symbolic interactionism

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symbolic interactionism

a 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):

  1. ‘human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them’;
  2. these meanings ‘arise out of social interaction’;
  3. 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.

References in periodicals archive ?
Chapters discuss eight theoretical frameworks--the rational choice and social exchange framework, the symbolic interaction framework, the family life course development framework, the systems framework, the conflict and critical theories framework, the feminist framework, and the ecological framework--and their intellectual traditions, focus and scope assumptions, concepts, propositions, variations, empirical applications, and critiques.
Symbolic interaction was the theoretical framework used to interpret the data.
The second section covers 27 theories in 27 chapters, which are divided into six broad classifications: the self and messages (e.g., cognitive dissonance theory and symbolic interaction theory); relationship development (e.g., social exchange theory and relational dialectics theory); groups, teams, and organizations (e.g., groupthink and organizational culture theory); the public (e.g., the rhetoric and the narrative paradigm); the media (e.g., uses and gratifications theory and agenda setting theory); and culture and diversity (e.g., muted group theory and feminist standpoint theory).
"Institutionalizing Public Scholarship: Lessons from Feminism and Symbolic Interactionism." Symbolic Interaction 39(4):615-33.
All the above comes from symbolic interaction. In sociology, there are three excellent schools.
Let us consider the two journals dedicated exclusively to symbolic interactionist research both in their titles and mission statements: Symbolic Interaction and Studies in Symbolic Interaction.
Beginning with the work of John Dewey and George Herbert Mead, this school of theory would eventually be dubbed "symbolic interaction" by Herbert Blumer who defined it as a theory of the "peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings." (24) Critically, by beginning from an assumption of human interaction as both individually expressive and communally interpretive, symbolic interaction offered an approach that could avoid reductionism and account for a wide variety of empirically observable phenomena.
One way of thinking of general semantics is as a "systems" approach for the understanding of the construction of meaning through symbolic interaction. So it is, that among the many fine articles contained in this issue of ETC, we are pleased to present the second half of Robert Logan's The Terrance Deacon's Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged From Matter.
Symbolic interaction attacked structural-functionalism for its disregard of individual creativity and micro-level social processes.
Subsequent chapters outline the arguments of several theoretical traditions that have taken issue with Parson's assumptions: rational choice theory, symbolic interaction, and conflict theory.
This argument is rooted in two complementary streams of work, symbolic self-completion theory and symbolic interaction. Symbolic self-completion theory (Wicklund & Gollwizter, 1982) argues that many behaviors, such as purchase choice, are intended to substantiate the consumer's definition of themselves.

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