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Symbolic interactionism is derived from American pragmatism and particularly from the work of George Herbert Mead, who argued that people's selves are social products, but that these selves are also purposive and creative.
Herbert Blumer, a student and interpreter of Mead, coined the term "symbolic interactionism" and put forward an influential summary of the perspective: people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation.
Sociologists working in this tradition have researched a wide range of topics using a variety of research methods. However, the majority of interactionist research uses qualitative research methods, like participant observation, to study aspects of (1) social interaction and/or (2) individuals' selves.
Sociological areas that have been particularly influenced by symbolic interactionism include the sociology of emotion, deviance/criminology, collective behavior/social movements, the sociology of sex, and the social constructionist approach to studying social problems. Interactionist concepts that have gained widespread usage include definition of the situation, emotion work, impression management, looking glass self, and total institution.
Erving Goffman, although he famously claimed not to have been a symbolic interactionist, is recognized as one of the major contributors to the perspective.
Basic premises and approach
Herbert Blumer (1969), who coined the term "symbolic interactionism," set out three basic premises of the perspective:
- "Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them"
- "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one's fellows."
- "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."
Blumer, following Mead, claimed that people interact with each other by "interpret[ing] or 'defin[ing]' each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their 'response' is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions" (Blumer 1962). Blumer contrasted this process, which he called "symbolic interaction," with behaviorist explanations of human behavior, which don't allow for interpretation between stimulus and response.
Symbolic interactionism is a social constructionist approach to understanding social life that focuses on how reality is constructed by active and creative actors through their interactions with others.
Symbolic interactionist researchers investigate how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or "identity"), and how they define situations of co-presence with others. One of the perspective's central ideas is that people act as they do because of how they define the present situation.
Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction
The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is the scholarly association for symbolic interactionists.SSSI holds a conference in conjunction with the meeting of the American Sociological Association in August and sponsors the Couch-Stone Symposium each spring. It also sponsors the journal Symbolic Interaction.
Although symbolic interactionist concepts have gained widespread use among sociologists, the perspective has been criticized, particularly during the 1970s when quantitative approaches to sociology were dominant.
In addition to methodological criticisms, critics of the symbolic interactionism have charged that it is unable to deal with social structure (a fundamental sociological concern) and macrosociological issues. A number of symbolic interactionists have addressed these topics but their work has not gained as much recognition or influence as the work of those focusing on the interactional level.
- Blumer, Herbert (1962). "Society as Symbolic Interaction" Arnold M. Rose Human Behavior and Social Process: An Interactionist Approach, Houghton-Mifflin. Reprinted in Blumer (1969).
- Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Plummer, Kenneth. (1975). Sexual stigma: An interactionist account. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
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