symbolic interactionism

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noun Sociology.
a theory that human interaction and communication is facilitated by words, gestures, and other symbols that have acquired conventionalized meanings.
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Which form is used to state an obligation or duty someone has?

Origin of symbolic interactionism

First recorded in 1965–70

OTHER WORDS FROM symbolic interactionism

symbolic interactionist, noun
Dictionary.com Unabridged Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2022


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.

Symbolic interactionism is used within the field of sociology (the study of human society) to explain social behavior in terms of how people interact based on their interpretation of symbols. In this context, symbols can be anything that can be given a meaning, including language, gestures, objects, images, and events, among many other things.

Symbolic interactionism is sometimes defined as a theory, but many sociologists argue that it is instead a method or an approach used to analyze individual interactions. It is sometimes criticized for being incomplete or too narrowly focused on small interactions.

Why is symbolic interactionism important in sociology?

Have you ever felt a certain way about a person because of the way they pronounce a certain word? What about because of the kind of car they drive? Or how they shake hands? According to symbolic interactionism, we give meaning to all of these things, and these meanings affect how we see other people and how we interact with them.

Symbolic interactionism was developed in the 1900s by sociologists like George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, who is credited with coining the term. These sociologists all had different things to say about the concepts presented in symbolic interactionism, but none of them said that things have universal meanings that will be interpreted the same way by all people. In fact, it’s quite the opposite—symbolic interactionism is based on the idea that people develop their own meanings for things and that even these meanings are subject to change. Even something as basic as a color can have wildly different meanings depending on one’s culture. For example, in the United States, the color red is often associated with danger or the need for caution, like in a stop sign or stoplight. In China, though, the color red is considered good luck and often used during times of celebration, like weddings.

Symbols and their meanings play a big role in the formation of our identities. As we age, we associate more and more meanings to the things in our life. It could be something as simple as associating a glass of ice water with the sensation of refreshment. And even something this simple could change. If our teeth start to hurt when we drink cold beverages, that glass of ice water might not represent refreshment anymore, but potential pain. Imagine, then, how the meanings we give to things can affect how we interact with other people. That’s the aim of symbolic interactionism—to analyze those interactions in relation to the meaning given to the symbols involved. For example, we might judge someone based on a gesture, such as a handshake. Or we might treat people differently based on what kind of clothes they’re wearing. For example, we often treat people in uniform with additional respect. Objects can have meaning, too. Expensive luxury items like cars or watches are often seen as status symbols, and they can affect how we interact with the people who have them (or how we think of ourselves, if we can afford them).

Of course, within the context of symbolic interactionism, symbols can be much more abstract than cars, clothes, or handshakes. And that means that their influence on interactions between people can be hard to evaluate. This is one of the reasons that symbolic interactionism is sometimes criticized. The impact of symbols and their meanings can be difficult to measure scientifically. Symbolic interactionism is also sometimes criticized due to its focus on individuals over larger-scale factors that can shape society and the meanings of certain symbols, such as education and media. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a useful approach to try to interpret and understand the many ways that people interact with each other and how that affects society as a whole.

Did you know ... ?

In the context of symbolic interactionism, it’s hard to think of something that’s not considered a symbol. Even seemingly neutral objects in nature can be given meanings based on our experience with them.

What are real-life examples if symbolic interactionism?

Symbolic interactionism can be used to interpret something as simple as how someone thinks of a tree—and how that might change if they come into contact with someone else’s associations with trees.


Quiz yourself!

True or False?

In symbolic interactionism, symbols are only things like letters, numbers, and other graphical characters.

How to use symbolic interactionism in a sentence