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symbolic interactionisma theoretical approach in US sociology which seeks to explain action and interaction as the outcome of the meanings which actors attach to things and to social action, including themselves (see also REFLEXIVITY).
For symbolic interactionists, meanings ‘do not reside in the object’ but emerge from social processes. Emphasis is placed on the ‘active’, ‘interpretive’, and ‘constructive’ capacities or competence, possessed by human actors, as against the determining influence of social structures suggested by theoretical approaches such as FUNCTIONALISM.
The term was coined in 1937 by H. BLUMER, who summarizes the main principles of the approach in terms of three propositions (Blumer, 1969):
- ‘human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them’;
- these meanings ‘arise out of social interaction’;
- social action results from a ‘fitting together of individual lines of action’.
Theorists whose work stands predominantly within this tradition include George Herbert MEAD, Charles COOLEY, and Howard S. BECKER. An important sociologist whose work stands close to the symbolic interactionist tradition is Erving GOFFMAN.
Symbolic interactionism is sometimes seen as a sociologically oriented SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY – indeed it has been described as the first properly 'social’ social psychology of any kind. Thus, symbolic interactionism stands opposed to approaches in social psychology such as BEHAVIOURISM or ETHOLOGY. As Cooley put it, 'society is not a chicken yard’. Human action is seen as distinguished from animal behaviour above all by language and by the huge importance of symbolic communication of various kinds.
As well as being the main alternative theoretical approach to functionalism within modern American sociology, symbolic interactionism also provides the main alternative approach in social research to conventional SOCIAL SURVEY using fixed choice QUESTIONNAIRES and standardized VARIABLES. In place of these approaches, its preferred methods include PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION of actors in natural settings and intensive INTERVIEWS.
Although rejecting those approaches in psychology and sociology which seek deterministic universal laws or the discovery of overarching structural-functional regularities, symbolic interactionists do see a place for generalizations within sociology. Thus BECKER (1953) in his famous study of marijuana use for pleasure claims that his ‘final generalization is a statement of those sequences of changes in attitude which occurred in every case … and may be considered as an explanation of all cases’. Rather than a root-and-branch objection to generalization in sociology, symbolic interactionism calls for these to be appropriate to the particular subject matter of sociology (see ANALYTICAL INDUCTION, GROUNDED THEORY, DRUG-TAKING FOR PLEASURE).
A further feature of the approach is that it has often adopted a more socially radical posture than either functionalist or conventional social survey research, e.g. a ‘reversal of the usual hierarchies of credibility’ by exploring the perspective of ‘the underdog’ (BECKER, 1963).
The main criticism of symbolic interactionism is that in focusing exclusively on microsocial processes and subinstitutional phenomena, it understates the importance of macroscopic structures and historical factors, especially economic forces and institutionalized political power. Thus rather than exclusive perspectives, sociological foci on structure and action are seen as complementary perspectives by many theorists, e.g. GIDDENS (see also DUALITY OF STRUCTURE, STRUCTURATION THEORY).
A further critique, that symbolic interactionism fails to explore human creative competence in sufficient depth, is more internal to the interpretive and symbolic interactionist tradition (see SOCIAL PHENOMENOLOGY). A new sociological paradigm, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY, resulted from this critique.