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Symbolic Interactionism

  Originally named in 1937 by Herbert Blumer, symbolic interactionism is a theoretical approach within sociology which seeks to explain human action and behaviour as the result of the meanings which human beings attach to action and things. In the 1970s, symbolic interactionism was seen as a major alternative to the then dominant ideas of functionalism and systems theory. For symbolic interactionists, the meaning of a situation or object is not fixed and unproblematic, rather it has to be constructed and arrived at by the participants in the scene. Meanings are the product of social processes. Emphasis is given to the active, interpretive and constructive capacities of individuals in the creation of social reality. This contrasts with those approaches in sociology which have given emphasis to the constraining effects of social structure in determining human behaviour and minimize the importance of individual activity.

Symbolic interactionism has its intellectual roots in the concept of ‘self’ developed by G.H. Mead. Mead argued that social life depends on the ability of individuals to observe themselves from the standpoint of others. The concept of self develops by placing oneself in the position of others and looking back at oneself with an objective stance. With an awareness of self individuals are able to see themselves as others see them. This provides the basis for co-operative action in society. The individual will become aware of what is expected of him or her and will modify his or her actions accordingly. This view of human action sees the individual actively creating the environment and also being shaped by it.

The aim of symbolic interactionism is to discover the meanings of the individuals involved in a given social situation. This leads to the adoption of methods of research which yield qualitative rather than quantitative information. Students in the field tend to focus on face-to-face interaction in the context of everyday life. A feature of this approach is that it has often adopted a more socially radical stance by exploring the position of the underdog. Studies employing this perspective have made major contributions to the study of socially deviant behaviour, socialization, criminal behaviour and communication.

Although symbolic interactionists reject those approaches to sociology and psychology which seek deterministic universal laws, they nonetheless see a place for generalizations within sociology. Symbolic interactionism maintains that generalizations should be appropriate to the subject matter of sociology.

Symbolic interactionism has been criticized for concentrating too much on small-scale situations, and because it has difficulty in dealing with larger social structures and processes. The approach is further criticized for ignoring historical factors. Those who favour an ethnomethodological approach to the study of social life, have voiced the criticism that symbolic interactionism does not examine social life in sufficient depth. DA

See also action perspective; dramaturgical model; ethnomethodology; generalized other; idiographic; individualism; macrosociology; microsociology; phenomenological sociology; social self; structure-agency debate; understanding.Further reading H. Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism Perspective or Method; , P. Rock, The Making of Symbolic Interaction.



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