Symbolic interactionism

Topics: Sociology, Symbolic interactionism, Herbert Blumer Pages: 13 (3943 words) Published: December 15, 2013

Symbolic interactionism originated with two key theorists, George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley. George Herbert Mead was a proponent of this theory and believed that the true test of any theory was that "It was useful in solving complex social problems" (Griffin 59). Mead’s influence on symbolic interactionism was said to be so powerful that other sociologists regard him as the one “true founder” of symbolic interactionism tradition. Although Mead taught in a philosophy department, he is best known by sociologists as the teacher who trained a generation of the best minds in their field. Strangely, he never set forth his wide-ranging ideas in a book of systematic treatise. After his death in 1931, his students pulled together class notes and conversations with their mentor and published Mind, Self and Society in his name. (Griffin 59). 'It is a common misconception that John Dewey was the leader of this sociological theory; however, according to The Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, Mead was undoubtedly the individual who “transformed the inner structure of the theory, moving it to a higher level of theoretical complexity.” (Herman-Kinney Reynolds 67).[1] Herbert Blumer, a student and interpreter of Mead, coined the term and put forward an influential summary of the perspective: people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Blumer was a social constructionist,and was influenced by Dewey as such this theory is very phenomenologically based. He believed that the "Most human and humanizing activity that people engage in is talking to each other" (Griffin 60).[2] Two other theorists who have influenced Symbolic interaction theory are Yrjö Engeström and David Middleton. Engeström and Middleton explained the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in the communication field in a "variety of work setting including, courts of law, health care, computer software design, scientific laboratory, telephone sales, control, repair, and maintenance of advance manufacturing systems.[3] Other scholars credited for their contribution to the theory are Thomas, Park, James, Horton, Cooley, Znaniecki, Baldwin, Redfield, and Wirth.[4]

Basic premises and approach[edit]

The term "symbolic interactionism" has come into use as a label for a relatively distinctive approach to the study of human life and human conduct (Blumer, 1939). With Symbolic interactionism, reality is seen as social, developed interaction with others. Most symbolic interactionists believe a physical reality does indeed exist by an individual's social definitions, and that social definitions do develop in part or relation to something “real.” People thus do not respond to this reality directly, but rather to the social understanding of reality. Humans therefore exist in three realities: a physical objective reality, a social reality, and a unique reality[clarification needed].

Both individuals and society cannot be separated far from each other for two reasons. One, being that they are both created through social interaction, and two, one cannot be understood in terms without the other. Behavior is not defined by forces from the environment or inner forces such as drives, or instincts, but rather by a reflective, socially understood meaning of both the internal and external incentives that are currently presented (Meltzer et al., 1975).[5]

Herbert Blumer (1969) set out three basic premises of the perspective: "Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things." "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society." "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."

The first premise includes everything that a human being may...
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