Symbolic Interactionism

Social interactionism is a micro level theoretical approach focused on finding the relationship among the individual within a society. It deals with how people navigate their interaction with others and assign meaning based on their interpretation of those interactions. The concept focuses on the individual and society meaning-making focusing on human action instead of large-scale social structure. George Herbert Mead was considered as the founder of the theory. It carries the concepts that without subjective interpretation of objects the meaning is not complete. It focuses on subjective meaning that people impose on objectives, events and behaviour. Thus, it relies on the symbolic meaning that people developed and built at the time of social interaction. The main principles of symbolic interactionism are (Blumer, 1969):

  • Human beings act towards things on the basis of meaning that things have for them.
  • These meanings arise out of social interaction.
  • Social action results from a fitting together of individual lines of action.
  • Meaning are continuously created and recreated through interpreting process during interaction with other

The fundamental of symbolic interactionism framework is that human action and interaction are understandable only through the exchange of meaningful communication or symbols. Positivist approaches tended to examine society from “top to down” focusing on macro level institution, social individuals and they impose on and constrain individual but symbolic interactionism was developed to understand the operation of society from “bottom up” shifting the focus to micro-level process that emerge during face-to fact encounters in order to explain the operation of society (Carter & Fuller, 2015).

There are two thoughts in the framework .i.e. Chicago schools (Tradition Symbolic Interactionism) lead by Blumer and Iowa schools (Structural Symbolic Interactionism) lead by Kuhn. Blumer (1969) believes that people continuously construct their behaviour in the course of social action, the meaning and definitions that underlie social interaction and also undergo continuous reformulation. On the other hand, Kuhn (1964) accepts the position that social structure is created, maintained and altered through social interaction.  He asserted that once created structure constrains further interaction. He brought role and reference group ideas into his framework.

The theory can be applied in qualitative research in modern days. The research which used symbolic interaction looks at the pattern of interaction between individuals. It has often been identified as a theoretical framework for applied qualitative research but has limited to grounded theory where subjective judgments are based on in depth interview and participatory observation. The research study uses in-depth interviews or participants observation as main tools to understand the symbolic worlds based on social behaviour and interaction of individuals. Researchers using the symbolic interactionism look at divergent meanings people express on objects, interactions, and people, and corresponding behaviour that reflect this range of interpretations and try to explain the behaviour of each individual through the symbol by carefully studying the individual meaning of the objects and the action shown by the individual (Contain or narrative analysis methods). The researcher also tries to explore the basis such as social interaction which influences the participants to give the meaning of the things, and the events that change the meaning for that object or things using emic perspectives. During the study period the history of participants on that object is identified and the situation that changes the meaning of that object is identified. The research begins the research with a general objective by setting general questions. For the study, the researchers used qualitative methodology considering the emic perspective about objects defined by participants. The individual perceptions are explored to find out the meaning and action of the person from those objects. The research under symbolic interaction is used to compare with the social theory or macro view of behaviour. It also acts as the basis for the development of new theories.


Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspectives and Method. University of California Press.

Carter, M. J., & Fuller, C. (2015). Symbolic Interactionism. Sociopedia.isa. 10.1177/205684601561

Kuhn, M. H. (1964). Major Trends in Symbolic Interaction Theory in the Past Twenty-five Years. The Sociological Quarterly, 5, 61-86.

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