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Explain the importance of ‘symbolic interaction’ to the relationship between the Individual and Society Wayne Barry


According to Manis and Meltzer (1972) the concept of ‘symbolic interactionism’ is concerned with “the ‘inner’, or phenomenological aspects of human behaviour”. What they meant was that human behaviour was somehow defined, not from within the person, but from their social interaction. Symbolic Interaction involves three basic premises. First, individuals respond to the environment on the basis of the meanings that objects, or symbols, of the environment have for them as individuals. Second, such meanings are a product of social interaction; and third, these social / cultural meanings are modified through individual interpretation within the sphere of this shared interaction. These ‘symbols’ take on many aspects or facets, such as language, gestures, nonverbal communication (popularly referred to as body language), clothes, hair styles, colour of clothes, fashion accessories, the nuances and tones of the voice, gender, occupation, race. All these symbols are open to personal interpretation. Depending on how we interpret, or unlock, these symbolic codes, determines a particular action or course of events. By way of an illustration, lets take a man and a women in a room, the man lights a candle. To the casual observer this could mean many things: 1. the room has no gas or electricity, so the candle provides a source of light and warmth; 2. the candle was lit as a prelude to an evening of intimacy; 3. there may be a religious significance attached to it; 4. perhaps they are celebrating a birthday, or anniversary, or some other special occasion. In each case a different interpretation and meaning is given to the act of lighting a candle. To understand the act, it is therefore necessary to discover the meaning held by the ‘actors’ involved. Another example is the use of uniform or a particular style of clothing, these symbols means different things in different environments. Lets take a woman in a white lab coat, the white lab coat could indicate that she is a lab technician, or a cleaner, or an industrial worker, or a doctor. Further information is needed to ascertain what these symbolic codes mean. For example, if the woman was on a factory floor handling confectionery, we could assume she was an industrial worker. On the other hand if she was in an hospital and had a prop, such as a stethoscope, you could assume she was a doctor. Such additional symbols like props and settings are needed to help put the symbolic jigsaw puzzle in place and in the correct order and sequence. Likewise, the colour of one’s dress could indicate to people your personality or current mood. For example, red could mean aggressive and brash; blue could mean analytical and precise; green could indicate laid-back and passive; whereas grey could tell us that the person was reassuringly conformist. All these examples are symbols 2|Page

that have meaning and value, they are, of course, open to interpretation. That interpretation is derived from society’s common dictionary of symbols. That is, these symbols are known to us all as they are common-place. The notion of symbolic interaction comes from the work of three main theorists Cooley, Mead, and Goffman - who conceived their theories about the development of self through the individual’s social interaction with others and society. Charles Cooley (1912) derived the concept of the “looking-glass self”, whereby the individual would use other people, as a metaphorical mirror, to see what they believed others thought of them. Therefore, the looking glass reflected the imagined evaluation of others about one self. George Herbert Mead (1934) argued that it was the social nature of the human being that held the key to understanding personality. According to Mead, personality underwent three stages of development: the preparatory stage during infancy, where a small child mimics the behaviour of those around it without understanding what the actions are about. This eventually leads to the play stage, where the child acts out whole social roles rather than simple ones, like pretending to be ‘mummies and daddies’ or ‘doctors and nurses’. By playing the roles of its significant others does the child begin to understand what is appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. The final stage - the game stage - involves integrating all the different roles that the child has ever played, and these different roles become one coherent whole. As a consequence, it is the way we interact, not with the individual personalities but with the role that we are playing, and what is symbolised by that role. To do this, Mead suggested that the self was essentially a social process within the individual involving two distinguishing components: the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’, a concept originally conceived by William James (1890). This allowed the individual to be able to predict the other members behaviour, as well as the others predicting one’s own behaviour. Not only are objects, actions, and characteristics defined - given some shared meaning and value - but the individual is also so defined . Mead felt that the definition of oneself as a specific role-player in a given relationship or situation, was accomplished by recognising and sharing the meanings and values others have of you. Therefore, the ‘Me’ attribute is seen as representing the incorporated ‘other’ within the individual; and the ‘I’ attribute is the perception of oneself reflected by the shared meanings and values of ‘others’. Both ‘Me’ and ‘I’ make up the essence of self. Erving Goffman (1952), argued that the individual is multi-dimensional - having many facets to their personality - one of which would come to the fore in response to a particular situation, or with a like group of individuals. This dominant personality would then be ‘acted out’ in front of others. These different facets of their personality reflected the different type of social roles they played.


