Symbolic Interaction Theory: Easy Explanation & 9 Examples (2023)

The symbolic interaction theory states that social interaction shapes the meaning we ascribe to objects, processes, and systems in society.

Individuals perceive the world in unique ways depending on their interpretations of language, concepts, events, and so on.

So, we can see here that it understand that our understanding of the world is subjective depending on who we are and who we interact with.

As a simple example, the word “dog” might evoke a fuzzy, heart-warming emotion in someone who has had mostly friendly experiences with dogs. But another person, who may have been bitten or attacked by dogs, may feel fear and revulsion.

Here’s another example. A mid-western American Christian might associate a cow with food. But a devout Hindu villager in India may have feelings of devotion to the cow on account of the animal being considered sacred in their religion.

There are two components of symbolic interactionism – symbol and interaction.

  • Symbol – A symbol is something that represents an object, emotion, process, etc, in the real world. In the example above, the word “dog” is a symbol for a four-legged domesticated canine, and “cow” is a symbol for a four-legged bovine.
  • Interaction – This refers to how the meaning of a symbol is interpreted and modified through a creative process of social interaction. In the example above the different social interactions of theHindu villager and the mid-western American Christian in their respective social settings lead them to invest the word “cow” with different meanings.

Key theorists in the development of symbolic interaction theory have been George Herbert Mead (1863-1961), Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), and Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929). George Herbert’s Mead book, Mind, Self, and Society is considered the foundational text of symbolic interactionism.

(Video) Symbolic interactionism | Society and Culture | MCAT | Khan Academy

Symbolic Interaction Theory: Easy Explanation & 9 Examples (1)

While it was George Herbert Mead who started the theory, it was Herbert Blumer who came up with the term ‘symbolic interactionism’.

Bloom also came up with what he called the three tenets of social interactionism:

  1. We act based upon the meaning we give something – One person may see a bear and react by running, another might react with joy. The first person gave it a meaning related to fearsomeness, the other gave it a meaning related to happiness. The two people reacted differently because they have a different perception of the bear.
  2. We give meaning to things based on our social interactions – Different people will have different meanings for different things, and our meanings usually come from influential people in our lives like our parents, friends, and culture. One culture may consider bears to be scary while another may consider them to be lovely.
  3. The meanings we give things can change – If we are influenced by new people or new experiences, our meanings might change. If I were to be attacked by a bear, chances are I would then stop relating it to happiness and react more with fear than joy.

9 Examples of Symbolic Interaction Theory

1. Flags and Nationalism

Flags have for ages been symbolic of the collective values of a society. With the advent of modern nation-states from the 17th century onwards, flags have become potent symbols of nationalism. They evoke intense feelings of patriotism, passion, and nationalistic fervour among the citizenry.

However, such passions remain limited to the people whom the flag represents, and often, end abruptly at national borders.

In cases where bordering nations may be adversaries such as North and South Korea, Israel and Palestine, or India and Pakistan, the flag of a people living just across the national border might evoke feelings of hatred and enmity.

The differences in reactions is because of their experiences of growing up in a society in which the flag of the “enemy” is a symbol that has, through the process of social interaction, come to acquire connotations of undesirability.

Thus, the same symbol, i.e. the flag, evokes diametrically opposed emotions depending on the kind of interaction the people have had with it.

2. Learned Gender Roles

Gender roles are often performative and discursively learned. This means that children “learn” the correct way of performing masculinity and femininity through social interactions. Interestingly, different societies have different understandings of masculinity and femininity.

So, by watching television, a child might learn that pink is a feminine color and blue is a masculine color. They might similarly learn that ballet dancing is a feminine activity while boxing is a masculine activity, or that sitting with your legs crossed is feminine while sitting with your legs spread out is masculine, and so on.

Every object ( blue/pink), activity (ballet/boxing), and process (sitting) in the world becomes a symbol whose meaning is learned by the child only through interaction with society – their parents, siblings, teachers, peers, films, television, etc.

(Video) Symbolic Interactionism

3. Learned Religious ‘Truths’

In symbolic interactionism, our social networks strongly influence our beliefs and perceptions. This is evident in religious beliefs.

If you’re born in the South in the United States, you’re far more likely to grow up believing the Christian doctrine. If you’re born in Pakistan, you’ll be more likely to believe in the Islamic doctrine.

Here, we can see that our social networks impact our perception of the concept of God, and hugely shape our entire lives.

4. Emojis

Young and old people often have very different understandings of emojis. An eggplant emoji may mean something harmless to one person, but in youth lexicon, it has a much more sinister meaning!

