Focus: The meanings of language and artifacts determine
our thinking and conceptualization of social relationships. The idea is
that humans interact with each other using agreed upon sets of symbols.
Symbolic Interaction Theory is very useful in explaining several aspects
of human development and social/ interpersonal interaction. It is
theory that attempts to conceptualize human conduct at a relatively complex level. The broad conceptual units of the theory are: the role-the unit of culture (anthropology), the position-the unit of society (sociology), self-the unit of personality (psychology). Concepts of socialization, personality development, and self-reflection detail the process of humanization in the social sense. Concepts of self modification of behavior during interaction and the highly salient notion of symbol exchange as the currency of conversation and intimacy both inform a discussion of the dynamic nature of social interaction.
Origin: The CHICAGO SCHOOL of Social Philosophy includes James Baldwin, G. Stanley Hall (the father of adolescent psychology), William James (American Pragmatism), & John Dewey (co-architect of the American education system). These American thinkers began research around the turn of the century, dealing with the development of personality and self-consciousness. Departing from the earlier work of Freud, the mind of the Chicago School strongly emphasized the environmental effects on socialization, with an even stronger emphasis on the culture. They also developed the American education philosophy, and began to formalize educational psychology into a discipline of study.
Out of the Chicago School was born the only purely American philosophy - pragmatism - central to which is the belief that human beings find meaning in the symbols with which they communicate with one another. Their basic view was that through interaction with others in any given cultural setting, individuals negotiate the meaning of a host of symbols, using them to guide and evaluate their lives. Further, meaning only exists because each individual creates it - one symbol at a time.
Definitions for Symbolic Interaction Theory (SI): It is important to aim for precision in definition of some key terms in any discussion of SI theory. While attempting to explain the development of personality in social terms, this philosophy actually creates a taxonomy of symbols. Therefore:
When I was a boy, growing up in West Texas, the only Catholics I ever knew were Hispanics. Having never met a Polish-American or Italian-American, Catholics were, in my limited experience, Spanish speaking people. In fact, there were two distinct types of Hispanics in my environment: Predominantly Baptist families whose native language was English, and predominantly Catholic families whose native language was Spanish. In my experience, there seemed to be a certain superstitiousness about the Hispanic-Catholic view of religion. As a boy, I felt sorry for them, because they were so wrong-headed in the way they believed. Raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, I knew in my heart that if a person misbehaved and didn't accept Jesus as his personal savior, that person wouldn't go to heaven when they died. What I didn't understand was that while we all went to the same public schools, played on the same playgrounds, and essentially grew up in the same hot, hostile environment, my Hispanic-American Catholic friends really had different social and cultural origins. Their historical roots were in the unique mixing of ancient Aztec, American Indian, and Middle Ages Spanish religious cultures. They just happened to be going to my school.
Once I asked my friend Bobby Castro what would happen if he quit being a Catholic. He said he would go to hell. This puzzled me greatly because, according to my pastor, Brother Edwards, Bobby was on the fast track to hell just as sure as he wore that graven image around his neck. While I would often pray before a math test, or before a fist fight after school, Bobby prayed only in church, or at least while holding his crucifix in his hand. Later on everything became clear to me because I asked questions, made lists, wrote down the dilemmas and showed them to people who ought to know the answers. Everything became clear to me because I listened to the faulty logic, sweeping generalizations, and otherwise fuzzy thinking of those people who ought to know. I would later come to understand this process of repeated observation and generalization as inductive logic. This process only led to more questions in need of answers, which is the way it is supposed to work.
I asked the data, "Which is the more correct way of thinking--the Catholic
belief system or the Protestant one?"
I thought about about the fundamental difference between the two forms of Christianity. Both use the same holy text as their guidebook, both entertain devotion to the same deity, and both use the same lessons to inform their congregates on matters of morality and right living. Isn't it redundant of our culture to have two religions that are so similar?
