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An introduction to the interactionist perspective

Last updated

6 April 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Social scientists use a variety of research methods to understand human interactions and behavior. One of the most commonly used sociological theories is the interactionist perspective. This approach provides answers to how human behavior relates to our social interactions.

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What is interactionist perspective?

Interactionist perspective, also referred to as interactionist theory, means looking at people's relationship with different aspects of society as a response to their interactions with others. It involves observing the way a person has been taught to think about a certain experience in their life, either by watching the way other people have interacted with the experience before or how they have reacted or talked about it. 

This perspective helps sociologists see how humans assign meaning to their lives from their interactions with the world around them.

Why is interactionist theory important?

The interactionist theory is important because it allows for a certain response in a person to be understood as a piece of the broader society's worldview. This helps sociologists understand why a certain event, memory, or experience has value to an individual. 

In this line of thought, this theoretical perspective sheds light on social processes such as conflict, cooperation, or identity formation.

History of the interactionist theory

The interactionist theory developed over time, with roots reaching into German sociologist Max Weber’s social action theory. Weber promoted the idea that society is the sum of human activity and that the actions taken thoughtfully by people should be the basis of sociological research. 

Weber's theory of social action influenced American philosophy professor George Herbert Mead. Mead never published his working theory, but his students compiled his teachings into four volumes that laid the foundation for the interactionist theory. 

His main assertion was that the human self comes from social interactions. He believed that humans are influenced by their interactions with society.

Herbert Blumer, a professor and authority in American sociology, used Mead's observations to clarify what we now refer to as the interactionist theory into its main principles. He coined the term "symbolic interactionism," which is the perspective described by the interactionist theory.

Understanding interactionism

Interactionism describes the idea that social behavior is the result of the interaction between an individual and the situation they are in. This means that we can understand why people behave the way that they do by understanding the way other people in their society have behaved and what the individual has observed about their situation before.

Assumptions of interactionist perspective

The interactionist perspective assumes that you can understand all human behavior based on the three principles of interactionism.

What are the three principles of interactionism?

The three main principles of interactionism, as recorded by Blumer and based on the thoughts of George Herbert Mead, are:

  1. An individual's behavior toward a person, thing, or experience is the result of the meaning they assign to that person, thing, or experience.

  2. Humans assign meaning to the things and people around them because of social interactions.

  3. A person can change the meaning they associate with a person, thing, or experience by interpreting their own interactions with the world and internally making adjustments.

What is an example of social interactionist theory?

An example of social interactionist theory at work may be someone who has a positive view of going to the dentist because they started going regularly as a child and had a kind attending professional. 

However, they may suddenly become nervous about dental visits when perceiving the way the experience is talked about by their peers or other people they admire. The act of going to the dentist hasn't changed, but their perspective may be different due to the interactions they have with others.

Strengths and weaknesses of interactionism

When making observations of people's behavior, the strength of the interactionism perspective is that you can understand someone's behavior because of the society around them. This allows you to make assumptions about their actions and to make certain guesses about their future actions, which is helpful to sociology. 

The weakness of relying solely on interactionism is that you may miss the way politics and history impact a person's experience or the way their own personal emotions may influence their interactions with the world. Because the actual application of this theory is vague, some sociologists argue against its use for lack of clear results. 

Conclusion

The interactionist perspective can be a useful theory to begin to understand how people relate to other people, things, or experiences because it indicates that the root of the value we assign to things is found in the society around us. The interactionist perspective does not account for every influence that may affect a person's perspective but can be an introduction for a sociologist to interpret the human experience.

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