Living in the modern feverish world with its unprecedented level of change which is generating new developments in social, political, cultural, technological, and other spheres of our life, one may easily become engulfed by the dynamics of our social environment but remain ignorant of the actual mechanisms and hidden driving forces behind social processes. In their turn, various branches of social science have never abandoned attempts to establish and elaborate proper accounts that would explain how societies function, and what laws govern them. This ambitious task is on one hand made more difficult by the mentioned ever accelerating dynamics of our modern social environment, as the rapid pace of changes produces new phenomena that social theories must accommodate or be amended. On the other hand, the modern dynamic world serves as a kind of a laboratory that can test the validity of some fundamental and influential theoretical perspectives.
One such major school of sociology is symbolic interactionism, the theoretical perspective which suggests that attention to the subjective aspects of social relationships is necessary to understand that people are pragmatic players who have to correlate their actions with behaviour of other people, and that such adjustment is done through assignation to our actions, actions of other people, and even to ourselves of symbolic meaning that influences not only our behaviour and attitudes but existing social structures as well (Gingrich, 2000).
However, despite the firm place that this perspective holds in the field of social sciences, it has been suggested that explanations that symbolic interactionism gives for the influence of social structures on behaviour and attitudes are unconvincing. In this regard, let us take a closer look at the basic postulates of symbolic interactionism, and try to find out whether it indeed is incapable of proving itself out. For this purpose we should establish in what ways social structures can influence our behaviour and attitudes from the point of view of symbolic interactionism, and then critically examine whether symbolic interactionist’s explanations are always adequate.
Symbolic interactionism has a long history of development that can be traced to the German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), and to the American scholar George H. Mead (1863-1931). Both of them accentuated the importance of pragmatism as the factor that influences social processes, and of subjective meanings ascribed to social processes and human behaviour. In 1902 Charles Cooley (1864-1929) detailed the way people tend to perceive themselves, and introduced the concept of the looking glass self under which people construct self-images as if through eyes of others.
In 1934 George H. Mead in frames of his investigation of deviance proposed a theory that was focused on processes of differentiation of the conventional and denounced behaviour. One of the important conclusions of Mead was that our self-perception is always placed in the larger social context, and that the self has to be treated as the product of processing of social interactions and symbols by an individual mind (Denzin, 1992, pp.2-21). In fact, the further studies of deviance greatly contributed to the development of symbolic interactionism. For example, another influential social theorist Howard Becker (born 1928) also elaborated the view of deviance as of not merely some type of behaviour, but as of a product of social interaction.
Becker criticised theories of deviance that conformed to the commonly accepted values, and pointed out that it was not that crucial to examine concrete individual deviant actions because deviance is only a behaviour that breaks rules and leads to the attachment of labels by opinions of the majority (Becker, 1997). Finally, the very term “symbolic interactionism” was introduced by Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), who also formulated one of leading versions of this perspective (Gingrich, 2000).
In general terms, symbolic interactionists are devoted to microsociology and mostly explore interpersonal everyday interaction. The symbolic interactionist perspective is concerned with the task to understand how people behave individually, and how they influence one another in the social environment. Naturally, for this perspective macro elements of society like government and the economy are not interesting.
For interactionists, their attention to the interaction of individuals and groups is the tool to obtain new useful perspectives, to confirm or disprove expectations, and to define the boundaries of that pertaining to an individual and to a group. Simply put, this sociological perspective, in contrast to macro perspectives, analyses societies from bottom up, as for it society emerges out of interaction between individuals and small groups, which makes society inherently dynamic and constantly changing.
Thus, for the interactionist perspective it is constant change, instead of fixed patterns, that defines the true nature of society, and these are acting people who constitute the true social basis. All other formations present in societies are simply human creations that emerge out of the mentioned interaction. What adds dynamics to this perspective is the ensuing conclusion that society is actually permanently being re-created, which makes symbolic interactionist perspective indeterministic.
In many cases interaction that is interesting for symbolic interactionists is occurring in the so-called reference groups – various professional organisations, like for example doctors or teachers, groups based on friendship, groups united by education, groups formed within communities we live in, etc. While some groups are more cohesive, and others do not last long, dynamics and change that emerge when people communicate is what is common between them. When taken together, such reference groups represent society. In this connection, a branch of symbolic interactionism termed ethnomethodology raises a relevant question of how it is possible that interaction between people, who do not always have a complete understanding of each other and who have different world views, can produce what is seen as a social order.
Harold Garfinkel highlighted problems that ethnomethodology deals with by conducting series of the so-called breaching experiments, when students, among other things, were for instance trying to essentially prevent the possibility of maintenance of common conversations as they refused to accept as fact that they could be sure that they understood what their conversational partners were saying (Garfinkel, 1985, pp.35-75).
