How Symbols Form Reality: Symbolic Interactionism

By: Sarah Scott

Theory Synopsis 

Symbolic Interactionism is the study of how people interpret symbols from society in order to create social world in which the symbols dictate how the individual sees themselves and their roles in interacting with society. George Herbert Mead was the first one to propose the theory in the 1920s. Other theorists have built on the theory as well, including theorists such as, Charles Cooley, Max Weber, and Emmanuel Levinas, and Herbert Blumer, who was Mead’s student. Blumer was the one to actually termed the theory, “Symbolic Interactionism,” and organized the theory by giving it three major tenets: meaning, language, and thinking. Meaning is what people give to symbols and objects, language, both written and oral, is what we use to communicate and create that meaning, and thinking is where we are able to perceive what we think others think and then decide what to do with this perception of ourselves. 

George Herbert Mead posited that symbols are the things that make up society, and that the individual is shaped by interactions with others in their society and will then be able to look at themselves and change themselves in response. Mead said that humans are able to change their view of the social world through what he called, “minding,” which is when humans are able to think through what will happen if they take a certain action. This the individual running through how a certain dialogue will play out, and they then act based on how they think that other people will perceive that action. Mead called this “taking the role of the other,” in which we can think about what other’s perceptions will be. From this, we are able to form a “looking-glass” version of ourselves, created by what we think other’s perceptions of us are. This “looking-glass” version of ourselves is called “me,” while the part of us that would be the true version of ourselves is called “I.” However, “I” is something that would be hard to find since the view of self is always being changed by us taking on other’s perceptions of ourselves, a socially constructed, “me.” 

Concept Map

Sometimes, it can be beneficial to know how the two are at work at least in some fashion. Paul Hughes (2012) wrote a study about how he had to look at both “I” and “me” in his diagnosis of having Asperger’s Syndrome. Hughes had to look at how he saw himself with his diagnosis, and how he could create better friendships with others by presenting a “me” that would be better received by others. He had to take the role of others in order to find out how others perceived him and then how they would be perceive him if he decided to add more conversational phrases into his daily life even if these conversational phrases didn’t make sense to his sense of “I.” Thus, knowing the difference between “I” and “me” can become very beneficial even if we can never truly know our true sense of “me.”  

Our sense of “I” is not just affected by those close to us, but our sense of “I” can also be influenced by a society at large, becoming what Mead called a “generalized other.” This generalized other can even be a society of those we talk to online. According to Simon Evans (2012), virtual interactions are also able to create a virtual other that we can look at ourselves through, and the process is helped through our having avatars that help to give a physical presence to connect with.  

April Chatham-Carpenter (2006) wrote about how our sense of “I” can also be affected by our perception of us by a divine other in addition to societal others. Chatham-Carpenter conducted a study of women to see how they perceived their self-confidence in relationship to what they perceived a divine other to think about them. The women who felt that they had a positive connection to a divine other felt that they build their confidence on this. Meanwhile the women who felt that their connection to a divine other was negative felt that their confidence was lower. 

Of course, our thoughts are just our perceptions of reality. They are not always correct since they are what we assume others to think of us. When we assume these perceptions are true, sometimes we can accidently cause them to come true in a self-fulfilling prophesy. Phiona Stanley (2008) wrote about how these perceptions led to a self-fulfilling prophesy for Chinese university students, who were learning English from “Western,” teachers. The students collectively thought that Western teachers were fun but not effective. As a result, the “Western” teachers mistakenly thought that this is what the students wanted out of them, and then acted this way, only reinforcing the perception. The Chinese students created their own self-fulfilling prophesy by already having perceptions of how a group of people were supposed to act. 

Levinas added to the theory by talking about the “ethical echo” in which the self is formed by looking at the “face of the other” and being reminded that we have a duty to care for other human beings. The face of the other is thought to be a reminder of being created in the image of God, and that reminder causes humans to remember to treat each other ethically. Arnett speaks of how in spite of evil, even the kind of evil that Levinas faced in Nazi Germany, that humans still have a symbolic need to care for each other. 

This theory looks at how people create and communicate using tangible and intangible symbols and symbolic language. It is used to figure out how people, individuals, groups, organizations, and even countries form their own senses of identities, and how this interaction creates this shared meaning and reality for people. Knowing the symbolic nature of different people and groups will help to foster better relationships between people and groups.

Theory-in-Action

Example 1: Language

Language is a big factor in how we create a common reality between groups of people, and with the invention of the printing press language was able to convey ideas among a larger amount of people. This is why the written word is so important, and different languages were formed to convey ideas. While English is written using an alphabetic system, the Chinese writing system was based on a pictograph system that has evolved over time from more of a rudimentary picture to a symbol that stands in for the idea that the picture used to stand for. 

This YouTube video goes through how the human brain looks for patterns and creates meaning in them. It talks about how the Chinese writing system started and takes you through the evolution of the Chinese writing system. This shows how written language has evolve to fit societally constructed norms.

