What is Symbolic Interactionism Theory?

What signs and symbols do people rely on to make sense of their world? Read about symbolic interactionism and its connection to qualitative research in this article.
Lauren Stewart
Qualitative Data Analysis Expert & ATLAS.ti Professional
  1. Introduction
  2. What is symbolic interactionism in simple terms?
  3. The evolution of symbolic interactionism
  4. Importance of symbolic interactionism
  5. Implications of symbolic interactionism on qualitative research methods
  6. Researching symbolic interactionism


Within discussions of sociological theory, few perspectives stand out as uniquely as the symbolic interaction theory, often referred to as symbolic interactionism. Rooted in the foundational principles of social interactions and the meanings ascribed to them, this framework delves deep into how human behavior is shaped and influenced by the symbols and meanings present in everyday life.

Coined by the sociologist George Herbert Mead, the symbolic interaction perspective not only helps in understanding the nuances of social interaction but also provides insights into the socially constructed nature of reality. Whether it's exploring the dynamics of mental illness stigma or the formation of one's sense of self, symbolic interactionists look to examine the intricacies that underlie our everyday social experiences.

A symbolic interactionist perspective is a useful orientation to understanding socially constructed phenomena.

What is symbolic interactionism in simple terms?

Imagine you’re at a bustling cafe. Across the room, a friend waves, flashing a wide grin. Almost instinctively, you wave back, acknowledging the friendly gesture. This simple exchange, though seemingly mundane, is rich with unspoken communication, a dance of symbols, if you will. This is the heart of symbolic interactionism: understanding the world by focusing on the symbolic meanings people attribute to their social interactions.

The term symbolic interactionism refers to a sociological theory that centers on the belief that human behavior is not dictated merely by external forces or structures. Instead, it stems from the social meanings we attach to situations, objects, and interactions. To put it more simply, it’s not just about what happens to us, but how we interpret what happens.

Let’s break this down further. Every social interaction we partake in is filled with symbols—gestures, words, objects, and even rituals—that carry specific meanings. A handshake, for instance, might signify trust in some cultures and a mere formality in others. The way we interpret these symbols isn’t just innate; it’s learned and negotiated through our interactions with others. So, the essence of symbolic interaction theory is that these symbols and their meanings actively shape our behaviors, emotions, and thoughts.

Moreover, one of the foundational tenets of this theory is the concept of the 'self'. The 'self' isn't a static entity but rather is molded and refined through social interactions. Our sense of self, or who we believe we are, is a direct outcome of how we perceive others seeing us. This continuous feedback loop, where we present ourselves in specific ways based on how we think others perceive us and then modify our behaviors based on their reactions, is central to this theory.

This might all sound abstract, but consider social media as a contemporary example. The photos we choose to post, the captions we write, and even the reactions we give are all driven by symbolic meanings. A 'like' is not just a click; it's validation. A shared meme isn’t just an image; it carries with it layers of societal commentary. Our online personas are shaped by the feedback loop of post, react, and adapt, a perfect playground for the symbolic interactionist framework.

Social media has countless social constructs that govern how people act. Photo by Prateek Katyal.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the micro-level of analysis, zeroing in on individual interactions rather than overarching societal structures. While a social structure, like the education system or the institution of marriage, plays a role in influencing behavior, symbolic interaction theory explores how the day-to-day exchanges and the symbols therein shape our realities.

So, when we think about symbolic interactionism in its simplest terms, it's the lens through which we view the world as a stage, with each of us playing our parts, driven by the symbols and meanings we ascribe to every gesture, word, and interaction. It's the study of life's intricate dance, where every step is imbued with meaning.

The evolution of symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interaction theory, as we understand it today, is not static. It has evolved, transforming and adapting, to better explain the shifting dynamics of human society. Tracing its evolutionary arc gives us not just historical insight but an enriched appreciation for its applicability.

Originating in the early 20th century, this perspective found its roots in the works of American sociologists like George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley. Their early articulations emphasized the development of individual identity and the role of social interaction in shaping the self.

As society transitioned into the latter half of the century, the rise of media, both print and electronic, offered fresh arenas for symbolic interaction to manifest. Scholars began to explore how mass media influenced the symbols and meanings individuals attached to their experiences. Television shows, advertisements, and later, the internet, became rich grounds for studying how collective consciousness was shaped by shared symbols.

The digital era, with the onset of social media platforms, added another layer of complexity. The internet, with its virtual communities and digital identities, has drastically transformed the landscape of social interaction. Symbolic interactionism, in this new realm, ventures into uncharted territories like the creation of digital selves, online persona management, and even the emergence of internet-specific symbols and gestures (think emojis, memes, and hashtags).

Amidst this evolution, the core essence of symbolic interactionism remains — the emphasis on symbols and their meanings in shaping social behavior. Yet, with every societal shift, it morphs, ensuring its continued relevance in decoding the complexities of human interaction, be it face-to-face or screen-to-screen.

By understanding this evolution, we gain a holistic perspective on symbolic interactionism, recognizing its versatility and timeless relevance in making sense of the ever-evolving human experience.

