Symbolic Interactionism: Giving Meaning to Communication

18 August, 2020

Symbolic interactionism is a theory that emerged in sociology that has extended to other fields such as anthropology and social psychology. This theory analyzes interactions and their meanings. Thus, it seeks to understand the processes by which people become members of societies. In other words, it studies social activities and self-creation.

Symbolic interactionism is based on interpretations. People have different interpretations of reality. However, these interpretations will be more similar among the people around us.

One of the cultural differences that generates the most problems when people travel are symbols. For example, if someone extends the palm of their hand towards another person, I would understand that they’re telling us to stop or be still. However, a Greek would take it as in insult and a Lebanese would be neutralizing the evil eye.

Beginnings of symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism takes a stance against absolute truths. In particular, it argues that there is no single truth, but different subjective truths for each situation. In other words, the ‘truth’ is different in each community.

To understand these different ‘truths’, symbolic interactionism studies the relationships between people and symbols. The ultimate goal is to understand individual identity and social organization.

Symbolic interactionism can help be more open minded.

We can find a classic example of symbolic interactionism in tea. We can consume this drink accompanied by different rituals, each of them symbolic in their own way. For example, tea doesn’t represent the same thing for a European as it does for a Japanese. The European may possibly drink tea for stimulation and will prepare it simply without giving its preparation too much importance. However, the Japanese will do a preparation ritual and drink the tea with others. Tea means different things for these people.

In summary, symbolic interactionism suggests that we define ourselves taking into account the different meanings that being an individual implies in specific contexts. Since we’re social beings, this meaning of ‘being an individual’ will depend to a great extent on our interactions with other people.

Generations of symbolic interactionism

There are two great generations of symbolic interactionism. The first one considers that actions always have a meaning. On the other hand, the second one considers that social life is an act.

First generation

This generation believed that relationships with other people build personal identities. These relationships always have a meaning and are symbolic. Therefore, each person’s identity forms through specific situations and places where one creates relationships. The meaning people give to these interactions would define their personal or individual identity.

This generation declared that actions were more than just habits or automatic behaviors. All actions could be interpreted. Thus, language is the representation of the speaker’s attitudes, intentions, positions, and goals. This means that language is a form of interaction and we create reality with it.

For this generation, the individual is a representation formed through language. In other words, the individual is created through interactions with others. However, what’s created isn’t the person, rather that person’s ‘self’ or their identity.

Second generation

For the second generation, identity also resulted from the roles that people adopt. When we interact with other people, we usually adopt social roles. These are behavior patterns that society defines. One way to understand roles is to watch reality TV shows. The participants tend to adopt similar roles in each show. For example, there’s always an enemy, a loner who can’t stop crying, two people who end up in a relationship, etc.

This second generation stated that people are actors. Individuals act and play a part that social roles determine. We do what others expect us to do depending on our role. But we don’t only play a part when we interact with other people. Similarly, we also play our part in places and at times when other people aren’t looking at us. This means that we end up internalizing and linking that role to our identity.

Symbolic interactionism suggests social life is just an act.

Symbolic interactionism in social psychology

The relationship between social interactionism and psychology is evident above all in the context of social psychology. According to this branch, people form social identities with specific rules and values. At times when social identities become more important, it’s more likely that people will act according to those rules and values.

Although social psychology goes beyond roles and accepts that social norms guide behavior, it was founded on symbolic interactionism. Something we can’t deny is that people develop their identities, both individual and social, when they interact with other people.

Therefore, interacting with people from different cultures with an open mind will help us understand each other better. Additionally, it will redefine our personal identity and change the way we understand the world.