It is this notion of role-playing that prompt symbolic interactionists to use such analogies as “wearing of hats”, or “wearing of masks” to imply that we are all performing a part in front of others. Similarly the oft-quoted line from William Shakespeare’s As you Like it is used to conjure up the image of acting a part in front of others: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women

merely players. They have their exits and entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts…” Whilst the previous section looked at the importance of symbolic interaction, the next section will see how that importance is placed in the relationship between the individual and society. The development of one self is constantly dynamic, never static, where the individual continuously modifies and revises their definition of a particular situation; and rehearses alternative courses of action and considers their possible consequences (Blumer, 1969). This act cannot be done by oneself alone. This is done through the interaction between the individual and the society they live in, each passing symbolic information to the other, each interpreting it, each acting on it. Mead coined the phrase “generalised other” to describe a group of people, or a team to make the distinction between the individual and society. For Mead, the ‘generalised other’ gave the individual “his unity of self”. Mead goes on to say: “The attitude of the generalised other is the attitude of the whole community” To Mead, as in John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, “no man is an island”. It is society that gives shape and meaning to individual self-conceptualisation. Without society the individual cannot find themselves an identity or a ‘role’ to play. Cooley strongly believed that: “self and society are twin born... and the notion of a

separate and independent ego is an illusion.” Like Cooley, Mead felt that individuals and society were inseparable, one couldn’t possible exist without the other, he says: “We cannot be ourselves unless we are also members in

whom there is a community of attitudes which control the attitudes of all. We cannot have rights unless we have common attitudes. That which we have acquired as self-conscious persons makes us members of society and gives us selves. Selves can only exist in definite relationships to other selves.” 4|Page

Both Mead and Goffman suggests that the self-conscious individual takes on or assumes the organised social attitudes of a given social group or community to which they belong to. For example, the soldier takes on the collective role and attributes of his fellow soldiers, so that they can co-ordinate themselves as a team. The politician identifies himself with a particular political party, and takes on their collective attitudes and agenda. So when the politician meets with members of society, he assumes a role and reacts, or responds, in terms of the collective attitudes of the party as a whole. He is, in fact, an extension of the collective party machine. Goffman goes further, he argues that within Western society an organised group of individuals perform in one of two ways: formal and informal. When the group is “backstage”, they tend to let their “masks slip”, they are more informal and relaxed towards each other, perhaps using first name, having a joke, or smoking, etc. But when the group is “on stage”, the masks are put back on, and a more formal and respectful air is adopted towards another group of people. The social sanctions, demands, rationales and models of society are gradually translated into personal values, and incorporated in the self-concept. As a result, the individual comes to respond to themselves and develop self-attitudes that are consistent with those expressed by others in their world. He value himself as others value them; he demeans himself to the extent that others reject, ignore, or demean him. Symbolic Interaction hoped to address an area that was largely ignored by other theories, that of self and society being entwined - an almost symbiotic relationship. Since Freudian psychoanalysis placed emphasis on the mind, but did little to take into account of society; so Behaviourism takes into account the environment [society] but not that of the individual. However, Symbolic Interactionism itself has come under strong scrutiny and has its’ critics. They argue that interactionists tend to focus on small scale face to face interaction with little concern or regard for its historical or social setting. They have concentrated on particular situations and encounters with little reference to the historical events which lead up to them, or the wider social framework in which they occur. Since these factors influence the particular interaction situation, the scant attention they have received has been regarded as a serious omission. Another criticism, is that interactionists have failed to explain the source of the meanings that they have attached such importance to. These meanings are not spontaneously created in interaction situations, but have been systematically generated by social structure. Again the interactionist largely fail to explain why people consistently choose to act in given ways in certain situations, instead of all the other ways they might possibly have acted. In other words, how does standardised normative behaviour come about? And why are members of society motivated to act in terms of social norms? Unfortunately, these questions tend to get glossed over or side-stepped. 5|Page

Despite its short-comings, symbolic interactionism is a serious attempt to re-dress the balance between the individual and society. That they are mutually exclusive. The individual uses his environment and social interaction with others to help find himself. By attaching meanings to symbols or objects, he paints a picture of himself through others, who, in turn, paint a picture of him.


Bibliography Blumer, H., (1969). Symbolic Interactionism, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall Burns, R., (1982). Self-Concept Development and Education, Eastbourne: Holt, Rinehart and Winston Cooley, C.H., (1912). Human Nature and the Social Order, New York: Scribners Goffman, E., (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin Books Gross, R.D., (1992).Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour, London: Hodder & Stoughton Haralambos, M., with Heald, R.M., (1980). Sociology: Themes & Perspectives, Slough: U.T.P. Hayes, N., (1994). Foundations of Psychology: An Introductory Text, London: Routledge James, W., (1890). Principles of Psychology, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston McCall, G.J., & Simmons, J.L., (1966). Identities and Interactions, London: CollierMacmillan Manis, J.G., & Meltzer, B.N., (eds.) (1972). Symbolic Interaction, (2nd Ed.), Boston: Allyn & Bacon Mead, G.H., (1934). Mind, Self and Society, Chicago: University of Chicago Press


Explain the importance of ‘symbolic interaction’