Symbolic interactionism: What, if Anything, Makes Symbolic Interactionism Distinctive as a Body of Social Theory?

Introduction

Sociologists investigate social patterns, interactions and events. Theories are developed in order to explain why social patterns, interactions and events take place and their respective outcomes. In the context of sociology, Bulmer (1986) perceives theory as a framework for explaining the various features of social interactions. In addition, a theory can be used in the development of propositions regarding society, which can be empirically tested. It is also imperative to note that sociologists explore social phenomena within different levels and perspectives. According to Bulmer (1986), the levels of analysis are a point of difference for the various sociological perspectives, and perhaps contribute to the uniqueness of some of the sociological theories used in explaining social phenomena. It is evident that the various sociological theories have varying scope, which is determined by the scale of issues they strive to explain. Coser & Rosenberg (1989) asserts that grand theories, sometimes referred to as macro-level theories, strive to provide explanations to large scale relationships as well as answer the basic questions relating to social phenomena such as why societies develop and change in the course of time. Goff (1980) asserts that macro-level theories are abstract and sometimes difficult to evaluate empirically. On the other hand, micro-level theories attempt to elucidate explicit relationships between people or small groups of individuals. In this regard, Bulmer (1986) asserts that micro-level theories depend significantly on their context and tend to be more concrete, which implies that they can be evaluated empirically. The three main sociological theories are structural functionalism (macro theory), conflict theory (macro theory), and symbolic interactionism (micro theory). In this regard, this paper argues that symbolic interactionism derives its distinctiveness as a body of social theory from its micro-level analysis.

Overview of Symbolic Interactionism Theory

Symbolic interactionism is one the major sociological theories having a long intellectual history tracing back to the German economist and sociologist, Max Weber and the American philosopher, George Mead; both of whom place emphasis on the subjective meanings associated with human behavior, pragmatism and the social process (Blumer, 1969). The symbolic interactionist theory posits that individuals tend to attach meanings to symbols, after which they act in accordance to their subjective understanding of the symbols. Symbolic interactionism focuses on one-to-one communications and interactions with a micro-level of analysis. According to the theory of symbolic interactionism, the social structure is always in a steady state of flux, which is attributed to the constant reinterpretation and interpretation of social phenomena; in this regard, human behavior is mostly intentional and depends on the meanings that people tend to assign to various social objects. Blumer (1969) perceives symbolic interactionism in the light of interactionist psychology, wherein the meaning of social objects takes place either through social learning fostered by interaction or interpretation that makes use of a socially-learned understanding of the environment around the individual. In addition, meanings attached to symbols are not considered static; rather, they are constantly re-interpreted when people come across new situations that compel them to redefine their behavior and belief (Coser & Rosenberg, 1989).

For symbolic interactionists, the emphasis is on the subjective elements of social life, and not the macro-structural components of social life, which are mostly objective. This emphasis stems from the fact that the symbolic interactionists draw their theoretical perspective upon the humans’ image, and not the society’s image, which is the case for functionalists (Madge, 1962). According to the views of symbolic interactionists, human beings are pragmatic entities who constantly change their actions in accordance with the actions of other entities. People are able to change their actions since they have the capability to interpret them, that is, represent them using symbols and treat the actions as well as those performing them as symbolic objects (Goff, 1980). The process of constantly adjusting behavior is facilitated by the ability of humans to think and respond to their own actions as well themselves as symbolic objects; as a result, the symbolic interactionist perceives human beings as creative and active entities who tend to construct their world, rather than passive entities who conform to social phenomena. In this regard, human beings are differentiated from infra-humans on grounds that infra-human only respond to the environment (stimulus-response) around them; however, human beings are capable of interrupting this process (stimulus-cognition-response) (Habermas, 1985).

From a symbolic interactionist perspective, the society comprises of patterned and organized interactions between people. As a result, research undertaken by interactionists place emphasis on face-to-face interactions (micro elements) and not the macro structural relationships associated with social institutions. In addition, the emphasis on the interaction as well as the meaning of events (situational definition) reallocates the focus of symbolic interactionists away from the established values and norms towards the constantly changing social processes (Mead, 2009). This is contrasted with the functionalist perspective, whereby socialization results in a stable social system. From the symbolic interactionist perspective, negotiation between the societal members results in temporary relations that are socially constructed and tend to stay in a continuous flux, regardless of the stability observed in the fundamental framework that governs these social relations (Whyte, 1993).

The distinctiveness of Symbolic Interactionism

Neither structural-functional theory nor conflict theory, nor symbolic interaction theory is whole by itself. Nevertheless, together, they offer a valuable framework that can be used to understand how people relate to the society and vice versa. Coser & Rosenberg (1989) considers these three sociological perspectives as being interchangeable lenses for viewing the society, and that there is sociological perspective that is superior when compared to another. Rarely, the same subject can be analyzes using any of the three sociological perspectives; nevertheless, selecting the appropriate sociological perspective that is ideal for a particular subject will result in better results. Blumer (1969) points out that conflict theory and structural functionalism is ideal for studying social structures in the context of macro-sociology. On the other hand, symbolic interactionism is ideal for investigating the relationships between social structures and individual meanings (Mead, 2009).

