symbolic interactionism

A leading American social psychological theory which focuses upon the ways in which meanings emerge through interaction. Its prime concern has been to analyse the meanings of everyday life, via close observational work and intimate familiarity, and from these to develop an understanding of the underlying forms of human interaction. Heavily influenced by pragmatism , the Chicago tradition of sociology and the philosophical writings of George Herbert Mead , the term itself was coined by Herbert Blumer in 1937.
The theory has four key foci. The first highlights the ways in which human beings are distinctly symbol-manipulating animals. It is through symbols that they, alone of all the animals, are capable of producing culture and transmitting a complex history. Interactionists are always concerned to study the ways in which people give meaning to their bodies, their feelings, their selves, their biographies, their situations, and indeed to the wider social worlds in which their lives exist. Research strategies such as participant observation are employed, which enable the researcher to gain access to these symbols and meanings, as in Howard S. Becker's Art Worlds (1982) and Arlie Hochschild's The Managed Heart (1983). There is a broad affinity here to semiology , but unlike at least some positions in semiology which seek the structures of language, interactionists are more concerned with the ways in which meaning is always emergent, fluid, ambiguous, and contextually bound. R. S. Perinbanayagam has provided an important account of meaning in interactionism in his book Signifying Acts (1985).
This leads to a second theme: that of process and emergence. For the interactionist, the social world is a dynamic and dialectical web, situations are always encounters with unstable outcomes, and lives and their biographies are always in the process of shifting and becoming, never fixed and immutable. Attention is fixed, not upon rigid structures (as in many other versions of sociology), but upon streams of activity with their adjustments and outcomes. Concepts such as career , negotiated order , becoming, encounters, and impression management are central to this approach.
A third focus of interactionism highlights the social world as precisely that-interactive. From this point of view there is no such thing as a solitary individual: humans are always connected to ‘others’. The most basic unit of interactionist analysis is that of the self , which stresses the ways in which people can (indeed must) come to view themselves as objects, and assume the role of others through a process of role-taking. This idea is clarified in Charles Horton Cooley's notion of the looking-glass self and Mead's more general idea of ‘the self’.
A fourth theme, derived from Georg Simmel , is that interactionism looks beneath these symbols, processes, and interactions in order to determine underlying patterns or forms of social life. Interactionists seek ‘generic social processes’. Thus, while they may study the life-experience of doctors, dance-band musicians, drug-users, and the dying, they can detect common processes at work in all such seemingly disparate groupings. A good example is Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss's Status Passage (1967), which provides a formal, interactionist theory of status changes.
Symbolic interactionism developed in the University of Chicago, in the first few decades of this century, and first achieved prominence when the Chicago School came to dominate early American sociology. However, it again became very influential during the 1960s, as a challenge to the dominance of Talcott Parsons and Grand Theory (sometimes being referred to, during the heyday of functionalism, as ‘the loyal opposition’). It was particularly influential in the development of the labelling theory of deviance, but also in such fields as occupational research (Everett Hughes), medical sociology (Anselm Strauss), and in the study of classroom interaction. Strauss has pioneered a number of developments in interactionist theory. From his early work on identity (in Mirrors and Masks, 1969) to his formulation of the concept of negotiated order , his work exemplifies a major methodological concern with qualitative research (usually, for him, in medical settings), the development of appropriate strategies for doing such research (the so-called grounded theory approach), and the building of case-study theory which moves beyond itself into a more formal sociology. His work on dying patients (with Barney Glaser) is an exemplary study of all these concerns (see, for example, Awareness of Dying, 1967, Time for Dying, 1968, and Anguish, 1977).
In the 1970s interactionism attracted considerable criticism for its neglect of social structure, power, and history. More recent interactionist writings have shown this critique to be misguided; and, in the process, have revitalized the theory. For example, Sheldon Stryker has attempted to enunciate a version of symbolic interactionism which more clearly relates the conventionally microsociological concerns of that perspective to the organizational and societal levels of analysis, mainly by an imaginative restatement of role theory. In particular, Stryker has been concerned with the idea of ‘role-making’, the active creation of roles (rather than mere ‘taking’ of them), where some social structures permit more such creativity than do others (see, for example, Symbolic Interactionism: A Social Structural Version, 1980).
In the 1990s interactionism has provided analyses of a range of new phenomena, and has become more theoretically sophisticated (some might say eclectic) in creating links to post-modernism (in the work of Norman Denzin), feminism, semiology, and cultural theory. The best collection of interactionist writings, and one which gives a good indication of the tradition's virtues and limitations, is Ken Plummer's Symbolic Interactionism (2 vols., 1990). See also formalism ; Goffman, Erving; Kuhn, Manford.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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