Micro-Level Analysis of Society
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
George Herbert Mead
Criticisms of Symbolic Interactionism
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.