Sociological Theories of Religion: Symbolic Interactionism
The symbolic interaction perspective posits that one's self concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others that are observed during social interactions. This perspective considers immediate social interactions to be the place where society exists. In this view, humans give meaning to their behavior through reflection and interpret the meaning of behaviors, events, and things. Symbolic interactionists study society through the interpretation of objects, events, and behaviors by the members of that society. The symbolic interactionist perspective assumes that social order is constantly being negotiated and recreated through the interpretations of the people who give it meaning. This is a helpful construct to better understand differences that arise in interpretation of religious tenets or writings and other difficulties encountered in religious circles.
Keywords Conflict Perspective; Denomination; Eisegesis; Exegesis; Functionalism; Personal Identity; Religion; Social Identity; Symbolic Interactionism; Vatican II
Sociology of Religion: Sociological Theories of Religion: Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical framework that assumes that one's self-concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others as observed during social interactions. Along with the conflict perspective and the structural functional perspective, symbolic interactionism is one of the three major frameworks for sociological theory. As opposed to these other two perspectives, the symbolic interactionist perspective considers immediate social interactions to be the place where society exists. According to this perspective, humans give meaning to their behavior through reflection and interpret the meaning of behaviors, events, and things in this manner. Therefore, the symbolic interactionist perspective examines the subjective meanings that individuals impose on objects, events, and behaviors because this is what people believe to be true (as opposed to what is objectively true). From the symbolic interactionist perspective, therefore, society is constructed by the interpretation of objects, events, and behaviors by the members of that society. Further, this perspective posits that meaning is constantly modified through social behavior in order to better reflect "reality" as interpreted by its members. As people interpret each other's behavior, social bonds are formed (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).
The symbolic interactionist perspective assumes that social order is constantly being negotiated and recreated through the interpretations of the people who give it meaning. Since society is, therefore, in a constant state of flux, symbolic interactionists do not look for "truth," but look instead for social constructions or the meanings that are attached to various things and actions including concrete symbols and nonverbal behavior. Further, the construct "society," from a symbolic interactionist point of view, is highly subjective, existing only in the minds of its members, despite the fact that its effects are real and observable. This emphasis on subjectivity has been one of the major criticisms of the symbolic interactionist perspective (Andersen & Taylor, 2002).
Using this framework, religion is seen as a socially constructed reality in which the sacred provides security and permanence for society as long as its members do not realize that religion is socially constructed. Symbolic interactionists believe that religion is socially constructed and emerges when there is historical or social change. In this sociological view of religion, religious practices and rituals are viewed as symbolic activities that help define the identities of individuals and groups. Religious beliefs, therefore, are viewed as being subject to interpretation.
In general, the symbolic interactionist approach to understanding sociological phenomena tries to answer the question of how action and belief are socially constructed and how these help people form a collective religious identity. Because of the wealth of symbol and ritual in most religions, therefore, religion is an excellent area of study for the application of symbolic interactionism. The symbolic interaction perspective recognizes the fact that various religious beliefs and practices arise out of different social or historical contexts. As a result, symbolic interactionism takes into account these contexts in order to better understand the framework in which religious behavior occurs.
When applied to religion, one of the emphases of the symbolic interactionist perspective is on meaning construction. This emphasis helps those applying the symbolic interactionist perspective to explain conundrums that cannot be well answered using other perspectives, such as how the same body of religious faith in a text (such as the Bible) can be differently interpreted either by different groups in different places or at different times within the same religion. For example, by definition, adherents of the Christian religion hold in common certain tenets and beliefs based on the scriptural texts (i.e., the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament). Not all Christians, however, interpret all passages within this canon in the same way. For example, archaeological evidence has revealed that the early church supported the ordination of women to both the priesthood and the bishopric. Over time, this practice changed until eventually only men were allowed to become clergy. However, with the rise of the women's liberation movement in the 1960s and 1970s, an increasing number of individuals within Christianity began to rethink the prohibition against women clergy. As a result, a number of Protestant religions and churches today do ordain women and within some denominations women are even allowed to be ordained to the bishopric.
However, this is not a universal state of affairs within Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, for example, still does not ordain women deacons or priests. The Southern Baptist Convention allowed the ordination of women as ministers during much of the latter half of the twentieth century. However, in the 1990s, they rescinded this permission. Since the Southern Baptist denomination is Congregational in nature, the selection of individuals for ordination is left up to the individual churches. As a result, many individual Southern Baptist churches even today continue to ordain women, even though the denomination as a whole has demanded that ordination of women be rescinded. The symbolic interactionist perspective would explain these phenomena by positing that religious texts do not define the entirety of "truth" but rather have meaning and implications from their interpretation by various social actors (e.g., clergy, denominational leaders, men, women).
From the symbolic interactionist perspective, religious texts are seen as only one religious meaning system. This view, for example, can explain such current debates in ecclesiastical circles as the disagreements among the worldwide Anglican Communion over the ordination of individuals who are openly homosexual. Using the same scriptural texts, a liberal group within the Episcopal Church (the American branch of the worldwide Anglican Communion) ordained an openly gay man to the bishopric due to their interpretation of Christian scripture as a living document that is best interpreted in view of contemporary society. Some conservative Episcopal churches (and the majority of other churches within the worldwide Anglican Communion), on the other hand, disagree with this approach to interpretation of scripture as well as with the interpretation itself. As a result, some of the more conservative churches have seceded from the Episcopal Church and some pundits predict that a schism between the Episcopal Church and the worldwide Anglican Communion may occur. This fluid view of sacred texts, of course, is not universally hailed. Many Christians view the sacred texts as the immutable word of God that can be interpreted only after careful exegesis in order to understand the truth of the matter. From the symbolic interactionist perspective, truth itself is not immutable so that interpretation of sacred texts needs to be done in light of current thinking. This leads to accusations of eisegesis and heterodoxy from those who view society...
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