Symbolic Interaction Theory: History, Development, and Examples

outdoor family dinner party

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Symbolic interaction theory, or symbolic interactionism, is one of the most important perspectives in the field of sociology, providing a key theoretical foundation for much of the research conducted by sociologists. The central principle of the interactionist perspective is that the meaning we derive from and attribute to the world around us is a social construction produced by everyday social interaction. This perspective is focused on how we use and interpret things as symbols to communicate with each other, how we create and maintain a self that we present to the world and a sense of self within us, and how we create and maintain the reality that we believe to be true. 

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"Rich Kids of Instagram" and Symbolic Interaction

A photo posted to Rich Kids of Instagram shows a girl wearing a sweatshirt that reads "Raised on Champagne." Symbolic interaction theory helps us understand how this shirt and the photo of it create meaning in society.
Rich Kids of Instagram Tumblr

This image, from the Tumblr feed "Rich Kids of Instagram," which visually catalogs the lifestyles of the world's wealthiest teens and young adults, exemplifies this theory. In this photo, the young woman depicted uses the symbols of Champagne and a private jet to signal wealth and social status. The sweatshirt describing her as "raised on Champagne," as well as her access to a private jet, communicates a lifestyle of wealth and privilege which serve to reaffirm her belonging within this very elite and small social group. These symbols also place her in a superior position within the larger social hierarchies of society. By sharing the image on social media, it and the symbols that compose it act as a declaration that says, "This is who I am."

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Symbolic Interaction Theory Started with Max Weber

A woman throwing pottery on a wheel symbolizes the value and meaning of work as described by Max Weber in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Learn how Weber helped establish the interactionist perspective with this work.
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Sociologists trace the theoretical roots of the interactionist perspective to Max Weber, one of the founders of the field. A core tenet of Weber's approach to theorizing the social world was that we act based on our interpretation of the world around us, or in other words, action follows meaning.

This idea is central to Weber's most widely read book, The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of CapitalismIn this book, Weber demonstrates the value of this perspective by illustrating how historically, a Protestant worldview and set of morals framed work as a calling directed by God, which in turn gave moral meaning to dedication to work. The act of committing oneself to work, and working hard, as well as saving money rather than spending it on earthly pleasures, followed this accepted meaning of the nature of work. Action follows meaning.

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George Herbert Mead further Developed Symbolic Interaction Theory

President Obama and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox take a selfie together at the White House ceremony honoring the 2013 World Series Champions. Learn how symbolic interaction theory helps explain the popularity of the selfie.
Boston Red Sox player David Ortiz poses for a selfie with U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony at the White House to honor the 2013 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox in April 2014. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Brief accounts of symbolic interactionism often misattribute the creation of it to early American sociologist George Herbert Mead. In fact, it was another American sociologist, Herbert Blumer, who coined the phrase "symbolic interactionism." That said, it was Mead's pragmatist theory that laid a robust groundwork for the subsequent naming and development of this perspective.

Mead's theoretical contribution is contained in his posthumously published Mind, Self and Society. In this work, Mead made a fundamental contribution to sociology by theorizing the difference between "I" and "me." He wrote, and sociologists today maintain, that "I" is the self as a thinking, breathing, active subject in society, whereas "me" is the accumulation of knowledge of how that self as an object is perceived by others. (Another early American sociologist, Charles Horton Cooley, wrote about "me" as "the looking-glass self," and in doing so, also made important contributions to symbolic interactionism.) Taking ​the example of the selfie today, we can say that "I" take a selfie and share it in order to make "me" available to the world.

This theory contributed to symbolic interactionism by elucidating how it is that our perceptions of the world and of ourselves within it -- or, individually and collectively constructed meaning -- directly influence our actions as individuals (and as groups).

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Herbert Blumer Coined the Term and Defined It

A waitress with menus in hand talking to a customer.
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Herbert Blumer developed a clear definition of symbolic interactionism while studying under, and later collaborating with, Mead at the University of Chicago. Drawing from Mead's theory, Blumer coined the term "symbolic interaction" in 1937. He later published, quite literally, the book on this theoretical perspective, titled Symbolic Interactionism. In this work, he laid out three basic principles of this theory.

  1. We act toward people and things based on the meaning we interpret from them. For example, when we sit at a table at a restaurant, we expect that those who approach us will be employees of the establishment, and because of this, will be willing to answer questions about the menu, take our order, and bring us food and drink.
  2. Those meanings are the product of social interaction between people -- they are social and cultural constructs. Continuing with the same example, we have come to have expectations of what it means to be a customer in a restaurant based on prior social interactions in which the meaning of restaurant employees has been established.
  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 concert with a waitress who approaches us, asks if she can help us, and then takes our order, the meaning of the waitress is re-established through that interaction. If however, she informs us that food is served buffet-style, then her meaning shifts from someone who will take our order and bring us food to someone who simply directs us toward food.

Following these core tenets, the symbolic interactionist perspective reveals that reality as we perceive it is a social construct produced through ongoing social interaction, and only exists within a given social context.