symbolic interactionism Research Paper Starter

symbolic interactionism

(Research Starters)

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological framework that illustrates the divergent meanings people place on objects, interactions, and people, and the corresponding behaviors that reflect this range of interpretations. It is a culturally rooted, learned phenomenon, which is refined through the process of socialization. George Herbert Mead was an influential figure in the field of symbolic interactionism and composed a threefold series of stages that rely on the utilization of gestures: the play stage, the game stage, and the generalized other stage. This article touches on how language is an essential though limited vehicle in the transmission of symbols, and it defines symbolic interactionist concepts such as defining a situation, role salience, the looking-glass self, and the self-fulfilling prophecy. Finally, research that depicts the complex nature of Symbolic Interactionism is presented, including the symbolic meanings of age, inequity, symbolic violence, and mental illness.

Keywords Definition of the Situation; Looking-Glass Self; Resistance and Negotiation; Role Salience; Self-fulfilling Prophecy; Symbolic Violence

Symbolic Interactionism


Human beings have the natural desire to make sense of the chaotic and unpredictable world in which they reside by discerning the external cues that permeate their everyday surroundings. Symbolic interactionism (Jeon, 2004; Lyman, 1988; Duncan, 1969; Manis & Meltzer, 1978; Sheeran & Abraham, 1994; Stryker, 1987; Tibbetts, 2004) is a framework that attempts to facilitate the innate desire to appropriately interpret events in our lives. There are three overarching premises that constitute symbolic interactionism (Ingoldsby, Smith, & Miller 2004; Blumer, 1986). The first assumes that meaning is an important element of human existence, a concept that is both subjective and individualistic, and that people consequently act in accordance with the meanings they construe. People often derive diverse interpretations despite receiving identical sensory input surrounding objects, interactions, and people.


Imagine the scholar who, upon drawing on the concept of a book (i.e., object ), generates stimulating and intellectual constructs. Meanwhile, someone who struggles academically may harbor feelings of fear and resentment toward that object. A dyadic conversation (i.e., interaction ) may consist of one person disclosing emotionally-laden personal accounts to a person who is furrowing his brow. Interpretations derived from such a non-verbal gesture can be varied, and the speaker might either conclude that he has an attentive audience, or that he is being critiqued. Another example shows how the role of "parent" (i.e., people ) might generate the image of a warm, nurturing, and supportive role model to one person, while eliciting visualizations of an autocratic and punitive figure to another.


A second premise that constitutes symbolic interactionism asserts that people identify and mold their unique symbolic references through the process of socialization. This postulation suggests that people are not inherently equipped with interpretive devices that help navigate through the complex realms of human behavior. Through the act of establishing an intricate series of relationships they come to certain symbolic determinations, which create a sturdy platform on which subsequent behavior is structured. When a young child engages in pleasant behavior that causes his parent to smile, he equates the concept of "good behavior," with that of "a specific facial expression resulting in an upturned mouth." As the child encounters pleasurable deeds throughout the course of his life, he will be prompted to implement the symbolic demonstration (i.e., a smile) he initially corresponded with such acts.

Cultural Symbolism

Behaviors are adopted through an obscurely subtle learning process, and the third tenet of symbolic interactionism affirms that there is a cultural dimension that intertwines the symbolic "educational" development. For example, in conversation, the amount of physical space in which we distance our bodies has culturally symbolic significance (Rothbaum, Morelli, Pott, & Liu-Constant, 2000). Likewise, greetings in the form of demonstrative affection, such as hugs and kisses can be warmly regarded by one culture, and deemed as the obstruction of personal space and the crossing of inappropriate boundaries by another (Graham, 2007).

George Herbert Mead

A pioneer of symbolic interactionism was George Herbert Mead, who emphasized the importance of gestures within the framework of communication. When interacting with others, we carry ourselves in a certain manner that conveys significance; our posture, tone of voice, voice inflections, as well as hand and facial movements can either accentuate or contradict that which we are verbally stating. Subsequent scholars, such as Albert Mehrabian, have studied the interaction between verbal and nonverbal language, and found that the spoken word constitutes 7 percent of an overall message, whereas body language represents the remaining 93 percent (Clarke & Sykes, 2005). For example, the word no is communicated very differently based upon the mannerisms that accompany such a declaration, as it can be stated with hesitancy, teasingly, or with conviction. Likewise, gestures can represent the cultural context in which one resides, such as the hand signal that denotes "ok" (i.e., the pointer finger and thumb connecting to form a circle while the remaining fingers remain upright) in the United States signifies "money" in Japan, "sex" in Mexico, and "homosexual" in Ethiopia (Archer, 1997).

