Symbolic Interactionism Research Paper

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Symbolic interactionism constitutes a longstanding and resilient theoretical perspective and research tradition in sociology and particularly within sociological social psychology, wherein it has been referred to as one of the three major faces of social psychology (House 1977). In contrast to perspectives that emphasize internal (biological or psychological) or external (structural or cultural) determinants of human social behavior, symbolic interactionism argues that most nonhabituated social actions take their particular form during the course of interpretive interaction in concrete social situations. Hence, the perspective’s orienting premise is that an understanding of most human social action, be it individual or collective, requires an appreciation of its situated, interactive, and interpretive character. This research paper provides an overview of the perspective’s historical roots and development, its central principles, and its criticisms and theoretical and research variations.

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1. Historical Roots And Development

Although the phrase ‘symbolic interactionism’ was coined by Herbert Blumer in 1937, the various ideas and arguments associated with the perspective are clearly rooted in the philosophy of pragmatism, and particularly in the lectures and writings of one of its chief proponents, George Herbert Mead (see Miller 1973, for a comprehensive discussion of Mead’s work and a complete listing of his writings, and Joas 1985, for a contemporary assessment). Mead, along with fellow pragmatists John Dewey, William James, and Charles Pierce, the social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley, and a group of sociologists at the University of Chicago, namely Robert Park and W. I. Thomas, provided the initial seedbed of ideas that eventually germinated, mutated in different but overlapping ways, and diffused among successive generations of sociologists. The two most prominent students among the first generation were Herbert Blumer and Everett Hughes, who taught and mentored, directly or indirectly, a wave of students who matriculated at the University of Chicago, mainly in the decade following World War II. Included among these students were Howard Becker, Elliot Freidson, Erving Goffman, Joseph Gusfield, Helena Lopata, Tamotsu Shibutani, Gregory Stone, Anselm Strauss, and Ralph Turner, all of whom became prominent sociologists defining and shaping a variety of subfields, such as collective behavior, deviance, organizations, social problems, the study of face-to-face interaction in public places, and social psychology, with an emphasis on roles, self, identity, and socialization processes. It is this set of scholars that played a major role in the diffusion of the evolving perspective as they spread out across the USA at various colleges and universities and who, along with their mentors and the initial seeded scholars, comprise what has been referred to as the ‘Chicago School of Sociology,’ or at least a major variant thereof (Fine 1995).

The interactionist perspective blossomed in a number of other sociology departments as well, with those at the universities of Iowa, Minnesota, California at San Diego, and Indiana becoming training centers, with somewhat different emphases, for successive but smaller cohorts of students. The Iowa program, founded and guided by Manford H. Kuhn and then sustained by Carl Couch, even became designated a ‘school’ of interactionism, largely because it had a different emphasis than the so-called Chicago School. But there has never been any significant debate about Chicago being at the core of the development and diffusion of the perspective.

2. Central Principles

Neither all of the aforementioned scholars nor all of their students would identify themselves as symbolic interactionists. However, if attention is focused on the character of their scholarly research and writings, it is clear that what most of them have done and continue to do reflects a number of pragmatist themes that congeal into what can be thought of as the core principles of symbolic interactionism. Herbert Blumer, who perhaps more than anyone else was associated with the articulation of the interactionist perspective, or at least a major variant of the perspective, contended that there are three such principles: that people act towards things, including each other, on the basis of the meanings they have for them; that these meanings are derived through social interaction with others; and that these meanings are managed and transformed through an interpretive process that people use to make sense of and handle the objects that constitute their social worlds (Blumer 1969, see Denzin 1989, for an expansive discussion of this interpretive process).

Embracing these three principles and reflected in most work today that falls under the interactionist umbrella are four broader and even more basic orienting principles:

(a) The principle of interactive determination, which holds that neither individual or society, nor self or other, are ontologically prior but exist only in relation to each other and therefore can be fully understood only in terms of their interaction;

(b) The principle of symbolization, which highlights the processes through which events and conditions, artifacts and edifices, people and aggregations, and other features of the ambient environment take on particular meanings, becoming objects of orientation that elicit specifiable feelings and actions;

(c) The principle of emergence, which focuses attention on the nonhabituated side of social life and its dynamic character and thus the potential for change, not only in the organization and texture of social life but in associated meanings and feelings as well; and

(d) The principle of human agency, which emphasizes the active, goal-seeking character of human actors.

The basic insight suggested by these principles is that the objects of analysis—be they crowds, face-to-face encounters in public places, social problems, organizations, work and occupations, illness, identities, self-concept and -esteem, or emotions—cannot be fully understood apart from the interactive web or context in which they are situated and the interpretive work of the actors involved. Because of this, interactionists generally have been highly critical of theoretical perspectives, analytical schemes, and research methodologies that neglect or gloss over interpretative, interactive processes. This does not mean that the perspective dismisses the influence of biological, psychological, historical, or structural factors in the determination and explanation of behavior; rather, it suggests that such factors may constitute predispositions to or constraints on action without necessarily determining the character of the action. Thus, from the standpoint of symbolic interactionism, social actors take into account the structural and cultural factors (e.g., role constraints, social expectations, norms, values) that impinge on the situations in which they find themselves in course of developing their respective lines of action.

