The Interactionist Perspective Part 1: Symbolic Interactionism

chapter 2: The Sociological Perspectives

Section 3: Symbolic Interactionism


Sections 1 and 2 covered two major perspectives in the sociological tradition, the Functionalist and the Conflict Perspectives and these perspectives covered a lot of ground. Functionalism focused on the structures and functions of society that give it solidarity, permanence and stability. The Conflict perspective evaluated the conflicts and inequities in society and how these can become motivators for social change. 

But both of these perspectives have some limitations when it comes to understanding the real, lived experience of people within any given society. The Functionalist and the Conflict perspectives are both, mostly, structuralist models. In other words, they focus on how and why society is structured and the consequences of this structure on people in general. Focusing on structure, however, limits our analysis on the actual lives of real people. It’s a very distant way to study human societies, and, to a certain extent, that distance is an intentional tool used by sociologists to try to remain objective. But still…

The Functionalist and the Conflict perspectives also lend themselves to an assumption called social determinism. In other words, they make the assumption that structure determines human behavior. There’s little room for an analysis of individual agency or choice. This oversocialized conception of man may blind us to the fact that human beings also exert what sociologists call “agency” or the ability to make choices based on their own subjective interests

Take, for an example, a topic like racism. Using the Functionalist and the Conflict perspectives, sociologists can offer valid and reliable observations on the nature of racism in a given society or even globally. We can elaborate racism as structural, with its own set of functions and dysfunctions. We can also analyze racism in terms of power dynamics and inequality. And these are valuable things. However, they offer very little in the way of helping us understand the lived experience of racism. After all, everyone of us lives within racist social structures, but we do not all experience racism or succumb to racism in the same ways or to the same extents. Many of us resist and deny racism, while others embrace it. Many individuals from racial minority groups are able to overcome the obstacles presented by racist social structures while others are not. What’s going on? 

It looks like we need another perspective that allows us to analyze society from the point of view of the lived experience. After all, what’s the point of studying the social world if we are not looking at how real people live within it. People are the key. Regardless of the structures and power dynamics, people are the common element. No people–No society. Everything else is expendable.

So, in this chapter we are going to learn about the Interactionist Perspective. The Interactionist Perspective claims that society is the sum of all interactions that take place between individuals and small groups within that society. This is a bottom up approach. Whereas the structuralist perspectives take a top down approach, looking at how structures regulate interaction, the Interactionists are flipping the table. They are claiming that the structures themselves are the consequences of human interaction. Therefore, if you really want to understand society, you have to get down to the ground level and study human interaction. 

But wait a minute! Isn’t human behavior too unpredictable to really study? After all, we all make choices freely. We are all different. Who knows what we are going to do? 

Really? Are we that unpredictable? Do we have as much freedom to make decisions as we believe we do? 

Think about it. If we as human beings were really as free to interact and assert our agency as we believe we are, if every interaction were subject to random variations in our personal desires, moods, interests and drives would we even be able to interact at all? Would society even be possible? Maybe human interaction is more objective than we think. Imagine how complicated this process would be if we had to enter every interaction by starting from scratch, agreeing on a common language, negotiating the rules of interaction, developing a shared understanding of the events going on around us. That would be very inefficient.

Fortunately, we don’t have to do that. A great deal of that work has already been done for us by countless people who interacted before us, people whose collective interactions created the rules for interaction. First, we largely start off with a common language. To a considerable extent, much of our use of language is even scripted, by which I mean we often already know what to say in any given situation and how to respond. When you see someone you know, for instance, the script often goes something like this:

“Hi, how are you doing?”

“I’m fine, how are you?”

“I’m fine. Thanks for asking.”

“Well, it’s been great talking to you.”

“Same here. See you later.”

Are the participants in this conversation really “fine?” Was it really “great talking to you?” Do either of these participants hope to see the other later? It doesn’t really matter. This is the script for interacting under those circumstances. 

