Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective on self and society based on the ideas of George H. Mead (1934), Charles H. Cooley (1902), W. I. Thomas (1931), and other pragmatists associated, primarily, with the University of Chicago in the early twentieth century. The central theme of symbolic interactionism is that human life is lived in the symbolic domain. Symbols are culturally derived social objects having shared meanings that are created and maintained in social interaction. Through language and communication, symbols provide the means by which reality is constructed. Reality is primarily a social product, and all that is humanly consequential—self, mind, society, culture—emerges from and is dependent on symbolic interactions for its existence. Even the physical environment is relevant to human conduct mainly as it is interpreted through symbolic systems.

Importance of Meanings:

The label symbolic interactionism was coined by Herbert Blumer (1969), one of Mead’s students. Blumer, who did much to shape this perspective, specified its three basic premises:

  1. Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them;
  2. The meanings of things derive from social interaction; and
  3. These meanings are dependent on, and modified by, an interpretive process of the people who interact with one another.

The focus here is on meaning, which is defined in terms of action and its consequences (reflecting the influence of pragmatism). The meaning of a thing resides in the action that it elicits. For example, the meaning of “grass” is food to a cow, shelter to a fox, and the like. In the case of symbols, meanings also depend on a degree of consensual responses between two or more people. The meaning of the word husband, for example, depends on the consensual responses of those who use it. If most of those who use it agree, the meaning of a symbol is clear; if consensus is low, the meaning is ambiguous, and communication is problematic. Within a culture, a general consensus prevails on the meanings associated with various words or symbols. However, in practice, the meanings of things are highly variable and depend on processes of interpretation and negotiation of the interactants.

The interpretive process entails what Blumer refers to as role-taking, the cognitive ability to take the perspective of another. It is a critical process in communication because it enables actors to interpret one another’s responses, thereby bringing about greater consensus on the meanings of the symbols used. The determination of meanings also depends on negotiation—that is, on mutual adjustments and accommodations of those who are interacting. In short, meaning is emergent, problematic, and dependent on processes of role-taking and negotiation. Most concepts of symbolic interactionism are related to the concept of meaning.

The origins of symbolic interactionism: Mead’s conception of behaviour

Symbolic interaction is a very loose categorization not particularly welcome to many of the sociologists commonly counted as part of it. The name itself provides a succinct summation of the key claim of Mead’s social psychology, which holds that interaction between people is a matter of communication, through symbols. Mead aimed to understand how the capacity for communication by symbols developed among humans, and how it develops in the maturation of each human individual.

Mead’s View of The Self:

  1. The human mind—which Mead termed the self—develops in and through the process of symbolic interaction, enabling an individual to acquire a sense of “HIMSELF OR HERSELF” as an individual.
  2. The development of the human mind was to be understood in strictly Darwinian terms as a product of the evolutionary process; the evolution of the human organism and the social nature of human individuals were both part of their biological nature. Hence Mead was certainly confident that social life could be studied scientifically, since his social psychology was in essence an application of biology, but he was none the less critical of many attempts to understand human social life scientifically. This was not because they sought to be scientific, but because they had an impoverished conception of:
    • What science involves (the methods); and/or
    • What the science is to study (the subject matter) in the case of human life.
  3. For Mead, the mind can be studied scientifically because its workings are displayed in people’s conduct, not concealed behind it. The capacity of humans to respond in a more complex and flexible way to their environment than other animals is a product of human biology and its evolution into its specific form. For example, no small part of the crucial linguistic/symbolic capacity of humans is a result of the evolution of the vocal cords.
  4. Mead emphasizes the contrast between the way animal response is tied to the immediate situation and the way humans can transcend it; they are able to reflect upon and respond to past situations well after they have occurred, and can anticipate and prepare for future situations before they happen. How we shall react in a situation can depend on our preparation and planning, not just on an automatic link between a certain occurrence and a fixed, instinctual reaction as in the case of a reflex action, e.g. the knee’s reaction on being hit. We do have reflex reactions, but not only those. Thus Mead is putting the case that we ourselves can control our own behaviour; we do not simply react to a stimulus that provokes our reaction. The capacity to transcend immediate circumstance in this way requires the development of SYMBOLIC CAPACITY.

