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Symbolic Interactionism Symbolic interactionism is a social psychological theory developed from the work of Charles Horton Cooley and

George Herbert Mead in the early part of the twentieth century (the actual name of the theory comes from Herbert Blumer, one of Mead's students). According to this theory, people inhabit a world that is in large part socially constructed. In particular, the meaning of objects, events, and behaviors comes from the interpretation people give them, and interpretations vary from one group to another. Cooley, in his theory of a "looking glass self," argued that the way we think about ourselves is particularly apt to be a reflection of other people's appraisals (or more accurately, our imagining of other people's appraisals) and that our self-concepts are built up in the intimate groups that he called "primary groups." Mead emphasized that human beings do not react directly to events; they act based on their interpretation of the meaning of events. The words we use to describe our behavior and the behavior of others are particularly important, according to this theory. The new prostitute learns to denigrate the "square" world and admire people whose lifestyle reflects "the racket life." (Heyl)Another example is the rapist who insists that some women (hitch hikers for example) cannot be considered victims, because they are "asking for it." (Scully and Marollis). Symbolic interactionists emphasize that deviants, like people who are more conformist, live in a world that is socially constructed. Certain identities are available and others not available; some behaviors get you prestige and respect while others are deprecated or punished, and the behaviors that are approved or punished may change dramatically over time. I see differential association theory, neutralization theory, and labeling theory as subtheories that share many of the assumptions of symbolic interactionism.

Symbolic Interactionism George Herbert Mead


Published on November 13, 2011 by The Glaring Facts

Last update on November 13, 2011 under Comm Theories

George Herbert Mead

1963-1931 Professor at University of Chicago Posthumous book: Mind, Self and Society Influenced Sociology and Communications Mead thought that the true test of any theory is whether it is useful in solving complex social problems. symbolic interactionism The term described what Mead claimed to be the most human and humanizing activity that people can engage intalking to each other. The three core principles of this theory are: meaning, language, and thought.

Meaning: The Construction of Social Reality Humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things. E.g. If Im a child psychiatrist and I see a feral child, that person would become my field of study, perhaps to further my career (exploitation).

Language: The Source of Meaning Meaning arises out of the social interaction that people have with each other.

Meaning is not inherent in objects; its not pre-existent in a state of nature. Meaning arises out of social interactions; it is negotiated through the use of languagehence the term symbolic interactionism. o As human beings, we have the ability to name things. We can designate a specific object (person), identify an action (scream), or refer to an abstract idea (crazy).

Occasionally a word sounds like the thing it describes (smack, thud, crash), but usually the names we use have no logical connection with the object at hand. o Symbols are arbitrary signs. Theres nothing inherently small, soft, or lovable in the word kitten. Its only by talking with otherssymbolic interactionthat we come to ascribe that meaning and develop a universe of discourse. Symbolic naming is the basis for human society. A symbol is a stimulus that has a learned meaning and a value for people; Symbolic intreractionism is the way we learn to interpret the world. o E.g. Father and son in a car crash, boy taken to hospital, doctor sees the boy and says omg this is my son because the doctor is the MOTHER. Interactionists claim that the extent of knowing is dependant on the extent of naming. o Although language can be a prison that confines us, we have the potential to push back the walls and bars as we master more words. E.g. College entrance exams, where half the questions center on linguistic aptitude. The construction of this test obviously reflects agreement with the interactionist claim that human intelligence is the ability to symbolically identify much of what we encounter. Example: Fishing language o drifter o Opener o Puker o Fish cop o My fish

Thought: The process of taking the role of another

An individuals interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought processes. o Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as inner conversation. Mead called this inner dialogue minding. Minding is the pause thats reflexive (automatic). Its the two second delay while we mentally rehearse our next move, test alternatives, anticipate others reactions. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out the meaning of a difficult situation. But we need language. Before we can think, we must be able to interact symbolically. Mead believed animals are unable to think reflexively because, with few exceptions, they cannot communicate symbolically.

Selves are created through Communication

Self is an ongoing process combining the I and one o I novel, unpredictable, and unorganized. o Me image of self seen through the looking glass of other peoples reactions o Generalized other o Significant others (a person who has influenced your view about who you are)

The Self: Reflections in a looking glass

Mead said we paint our self-portrait by taking the role of the otherimagining how we look to another person. Interactionists call this the looking-glass self and insist that its socially constructed. Symbolic interactionists state the self is a function of language. Without talk there would be no self-concept, so one has to be a member of a community before consciousness of self sets in. The self is always in change, based on new acquaintances of novel conversations with significant others. The self is an ongoing process combining the I and the me. I novel, unpredictable, and unorganized. o The I is the spontaneous, driving force that fosters all that is novel, unpredictable, and unorganized in the self. The I is forever elusive (difficult to describe). o Me image of self seen through the looking glass of other peoples reactions The me is viewed as an objectthe image of self seen in the looking-glass of other peoples reactions. If the I speaks, the me hears. And the I of this moment is present in the me of the next moment.