Mead's Three Stages of Self-Discovery

Mead additionally proposed that the process of self-discovery was enacted by the usage of gestures threefold through the play stage, the game stage, and through a stage called generalized other. In the play stage, young children identify with key figures in their environments, such as the mother or father, as well as occupational or gender-specific roles to which they have been exposed (e.g., police officer, nurse) and replicate the behavioral norms that correspond with such roles. A young boy might sit on the edge of the bathroom counter, attentive to the way in which his father goes about shaving, and emulate this action by scraping the edge of a blunt object across his own face.

During the game stage, children extrapolate from the vantage point of the roles they have simulated by assuming the roles that their counterparts concurrently undertake. While engaging in a team sport, for example, it behooves a child to conceptualize the roles of his teammates and opponents in order to successfully maneuver throughout the game within his own particular position.

As people developmentally evolve, their anticipation of the generalized other helps them construct morally sound and appropriate behavior, such as the employee who arrives promptly to work in order to avoid scrutiny from his colleagues. Moreover, self identity continuously fluctuates between the I, which is the impulsive, automatic, "knee-jerk" responses we have to stimuli (Lane, 1984), and the me, which is the socially refined reactions that were instilled through the process of adopting social standards (Baldwin, 1988).

Further Insights


The concept of language interacts with Symbolic Interactionism (Hewitt, 1979; Schwalbe, 1983), and serves as the vehicle to convey the symbols that engulf us. Words are connecting forces that help illustrate our thoughts, beliefs, values, intentions, and objectives. When a patron at a restaurant requests "eggs and toast," it is reassuring and productive that the meaning the patron attaches to both "eggs" and "toast" directly converges with that of the waiter. Certainly there are conceptual terms that are less tangible and possess an abstract quality that make it difficult to distinguish their true nature such as "honor," "courage," and "love." There have been countless tales that illustrate a person's usage of the word "love" to convey an emotional experience, only to be met with confusion, disagreement, or some form of misunderstanding by the person on the receiving end. To some, "love" might be a term tossed around freely, while others might reserve the term for special encounters. Thus, the word "love" lacks a universal quality, and is limited to the person espousing such a sentiment.

Definition of the Situation

Relational misunderstandings among those in intimate kinships are a common occurrence that has been examined thoroughly by family theorists. The mere essence of a family implies a congregation of various actors, each of whom possess their own unique set of symbols, and the cumbersome integration of such divergent representations (Hall, 2006; Knox and Schact, 2008). Definition of the situation (Altheide, 2000; Perinbanayagam, 1974) refers to the predispositions that impact an ability to impart objectivity into joint classifications. For example, before couples marry, they might agree on certain seemingly simplistic and objective terms such as "upholding a clean household." A symbolic point of disagreement that might extend from this pledge is what a clean living space actually means to each individual; one partner might assume that "clean" is defined by the ability to "eat off the kitchen floor," while the other might assume it is defined by a lack of cockroaches infiltrating the kitchen.

A second term that couples might agree on is the decision to have children in the near future. Upon further scrutiny, they might find that their symbolic references are incompatible. The couple's concept of time might be mismatched, in that "near future" to one person might represent a five-year timeline, while to the other person it might mean tomorrow.

In order to uphold a semblance of consistency while defining a situation, it is common for people to control their environments in a way that congruously parallels their established identity (Cast, 2003). This can be enacted through the process of role salience, which suggests that people select roles and behaviors that match the identities they have created for themselves and the level of importance they assign to those roles. If a college student concurrently holds a full time job, there may be times when the role of the "student" and the role of the "employee" conflict. In such times, if the student shuns work-related functions in order to study, it is likely that his student role is deemed more salient.

Additionally, people cast others into roles that reinforce their own identities, which can in turn be either embraced or refuted. When embraced, a...

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