Importance of symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism serves as a vital bridge between the individual's subjective experiences and the larger social world they inhabit. This perspective is particularly crucial for several reasons:

  1. Understanding subjective reality: Unlike other sociological theories that focus primarily on societal structures or grand narratives, symbolic interactionism hones in on individuals’ perceptions and interpretations. It highlights that our realities are not merely dictated by external events but are constructed through our interpretations of those events.
  2. Agents of social change: Recognizing that meanings are fluid and negotiated through interactions means that they can change over time. This concept empowers individuals, suggesting that they are not merely passive recipients of societal norms but active agents in shaping and reshaping societal narratives.
  3. Societal norms: One of the profound areas of exploration within symbolic interactionism is how stigmas are formed, maintained, and perpetuated in society. The symbolic interaction stigma perspective dives into how society assigns meanings to certain behaviors, characteristics, or identities, often leading to marginalization or discrimination. By understanding these processes, we can challenge and deconstruct harmful societal stigmas.
  4. Humanizing social research: By emphasizing personal experiences and individual narratives, symbolic interactionism lends a human touch to sociological research. It champions the idea that to truly understand societal phenomena, one must dive deep into the individual stories, emotions, and interpretations that constitute the broader picture.
  5. Unpacking the layers of everyday life: On the surface, our daily lives might seem ordinary and uneventful. However, through the lens of symbolic interactionism, every interaction becomes a treasure trove of meanings and symbols, making us appreciate the richness and depth of everyday experiences.
  6. Facilitating better communication: As symbolic interactionism underscores the importance of understanding symbolic meanings, it indirectly fosters better communication. By being more attuned to the nuances and underlying meanings in interactions, individuals can navigate social settings more effectively, preventing misunderstandings and fostering clearer exchanges.
  7. Inclusive societal insight: Lastly, symbolic interactionism offers a space for marginalized voices. By giving weight to individual experiences and interpretations, it acknowledges that mainstream societal narratives might not capture the full spectrum of human experiences. Thus, it paves the way for a more inclusive understanding of society.

Of course, the importance of symbolic interactionism extends far beyond academic corridors. It provides a framework that enriches our understanding of human action and behavior, social dynamics, and the intertwining of individual narratives with broader societal constructs. By focusing on the subjective, symbolic interactionism offers an invaluable lens for capturing the multifaceted tapestry of human existence.

Implications of symbolic interactionism on qualitative research methods

Among key takeaways, symbolic interactionism, with its intricate focus on individual perceptions and the dynamics of social interactions, has profound implications for the realm of qualitative research. Given its emphasis on subjective experiences and the nuanced interpretation of symbols, this theory inherently aligns with qualitative methodologies that prioritize depth, context, and interpretative richness.

Firstly, symbolic interactionism underlines the importance of participant perspectives. In qualitative studies, this means placing significant emphasis on firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and lived experiences. Techniques like in-depth interviews, participant observations, and focus groups become invaluable as they capture the fluidity of individual interpretations and the richness of their symbolic worlds.

Furthermore, the theory’s attention to the constructed nature of reality compels researchers to be reflexive. It encourages a recognition that both the participant's and the researcher's perspectives are socially constructed. This reflexivity requires that researchers constantly interrogate their biases, preconceptions, and interactions throughout the research process.

Symbolic interactionism also reshapes the understanding of data analysis in qualitative studies. Rather than seeking objective truths or concrete findings, researchers embracing this perspective are more inclined to identify patterns of symbolic meanings, interpretive processes, and the ways individuals negotiate shared meanings in their social worlds.

Lastly, the theory's emphasis on change, negotiation, and fluidity aligns with qualitative research's iterative nature. This adaptability means that research designs, questions, or methods might evolve as deeper insights emerge, mirroring the dynamic and evolving nature of social interactions themselves.

Researching symbolic interactionism

The endeavor of researching symbolic interaction theory presents both unique challenges and unparalleled opportunities. Given the theory's core belief in the fluid, subjective nature of reality, anchored in personal interpretations and experiences, the approach to its research often differs from more traditional, positivist methodologies.

At the heart of researching symbolic interactionism is the focus on understanding people's lived experiences. These are not just linear narratives but intricate webs of meanings, symbols, and interactions. Qualitative methods, therefore, dominate this research space, allowing for a deep dive into the subjective realms of individuals.

Ethnographic studies are particularly fruitful. By immersing oneself in a specific cultural or social setting, researchers can witness firsthand the symbolic exchanges and the construction of shared meanings. Such immersion offers insights into how symbols evolve, how they are negotiated among community members, and how they shape behaviors and beliefs.

Researching symbolic interactionism requires deep involvement in social and cultural practices. Photo by Brevitē.

Interviews, both structured and unstructured, serve as another vital tool. They grant researchers direct access to individuals' interpretations of their experiences, their perceptions of symbolic interactions, and the meanings they ascribe to various symbols in their lives. The narrative approach within interviews can reveal rich stories, helping to decipher the complex dance of symbolic interactions.

Participant observation, where the researcher becomes a part of the community or group being studied, is another commonly employed method. This approach provides a dual perspective: that of an insider and an outsider, offering a comprehensive view of symbolic exchanges.

However, the subjective nature of symbolic interactionism also means that researchers must tread with caution. Reflexivity becomes paramount. Researchers must continually reflect upon their biases, beliefs, and roles in the research process, ensuring that their interpretations remain true to participants' experiences.

Another consideration is the evolving nature of symbols, especially in our rapidly changing digital age. What is symbolic in one context or timeframe might not hold the same meaning in another, requiring researchers to be adaptive and open to ever-shifting symbolic landscapes.