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 ?
Symbolic interaction theory focuses on how meanings, labels, and definitions are learned through interaction with others.
The related literature examines how past teachers serve as role models for pre-service teachers, how symbolic interaction theory (i.
On a theoretical level, Symbolic Interaction Theory and Goal Theory are discussed as possible explanations for the results.
Next, they look at words and symbolic interaction theory before going on, in Chapter 4, to theories of persuasion and rhetoric.
Identity salience and role performance: The importance of symbolic interaction theory for family research.
Two theoretical perspectives that have anchored the research on marital abuse are symbolic interaction theory and ecological theory.
Symbolic interaction theory proposes that a person's view of her/himself is based on observations of others.
The present effort, 1) uses a large, representative sample of both undergraduate students and faculty members from two large state universities, 2) uses the same questionnaire (modified for group-specific wording) with the same hypotheses applied to both groups and is, 3) anchored in symbolic interaction theory (Mead, 1938; Stryker, 1980) one of the major micro level theories in sociology.
Identity salience and role performance: The relevance of symbolic interaction theory for family research.
Among the theories which fall into this group are exchange theory (Nye & Berardo, 1966; Blau, 1974; Homans, 1974; Huston & Cate, 1979; Acock & Bengtson, 1978), attribution theory (Harvey & Weary, 1981, 1984; Kelley & Michela, 1980; Shaver, 1975), social learning theory (Hilgard & Bowers, 1966; Hall, 1966), self-attitude theory (Epstein, 1973), and symbolic interaction theory (Stryker, 1980; Burr et al.
1972 'Major trends in symbolic interaction theory in the past twenty five years' in Symbolic interactionsim: A reader in social psychology, 2nd.
Ferraro claims to use symbolic interaction theory to justify his emphasis on the importance of perceived risk in explaining fear.

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