Symbolic Interactionism: What It Is, Historical Development And Authors

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism is a sociological theory which has had a great impact on contemporary social psychology, as well as other areas of study in the social sciences. This theory analyzes interactions, and their meanings, to understand the process through which individuals become competent members of a society.

Since the first half of the 20th century, Symbolic Interactionism has generated many different currents, as well as its own methodologies that have been of great importance in the understanding of social activity and in the construction of the “I”.

What is Symbolic Interactionism?

Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical current that emerges in sociology (but quickly moved towards anthropology and psychology), and which studies interaction and symbols as key elements to understand both individual identity and social organization.

In very broad terms, what Symbolic Interactionism suggests is that people define themselves according to the meaning that ‘the individual’ acquires in a specific social context ; A question that depends largely on the interactions we engage in.

At its origins are pragmatism, behaviorism and evolutionism, but far from being inscribed in any of them, Symbolic Interactionism moves between them.

Among its antecedents is also the defense of ‘situated’ and partial truths, as opposed to ‘absolute truths’, which have been criticized by much of contemporary philosophy considering that the notion of ‘truth’ has been quite confused with the notion of ‘beliefs’ (because, from a pragmatic point of view on human activity, truths have the same function that beliefs have).

Stages and main proposals

Symbolic Interactionism has gone through many different proposals. In general terms, two great generations are recognized whose proposals are connected to each other, sharing the bases and background of the theory, but which are characterized by some different proposals.

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1. Beginnings of Symbolic Interactionism: actions always have a meaning

One of the main proposals is that Identity is constructed primarily through interaction, which is always symbolic, that is, it always means something. That is, individual identity is always in connection with the meanings that circulate in a social group; It depends on the situation and the places that each individual occupies in that group.

Thus, interaction is an activity that always has a social meaning, in other words, it depends on our ability to define and give meaning to individual and social phenomena: the ‘order of the symbolic’.

In this order, language is no longer the instrument that faithfully represents reality, but rather It is rather a way of expressing attitudes, intentions, positions or objectives of the speaker, therefore, language is also a social act and a way of constructing that reality.

Thus, our actions are understood beyond a set of habits or automatic behaviors or expressive behaviors. Actions always have a meaning that can be interpreted.

From this it follows that the individual is not an expression; It is more of a representation a version of oneself that is constructed and discovered through language (language that is not isolated or invented by the individual, but rather belongs to a specific logic and social context).

That is, the individual is constructed through the meanings that circulate while interacting with other individuals. Here emerges one of the key concepts of Symbolic Interactionism: the “self”, which has served to try to understand how a subject constructs these versions of themselves, that is, their identity.

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In short, every person has a social character, so individual behaviors must be understood in relation to group behaviors. For this reason, several authors of this generation focus especially on understand and analyze socialization (the process by which we internalize society).

Methodology in the first generation and main authors

In the first generation of Symbolic Interactionism, qualitative and interpretive methodological proposals emerge, for example the analysis of discourse or the analysis of gestures and images; that are understood as elements that not only represent but also construct a social reality.

The most representative author of the beginnings of Symbolic Interactionism is Mead, but Colley, Pierce, Thomas and Park have also been important, influenced by the German G. Simmel. In addition the Iowa school and the Chicago school are representative and Call, Stryker, Strauss, Rosenberg and Turner, Blumer and Shibutani are recognized as authors of the first generation.

2. Second generation: social life is a theater

In this second stage of Symbolic Interactionism, identity is also understood as the result of the roles that an individual adopts in a social group, therefore, it is also a type of scheme that can be organized in different ways depending on each situation.

Takes special relevance the contribution of Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical perspective who suggests that individuals are basically a set of actors, because we literally constantly act out our social roles and what is expected of us according to those roles.

We act to leave a social image of ourselves, which not only occurs during interaction with others (who are the ones who reflect to us the social demands that will make us act in a certain way), but it even occurs in the spaces and moments in which we act. that those other people are not seeing us.

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Methodological proposals and main authors

The everyday dimension, the study of meanings and the things we appear during interaction are objects of scientific study. On a practical level, empirical methodology is very important That is why Symbolic Interactionism is related in an important way to phenomenology and ethnomethodology.

This second generation is also characterized by the development of etogeny (the study of human-social interaction, which above all analyzes these four elements: human action, its moral dimension, the capacity for agency that people have and the very concept of person in relation to their public performance).

In addition to Erving Goffman, some authors who have influenced much of Symbolic Interactionism at this time are Garfinkel, Cicourel and the most representative author of etogeny, Rom Harré.

Relationship with social psychology and some criticisms

Symbolic Interactionism had an important impact the transformation of classical Social Psychology to Postmodern Social Psychology o New Social Psychology. More specifically, it has had an impact on Discursive Social Psychology and Cultural Psychology, where, starting from the crisis of traditional psychology in the 60’s, concepts that had previously been dismissed took on special relevance, such as reflexivity, interaction, language or meaning.

Furthermore, Symbolic Interactionism has been useful to explain the socialization process, which was initially proposed as an object of study in sociology, but which quickly became connected with social psychology.

It has also been criticized for considering that it reduces everything to the order of interaction, that is, that it reduces the individual’s interpretation to social structures. In addition has been criticized on a practical level for considering that its methodological proposals do not appeal to objectivity nor to quantitative methods.

Finally, there are those who consider that it presents a rather optimistic idea of ​​interaction, since it does not necessarily take into consideration the normative dimension of interaction and social organization.

Bibliographic references