Studying Race and Gender with Symbolic Interaction Theory

A group of young people laughing outside a cafe

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Symbolic interaction theory is one of the most important contributions to the sociological perspective. Below, we’ll review how symbolic interaction theory can help to explain our everyday interactions with others.

Key Takeaways: Using Symbolic Interaction Theory to Study Race and Gender

  • Symbolic interaction theory looks at how we engage in meaning-making when we interact with the world around us.
  • According to symbolic interactionists, our social interactions are shaped by the assumptions we make about others.
  • According to symbolic interaction theory, people are capable of change: when we make a mistaken assumption, our interactions with others can help to correct our misconceptions. 

Applying Symbolic Interaction Theory to Everyday Life

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.

In other words, our social interactions are based on how we interpret the world around us, rather than on an objective reality (sociologists call our interpretations of the world “subjective meanings”). Additionally, as we interact with others, these meanings we have formed are subject to change.

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.

"Where Are You From?"

"Where are you from? Your English is perfect."

"San Diego. We speak English there."

"Oh, no. Where are you from?"

The dialog above comes from a short viral satirical video that critiques this phenomenon and watching it will help you understand this example.

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. 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 a product of social interaction. The assumption that Asian Americans are immigrants is socially constructed through a combination of different kinds of social interactions. These factors include 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; the 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 initial interpretation 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.

"It's a Boy!"

Symbolic interaction theory is very useful to those seeking to understand the social significance of sex and gender. Sociologists point out that gender is a social construct: that is, one’s gender does not need to correspond to one’s biological sex—but there are strong social pressures to act in particular ways based on one’s sex.

The powerful force that gender exerts on us is especially visible when one considers interactions between adults and infants. Based on their sex, the process of gendering a baby begins almost immediately (and may even happen before birth, as the trend of elaborate “gender reveal” parties demonstrates).

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. 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 such as how we are supposed to behave, dress, and speak, and even which spaces 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. Through this, our interpretation of what gender means may shift. In fact, the symbolic interaction perspective suggests that 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.