An executive tells three employees, “Prepare for a big meeting this afternoon.” The first employee responds to the request by finishing an important report she thinks her boss will ask to see. The second employee reviews the minutes from the previous meeting and makes a list of potential topics to discuss. The third employee clears his afternoon schedule and spends a few minutes mentally readying himself to receive important information. At meeting time, however, the executive is upset; he wanted the employees to prepare by arranging the conference room and making copies of the meeting’s agenda for the other attendees. How could four people interpret a seven-word statement in so many different ways?
Symbolic interactionism attempts to explain such differences in message interpretation as it analyzes how people attach various meanings to words and symbols. Though Herbert Blumer named the theory in 1969, the theory’s concepts were outlined decades earlier by sociologists George Herbert Mead and Max Weber. The theory operates on the premise that much, if not all, of human behavior can be attributed to the subjective interpretation of one’s environment, which contains symbols whose meanings are derived from social interaction. Words, objects, people and even oneself can function as symbols.
Principles and Assumptions
Symbolic interactionism focuses on three main aspects of communication: meaning, language and thought. According to the theory, meaning is not inherent in objects, but is, instead, constructed and modified within different contexts through social interaction. The uniquely human ability to interpret symbols and analyze another person’s viewpoint through thinking allows meaning to emerge. Such meaning shapes a person’s self-concept and motivates behavior. However, for humans to interact successfully, they must first possess a means of understanding each other. Language, though symbolic in itself, functions as that means.
Interactionists also promote the following ideas:
1. Humans are not products of society, but rather the creators of society. They define their environments and shape their own behavior.
2. All of society is a series of interactions. Therefore, to understand human behavior, social psychologists should make human interaction their main focus of study.
3. Self-concept is the result of how a person thinks other people view him or her based on the messages he or she receives.
4. Social roles arise through the symbols people use to describe their environments.
5. Since social interaction is always an ongoing process, roles, self-concept and human relationships remain in constant flux, though the rules and frameworks that govern them may be relatively stable.
Symbolic interactionism differs from other social psychology theories in that it focuses on human thought and interpersonal communication, rather than social systems or institutions, as the catalysts of human behavior. Also, instead of conducting research through surveys and interviews, interactionists prefer to study the face-to-face interactions of individuals.
The Formation and Perception of Self
According to interactionists, communication not only determines human behavior, but also personal and social identity, as illustrated by the following process:
Step 1 – Humans who wish to communicate create symbolic language to represent their ideas.
Step 2 – Through interaction, people assign specific meanings to the symbols they created.
Step 3 – Humans then use symbolic language to describe their situations and environment.
Step 4 – By defining their surroundings, people create roles for themselves. Roles establish social expectations for behavior.
Step 5 – During interaction, humans sense these expectations and attempt to view themselves through the eyes of others, altering their actions to match expectations if necessary.
Step 6 – Fulfilling roles forms people’s identities, which are established patterns of behavior. As humans take on various roles in different contexts, their identities are gradually shaped and modified.
The act of viewing oneself from another’s perspective is called role-taking. Through role-taking, people can anticipate others’ responses to their behavior and plan their actions accordingly to facilitate smooth and effective communication. However, the labeling that occurs when defining roles can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies. A child who has been made to think he is a troublemaker, for example, might misbehave to elicit responses from others that confirm his self-concept.
Symbolic interactionism is very useful for understanding how miscommunication occurs between people. A word or phrase in one context can have an entirely different meaning in another context. Take the executive in the opening scenario, for example. To him, preparing for a meeting meant arranging a space for many people to gather and collaborate effectively. However, past experience had taught the first employee that meetings are where supervisors ask about ongoing projects; therefore, being prepared for a meeting meant having assignment reports on hand.
Miscommunication frequently occurs when symbolic messages are analyzed outside of their original context. A famous example is when President Richard Nixon made a certain hand gesture before some Australians to communicate his goodwill. Unfortunately, the same gesture that meant “peace” in the U.S. had an extremely vulgar meaning in Australia.
Criticism of the Theory
Critics of symbolic interactionism accuse the theory of being too narrow in its research, too scattered it its approach and too broad and general in its conclusions—failing to meet the criteria of a good theory. They say its focus on interpersonal and small-group interactions fails to address the influence of social institutions on human behavior. Furthermore, though interactionists strive to conduct their research objectively, their choice of what to study is often subjective, and their close proximity to their research subjects leads to value commitments that affect the results of their research. Interactionists have responded to these criticisms by stating that symbolic interactionism should be viewed more as a theoretical framework than a formal, scientific theory.