Social Theory. Symbolic Interactionism


Symbolic Interaction – while focussing upon the human behaviour is a triangle of meaning, language and thoughts. That indicates that only through interpretation, definition, and meaning attachment it is possible to manipulate symbols, irrespective of an individual being ‘creative’ or ‘narrow-minded’ (Clarke, 1997). Humans build up their personalities in context with the triangle as they socialize themselves into the society with the help of these three key aspects. Meaning is the basic principle through which people construct their social realities or through meaning, an event arises from social interaction.

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Through meaning it is easier for the individual to be perceived in the best possible manner in front of the society. Though in this manner the oppressed group are unable to present themselves in an impressive manner, but psychologically and socially by adopting an attitude they utilize their best of efforts to overcome their tyranny. This perspective can be characterized by assumptions that the meaning of both the society and the self is constructed by individuals who through social interaction, wants to be in the good books of society and that the unit of analysis is not the individual but interacting persons (Hare at al, 1988, p. 14).

The social reality belonging to symbolic self-completion arises through the individual’s behaviour being acknowledged for possessing a self-definition. Such oppressive groups being aware of their social reality acts within the symbolic self-completion process which is that of advancing the completeness of the self-definition. Though there is no issue of accuracy or stability of their existing self-conception, but still for the sake of their self-esteem they unconsciously want to be superior from other individuals.

Such oppressive groups instead of utilizing their resources on the long term aims, focuses on attaining some position in the society which they do through unnecessary self-descriptions, persuading others, emphasizing past consequences of relevant actions, behaving exactly in line with the way people with that self-definition behave, and surrounding oneself with elements conducive to the relevant actions. Hence oppressive groups behave in an unstructured manner, following an unstructured situation so as to present a fake but powerful personality in front of the society.

Reasoning behind ‘Meaning’, ‘language’ and ‘thoughts’

The main reason behind the suppression of individuals following ‘Symbolic Interaction’ is that such individuals because of a downtrodden life set up their priorities, which in their own way is no less than an achievement. Now that their foremost priority is to satisfy their egoist needs for which they often don’t set their long term goals or practices. This indicates that in order to fulfil their foremost priority they give preference to their egoist needs. Such needs don’t simply allow them to go for some long-term accomplishments due to which they compromise not with the society or with their ego. But with their goals. That means in order to satisfy their egoist demands; they go to the extent where their goals are of no importance to them than to satisfy their never ending ego.

On a superficial level one could view symbolic self-completion theory as a concept about movement toward a certain kind of goal, whereby progress is marked off by the individual in terms of symbolic indicators. However, this overlooks the socially-defined nature of the goals and opens a gateway of pessimism. Characterized by negativity, oppressed individuals are leaded by a strong sense of ego-involvement; they are psychologically characterised by maintaining their self-esteem, like their self-symbolizing makes psychological sense only if there exists another person, on whom the self-symbolizing can register. This also goes with what Baldwin suggests that self-esteem is the sophisticated form of attitude, which arises when those around her approve herself (Harter, 1999).

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Victorian women since childhood have been used to influence those around them; therefore on reaching a maturity level they are well aware of their status and are in a habit of influencing those who are weaker than them. The symbol used by Victorian women is not a physical event and it is not a marker of progress by itself. Rather the symbol is the vehicle for setting up reactions in others.

They feel their ego satisfied when they perceive that their ‘meaning’ of representing themselves is acknowledged as a symbol by the rest of the society, simply through their recognition of the self-symbolize as having a degree of completeness, become the markers of progress. It is social psychological that the person moves toward a very special class of goal (the self-defining goal), and approaches it to the extent that the goal-directed activities, meaning the self-symbolizing, register on the community (Wicklund, 1982, p. 65).

What make Victorian Women fulfilling the criteria of Symbolic Interaction?

One common example of Symbolic Interactionism is the Victorian woman of 19th century. Now let us examine some background of her in order to analyze her personality traits and the reason behind those traits that lead her towards symbolic interactionism.

The Victorian middle class women connoted particular habits and virtues which were associated with high standards of morality, education, and refinement. Though there were four distinct classes, ‘the nobles’, ‘middle class’, ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ working class and it seemed to an outsider that women who belonged to the highest class had very little responsibilities (Ford et al, 1983, p. 226). However this was not the case. The higher the class, the greater were the moral responsibilities on the women as the task to represent themselves as an icon of ‘perfection’ and feminism was not an easy task for a Victorian woman.

She was supposed to be a perfect wife and a perfect mother, therefore she was bound to perform her responsibilities in such a manner that depicts her ‘flawless’ among other women of the same status. She had no choice of her own and therefore was bound to perform as if she was an ‘actor’. Most of their lives revolved around social occasions other than performing family responsibilities (Loeb, 1994, p. 20).

