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Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the key ideas and basic components of symbolic interaction theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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Hola. [SPEAKING SPANISH] Were you confused? What did you think I was doing? How did you define the situation and make meaning out of my behavior?

A pattern has developed in your onscreen interactions with me so far, and I just disrupted it. Your time in a classroom in the past and now, interacting with a teacher has taught you how you're supposed to act in that situation and how the teacher is supposed to act. But I disrupted this on purpose so you could think about how reality is socially constructed through interactions.

Well, I greeted you in Spanish today because today's lesson is on the Symbolic-Interaction Approach, which holds just that. It holds that society results and is constructed from the everyday interactions and experiences of individuals. In this approach, the focus is on how meanings emerge over time through our social interactions.

All of our interactions in life create a shared perceived reality. When familiar patterns of interaction get repeated again and again, these patterns become social structures and institutions that are taken as more or less natural. But the Symbolic-Interaction Approach wants to remind us that these patterns and institutions and structures, and society itself, even, all have a foundation in the micro-level, everyday, day-to-day interactions.

So when I first learned about the Symbolic-Interaction Approach as an undergraduate, my lecture started the same way. My professor came running into the room, all disheveled. His shirttail was untucked. His hair was wet. He even had one shoe on. He came running into the room, frantically, all disheveled. He started speaking frantically in Chinese, really erratically. And he kept coming up to people, getting in their face, speaking Chinese to them super quickly. And it confused everybody. He was gesticulating wildly, running around the room, even waving at times a little doll. And he kept this up for 10 minutes.

We were all looking at each other, trying to figure out what was happening. Why was he doing this? How come he wasn't-- how come he came into the room like this and didn't just sit down? Kids started leaving the classroom, even. I mean, two people left. He kept going, even though two people left. Until finally, he just broke out of it and explained what he was doing. But I thought this was a really instructive way to understand how reality gets constructed through interaction. He disrupted our process of meaning-making, and we were trying to interpret the odd situation.

So sociologists who analyze interaction like this are using a Micro-Level Orientation, which is a zoomed-in look at individuals interacting in specific situations. They're also practicing what's called Interpretive Sociology, which is a way to study society that focuses on the meanings individuals attach to their actions.

So if a sociologist had been in the room when my professor was acting so strangely, she would have been observing our responses. She would have been recording our body language. And afterwards, she might have even interviewed us to ascertain how we were making sense of that odd situation. She might even monitor and record her own impressions and reactions to get a sense of what we were feeling. So this is Interpretive Sociology. That's how one practices Interpretive Sociology.

Now the easiest way to understand how symbols work to give meaning and interaction is to think of language. Think of a tree, that thing out there in the world. Tall. Bark. Leaves. Think of that thing. Well, we call it a tree, for no reason in particular. Only it's an arbitrary and agreed-upon symbol for that thing.

I would always wonder, when I was younger, how our earliest human ancestors developed language. Because the process of interacting and sharing meanings and symbols is so complex, how did they develop? Like how did we start, one day, calling a tree a tree?

Well, it happens because when we're young, we learn language through interaction, through being in the world. And we take that learning into the next interaction we have and shared understandings and meanings spread about the group this way. And in that way, we slowly interact and create society. We create institutions when we repeat the same patterns and behaviors over and over again. So patterns of interaction get repeated and develop into institutions that seem to transcend the individual. And they appear hardened and unchangeable. But really, society is just interaction, repeated interaction. That's what the Symbolic-Interaction Approach holds.

To understand how Micro-level social interactions, when repeated, can develop into broader structures and institutions, think about church. When you go there, there's all these rules about you've got to stand up, sit down, kneel here, don't kneel here, sit here, stand here. Why do we do all that? Because somebody decided to do it that way a long, long time ago, and then these patterns get repeated again and again and again. And then there you have the institutional process of going to church.

Or why do I feel the need to put on this tie when I lecture? Why do we have turkey on Thanksgiving? Why do you have to bring a gift to a baby shower? And in fact, why do you even have a baby shower to begin with? These are all social behaviors that started, got repeated, and now we all do them, whether we want to or not. You're impolite if you don't bring a gift to a baby shower. In fact, you're crazy if you don't have a baby shower. People are going to wonder what's going on because they're so used to these ingrained habits.

So this is the stuff of society. If you want to have a little fun with this and play with symbols next time you're interacting with somebody-- now we even interact virtually all the time. So next time you're sending a routine text message, like, "Hey. What's going on tonight?" When you're sending it to your friend, send it in all capital letters. They're not going to know what to do, because the symbol is different. When you send all caps, that emphasizes something, expression, it can be angry. But when you play with that and put it with a routine saying, they're going to get really confused.

Well I hope you had a good time learning about the Symbolic-Interaction Approach. We identified it as a Micro-level approach and as an example of interpretive sociology. Enjoy the rest of your day. Thanks for joining me.

Terms to Know
Interpretive Sociology

A way to study society that focuses on the meanings that individuals attach to their actions

Micro-Level Orientation

A zoomed in look at specific situations and individual interactions.

Symbolic Interaction Theory

​Society results from the everyday interactions and experiences of individuals.