Emojis have become a standard language of expression in the age of mobile communication. There is an increasingly large number of emojis now available to convey a wide variety of emotional responses.

An appropriately emplaced emoji in a conversation can substitute an entire sentence’s worth of textual communication.

However, for people not familiar with electronic communication, such as senior citizens, people who are illiterate, the visually challenged, or the millions of poor in developing countries who do not have access to electronic devices, an emoji does not carry any meaning. It is simply a yellow, round symbol, whose meaning can be grasped only through an interaction with the social world of electronic communication.

5. Memes

Like emojis, memes are another cultural currency of the electronic world, albeit one that requires an even greater level of familiarity with, and immersion in, pop culture.

The communicative value of memes lies in the pop-cultural references they encapsulate. And since pop culture is fast-paced and effervescent, memes are highly subjective – a meme that one person may find extremely witty might be incomprehensible to another.

For instance, a meme based on a popular TV show such as Game of Thrones would carry any meaning only for those who are familiar with the universe of the TV series.

To everyone else, no matter how well-read they may be, the meme would be meaningless. The symbol of the meme thus becomes meaningful only through an interaction with the universe of the TV show.

(Video) Symbolic Interaction Theory

6. Racism and Language

We perceive the world through language. If certain words in certain languages carry specific connotations, we tend to internalize them and apply them to other categories.

Consider the word “black”, which in English, and many other languages, carries with it connotations of darkness, evil, undesirability, shame, and so on. This is witnessed in expressions such as “to have a black heart” ( to be evil), “to blacken someone’s face” (to humiliate someone), “black magic” ( evil magic), and so on.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, such symbols present in languages shaped people’s perceptions of Africans and sustained racism. Sociological and linguistic theory enabled us to see through the limitations of language and better address this problem.

7. The Looking Glass Self

The sociologist Charles Horton Cooley. gave the concept of the “Looking Glass Self” which became an important concept in the symbolic interaction theory.

According to Cooley, our self-image is shaped by how we think others perceive us.

We think of other people as mirrors who reflect our self back to us. Our self is thus constructed through our interactions with society (Cooley, 1902).

For example, if we feel as if people do not like us, we may start to think less of ourselves. Similarly, if someone sees us as a criminal, we may start to see ourselves as someone who is deviant (see: labelling theory of deviance).

8. Internalized Stigma

Related to Cooley’s concept of the looking glass self is the modern psychological understanding of internalized stigma.

For instance, people who are perceived as deviants in society, may, on account of their previous interactions with others, begin to anticipate rejection and humiliation from all such possible interactions.

This can lead them to further become withdrawn, aloof, and thereby internalizing their stigma even more. (Link et al., 2015) This is similar to how secondary deviance works in society.

9. Cultural Script

A cultural script is the prevailing social narrative in which a society thinks of itself as being emplaced, and according to which it fashions its own story. Our cultural script influences how we think.

(Video) Symbolic Interactionism

Cultural scripts vary with time and geography. No one is born with an understanding of the prevailing cultural script of their times; it is learned only through a long process of interaction with the society at large (Conway, 1998).

For instance, the dominant cultural script of 19th century Europe, a time of intense changes brought about by the industrial revolution and the European colonization of much of the world, was one of scientific rationalism, the power and the absolute truth of science and reason, and notions of western superiority based on the inherent nobleness of the European race.

We find this is in the voluminous literature of the age – from fiction to poetry to autobiographies to histories.

By comparison, today, as the world stays bitterly divided over politics and truth, the dominant cultural script would be one of postmodern, post-truth chaos and anxiety, a shaken faith in the power of science, acceptance of the existence of many possibilities of truth and reality, non-binary gender roles and sexuality, multiculturalism, and so on.

Conclusion

Symbolic interactionism is a powerful sociological framework for understanding the world around us.

It becomes even more relevant today as the world becomes increasingly more interconnected through the internet, allowing us to interact more often and with more people.

We witness how our interactions over digital media shape our opinions. Think of the power social media giants such as Twitter and Facebook have over shaping public opinion, even though they themselves do not “create” any information.

There is increasing concern about how social media may be subverting democratic processes, especially in third-world countries. Their power to influence entire societies comes solely from their position as platforms enabling “interactions” in which “symbols” convey meanings to participants.

References

Conway, J.K. (1998) When memory speaks: Reflections on autobiography. Alfred A. Knopf.

