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Symbolic Interaction

KENT SANDSTROM
University of Northern Iowa

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that emphasizes the centrality of mean-


ing, interaction, and human agency in social life. This theory emerged out of the Amer-
ican philosophical tradition of → pragmatism, an approach developed in the late nine-
teenth century by Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. Challenging the
assumptions of classical rationalism, these scholars saw “reality” as dynamic and plural-
istic, viewed people as actors rather than reactors, tied human meanings to social acts
and perspectives, and regarded knowledge as a key resource for addressing problems
and improving the social world.

FOUNDING FIGURES

John Dewey, who emphasized the importance of human communication, had a pro-
found intellectual impact on several of his colleagues at the University of Chicago, par-
ticularly George Herbert Mead, who was a friend and fellow philosopher. Drawing on
Dewey’s ideas, as well as the related insights of Charles Darwin, Charles Horton Cooley,
and Wilhelm Wundt, Mead revealed how human consciousness, selfhood, and behavior
are grounded in and emerge out of processes of symbolic interaction, or communica-
tion.
Mead stressed that human beings are distinct from other creatures because they have
the capacity for language and thus can think, reason, communicate, and coordinate
their actions with others. While these abilities rely on certain biological characteristics,
Mead suggested that humans have evolved in a way that has freed them from some of
the constraints of other animals and allowed them to create social worlds separate from
the demands of nature. Unlike other animals, which respond to one another primar-
ily through instinctive gestures, such as chirps, growls, or nips, people communicate
through exchanging symbols. When using words or gestures that call forth the same
meaning for others as they do for themselves, people employ “significant symbols.”
According to Mead, most interactions among human beings are based on the exchange
of significant symbols. As a result, these interactions require the persons involved to
engage in complex processes of interpretation, role-taking, and negotiation.
Mead presented his distinctively sociological account of human consciousness and
behavior in a series of classroom lectures that became the foundation for his most
famous book, Mind, self, and society (1934). His ideas impressed many of his students,

The International Encyclopedia of Communication, First Edition. Edited by Wolfgang Donsbach.


© 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/9781405186407.wbiecs126
2 SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N

most notably Herbert Blumer, who later became a prominent sociologist. Blumer orig-
inally coined the term “symbolic interactionism” while writing an essay on social psy-
chology for a social science text in 1937. In that essay, Blumer emphasized how Mead’s
work provided a foundation for a new social psychological approach that could tran-
scend the two dominant approaches of the time – behaviorism and evolutionary theory.
In turn, Mead is usually credited as the founder of symbolic interactionism, even though
Blumer’s analysis drew heavily on the ideas of other theorists and, according to some
critics, differed in important respects from Mead’s approach.

GUIDING PREMISES AND ASSUMPTIONS

In the 1960s, Blumer (1962, 1969) articulated three key premises that serve as the cor-
nerstones of the symbolic interactionist perspective. The first premise is that people act
toward things on the basis of the meanings they have for them. The second is that the
meanings of such things are derived from people’s interactions with others. The third is
that these meanings are managed and transformed through the processes of interpre-
tation and self-reflection that people use to make sense of and handle the things they
encounter. Embracing these premises and reflected in most interactionist analyses are
the following orienting assumptions.
People are unique creatures because of their ability to use symbols. Guided by Mead
and the pragmatist founders, symbolic interactionists stress the significance of peo-
ple’s symbolic capacities. Because people rely upon symbols, they do not simply react
to stimuli; instead, they give → meanings to the stimuli they experience and then act
in terms of these meanings. Their behavior is thus distinctively different from that of
other animals or organisms, who act in a more instinctive or reflex-based manner.
As Blumer pointed out, things do not have intrinsic meaning. Rather, the meanings
of things are learned through, and arise out of, social interaction. Through commu-
nication, people learn how to define and act toward the objects and experiences that
make up their environment. In essence, they learn to respond to symbolically medi-
ated “realities” – realities that are socially constructed.
People are conscious and self-reflexive beings who actively shape their own behavior.
The most important capacities that people develop through their involvement in soci-
ety, which exists in and through communication (Dewey 1916), are the “mind” and
the “self.” As Mead (1934) observed, humans form minds and selves through the
processes of communication and role-taking: individuals develop the capacity to see
and respond to themselves as objects and, thus, to interact with themselves, or think.
Because people can think, they have a notable degree of autonomy in forming and
directing their actions. Through thinking, individuals actively shape the meaning of
things in their worlds, accepting them, rejecting them, or changing them in accord
with how they define and respond to them. A person’s behavior, then, is constructed,
on the basis of which stimuli and objects she or he takes into account and how she or
he defines them. This implied voluntarism does not mean that interactionists think
SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N 3

