Symbolic interactionism is a sociological way of looking at the self and society that is based on the ideas of George H. Mead (1934), Charles H. Cooley (1902), W. I. Thomas (1931), and other pragmatists from the early 20th century who were mostly from the University of Chicago. Symbolic interactionism is based on the idea that people live their lives in the symbolic realm. Symbols are social objects with shared meanings that come from culture and are made and kept alive through social contact. Symbols are the building blocks of reality. They are used in speaking and communication. Reality is mostly the result of social interactions, and everything that matters to people—self, mind, society, culture—emerges from and depends on symbolic interactions. Even the physical world affects how people act because it is mostly understood through symbolic systems.
Table of Contents
Importance of Meanings:
Herbert Blumer, who was one of Mead’s students in 1969, was the one who came up with the term “symbolic interactionism.” Blumer, who did a lot to shape this viewpoint, laid out its three main points:
1. People act towards things based on what they think those things mean. 2. Things’ meanings come from how people interact with each other. 3. These meanings depend on and are changed by how people who interact with each other understand those meanings.
Here, the focus is on meaning, which is defined by what is done and what happens as a result. This shows the impact of pragmatism. What something means depends on what it makes you do. For example, “grass” means food to a cow, a place to live to a fox, and so on. When it comes to symbols, their meanings also rest on how many people agree on what they mean. For example, the word “husband” means different things to different people depending on how they use it. The meaning of a sign is clear if most of the people who use it agree on it. If there isn’t much agreement, the meaning isn’t clear, which makes it hard to communicate. Within a community, there is a general agreement about what different words or symbols mean. In reality, though, the meanings of things are very different and rely on how people interpret and negotiate them.
Blumer calls the process of figuring out what something means “taking on a role,” which is the ability to think like someone else. It is an important part of conversation because it lets people figure out what each other means when they say something. This makes it easier for people to agree on what the symbols mean. Meanings are also decided through negotiation, which means that people who are talking to each other have to change and make room for each other. In short, meaning is not fixed, it changes, and it depends on how people take on roles and negotiate them. Most ideas in symbolic interactionism have to do with what something means.
The origins of symbolic interactionism: Mead’s conception of behaviour
Symbolic interaction is a very broad category that many sociologists who are often included in it do not like very much. The name itself says a lot about the main point of Mead’s social psychology, which is that people connect with each other through symbols and communication. Mead wanted to figure out how people learned to use symbols to talk to each other and how this ability changes as each person grows up.
How Mead Saw the Self:
1. The self, which is what Mead called the human mind, grows through symbolic interaction, which gives a person a sense of “himself or herself” as a unique person.
2. In strict Darwinian terms, the growth of the human mind was to be seen as a result of evolution. Both the evolution of the human body and the social nature of human beings were part of their biological nature. So, Mead was sure that social life could be studied scientifically, since his social psychology was basically an application of biology, but he was still critical of many science attempts to understand how people interact with each other. This wasn’t because they were trying to be scientific, but because they didn’t know enough about: • What science is (the methods); and/or • What science is supposed to study (the subject) in the case of human life.
3. Mead thought that the mind could be studied properly because the way it works is shown in people’s actions and not hidden behind them. Humans are able to react to their environment in a more complex and flexible way than other animals because of their biology and the way it has changed over time. For example, a big part of how people use language and symbols is because of how the vocal cords have changed over time.
4. Mead emphasises the difference between how animals respond to the current situation and how humans can go beyond it. Humans can think about and react to situations that happened a long time ago, and they can predict and prepare for situations that will happen in the future before they happen. How we act in a given situation can depend on how well we’ve prepared and planned for it. It’s not just a matter of a certain event triggering a set, instinctual action, like how the knee reacts when it’s hit. We do have reflexes, but they are not the only ones. So, Mead is making the case that we can control our own behaviour and not just react to something that makes us act a certain way. Symbolic ability is needed to be able to think beyond what is happening right now in this way.
