Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory which has had a major impact on contemporary social psychology, as well as other areas of social science study. This theory analyzes interactions and their meanings to understand the process by which individuals become competent members of a society.
Since the first half of the twentieth century, symbolic interactionism has generated many different currents, as well as its own methodologies that have been of great importance in understanding social activity and in building the “I”.
What is symbolic interactionism?
Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical current that is emerging in sociology (But he quickly moved on to anthropology and psychology), and he studies interaction and symbols as key elements in understanding both individual identity and social organization.
Generally speaking, what symbolic interactionism suggests is that people define us according to the meaning that “the individual” acquires in a specific social context; problem that largely depends on the interactions we establish.
In its origins are pragmatism, behaviorism and evolutionism, but far from being inscribed in any of them, symbolic interactionism shifts between them.
Among its antecedents is also the defense of “ situated ” and partial truths, as opposed to “ absolute truths ”, which they have been criticized by much of contemporary philosophy to consider that the notion of “truth” has been rather confused with the notion of “beliefs” (because, from a pragmatic point of view on human activity, truths have the same function as beliefs).
Steps and main proposals
Symbolic interactionism has been the subject of many different proposals. In general terms, two great generations are recognized, the propositions are interrelated, sharing the bases and the background of the theory, but which are characterized by a few different propositions.
1. The beginnings of symbolic interactionism: actions always have a meaning
One of the main propositions is that identity is built mainly through interaction, Which is always symbolic, that is, it always means something. In other words, individual identity is always in relation to the meanings circulating in a social group; it depends on the situation and the places that each individual occupies in this group.
Thus, interaction is an activity which always has a social meaning, that is to say 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 it is rather a way of manifesting attitudes, intentions, positions or objectives of the speaker, language is therefore also a social act and a way of constructing this 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 rather a representation, A version of oneself which is constructed and discovered through language (language which is not isolated or invented by the individual, but belongs to a particular logic and social context).
In other words, the individual is constructed through the meanings that circulate when interacting with other individuals. Here arises one of the key concepts of symbolic interactionism: the “me”, which was used to try to understand how a subject constructs these versions of himself, that is to say of his identity.
In short, everyone has a social character, so individual behaviors must be understood in relation to group behaviors. Therefore, several authors of this generation focus particularly on understand and analyze socialization (The process by which we internalize society).
First generation methodology and main authors
In the first generation of symbolic interactionism, qualitative and interpretative methodological proposals emerge, for example the analysis of discourse or the analysis of gestures and images; which are understood as elements which not only represent but also construct a social reality.
The author most representative of the early days of symbolic interactionism is Mead, but Colley, Pierce, Thomas and Park, influenced by the German G. Simmel, also played an important role. also the Iowa School and the Chicago School are representative, And are recognized as first generation authors in Call, Stryker, Strauss, Rosenberg and Turner, Blumer and Shibutani.
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 adopted by an individual in a social group, so it is also a kind of pattern that can be organized in different ways depending on each individual. situation.
This takes on special importance the contribution of the dramatic perspective of Erving GoffmanThis suggests that individuals are essentially a collection of actors, because we are literally constantly acting on our social roles and what is expected of us based on those roles.
We act to leave a social image of ourselves, which not only happens when interacting with others (who are the ones that reflect the social demands that will make us act in a certain way), but also happens in spaces and times when these other people cannot see us.
Methodological proposals and main authors
The everyday dimension, the study of meanings and the things that we appear when interacting are objects of scientific study. On a practical level, empirical methodology is very important. This is why symbolic interactionism is important in relation to phenomenology and ethnomethodology.
This second generation is also characterized by the development of ethogeny (The study of human-social interaction, which mainly analyzes these four elements: human action, its moral dimension, the agency capacity that we have of people and the very concept of person in relation to their public action. ).
Besides Erving Goffman, some authors who influenced a large part of the symbolic interactionism of the time are Garfinkel, CICOUREL and the author most representative of ethogeny, Rom Harré.
Relationship with social psychology and some critiques
Symbolic interactionism had a significant impact the transformation of classical social psychology into postmodern social psychology o New social psychology. Specifically, he had an impact on discursive social psychology and cultural psychology, where from the crisis of mainstream psychology of the 1960s, previously rejected concepts such as reflexivity, interaction, and language have taken hold. took on special importance. .
In addition, symbolic interactionism has been useful in explaining the process of socialization, initially conceived as an object of study in sociology, but which quickly connected with social psychology.
He has also been criticized for considering that he reduces everything to the order of interaction, that is to say that he reduces the interpretation of the individual to social structures. also has been criticized on a practical level for having considered that his methodological proposals do not appeal to objectivity nor to quantitative methods.
Finally, there are those who consider that it raises a rather optimistic idea of interaction, because it does not necessarily take into account the normative dimension of interaction and social organization.
- Fernández, C. (2003). Social psychologies on the threshold of the 21st century. Editorial fundamentals: Madrid
- Carabaña, J. and Lamo I. (1978). The social theory of symbolic interactionism. Kings: Spanish Journal of Sociological Research, 1: 159-204.