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Symbolic Interactionism G.H Mead: Mind, Self, and Society. “The self is something which has a development; it is not initially there, at birth, but arises in the process of social experience and activity, that is, develops in the given individual as a result of his relations to that process as a whole and to other individuals in that process” (Mead 1934: 135).To explain how the self develops, Mead distinguished between the “I” and the “Me” as two relational components of the self. The “I” is the (subjective) acting self and is only able to act because the “I” internalizes the attitudes toward the “Me” (as an object) that I receive from others’ behavior toward me. I know who I am and I know how to respond and behave in a given situation only because I have learned from others’ attitudes toward me (the self that I am aware of) and how they behave (as selves) in a similarly given situation or in a common social activity or undertaking (ibid. 155). Thus Mead states: “The ‘I’ reacts to the self which arises through the taking of the attitudes of others. Through taking those attitudes we have introduced the ‘Me’ and we react to it as an ‘I’” (1934: 174). “The ‘I’ does not get into the limelight; we talk to ourselves, but do not see ourselves”; we see the “Me” through how others see us as indicated by their attitudes toward me. The “I’ “is the response of the organism to the attitudes of others” (ibid. 175), and these others may be the immediate others in my environment (family, teachers, friends), or a more “generalized other,” society or the community as a whole (ibid. 154). C. H. Cooley: The looking-glass self: When we look at ourselves in the mirror, Cooley reminds us: “As we see our face, figure, and dress in the [looking-]glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it. A self-idea [self-image] of this sort seems to have three principal elements: the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance; and some sort of selffeeling, such as pride or mortification [shame]….The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind. This is evident from the fact that the character and weight of that other, in whose mind we see ourselves, makes all the difference with our feeling. We are ashamed to seem evasive in the presence of a straightforward man, cowardly in the presence of a brave one, gross in the eyes of a refined one, and so on. We always imagine, and in imagining share, the judgment of the other mind” (1998 [1902]: 164-165). As a theoretical perspective then, symbolic interactionism (SI) emphasizes that society is an ongoing process of symbolic interaction as we continuously interpret and respond to the cues communicated to us by others. According to Herbert Blumer, SI rests on three basic premises: “The first premise is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them [including other human beings and physical things in the person’s environment, social institutions.] The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has


with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” (Blumer 1969: 2).

Building on the insights of George H. Mead, symbolic interactionism (SI) emphasizes that society is an ongoing process of symbolic interaction wherein we continuously interpret and respond to the gestures and cues communicated to us in and by our social environment. According to Herbert Blumer, SI rests on three basic premises: “The first premise is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them [including other human beings and physical things in the person’s environment, social institutions.] The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative [interpretive] process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters” (Blumer 1969: 2). Points to know •

George H. Mead (1863-1931) emphasized that:

The self is a reflective, thinking self

The self is an object to itself

Individuals communicate through language, gestures, and other symbols

Symbols are universally shared

The self is comprised of the “I” and the “Me”

“The ‘I’ is the response of the organism to the attitudes of others


The “Me” is the taking on of the attitudes of others

The “I” thus talks to and reacts to the “Me” •

Charles H. Cooley (1864-1929)

The looking-glass self; we see ourselves through how (imagined) others see us •

Herbert Blumer (1900-1987)

A student of Mead’s

Coined the term “Symbolic Interactionism” (SI)

Social interaction is the interpretation of symbols, gestures & language

Society: An ongoing process of symbolic interaction

We take our cues from others; assess the type of behavior that is expected

The best way to deepen our understanding of group life is through onthe-ground, systematic observation

ERVING GOFFMAN: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). “When an individual plays a part he implicitly requests his observers to take seriously the impression that is fostered before them. They are asked to believe that the character they see actually possesses the attributes he appears to possess, that the task he performs will have the consequences that are implicitly claimed for it, and that in general, matters are what they appear to be” (1959: 17). Whether in the classroom, the cafeteria, or on the street, and regardless of whether we want to communicate or not, we can not stop communicating. We may cease talking


but our body idiom (body language and display) continues to communicate with those around us. It cannot say nothing (Goffman, Behavior in Public Places, 1963: 35). Indeed, so long as there is even one person co-present, there is “a normative obligation to convey certain information and not to convey other impressions, just as others present must too. …when individuals come into one another’s immediate presence in circumstances where no spoken communication is called for, they none the less inevitably engage one another in communication of a sort, for in all situations, significance is ascribed to certain matters that are not necessarily connected with particular verbal communications. These comprise bodily appearance and personal acts: dress, bearing, movement and position, sound level, physical gestures such as waving or saluting, facial decorations, and broad emotional expression. In every society, these communication possibilities are institutionalized….Half aware that a certain aspect of his activity is available for all present to perceive, the individual tends to modify this activity, employing it with its public character in mind….a body symbolism, an idiom of individual appearance and gestures that tends to call forth in the actor what it calls forth in the others…immediately present” (1963: 35, 33-34).

Erving Goffman (1922-1982)

Dramaturgical perspective; metaphor of drama

Face-to-face interaction – the reciprocal influence of individuals upon one another’s actions when in one another’s immediate physical presence


Role – the enactment of rights and duties attached to a given status (student, son) and performed on a series of occasions to the same kinds of audience

Performance – all the activity of a given participant on a given occasion which serves to influence in any way any of the other participants

Audience – observers and co-participants and any one who contribute the other performances

The front – that part of the individual’s performance which regularly functions in a general and fixed fashion to define the situation for those who observe the performance

Setting – the stage and scenery in which a role performance is given

Props - contribute to defining the situation; can include insignia of office, personal clothing and gestures

Definition of the situation –how we infer the type of behavior that is expected in a given situation and in this assessment, how we control the conduct of others, especially their response to us, through the expressions we give and give off

Impression management; first impressions are crucial because they set up the definition of the situation; through impression management we make implicit and explicit claims as to how we should be treated

Front-stage behavior – role behavior in the place where the performance is given (e.g., waitresses perform for guests in the dining room in a restaurant)


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Back-stage behavior – behavior in the staging area for the front region behavior whereby actors do the preparatory work to ensure a successful performance

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Individuals and organizations impose particular frames on everyday life in order to negotiate selectively among all the simultaneously occurring activities and events


Symbolic Interactionism