We also have understood roles in a given interaction. When you interact with your teacher, for instance, the roles are predefined and the expectation of deference on the part of the student is clear. Ever run into your teacher at the grocery store? How awkward is that? At the grocery store, the roles are no longer clear. Now you have to negotiate the interaction without that key insight. Usually, you do so by just following the script above. 

Within these roles, we have rules or norms for interaction. How close we can stand to each other. Rules for eye contact, voice volume, appropriate words, how to begin the interaction and end the interaction. When the person you are interacting with says something you disagree with you can’t just poke him in the eye.

The ritual of the fist-bump? Why is this meaningful?

We also perform certain rituals when we interact. Greeting someone with a handshake, or the innovative new fist-bump. Or how about what I call the half head nod when you make eye contact with someone in the hall. Eye contact is an instant interaction. You have to do something, but you really don’t want to spend too much time or energy, so you give a quick head nod communicating that you are acknowledging the other person’s existence, but really aren’t interesting in more than that.

Finally, we also have a set of mutually understood symbols that we can use during our interactions to establish shared meaning. Many of these symbols come in the form of bodily gestures, but may also be understood from the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, jewelry, etc.

Regardless, for Interactionists, the language, scripts, roles, rules, rituals and symbols that we use are observable, measurable and consistent. Therefore, they are subject to scientific study. 

Let’s take a more real life example:  

What the heck, Cindy!

You and Cindy were friends, but you don’t want to be friends with Cindy any more because you caught her flirting with Bobby Summerville. Cindy knows you like Bobby!

Well your response is premised on the rules that you have been taught, about friendship, courtship, flirting, interactions between boys and girls, expectations about romantic relationships. These are not natural, nor are they universal between cultures or over time. But you respond to these rules as if they are real, because, to you, they are real. What’s more, these symbolic meanings of this complex relationship between you and Cindy and Bobby are largely shared, more or less, by everyone else around you. When you communicate your anger with Cindy to other people, they will know why.

Of course, Cindy and Bobby have their own understandings of the symbolic nature of the interaction…and that complicates things. There’s also the added complication of misinterpretation of the complexities of the interaction, or differential interpretations in which yours is only one. 

So analyzing what is going on between you and Cindy and Bobby requires another way of looking at the social. In this case, we don’t necessarily want to focus on the structures and functions using a positivist approach. We certainly don’t want to consult Marx or Weber…I mean, they had their own problems. Instead, we might want to use an interpretivist approach in which we focus on how you and Cindy and Bobby interpret and understand the meanings of these interactions. In other words, we want to study the interactions themselves.

Traditions of Interactionism

Max Weber: Back Again!

Now the idea of studying interactions was not unknown to sociology before the development of an Interactionist Perspective. Max Weber offered his concept of Verstehen, by which he believed that to truly understand society, the researcher had to delve into the motives of the individuals making the society function. We also see some intriguing antecedents in W. E. B. Dubois’ often personal accounts of the impact of racism and his descriptions of a Dual Identity. Underappreciated sociologist Georg Simmel did some of the most groundbreaking early work from this individualist perspective. Simmel saw human actions taking place within social forms that include sociability, exchange, conflict, and group size, the latter of which Simmel focused on the difference between dyads (interactions between two people) and triads (interactions between three). These social forms lay the groundwork for reciprocal exchanges between individuals to meet personal or psychological needs. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, German philosophers like Edmund Husserl, and Martin Heidegger were experimenting with a philosophical approach to studying consciousness and human experience through a process called phenomenology. 

From this early work, three traditions of Interactionism emerged. Symbolic Interactionism, Phenomenology and Exchange Theory. In this section we will focus on Symbolic Interactionism because, in many ways it is the most challenging. In Section 4 we will focus on Phenomenology and Exchange Theory. 

Many of the scholars above, Weber, Simmel, and Husserl, were German. The late 19th century was a very busy time for German scholarship. Only a recent arrival on the world stage, Germany dedicated itself to reforming and reshaping its education system from top to bottom, including focusing their universities on research and theory rather than theology and philosophy. This attracted scholars from all over the world, and thus influenced scholarship all over the world, even the United States.  

