Symbolic interactionism

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Symbolic interactionism
Born out of a branch of philosophy that included thinkers such as John Dewey symbolic
interactionism is largely concerned with the study of interactions and the meanings that
individuals place on their social actions, however unlike other social action theorists such as
Weber they prefer to focus their attentions on smaller interactions rather than large scale
such as that described in The Spirit of Capitalism. George Herbert Mead is largely
accredited as the most important sociologist within this school which since its conception in
the 1950s has been confined solely to the theories of US sociologists.
Mead argued that human beings develop their sense of self and their understanding of the
social world around them through their interactions with each and primarily through a set of
symbols that are largely universal in nature, handed down to people through socialisation and
mass culture. Symbols are conveyed through language and not only contain a common
symbol that identifies an object or situation, for example `chair' or `argument' but also have
an inbuilt understanding of the conventions that accompany the symbol such as `sitting on a
chair' or `raising one's voice during an argument'. The categories that we use to understand
objects or events that we may encounter tend to have an exclusive scope and there is a
general agreement that there are a limited number of options that one may take that can all
fall under the original symbol. For example, in the case of a `chair' it may be made of a
variety of materials such as metal, wood or plastic but the symbol chair is still applicable,
and similarly in terms of its function the symbol argues that its primary function would be
sitting on it however there exist a limited number of other actions such as standing on it to
reach something off a high shelf, using it as a fuel or as an improvised weapon to assault
someone, however regardless of what it is used for a chair remains a chair throughout.
Symbols are necessary because they help to construct a meaningful explanation of the social
world which humans can understand and use to navigate the social world in which they find
themselves, without these symbols humans would be lost because they are not simply able to
react instinctively to strange stimuli, they must have an understanding of what a common
response would be so as to afford harm either to themselves or others. For example in order
to gain the nutrition that is needed to survive they must be able to categorise food and
If there is an overwhelming level of deviation from commonly held symbols then interaction
between people becomes impossible. As such there has to be a shared understanding of
symbols that exists between those in society to maintain social order and lessen the chances
of conflict as people can understand and react to the actions of others. Mead called the
process of interpreting each other's actions and responding accordingly role taking. This
basically involves a person placing themselves in another person's shoes and empathising
with the individual or group that they are interacting with so as to best understand their
feelings and be able to proceed appropriately. Thus if a person observes another `waving,

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Human interaction is as such an endless cycle of interpretation as we
take the role of the other people we are interacting with until the end of that interaction and
then repeat the process throughout all those that follow.…read more

Page 3

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In mead's view the individual and society are strongly interconnected because on the one
hand it is through an individual's social interactions that they develop their understanding of
self and decide which roles that want to take and on the other it is only the acceptance of
said roles that leads to the culture of society being reproduced and the selfconcepts of
future generations being influenced by them.…read more

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While interactionists argue that the acceptance of symbols depends upon a shared belief in
the cultural norms of a society there has been no attempt within the theory to provide an
account of the origins of these norms. They are just accepted as given and they are subject
to possible change through interactions beyond that there is no need to understand when
they have come from.…read more


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