therefore free-will, to control their lives whereas in the second, agency is limited.
We can combine both interactions with symbols together with agency in relation to a job interview to exemplify both of these ideas at the same time. Think about a man wearing a suit. The suit is a symbol which communicates a relationship with work. A sharp, well fitted suit can be associated with a professional person, perhaps somebody of wealth. The colour of a suit can convey meanings of authority, power, loyalty, or even trust. A person who turns up to an interview in a badly fitted suit, or perhaps even a T-shirt, may be viewed differently. This is because the suit as a symbol has come to represent meaning and this meaning has ultimately come to be a shared meaning in relation to work expectations. The badly fitted suit may be seen as lazy and scruffy, or lacking money to buy a good suit, or even personal ineptitude.
In terms of agency, is the individual enacting free-will by wearing the suit or is the structure enacting a force on the individual which removes agency and free-will? Even though we can argue that we have the free-will to wear a T-shirt to an interview, this itself is counteracted by the fact that if you do, you won’t get the job and consequentially you wont get any money. So, again, the structure enacts a force on the individual’s ability to choose clothing thus constraining agency.
Although there is clearly significant discussion to be had here, Blumer (1969: 80) saw the issue as so:
The object [symbol] is a product of the individual’s disposition to act instead of being an antecedent stimulus which evokes the act.
The school of symbolic interactionism is used to draw upon for other theories too. Ideas of stratification, identity, race, and gender are considered through the lens of symbolic interactionism. There are more specific theories such as labelling theory, control theory, or differential association theory as well as research methods including dramaturgical analysis.
The ideas presented here can be quite abstract. If you are still not sure about symbolic interactionism you can try the following practical task to help illuminate the ideas.
Next time you go to a shop with a friend, think about how you indicate a product on the shelf. Look at the product as just a thing and separate it from its image and its environment. Think about what meaning you GIVE the product and think about the meaning you get FROM the product. What meaning does your friend interpret? Do you share the same meaning between you? Do you come to the same conclusion about the meaning of the product?
There is no correct answer but just doing this exercise may help you to get used to thinking in this manner. You can also try having a look at my interactive article Demonstrating Symbolic Meaning to experience the process of meaning.
Becker, H.S. (1963). Outsiders. London: Free Press.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Charon, J.M. and Cahill, S. (2004). Symbolic interactionism: an introduction, an interpretation, an integration. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Fine, G. A. (1993). The sad demise, mysterious disappearance, and glorious triumph of symbolic interactionism. Annual review of sociology, 19(1), 61-87.
Goffman, E. (1983). The interaction order: American Sociological Association, 1982 presidential address. American sociological review, 48(1), 1-17.
Goffman, E. (1990). The presentation of self in everyday life. Harmondsworth: Penguin.