As it turned out, the United States was a great place to cultivate the kind of research that was touched upon by German scholars. The U.S. was a young, industrializing, capitalist society without a tradition of royalty and possessed of  a cultural preference for individualism. This cultural preference for individualism and agency flew in the face of some of the more deterministic philosophies of Europe. American scholars were also influenced by the philosophical movement of Pragmatism, namely the works of William James, Charles Sanders Pierce and John Dewey, emphasizing that the truth of an idea is indicated by how well it works. 

The United States was also undergoing some of the most extreme changes in urbanization and industrialization in the world, with all of the challenges that go along with it, including assimilating large numbers of people from foreign countries and rural settings into cities that could not expand their infrastructure fast enough to keep up with the growth. Cities were also centers for wealth accumulation, giving them opportunities to invest in art, culture and learning. 

The Chicago School and Symbolic Interactionism

Albion W. Small: Founder of the Chicago School of Sociology

One place where all of these influences converged was the sprawling city of Chicago. At the newly established University of Chicago, social scientist Albion W. Small set out to create the most innovative department of the social sciences in the world, and arguably, he did just that. He invited some of the greatest minds in the United States to come and pursue their interests at what became known as the Chicago School of Sociology, or just the Chicago School, for short. 

Two of the most important thinkers coming out of the Chicago School were Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead. Cooley and Mead were interested in studying the Self. There were already some psychological theories on the self that they were both aware of, but that they found lacking. Instead, Cooley and Mead developed a theory of the self as the product of social interaction. They derived much of their theories through watching children. 

Cooley noticed how children could play with other children and with imaginary playmates. It got him thinking about the differences between the real and the imaginary playmates and he realized that there really was relatively little difference between the two in any interactive sense. Cooley realized that, even as adults, a great deal of our interactions are imaginary in the form of an Internal Dialogue. When we interact with real people, we have no direct experience with their thoughts and emotions. We only have an imaginary understanding based on our experiences and what we are observing. So there is little difference between interacting with real, live human beings and imaginary beings. If you cried when Dumbledore died, you know this to be true. 

Charles Horton Cooley

According to Cooley, this interplay between our imaginary internal dialogue and our real interactions is necessary in our development of a self. Cooley suggested that, before we interact with real people, we rehearse our interactions in our imaginations. We then put this interaction strategy into practice. When we do this, we observe the person or people we are interacting with. If we perceive that their response to our interaction is positive, we will incorporate this interaction into our sense of self. It will become a normal part of how we interact with others. If we perceive the response as negative we reject this strategy and develop a new one. In essence, the people we are interacting with become the Looking Glass through which we evaluate and incorporate our interactions. This description became known as the Theory of the Looking Glass Self

Mead also developed his own ideas about the social development of the self. Mead realized that human beings are the only creatures known who can be both a subject (self motivated actor) and an object (something that is observed and acted upon) to themselves. We can understand our own motivations, but also evaluate our actions as if looking at ourselves from an outside perspective. This is called Reflexivity. Our inner dialogue includes a subjective understanding of the self, which Mead called the “I” as well as an objective “me”. In other words, we can understand our motives, but we are also aware of how we look to others. 

George Herbert Mead derived a lot of his theories from the work of Cooley…he never gave credit. In fact, when Cooley died, Mead wrote a very negative obituary. George was kind of a jerk.

According to Mead, we develop a sense of self through a process called Role Taking. This process begins in early childhood when we mimic other’s actions and later role play. As we get older, this Role Taking becomes more complex as we learn games, activities that have rules that we play with others. In such games, we must have an understanding of the others with whom we are playing and their roles in the game. There must be rules to be followed and there is a role expected of the “me.” Take, for instance, a baseball game. You are the shortstop. If there’s a man on first and you get the hop, your role is to throw to the Second Baseman. If the Second Baseman gets the hop, your role is to cover second then throw to first for the double play. In other words, “I” have a role to play in which other people on the team are depending on “me.” You have to be able to see yourself in relation to the others on the team. 