Perhaps there is something in all the significant symbols used by each group to inform behavior and apply meaning to everyday life. The meaning underlying the symbols alerts us to the very different approaches each group takes in thinking thoughts, living lives, and using language. For example, the main symbolic artifact for each is the cross, symbolizing the sacrifice Jesus made for others - a major teaching of the New Testament. The symbolic difference may be that for Protestants the cross is empty; while for Catholics the crucifix graphically illustrates the suffering image of the deity. No need to wonder how tough it is to die like that. He's right there on the cross for you to look at anytime.
How would a social scientist with a symbolic interactionist perspective on social life view all this? He or she would ask, "What significance does this obvious symbolic difference have for the two groups of believers?" For one thing, Bobby Castro prayed directly into his crucifix, while my prayers were sort of transmitted out into the atmosphere. I imagined them to be sort of cosmic telephone calls. Bobby prayed prayers that were all written out, even recorded in a prayer book, while mine were more extemporaneous (i.e., "Oh. God! Please don't let me fail this algebra test.").
But there are similarities between the two groups too. The larger group, Christians, which encompasses both subcategories of Protestant and Catholic, all believe that Jesus Christ was a prophet who lived roughly two thousand years ago, and was the actual son of God. God, of course, is believed by these people to be the supreme being, all powerful creator of the universe. Jesus Christ, by all reports, was very vocal during his young adulthood; and because of his outspokenness in the context of a highly politicized era of the Roman Empire, was incarcerated, tried for heresy and riotousness, and was sentenced to death by crucifixion. Normally, this form of execution is painful enough, with victims eventually dying from asphyxiation. In the case of Christ, there was an unexplainable departure from the usual crucifixion process in that the victim was actually nailed to the cross, instead of simply being bound to it. This is the symbolic event around which the early Christian Church was formed and flourished for 1600 years. This was the one very big idea that, for a long time, dominated the thoughts of the masses.
During the sixteenth century, Christianity underwent the Protestant Reformation. It was a time in which the Very Big Idea was splintered into two smaller ones - Protestantism and Catholicism. Among the differences (some say the biggest difference) between the two ideas was the sacramental nature of marriage and the issue of divorce. But the fundamental difference relevant to the discussion of religious artifacts is the recasting of old ideas in new ways, giving them new meaning. While Catholics continue to this day to use the crucifix, complete with an image of Jesus in pain and suffering, the Protestant cross is empty.
When Catholics pray in front of their religious symbol, they gaze
upon the tortured image of the son of God. Protestants have no such
reminder. Catholics seem to emphasize the event of the crucifixion,
noting that Christ's life was painful so that they would not have to suffer
so much. In other words, the purpose of religion is to give us an outlet
for our troubles.
Protestants emphasize the resurrection of Jesus after death (the cross is empty), symbolic of the promise made to them that after a sorrowful life on earth, there is continued life after death for those who believe.
Catholics are, then, a little more concerned with the here and now, getting through life by depending on God to help. And they tend to manifest their need for God to intervene in their lives by using a variety of artifacts that show their devotion--dash board saints, candles with biblical scenes painted on them, medals bearing the likenesses of saints, prayer cards, and other equipment. Protestants are a little more concerned with the hereafter - getting into heaven, getting their final reward.
While none of this explanation is absolutely true for all members of either religious persuasion, there may be enough truth in the story to begin to understand something about socialized differences between nearly similar folks.
Now, what do each of the following mean to you?
While each of us may harbor individualized, or unique, meanings for each of the common symbols/icons above, it is clear that all of us must hold some common meaning for each in order for the symbols to be useful in everyday life. The true meaning of love, liberty, salvation, patriotism, and being a good sport is carried in the emotional content we place in symbols that represent those ideas or values. While we can always find individuals who put different meaning into any given symbol, there must be a dominant meaning that is shared by most all in the culture in order for it to be significant in its social use.
Let's look at some of the basic assumptions of Symbolic Interaction Theory. S-I theorists like to see individual development as determined socially. They view socialization as grooming individuals for interaction with each other.
