Symbolic Interactionism

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28 February 2016

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There are several sociological perspectives including functionalism, conflict, social exchange, and sociological imagination. The one that will be talked about within this paper is called symbolic interaction. Symbolic interaction does not focus on social structure like other sociological perspectives do, symbolic interaction is based on small, mostly person to person ideas and perspectives on what symbols mean between people in cultures, what interaction is like, and how interaction between people can impact or reflect upon society as a whole. (Gingrich) Symbolic interaction is defined as “How people act toward things based on the meaning those things have for them; and these meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation” (Gingrich). In simpler terms, people make their decisions based on how much that decision is going to affect them, and whether or not society will judge them for making that decision. Symbolic interaction focuses on how people communicate with one another through everyday interactions, and how people perceive and define events. Every interaction has an effect on individuals; each individual goes into each interaction with their own perspectives. Everyone has specific expectations of what should happen within each interaction. This theory primarily concentrates on the use of symbols in society. Since, human beings place a symbol on almost everything, scientists must use four major tactics to understand these symbols: definitions, meanings, interpretation, and interactions. These symbols could include hand gestures, body language, use of language, and any inanimate object.

Three major contributors to the theory of Symbolic Interactionism include Charles Horton Cooley, Jane Addams and George Herbert Mead. Charles Horton Cooley’s single idea of the development of one’s sense of self alone provided the foundation for symbolic interactionism. Cooley was intrigued by the idea of “self” and how this sense of “self” is developed throughout life and which factors contribute to that development. “In his own works, Cooley sought to highlight the connection between society and the individual and felt that the two could only be understood in relationship to each other. He coined the concept of “looking-glass self” which later influenced George Herbert Mead’s theory of self and symbolic interactionism.” (Charles Horton Cooley) According to Cooley, the concept of “looking-glass self” is based upon one’s interactions with others and react accordingly based upon their perceptions. Addams, however, believed that one’s perception of another can be either dismantled or changed through new acquired information about that person, this idea is known as sympathetic knowledge. Conferring to the looking-glass self theory, we react according to what we believe other’s perceptions of us are, but through further interaction and gained knowledge between two individuals, those perceptions can be shifted, thus shifting our own perception of ourselves.

The Symbolic Interactionist perspective looks at the finer details in the development of the “self” rather than examining the picture as a whole. George Herbert Mead, as founder of the symbolic interaction theory, argued that “individual selves are the products of social interaction and not the logical or biological preconditions of that interaction. It is not initially there at birth, but arises in the process of social experienced activity” (Crossman). Mead’s major concepts within symbolic interaction include “the role of the other,” “generalized other,” and the “‘I’ and ‘Me.'” Mead believed that “language allows individuals to take on the ‘role of the other’ and allows people to respond to his or her own gestures in terms of the symbolized attitude of others” (Crossman). His concept of the “generalized other” can be explained as an individual being able to see himself and gaining self-consciousness of herself from the perspective of the “generalized other,” meaning the organized social group the belong to. Mead also found that the “self” is made up of two separate sides, the “I” and “me,” “The ‘me’ represents the expectations and attitudes of the ‘generalized other’.” Conversely, “The ‘I’ is the response to the ‘me,’ or the person’s individuality” (Crossman). To illustrate the aforementioned concepts of Mead’s idea of “self,” perhaps one may picture an individual that belongs to social group “A,” he or she has adapted to the generalized attitude of that group, unaware of “me” side.

If this individual was to step out of group “A” and align himself or herself with the perspective of group “B,” he or she would then gain self-consciousness and awareness of the “I.” Symbolic Interaction Theory has been a successful theoretical framework for over several years. Yet, the theory is not without its doubters. Critics note that symbolic interaction discusses how we develop a self-concept, but it does not have much to say about how we evaluate ourselves suggesting that there are important concepts the theory ignores, such as self-esteem and emotional aspect of human communication. Symbolic interaction theorists regard a situation as real if the actors define it as real, despite it being true, it ignores physical reality as well. For example, if a professional athlete and his spouse agreed that if the husband was in excellent physical condition and that he was doing a great job in his team workouts that in fact would be reality for them. Yet, it would not acknowledge the fact that the professional athlete’s coach perceived his physical condition and skills as poor and cut him from the team. Social groups act differently amongst themselves versus as a whole within a societal environment. Someone within a certain social group may feel importance, power and control.

Within the subgroups, individuals define themselves and their place in society. They sometimes hope to influence others to partake in their society and their norms. Symbolic interaction theory describes the family as a unit of interacting personalities and focuses attention on the way people interact through symbols. One example of this theory is gang members. Gang members act as a family in their own society and there are certain words, gestures, rules and roles that they abide to in this man made society. Some of the norms that are in this created society might be understood when a person steps out into regular society, because we have different norms and roles. When someone steps into our society, they might feel discomfort, have no sense of self, or may even turn to violence because they are dysfunctional because they have been immersed in their society for so long and cannot easily adapt to the outside world. If a gang member throws up a gesture that is common in there sub culture, other members will relate or understand the meaning of this nonverbal que, whereas nonmembers of the society may not. From a symbolic interactionism’s perspective, it is important to understand their symbols in order to understand this sub group’s behavior. In this particular sub group, society functions in their own ways have their own rules, and roles. Everybody in this culture usually has the same mind set, so it easy to function, but when they step out of their society it may be hard to adapt to other societies and to understand their words, rules and roles.