Eventually, this understanding of games develops into a more broad concept of a generalized other. In other words, “I” am a part of a larger community in which others are responding to “me.” The “I” is influenced by your own personal motivations, but your “me” is shaped and constrained by the acceptance that there are people around you with expectations and responsibilities of their own.

According to Mead, you learn your roles, and internalize your evaluation of these roles through the influence of Significant Others. These Significant Others (and they may be real or fictitious, human or inhuman) model the roles that you are expected to fulfill. They become your Role Models

Mead’s student Herbert Blumer, developed his teacher’s voluminous ideas into a coherent social theory called Symbolic Interactionism. Cooley’s Looking Glass Self and Mead’s Role Taking are premised on one’s symbolic understanding of the self and others and their influence on you. Consequently, interaction is a circular process by which meaning is accepted, acted upon and reinforced. Blumer, a former professional football player, established three basic premises of Symbolic Interactionism. First: Human beings act on things based on how we perceive their meaning. Secondly: Meaning is not inherent in the object, but is rather negotiated through interaction. Thirdly: These meanings are not fixed. They are subject to further negotiation. 

Notice the finger pointing and furrowed brows. These are significant gestures conveying meaning symbolically in this interaction. You don’t have to know what happened to know the context of this interaction. Notice the bystanders and how they are responding.

Symbolic Interactionism understands human interaction as being based on each participant’s symbolic understanding of the nature of the interaction. Cindy’s flirtation with Bobby Summerville was a symbolic act involving symbolic gestures. You define this as a betrayal because of the symbolic value of Bobby as someone you like and and the symbolic value of Cindy as a friend. It has nothing to do with who Bobby Summerville or Cindy really are. Your relationships are symbolic and in a constant state of negotiation…a negotiation which may not go your way. This symbolic relationship is communicated between the three of you and to the larger community through language and symbolic representations and gestures that may be consistent, but are subject to change over time.

Later, when you find out that Bobby Summerville does in fact like you, the two of you will adapt symbolic representations through which you will communicate the new status of your relationship. These symbolic representations will almost certainly be cutesy and annoying to the people around you, like holding hands, or wearing shirts with pictures of each other on them. Yick!

But wait a minute! This sounds way to wibbly wobbly to really describe society. Exactly what is society based on this hippyish sounding idea of Symbolic Interactionism?

W. I. Thomas

Well, Symbolic Interactionists are pragmatists. Symbols and interactions that work tend to be accepted, repeated, and passed on. These consistently repeated interactions and shared meanings seem real, so to us they become real. But really, only their symbolic meanings are real. So society is, for the most part, a temporary collective acceptance of symbols. Blumer completely rejected the notion of social structures. He understood that society is the consequence of human actions. This is a position known as Action Theory, that social reality is the consequence of individual human actions writ large. 

Agree or disagree with the conclusions of Symbolic Interactionism, the insights that come from this bottom up Action Theory of society are hard to deny. When dealing with the structural perspectives, human agency is always a problem to be dealt with through complicated controls and generalizations. With Symbolic Interactionism, agency is not a problem, it is the focus of study. 

W. I. Thomas, a famous field sociologist once observed that, “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” This became known as the Thomas Theorem and it is an invaluable tool for studying human interaction because it highlights the importance of the definition of the situation. You perceived Cindy as flirting with Bobby, and therefore not a real friend. You then interact with Cindy in ways that are not friendly, thus creating a very real rift in your symbolic relationship with Cindy. What if Cindy wasn’t really flirting with Bobby…or maybe she was kinda flirting with Bobby, but not “flirting flirting” with Bobby. Maybe, before you terminate your friendship it might be a good idea to find out what Cindy’s definition of the situation is. After all…Cindy’s really not so bad. 

Cindy was flirting, but not “flirting flirting.” She wouldn’t do that to a friend!

Recently, I applied this Theorem to understanding police brutality. Police who perceive members of a community as more dangerous are more likely to act aggressively toward that community. Members of the community, on the other hand, see police as threatening because of their aggressive tactics. Such members are more likely to resist police authority, and thus reinforce the accepted reality among the police that these communities are more dangerous. 