The Process of Socialization: Basic Assumptions
What all this means is that concepts like family, love, mental illness, spouse abuse, healthy family functioning, are all concepts that carry symbolic weight in the minds of a society's members. None of these concepts exist outside the mind. Instead, all are symbols that represent something else by association, resemblance, or convention. When we laugh at a joke, cry at a movie, become outraged over a news story, we are symbolically interacting with our fellows and sharing in a culture that provides meaning to events. Everyone has laughed at the cartoon character who is fearful of ghosts and gets so scared that he repeatedly runs into things. The cartoon character's dilemma is funny to us because we ourselves have been scared enough to do stupid or silly things.
Consider once again, the The Situational Hypothesis: "Things perceived as real will be real in their consequences." - (W.I. Thomas, 1923). Here's another true story, this time about the Ponototoc Snake House.
If a person only partially believes in ghosts (in this case - snakes that aren't there), depending on the way his or her culture portrays the apparition, that person will behave as if ghosts are real and apparent in the everyday world. Placed in the right context, a ghost becomes a Significant Symbol (i.e., a symbol that draws out the same emotional appeal in the majority of individuals).
Self Consciousness is arrived at via:
The Primary Group is the device through which our culture is
transmitted (see the Chap 4).
Through interaction with parents, we acquire language (the second in a series of artificial symbols, the first being the meaning associated with feelings we get from nurturing behaviors of our parents). After rudimentary language acquisition, we move in larger cognitive and social circles (e.g., playmates, kindergarten, first grade and on to high school, college, adult and professional relationships). As we grow and develop (e.g., as we are socialized), we encounter Secondary Groups - the educational system, business associates, and governmental agents. Members of our Primary group serve as socialization agents, whose job it is to groom us for interaction with the larger, Secondary, society. George Herbert Mead explained this process of socialization.
George Herbert Mead's contributions to social-psychology is immeasurable. The most important was his theory of socialization, or humanization known as The Generalized Other theory of personality development. Those of you with a familiar reading of Piaget will find Mead interesting because, like Piaget, Mead asserts that socialization occurs through a maturational process. Through interaction with others we pass through three stages of social and personal development (see Figure 11 below).
Figure 11. - Mead's Generalized Other
After one comes to understand the expectations society demands, the self bifurcates into two parts:
Incidentally, this is exactly why we think Drew Carey is so dang funny!! Our failure to recognize this fact, while simultaneously becoming a master of it, accounts for much/some of the pain, confusion, and disappointment that each of us encounters between the ages of 1 and 99 years. We fall prey to so many manipulations of our hearts and minds:
Magazine Articles: Are You Too Much Woman for One Man?
Self-Help Books: Women who love too much - Men who love but just can't commit!
Country Music: "I never went home with an ugly girl, but I've woke up with one or two.
T.V. Talk Shows: I Slept With My Girlfriend's Mother's Cousin on the next Jerry Springer!
Misunderstandings: The Pope to Michelangelo: "When I said 'paint the
ceiling', I meant blue!
Rodney to Penelope: "When I said I loved you, I meant for the evening!
. ... ... and so on.
The Process of Interaction defines who we are (to others and
The "I" is the emergent product of prior interaction. With every interaction comes some learning, some development. The "me" is reflected behavior, generalized to the next interaction.
Thus, roles become objectified and idealized as they are learned, then performed, then adapted, then performed again over many, many iterations. At any point, we can stop and give details about our various roles, even though they are in-progress.
Consider this interaction model. You've seen it in other forms
before when, in the movies, a boy and girl are on a date and you can hear
their thoughts as well as what they say out loud:
S = our self-concept at any given time
B = our behavior, what we say.
P = our perceptions of other's responses
A = other's actual responses
The theory has it that: S is followed by B which is followed by A which is followed by P (the interaction process)
The nice thing about symbolic interaction theory is that it answers the Hobbesian Question--"If it is human nature to be aggressive, then why does not civilization end in an all out war of all against all?" Symbolic interaction allows that an unwritten code of conduct exists by virtue of our presence among our fellows.
