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Symbolic Interactionism

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Symbolic interactionism, or interactionism for short, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. This perspective has a long intellectual history, beginning with the German sociologist and economist, Max Weber and the American philosopher, George H. Mead, both of whom emphasized the subjective meaning of human behavior, the social process, and pragmatism. Herbert Blumer, who studied with Mead at the University of Chicago, is responsible for coining the term, "symbolic interactionism," as well as for formulating the most prominent version of the theory (Blumer 1969).

Mead is generally regarded as the founder of the symbolic interaction approach. George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy and spent most of his academic career at the University of Chicago. Mead's major work is Mind, Self and Society, a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934, a work in which he emphasizes how the social world develops various mental states in an individual.

Mead looked on the "self as an acting organism, not a passive receptacle that simply receives and responds to stimuli" (Mead 124), as Durkheim may have thought. People are not merely media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, but that "we are thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others" (Mead 145). For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus. Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions. Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals. Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to do this. While humans may do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that it is only humans that can adjust actions by using significant or meaningful symbols. As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner.

The self is the central social feature in the symbolic interaction approach. Instead of being passive and being influenced by values or structures, Mead considers the self as a process that is active and creative – taking on the role of others, addressing the self by considering these roles, and then responding. This is a reflexive process, whereby an individual can take himself or herself to be both subject and object. This means that "the individual is an object to himself, and, so far as I can see, the individual is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself" (Mead 148).

Interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems. One reason for this focus is that interactionists base their theoretical perspective on their image of humans, rather than on their image of society (as the functionalists do). For interactionists, humans are pragmatic actors who continually must adjust their behavior to the actions of other actors. In Peter Berger’s sixth chapter of Invitation to Sociology, he discusses how life is really a stage and we are actors who either faithfully play the role or not. We can adjust to these actions only because we are able to interpret them, i.e., to denote them symbolically and treat the actions and those who perform them as symbolic objects. This process of adjustment is aided by our ability to imaginatively rehearse alternative lines of action before we act. The process is further aided by our ability to think about and to react to our own actions and even our selves as symbolic objects. Thus, the interactionist theorist sees humans as active, creative participants who construct their social world, not as passive, conforming objects of socialization.

For the interactionist, society consists of organized and patterned interactions among individuals. Research by interactionists focuses on easily observable face-to-face interactions rather than on macro-level structural relationships involving social institutions. This focus on interaction and on the meaning of events to the participants in those events (the definition of the situation) shifts the attention of interactionists away from stable norms and values toward more changeable, continually readjusting social processes. Whereas for functionalists socialization creates stability in the social system, for interactionists negotiation among members of society creates temporary, socially constructed relations, which remain in constant flux, despite relative stability in the basic framework governing those relations.

These emphases on symbols, negotiated reality, and the social construction

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