Symbolic Interactionism

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The premise of symbolic interaction is that humans use symbols to understand and interact properly with natural and social world. Symbolic interactionism is a theory of social cognition, which models human interaction among significant concepts like identity, language, meaning, labeling and roles. Humans base their interpretation or reaction to symbols on social interaction with others.

John Dewey, George Mead and William Thomas are the psychologists who developed symbolic interaction theory. Herbert Blumer published and developed George Mead's ideas on symbolic interaction. However, George Mead was the pioneer in this field. He based his theory on the notion that human cognition and behavior is essentially social. He recognized that language is the enabling symbol of social interaction, although he did not discount other symbols existing (for example, non-verbal symbols).

Within symbolic interactionism, humans create and define symbols (such as language). However, the commonality of symbols enables meaningful interaction between human beings. This facilitates development of role taking and the formation of self-concepts.

Role taking involves humans interacting with each other by attempting to understand the other person's action in a symbolic way. For example, a symbol such as "anger" is interpreted via verbal signals (angry words) or non-verbal signals (angry gestures). Human interaction, which is enabled by symbols, is a reflexive interpretative process. Human beings thus develop their self-concepts through this reflexive process. Arguably, one of Mead's most influential ideas was that individuals derive their self-concept (identity) through symbolic interaction with others.

Humans learn and internalize existing symbols and roles. For instance, the child learns what a table is and how to distinguish a table from other objects and symbols representing those objects. More importantly, the child learns to associate the table with a range of activities. When the symbol refers to a social object (like a political party or another human), symbolic interaction becomes far more intricate. Social actors develop attitudes and stereotypes towards certain social groups and categories (symbols and representations).

Symbolic interactionism formed the basis for the development of the social identity concept. The social identity concept uses the collective basis of the individual's identity. In other words, individuals derive their self-concepts from membership in various social groups and categories. Symbolic interactionism also helps to account for the formation and preservation of culture, institutions and social roles in society.

Symbolic interactionism is a critical theory in sociology and social psychology. It is useful in reinforcing labeling theory, understanding identity/ self-esteem and evaluating deviance.

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