Studying Race and Gender with Symbolic Interaction Theory

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Applying Symbolic Interaction Theory to Everyday Life

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Symbolic interaction theory is one of the most important contributions to the sociological perspective. This approach to studying the social world was outlined by Herbert Blumer in his book Symbolic Interactionism in 1937. In it, Blumer outlined three tenets of this theory:

  1. We act toward people and things based on the meaning we interpret from them.
  2. Those meanings are the product of social interaction between people.
  3. Meaning-making and understanding is an ongoing interpretive process, during which the initial meaning might remain the same, evolve slightly, or change radically.

You can use this theory to examine and analyze social interactions that you are a part of and that you witness in your everyday life. For example, it is a useful tool for understanding how race and gender shape social interactions.

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Where Are You From?

An Asian woman and a white man speak in a business setting, representing the way race can shape social interaction. Learn how symbolic interaction theory can help you understand the role of race in social interaction here.
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"Where are you from? Your English is perfect."

"San Diego. We speak English there."

"Oh, no. Where are you from?"

This awkward conversation, in which a white man questions an Asian woman, is commonly experienced by Asian Americans and many other Americans of color who are presumed by white people (though not exclusively) to be immigrants from foreign lands. (The dialog above comes from a short viral satirical video that critiques this phenomenon and watching it will help you understand this example.) Blumer's three tenets of symbolic interaction theory can help illuminate the social forces at play in this exchange.

First, Blumer observes that we act toward people and things based on the meaning we interpret from them. In this example, a white man encounters a woman that he and we as the viewer understand to be racially Asian. The physical appearance of her face, hair, and skin color serves as a set of symbols that communicate this information to us. The man then seems to infer meaning from her race -- that she is an immigrant -- which leads him to ask the question, "Where are you from?"

Next, Blumer would point out that those meanings are the product of social interaction between people. Considering this, we can see that the way the man interprets the race of the woman is itself a product of social interaction. The assumption that Asian Americans are immigrants is socially constructed through a combination of different kinds of social interactions, like the almost entirely white social circles and segregated neighborhoods that white people inhabit; the erasure of Asian American history from the mainstream teaching of American History; underrepresentation and misrepresentation of Asian Americans in television and film; and the socio-economic circumstances that lead first generation Asian American immigrants to work in shops and restaurants where they might be the only Asian Americans that the average white person interacts with. The assumption that an Asian American is an immigrant is the product of these social forces and interactions.

Finally, Blumer points out that meaning-making and understanding are ongoing interpretive processes, during which the initial meaning might remain the same, evolve slightly, or change radically. In the video, and in countless conversations like this that occur in everyday life, through interaction the man is made to realize that his interpretation of the meaning of the woman based on the symbol of her race was wrong. It is possible that his interpretation of Asian people might shift overall because social interaction is a learning experience that has the power to alter how we understand others and the world around us.

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It's a Boy!

Baby blocks spell the word
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Symbolic interaction theory is very useful to those seeking to understand the social significance of sex and gender. The powerful force that gender exerts on us is especially visible when one considers interactions between adults and infants. Though they are born with differing sex organs, and then classified on the basis of sex as either male, female, or intersex, it's impossible to know the sex of a clothed infant because they all look the same. So, based on their sex, the process of gendering a baby begins almost immediately and is inspired by two simple words: boy and girl.

Once the pronouncement has been made, those in the know immediately begin to shape their interaction with that child based on the interpretations of gender that are attached to these words, and that thus become attached to a baby marked by either of them. The socially produced meaning of gender shapes things like the kinds of toys and styles and colors of clothes we give to them and even affects the way we speak to babies and what we tell them about themselves.

Sociologists believe that gender itself is entirely a social construct that emerges out of the interactions we have with each other through a process of socialization. Through this process we learn things like how we are supposed to behave, dress, speak, and even which spaces into which we are allowed to enter. As people who have learned the meaning of masculine and feminine gender roles and behaviors, we transmit those to the young through social interaction.

However, as babies grow into toddlers and then older, we may find through interacting with them that what we have come to expect on the basis of gender does not manifest in their behavior, and so our interpretation of what gender means may shift. In fact, all people we interact with on a daily basis play a role in either reaffirming the meaning of gender that we already hold or in challenging and reshaping it.