Symbolic Interactionist Perspectives
The conflict and functionalist perspectives have been criticized for focusing primarily on macrolevel analysis. A macrolevel analysis examines whole societies, large-scale social structures, and social systems instead of looking at important social dynamics in individuals' lives. Our third perspective. symbolic interaction ism. fills this void by examining people's day-to-day interactions and their behavior in groups us symbolic interactionist approaches are based on a microlevel analysis. which focuses 011 small groups rather than on large-scale social structures, We can trace the origins of this perspective to the Chicago School. especially George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer (1900-1986). who is credited with coining the term symbolic illtcmctiollism. According to symbolic interactionist perspectives, society is the
sum of the interactions of Individuals and groups. Theorists using this perspective focus on the process of interaction-defined as immediate reciprocally oriented communication between two or more people- and the part that symbols play in giving meaning to human communication. A symbol is anything that meaningfully represents something else. Examples of symbols include signs. gestures. written language. and shared values. Symbolic interaction occurs when people communicate through the use of symbols; for example. a gift of food-a cake or a casserole-to a newcomer in a neighborhood is a symbol of welcome and friendship. Hut symbolic communication occurs in a variety of forms. including facial gestures, posture. tone of voice. and other symbolic gestures (such as a handshake or a clenched.+
Symbols are instrumental in helping people derive meanings from social situations. In social encounters, each person's interpretation or definition of a given situation becomes a subjective reality from that person's viewpoint. We often assume that what we consider to be "reality" is shared by others; however, this assumption is often incorrect. Subjective reality is acquired and shared through agreed-upon symbols, especially language. If a person shouts "Fire!" in a crowded movie theater, for example, that language produces the same response (attempting to escape) in all of those who hear and understand it. When people in a group do not share the same meaning for a given symbol, however, confusion results; for example. people who did not know the meaning of the wordfire would not know wl-ar the commotion was about.they encounter becomes their subjective reality and may strongly influence their behavior.
Symbolic interactionists attempt to study how people make sense of.their life situations and the way they go about their activities. in conjunction with others. on a day-to-day basis (Prus, 1996). How do people develop the capacity to think and act in socially prescribed ways? According to symbolic interactionists, our thoughts and behavior are shaped by our social in will Ethanol)rists such as Charles H. Cooley and George Herbert Mead explored how individual personalities are developed from social experience and concluded that we would not have an identity without.communication will help people. This idea is developed in Cooley's netic . of the "looking-glass self" and Mead's "generalized other," as discussed in Chapter 4 ("Sodation"). From this perspective, the attainment of language is essential not only for the development of a "self" but also for establishing common understandings about social life.
How do symbolic interactionists view social organization and the larger society? According to symbolic interactionists, social organization and society are possible only through people's everyday interactions. In other words, group life takes its shape as people interact with one another (Blumer. 1986/1969). Although macro level factors such as economic and political institutions constrain and define the forms of interaction that we have with others, the social world is dynamic and always changing. Chapter 5 ("Society, Social Structure, and Interaction") explores two simi- 1ar approaches-rational choice and exchange theories- that focus specifically on how people rationally try to get what they need by exchanging valued resources with others. As we attempt to present ourselves to others in a particular way,we engage in behavior that the sociologist Erving Goffman (I 959) referred to as "impression management." Chapter 5 also presents some of Goffman's ideas, including dramaturgical analysis, which envisions that individuals go through their life somewhat like actors performing on a stage, playing out their roles before other people. Symbolic interactionism involves both a theoretical perspective-and specific research methods, such as observation, participant observation, and interviews, that focus on individual and small-group behavior (see Chapter 2, "Sociological Research Methods").