Interactionism theory is also known as symbolic interactionism or interactionist perspective/theory. Interactionism views society as the product of everyday interactions of individuals (the actors) and these interactions are based on mutually understood symbols.
Unlike functionalism theory which focuses on large social structures and conflict theory that focus on fundamental conflicts or division in society, interactionism focus on a smaller level (i.e. micro-scale social phenomena such as social interactions) acknowledging that humans have agency and are not influenced by forces outside their control and therefore, create their own meanings about the social world through interactions with each other. So, interactionism places individual actors at the center and focuses on the subjective meaning he attaches to the social situation and this meaning becomes the social reality.
Symbolic interactionism theory asserts that society is composed of symbols and can be understood and analyzed by addressing the subjective meanings that people attach to objects, events, and behaviors that they consider as symbols. Subjective meanings are given primacy because it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively (actually) true.
Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. For e.g. why would young people smoke cigarettes even when all objective medical evidence points to the dangers of doing so? The answer is in the definition of the contextual situation that people create. Studies find that teenagers are well informed about the risks of tobacco, but they also think that smoking is cool and that smoking gives a positive image to their peers.
So, the symbolic meaning of smoking overrides those actual facts regarding smoking and risk. Other aspects like nice and gender can also be understood through the interactionist perspective. Though the objective truth is that race simply means people of different origin but the skin, color (which is a symbol) has been given meaning such as lighter skin, Latinos are better than the darker-skinned blacks.
Similarly, gender is produced and reinforced through daily interactions. The meaning is attached to the symbols ‘man” as masculine and ‘woman’ as feminine and therefore in while approaching for loans in the bank, one would use logical appeal/request to a male loan officer whereas one would use an emotional appeal to a female loan officer. So, one-act towards the loan officers on the basis of meanings derived through social interactions.
Interactionists see symbols as an especially important part of human communication. They consider that humans live in a world of symbols. The meanings attached to symbols are socially constructed and is contextual. For e.g. both a ‘clenched fist’ and a ‘salute’ have a social meaning which is shared and understood by the members of society. In Nepal, a salute symbolizes respect, while a clenched fist signifies defiance. However, in another culture different gestures might be used to convey a feeling of respect or defiance.
Interactionism is also concerned with the social context in which our interactions take place. The social context not only plays an important role in the way we interpret others’ behavior but also how we choose to behave ourselves at any given moment.
The origin of interactionism can be traced to Max Weber’s work, who recognized that small-scale interactions, people’s beliefs, and values influenced human behavior and actions. Later, this theory was advanced by American sociologists George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer in the early 20th century.
Methods Used by Interactionism
The symbolic interactionist perspective is more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research the actors/subjects live. The symbolic-interactionists look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions.
For e.g. while a conflict theorist studying a political protest might focus on class difference, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in how individuals in the protesting group interact, as well as the signs and symbols protesters use to communicate their message.
Assumptions of Interactionist Perspective
Basic Tenets or Premises or Propositions or Bases or Notion or Key Aspects of Interactionism Theory
The main assumptions of interactionism theory are:
- Interactionism focuses on social interactions (behavior) in everyday life situations.
- This theory views society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals.
- Emphasizes the importance of understanding the social world from the individual points of view i.e. places individual actors at the center and considers his interpretation of the social world as a social reality.
- Focuses on how people view, describe, and explain shared meanings underlying everyday social life.
- Emphasizes on cognitive (common sense) aspect.
- This theory is based on micro-level theoretical orientation.
Weakness or Criticism of Interactionist Theory
- Interactionism theory is criticized for too much emphasis on micro-level analysis; neglect of larger social processes and issues (such as socialization, competition, globalization, westernization, etc.) on which human behaviors depend. It means they focus on the trees than the forest.
- This theory is also criticized for neglecting the influence of large social forces and institutions on individual interactions.
- The findings of research done from the interactionist perspective require scrutiny because of the subjective analysis.
Contributors of Interactionism
Interactionism of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
Mead was an American sociologist. The root of the interactionist perspective was grounded in the philosophy of pragmatism and social behaviorism developed by Mead. He explored how our personalities (i.e. our attitude, behavior, and actions) develop as a result of social experiences. He gave three ideas critical to symbolic interactionism:
- The focus on the interaction between the individuals (the actor) and the world.
- A view of both the actor and the world as dynamic processes and not static structures.
- The actor’s ability to interpret the social worlds.
Major Works of Mead:
- Mind, Self, and Society (1934)
- The Philosophy of the Act (1938)
- The Philosophy of the Present (1932)
Symbolic Interactionism of Herbert Blumer (1900-1987)
Drawing from Mead’s theory, another American sociologist, Herbert Blumer, coined the phrase “symbolic interactionism’ in 1937 and defined it. He believed that individuals create a social reality through collective and individual action and also argued that the creation of social reality is a continuous process.
In his book titled Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (1986), Blumer laid out three basic premises of this theory.
- Humans act toward people and things based on the meaning they attach to them. For e.g. when we sit at the table at a restaurant, we expect that those who approach us will be employees and because of this, we answer the questions regarding the menu, such as take our orders and bring us food and drink.
- The meanings humans attach to people or objects or symbols arise out of social interaction between them, which means that meaning is not inherent in the object itself but it is us, who construct the meaning of something. For e.g. based on the prior social interactions in which we have the meaning of restaurant employees has been established, expectations of what it means to be a customer in a restaurant.
- The meaning-making and understanding is an ongoing interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounter but the meaning may change according to context. For e.g. in some restaurants, if the waitress informs us that food is served buffet-style, then her meaning shifts from someone who will take our order and bring us food to someone who simply directs us toward food.
Blumer believed that what creates society itself is people engaging in social interaction. The symbolic interactionist perspective reveals that reality as we perceive it is a social construct produced through ongoing social interaction, and only exists within a given social context.
Major works of Blumer:
- Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (1986)