The Concept of Symbolic Interactionism in Sociology Explained with Examples

How we interact with or see people or things around us, has a big impact on our thinking. Symbolic interactionism is one such theory that explains your whole thought process in making you the person you are. Let us see these concept in detail, its assumptions and its appropriate examples.
ScienceStruck Staff
Last Updated: Sep 14, 2018
Nomenclature of Symbolic Interactionism
Herbert Blumer, a student of George Herbert Mead, the founder of the Concept of Symbolic Interactionism, coined the term 'Symbolic Interactionism', after George Herbert Mead passed away, without leaving any treatise of his work.
American philosophers George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley are the two theorists who founded the theory of symbolic interactionism. Mead was known to be the one true founder of this theory because of his influential and powerful work.
Although this whole concept started with Max Weber's assertions on social action and social behavior, around 1904, Mead introduced this viewpoint to American philosophy in 1920. He had written several articles and book reviews on psychology and philosophy, but could never publish a book of his own.
After his demise, many of his students gathered all his work and lecture notes, and edited four volumes of his psychology course at the University of Chicago.
Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism is a theory that suggests the dependency of behavior of man on his social interactions and surroundings. Humans tend to live or do certain things on the basis of other people's thinking.
Example:John talks to you about Anna. The information you receive from John, is what makes your initial perception about Anna. Your thinking has been molded according to that of John. After you meet Anna, you realize that she is different from what you thought about her, based on the descriptions given by John. This changes your behavior towards Anna.
Assumptions
We live in a world built up with social concrete. All our actions come from what we are thinking, and thinking is highly influenced by the way we perceive things either visually or by interacting with people or things around us. Herbert Blumer, a student of George Herbert Mead, set out three assumptions for the symbolic interactionism theory.
  1. Our minds create meanings of things by the way it perceives them, and acts towards them accordingly.
  2. These meanings are formed as a result of social interaction with things, people, and the society.
  3. Our thought process is based on interpreting these meanings that our minds have created for us.
These three assumptions (perfectly relatable to our thought process) build the idea of 'self' also introduced by Mead. He speaks of the difference between "I" and "me". "I" is the real self, the one we really are. "Me" is the social self, the one we make of ourselves in order to fit into the perspective of others.
Every person thinks of us differently. We understand how they define us in their minds, and to live to their definitions, we create a "me". Thus, we create many "me's" in this process, being different to every individual we interact with.
For example:

1. You just met a person. You know little about him. Likewise, he knows little about you. You will not reveal your whole self to him for the first few meetings, or till the time you have become comfortable with him.
2. When you are at home with your elders, you know what they expect of you, how they have seen you since childhood, and how they think of you. You will be cautious of the language you use, the topics you choose to talk about, and your actions and body language will accordingly change.
3. When you are with your boyfriend/ girlfriend, you will be a different person altogether than what you are with your friends.
Meanings of Things
Meanings of things not just come from what we read or what we listen to, or from what we perceive. It comes from what we understand of it. Understanding comes from the way we perceive things our mind tells us to.
Different people perceive differently. Reason? The meanings in their minds about things are stored differently than yours. How? The surroundings you have been around, the group of people you have been with, have understood the same things in a different manner, and when they interact with you, they pass on their thinking to you.
This is how you create meanings of your own, understand them according to the meanings already stored in your mind, and implement it differently.

For example:

What's the meaning of love? Love can be defined differently, can be spoken of differently, perceived differently, and come into action differently.
1. Ask a child what love is, he will speak of God or his family that loves him. From where has he received this knowledge? From his surroundings and experiences. These experiences are based on what he perceived from his interaction with people. His knowledge is limited, and so he speaks of what he knows from the meaning he has created in his mind about love.
2. If you ask a grownup what love is, he will define it differently. His knowledge has expanded on the basis of his relationship with the people he has interacted with. When he speaks to somebody else about this feeling, they will create another image in their mind, but perceive it differently if they haven't experienced it yet.
    Medium of Communication
    To communicate, we need language. Language is what humans invented to pass on their perceptions. As perceptions were made, language was again needed to create definitions.
    Actions and symbols are also important mediums of communication. The actions or the symbols you see, create visuals in your mind, and are stored for future references.
    This also helps in defining things as you perceive them, because now you can relate to them in a better manner with the visuals. When you speak of these things to others, your definitions will have a deeper connection, and the other person will perceive it easily.
    For example:

    1. When you think about something, you talk to yourself. To think, you need a language.

    2. When you need directions to a destination, and ask a person for it, he explains to you with actions showing lefts and rights. You quickly make a visual of it in your mind, and this helps you reach your destination even if it is miles away from there.
    When you pass through the same route again, you might not need to ask for directions again, as your mind has already stored this information from the previous interaction. However, this might not be the case with every individual, as the capacity to remember varies.
    Reality
    Reality is a manifestation of our thoughts. Every individual believes in a different reality. They have their own definitions, explanations, and perceptions about things. It all comes down to the ability to perceive things the way they are.
    Thinking comes from people and society. But then, what does society come from? It comes from our mind definitions, from our thinking. Thus, these two go hand in hand without which the other wouldn't exist.
    Example: A person tells you that his life has been horrible. That's his reality. You perceive it, but you don't understand it, because life has been good for you, and you can't relate to his situation. A good life is your reality. But you create a thought, from the meaning of the word 'horrible' stored in your mind.
    When you experience something bad in your life, this thought triggers, and you start understanding what he meant then. Now this is your new reality. As you grow, and as you experience new things, your reality changes for you.
    You speak of your reality to someone, living in his own reality of his time, and he receives it and stores it for later experiences.