Symbolic Capacity:

  1. This is our ability to be able to represent, i.e. recall or envisage, past and future situations to ourselves, to conjure them up when they are not actually present, are in the past, or have not yet happened.
  2. Part of this capacity for representation involves our ability to represent ourselves to ourselves. If we are to prepare our conduct for future situations then we must be able to imagine not just those situations but, also, what we would do in them. Thus we must have the capacity to think of ourselves in the way that we think about (other) objects; in Meadian terms, we can be objects to ourselves. That is, we can think about ourselves in just the same way as we can think about the objects (including other people) in the world about us, we can step back from our immediate involvement in a situation and reflect on it, and we can also envisage how others in our situation will look upon us and see ourselves as others see us. This, then, is the capacity for self-consciousness.
  3. THE INDIVIDUAL IS NOT, OF COURSE, MERELY A BODY, BUT AN IDENTITY, A PERSON WITH A DISTINCT CORE OF PSYCHOLOGICAL CHARACTER, WHICH MEAD TERMS ‘THE SELF’. It is the basis of, the driving force for, an individual’s conduct. Mead refers to ‘the social self’ to emphasise. that the self develops in interaction with and is modelled on other people and their ways of acting. The child, for example, learns first by imitation, by copying the behaviour of others in playful form, acting now like the postman, now the shopkeeper, then the mother, and so on. In this way, the individual learns what is involved in social roles, i.e. learns what people expect of one another. Through imitating these roles, the child is learning how other people look upon the world, how they see it relative to their role responsibilities. The child is learning not only to take account of things from its own situated, particular point of view, but also to assess its situation from the point of view of others. Such assessment is a basis for the co-ordination of activities with others, allowing one to adjust one’s own actions to what one can expect/anticipate, because one can consider things from their point of view as well as one’s own.
  4. The child does not develop a detailed conception of how every other kind of person in a society would view things, for that is far too complicated a task, but forms, rather, a general sense of how other people, broadly and typically, look upon things. Mead called this general orientation ‘THE GENERALIZED OTHER’. This is an important element in the individual’s psychology. It is the standard outlook of the community in which the child grows up, and the attitudes that are shared within it form part of each individual’s personality.

Self-Identity: Concept Formation:

  1. Along with symbols, meaning, and interaction, the self is a basic concept in symbolic interactionism. The essential feature of the self is that it is a reflexive phenomenon. Reflexivity enables humans to act toward themselves as objects, or to reflect on themselves, argue with themselves, evaluate themselves, and so forth. This human attribute (al-though dolphins and the great apes show some evidence of a self as well), based on the social character of human language and the ability to role-take, enables individuals to see themselves from the perspective of another and thereby to form a conception of themselves, a self concept.
  2. Two types of others are critical in the development of the self. The significant other refers to people who are important to an individual, whose opinions matter. The generalized other refers to a conception of the community, group, or any organized system of roles (e.g., a baseball team) that are used as a point of reference from which to view the self.
  3. The importance of others in the formation of self-concepts is captured in Cooley’s (1902) influential concept, the looking-glass self. Cooley proposed that to some extent individuals see themselves as they think others see them. Self-conceptions and self-feelings (e.g., pride or shame) are a consequence of how people imagine others perceive and evaluate them. Within contemporary symbolic interactionism, this process is called reflected appraisals and is the main process emphasized in the development of the self.
  4. The self is considered a social product in other ways, too. The content of self-concepts reflects the content and organization of society. This is evident with regard to the roles that are internalized as role-identities (e.g., father, student). Roles, as behavioral expectations associated with a status within a set of relationships, constitute a major link between social and personal organization. Sheldon Stryker (1980) proposes that differential commitment to various roleidentities provides much of the structure and organization of self-concepts. To the extent that individuals are committed to a particular role identity, they are motivated to act according to their conception of the identity and to maintain and protect it, because their role performance implicates their self-esteem. Much of socialization, particularly during childhood, involves learning social roles and associated values, attitudes, and beliefs. Initially this takes place in the family, then in larger arenas (e.g., peer groups, school, work settings) of the individual’s social world. The role identities. formed early in life, such as gender and filial identities, remain some of the most important throughout life. Yet socialization is lifelong, and individuals assume various role identities throughout their life course.
  5. Socialization is not a passive process of learning roles and conforming to other’s expectations. The self is highly active and selective, having a major influence on its environment and itself. When people play roles, role-making often is as evident as is learning roles. In role-making, individuals actively construct, interpret, and uniquely express their roles. When they perceive an incongruity between a role imposed on them and some valued aspect of their self conception, they may distance themselves from a role, which is the disassociation of self from role. A pervasive theme in this literature is that the self actively engages in its own development, a process that may be unpredictable.
  6. Mead talks about three forms of inter-subjective activity: Language, play and the game. These forms of symbolic interaction (social interactions that take place via shared symbols such as words, definitions, roles, gestures, rituals etc) are the major paradigms in his theory of socialization and are the basic social processes that render the reflexive objectification of the self possible. Language is communication vie significant symbols and it is through significant communication that the individual is able to take the attitudes of others toward oneself. Language is not only a necessary mechanism of mind but also the primary social foundation of self. Within the linguistic act the individual takes the role of the other i.e. responds to his/her own gestures in terms of the symbolized attitudes of others. This process of “TAKING THE ROLE” of the other within the process of symbolic interaction is the primal form of self-objectification and is essential to self-realization. Mead’s self as object is the basic structure of human experience that arises in response to other persons in an organic social –symbolic world of internal relations.
  7. This becomes even clearer in Mead’s interpretation of PLAY STAGE AND GAME STAGE. In playing and gaming as in linguistic activity the key to the generation of self-consciousness is the process of role-playing. In play the child takes the role of another and acts as though she/he were the other. This form of role playing involves a single role at a time.
  8. Thus the other which comes into the child’s experience in play is a specific other. The game involves a more complex form of role playing than that involved in play. In the game the individual is required to internalize not merely the character of a single and specific other but the roles of all others who are involved with him in the game. He must comprehend the rules of the game which condition the various roles. This configuration of roles-organized according to the rules brings the attitude of all participants together to form a symbolized unity: this unity is the generalized other.
  9. The generalized other is an organized and generalized attitude with reference to which the individual defines her/his conduct. When the individual can view himself from the standpoint of the generalized other, self-consciousness in the full sense of the term is attained. The game is the stage of the social process at which the individual attains selfhood. One of the Mead’s most outstanding contributions to the development of critical social theory is his analysis of games. Mead says that the full social and psychological significance of game playing and the extent to which the game functions is an instrument of social control.

The ‘Me’ and the ‘I’

  1. Although the self is a product of socio-symbolic interaction it is not merely a passive reflection of the generalized other. The individual’s response to the social world is active; he decides what he will do in the light of the attitude of others but his conduct is not mechanically determined by such attitudinal structures. There are two phases of the self- that phase which reflects the attitude of the generalized other and that phase which responds to the attitude of the generalized other. Here Mead distinguishes between the ‘me’ and ‘I’. The ‘me’ is the social self and the ‘I’ is the response to me. The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the ‘me’ is the organized set of attitudes of others which one assumes. Mead defines the ‘me’ as a conventional habitual individual and the ‘I’ as the novel reply of the individual to the generalized other. There is a dialectical relationship between society and the individual and this dialectic is enacted on the intra-psychic level in terms of the polarity of the ‘me’ and the ‘I’.
  2. The me is the internalization of roles which derive from such symbolic processes as linguistic interaction, playing and gaming whereas the I is a creative response to the symbolized structures of the me. The ‘I’ appear as a symbolized object in our consciousness of our past actions but then it has become part of me. The ‘me’ is in a sense that phase of the self that represents the past. The I which is a response to the me represents action in a present and implies the restructuring of the me in a future. Because of the temporal historical dimension of the self, the character of the ‘I’ is determinable only after it has occurred; the ‘I’ is not therefore subject to predetermination. Particular acts of the ‘I’ become aspects of the ‘me’ in the sense that they are objectified through memory but the ‘I’ as such is not contained in the ‘me’. The human individual exists in a social situation and responds to that situation. The situation has a particular character but this character does not completely determine the response of the individual there seem to be alternative courses of action. The individual must select a course of action and act accordingly but the course of action he selects is not dictated by the situation. It is this indeterminacy of response that gives the sense of freedom of initiative.
  3. The action of the ‘I’ is revealed only in the action itself; specific prediction of the action of ‘I’ is not possible. The individual is determined to respond but the specific character of the response is not fully determined. The individual’s response are conditioned but not determined by the situation in which he acts. Human freedom is conditioned freedom. Thus the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ exist in dynamic relation to one another. The human personality arises in a social situation. This situation structures the me by means of inter –subjective symbolic processes – language,gestures,play and games etc and the active organism as it continues to develop must respond to its situation and to its me. This response of the active organism is the ‘I’. The individual takes the attitude of the ‘me’ or the attitude of the ‘I’ according to the situation in which he finds himself. For Mead both aspects of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ are essential to the self in its full expression. Both community and individual autonomy are necessary to identity. The ‘I’ is process breaking through structure. The ‘me’ is a necessary symbolic structure which renders the action of the ‘I’ possible and without this structure of things; the life of the self would become impossible.