people’s actions are unaffected by forces beyond their control. In fact, interaction-
ist scholars highlight how a variety of social factors, such as language, culture, class,
ethnicity, and gender, constrain people’s interpretations and behaviors.
People are purposive creatures who act in and toward situations. Interactionists have
illustrated how people’s actions and interactions are based on the meanings they
attribute to the situation in which they find themselves. This “definition of the sit-
uation” emerges out of their communications with others. Individuals determine the
meaning of a situation (and their subsequent actions) by taking account of others’
intentions, actions, and expressions. As people negotiate and establish a definition
of a situation, they also decide what goals to pursue in that situation. Once they
begin acting, individuals may encounter obstacles and contingencies that obstruct
or divert them from their original objectives and direct them toward new ones. Peo-
ple’s goals, actions, feelings, and communications are thus mutable and emergent.
They can make ongoing adjustments in thought, feeling, and behavior, and they can
create new ways of thinking, feeling, and acting as they respond to changing circum-
stances. Above all, people “can modify the social matrices within which they act, and
thus … are agents of change” (Maines 2001, xiii).
The “social act” should be the fundamental unit of research analysis. Interactionists
contend that the “social act,” or what Blumer called joint action, should be the cen-
tral focus of social scientific study. A social act refers to behavior that in some way
takes account of others and is guided by what they do; it is formulated so that it fits
together with the behavior of another person, group, or social organization. It also
depends on and emerges through processes of communication and interpretation.
This covers a broad spectrum of human conduct, ranging from a kiss, a punch, and
a medical exam to a sermon, a baseball game, and an international war. Whenever
people orient themselves to others and their actions, regardless of whether they are
trying to hurt, help, convert, or destroy these others, they are taking part in a social
act. In doing so, they may be acting as individuals or as representatives of a larger
group or organization.
To understand people’s social acts, researchers need to use methods that enable them to
discern the meanings people attribute to these acts. Because interactionists emphasize
that people act on the basis of the meanings they give to things in the world, they
believe that researchers must become familiar with the worlds of meaning inhab-
ited by the individuals or groups they choose to study. More specifically, researchers
must “take the role of” the social actors they are investigating, immersing themselves
in their everyday worlds and discourse, and observing their interactions in an unob-
trusive way (→ Emic vs Etic Research). Through adopting this approach, researchers
can better understand and describe how these social actors define, communicate, and
act toward the “realities” that constitute their daily worlds.
4 SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N

INTERACTIONISM AND COMMUNICATION STUDIES

The following discussion highlights three of several significant arenas of interactionist


research in communication studies.

