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Sociological Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Micro-Level Analysis of Society

Symbolic interactionists argue that interactions between individuals create rules and meanings that then influence and structure their interactions.

Symbolic interactionism is a view of social behavior that emphasizes subjective understanding and the interactions of the individual and society. It is based on the idea that people use symbols to frame their experience and to understand how to engage with society. Images, words, gestures, and other symbols have particular meanings. For example, smiling has symbolic meaning within a culture, and this symbolic meaning shapes and guides social interactions. People learn when and how to smile and they learn to interpret the meaning of others’ smiles. Likewise, hand signals communicate emotions because of a shared understanding. A raised middle finger is understood in the same way in many societies around the world. A handshake also involves shared meaning, although how individuals and groups use handshakes can be very specific. A firm handshake can communicates confidence or warmth or can be read as aggressive, depending on the beliefs and expectations of the individuals involved.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on micro-level analysis of society. Micro-level analysis involves detailed examination of interactions between individuals. Other major theories, including conflict theory and functionalism, look at behavior from a macro perspective. Macro-level analysis examines society as a whole. Conflict theorists and functionalists describe how behavior is shaped by social institutions or class interests. Critics of macro-level approaches contend that such analyses fail to account for human agency, the capacity of people to act on their own, based on their own values and choices. Both conflict theory and structural functionalism attempt to explain human behavior by understanding how social forces push people. Symbolic interactionism, on the other hand, is a micro-level analysis of how individual behavior is formed through interaction with others, shaped by shared meanings, orientations, and assumptions. It emphasizes the role of the individual in giving meaning to social interactions. The basic notion is that action is only understandable by examining the social context in which it occurs. In this approach, humans are understood as acting in society, rather than being acted upon.

In symbolic interaction sociology, people do not simply act out roles placed on them by society. They interact with those roles, rules, or expectations. People rely on society to give them cues about proper behavior, but they create their own expectations by interpreting those cues. For instance, consider these rules for behavior in elevators:

  • People must stand. Sitting is deviant.
  • People should face the front and not the back of the elevator.
  • If the elevator has only two occupants, they must try to stand as far away from each other as possible.
  • People should look at the floor and should not stare at or scrutinize anyone else in the elevator.

If two people with different awareness of these social rules enter the same elevator, they will struggle to understand each other and will have to adapt to the situation.

Major Theorists of Symbolic Interactionism

The theories of Cooley, Mead, and Goffman consider the social construction of the self and how social interactions shape identity and behavior.
Symbolic interactionism was pioneered by philosophers and sociologists who believed the basis of all human society is social but who focused on how the social affects individuals rather than studying society as a whole or how a society develops.

Charles Cooley

One of the first sociologists was Charles Cooley (1864–1929), an American theorist who focused on the role of social interaction in the development of the individual. He explored the notion of how people develop a sense of identity and the ways that identity is socially constructed. In particular, Cooley proposed the concept of the looking-glass self, a theory that people develop a sense of self based on how they believe other people see and judge them. The idea is that people's self-perception and self-awareness are developed by interpreting the judgements and opinions others have toward them and the reactions others have to them. Cooley noted that people rely on their own perceptions and judgements about what others think of them, sometimes making mistakes. However, he argued that perceptions and judgements all occur in the context of social interactions.

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) was an American sociologist who elaborated upon Cooley's ideas. Mead argued that the self is a social product. He wrote that "the individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds with shared meanings." One of Mead's interests was the distinction of the uniquely human act of linguistic communication—symbolic interaction—from the types of gestures and bodily movements that mark both humans' and animals' interactions. He also investigated the importance of symbols (language and concepts). Mead also explored how people are not just products determined by their society but are also purposeful and creative. He proposed a theory of the self based on the idea that the self is constructed of two parts, the I and the me. The I is creative and subjective, the most personal and individual part of the self. The me is the part of the self that reacts and conforms to the norms and expectations of society. These two parts interact to form the complete self of an individual. Mead stressed the importance of both parts, arguing that people cannot develop a full identity, or sense of self, without the influence of society.

Erving Goffman

A key work relying on symbolic interactionism is The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman (1922–82). Unlike the macroanalyses produced by followers of Marx and Durkheim, Goffman attempted to dissect specific situations of individuals interacting. Goffman's approach, called dramaturgical theory, uses the metaphor of the theater as a tool to explain human interaction. Dramaturgical analysis is an attempt to understand human action by analyzing social interactions in terms of social roles. Goffman's self-presentation theory suggests that, like a dramatic actor, people use costumes, gestures, tone of voice, dialogue, and actions so as to direct or manage the impressions that other people form about them. They may wear "masks"—changing their appearance, expressions, and behavior—to conceal their emotional reactions. People may take on different roles in different situations. They exhibit front stage behavior, public behavior controlled to manage impressions. They keep their backstage behavior, or private behavior, concealed from others, which reflects a person's true self. For example, a restaurant server having a difficult day may smile and be pleasant with customers but may sob or scream when back in the kitchen, out of public view. Goffman also introduced the idea of analyzing human actions using the metaphor of a game. Like Mead and Cooley, Goffman emphasized that one's experience of external reality is not immediate or direct but is mediated by one's understanding and interpretation.

Criticisms of Symbolic Interactionism

A criticism of symbolic interaction theory is that its focus on the individual ignores the larger structural contexts in which individuals are actors.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on understanding interactions between individuals and society. It acknowledges the agency of humans, or their ability to act based on individual choices, but critics believe it goes too far, underestimating the power of social institutions to modify behavior. Critics also argue that symbolic interactionism's focus on the individual fails to consider the influence of the larger structural contexts in which individuals act.

While other theories have been criticized for underplaying personal agency, critics have claimed symbolic interactionism does not give enough weight to the influence of social forces, such as culture, norms, and traditions. Symbolic interactionism ignores social constraints people face in constructing their reality. If, for instance, a man engages with his job in a way that makes him feel he is good at it, that does not stop his boss, who has not interacted with his work in the same way, from firing him. The need to fit in and survive in society is a constraint on each individual's experience.

Critics also claim symbolic interaction focuses on how things happen but not on why. When a person makes a decision, symbolic interactionists would argue the decision was made because of the interaction between the person and some outside stimulus. But symbolic interactionism does not address why a particular interaction leads to the particular choice or action. Unlike the micro-level analysis that is the focus of symbolic interactionism, macro-level theories emphasize the power that society has to shape how people react, through socialization, social institutions, and collective pressure.

Much of the research done by symbolic interactionists is qualitative research, an approach that uses nonnumerical data, such as analysis of interview responses or observed behavior, to study the social world. Some researchers favor quantitative research, an approach that uses numerical data, such as percentages and rates, to study the social world. While both qualitative and quantitative tools are valid, qualitative work is still gaining legitimacy among some social scientists. Some critics claim symbolic interactionism may be well suited to explain how the world is but cannot demonstrate how the world might change if certain criteria were altered.