1. This is our ability to “represent” past and future events to ourselves, which means to remember or imagine them even when they are not present, are in the past, or haven’t happened yet.
2. Being able to represent ourselves to ourselves is part of being able to represent ourselves to others. If we want to be ready for what to do in the future, we need to be able to picture not only what will happen but also what we will do. So, we must be able to think about ourselves the same way we think about other things. In Mead’s words, we can be objects to ourselves. That is, we can think about ourselves just like we can think about other things (including other people) in the world around us. We can step back from a situation and think about it, and we can also imagine how others in our situation will see us and see ourselves as others see us. So, this is what it means to be self-conscious.
Mead calls this core of psychological character “the self.” The individual is not just a body, but also a personality, a person with a clear sense of who they are. It is the reason why a person acts the way he or she does. Mead talks about “the social self” to show that the self grows through interactions with other people and is shaped by how they act. For example, a child first learns by copying the actions of others in a playful way. For example, the child might act like the postman, the seller, the mother, and so on. In this way, the person learns what it means to play a social part, or what other people expect of them. By playing these parts, a child learns how other people see the world based on how they are supposed to see it in their roles. The child is learning to look at things from both its own point of view and the point of view of others. This kind of evaluation is the base for coordinating activities with other people because it lets you see things from their point of view as well as your own.
4. The child doesn’t get a detailed idea of how every other type of person in a society sees things, because that would be too hard. Instead, the child gets a general idea of how other people, on average, see things. Mead called this kind of general attitude “The generalised other.”This is an important part of how a person thinks and feels. It is the normal way of thinking in the community where the child grows up, and the views that everyone in the community shares become a part of each person.
Self-Identity: Getting an idea:
1. The self is a key idea in symbolic interactionism, along with symbols, meaning, and interaction. The most important thing about the self is that it is a natural thing. People can act towards themselves as if they were objects, or they can think about themselves, fight with themselves, judge themselves, and so on. This is a human trait, but dolphins and the great apes also show signs of having a self. It is based on the social nature of human language and the ability to take on the role of another. This allows people to see themselves from the point of view of another and form a self concept.
2. Two kinds of people are important to the growth of the self. People who are important to a person and whose views matter are called their “significant other.” The generalised other is a way of thinking about a community, group, or organised system of jobs (like a baseball team) that is used as a frame of reference for the self.
The looking-glass self, an important idea by Cooley from 1902, shows how important other people are to how we see ourselves. Cooley said that people see themselves in part the way they think others see them. People’s ideas and feelings about themselves (like pride or shame) come from how they think others see and judge them. This process is called “reflected appraisals” in modern symbolic interactionism, and it is the main process that is emphasised in the formation of the self.
4. The self is also seen as a result of society in other ways. What people think about themselves shows what society is like and how it is put together. This is clear when you think about the jobs that become part of your identity (like father or student). Roles are a big link between social and personal organisation because they define how people should act based on their status in a group of relationships. Sheldon Stryker (1980) says that the structure and organisation of self-concepts are largely based on how committed people are to different roles. When people are committed to a certain role identity, they are driven to act in a way that fits with their idea of that identity and to keep it and protect it. This is because their role performance affects their self-esteem. A big part of growing up, especially as a child, is learning social roles and the values, attitudes, and beliefs that go with them. At first, this happens in the family. Then, it happens in bigger parts of the person’s social world, like peer groups, school, and work. Some of the most important traits in life, like gender and being a parent, are formed when a person is young. But socialisation is a constant process, and people take on different roles throughout their lives.
5. Socialisation is not just about learning jobs and fitting in with what other people want. The self is very busy and picky, and it has a big effect on itself and its surroundings. When people play parts, they often make roles as well as learn them. In role-making, people build, interpret, and act out their parts in their own unique ways. When they feel that a part that was given to them doesn’t fit with something they value about themselves, they may separate themselves from that role. This is called separating self from role. A common idea in this type of writing is that the self takes an active role in its own growth, which can be hard to predict.
