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What is symbolic interactionism?

Last updated

21 March 2023

Reviewed by

Miroslav Damyanov

Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level sociological theory where symbols and thought combine. The theory is that a person shares their interpretation of a picture or symbol and others interpret that opinion. These interpretations are a framework for the theory that society is a byproduct of human interaction and thought processes, and can be helpful in different methods of research.

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The subjective meanings

Naturally, we impose subjective meanings on symbols. As society creates these meanings, they’re fluid instead of static and natural. 

People’s reactions to symbols stem from society’s currently assigned meanings: A snake may inflict fear in one group and happiness in another, depending on their memories and thoughts. 

When a member of society places an interpretation on another member's behavior, those interpretations are a "definition of a situation". 

George Herbert Mead's symbolic interactionism

The students of American philosophy professor George Herbert Mead gathered and bound his work to create the book Mind, Self and Society. His teachings and lectures formed the heart of the social interaction theory

A student of Mead’s, Herbert Blumer, named the theory 'symbolic interactionism' after the book’s publication. 

The theory's premise hinged on the idea that people interact with each other based on the meanings they assign to things. We don’t inherently know these meanings, and social interactions create them. 

Max Weber's symbolic interactionism

Max Weber's symbolic interactionism is also known as “Max Weber's social action theory.” It states that society is a product of people's activity, and we should focus on this social interaction when looking at society analytically. Weber saw social action as what someone carries out after thinking about it.

Social theorists like Weber believe there are two ways to understand social action: Through direct observation and understanding an action's motive. He contributed to symbolic interaction theory with this argument.

Criticism of symbolic interactionism

There have been criticisms of the theory, mainly from Mark Redmond of Iowa State University. He stated that "symbolic interactionism fails to address macro-level issues, such as politics and history, in social structure," and it "misses micro-level issues such as emotions."

Redmond believes there is an inherent lack of concept clarity, making it harder for social scientists to apply the perspective.


What are the three principles of symbolic interactionism?

The three core principles of the symbolic interaction theory are: 

  • Meaning

  • Language

  • Thinking

What are the theories of symbolic interactionism?

Symbolic interaction theories have evolved from George Herbert Mead's teachings as more social scientists expanded upon them. 

Some of these have emphasized: 

  • The interaction between a populace

  • The interpretation of action

  • The use of symbols and images to create interaction

  • Self-introspectiveness 

  • A flexible social process through language and symbolism

What are the main features of symbolic interactionism?

The main features of the micro-level sociological theory of symbolic interaction are that: 

  • Humans are blessed with thought capacity

  • Social interaction can shape thought capacity

  • Social interaction can influence the meanings of symbols 

  • Those meanings allow people to modify those meanings by interpreting the situation

Symbolic interaction theory allows someone to affix a meaning to a symbol. That meaning can change when someone else interprets it. 

What are some symbolic interaction theory examples?

Some examples of symbolic interactionism include water signifying cleansing or a skull and crossbones symbolizing danger. 

Another example is a picture of a dog: It could invoke feelings of love and happiness in some people or negative, fearful feelings in others. 

A historical example is how the swastika was a Buddhist symbol of peace for centuries before morphing into an international symbol of hate at the hands of the Nazi party.

Who is the father of symbolic interactionism?

Sociologists believe the American professor George Herbert Mead was the true father of symbolic interaction theory.

Herbert Blumer created the term 'symbolic interactionism' after formulating George Herbert Mead's ideas into specific methodological implications.

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