It is through our interaction with others:
Three Big Ideas in SI Theory: Mind Self & Society
Mind uses symbols to designate objects in the environment, the meaning of which is completely constructed by each individual. Mind inhibits inappropriate lines of action by using imaginative rehearsals.
Self emerges as the individual acts symbolically toward himself
he self is simply a continually redefined role repertoire.
Society is organized patterns of interaction among diverse
Roles are similar enough in the collective of minds for empathy to take place.
Society is nothing more than the collective shared meaning of the rules by which we interact.
The interaction between the ever present society and all its social control agents, the developing self, and the individual mind that constantly mediates between social and personal mandates is also Mead's definition of symbolic interaction.
The Social Construction of Intimacy
Walster (1974) suggests that in order to experience passionate love, one must first have learned the proper meanings associated with specific physiological feelings."Your eyes meet, you smile warmly at each other, and as you approach one another, oblivious to those in the room, you begin to experience increased heart and respiration rates, flushing of the face, dryness of the mouth, and slight body tremors--lust or love at first sight."
Moving from strangers to intimates - we expect to fall in love, have
sex, and get married within well-recognized time frames. Adults often
characterize teenagers' first attempts at establishing an intimate relationship
as "puppy love", because they are socially defined as too young to experience
the real thing. They don't think so! On the other hand, persons who
remain unmarried past their late twenties may be considered "problems"
by parents, relatives, and friends. Society has a very narrow path
for us to think on. The Romantic Ideal has it that there is only
one person in all the world that we are meant to love
-that, although love is blind, we will recognize our true love at first sight. Though we are taught the romantic ideal, society provides us with many potential lovers.
For example, Kierkegaard thought the proposition that first love is
the true love to be very accommodating and could come to the aid of humankind
in various ways. If a man is not fortunate enough to get possession
of what he desires, then he still has the sweetness of the first love.
If a man is so unfortunate as to love many times, each time is still the
first love ... One loves many times, and each time one denies the
validity of the preceding times, one will maintain the correctness of the
proposition that one loves only once (1959).
Nice idea, but even Kierkegaard was smart enough never to pull that jazz in divorce court.
To understand how persons produce sustained human relationships, we must consider the subtle fashion in which persons "use" institutions that were not designed to function as meeting places for unmarrieds. We must consider how small stores, taverns, laundromats, clubs, and the like become places for establishing potentially intimate relationships. It is fair to infer that persons can tolerate only so much impersonality in their relationships. Perhaps at the height of feelings of depersonalization and lack of integration, persons will seek out alternatives in the environment to provide them with just the kinds of relationships they seem to be denied. As a person's needs demand it, they will assign new meanings to, and make different usages of, existing institutions. This is elegant evidence to prove that we are active participants in the construction of our social worlds.
We can even divide intimacy into several subcategories:
Tasks to be performed during the initial encounter are:
1. physical appearance (dress, grooming, stature).
2. observed behavior (readily observed behaviors we are willing to attribute to the person's self, or personality).
a. External situational determinants
b. Internal dispositional determinants
3. interaction possibilities--Is this one worth continuing with.
We often ignore those who have no power to meet our needs or influence
and make great effort to seek out those who do.
Self Presentation in Encounters: We work hard to make favorable impressions with those we want to impress--those we value. Impression Management is an activity, a task that we actively pursue. We try to control the impression we make by attending to how we look, what we say. Sights, sounds, smells, lighting, music, and also age, sex, race, ethnicity, social class, religion are socially defined for us. The requirements for friendship vary according to social class and status. Why is it that some persons maintain and owe very strong allegiances to the same friends throughout their lifetimes, while for others friendships are much more ephemeral and transitory, requiring few obligations?
So extensive and morally binding are the requirements of friendship that they often stand as an obstacle to occupational and educational advancement. Friends of career oriented business executives "on the make" are often short-lived and largely utilitarian. Friends were frequently cultivated for their potential value in hastening one's career rise. Such friends were forgotten once the aspiring executive moves up the corporate ladder. One must have the right friends.