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Symbolic Interactionism: what it is, historical development and authors

Symbolic Interactionism: what it is, historical development and authors

July 14, 2024

Symbolic Interactionism is a sociological theory which has had a great impact on contemporary social psychology, as well as on other areas of study in the social sciences. This theory analyzes the interactions, and their meanings, to understand the process through which individuals become competent members of a society.

Since the first half of the 20th century, Symbolic Interactionism has generated many different currents, as well as own methodologies that have had great importance in the understanding of social activity and in the construction of the "I".

  • Related article: "What is Constructivism in Psychology?"

What is Symbolic Interactionism?

Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical current that arises in sociology (but moved quickly towards anthropology and psychology), and that studies interaction and symbols as key elements to understand both individual identity and social organization.


In a very broad way, what Symbolic Interactionism suggests is that people define ourselves according to the sense that 'the individual' acquires in a specific social context ; issue that depends largely on the interactions we engage.

In its origins are pragmatism, behaviorism and evolutionism, but far from enrolling in any of them, Symbolic Interactionism transits between them.

Among its antecedents is also the defense of 'situated' and partial truths, as opposed to the 'absolute truths', which have been criticized by a good part of contemporary philosophy to consider that the notion of 'truth' has been confused enough with the notion of 'beliefs' (because, from a pragmatic point of view about human activity, truths have the same function as beliefs have).


  • Related article: "What is Social Psychology?"

Stages and main proposals

Symbolic Interactionism has gone through many different proposals. In general terms, there are two major generations whose proposals are connected to each other, sharing the bases and background of the theory, but which are characterized by some different proposals.

1. Beginnings of Symbolic Interactionism: actions always have a meaning

One of the main proposals is that the identity is built mainly through interaction , which is always symbolic, that is, always means something. That is to say, the individual identity is always in connection with the meanings that circulate in a social group; it depends on the situation and the places that each individual occupies in that group.

Thus, interaction is an activity that always has a social meaning, in other words, it depends on our capacity to define and give meaning to individual and social phenomena: the 'order of the symbolic'.


In this order, language is no longer the instrument that faithfully represents reality, but rather it is rather a way of expressing attitudes, intentions, positions or objectives of the speaker, with which, language is also a social act and a way of constructing that reality.

Thus, our actions are understood beyond a set of habits or automatic behaviors or expressive behaviors. Actions always have a meaning that can be interpreted.

From this it follows that the individual is not an expression; it's more of a representation , a version of itself that is constructed and discovered through language (language that is not isolated or has been invented by the individual, but belongs to a logic and a specific social context).

That is, the individual is constructed through meanings that circulate while interacting with other individuals. Here arises one of the key concepts of Symbolic Interactionism: the "self", which has served to try to understand how a subject constructs these versions of themselves, that is, their identity.

In short, every person has a social character, so that individual behaviors must be understood in relation to group behaviors. For this reason, several authors of this generation focus especially on understand and analyze socialization (the process by which we internalize society).

Methodology in the first generation and main authors

In the first generation of Symbolic Interactionism, qualitative and interpretative methodological proposals emerge, for example the analysis of discourse or the analysis of gestures and image; that are understood as elements that not only represent but also construct a social reality.

The most representative author of the beginnings of Symbolic Interactionism is Mead, but Colley, Pierce, Thomas and Park, influenced by the German G. Simmel, have also been important. Likewise The Iowa school and the Chicago school are representative , and Call, Stryker, Strauss, Rosenberg and Turner, Blumer and Shibutani are recognized as authors of the first generation.

2. Second generation: social life is a theater

In this second stage of Symbolic Interactionism, identity is also understood as the result of the roles that an individual adopts in a social group, with which, it is also a kind of scheme that can be organized in different ways depending on each situation.

It takes special relevance the contribution of the dramaturgical perspective of Erving Goffman , who suggests that individuals are basically a set of actors, because we literally act constantly our social roles and that is expected of us according to those roles.

We act to leave a social image of ourselves, which not only happens during interaction with others (which reflect the social demands that will make us act in a certain way), but also occurs in the spaces and moments in which that those other people are not seeing us

Methodological proposals and main authors

The daily dimension, the study of the meanings and the things that we appear during the interaction are objects of scientific study. On a practical level, the empirical methodology is very important . That is why Symbolic Interactionism is related in an important way to phenomenology and ethnomethodology.

This second generation is also characterized by the development of the ethogenesis (The study of human-social interaction, which analyzes above all these four elements: human action, its moral dimension, the capacity of agency that we have people and the very concept of person in relation to their public performance).

In addition to Erving Goffman, some authors who have influenced much of the Symbolic Interactionism of this moment are Garfinkel, Cicourel and the most representative author of the etogenia, Rom Harré.

Relationship with social psychology and some criticisms

Symbolic Interactionism had an important impact the transformation of classical social psychology to postmodern social psychology o New Social Psychology. More specifically, it has impacted on Discursive Social Psychology and Cultural Psychology, where from the crisis of the traditional psychology of the 60's, concepts that had previously been rejected, such as reflexivity, interaction, language or meaning.

In addition, Symbolic Interactionism has been useful to explain the process of socialization, which was initially raised as an object of sociology study, but quickly connected with social psychology.

It has also been criticized for considering that it reduces everything to the order of interaction, that is, it reduces the interpretation of the individual to social structures. Likewise has been criticized on a practical level considering that its methodological proposals do not appeal to objectivity nor to quantitative methods.

Finally, there are those who consider that it poses a fairly optimistic idea of ​​interaction, since it does not necessarily take into account the normative dimension of interaction and social organization.

Bibliographic references

  • Fernández, C. (2003). Social psychologies at the threshold of the 21st century. Editorial foundations: Madrid
  • Carabaña, J. and Lamo E. (1978). The social theory of symbolic interactionism. Reis: Spanish Journal of Sociological Research, 1: 159-204.

Symbolic interactionism | Society and Culture | MCAT | Khan Academy (July 2024).


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