This demonstrates that what is normally viewed as a routine social procedure of communication is based on sets of social instructions that govern our behaviour, and that violation of such rules may break social order and prevent meaningful interaction between people. Considering the interest of symbolic interactionists in immediate communication, in their investigations they favour the methodology of participant observation instead of traditional sociological surveys. They believe that to properly comprehend actions of people and of social situations it is necessary to get immersed as much as possible in lives of subjects of studies.
On ground of what we have observed, it is not surprising then that the notion of symbolic interaction holds a very important place within the field of social sciences because it draws our attention to the fact that the interaction between people and groups takes place via symbols and symbolic representations of social reality. In fact, what forms the basis of symbolic interactionism is the concept of symbol. In this case symbol can be defined as something that can properly represent some other element of reality. In this way, symbolic interactionist perspective introduces into the social life a set of widely spread conventional traditions and customs, and thus deals not only with the immediate interaction between people and groups, but at the same time studies common meanings that people instill in society as they interact.
Therefore, one of the key features of symbolic interactionism is its interpretation of social structures, which in the general sense can be defined as social formations and groups that stand in a certain relation to each other, as growing out of the symbolic perception of reality by human beings. The importance of this quality of human interaction is hard to overestimate, as symbolic part of social life often substitutes reality, as exemplified by an observation of W. I. Thomas that if people define situations as real, then consequences of those situations are real (Denzin, 1992, pp.16,18).
And as Erving Goffman (1922-1982) put it, there can be no ultimate truth but only its interpretations. Goffman also viewed humans as actors, thus turning the adoption of social roles into a principal means of symbolic interaction between people that enables us to share alternative perspectives and understand how our actions might be construed by other actors in our field of communication. This justifies Goffman`s view of society as an inhomogeneous theatre-like formation in which we have to behave differently in different situations, so that there is no one grand context that society is placed in, but a lot of specific contexts (Goffman, 2004, pp.238-252).
Now, I believe that our above considerations should somewhat change our perception of possible accusations of symbolic interactionism in its inability to provide a convincing explanation of the influence of social structures on behaviour and attitudes. Indeed, as long as we agree that it is the propensity of human beings to attachment of widely accepted symbolic meanings not only to material object but as well to patterns of social behaviour that underlies social structures which are being constantly recreated from bottom up, then symbolic interactionism is clearly a perspective that seems to confirm on the micro level the existence of inseparable link between social structures and behaviour of people. In fact, it places actions of human agents prior to formation of social structures, and is mostly focused on the influence of the immediate interaction between people on larger social formations that emerge from it. Thus, this perspective tips the scale of macro-micro opposition in social sciences towards the micro sociological methodologies.
However, if we agree with Goffman`s comparison of society with a theatre, we should also not forget that as there is something behind the scene there equally is a larger context behind symbolic interaction between people. So, symbolic interactionism may be rightfully accused in overemphasising subjective factor, which deprives this perspective of the traditional methodological strictness of social sciences. Moreover, the ascription of pragmatic, and hence rational, qualities to human actors by symbolic interactionism cannot fully interpret new developments that open possibilities for conflicts.
For instance, culture shocks that happen in the modern globalised world demonstrate that there are incompatible elements of social and cultural structures symbolically transmitted by each participant of intercultural communication that interfere into the face-to-face communication between people and shape its patterns, but which can be rationally modified by communicating pragmatic agents only to a limited degree.
This observation may be construed as demanding the return of social studies to macrosociological theories as in this case the problem is not only to explain how social structures are re-created in symbolic interaction, but what types of symbols and social and cultural structures that correspond to them interacting agents should make sense of in the first place to be able to interact effectively at all (Ward, 2001, pp.61-63), which commands the reversal of the direction of symbolic interactionism`s research from bottom up.
Still, I suppose that even though the doubts about the persuasiveness of symbolic interactionism`s explanation cannot be completely disproved, this perspective is very effective within its realm of microsociological studies, so all the difficulties that symbolic interactionism experiences may be attributed to the difficulties in bridging the conceptual gap between micro and macro views of society.
Finally, coming back to the mentioned dynamics of social environment that has become the hallmark of modernity, the attention that symbolic interactionism pays to change as an inevitable and natural consequence of interaction between agents within societies, in any case makes this perspective especially urgent for our better understanding of the complex social world we live in.
Becker, H., S., (1997), Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, Free Press
Blumer, H., (1986). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, University of
Denzin, N., K., (1992), Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies: The Politics of
Interpretation, Blackwell Publishers
Garfinkel, H., (1985), Studies in Ethnomethodology, Polity Press
Gingrich, P., (2000), “Symbolic Interactionism”, University of Regina Department of
Sociology and Social Studies, viewed 11 May, 2006, <http://uregina.ca/~gingrich/f10
Goffman, E., (2004), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Gardners Books
Ward, C., (2001), Psychology of Culture Shock, Routledge