Symbolic Interactionism Theory
Adapted from Scott Plunkett’s Course Pack
· Symbolic interaction theory describes the family as a unit of interacting personalities.
· This theory focuses attention on the way that people interact through symbols:
o words, gestures, rules, and roles.
· The symbolic interaction perspective is based on how humans develop a complex set of symbols to give meaning to the world (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993).
· Meaning evolves from their interactions in their environment and with people.
· These interactions are subjectively interpreted through existing symbols.
· Understanding these symbols is important in understanding human behavior.
· Interactions with larger societal processes influence the individual, and vice-versa.
· It is through interaction that humans develop a concept of larger social structures and also of self concept.
· Society affects behavior through constraints by societal norms and values.
· Self concept also affects behavior.
· Symbolic interactionism’s unique contributions to family studies are
1. families are social groups and
2. that individuals develop both a concept of self and their identities through social interaction.
· Symbolic interactionism is the way we learn to interpret and give meaning to the world though our interactions with others.
Major Contributors (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993)
· George Herbert Mead (1934) often cited as the main contributor to symbolic interactionism
· Never published his theory
· Blumer, his student published it after his death
o Meaning evolves from gestures (an action which produces a response in another)
o Language is a set of shared meaning
o Taking the role of the generalized other defined as the ability to extend interpersonal meanings to an entire group
· Herbert Blumer (1969) Mead’s Student
· credited with the term “symbolic interactionism.” He also summarized the basic assumptions of symbolic interaction from Mead’s earlier work
Major Assumptions about Self and Family (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993)
· Individuals are not born with a sense of self but develop self concepts through social interaction
· Self concept is developed through the process of interaction and communication with others
· Self concept is shaped by the reactions of significant others and by our perceptions of their reactions
· Self concept, once developed, provides an important motive for behavior.
· Self fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for our expectations, and/or other’s expectations of us to evoke expected responses
· Humans interact and develop roles in the family according to symbols used to describe the family.
· These roles are based on the symbolic meaning attached to each role.
· How family members react to a situation is determined by how they interpret the situation. So, it is important to understand the symbols the family uses to understand their interactions and behaviors.
· In a family, complicated sets of meanings are transmitted through symbols that permit each member to communicate with each other and share experiences (Peterson, 1986).
Core Principles of Social Interaction Theory
· Meaning itself is not inherent in objects
· Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that they have assigned to them
· Meaning arises in the process of interaction between people. that is, it takes place in the context of relationships whether with family or community
· Meanings are handled in and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with things he or she encounters
· Once people define a situation as real, it's very real in its consequences
· As human beings we have the unique ability to name things
· As children interact with family, peers, and others, they learn language and, concurrently, they learn the social meanings attached to certain words
o That is, language is the source of meaning
· Meaning arises out of social interactions with one another, and language is the vehicle
· In Mead’s view, social life and communication between people are possible only when we understand and can use a common language, (Wood, 1997)
3. Thought or “Minding”
· An ability distinctly different from animals in that we have the ability to think about things rather than simply reacting instinctually
· An inner conversation with oneself
· A reflective pause through which we modify our interpretation of symbols
· an ability to take the role of “The Other”
Major Premises of Symbolic Interaction Theory
1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meaning they have
§ These things do not have an inherent or unvarying meaning
§ Rather, their meanings differ depending on how we define and respond to them
§ how we define, or give meaning to the things we encounter
will shape our actions toward them
§ Therefore, if we wish to understand human behavior we must know how people define the things— objects, events, individuals, groups, structures—they encounter in their environment
2. The meaning attributed to those things arises out of social interaction with others
§ We are not born knowing the meanings of things
§ We don’t learn these meanings simply through individual experiences, but rather through the interactions with others
3. These meanings are modified through an interpretive
§ the meanings of the things we encounter, though formed by social interaction, are altered through our understandings
§ An individual’s interpretation of the meaning will guide and determine action
7 Major Assumptions of Symbolic Interactionism Theory
1. People are unique creatures because of their ability to use symbols.
2. People become distinctively human through their interaction with others.
3. People are conscious and self-reflective beings who actively shape their own behavior.
4. People are purposful creatures who act in and toward situations.
5. Human society consists of people engaging in symbolic interaction.
6. The ‘social act’ should be the fundamental unit of social psychological analysis.
7. To understand people’s social acts, we need to use methods that enable us to discern the meanings they attribute to these acts.
Major Concepts, Definitions and Terms
§ Identities - the self meanings in a role.
§ Language – A system of symbolds shared with other memebers of society, used for the purposes of communication and representation
§ Looking Glass Self - the mental image that results from taking the role of the other. imaging how we look to another person.
§ Meaning – the purpose or significance attributed to something. Meaning is determined by how we respond to and make use of it
§ Mind – A process of mental activity consisiting of self, interaction, And reflection, based on socially acquired symbols. Does not refer to an inner psychic world separated from society.
· Naming or Labeling - Name-calling can be devastating because it forces us to view ourselves. through a warped mirror. Name calling like stupid can lead to a self – fulfilling prophecy. If a person sees himself as stupid he is likely to act stupid.
· Roles refer to “collections of expectations that define regularized patterns of behavior within family life” (Peterson, 1986, p. 22).
· Roles within the family may include but not be limited to the following: nurturer, socializer, provider, and decision-maker.
· Role-taking is the ability to see oneself as an object, in other words, to be able to see how others perceive oneself.
· Role-taking allows the individual to monitor and coordinate personal behavior in order to facilitate interaction with others and also to anticipate the responses of other individuals.
· Role conflict refers to the situation in which there are conflicting expectations about a specified role.
· Role making is the “process of improvising, exploring, and judging what is appropriate on the basis of the situation and the response of others at the moment” (Peterson, 1986, p. 23).
· The Self
o According to Mead, self does not exist at birth but is developed through interaction with others
o emerges from the social interaction of humans in which the individual takes on the role of the "other" and internalizes the attitudes and perceptions of others through those interactions
o The interaction of an individual’s self-conception ("I") and the generalized, perceived view that others have of the individual
o The ongoing process of combining the “I” and the “ME.”
o An individual’s self-conception
o The subjective self
“Me” - The “Generalized Other”
o the generalized, perceived view that others have of the individual
o The mental image of onseself that is based on expectations and responses from others
o The image of the self seen in other people's reactions
· Self-concept: the image we have of who and what we are (formed in childhood by how significant others treat/respond to us). The self-concept is not fixed and unchanging – if in childhood your teachers tell you you’re stupid, but later in life your teachers and friends begin to treat you as if you’re very bright, your self-concept is likely to change.
· Self-fulfilling prophecy- The tendency for our expectations to evoke responses in others that confirm what we originally anticipated. Each one of us affects how others view themselves. Our expectations evoke responses that confirm what we originally anticipated. Phenomenon: The way I choose to see the world creates the world I see.
· Significant symbol – A word or gesture that has a common meaning to an individual and others.
· Social Act – Behavior that in some way takes into account the “other” person, group or social organization, and is guided by what they do. It emerges through the process of communication and interaction.
· Symbol manipulation – The means through which we motivate others to action through the use of symbols
Since people are symbolic creatures, they can interpret and talk about
their inner experiences, such as their thoughts or desires, thus enhancing communnication and interactions with others