They may also feel like the outside society is dysfunctional and chaotic. It is only when people understand and use a common language, whether it is words, gestures, or roles, that social life and communication is possible. Along with any social norms, which govern dress codes, actions, and language, social order is also involved with in any society that uses symbolic interactionism. Social order is maintained because when referred to earlier in the example, when gang members are in their society they have hierarchy, meetings, officers, gestures, tattoos, written and unwritten rules, systems of rewards, defined roles and consequences and they have people who will enforce rules when they are broken. Now whether or not others that are not in their society agree with these rules, this is what works for that particular group and how social order is maintained.

When people who are accustomed to these norms step outside their society, they may feel social disorder, unwanted, anxiety, or out of place. After feelings like this, they often times will migrate back to what they are comfortable with and where they understand the rules and understand what is going on. People can only relate or respond to a language that they understand, whether that be the gestures, or how the society functions. People might be amazed by hearing that this type of society or environment actually has a maintained social order, but they do it in a way that they understand. How this society functions, and how it is maintained go hand in hand with each other. If the society does not function properly, it does not and cannot maintain its social order. Individuals use this theory to develop their subjective views of the world and to communicate with one another. “Individuals are not born with a sense of self, but develop self-concepts through social interaction.” (Schumm) An individual possesses his or her own conceptual beliefs within society. Family is described as “Human groups consisting of human beings who are engaging in action. The action consists of activities that individuals perform in their life as they encounter one another and as they deal with the succession of situations confronting them.” (Hochschild) A traditional mother, father and son family structure will provide the social guidelines and expectations of the unit. The family’s culture will define their traditions, norms, and values and apply them to later generations. The Symbolic Interaction Perspective dictates how each member of the family will interact with each other and with individuals outside the family. Children learn their roles from interaction and upbringing from older family members such as parents. Humans learn about themselves as a result of their interactions with others. This is what Charles Horton Cooley termed as the “looking glass self.” Such is the ability to imagine our appearance to another individual.

Symbolic interaction Theory and family provides an individual with the symbolic guidelines of norms and values that can be applied to the outside world. Symbolic Interaction theorist would say today’s family is a great example of their theory. With the diversity of today’s families they are more in-line with the symbolic interaction theorists definition of family. Today we have families with one parent, step parents, gay parents, young parents, less siblings, foster children, orphanages and so forth, even some children are being raised by grandparents. Family can be more than blood related. It can be people whom you share a strong bond with, such as, sororities, gangs, church, and sports teams. Among these groups there is a common interpretation within the interaction.

Symbolic interaction theory defines gender by social and cultural differences rather than biological ones. It highlights how men and women are different in socially significant ways. In our society women were traditionally assigned the role of caretaker. Women have since moved from their original role in the household to the workplace. Males at a young age have been raised to be tough and show less sensitivity compared to women. They are taught to hide their emotions. “Women are supposed to display sympathy, nurturance and to elevate the mood, feelings, and status of others, whereas men are supposed to act in ways that suppress sympathy, harbor criticism, and deflate the feelings and status of others.” (Hochschild) Men are programmed to be the masculine figure, role model and protector.

Race is best defined by culture; people sharing the same ideas, language and beliefs. Symbolic interaction for different cultures can mean different things. For example, in American culture it is customary to shake a person’s hand to convey respect and good will. However, in Japanese culture it is customary to bow before an individual’s elder. Social norms and values do not always correlate. For instance, in American culture it is considered respectful to make eye contact while engaging in conversation. Quite the contrary when applied to Japanese culture, which considers eye contact as an act of disrespect. This further supports the notion that symbolic norms within one society may not necessarily be accepted in another. America is known to be the “melting pot,” of all different races and cultures. However, symbolic interaction showcases that America is more of a “fruit salad,” a mixture of different cultures and sub-cultures that learn to co-exist within one another.

Based upon all the information presented in this essay, the major contributors to the theory of Symbolic Interaction include Charles Horton Cooley and Jane Addams. Symbolic interaction theory is where people make their decisions based on how much that decision is going to affect them, and whether or not society will judge them for making that decision. These social norms that society puts on behavior have an impact on day to day life. When people who are accustomed to these norms step outside their society, they may feel social disorder, unwanted, anxiety, or just feel out of place. This theory consists of how people associate with one another using specific symbols like hand gestures. The Symbolic Interaction Perspective dictates how each member of the family will interact with each other and with individuals outside the family. This theory defines gender by social and cultural differences rather than biological ones, while race is best defined by culture. Also, the critics note that symbolic interaction discusses how we develop a self-concept, but it does not have much to say about how we evaluate ourselves suggesting that there are important concepts the theory ignores, such as self-esteem and emotional aspect of human communication.

Works Cited
“Charles Horton Cooley.” 2012. 2013.
Gingrich, Paul. “Sociology 319 .” Symbolic Interactionism (2001). Hochschild, Arlie Russel. “Emotion Work, Feeling Rules, and Social Structure.” American Journal of Sociology (2007): 551-575. Mahwah. “To Dance the Dance: A
Symbolic Interactional Exploration of Premarital Sexuality.” New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2001. Schumm, LaRossa R. “Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Conceptual Approach.” New York: New York Plenum, 2000.

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"Symbolic Interactionism" StudyScroll, Feb 28, 2016.

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