Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that emphasizes the centrality of meaning, interaction, and human agency in social life. This theory emerged out of the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism, an approach developed in the late nineteenth century by Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Challenging the assumptions of classical rationalism, these scholars saw “reality” as dynamic and pluralistic, viewed people as actors rather than reactors, tied human meanings to social acts and perspectives, and regarded knowledge as a key resource for addressing problems and improving the social world.
Founding Figures of Symbolic Interactionism
John Dewey, who emphasized the importance of human communication, had a profound intellectual impact on several of his colleagues at the University of Chicago, particularly George Herbert Mead, who was a friend and fellow philosopher. Drawing on Dewey’s ideas, as well as the related insights of Charles Darwin, Charles Horton Cooley, and Wilhelm Wundt, Mead revealed how human consciousness, selfhood, and behavior are grounded in and emerge out of processes of symbolic interaction, or communication.
Mead stressed that human beings are distinct from other creatures because they have the capacity for language and thus can think, reason, communicate, and coordinate their actions with others. While these abilities rely on certain biological characteristics, Mead suggested that humans have evolved in a way that has freed them from some of the constraints of other animals and allowed them to create social worlds separate from the demands of nature. Unlike other animals, which respond to one another primarily through instinctive gestures, such as chirps, growls, or nips, people communicate through exchanging symbols. When using words or gestures that call forth the same meaning for others as they do for themselves, people employ “significant symbols.” According to Mead, most interactions among human beings are based on the exchange of significant symbols. As a result, these interactions require the persons involved to engage in complex processes of interpretation, role-taking, and negotiation.
Mead presented his distinctively sociological account of human consciousness and behavior in a series of classroom lectures that became the foundation for his most famous book, Mind, self, and society (1934). His ideas impressed many of his students, most notably Herbert Blumer, who later became a prominent sociologist. Blumer originally coined the term “symbolic interactionism” while writing an essay on social psychology for a social science text in 1937. In that essay, Blumer emphasized how Mead’s work provided a foundation for a new social psychological approach that could transcend the two dominant approaches of the time – behaviorism and evolutionary theory. In turn, Mead is usually credited as the founder of symbolic interactionism, even though Blumer’s analysis drew heavily on the ideas of other theorists and, according to some critics, differed in important respects from Mead’s approach.
Guiding Premises and Assumptions of Symbolic Interactionism
In the 1960s, Blumer (1962, 1969) articulated three key premises that serve as the cornerstones of the symbolic interactionist perspective. The first premise is that people act toward things on the basis of the meanings they have for them. The second is that the meanings of such things are derived from people’s interactions with others. The third is that these meanings are managed and transformed through the processes of interpretation and self-reflection that people use to make sense of and handle the things they encounter. Embracing these premises and reflected in most interactionist analyses are the following orienting assumptions.
- People are unique creatures because of their ability to use symbols. Guided by Mead and the pragmatist founders, symbolic interactionists stress the significance of people’s symbolic capacities. Because people rely upon symbols, they do not simply react to stimuli; instead, they give meanings to the stimuli they experience and then act in terms of these meanings. Their behavior is thus distinctively different from that of other animals or organisms, who act in a more instinctive or reflex-based manner. As Blumer pointed out, things do not have intrinsic meaning. Rather, the meanings of things are learned through, and arise out of, social interaction. Through communication, people learn how to define and act toward the objects and experiences that make up their environment. In essence, they learn to respond to symbolically mediated “realities” – realities that are socially constructed.
- People are conscious and self-reflexive beings who actively shape their own behavior. The most important capacities that people develop through their involvement in society, which exists in and through communication (Dewey 1916), are the “mind” and the “self.” As Mead (1934) observed, humans form minds and selves through the processes of communication and role-taking: individuals develop the capacity to see and respond to themselves as objects and, thus, to interact with themselves, or think. Because people can think, they have a notable degree of autonomy in forming and directing their actions. Through thinking, individuals actively shape the meaning of things in their worlds, accepting them, rejecting them, or changing them in accord with how they define and respond to them. A person’s behavior, then, is constructed, on the basis of which stimuli and objects she or he takes into account and how she or he defines them. This implied voluntarism does not mean that interactionists think people’s actions are unaffected by forces beyond their control. In fact, interactionist scholars highlight how a variety of social factors, such as language, culture, class, ethnicity, and gender, constrain people’s interpretations and behaviors.
- People are purposive creatures who act in and toward situations. Interactionists have illustrated how people’s actions and interactions are based on the meanings they attribute to the situation in which they find themselves. This “definition of the situation” emerges out of their communications with others. Individuals determine the meaning of a situation (and their subsequent actions) by taking account of others’ intentions, actions, and expressions. As people negotiate and establish a definition of a situation, they also decide what goals to pursue in that situation. Once they begin acting, individuals may encounter obstacles and contingencies that obstruct or divert them from their original objectives and direct them toward new ones. People’s goals, actions, feelings, and communications are thus mutable and emergent. They can make ongoing adjustments in thought, feeling, and behavior, and they can create new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting as they respond to changing circumstances. Above all, people “can modify the social matrices within which they act, and thus . . . are agents of change” (Maines 2001, xiii).