Cooley, C.H. (1902) Human nature and the social order. Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the social organization of gatherings. The Free Press.

(Video) Social Theories - Sociology Unit 1 Functionalism, Symbolic Interaction, Conflict Theory Unit 1

Link, B., Wells, J., Phelan, J., & Yang, L. (2015). Understanding the importance of symbolic interaction stigma: How expectations about the reactions of others adds to the burden of mental illness stigma. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. 38(2): 117-124. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1037/prj0000142

FAQs

What is symbolic interaction theory example? ›

What Is Symbolic Interactionism? While it might seem like a big name, symbolic interactionism is how your experiences add subjective meanings to symbols and letters. For example, the word 'dog' is just a series of letters. Through your interactions with the letters 'dog', you see this as a furry, four-legged canine.

How do you explain symbolic interaction theory? ›

According to this theory, people live both in the natural and the symbolic environment. Symbolic interaction is a process that is enlivened the reciprocal meaning and values by aid of the symbols in the mind. Meanings constitute of reciprocal interaction between persons. Objects don't have meaning on their own.

What is symbolic Interactionism in simple words? ›

What is symbolic interactionism? Symbolic interactionism is an approach used to analyze human interactions by focusing on the meanings that individuals assign to things in the world around them, including words and objects.

What is an example of symbolic interaction theory in education? ›

A symbolic interactionist might say that this labeling has a direct correlation to those who are in power and those who are labeled. For example, low standardized test scores or poor performance in a particular class often lead to a student who is labeled as a low achiever.

What are the 3 core principles to Mead's theory? ›

Herbert Blumer came up with three basic principles for his theory. Meaning, Language, and Thought. These three principles lead to conclusions about the creation of a persons self and socialization into a larger community.

What are the main features of symbolic interactionism? ›

Some of the characteristics of the symbolic interaction perspective are an emphasis on interactions among people, use of symbols in communication and interaction, interpretation as part of action, self as constructed by individuals and others in flexible, adjustable social processes through communication and ...

What is symbolic interaction theory PDF? ›

Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theoretical perspective in sociology that addresses the manner in which individuals create and maintain society through face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions.

What are the assumptions about the theory of symbolic interactionism 5? ›

Three assumptions frame symbolic interactionism: Individuals construct meaning via the communication process. Self-concept is a motivation for behavior. A unique relationship exists between the individual and society.

What is an example of social interactionist theory? ›

For example, a person who may normally be too shy to sing in public can change their behavior if their entire social group actively participates in karaoke. Next thing you know, this shy individual is standing on stage belting out their favorite Katy Perry song. How we interact in society can define our behaviors.

What are the 3 categories of symbolic interactionism? ›

There are three main schools of Symbolic Interactionism: the Chicago School, the Iowa School, and the Indiana School. These schools stem from the work of Herbert Blumer, Manford Kuhn, and Sheldon Stryker, respectively.

What is the symbolic interaction theory in sociology? ›

Symbolic interaction theory, called symbolic interaction perspective, is a sociology theory that seeks to understand humans' relationship with their society by focusing on the symbols that help us give meaning to the experiences in our life.

What is symbolic interactionism in health and social care? ›

Symbolic interactionism. Health and illness are social constructions: Physical and mental conditions have little or no objective reality but instead are considered healthy or ill conditions only if they are defined as such by a society.

What are some examples of conflict theory? ›

Examples of conflict theory

Global capitalism's effect on inequality and power. Pay inequalities between genders and races. The 2008 financial crisis, in which large companies and banks received government bailouts.

How does symbolic interactionism affect our daily life? ›

By cultivating the awareness of polysemic symbols, you're decreasing the likelihood of a breakdown in communication. Symbolic interactionist theory also helps us see that sometimes we may be too quick to judge a person because they don't see eye to eye with us on the way they interact with certain symbols.

How does symbolic interactionism explain social change? ›

Answer and Explanation: Symbolic interactionism explains social change as people striving to exchange notions with each other, shaping who they want to become as individuals within a society.

What are Mead's 3 stages of self? ›

Sociologist George Mead believed there are three stages to the development of self: Preparatory stage. Play stage. Game stage.

What is an example of Mead's theory? ›

For example, Mead believed that infants and other very young children, were not actually influenced by others in any way. Instead he believed that young children see themselves as being the focus of their own world and, consequently, they don't really care about what other people think of them.

What are the 3 basic premises on which contemporary symbolic interactionism rest? ›

2) classic three premises of symbolic interaction: that we know things by their meanings, that meanings are created through social interaction, and that meanings change through interaction.

