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Symbolic Interactionism
George Herbert Mead

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: INTERPERSONAL MESSAGES


  1. Introduction.
    1. Social constructionists believe that our thoughts, self-concept, and the wider community we live in are created through communication—symbolic interaction.
    2. Symbolic interaction refers to language and gestures a person used in anticipation of the way others will respond.
    3. George Herbert Mead, an early social constructionist, was an influential philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, but he never published his ideas.
    4. After his death, his students published his teachings in Mind, Self, and Society.
    5. Mead's chief disciple, Herbert Blumer, further developed his theory.
      1. Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism, and claimed that the most human and humanizing activity in which people are engaged is communicating.
      2. The three core principles of symbolic interactionism are concerned with meaning, language and thinking.
      3. These principles lead to conclusions about the formation of self and socialization into a larger society.
  2. Meaning: The construction of social reality.
    1. First principle: Humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things.
    2. Once people define a situation as real, it’s very real in its consequences.
    3. Where a behavioral scientist would see causality as stimulus ? response, for an interactionist it would look like stimulus? interpretation ? response.
  3. Language: The source of meaning.
    1. Second principle: Meaning arises out of the social interaction people have with each other.
    2. Meaning is not inherent in objects.
    3. Meaning is negotiated through the use of language, hence the term symbolic interactionism.
    4. As human beings, we have the ability to name things.
      1. Symbols, including names, are arbitrary signs.
      2. By talking with others, we ascribe meaning to words and develop a universe of discourse.
    5. Symbolic naming is the basis for society—the extent of knowing is dependent on the extent of naming.
    6. Symbolic interactionism is the way we learn to interpret the world.
      1. A symbol is a stimulus that has a learned meaning and a value for people.
      2. Our words have default assumptions.
      3. Significant symbols can be nonverbal as well as linguistic.
  4. Thinking: The process of taking the role of the other.
    1. Third principle: An individual's interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought process.
    2. Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation, or minding.
      1. Minding is a reflective pause.
      2. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out meaning.
    3. Whereas animals act instinctively and without deliberation, humans are hardwired for thought.
      1. Humans require social stimulation and exposure to abstract symbol systems to have conceptual thought.
      2. Language is the software that activates the mind.
    4. Humans have the unique capacity to take the role of the other.
  5. The self: Reflections in a looking glass.
    1. Self cannot be found through introspection, but instead through taking the role of the other and imaging how we look from the other’s perspective. This mental image is called the looking-glass self and is socially constructed, or as the Mead-Cooley hypothesis claims, “individuals’ self-conceptions result from assimilating the judgments of significant others.”
    2. Self is a function of language.
      1. One has to be a member of a community before consciousness of self sets in.
      2. The self is always in flux.
    3. Self is an ongoing process combining the “I” and the “me.”
      1. The “I”—the subjective self—sponsors what is novel, unpredictable, and unorganized about the self.
      2. The “me”—the objective self—is the image of self seen through the looking glass of other people's reactions.
      3. Once your “I” is known, it becomes your “me.”
  6. Society: The socializing effect of others' expectations.
    1. The composite mental image of others in a community, their expectations, and possible responses is referred to as the generalized other.
    2. The generalized other shapes how we think and interact with the community.
    3. The “me” is formed through continual symbolic interaction.
    4. The “me” is the organized community within the individual.
  7. A sampler of applied symbolic interaction.
    1. Creating reality.
      1. Erving Goffman develops the metaphor of social interaction as a dramaturgical performance.
      2. The impression of reality fostered by performance is fragile.
    2. Meaning-ful research.
      1. Mead advocated study through participant observation, a form of ethnography.
      2. Experimental and survey research are void of the meaning of the experience.
    3. Generalized other—the tragic potential of symbolic interaction: Negative responses can consequently reduce a person to nothing.
    4. Naming.
      1. Name-calling can be devastating because it forces us to view ourselves through a warped mirror.
      2. These grotesque images are not easily dispelled.
    5. Self-fulfilling prophecy.
      1. Each of us affects how others view themselves.
      2. Our expectations evoke responses that confirm what we originally anticipated, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    6. Symbol manipulation—symbols can galvanize people into united action.
  8. Ethical reflection: Levinas’ responsive “I”
    1. Levinas insists that the identity of our “I” is formed by the way we respond to others, not how others respond to me as Mead contends.
    2. We all have an ethical echo of responsibility to take care of each other that has existed since the beginning of history.
    3. To not recognize our human responsibility when we look at the face of the Other is to put our identity at risk.
  9. Critique: Setting the gold standard for four interpretive criteria.
    1. Mead meets clarification of values, offers a new understanding of people, uses ethnographic research, and has generated a community of agreement.
    2. Mead does not call for a reform of society. In fact, he says little about power, domination, or emotion. The theory has fluid boundaries, vague concepts, and an undisciplined approach that lacks aesthetic appeal.
    3. Mead overstates his case when he maintains that language is the distinguishing factor between humans and other animals.