- The “social act” should be the fundamental unit of research analysis. Interactionists contend that the “social act,” or what Blumer called joint action, should be the central focus of social scientific study. A social act refers to behavior that in some way takes account of others and is guided by what they do; it is formulated so that it fits together with the behavior of another person, group, or social organization. It also depends on and emerges through processes of communication and interpretation. This covers a broad spectrum of human conduct, ranging from a kiss, a punch, and a medical exam to a sermon, a baseball game, and an international war. Whenever people orient themselves to others and their actions, regardless of whether they are trying to hurt, help, convert, or destroy these others, they are taking part in a social act. In doing so, they may be acting as individuals or as representatives of a larger group or organization.
- To understand people’s social acts, researchers need to use methods that enable them to discern the meanings people attribute to these acts. Because interactionists emphasize that people act on the basis of the meanings they give to things in the world, they believe that researchers must become familiar with the worlds of meaning inhabited by the individuals or groups they choose to study. More specifically, researchers must “take the role of” the social actors they are investigating, immersing themselves in their everyday worlds and discourse, and observing their interactions in an unobtrusive way. Through adopting this approach, researchers can better understand and describe how these social actors define, communicate, and act toward the “realities” that constitute their daily worlds.
Symbolic Interactionism and Communication Studies
The following discussion highlights three of several significant arenas of interactionist research in communication studies.
Self-Development, Self-Presentation, And Emotion Work
Guided by Mead’s insights, interactionist analysis has always emphasized the social and communicative roots of the self, revealing how individuals acquire the capacity for selfreflexivity through their symbolic interactions with others. Interactionists have also highlighted the dialectical relationship of the self and communication, noting that while the self emerges and develops through communication with others, it also directs a person’s communications with others and informs his or her interpretations of their communicative responses.
In elaborating the dynamic interplay between the self and communication, some interactionists have focused attention on how people construct and stage selves in specific situations. Following Erving Goffman (1959), these scholars have proposed that social life is analogous to the theater, with people being much like actors on a stage. To express and realize desired selves, people must translate their intentions, feelings, and self-images into communicable form, engaging in elaborate rituals and drawing on a variety of dramaturgical resources, including words, gestures, props, scenery, scripts, clothing, and other features of their appearance. In doing so, people participate in the arts of impression management, tailoring their role performances to communicate their intentions, understandings, and preferred identities to the audience in a given situation.
In recent years, interactionists have extended Goffman’s dramaturgical approach, elaborating the dynamics of identity work, or the techniques actors use to create and sustain identities, both individually and collectively (Benford & Hunt 1992; Sandstrom et al. 2002; Snow & Anderson 1993). These researchers have illustrated how individuals and groups draw on various resources (ideologies, rhetorics, and support networks), interactional strategies (scripting, passing, covering), and forms of talk (distancing, disavowal, embracement, and fictive storytelling) to announce and preserve cherished identities. Some interactionists have also highlighted how people manage and communicate feelings in their ongoing identity work, using emotions as strategic methods in their daily interactions. As Hochschild (1983) observed, individuals learn the feeling rules that prevail in their groups and develop skills in two forms of emotion work: “surface acting” (acting as if they feel a particular way, even if they do not) and “deep acting” (calling forth the feelings and feeling displays expected in the situation and suppressing emotions or emotional displays deemed to be inappropriate). Drawing on these skills, individuals proactively control their bodily sensations and emotional experiences. They respond to their emotions as social objects – objects they can shape and manipulate not only to meet others’ expectations, but also to influence and direct others’ responses. Emotions, then, become a vital channel of communication through which people convey and negotiate definitions of self, others, and situations.
Narrative Constructions of Emotion, Identity, and Biography
While some interactionists focus on how people manage and display their emotions in social interactions, others investigate how emotions are felt by individuals as bodily experiences that affect one’s existence and self-understandings. As Denzin (1983) proposes, emotion is self-feeling, affecting a lived body and given meaning by a reflexive actor. Emotion represents a window into the self, grounded in felt experience, which connects the individual to a larger community.
To appreciate the personal and interpersonal implications of emotion, a group of interactionists have developed a methodological strategy known as “auto-ethnography,” which refers to the study of oneself and one’s own experiences, including one’s feelings. Drawing in part on introspective strategies used in the early 1900s by scholars such as Charles Horton Cooley, these interactionists seek not only to enhance their self-understandings, but also to extend the boundaries of ethnography and communication studies, particularly by offering unique insights gleaned from a self-reflexive and sociologically informed reading of one’s own life. One prominent scholar employing this approach is Carolyn Ellis. She has crafted several auto-ethnographies, including a poignant account of her partner’s illness and eventual death (Ellis 1995). Ellis wrote this auto-ethnography in an effort to examine and convey how individuals (beginning with herself) come to terms with grief, loss, and life-threatening illness.