Mead talks about three ways that people interact with each other: language, play, and the game. These kinds of symbolic interaction, which are social interactions that happen through shared symbols like words, definitions, roles, gestures, rituals, etc., are the major paradigms in his theory of socialisation. They are also the basic social processes that make it possible for the self to become an object of reflection. Language is a way of communicating through important symbols, and it is through important communication that a person can understand how other people feel about them. Language is not only a necessary part of the mind, but it is also the most important social part of who you are. In the linguistic act, the person takes on the part of the other. That is, he or she responds to his or her own actions based on how they represent the attitudes of others. This process of “taking the role” of the other during symbolic interaction is the most basic form of self-objectification and is important to self-realization. Mead’s “self as object” is the basic structure of human experience that emerges in reaction to other people in an organic social-symbolic world of internal relations.
7. Mead’s explanation of Play stage and game stage makes this even more clear. Role-playing is the key to becoming self-aware in both playing and games, as well as in language activities. In play, the child pretends to be someone else and acts like that person. In this kind of role play, each person takes on only one part at a time.
So, the other that the child meets while playing is a unique other. The role playing in the game is more complicated than the part playing in play. In the game, each person has to internalise not just the role of one specific other person, but also the parts of everyone else who is playing with him. He must know the rules of the game and how they affect the different parts. This arrangement of roles, which is set up according to the rules, brings everyone’s attitude together to make a symbol of unity, which is the generalised other.
9. The “generalised other” is a well-organized and generalised attitude that a person uses to decide how to act. Self-consciousness in the full sense of the word is reached when a person can look at himself from the point of view of the generalised other. The game is the part of the social process where the person finds out who they are. Mead’s study of games is one of the most important things he did to help build up critical social theory. Mead says that the full social and psychological meaning of playing games and how well they work is a tool for keeping people in line.
The ‘I’ and the ‘Me’
Even though the self is a result of socio-symbolic contact, it is not just a passive reflection of the generalised other. The individual’s response to the social world is active; he picks what he will do based on how other people feel, but these attitudes don’t force him to act in a certain way. There are two parts to the self: the part that reflects the attitude of the generalised other and the part that reacts to that attitude. Here, Mead makes a distinction between’me’ and ‘I’. The’me’ is the social self, and the ‘I’ is the reaction to the’me’. The “I” is the organism’s reaction to how other people act, and the “Me” is the organised set of how other people act that one takes on. Mead says that the “me” is a typical, regular person and that the “I” is an individual’s new answer to a generalised “other.” There is a dialectical connection between society and the individual, and this dialectic is played out on the intra-psychic level by the polarity of the “me” and the “I.”
2. The me is the internalisation of roles that come from symbolic processes like talking, playing, and gaming. The I, on the other hand, is a creative reaction to the structures of the me that are represented by symbols. The word “I” shows up in our minds as a sign of what we’ve done in the past, but it’s now a part of me. The’me’ is, in a way, that part of the self that represents the past. The I is a reaction to the me. It shows action in the present and suggests that the me will change in the future. Because the self has a temporal and historical sense, the character of the “I” can only be known after the fact. This means that the “I” cannot be predetermined. Certain actions of the “I” become parts of the “me” in the sense that they can be remembered, but the “I” itself is not part of the “me.” Each person lives in a social environment and reacts to that environment. The situation has a certain feel to it, but that doesn’t mean that the person can only respond in one way. There seem to be other ways to handle the situation. The person must choose a course of action and act on it, but the situation does not tell him what course of action to take. This uncertainty about how things will turn out gives a sense of freedom of initiative.