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Goal and Social Reality

According to Mahler, the concept of ‘social reality’ is the idea for which an individual must be recognized for having attained the goal and for that recognition the oppressed group can set any goal. The social recognition of the oppressed group contributes to the sense of having completed the task because of the possibility of stability offered by the social milieu. In the light of this notion, since Victorian women perceived themselves as a symbol of nobility and sacrifice, therefore their goals were no more than to present themselves with ‘attitude’ and ‘dogmatism’. Furthermore, Mahler suggests that there is no strong sense of having attained a permanent solution, until one is acknowledged for having reached the solution for which a vital element of stability is attained, which is evident from the character analysis of Victorian women.

The solution to the frustration of social milieu of Victorian women is the arrogant and negative emotions, to which they thought dominates others in the social gatherings, thereby making the Victorian women a prominent figure. In other words, the solution has a stronger ‘reality’ once it becomes a social fact. Therefore by showing arrogance through their behaviour, Victorian women wanted to be depicted as a social factor of high prestige and a symbol of noble social entity that would satisfy their ego and self-esteem.

The predominant goal in such circumstances where Victorian women were devoid of their own free will, composed of those settings that did not allow their subconscious to reach the objective solution, or the objective end of the long term goals, but rather to ‘prove themselves’. Therefore in order to prove their nobility which they earn hardly by adding the social reality factor to this idea of proving themselves, they behave in a manner that according to them was fair but others perceive it as ‘arrogant’ and ‘authoritative’. In the course of ‘proving oneself’, their subconscious makes them forget about the positive usage of their power and hence they start indulging in negativity.

It is not necessary according to social scientists that psychological completion of a goal must be equivalent to the objective completion. An example is that of a person that works out a mathematics problem correctly, establishing, that the solution is indeed correct yet the tension system is not necessarily lowered by the objective completion of the task. Thus, the social reality associated with task completion becomes the deciding factor in tension reduction. In the case of Victorian women, their ‘inequality’ in front of their men made them frustrated, this frustration resulted in the negativity showing arrogance. Their attitude according to their belief presented them as an icon or prosperity, power and supremacy, therefore that inner turmoil takes the form of such ‘negative’ attitude which provided them with ego satisfying emotions.


If we analyze self-definition theory on a superficial level, it is clear that symbolic interactionism within an individual depends upon to what extent he fulfils the criteria set by self-completion theory, which is a concept about movement toward a certain kind of goal, whereby progress is marked off by the individual in terms of symbolic indicators. However, the more symbolic interactionism is involved, the greater it would overlook the socially-defined nature of ‘long-lasting’ goals. Symbolic interactionism takes place only if the person’s self-symbolizing makes psychological sense that there exists another person, on whom the self-symbolizing can register.

In case where individuals are optimistic and are lead by positive emotions and feelings like they have generosity, humbleness and compassion, the symbol is not a physical event of significance and therefore is not a marker of progress by itself. However examples like noble or upper class Victorian women are the best example where symbols have been an example of negative outcome for their ego is of utmost importance to them and their satisfaction, though limited is marked by the negative interpretations of symbols. Rather the symbol is the vehicle for setting up reactions in others and sees them suffer.

Thus the social-psychological aspect of the person moves toward a very special class of goal (the self-defining goal), and approaches it to the extent that the goal-directed activities, meaning the self-symbolizing, register on the community (Wicklund et al, 1982, p. 65).

Why Suppressed groups show Negative Reaction to others?

The most common word associated with symbolic interactionism is ‘self-esteem’. Now self-esteem is such a characteristic which is present in positive as well as negative minded individuals. In the context of Victorian women this characteristic is present in all the four classes’ women. If we look at the meaning of ‘self-esteem’, it refers to the worth that one gives or assigns to oneself or the self-estimation of own value. This indicates that ‘self-esteem’ is present in every individual irrespective of the class level to which he or she belongs (Jacoby, 1996, p. 24), similarly in Victorian women this factor was present. Now what differentiated wealthy women from among the poorer ones was the application and utilization of this symbol.

For a middle class or working class Victorian woman, ‘self-esteem’ is all about making both the ends meet economically, whereas for an upper class ‘self-esteem’ is all about the preference she expects from the classes that are below her wealth. That is where difference propagates through self-esteem as self-esteem tends to be the initiation of negativity or positivity.

Symbolic Interactionism on a mental level

An individual’s self-concept may play a key role in forming descriptions, evaluations, or judgments about another person. For example, person-perception findings have indicated that the observer’s view of self is critical in the choice of categories or dimensions selected for describing others (Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1981, p. 217). Although the self-prototype may operate as just described when processing information about unknown others, its function may change as the other person becomes more familiar. Example is that of Victorian women showing negative emotions to family members.