Self-Development, Self-Presentation, and Emotion Work

Guided by Mead’s insights, interactionist analysis has always emphasized the social
and communicative roots of the self, revealing how individuals acquire the capacity
for self-reflexivity through their symbolic interactions with others. Interactionists have
also highlighted the dialectical relationship of the self and communication, noting that
while the self emerges and develops through communication with others, it also directs
a person’s communications with others and informs his or her interpretations of their
communicative responses.
In elaborating the dynamic interplay between the self and communication, some
interactionists have focused attention on how people construct and stage selves in spe-
cific situations. Following Erving Goffman (1959), these scholars have proposed that
social life is analogous to the theater, with people being much like actors on a stage. To
express and realize desired selves, people must translate their intentions, feelings, and
self-images into communicable form, engaging in elaborate rituals and drawing on a
variety of dramaturgical resources, including words, gestures, props, scenery, scripts,
clothing, and other features of their appearance. In doing so, people participate in the
arts of impression management, tailoring their role performances to communicate their
intentions, understandings, and preferred identities to the audience in a given situation.
In recent years, interactionists have extended Goffman’s dramaturgical approach,
elaborating the dynamics of identity work, or the techniques actors use to create and
sustain identities, both individually and collectively (Benford & Hunt 1992; Sandstrom
et al. 2002; Snow & Anderson 1993). These researchers have illustrated how individuals
and groups draw on various resources (ideologies, rhetorics, and support networks),
interactional strategies (scripting, passing, covering), and forms of talk (distancing,
disavowal, embracement, and fictive storytelling) to announce and preserve cherished
identities. Some interactionists have also highlighted how people manage and commu-
nicate feelings in their ongoing identity work, using emotions as strategic methods in
their daily interactions. As Hochschild (1983) observed, individuals learn the feeling
rules that prevail in their groups and develop skills in two forms of emotion work:
“surface acting” (acting as if they feel a particular way, even if they do not) and “deep
acting” (calling forth the feelings and feeling displays expected in the situation and
suppressing emotions or emotional displays deemed to be inappropriate). Drawing
on these skills, individuals proactively control their bodily sensations and emotional
experiences. They respond to their emotions as social objects – objects they can shape
and manipulate not only to meet others’ expectations, but also to influence and direct
others’ responses. Emotions, then, become a vital channel of communication through
which people convey and negotiate definitions of self, others, and situations.
SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N 5

Narrative Constructions of Emotion, Identity, and Biography

While some interactionists focus on how people manage and display their emotions
in social interactions, others investigate how emotions are felt by individuals as bodily
experiences that affect one’s existence and self-understandings. As Denzin (1983) pro-
poses, emotion is self-feeling, affecting a lived body and given meaning by a reflexive
actor. Emotion represents a window into the self, grounded in felt experience, which
connects the individual to a larger community.
To appreciate the personal and interpersonal implications of emotion, a group of
interactionists have developed a methodological strategy known as “auto-ethnography,”
which refers to the study of oneself and one’s own experiences, including one’s feel-
ings. Drawing in part on introspective strategies used in the early 1900s by scholars
such as Charles Horton Cooley, these interactionists seek not only to enhance their
self-understandings, but also to extend the boundaries of ethnography and communi-
cation studies, particularly by offering unique insights gleaned from a self-reflexive and
sociologically informed reading of one’s own life. One prominent scholar employing
this approach is Carolyn Ellis. She has crafted several auto-ethnographies, including a
poignant account of her partner’s illness and eventual death (Ellis 1995). Ellis wrote this
auto-ethnography in an effort to examine and convey how individuals (beginning with
herself) come to terms with grief, loss, and life-threatening illness.
Other auto-ethnographers have addressed a variety of topics, ranging from struggles
with bulimia or cancer to experiences working as an erotic dancer. Above all, in doing
auto-ethnography, these scholars seek to illustrate alternative possibilities for method-
ological practice and expression. They also privilege emotional evocation over analytic
abstraction; that is, they seek to engage readers personally, moving them to resonate
with the sorrows and triumphs of others and, in so doing, to feel a sense of caring, desire,
or connection. These writers want to help readers not only to resonate with the expe-
riences and biographies of others, but also to use these experiences and biographies to
reflect on their own, thereby enhancing their capacity to cope with life’s complexities,
ambiguities, and contingencies (Ellis & Bochner 1996).
In addition to resurrecting and refining auto-ethnography, interactionists have
developed or extended a number of other ethnographic methods, including narrative
analysis, discourse analysis, ethnographic content analysis, and interpretive biography
(→ Qualitative Methodology). In the process, they have illuminated the formulae,
institutional discourses, media formats, and information technologies that individuals
draw upon as they construct narratives of identity and biography. They have also
revealed the “rhetorics of self-change” that often inform and shape people’s stories of
identity transformation (Frank 1993).

