How do interactionists view the role of socialization in creating a social self in society?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Interactionists would say that the individual person does not simply create a social self that is based on his or her socialization.  People are not, in this view, passive vessels to be filled up via socialization.  Instead, people interact with what they are taught during the process of socialization.  They react to the things that they are taught based on how they perceive those things.  Symbolic interactionists say that people study and interpret the things that they are taught during socialization.  They interact with what they are taught and create their own social self that comes about through their interpretation of what society teaches them.

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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The theory of interactionist perspective was developed by George Herbert Mead in the early 20th century, a theory coined as symbolic interactionism by his student Herbert George Blumer. According to Mead and Blumer jointly, people act upon symbols based on the meanings people ascribe to them, and these meanings are learned through social interaction but also open to interpretation. Ambiguous communication techniques, such as smiling, frowning, nodding, and other expressions, are all symbols that we interpret based on socialization. The term socialization can be defined as the process of amassing culture through learning what is considered normal behavior, beliefs, and values from others around us. Not only does the process of socialization allow us to interpret symbols around us, the process also allows us to develop a sense of self.

The theory of symbolic interactionism posits that we develop a sense of self through reflecting on our actions, arguing with ourselves, evaluating ourselves, etc. ("Symbolic Interactionism," International Encyclopedia of Marriage and Family, 2003). In addition, Charles Horton Cooley developed his looking-glass self theory in 1902, which asserts that, to an extent, "individuals see themselves as they think others see them" ("Symbolic Interactionism"). Furthermore, feelings like "pride or shame" are a "consequence of how people imagine others perceive and evaluate them" ("Symbolic Interactionism"). Since our sense of self is derived from how we think others perceive us, an awareness we gather from socialization, society's roles also play a substantial part in developing our sense of self, thereby creating a social self. Roles are social standings that have certain behavioral expectations such as the role of a girl, boy, brother, sister, father, or mother. When we identify with roles prescribed by society, we call them "role-identities" ("Symbolic Interactionism"). Through socialization, we learn these social roles and the "values, attitudes, and beliefs" associated with them; then, we take on these role identities, making them a part of our self-identities. As we progress through life, we take on different roles, making the development of self-identity through socialization a lifelong process.

Yet, the theory of symbolic interactionalism posits that the development of self-identity through socialization is not a "passive process of learning roles and conforming to other's expectations" ("Symbolic Interactionism"). Instead, as often as we learn new roles, we also undergo "role-making" through which we "actively construct, interpret, and uniquely express" roles we learn to fit our own conception of self-identity. Therefore, we change our roles to fit our own conception of what our roles should be based on what we have come to value, and it is the development of our roles that is the process of our development of self-identity.

Hence, the development of self can only be accomplished through socialization because it is through socialization that we learn attitudes, values, beliefs, and roles, making the identification of self really a process of identifying the social self. Yet, we are also constantly re-evaluating the things we learn, making them our own personal beliefs and values, and reinterpreting the roles we take on according to our own personal beliefs and values, beliefs and values learned from society though often re-interpreted re-evaluated through self-reflection.


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