This view is supported by several reports in the social and personality literature that hint at the potent effects of familiarity on the processing and organization of information about others. For example, one line of research has demonstrated that the willingness to ascribe traits to another person varies with familiarity level. Another has revealed more complex factorial structures for implicit personality theories concerning personal acquaintances as compared to strangers (Koltuv, 1962).

According to Kuiper & Rogers (1979), familiarity is a key dimension in processing personality traits on the basis of symbolic interactionism. Personality judgments about a stranger are based on a combination of several input factors including physical appearance, exhibited behaviors, social relationships, the context of the interaction, and various demographic characteristics. However, as a person becomes more familiar, two critical aspects may change.

First, there is much more information available about that particular person. The perceiver is often exposed to the other person across a number of occasions or settings. This permits a sampling of behavior to occur, with the amount of information pertaining to the other accumulating rapidly. Second, with the increase in familiarity also comes the additional time required to formulate a specific cognitive structure or organization for that person.

This structure functions to reduce the increasing amounts of information about that person to a more manageable level. Multiple, redundant data about another are categorized via this structure in order to facilitate economy in the cognitive system. The final result is the development of a reasonably accurate and organized cognitive structure pertaining specifically to a particular known other. This indicates that if a person has high self-esteem and egoistic self-perception, he is well aware of the fact that his family members know him or her closely. That means they are aware of his or her personality traits or habits, which would not make them against that individual.

This is the case with Victorian women. As they knew that their family members were familiar with their perception and attitude and influencing them anymore would not make any difference to them in terms of impact, therefore Victorian women felt it useless to show them positive reaction and affection. They knew what would make difference in the lives of their relatives was their negative behaviour as this had the only option left for the women for influencing their family members, either in the positive or negative sense.

Another aspect of showing negative attitude to others particularly family members is what Rogers and Kuiper (1979) explains about the critical role of self-perception. Self-prototype may play a critical role in selecting and abstracting pertinent information about familiar others. For a casual acquaintance or moderately familiar other, the perceiver may be desirous of acquiring more information about that person. One possible means of searching for and organizing this material might be in terms of its personal relevance to the perceiver. Thus, the perceiver might invoke his or her self-schema as an agent to guide this search and accumulation process.

Because it has been demonstrated also that extremely prototypical terms in the self-schema are more accessible in memory (Kuiper & Rogers, 1979), it is quite possible that these particular terms play a dominant role in determining what is selected and retained. Ultimately, this differential accessibility would result in the acquisition of a great deal of specific information relating to the more available traits in the self-prototype (Kihlstrom & Cantor, 1981, p. 222) For a high class Victorian women, ego satisfaction means a lot,

Symbolic Interactionism on an emotional level

Emotions and feelings are what constitute towards self-satisfaction. Every living being has his or own criteria of satisfaction or happiness. According to Russell (1930) “Animals seem satisfied as long as they have health and enough to eat while human beings, ought to be, but they are not, for they have complex criteria that fulfils happiness” (Russell, 1930, p. 13). Happiness does not require an individual to admit that he or she is exceptional. The negative symbolic interactionism provokes a situation in upper class women in which their satisfaction level becomes too much complex or high to fulfil and is only achieved through influencing the vulnerable groups by showing unnecessary arrogance and attitude.

Why Attitude?

Attitudes tend to be maintained by the presence of negative-feedback mechanisms, whose actions are initiated or increased as the discrepancy between a set point (e.g., initial attitude) and an externally originated (e.g., recommended) position increases. The negative-feedback mechanisms governing an individual’s attitude systems include biased information processing, which serves to preserve existing beliefs and attitudes, source derogation, reactions of incredulity, and a lighter scrutiny given to attitude-consistent than attitude-inconsistent information. Second, individuals need not deliberately invoke these processes.

Victorian women are the best example of negative feedback mechanism, since they don’t have the courage to listen against their views or against their personalities therefore they adopt a more negative and negating attitude towards their relatives, close friends or family members.

Victorian women presents attitudes that can be viewed as representing a dynamic process by which generally constant conditions of other individual’s physical and social world are achieved. Their attitudes also play an important role in facilitating self-expression and social interaction but in boundaries where others must apprehend to their influence. Social psychologists labelled this as ‘social adjustment function’, proposing that attitudes mediate self-other relationships through their judicious expression (Pratkanis, 1989, p. 146).

Since Victorian women have set an example of bossiness over those women who were vulnerable, therefore one cannot state them as ‘judicious’. Though they were significant figures of the social adjustment and value-expressive functions, but through the attitudes they hold towards other individuals express central values thereby establishing their identity, and gain social approval.

Attitudes play a major role in maintaining self-esteem and this is what Victorian women believed. To them, nothing was more important than ego-defense.


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