The dialectic of ‘self’ and other:

  1. The self arises when the individual takes the attitude of the generalized other toward herself. This internalization of the generalized other occurs through the individual’s participation in the conservation of significant symbols and in other socialization processes. The self then is of great value to organized society: the internalization of the conservation of significant symbols and of other interactional symbolic structures allow for the super coordination of society as whole and for the increased efficiency of the individual as a member of the group. The generalized other is a major instrument of social control; it is the mechanism by which the community gains control over the conduct of its individual members. Social control is the expression of the ‘me’ over against the expression of the ‘I’.
  2. The genesis of the self in social process is thus a condition of social control. The self is a social emergent that supports the cohesion of the group individual will is harmonized by means of a socially defined and symbolized reality with social goals and values. Thus there are two dimensions of Mead’s theory of internalization: The internalization of the attitudes of others toward oneself and toward one another. The internalization of the attitudes of others toward the various phases or aspects of the common social activity or set of social undertakings in which as members of an organized society or social group they are all engaged. The self then has reference not only to others but to social projects and goals and it is by means of the socialization process (the internalization of the generalized other through language, play and the game that the individual is brought to assume the attitudes of those in the group who are involved with him in his social activities.

Critique Symbolic interactionism

  1. Interactionists have often been accused of examining human interaction in a vacuum. They have tended to focus on small-scale face to face interaction with little concern for its historical or social settings. They have concentrated on particular situations and encounters with little reference to the historical events which led up to them or the wider social framework in which they occur. Since these factors influence the particular interaction situation, the scant attention they have received has been regarded as a serious omission.
  2. While symbolic interactionism provides a corrective to the excesses of societal determinism, many critics have argued that it has gone too far in this direction. Though they claim that action is not determined by structural norms, interactionists do admit the presence of such norms. However, they tend to take them as given rather than explaining their origin.
  3. As William Skidmore comments, the interactionists largely fail to explain ‘why people consistently choose to act in given ways in certain situations, instead of in all the other ways they might possibly have acted’. In stressing the flexibility and freedom of human action the interactionists tend to downplay the constraints on action. In Skidmore’s view this is due to the fact that ‘interactionism consistently fails to give an account of social structure’. In other words it fails to adequately explain how standardized normative behavior comes about and why members of society are motivated to act in terms of social norms.
  4. Similar criticism has been made with reference to what many see as the failure of interactionists to explain the source of the meanings to which they attach such importance. Critics argue that such meanings are not spontaneously created in interaction situations. Instead they are systematically generated by the social structure. Thus Marxists have argued that the meanings which operate in face to face interaction situations are largely the product of class relationships. From this viewpoint, interactionists have failed to explain the most significant thing about meanings: the source of their origin.
  5. Symbolic interactionism is a distinctly American branch of sociology and to some this partly explains its shortcomings. Thus Leon Shaskolsky has argued that interactionism is largely a reflection of the cultural ideals of American society. He claims that ‘Symbolic interactionism has its roots deeply imbedded in the cultural environment of American life, and its interpretation of society is, in a sense, a “looking glass” image of what that society purports to be’. Thus the emphasis on liberty, freedom and individuality in interactionism can be seen in part as a reflection of America’s view of itself. Shaskolsky argues that this helps to explain why the interactionists perspective finds less support in Europe since there is a greater awareness in European societies of the constraints of power and class domination. By reflecting American ideals, Shaskolsky argues that interactionism has failed to face up to and take account of the harsher realities of social life. Whatever its shortcomings however, many would agree with William Skidmore that, ‘On the positive side, it is clearly true that some of the most fascinating sociology is in the symbolic interactionists tradition’.

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