How does symbolic interactionism explain the importance of symbols and meanings in society? ›

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.

Which of the following is an example of something that could be studied through the symbolic interactionist perspective? ›

Which of the following is an example of something that could be studied through the symbolic interactionist perspective? A child learns how to communicate using both verbal and nonverbal methods. The channels that provide these methods of communication create meaning for society.

What is an example of social interactionist theory? ›

For example, a person who may normally be too shy to sing in public can change their behavior if their entire social group actively participates in karaoke. Next thing you know, this shy individual is standing on stage belting out their favorite Katy Perry song. How we interact in society can define our behaviors.

How symbolic interactionism affect our daily life? ›

By cultivating the awareness of polysemic symbols, you're decreasing the likelihood of a breakdown in communication. Symbolic interactionist theory also helps us see that sometimes we may be too quick to judge a person because they don't see eye to eye with us on the way they interact with certain symbols.

What are some examples of conflict theory? ›

Examples of conflict theory

Global capitalism's effect on inequality and power. Pay inequalities between genders and races. The 2008 financial crisis, in which large companies and banks received government bailouts.

How is symbolic interactionism used in society? ›

Symbolic interactionism takes a small scale view of society. It focuses on a small scale perspective of the interactions between individuals, like when you hang out with a friend, instead of looking at large scale structures, like education or law.

What is symbolic interaction theory PDF? ›

Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theoretical perspective in sociology that addresses the manner in which individuals create and maintain society through face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions.

What are the assumptions about the theory of symbolic interactionism 5? ›

Three assumptions frame symbolic interactionism: Individuals construct meaning via the communication process. Self-concept is a motivation for behavior. A unique relationship exists between the individual and society.

What is symbolic interactionism in health and social care? ›

Symbolic interactionism. Health and illness are social constructions: Physical and mental conditions have little or no objective reality but instead are considered healthy or ill conditions only if they are defined as such by a society.

Why is symbolic interactionism important? ›

Nevertheless, symbolic interactionism is a major theory in sociology and social psychology. It focuses on the active role that people play in constructing their own reality, and in that way, it helps us understand how interactions can shape people's experiences and behavior.

How does symbolic interactionism apply to family? ›

Symbolic interactionists argue that shared activities help to build emotional bonds, and that marriage and family relationships are based on negotiated meanings. The interactionist perspective emphasizes that families reinforce and rejuvenate bonds through symbolic rituals such as family meals and holidays.

What are the 5 examples of society? ›

  • Hunting-Gathering societies.
  • Horticultural societies.
  • Agrarian societies.
  • Industrial societies.
  • Post-industrial societies.

What are the 5 components of conflict theory? ›

Current conflict theory has four primary assumptions that are helpful to understand: competition, revolution, structural inequality, and war.

What is symbolic Interactionism in sociology? ›

Symbolic interaction theory, called symbolic interaction perspective, is a sociology theory that seeks to understand humans' relationship with their society by focusing on the symbols that help us give meaning to the experiences in our life.

Which of the following is an example of something that could be studied through the symbolic interactionist perspective? ›

Which of the following is an example of something that could be studied through the symbolic interactionist perspective? A child learns how to communicate using both verbal and nonverbal methods. The channels that provide these methods of communication create meaning for society.

Videos

1. Three Major Perspectives in Sociology Symbolic Interactionist Functionalist and Conflict Perspective
(PHILO-notes)
2. Symbolic Interaction Theory | Gender, School and Society | B.Ed | Inculcate Learning | By Ravina
(Inculcate Learning)
3. DOMINANT APPROACHES AND IDEAS: SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM
(Bb. Jeska Lampa)
4. Social Interaction & Performance: Crash Course Sociology #15
(CrashCourse)
5. Symbolic Interactionism Theory Dynamics of Family Communication 1
(Blue Kangaroo)
6. Major Sociological Perspective | Conflict perspective | Symbolic Interactionism | Sociology
(Societyopedia)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Roderick King

Last Updated: 12/25/2022

Views: 6122

Rating: 4 / 5 (71 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Roderick King

Birthday: 1997-10-09

Address: 3782 Madge Knoll, East Dudley, MA 63913

Phone: +2521695290067

Job: Customer Sales Coordinator

Hobby: Gunsmithing, Embroidery, Parkour, Kitesurfing, Rock climbing, Sand art, Beekeeping

Introduction: My name is Roderick King, I am a cute, splendid, excited, perfect, gentle, funny, vivacious person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.