Given the underlying view of the human being as an active rather than merely responsive organism, and the importance of interpretive interaction to the perspective, it is not surprising that ‘the self’ has been center stage in symbolic interactionist theorization and research. This is due in large measure to the self’s reflexive character, as manifested in the ability to define, name, and act towards oneself just as one acts towards other objects. And it is this reflexive capacity that makes the self the central mechanism through which interpretation occurs and which, in turn, allows for the formulation of lines of action.

3. Criticisms And Variations

Because of the emphasis placed on situated, interpretative interaction, and thus human agency, critics of the perspective have argued that it ignores organization, power, and politics and is therefore astructural (see Reynolds 1993, Chap. 9, for a review of this and related criticisms). Like most critical characterizations, this one is only partly true. As previously noted, social actors, whether individual or collective, are said to take structural factors—such as role constraints, power differences, and organization—into account when anticipating or engaging in social behavior. Since empirical analyses of this process often focus on interactions that take place at the face-to-face, microscopic level of social life, as between people in public and quasi-public places (see Lofland 1989, for a summary of relevant research), it can be argued that macrostructural and mesostructural forces and processes are overlooked. Yet, it has been argued, as well, that social order, whatever the level, is constituted and reconstituted during the course of everyday interaction (see Goffman 1983), whether it is face-to-face or mediated.

Additionally, a good deal of interactionist research has occurred in and/or focused on organizational, mesostructural contexts (e.g., hospitals, shop floors, restaurants, orchestras, and spheres of industry like the automobile industry), and concepts that reference structural entities and forces (e.g., negotiated order, networks, and constraint) have increasingly found their way into interactionist research and analyses (see Fine 1993, Maines 1977, and Reynolds 1993, for literature reviews). Issues of political power, conflict, and organization also come into play in the constructionist perspective on social problems inspired by symbolic interactionism. Proponents of this work focus on the interpretive, claims-making activities of social problem entrepreneurs. Although there is considerable debate among adherents of this perspective as to the relative importance of putatitive objective social conditions in relation to the success of claimsmaking activities (Miller and Holstein 1993), it is recognized that these activities do not occur in a social vacuum but in a context of competing and conflicting claims in which some claimants or crusaders are advantaged over others for various organizational and political reasons. The medicalization of various forms of deviance and social problems is a telling case in point (Conrad and Schneider 1980).

Structural factors also figure in interactionist analyses of self-concept and identity, social roles, and emotions, but with varying degrees of emphasis. The previously noted distinction between the Chicago and Iowa schools of symbolic interactionism reflect this different emphasis, with adherents of the former considering the self as a process that can be best studied through ethnographic fieldwork, and those associated with the latter conceptualizing the self primarily as an object that lends itself to study via survey research techniques and even laboratory experimentation (see Reynolds 1993, particularly Chap. 4). More recent research on the concept of identity parallels this distinction. Linked more closely to the Iowa school are approaches to identity that accent its structural locus, arguing that the source and relative salience of our identities resides primarily in the roles we play and the social relationships in which they are embedded (McCall and Simmons 1978, Stryker 1980). In contrast is work that approaches identity from a more processual, negotiated perspective (Goffman 1963, Snow and Anderson 1987, Strauss 1959). Both approaches acknowledge the influence of structural factors (e.g., roles and social relationships) in relation to identities and their relative salience, but the latter grants the actor greater latitude in negotiating and weighting the structural forces and impositions encountered. Similar differences in interpretive and structural weighting are also found in interactionist scholarship on roles (Stryker 1980, Turner 1962, 1978) and emotions (Ellis 1991, Hochschild 1979, SmithLovin and Heise 1988).

Taken together, these observations indicate that there is considerable variation in the range of work that falls under the interactionist umbrella, and that blanket criticisms, such as that the perspective is plagued by an astructural bias, are therefore likely to be off the mark. One final illustration of the extent of this internal variation is the recent methodological debate between those who take a radical, postmodern approach to research, seeing all data as biased and fictionalized, as a kind of second or third-order reality, and those who regard careful research as a means for securing reasonable approximations of social reality (see Denzin 1992 and Fine 1993, for discussion of and references to this debate).

Given these debates and variations, which can be arrayed along an interpretive or constructionist continuum ranging from unconstrained interpretation or subjectivism at one extreme to highly constrained and contextualized interpretation at the other, it is reasonable to wonder what adherents of the perspective have in common. What ties them together, however loosely? The answer is found in the perspective’s view of human beings as active rather than merely responsive organisms and in its contention that an understanding of much human social action requires consideration of its situated, interactive, and interpretive character. And it is also this combination of orienting principles that makes the perspective a useful sensitizing one within sociology in general, thereby accounting in part for its resilience and persistence.


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