Symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a major sociological perspective that places emphasis on micro-scale social interaction, which is particularly important in subfields such as urban sociology and social psychology. Symbolic interactionism is derived from American pragmatism, especially the work of George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley. 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.

Sociologists working in this tradition have researched a wide range of topics using a variety of research methods. However, the majority of interactionist research uses qualitative research methods, like participant observation, to study aspects of (1) social interaction and/or (2) individuals' selves. Sociological areas that have been particularly influenced by symbolic interactionism include the sociology of emotions, deviance/criminology, collective behavior/social movements, and the sociology of sex. Interactionist concepts that have gained widespread usage include definition of the situation, emotion work, impression management, looking glass self, and total institution.

Basic premises and approach

Herbert Blumer (1969), who coined the term "symbolic interactionism," set out three basic premises of the perspective:

  1. "Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
  2. "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
  3. "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."

Blumer, following Mead, claimed that people interact with each other by interpret[ing] or 'defin[ing]' each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their 'response' is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols and signification, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions (Blumer 1962). Blumer contrasted this process, which he called "symbolic interaction," with behaviorist explanations of human behavior, which don't allow for interpretation between stimulus and response.

Symbolic interactionist researchers investigate how people create meaning during social interaction, how they present and construct the self (or "identity"), and how they define situations of co-presence with others. One of the perspective's central ideas is that people act as they do because of how they define situations.

Erving Goffman, although he claimed not to have been a symbolic interactionist, is recognized as one of the major contributors to the perspective.

Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction

The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is the scholarly association for symbolic interactionists. SSSI holds a conference in conjunction with the meeting of the American Sociological Association in August and sponsors the Couch-Stone Symposium each spring.[1] It also sponsors the journal Symbolic Interaction.[2]


Although symbolic interactionist concepts have gained widespread use among sociologists, the perspective has been criticized, particularly during the 1970s in the U.S. when quantitative approaches to sociology were dominant. Perhaps the best known of these is by Alvin Gouldner.[3]

In addition to methodological criticisms, critics of symbolic interactionism have charged that it is unable to deal with social structure (a fundamental sociological concern) and macrosociological issues. A number of symbolic interactionists have addressed these topics, one of the best known being Negotiated Order Theory.[4]. But their work has not gained as much recognition or influence as the work of those focusing on the interactional level.


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