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Symbolic Interactionism in Sociology: Definition, Criticism & Examples

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  • 0:01 Symbolic Interactionism
  • 1:26 Examples
  • 3:43 Criticisms
  • 5:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson describes a way of looking at the world that focuses on communication, meaning and symbols. You'll review a real-world example of this approach and explore the criticisms from those who prefer other sociological methods.

Definition of Symbolic Interactionism

Paradigms provide a starting place to help understand what is being witnessed in day-to-day life and in experiments. If you imagine that paradigms are like lenses in a pair of eyeglasses, there are several different lens styles worn by sociologists and symbolic interactionism is one of them.

Symbolic interactionism tends to focus on the language and symbols that help us give meaning to the experiences in our life. They notice that as we interact with the world, we change the way we behave based on the meaning we give social interactions. We spend time thinking about what we will do next and adjust our approach depending on how we believe others perceive us.

Social interactionists believe that communications and interactions form reality as we know it. Reality, in this belief, is socially constructed, or created by conversations, thoughts, and ideas. Early thinkers in this approach focused on the face-to-face experiences of individuals, though now we would likely include many more types of interactions, including the experiences we have online or through text messaging on our phones, for instance.

A girl uses her cell phone to interact with others and create her own reality
A girl texting on her cell phone

In this view, individuals are powerful in how they shape the world and not merely victims conforming to larger societal forces. Individuals both create and shape society, and the change occurring is constant and ongoing. Social interactionists are interested in the patterns created by our interactions and how this reality makes up our very existence.

Examples of Symbolic Interactionism

To better understand how those wearing this lens view reality, we can look at a specific example. Imagine you have a sibling with whom you have had a rivalry your whole life. You see your sister as having always received an unfair bias, getting what she wanted more than you have. You perceive her as picking at your flaws when you interact or cutting you down in some way. All of these experiences take place through a series of communications, social situations, and thoughts you have about your sister.

Events will also be symbolic to you, representing more to you than the objective facts might suggest. For instance, she receives a promotion with her company within a year of being hired. Since you don't believe she has the skills for the job, you give the situation a particular meaning, specifically, that it is unfair and that it is an example of how your sister always gets what she wants.

Perhaps then your sister loses her job abruptly with no other job in sight and comes to you for emotional support as she recovers from the loss. You and she grow closer as she expresses appreciation for your help and solicits advice from you on how to move forward. Your role changes from that of a critical onlooker who is jealous to one who is needed for support and compassion. The loss of her job becomes an opportunity to connect with other aspects of who your sister is as a person, rather than seeing her as your sister who has an unfair advantage in the world. You give your sister a new meaning: that of a person in need of your support and perhaps not always as lucky as you had thought.

The symbolic meaning we give to relationships can change over time
Two sisters whose symbolic relationship has changed

Symbolic interactionists would look at this series of events and note how your experiences and interactions with your sister form your understanding of reality. Before she loses her job, you have one version of reality in your mind. Symbolically, you see your sister as having an unfair advantage in the world and hold this idea in your mind. When the dynamic shifts and you play a role of supporting her in a time of need, the meaning you give your sister's life fluctuates, changes, and develops. All of this is based on the social interactions you have, the language used to communicate, and the symbolic meaning you give to these events and thoughts.

Criticisms of the Framework

Many sociologists argue that the theory is too wide-ranging in what it tackles to give clear direction on understanding the nature of how reality is socially constructed. Those who utilize the framework respond that it is a good foundation for theories and that it doesn't claim to be specific enough for use on its own.

Another criticism is that the data for using the approach is qualitative rather than quantitative. Quantitative data can be tested and proven correct or incorrect. Quantitative data would include numbers that can be measured, such as survey data that produces results by counting answer choices by participants, for instance.

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