Example 2: Society

In this clip, the character Seven of Nine from the television show Voyager is doing exactly that, coming from a group where the group dictates every action and is deemed more important than what the individual wants. Since she has lived amongst the collectivist group her whole life, she finds it hard and strange to fit in with individualistic, human culture. In this clip, she learns how to eat like a human and even learns that it is a custom to sit down while eating. 

This next video is a more practical application of when two cultures come together. It is especially useful for use when someone has decided to live among a whole different group with a different culture and language in another country. In that case, the person living among the new group will inevitably start to feel the others’ perception as being different, and they will think and change to fit in with a new reality.

Example 3: Looking-Glass Self

The looking-glass self, “me” is created from the reality that we find ourselves, and we reflect the culture we live in because we are constantly thinking about the perceptions of those around us. We are constantly trying to find out if we measure up to these perceptions and expectations, and whether we should even try to measure up to these perceptions. 

This clip from Mulan shows her trying to fit in with her society, which is telling her that women are only a part of their society to get married and have sons. She battles back and forth in the movie between how she sees herself and how society sees her. The main song even talks about how Mulan is looking at her reflection (looking-glass) to try to figure out if one day she will be the person she wants to be or if she will always stay the person her society wants her to be.

Additional Resources

1: Symbol Formation

The following video has two people talking back and forth talking about how symbols are formed, and why it matters to clearly identify what the symbol means to each person. They talk about how conflict can arise otherwise because as they say symbols are polysemous and can be interpreted in many ways. So, it would be better to start off with the definition so that the conflict won’t arise. They give many examples of how the theory is used in practical situations.

2: Socialization

This video talks about how socialization and the perceptions of the generalized others tell us how to act in the group of people we are in. It talks about how the looking-glass self is created, and how our perceptions of others’ thoughts can influence how we act. It talks about how we think about how others’ are judging or thinking about us, and this is what we are acting on and not actually peoples’ actual perceptions of us.

3 Symbolic Interactionism: In this clip on YouTube, it talks about how symbolic interactionism works and a short history of the theory. It talks about how meaning is ascribed to things, objects, and ideas and the tenets that Blumer came up with. The video talks about social interactions leading to our re-evaluation of a reality, and how this meaning can be changed based on these interactions.

Final Thoughts

Symbolic Interactionism is good for showing how groups of people construct realities, and how they interact inside of their groups, using symbols and language to communicate these symbols. These groups can range from individuals interacting to people in organizations to different cultures around the globe interacting to create social realities. Knowing how these realities are created will help us to understand how to effectively understand how symbols are created and then break them down so that we can understand where other people are coming from.

Theory Handout

Front

Back

References

Arnett, R. (2004). A dialogic ethic “between” Buber and Levinas: A responsive ethical “I.” In R. Anderson, L. A. Baxter, K. N. Cissna, & J. T. Wood (Eds.), Dialogue: Theorizing difference in communication studies. Sage. 

Charles Cooley looking glass self. (2015). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bU0BQUa11ek 

Chatham-Carpenter, A. (2006). Internal self-esteem: God a symbolic interactionism’s “significant other”? Journal of Communication & Religion, 29(1), 103–126. 

Evans, S. (2012). Virtual selves, real relationships: An exploration of the context and role for social interactions in the emergence of self in virtual environments. Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science, 46(4), 512–528. 

The evolution of Chinese character 老 or old. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3MXw3s3JQg 

Griffin, Em. A First Look at Communication Theory (p. 41). McGraw-Hill Higher Education. Kindle Edition. 

Hughes, P. (2012). An autoethnographic approach to understanding Asperger’s syndrome: A personal exploration of self-identity through reflexive narratives. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 40(2), 94–100. 

The interactionist approach to language acquisition. (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KF-B3-evNJs 

Initial culture shock in Korea. (2016). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bZMFdxT_oLg 

Klerk, S., & Verreynne, M. (2017). The networking practices of women managers in an emerging economy setting: Negotiating institutional and social barriers. Human Resource Management Journal, 27(3), 477–501. https://doi.org/10.1111/1748-8583.12151 

Merida wins her own hand by skill of archery in “Brave” (2013). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sWbxhKTbTkA 

Mulan matchmaker clip. (2013). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPa0TiCuvR4&feature=youtu.be 

Nugent, P. D., & Flynn, J. (2020). Reviving organizational culture with the concept of tradition: A symbolic interactionist perspective. International Journal of Business & Applied Sciences, 9(1), 54. 

Part 1- introduction to Chinese characters (2012). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s0h18Rdhb44 

Stanley, P. (2008). “The foreign teacher is an idiot”: Symbolic interactionism, and assumptions about language and language teaching in China. Linguistics & the Human Sciences, 4(1), 67–89. 

Sternheimer, K. (2011). Retrieved from: https://www.everydaysociologyblog.com/2011/12/symbolic-interactionism-on-the-road.html 

Seven of Nine eats food. (2010). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivtHsJYO9mA 

Symbolic interactionism. (2013). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ux2E6uhEVk0 

Symbolic interactionism examples in everyday life. (2020). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dME_AyNmmec 

While you were sleeping – full episode 1 & 2. (2017). Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WLZRDbeWLg0&feature=youtu.be&t=1618  

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