Community: The socializing effect of others expectations

The me is formed by those who surround you.

The generalized other shapes how we think and interact within a community. o The generalized other is an organized set of information about what the general expectations and attitudes of a social group are. We refer to this whenever we try to behave or try to evaluate our behaviour in a social situation. We take the position of the generalized other and assign meaning to ourselves and our actions.

To summarize, there is no me at birth. The me is formed only through continual symbolic interactionfirst with family, next with playmates, then in institutions like schools.

symbolic interactionism originated with two key theorists, George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley. George Herbert Mead was a proponent of this theory and believed that the true test of any theory was that "It was useful in solving complex social problems" (Griffin 59). George Herbert Mead was born on February 27, 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts. Out of Mead's sixty-eight years, he spent the last thirtyeight as a faculty member in the University of Chicagos department of philosophy. He was a social activist who marched for women's suffrage, championed labor unions in an era of robber-baron capitalism, and helped launch the urban settlement house movement with pioneer social worker Jane Addams. (Griffin 59). Meads influence on Symbolic Interactionism was said to be so powerful that other sociologists regard him as the one true founder of symbolic interactionism tradition. Although Mead taught in a philosophy department, he is best known by sociologists as the teacher who trained a generation of the best minds in their field. Strangely, he never set forth his wide-ranging ideas in a book of systematic treatise. After he died in 1931, his students pulled together class notes and conversations with their mentor and published Mind, Self and Society in his name. (Griffin 59). 'It is a common misconception that John Dewey was the leader of this sociological theory, however according to The Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism, Mead was undoubtedly the individual who transformed the inner structure of the theory, moving it to a higher level of theoretical complexity.(Herman-Kinney Reynolds 67).[2] Herbert Blumer was a social constructionist, and as such this theory is very phenomenologically based. He believed that the "Most human and humanizing activity that people engage in is talking to each other" (Griffin 60).[3] Herbert Blumer, a student and interpreter of Mead, coined the term and put forward an influential summary of the perspective: 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. Blumer was also influenced by John Dewey, who insisted that human beings are best understood in relation to their environment.[4] Yrj Engestrm and David Middleton explain the usefulness of symbolic interactionism in the communication field in a "variety of work setting including, courts of law, health care, computer software design, scientific laboratory, telephone sales, control, repair, and maintenance of advance manufacturing system.[5]

George Herbert Mead - Symobolic Interactionist George Herbert Mead, a symbolic interactionist, focused his thought on the role taking of individual behaviors. By emphasizing the process underlying social structures, Mead presents a very dynamic view of society for not only is society shaped by role taking, it can be altered by the unchanged processes. Mead was the originator of the thought of Mind, Self, and Society. This thought is shaped by thinking about your individual self through mind and how society sees you. Mead liked to look at the mind as something reflective; he said the mind was created by responses to environmental stimuli. He looked at the self as emerging out of the facility of using symbols and taking roles of others. He also said that there were two phases of self, the I which is spontaneous, inner creative and subjective, and the me which is the organized attitudes of others and the broader community. The me is derived from taking the role of others. What emerges from Meads view of society is not a vision of social structure but the underling patterns of social interaction from individualized role taking. His perception on society was that it is maintained by virtue of humans aptitude to role-take and to assume the perspective of generalized other. Mead had many different influences in his work. He borrowed ideas from the four biggest intellectual perspectives of his time: Utilitarianism, Darwinism, Pragmatism, and Behaviorism. For utilitarianism, Mead emphasized three points: actors seeking rewards, actors as attempting to adjust to a competitive situation, and actors as goal directed and instrumental in their behaviors. Mead was interested in certain aspects of Darwinism. Mead argued that at birth, an infant is not a human. He said that infants acquire the unique behavioral capacities only as it adapts to social environments. Mead borrowed ideas from his intellectual peers who considered themselves pragmatists. Mead believed in the concept that humans use facilities to adapt and survive, and therefore said that everyone who wishes to adapt and survive has to adopt pragmatism.

Mead rejected extreme behaviorism but accepted its general principle: Behaviors are learned as a result of gratifications associated with them. His behaviorist ideals tie in with his thoughts on mind, self, and society because he believed that the most distinctive behaviors of humans are covert, involving thinking, reflection, and self-awareness. In retrospect, we can conclude that mead borrowed ideas from a number of intellectual perspectives. Mead was not only influenced by these general intellectual perspectives, he also borrowed specific concepts from a variety of scholars, only some of whom worked within these general perspectives. Mead was able to take specific concepts and incorporate them into metaphors