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Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Symbolic Interactionism
George Herbert Mead

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: INTERPERSONAL MESSAGES


  1. Introduction.
    1. Social constructionists believe that our thoughts, self-concept, and the wider community we live in are created through communication—symbolic interaction.
    2. Symbolic interaction refers to language and gestures a person used in anticipation of the way others will respond.
    3. George Herbert Mead, an early social constructionist, was an influential philosophy professor at the University of Chicago, but he never published his ideas.
    4. After his death, his students published his teachings in Mind, Self, and Society.
    5. Mead's chief disciple, Herbert Blumer, further developed his theory.
      1. Blumer coined the term symbolic interactionism, and claimed that the most human and humanizing activity in which people are engaged is communicating.
      2. The three core principles of symbolic interactionism are concerned with meaning, language and thinking.
      3. These principles lead to conclusions about the formation of self and socialization into a larger society.
  2. Meaning: The construction of social reality.
    1. First principle: Humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things.
    2. Once people define a situation as real, it’s very real in its consequences.
    3. Where a behavioral scientist would see causality as stimulus ? response, for an interactionist it would look like stimulus? interpretation ? response.
  3. Language: The source of meaning.
    1. Second principle: Meaning arises out of the social interaction people have with each other.
    2. Meaning is not inherent in objects.
    3. Meaning is negotiated through the use of language, hence the term symbolic interactionism.
    4. As human beings, we have the ability to name things.
      1. Symbols, including names, are arbitrary signs.
      2. By talking with others, we ascribe meaning to words and develop a universe of discourse.
    5. Symbolic naming is the basis for society—the extent of knowing is dependent on the extent of naming.
    6. Symbolic interactionism is the way we learn to interpret the world.
      1. A symbol is a stimulus that has a learned meaning and a value for people.
      2. Our words have default assumptions.
      3. Significant symbols can be nonverbal as well as linguistic.
  4. Thinking: The process of taking the role of the other.
    1. Third principle: An individual's interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought process.
    2. Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as an inner conversation, or minding.
      1. Minding is a reflective pause.
      2. We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out meaning.
    3. Whereas animals act instinctively and without deliberation, humans are hardwired for thought.
      1. Humans require social stimulation and exposure to abstract symbol systems to have conceptual thought.
      2. Language is the software that activates the mind.
    4. Humans have the unique capacity to take the role of the other.
  5. The self: Reflections in a looking glass.
    1. Self cannot be found through introspection, but instead through taking the role of the other and imaging how we look from the other’s perspective. This mental image is called the looking-glass self and is socially constructed, or as the Mead-Cooley hypothesis claims, “individuals’ self-conceptions result from assimilating the judgments of significant others.”
    2. Self is a function of language.
      1. One has to be a member of a community before consciousness of self sets in.
      2. The self is always in flux.
    3. Self is an ongoing process combining the “I” and the “me.”
      1. The “I”—the subjective self—sponsors what is novel, unpredictable, and unorganized about the self.
      2. The “me”—the objective self—is the image of self seen through the looking glass of other people's reactions.
      3. Once your “I” is known, it becomes your “me.”
  6. Society: The socializing effect of others' expectations.
    1. The composite mental image of others in a community, their expectations, and possible responses is referred to as the generalized other.
    2. The generalized other shapes how we think and interact with the community.
    3. The “me” is formed through continual symbolic interaction.
    4. The “me” is the organized community within the individual.
  7. A sampler of applied symbolic interaction.
    1. Creating reality.
      1. Erving Goffman develops the metaphor of social interaction as a dramaturgical performance.
      2. The impression of reality fostered by performance is fragile.
    2. Meaning-ful research.
      1. Mead advocated study through participant observation, a form of ethnography.
      2. Experimental and survey research are void of the meaning of the experience.
    3. Generalized other—the tragic potential of symbolic interaction: Negative responses can consequently reduce a person to nothing.
    4. Naming.
      1. Name-calling can be devastating because it forces us to view ourselves through a warped mirror.
      2. These grotesque images are not easily dispelled.
    5. Self-fulfilling prophecy.
      1. Each of us affects how others view themselves.
      2. Our expectations evoke responses that confirm what we originally anticipated, resulting in a self-fulfilling prophecy.
    6. Symbol manipulation—symbols can galvanize people into united action.
  8. Ethical reflection: Levinas’ responsive “I”
    1. Levinas insists that the identity of our “I” is formed by the way we respond to others, not how others respond to me as Mead contends.
    2. We all have an ethical echo of responsibility to take care of each other that has existed since the beginning of history.
    3. To not recognize our human responsibility when we look at the face of the Other is to put our identity at risk.
  9. Critique: Setting the gold standard for four interpretive criteria.
    1. Mead meets clarification of values, offers a new understanding of people, uses ethnographic research, and has generated a community of agreement.
    2. Mead does not call for a reform of society. In fact, he says little about power, domination, or emotion. The theory has fluid boundaries, vague concepts, and an undisciplined approach that lacks aesthetic appeal.
    3. Mead overstates his case when he maintains that language is the distinguishing factor between humans and other animals.


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