Symbolic Interaction Essay

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Symbolic interaction, grounded in Pragmatism and the writings of George H. Mead, postulates use of language to create common meanings for thinking and interacting. Herbert Blumer (1969: Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method) coined the term and elaborated its premise that humans act on the meanings which objects have for them. Early Chicago sociologists W. I. Thomas, Robert Park, and Everett Hughes contributed a parallel view but gave social forces more emphasis than Blumer. Howard Becker (1982: Art Worlds) and Anselm Strauss (1993: Continual Permutations of Action) fused the two lines as Interactionism.

Key Assumptions and Core Concepts

George H. Mead noted two distinctive human qualities: handedness and language. The hand allows sensing and modifying the environment. Together they facilitate thinking and communication for coordinated action. As humans develop, they are socialized into society; learn meanings and uses of objects. They develop a reflexive self. From this foundation there are five assumptions: process, emergence, agency, conditionality, and dialectics.

Social objects are always in process even when maintaining stability. Structures exist as processes.

  • Emergence means combinations that create qualitatively different manifestations. A group is more than the sum of individuals. Handedness and language produce social organization and culture. Emergence also means unpredictability and contingency. Agency is the capacity to exert some control over self, others, and circumstances. Social action is not predetermined but constructed and capable of alteration.
  • Constructed conditionality embeds two processes. Humans construct societies and then live with the consequences which condition but do not determine subsequent activity. Interactionists reject dualistic thinking in favor of dialectical thinking. The self is composed of a social (me) and a personal (I), which dialogue with each other. Self-society and structure-agency are processually implicated in each other.

A set of core concepts draws upon these assumptions. The dyad or joint action is the basic social unit. From this form and process are built greater complexity. Dyads with relative stability have general agreements subject to modification. Joint action occurs because each actor builds upon and completes the actions of the other. Actors often recognize routine situations and produce the appropriate actions. In problematic situations, interaction is required for definition and concomitant behavior. Collective action, joint action by multiple actors, whether small or large, requires coordination. Collectivities are networks which connect multiple others, but vary in the degree of coordination, duration, and spatial location.

Interactionists question the state of conventional organizational forms. The term social organization is preferable to social structure because it suggests greater fluidity. Constraints and inequality are recognized but there are also contingencies that provide dynamic possibilities. Bureaucracies are ”negotiated orders” conditioned by position and resources.

Schools Of Thought

Interactionism lacks a consensual, integrated body of ideas. Major faultlines surround Blumer’s interpretation of Mead. Some believe Blumer minimized obduracy, rejected a positivist approach, and emphasized symbolic aspects more than social organization. There are two orientations that stand in some contrast to conventional symbolic interaction. The Iowa School, developed in the 1950s under the leadership of Manford Kuhn pursued a scientific, structural study of the self. In the 1970s, Carl Couch and colleagues developed the ”new” Iowa School systematically studying coordinating behavior in different relationships. Couch used these studies to explore the evolution of complex forms of social coordination across space and time. The second form, Dramaturgy (Goffman 1959: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life), uses a theatrical metaphor to focus on actor-audience interactions and emphasizes expressive behavior, staging, and nonverbal elements. Many have used dramaturgy to expand the scope of Interactionism.


Interactionists use a variety of methods and techniques. Many conduct fieldwork and depth interviews to access actors’ perspectives, biographies, and experiences. Others, focusing on action and process, conduct systematic observations of behavior. A third approach utilizes questionnaires and statistics to explore connections between self, roles, and social structures. A final category involves content analyses of documents and media to elicit thematic elements. Clarke (2005: Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmoden Turn), integrated discourses and structural contexts with grounded theory, resulting in a more comprehensive qualitative methodology. Because the researcher’s self is the instrument of data gathering and writing, recent focus emphasizes its effects on the research and presentation. One consequence has been the adoption of a narrative style that is self-consciously explicit about rhetorical structure and dramatic appeal.

Interactionists commonly use multiple methods in their research in order to examine problems with different information.

Recent Contributions

The renascence of pragmatism has led to new topics such as temporality, physical objects, and science. Scholars have also examined power, institutions, and large-scale social processes (Hall 1997: ”Meta-power, social organization, and the shaping of social action”). New attention has been devoted to inequality processes. Significant ventures have transformed collective behavior and social movements, eliminating irrational actors and group minds, adding cultural/symbolic analysis, and expanding the temporal and spatial dimensions. Interactionists were among the first to study emotions focusing on the interplay between cognition, norms, and feeling. They are now attentive to recent neurocognitive research and its relationship to mind, self, emotions, and actions.


  • Reynolds, L. & Herman-Kinney, N. (eds.) (2003) Handbook of Symbolic Interaction. Altamira Press, Lanham, MD.

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