There is no doubt that symbolic interactionism derives its uniqueness as a body of social theory from its emphasis on micro-sociology, which refers to a branch of sociology that places emphasis on the nature of daily human social agency and interactions on a relatively small scale, that is, face to face. According to Whyte (1993), micro-sociology draws upon interpretive analysis, from which it draws its strengths. Mead (2009) asserts that symbolic interactionism fills the void left by other macro-sociological perspectives, which plays an instrumental role in understanding interactions between people and groups. In addition, there is no doubt that micro-level components such as social roles and social status make up the broader social structure. People use symbols on a daily basis, whether consciously or unconsciously. In fact, without symbols,  Whyte (1993) asserts that human beings could not be any better than infra-humans. There is no doubt that symbols play an instrumental role facilitating interactions between people; for instance, symbols enable people to distinguish the relationships between a romantic partner and a family member; symbols allow human beings to label other people such as mother, father, brother, sister, or friend. The significance of symbols in daily human life cannot be taken for granted; in this regard, the symbolic interactionist theory plays an instrumental role in understanding how these symbols interact at the micro-level, something that the other sociological perspectives have disregarded.  The significance of the symbolic interactionism theory is that it considers the free will of individual, the choices that people make as well as their behavior. Madge (1962) asserts that since symbolic interactionism is a micro-sociological theory, it plays a significant role in understanding small scale interactions that cannot be explained and defined in the context of macro-sociology.

There is no doubt that individuals rely significantly on language as well as the understanding of social conventions and objects to live independently in the world characterized by interdependence. Apparently, human agility for symbolic language provides people with the mental capacity needed influence their environment, which makes humans to be the custodian of the Earth. Assuming the significance of symbols as well the mutual understanding of these symbols together with the development of these understandings, it is evident that symbolic interactionism is n extremely intuitive framework to speculate the nature of human beings (Whyte, 1993). However, there are a number of shortcomings associated with symbolic interactionism with regard to its comprehensiveness of the nature of human beings. Symbolic interactionism has received much criticism from macro-sociologists on accounts that it ignores the concept of social structure. Society cannot exist without the various forms of social structure such as nations, clans, tribes, families and individuals’ identities. Conventionally, symbolic interactionism has treated the components of social structure in the light of social constructions that are in constant fluctuation, and often defined through the interpretation and subsequent reinterpretation by the involved entities. In the light of this view, for instance, citizenship is perceived to be determined by the person’s belief about his/her citizenship with respect to the beliefs of other people regarding citizenships; this is likely to be influenced by other artifacts, memberships, relationships and concepts such as the belief in the US, a birth certificate stating that the place of birth is the US, and the belief that he/she is a US citizen (Whyte, 1993). Macro-sociologists maintain that the social structure plays a significant role in determining individual behavior and not the person having the capability to redefine the social conventions at his/her will. Amidst this criticism, Mead (2009) asserts that symbolic interactionism is unique in the sense that it overlaps with some tenets of macro-sociology through the concept of structural symbolic interactionism. Mead (2009) argues that symbolic interactionism transverses the boundaries and limits existing between macro and micro sociology. In this regard, Mead (2009) asserts that structural symbolic addresses the weaknesses associated with the conventional symbolic interactionism, especially its ignorance for social structure by acknowledging that macro social structures help in mediating and constraining interaction. According to structural interactionists, social institutions are perceived to be in a state constant flux; however, they admit that social conventions and institutions tend to confine interaction in a way that the succession and replication of the social convention is facilitated. For example, in modern day India, the caste system is not perceived as a legal fact; however, it is still considered a social convention in a number of areas. This implies that it does not have to be social convention; however, the institution (the caste system) still retains its significance with regard to the beliefs of the people that still carry on with it because of a strongly held and historical tradition, which limits any person from rising above the social institution.

According to Blumer (1969), symbolic interactionism derives its distinctiveness as a body of social theory from its interpretive approach, which views human societies to be comprised of subjective realities. The underlying premise is that human beings are constantly engaging in mindful intentional activity and that they attach meanings to their actions using language; as a result, sociology should place less emphasis on explaining human behavior, and instead focus on understanding how individuals come to interpret their world. Whyte (1993) points out that symbolic interactionism is an ideal perspective that can be applied in social psychology, which places emphasis on understanding the nature of social interactions between human beings.

Conclusion

            As a sociological theory, there is no doubt that symbolic interactionism theory is unique. There are relatively few perspectives in social theory that have demonstrated substantial growth and continuity in the course of the 20th century as symbolic interactionism. This paper has discussed a number of factors contributing to the uniqueness of the symbolic interactionism as a body of social theory. First, symbolic interactionism derives its uniqueness as a body of social theory from its emphasis on micro-sociology, which refers to a branch of sociology that places emphasis on the nature of daily human social agency and interactions on a relatively small scale, that is, face to face. Neither structural-functional theory nor conflict theory, nor symbolic interaction theory is whole by itself. Nevertheless, together, they offer a valuable framework that can be used to understand how people relate to the society and vice versa. Symbolic interactionism is ideal for investigating the relationships between social structures and individual meanings. Second, symbolic interactionism is unique in the sense that it overlaps with some tenets of macro-sociology through the concept of structural symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism transverses the boundaries and limits existing between macro and micro sociology, which makes an important sociological tool.

References

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism; Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs,NJ: : Prentice-Hall.

Bulmer, M. (1986). The Chicago school of sociology : institutionalization, diversity, and the rise of sociological research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Coser, L., & Rosenberg, B. (1989). Sociological theory : a book of readings. Prospect Heights, Ill: Waveland Press.

Goff, T. (1980). Marx and Mead: contributions to a sociology of knowledge. New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Habermas, J. (1985). The Theory of Communicative Action: Lifeworld and system : a critique of functionalist reason. New York: Beacon Press.

Madge, J. (1962). The origins of scientific sociology. New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Mead, G. (2009). Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Whyte, F. (1993). Street corner society: the social structure of an Italian slum. Chicago: Chicago University Press.

 

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