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GuidesMarket researchWhat is social interactionist theory?

What is social interactionist theory?

Last updated

24 March 2023


Dovetail Editorial Team

The world is becoming smaller, at least as far as our contact with customers is concerned. Modern technology allows businesses and customers to interact at the touch of a button. This ease of communication means that it's important to understand social interactionist theory and how it applies to running your business.

Knowing about social interactionist theory will help you understand how customers interact and share their experiences, and what you can learn from this. It will also help you communicate with your customers to give them a better experience with your product or service.

Social interactionist theory is a social cognitive theory. It asserts that people are more likely to behave in a certain way when another person or other people are around.

Why is social interactionist theory important?

Social interactionist theory studies how people interact in social settings. This knowledge of social interaction can be crucial when communicating with your potential or current customers. You can apply this theory to any social network, not just social media—any platform that offers a way of connecting people.

What are the types of interactionist theory?

There are several types of interactionist theory, two of which can help businesses understand their customers' motivations for product selection.

Structural functionalism

This bases societal behaviors on institutional and societal rules as well as role assignments. There are several types of structures within this theory, for example:

  • Social classes

  • Common goals

  • Social evolution

An understanding of these structures can help you know what types of products are likely to be popular with consumers at any one time.

Symbolic interaction

This refers to the use of words, symbols, and colors, which can provoke different behaviors. For example, blue is generally thought to be a masculine color, while pink is feminine. However, in today’s society that discourages the practice of gender assignment, children’s products that incorporate these colors to signify clothing or toys designated to one gender or another may be ignored.

Incorporating symbolic interaction theories in your market research will explain why children’s products should be changed to gender-neutral colors.

Effects of cultural and social influences

Behaviors within a particular culture can influence society as a whole. For example, different foods, beliefs, and languages can be shared and exchanged with other cultures. Different cultures can also interact socially through competition, cooperation, conflict, and coercion.

Cultures that interact through exchange or cooperation will teach languages or techniques so others can enjoy the benefits of that culture. Concepts such as the more knowledgeable other and the zone of proximal development help with the transfer of knowledge between cultures.

More knowledgeable other (MKO)

Let's take eating with chopsticks as an example. Imagine someone from a different culture wants to enjoy eastern Asian cuisine in the same way as people native to that culture, but they don’t know how to eat with chopsticks. An MKO—someone native to eastern Asian culture—would be the authority figure who teaches the person how to eat with chopsticks.

Zone of proximal development (ZPD)

ZPD is a key concept in Lev Vygotsky’s theory of learning development. It refers to the distance between what a learner can do unaided and what they can achieve with support.

Let’s return to our example of a person who wants to learn how to eat with chopsticks. They will fall into one of three categories:

  • They can't learn to eat with chopsticks, even with assistance, so settle for a fork

  • They will be able to eat with chopsticks but with assistance

  • The person already knows how to eat with chopsticks and doesn't need help

The ZPD is the space between the second and third category, i.e. how far they need to go before they can use chopsticks unaided.

Interaction process analysis (IPA)

This is a technique for observing behavioral interactions within small groups. The observer notes facial and body expressions as well as verbal responses while the participants interact with each other.

Observers note if the participants indicate any intellectual or emotional responses, such as:

  • Showing solidarity with the other participants

  • Displaying agreement or disagreement

  • Indicating tension release or tension

  • Offering suggestions, opinions, or orientation

  • Asking for suggestions, opinions, or orientation

  • Displaying antagonism

Observers can determine who the group leaders are—those with social influence—by studying who displays specific characteristics.

Roles and associated qualities of social interaction

People's behavior may change once they have evaluated the circumstances and people they are interacting with. Their behavior is determined by the following factors:

  • Their relationship with the other people

  • The activities they are engaging in

  • The circumstances in which the interaction occurs

  • Perceived evaluations

6 components of social interaction and 3 levels of abstraction

A social situation can be described by a combination of six components and their features on three levels of abstraction. The six components are:

  • Actor

  • Partner

  • Relation

  • Activity

  • Context

  • Evaluation

Actor roles differ from person to person, and day to day, based on how we act, feel, and perceive others in our social interactions. Partner roles vary based on how we induce behaviors and feelings from others and how others perceive us.

People determine their relationship roles depending on the differences in the unique behaviors, feelings, and perceptions between them and another person. Activity, context, and evaluation roles are also factored in, resulting in the behavior displayed.

The levels of abstraction are:

  • Object: at this level, we communicate about material things that we can touch.

  • Experience: this is the level at which we talk about our experiences. There is an element of abstraction because it is open to interpretation, but it is still something that has happened and is therefore real to us.

  • Concept: at this level, we talk about ideas and immaterial concepts, including our beliefs and values.

As we progress through the levels of abstraction, reality recedes and ideas increase.

Roles and their influence on personalities

Social behaviors can change from negative to positive or positive to negative, depending on a person's role in a social interaction setting. For example, roles can determine whether a person displays directive, self-assured, and assertive behavior or submissive, shy, and uncertain behavior.

Examples of social interactionist theory in action

Examples of social interactionist theory are all around us. The theory describes how our behavior changes in different social settings, depending on other people, our environment, our mood, and other aspects already discussed.

One example of social interactionist theory is that a person may behave differently in a work meeting than at a company picnic. In the office, the person may have a professional, formal demeanor, but they become warm and communicative at the picnic.

Another example is someone who may be too shy to sing in public but belts out a tune if singing as part of a large group at a karaoke event.

Social interactionist theory and market research

Understanding societal trends will help you engage more effectively with your consumers and provide a better experience that will result in more customers. To gain a social interaction perspective on your customer base, you can use market research tools like:

To take focus groups as an example, social interactionist theory can be applied to the target audience sample you select for the group. You will be able to observe the roles people fill while evaluating your product in a social setting with strangers.

Doing market research while observing the behavior of your customers, potential customers, and society as a whole can help determine the types of roles that will use your product or service and who will be more likely to share their experience with others.

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