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Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Author: Paul Hannan

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

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain Images from; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology, Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on the symbolic interaction approach. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.


So the symbolic interaction approach is one of the three major theoretical approaches in sociology. And this one, if you've heard or learned about the other two already or from somewhere else, this one is very different from the other two. So let's find out more about it. What exactly is the symbolic interaction approach?

Now, the symbolic interaction approach looks at society as a result of many individual and everyday interactions. So this looks at a very small, zoomed in-- it's called a micro level orientation. So it's looking at individual actions and individual interactions actually. And that says that's the most important thing and that's really what sociologists should be studying.

Now let me explain this them in more detail what this means. Symbolic interactions, now if you look at that-- if you look at those words and kind of know the roots of them, and what they mean, it's really all about representation of one thing for another.

There are many examples of this. In fact, language is a great example of symbolic interaction. Words don't actually mean anything on their own. We train ourselves to understand each other and these representations.

When I say "lamp," it's not a physical thing that I am actually showing you or interacting with. I say "lamp," and you might picture a different lamp. But we have a-- there's a symbolic representation where the letters of lamp stand for a lamp. And so this perspective, it really believes that this interaction of these symbolic interactions is what's so important and we should study.

And one of the interesting things that it looks at is the interaction, not just the interaction itself, but how interactions actually create a shared reality. So the reality that we know, as individuals, as a society, is actually constructed through society. Now, one thing that helps understand this viewpoint is that the idea that people react to perceive reality, not physical reality.

This can be a little hard to grasp at first, but it's really not that difficult a concept to grasp. So the idea is that, as humans, we don't actually respond to what is physically happening. We respond to what we think is happening.

Now, I have a picture there of a bear and a human. And it's just to kind of give you an example to think about. Now, let's say, for example, that you're at the circus and you see a bear. This bear is not behind any walls. It's not caged up. It's not chained up.

It's about 20 feet away from you. And this bear is dressed up and it's doing actions with a clown. It's performing with the clown. Now, we are reacting as humans to the perceived reality of that situation. So maybe we're a little bit scared. But most of us are just enjoying the circus.

Now, what were to happen if that same, exact bear was the same, exact distance away, but the circus wasn't around? That's really one of the differences. The bear could physically be the exact same bear and the same distance, and we could be under the same actual level of threat.

But we're going to react very differently because of our perceived reality, not what is actually reality. So that's a very different way of looking at the world. But I think it's a pretty interesting one, and pretty worthwhile for sociologists to use this perspective.

Now another thing that this perspective does is it focuses on how these meanings get built up over time and how they're constructed. So the idea there is that it's not just in the individual action. It's not the individual communication about when someone's asking you directions. That is interesting to study and that's part of this. But also how do the meanings and interactions get constructed and built up over time and change over time?

Now, symbolic interaction really closely tied with interpretive sociology. And interpretive sociology is really just looking at the idea that you need to understand. To really understand behavior, you have to look at the meaning people attach to it within their social world. So, again, it ties into the idea that people react to their perceived reality, not the physical reality. So if they're reacting to what they think they see versus what they actually see, their meaning is really, really, really important. It's crucial.

Now, one of the benefits of using interpretive sociology is it helps avoid judgment of individuals because you don't see them out of context. If we're trying to say that the meaning matters, somebody choosing to defend themselves and end up, you know, let's say killing somebody, we might, from the outside, judge it as a heinous crime because they killed someone.

But maybe when you look at interpretive sociology, they're looking at the context of what that person actually believes they're doing. So it's not saying that it's right. But what it does is it avoids some of that judgment. And at least you can understand what they thought they were doing.

So today's takeaway message, the symbolic interaction approach is really looking at society as a result of many individual and everyday interactions. And this is a micro level orientation, so it's really narrow and specific, looking at social interactions. It's really closely tied into interpretive sociology, which is trying to discover the meaning that people attach to actions and to their social world.

And that's it for this lesson. So good work. And, hopefully, you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

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.