Skip to main content

Symbolic Interactionist Theory: Home

Sociology

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that develops from practical considerations and alludes to people's particular utilization of dialect to make images, normal implications, for deduction and correspondence with others.[1] In other words, it is a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shapes individual behaviors.[2]

Symbolic interactionism comes from a sociological perspective which developed around the middle of the twentieth century and that continues to be influential in some areas of the discipline. It is particularly important in microsociology and social psychology. It is derived from the American philosophy of pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Herbert Mead, as a pragmatic method to interpret social interactions.[3] (Source: Wikipedia)

Symbolic Interaction Theory

The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a major framework of sociological theory. This perspective relies on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber's assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.

The Subjective Meanings

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively true. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. People interpret one another’s behavior and it is these interpretations that form the social bond. These interpretations are called the “definition of the situation.”

For example, why would young people smoke cigarettes even when all objective medical evidence points to the dangers of doing so? The answer is in the definition of the situation that people create. Studies find that teenagers are well informed about the risks of tobacco, but they also think that smoking is cool, that they themselves will be safe from harm, and that smoking projects a positive image to their peers. So, the symbolic meaning of smoking overrides that actual facts regarding smoking and risk.

Critics of this theory claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation—the “big picture.” In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the larger issues of society by focusing too closely on the “trees” rather than the “forest”. The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions. In the case of smoking, the functionalist perspective might miss the powerful role that the institution of mass media plays in shaping perceptions of smoking through advertising, and by portraying smoking in film and television. In the cases of race and gender, this perspective would not account for social forces like systemic racism or gender discrimination, which strongly influence what we believe race and gender mean.

(Author: Ashley Crossman. Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.Source: ThoughtCoRead more here.