3. The action of the “I” can only be seen in the action itself. It is not possible to predict the action of the “I” in a specific way. The person is sure that they will reply, but they aren’t sure exactly what they will say. The situation in which a person acts affects his reaction, but does not decide it. Freedom for people is freedom with conditions. So, the “I” and the “me” change in relation to each other. People develop their personalities in groups. This situation shapes the me through intersubjective symbolic processes, such as language, gestures, play, and games, and the active organism must react to its situation and to its me as it continues to grow and change. The ‘I’ is this reaction of the active organism. The person takes the attitude of the “me” or the attitude of the “I” depending on the setting he is in. For Mead, both the “I” and the “me” are important to the full statement of the self. To find out who you are, you need both the group and your own freedom. The ‘I’ is the process breaking through the structure. The “me” is a necessary symbolic structure that makes it possible for the “I” to do things. Without this structure, the “I” would not be able to live.
The dialectic of “self” and “other”:
1. The self comes into being when a person treats herself with the attitude of the generalised other. This internalisation of the generalised other happens when a person helps keep important images alive and takes part in other socialisation processes. So, the self is very important to a well-organized society: the internalisation of the preservation of important symbols and other interactional symbolic structures allows for the super-coordination of society as a whole and the improved efficiency of the individual as a member of the group. The generalised “other” is a big part of how society keeps people in line. It’s how the community keeps an eye on how its individual members act. Social control is the expression of the “me” over the expression of the “I.”
So, the fact that the self comes into being through social processes is a condition of social control. The self is a social phenomenon that helps the group stay together. An individual’s will is in sync with social goals and values through a socially defined and symbolised reality. So, Mead’s idea of internalisation is made up of two parts: The process of taking on the views of others about oneself and about others. The internalisation of how other people feel about the different parts or parts of a social activity or set of social activities that everyone in an organised society or social group is doing. The self then refers not only to others but also to social projects and goals, and it is through the socialisation process (the internalisation of the generalised other through language, play, and game) that the individual takes on the attitudes of those in the group who are also involved in his social activities.
Critique Symbolic interactionism
People often say that interactionists study how people communicate in a vacuum. They have tended to focus on small-scale face-to-face interactions with little regard for their political or social contexts. They have focused on specific situations and interactions and haven’t said much about the history that led up to them or the bigger social context in which they happen. Since these things affect the relationship situation, the fact that they haven’t gotten much attention is seen as a big mistake.
2. Symbolic interactionism is a way to fix the problems with social determinism, but many critics say it has gone too far in this direction. Even though interactionists say that actions are not based on structural rules, they do agree that there are such norms. But they tend to take them for granted and not explain where they came from.
3. As William Skidmore says, interactionists don’t do a good job of explaining “why people always choose to act in certain ways instead of all the other ways they could have acted.” Interactionists try to play down the limits on action by focusing on how flexible and free human action is. Skidmore says that this is because “interactionism consistently fails to explain social structure.” In other words, it doesn’t do a good job of explaining how and why people act in accordance with social rules and how they become standardised.
4. Interactionists have been criticised for not being able to explain where the ideas they care so much about come from, which many people think is a big problem. Critics say that these kinds of messages don’t just pop up when people talk to each other. Instead, they are made by the way the social organisation works. So, Marxists have said that most of the meanings that come out of face-to-face interactions are based on class ties. From this point of view, interactionists haven’t explained the most important thing about ideas, which is where they came from.
5. Symbolic interactionism is a type of sociology that is very American, and some people think that explains some of its flaws. So, Leon Shaskolsky has said that interactionism is mostly a reflection of the culture values of American society. He says, “Symbolic interactionism has its roots deeply embedded in the cultural environment of American life, and its interpretation of society is, in a sense, a “looking glass” image of what that society claims to be.” Interactionism’s focus on independence, freedom, and individuality can be seen as a reflection of how Americans see themselves. Shaskolsky says that this helps explain why the interactionist point of view is less popular in Europe, where people are more aware of the limits of power and class dominance. Shaskolsky says that interactionism hasn’t taken into account the harsher parts of social life because it is based on American standards. Even so, many people agree with William Skidmore when he says, “On the plus side, it is clear that some of the most interesting sociology is in the symbolic interactionists tradition.”