Summary of Symbolic Interactionism

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Herbert Blumer, originator of the term symbolic interactionism, has a profound effect on sociological theory and methodology. A respected critic and devotee of George Herbert Mead, Blumer expounds with fervor on the importance of meaning to the individual as an acting entity, the primacy of direct empirical observation as a methodology, and the centrality of the definition of the situation”.


Blumer describes his discipline as follows “symbolic interactionism is a down-to-earth approach to the scientific study of human group life and human conduct. Its empirical world is the natural world of such group life and conduct. It lodges its problems in this natural world, conducts its studies in it, and derives its interpretations from such naturalistic studies.” According to him, symbolic interactionism rests on three primary premises first, human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings those things have for them, second, such meanings arise out of the interaction of the individual with others, and third, an interpretive process is used by the person in each instance in which he must deal with things in his environment.


Blumer thinks that the first premise is largely ignored, or at least down-played, by his contemporaries. If mentioned at all, he asserts, meaning is relegated to the status of a causative factor, or treated as “mere transmission link that can be ignored in favor of the initiating factors” by both sociologists and psychologists. Symbolic interactionism, however, holds the view that the central role in human behavior belongs to these very meanings which other viewpoints dismiss as incidental.


As to the second premise, Blumer identifies two traditional methods. The first method regards meaning as innate to the object considered. In this view, meaning is given and no process is involved in understanding it, and one needs only to recognize what is already there. The second method, otherwise, takes meaning as the cumulative psychical accretion of perceptions carried by the perceiver for whom the object has meaning. This psychical accretion is treated as being an expression of constituent elements of the person’s psyche, mind, or psychological organization. Different from these two traditional viewpoints, symbolic interactionism holds that meaning arises out of “the process of interaction between people, and the meaning of a thing for a person grows out of the ways in which other persons act toward the person with regard to the thing”, which is to say that the actions of others are instrumental in the formation of meaning for any given individual and in regard to any specific object.


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