Other auto-ethnographers have addressed a variety of topics, ranging from struggles with bulimia or cancer to experiences working as an erotic dancer. Above all, in doing auto-ethnography, these scholars seek to illustrate alternative possibilities for methodological practice and expression. They also privilege emotional evocation over analytic abstraction; that is, they seek to engage readers personally, moving them to resonate with the sorrows and triumphs of others and, in so doing, to feel a sense of caring, desire, or connection. These writers want to help readers not only to resonate with the experiences and biographies of others, but also to use these experiences and biographies to reflect on their own, thereby enhancing their capacity to cope with life’s complexities, ambiguities, and contingencies (Ellis & Bochner 1996).
In addition to resurrecting and refining auto-ethnography, interactionists have developed or extended a number of other ethnographic methods, including narrative analysis, discourse analysis, ethnographic content analysis, and interpretive biography. In the process, they have illuminated the formulae, institutional discourses, media formats, and information technologies that individuals draw upon as they construct narratives of identity and biography. They have also revealed the “rhetorics of self-change” that often inform and shape people’s stories of identity transformation (Frank 1993).
Media Logic, Formats, and Frames
Interactionists are often criticized for having a micro-level orientation but, because they focus above all on social acts, they do not limit themselves to investigating the emotions, behaviors, and discourse of individuals or small groups. While they sometimes study these phenomena, interactionists also examine the outlooks, actions, and communications of crowds, political parties, school systems, hospitals, corporations, occupational groups, and social movements. In addition, they devote significant research attention to the conduct and communications of the mass media, and to the impact that prevailing media formats have on social perspectives and practices.
In their analyses of the mass media, interactionists have been guided by three key foci. First, they have investigated the processes and practices through which journalists and other media workers construct the news. In doing so, they have shown how an organized production process directs news reporting and programming, as well as entertainment programming. One of the central aspects of this production process is the development and use of formats, or rules and codes for selecting, organizing, and presenting information that shape audience assumptions and preferences (Altheide 2002). Interactionists have highlighted how people learn these formats and, most crucially, come to expect that events and issues will fit with them and have a “proper media look” (Altheide & Snow 1991). In essence, people learn to gauge the importance of an issue or event as much by the structure and organization of the messages about it as by the content of those messages.
Second, and relatedly, interactionists have examined how prevailing media formats, as well as the media logic that informs them, have altered social assumptions, institutions, and relationships. “Media logic” has become a way of seeing and defining reality in contemporary societies. People tend to trust that they can express and interpret the events of their everyday lives through media formats and information technologies (Altheide & Snow 1991). Moreover, the nature and practices of social institutions, including religion, politics, sports, education, and news, are affected by media logic and technologies. For example, wars and natural disasters have become television events, major sporting events have become media spectacles, and many church services and classroom lectures have become multimedia productions.
Finally, interactionists have investigated how media frames shape the public parameters for interpreting specific events, particularly social problems and issues. As David Altheide has noted, the entertainment format of news has, in many ways, given rise to the “problem frame.” This frame is an important innovation that satisfies the entertainment emphasis that now permeates the news, promoting fear and victimization as widely recognized social realities. According to Altheide (2002, 47), the news media have created the problem frame as “an organizational solution to a practical problem: How can we make real problems seem interesting? Or, how can we produce news reports compatible with entertainment formats?”
What makes interactionist analyses of the mass media distinctively different from other approaches is that they study “media effects” in terms of the logic, assumptions, and perspectives that individuals share with others because of media logic and frames. These analyses also focus on the interaction between media and non-media segments of society, concentrating on how specific features of media logic, conveyed in media formats, intersect with particular institutional practices to produce and reproduce a media culture. In examining these themes, interactionists reject approaches that construct media audiences as passive entities who are conditioned by media messages. Instead, they stress that audiences are active interpreters who can disregard, reject, or reshape media messages, although their interpretations are influenced by the broader media logic and formats they share with communicators.
- Altheide, D. (2002). Creating fear: News and the construction of crisis. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Altheide, D., & Snow, R. (1991). Media worlds in the postjournalism era. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Benford, R., & Hunt, S. (1992). Dramaturgy and social movements: The social construction and communication of power. Sociological Inquiry, 62, 36–55.
- Blumer, Ht. (1962). Society as symbolic interaction. In A. Rose (ed.), Human behavior and social processes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 179–192.
- Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Carey, J. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
- Denzin, N. (1983). A note on emotionality, self, and interaction. American Journal of Sociology, 89, 402–409.
- Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.
- Ellis, C. (1995). Final negotiations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
- Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. (eds.) (1996). Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
- Frank, A. W. (1993). The rhetoric of self-change: Illness experience as narrative. Sociological Quarterly, 34(1), 39–52.
- Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
- Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
- Maines, D. (2001). The faultline of consciousness: A view of interactionism in sociology. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
- Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Sandstrom, K., Fine, G., & Martin, D. (2002). Symbols, selves, and social reality. Los Angeles: Roxbury.
- Snow, D., & Anderson, L. (1993). Down on their luck. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
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