Symbolic Interaction

Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology:

Symbolic Interaction

Becoming Human
Reading Link


So far you have been introduced to two of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology, functionalism and conflict theory. The metaphor or model which functionalism used was simple; societies are like an organism. The central focus of conflict theory is also quite straight forward, power. Conflict theory is interested in who has power, how they use it, and how changing conditions may modify the power relationships between individuals, groups and societies.

Symbolic interaction's central focus can also be stated quite simply. However, it is a little more difficult to understand its implications and figure out how to apply it.

Simply stated symbolic interaction argues that society is the product of interaction (communication) between people and that this interaction takes place through the use of symbols which have meaning for the individuals involved.

Another way to think about symbolic interaction is to think of it as the major perspective in micro-sociology (small scale interpersonal topics) or to think of it as the foundation of social psychology (from the sociologists point of view).


Becoming Human

The tragic examples of children who have been isolated through their early developmental years show us that humans are not just biological beings but partly the creation of a culture. That is why I have chosen the picture of the little girl and her father at the top of the page to illustrate this module.

The lack of language (a shared symbol system) makes it almost impossible for children who have been isolated to participate in human society. Even with extensive help they usually can not recover from this early handicap.

For people to be fully human they must be socialized, in other words they must internalize the meanings of the culture of which they are a part. Language is the primary way in which a culture is transmitted to each generation of children. However, it goes far beyond the question of what words refer to, it goes  to the very meaning of who we are and what our relationship is to the world and to other people.

The process is not simply a process of pouring in information but a process of the negotiation of meaning between people. Meaning is created socially.

Let us take a simple example.

Imagine that you go home with a college friend to spend the Christmas vacation with her and her family. 

Her parents, who are part of the college educated middle class, suggest that you all go to see a classic Bergman film, titled the "Seventh Seal" (a Swedish film) that is showing a local theatre. The film is set in the middle ages and is in black and white. You find the subtitles difficult to read, the plot hard to follow, and are not quite sure what to make of the characters such as "death" who plays chess with a knight.

After the film you go next door to Starbucks for some coffee, desert, and to discuss the movie (which seems to be a family tradition). You find out that the film is one of the all time favorites of the parents and that they have seen it more than once and at different times in their lives. Your friend's father turns to you and says, "Well, how did you like the film".

You are their guest, they paid for the movie and your coffee, and you know that they think that this is a great movie. You also want to impress them as being a smart college student. So you decide to play it careful and say, "I'm not sure, I'm still trying to figure it out." Which turns out to be a great answer because they are dying to tell you why they think its so great.

As they explain the symbolism and why the movie has meant so much to them you start to get a different idea about the film and what the director was trying to do. So that later on when you talk with your parents and they ask how your visit went, you tell them you saw an interesting film with the family while you were there.

If you had seen the film by yourself, your response to your parents might have been that it was a real loser. But since you had a chance to talk with other people, your evaluation of the film, and its meaning for you is quite different.


 The Social Creation of the Self

Besides opinions about movies, however, symbolic interaction argues that our very sense of who we are, our self concept is created through interaction with other people.

How do you know if you can tell jokes well? 

People laugh in response to your telling of jokes.

How do you know if you are good at math?

Your math teacher gives you high grades and your friends ask you for help with their math assignments.

This idea is often called the looking glass self. In other words people serve as a mirror for us, telling us what we are like. They do this through gestures, language, and actions. In short, through interaction, most often through language, hence symbolic interaction.


Reading Link

Here is a link to a summary of the basic ideas of symbolic interaction. It is not easy reading, but is a good chance again for you to get a sample of the level of language and abstraction that is found in sociological theory.

If you are thinking about taking upper division sociology courses, I suggest that you spend some time reading it slowly, with full concentration, and to take some notes to give you practice dealing with the academic language style.

If not, read it to get a sense of how sociologists write, when they are writing for each other or upper division students.

Go to web link on Symbolic Interaction (George H. Mead)


Go to web link on Symbolic Interaction (Herbert Blumer)



Before we start our unit on the family I wanted to give you this short introduction to symbolic interaction, hopefully this will give you a head start as you read the textbook's attempts to apply this perspective in the next chapters that you read in the textbook.

Remember symbolic interaction is concerned with symbols, the meaning people give to events, and the way in which these meanings are constructed through interaction with other people.

I believe that the institution of the family illustrates in a nice way how each of the major sociological perspectives highlights and explains different aspects of this complex  institution.