Media Logic, Formats, and Frames

Interactionists are often criticized for having a micro-level orientation but, because they
focus above all on social acts, they do not limit themselves to investigating the emotions,
behaviors, and discourse of individuals or small groups. While they sometimes study
6 SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N

these phenomena, interactionists also examine the outlooks, actions, and communica-
tions of crowds, political parties, school systems, hospitals, corporations, occupational
groups, and social movements. In addition, they devote significant research attention to
the conduct and communications of the mass media, and to the impact that prevailing
media formats have on social perspectives and practices.
In their analyses of the mass media, interactionists have been guided by three key
foci. First, they have investigated the processes and practices through which journal-
ists and other media workers construct the news. In doing so, they have shown how
an organized production process directs news reporting and programming, as well as
entertainment programming. One of the central aspects of this production process
is the development and use of formats, or rules and codes for selecting, organizing,
and presenting information that shape audience assumptions and preferences (Altheide
2002). Interactionists have highlighted how people learn these formats and, most cru-
cially, come to expect that events and issues will fit with them and have a “proper media
look” (Altheide & Snow 1991). In essence, people learn to gauge the importance of an
issue or event as much by the structure and organization of the messages about it as by
the content of those messages.
Second, and relatedly, interactionists have examined how prevailing media formats,
as well as the → media logic that informs them, have altered social assumptions, institu-
tions, and relationships. “Media logic” has become a way of seeing and defining reality
in contemporary societies. People tend to trust that they can express and interpret
the events of their everyday lives through media formats and information technolo-
gies (Altheide & Snow 1991). Moreover, the nature and practices of social institutions,
including religion, politics, sports, education, and news, are affected by media logic and
technologies. For example, wars and natural disasters have become television events,
major sporting events have become media spectacles, and many church services and
classroom lectures have become multimedia productions.
Finally, interactionists have investigated how media frames shape the public param-
eters for interpreting specific events, particularly social problems and issues. As David
Altheide has noted, the entertainment format of news has, in many ways, given rise to
the “problem frame.” This frame is an important innovation that satisfies the enter-
tainment emphasis that now permeates the news, promoting fear and victimization as
widely recognized social realities. According to Altheide (2002, 47), the news media
have created the problem frame as “an organizational solution to a practical problem:
How can we make real problems seem interesting? Or, how can we produce news
reports compatible with entertainment formats?”
What makes interactionist analyses of the mass media distinctively different from
other approaches is that they study → “Media Effects” in terms of the logic, assump-
tions, and perspectives that individuals share with others because of media logic and
frames. These analyses also focus on the interaction between media and non-media
segments of society, concentrating on how specific features of media logic, conveyed in
media formats, intersect with particular institutional practices to produce and repro-
duce a media culture. In examining these themes, interactionists reject approaches that
construct media audiences as passive entities who are conditioned by media messages.
Instead, they stress that audiences are active interpreters who can disregard, reject, or
SY M B O L I C IN T E R A C T I O N 7

reshape media messages (→ Interactivity in Reception), although their interpretations


are influenced by the broader media logic and formats they share with communicators.

SEE ALSO: → Emic vs Etic Research → Interactivity in Reception →


Meaning → Media Effects → Media Logic → Pragmatism → Qualita-
tive Methodology

References and Suggested Readings

Altheide, D. (2002). Creating fear: News and the construction of crisis. New York: Aldine de
Gruyter.
Altheide, D., & Snow, R. (1991). Media worlds in the postjournalism era. New York: Aldine de
Gruyter.
Benford, R., & Hunt, S. (1992). Dramaturgy and social movements: The social construction and
communication of power. Sociological Inquiry, 62, 36–55.
Blumer, Ht. (1962). Society as symbolic interaction. In A. Rose (ed.), Human behavior and social
processes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, pp. 179–192.
Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Carey, J. (1989). Communication as culture. Boston: Unwin Hyman.
Denzin, N. (1983). A note on emotionality, self, and interaction. American Journal of Sociology,
89, 402–409.
Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan.
Ellis, C. (1995). Final negotiations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Ellis, C., & Bochner, A. (eds.) (1996). Composing ethnography: Alternative forms of qualitative
writing. Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press.
Frank, A. W. (1993). The rhetoric of self-change: Illness experience as narrative. Sociological
Quarterly, 34(1), 39–52.
Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. Garden City, NY: Anchor.
Hochschild, A. (1983). The managed heart. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Maines, D. (2001). The faultline of consciousness: A view of interactionism in sociology. New York:
Aldine de Gruyter.
Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Sandstrom, K., Fine, G., & Martin, D. (2002). Symbols, selves, and social reality. Los Angeles:
Roxbury.
Snow, D., & Anderson, L. (1993). Down on their luck. Berkeley, CA: University of California
Press.