Another innovative way of looking at human interaction coming out of the Chicago School was elaborated by Erving Goffman. Goffman suggested that a good way to analyze interaction was to use the analogy of a stage performance. As Shakespeare once said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts,” If true, then we can analyze the world around us by looking at “the self” as a stage performance. This analytical approach is called Dramaturgy, or Dramaturgical Analysis. In each interaction, individuals are putting on a performance in order to portray a given role. That role changes based on the stage and the circumstances. From this point of view, the Self is an act of performance management. The one difference is that one may be performing for an audience, but in social interaction, the audience is also putting on its own performance. Each actor is invested in the overall performance of the setting. This is called a performance team

So as a teacher, I put on a performance for my students in my role as teacher. There are certain requirements that I must satisfy in order for my performance to be successful, but there is also some flexibility that makes me unique. At the same time, my students are putting on their own performance as attentive students…um…more or less. Given a different stage, however, say I should run into my students at a concert, the roles are confused. What should my performance be? What about my students? 

Also, I give many different performances throughout the day that include different roles and expectations, even props and costumes. I perform the role of teacher, but also father, husband, son, friend, person driving to the grocery store, employee. Which of these roles is my real “self?’ Well, according to Goffman, they all are. Self is the performance, and when we are around other people, we cannot help but perform. 

Sociologist Arlie Hochschild expands upon Goffman’s Impression Management by offering a model of Emotion-Management. She takes on one of the common sense notions that emotions are “natural, biological responses to evocative events.” Hochschild notes that, rather than being slaves to some notion of emotional determinism, human beings put great effort into shaping our emotions, what she refers to as emotion work. And this isn’t just about how we outwardly express emotions, but also how we experience these emotions and change our emotional states. Next time you watch a contest on television in which the top two contestants are on stage waiting for the winner to be announced, watch the person who came in second. How do they respond? What emotions are they presenting? If interviewed, how do they define how they are feeling? That’s Emotion Work. 

Sometimes Emotional Labor is really hard!

It turns out, that there are socially prescribed rules for how we should feel at any given time, or what Hochschild refers to as Feeling Rules. As a teacher, there’s an established spectrum of emotions that I’m expected to have while in class. No matter what is going on in my day, I’m expected to shape my emotions based not on how I’m feeling, but on the emotional expectations of the classroom. 

But emotions even go beyond this. Many of us are tasked with performing what Hochschild refers to as emotional labor. Have you ever worked in retail, especially customer service? No matter how the customer is acting, no matter how absolutely idiotic he is and unreasonable his mouth frothing demands, you are expected to smile and be happy to be of service. You are not. You want to poke the customer in the eye…but you are being paid to smile. How exhausting is that? 


Symbolic Interactionism is a powerful tool in the sociological toolbox. First and foremost it reminds us that the central feature of society is human beings going about their everyday lives. The Interactionists take that truth one step further and empower human beings with an agency that, when taken in aggregate, actually creates society. Symbolic Interactionism also provides us with the tools to critically assess all taken for granted elements in our daily lives. After all, if our understanding of reality itself is premised on nothing more than symbols, then we can make great changes within society by simply reinterpreting the symbols. This is a central component of social movements, challenging our given assumptions about the symbolic nature of life, from the power of the police to the legitimacy of traditional patterns of authority and exploitation. 

Unfortunately, the insistence of Symbolic Interactionists to break everything down into symbols runs the risks of ignoring or downplaying the larger structures that have a real impact on our daily lives. So, in communities subject to aggressive police tactics, is it possible for an individual member to just change his symbolic understanding of the situation and thus change the situation? Is it possible for an individual police officer to do the same? Unlikely. There are larger social forces involved that will require a meaningful paradigm shift on the part of both parties. And that is something that the Symbolic Interactionists are not equipped to describe. 

Next lecture we will look at some other Interactionist Theories that try to fill in the gaps between the micro and the macro understanding of interaction. 


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