A Look into Symbolistic Interactionism Theory

Society is placed in a world that can be quite complex towards functionality from day to day life. As individuals, we have learned to process this complexity through developed skills and experiences. Specifically, the study of Sociology focuses on identifying general patterns of social interactions by examining the behavior of large groups of people living in the same society and experiencing the same societal pressures. In order to be given a broad perspective that helps in explaining many different aspects of social life, paradigms are utilized to create theories. By providing useful explanations structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism are three paradigms that have dominated sociological thinking. The primary focus will be directed towards symbolic interactionism, which is a theory that focuses on the relationships among individuals within a society through symbols.

The intentions behind symbolic interactionism, strengths and weaknesses, and how it is applied to my personal life will be explored in order to show a deep understanding of the theory. Symbolic interactionism is a small-scale theory of the interactions between individuals. Because of a small-scale perspective, this theory can explain social order and change. George Herbert Meade compiled these teachings during the early twentieth century. He believed that the development of the individual was a social process, as were the meanings individuals assign to things (OpenStax). Herbert Blumer continued Meade’s work and coined the term symbolic interactionalism to further develop this theory. He proposed that we act based on the meaning we have given something else, the meanings based on social interactions, and the meaning that we give something that is not permanent.

People change based on their interactions with objects, events, ideas, and they assign meaning to things in order to act. In exchange, a sense of identity and self-conceptions can be formed by the individual.  A study was done to preview the symbolic interaction approach to smoking cigarettes with smoking frequency and the desire to quit smoking. This study took 485 Atlanta area adult smokers diverse in education, income, and occupational experiences. Moreover, the relationship between identity and smoking was examined and researchers were able to conclude that “The smoker identity refers to self-meanings associated with engaging in a stigmatized activity and reflects some divergent social processes” (Reitzes).

Additionally, smokers were able to “manage their stigmatized identities through a variety of strategies that enable them to preserve and protect their overall self-conception” (Reitzes). Though the initial intent was to look at smoking frequency, the researchers found that the smoker identity was not related to smoking frequency. However, the direct link between identity shows that a cigarette can make an individual act a certain way. To explain, someone who may have an established career, might smoke due to the stress, or an eighteen-year-old might start smoking because it factors into him or her taking on a rebel identity. Nevertheless, a meaning is assigned to the cigarette by the individual, which then causes a certain behavior. In addition to symbolistic interactionalism having a connection to identity, it also allows for the development of social constructs. OpenStax explains that “constructivism is an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans cognitively construct it to be.

An article from Odyssey provides a list of social constructs that are not inherently natural but created by society. Such include the ideas of government, race, gender, femininity/masculinity, illness, marriage, family, deviance, and education. It’s interesting how most of what is included within a society was merely created and continues to be expanded as time goes on. While symbolic interactionalism is one of the three major theories utilized in sociology, there are some weaknesses behind some of the principal ideas. Previously mentioned, this theory is based under small-scale standards while functionalism and conflict theory are macro levels of analysis. This may cause some to think that it is too narrow of a theory. Another weakness would be that symbols may be interpreted incorrectly or differently among different groups of people. For example, the color red can mean different things for different cultures.

In China, the color red is a symbolic representation of happiness, whereas red in America signifies danger or evil. Also, it can be difficult to quantify things in symbolic interactionism because this theory is formed based on interpretation and is therefore subjective by nature. Referring back to the smoking study done in Atlanta, I noticed that there was no way to quantify the data. It was merely based on observation and interviews with participants and lacked in remaining objective. In an article written by Goffman Erving, a claim was made that it overestimates the power of individuals to create their own realities, ignoring the extent to which humans inhabit a world not of their own making (Davis). This suggests that it is possible for realties to coexist, but does not allow an individual to live in their own pure world of likings and choosing.

The next disadvantage was concluded from the book “Symbolic Interaction; a Reader in Social Psychology” and discusses how this theory neglects the emotional aspect of human conduct but instead focuses on logical behavior (Manis and Meltzer). To further explain, certain symbols can have an emotional element attached to it, which can then alter an initial response to then generate a specific behavior. The OpenStax textbook talks about an example of someone loving books due to the interactions that were made with family. However, there can be a deeper association with such in that there is an emotional appeal to those memories and experiences. While most criticism focuses on the narrow aspects of this theory, it is still considered to be just as significant as conflict and functionalism theory.

Symbolic interactionism theory can be applied to everyday life. The simplest example to prove this is language. Words are symbols with assigned meaning and have commonly accepted definitions. However, this may not always be the case for some individuals in certain situations. Puns and jokes are two examples where the meaning of a word can be transformed in a sense that they convey an entirely different meaning. This causes the joke or pun to become lost on someone who fails to grasp the intended meaning. Personally, my first language was German. When I came to America I did not know English, and therefore found it difficult to communicate. In my early days of grasping the language, I remember being clueless at several remarks once a joke was made. The individual making the joke did not expect a disposed reaction, causing a behavior and reaction towards the situation.

Until society gives a meaning to an action, there is no “proper” reaction and the action does not mean anything; the consequences of actions are only real because society has given them meanings. Therefore, when society cannot teach members how to interpret the symbols they are faced with on a daily basis, this would, in theory, show members how not to act. However, because there is meaning assigned to symbols and members actively reproduce these meanings and symbols, in addition to teaching them to other members of society, everyone obtains the skills it takes to know how to react and function in society. This then allows society to reflect on one another, allowing people to reproduce these learned behaviors to transform into what becomes culture.

Another example of symbolic interactionalism that became prevalent in my life can be concluded from my early childhood days. When I started school, I became situated with a routine, made new friends, and learned independence. Additionally, this was a critical period in forming my identity. Specifically, I remember associating meaning towards materialistic things such as a certain brand of bracelets. If you did not wear the right color or style, this would affect your social status. Therefore, such materialistic items became important to me and caused a shift in identity because of the significant impact it had on making friends and the consequences of how others viewed you. This progressively became difficult to handle as I transitioned into high school.

My identity became focused on school and performing well so that I would be viewed as the “smart kid”. However, I remember trying to counterbalance my identity so that I would also be viewed as popular. This was done by keeping up with the latest fashion trends, having a driver’s license, and even having the capability to leave campus and buy lunch from the place everybody goes to. It’s interesting how walking through the doors of a high school with a Chick-Fil-A cup would signify a status, but is representative of symbolic interactionalism theory. Walking through the halls with this cup meant, to a high schooler, that you had the ability to afford lunch off campus and have the means of transport. Ultimately, it signified a social status, which is very common in high school.

Symbolic Interactionalism Theory continues to be one of the three main foundations of sociological theory. The intentions, the strengths and weaknesses, and how it is signified on a personal level were examined to show a thorough understanding of this theory. Additionally, Symbolic Interactionalism has allowed sociologists to explain social events, interactions, and patterns that are so critical to how our society functions from day to day life.

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