Symbolic Interactionism in Everyday Life

Symbolic Interaction

Although man is a symbol-using animal, symbols alone cannot be credited for meaningful expression unless they are incorporated with man’s thoughts, gestures, and words. Symbols add meaning to our general expressions and words in a unique manner. What one person utters to another person in the form of words or any language is responsible for evoking a specific response in another person, but to experience that response in the same manner that is what one expects and the other perceives the symbol must exist in the experience of both two persons and it does.

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What are Symbols?

The symbol has a twofold meaning in itself. One that leads to ‘expression’ and the other one that presupposes ‘thinking’. We can say that expression and thinking are the two sides of the same coin named ‘Symbol’. Both are general; however, it is the thinking that presupposes a symbol to activate some kind of response in the other person as that of in the thinking person. To understand ‘symbol’, both persons must incorporate the same kind of symbol through some communication. According to Mead (1968), we by default create general assumptions which enable us to perceive symbols in the same manner as it is responded by the other person or vice versa, provided it is part of their behavioral mechanism. (Mead 1968: 188 pp)

Mead’s Model elaborates symbol as a kind of behaviorism which when interjected into the consciousness, provides social behaviorism: A symbol = sign + meaning.

Symbolic Indicators are those that give us knowledge about both, expression and meaning and can be understood in the following manner. When people say and relate themselves to a profession, like studying and attaining a medical or engineering degree, this is called ‘self-completion, and when they further prove themselves that they are worthy of getting a job in their respective professions, is called ‘symbolic indicators’. How they would prove? Of course with the mutual consent of their ‘inner-self which we will discuss later and by approval of the society. The self-completion theory states that when symbolic indicators lack in a person, he or she strives hard to accomplish some other goal. In this manner, self-completion theory acts as a component of symbolic interaction.

How symbols are social acts?

A social act, in general, is a combination of a dynamic process of words and their respective meanings which are by default set in our behavioral mechanism. Thus social act is all about fulfilling the criteria set by our society in terms of recognition and manipulation. It can be defined as that reason or stimulus whose function is none other than to evoke an impulse within our cognition (Mead 1968: 45). In this manner, a social act is common in the behavior of all living beings that dwell in a respective environment.

We human beings feel and act according to our respective environment whereas, in animals, this environment is manipulated through their behavior. ‘Symbol acts as the vehicle for setting up reaction’ means that it is through self-symbolization that people legitimize the individual. If person X shows rage against person Y, person Y will not show any love or sympathy towards person X but would react accordingly.

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Behind social acts are the cognition and a whole world of experience that according to various social scientists is already for­matted to conform to the mind’s machinery. The processing of this formatted mind machinery is the ‘symbol’ that does not lend itself to answering central questions about internal, external, and temporal connections among symbolic sys­tems; for example, we are only concerned about symbols in context with the social acts, the symbolic system does not tell us the way various mental processes are joined, how behavior is integrated with our mind and the means to which certain representational and other bodily systems are related.

Since we are not concerned with the working and representation of symbols in the cultural and social world or the development of a symbolic system, what we are concerned about is how the symbols act for gesture for example, how is that when symbols relate to the gesture, they follow certain response confirming the satisfaction of one’s needs.

Stimulus + Significance = Response

This equation can be understood in the following process. When we add some general or specific meaning to our stimulus, we get a specific response. This response when matched with our audience’s response fulfills the criteria set by a social act.

How Behavioral Mechanism converts to Social Behaviorism?

We can understand our behavioral mechanism in the light of ‘Mead’s Sequence of Acts’ (Richter, 1995: 67). Behavioral Mechanism transforms to social behaviorism by following the four key steps also named as ‘Mead’s Sequence’:

How Behavioral Mechanism converts to Social Behaviorism?

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How does the Process continue?

Whenever and wherever communication takes place, the process starts. An impulse is generated within our cognition through an idea, thought, or inspiration. Our mind gives it a name or a label known to us as ‘perception’. This perception is manipulated by us in terms of signs, symbols, gestures, and other nonverbal forms of communication. This communication when utters through our mouth in the form of words is then consumed by the audience as ‘consummation’.

Through interactions, we know how much and to what extent people manipulate our perception, therefore to let the people manipulate our perception accurately, it is important to learn what these signs refer to when they turn symbolic. Another unusual point to consider over here is that in normal individuals (i.e., those people who react in normal society and are not subjected to any unusual psychic experience) the process (Mead’s Sequence of Acts) is the same but with some perturbed occurrence. Like impulse is generated and perception is evoked, but the manipulation is not normally subjected to our social cognition. Since the manipulation is not normal, it is difficult for others to consume it accordingly.

A gesture is what distinguishes man from an animal in the following sense. A conscious or unconscious gesture is the attribute of a human being whereas animals only excel in evoking an unconscious gesture. A human being can easily evoke a conscious or thoughtful gesture with the same sequence and meaning whereas an animal is devoid of evoking a conscious gesture, it can only evoke an unconscious senseless gesture without significant meaning (Mead 1968: 121). Humans create their environment through their relation to (animate or inanimate) objects.

Mead’s Theory: Symbol = Sign + Meaning

Mead’s analysis suggests that symbol uphold no sense unless and until it is equated with some sign and common meaning. That means society members possess a common knowledge and understanding of the meaning of signs with which an individual outside the society is not familiar (Cp. Richter 1995: 60) The example, in this case, is that of an individual who possesses no social gathering and dwells aloof of this society. Might be a maniac, this person would not be exposed to the common meanings and signs of society, and therefore would be termed as an abnormal personality.

The Role of ‘Gestures’ in Mead’s Model

The gesture is a usual process of expression commonly used within the area of social experience. When symbols or language are used it limits the stage of human experience in the context of meaning, description, and explanation while the gesture is not limited to pick one situation from the social process. In this case, the language symbol is simply a significant or conscious gesture (Mead 1968: 118 pp.) Content and response are the two basic features that an object must possess; therefore human beings as objects uphold consciousness and attitude as a means toward our conscience (Mead 1987: 203).

Though language is among one of the three symbol systems which according to Goldin-Meadow’s analyses do not appear to fit an internal partnership model because language is not necessary for thinking and the structure of specific languages does not determine cognitive growth. On the other hand, cognition exploits the unique properties of gesture to be conventional and often culture-specific. Therefore the partnership is achieved by a third representational system, gesture, which can support, supplement, and substitute for language. That system expresses thinking and paves the way for cognitive change (Byrnes & Amsel, 2002, p. 12).

How a sign follows meaning?

When people say that signs have meanings they are generally talking about the same knowledge of the symbols, that not only do the symbols are perceived to have common meanings in the society but the stimulus is also supposed to be ready to process the same meaning in the consciousness. A sign followed by a general meaning entails the same response and anticipation throughout the society usually preferred through communicative processes.

What is Socialization?

Socialization is any verbal or non-verbal approval of social processes that take place through a communicative medium in such a manner that through interaction mind is cleared from doubts. Through social interactions, minds gain consciousness and are reflexive to follow any consummation. Consciousness provides the mind with an opportunity to take social decisions understanding what the society or the other person ought to say whereas reflexivity allows the person to impose their social decisions in a manner so that the society accepts and respects the decision. Hence these two are the basic requirements for maintaining effective social processes.

Two characteristics that are important in a social-communicative process are self-perception and response anticipation. Meads believe that an individual is supposed not only to perceive himself before society but also he sees society by putting in the shoe of his own ‘self’. Socialization, therefore, allows every one of us to uphold a distinctive perspective of society from the perspective of the ‘significant other’- the person whom we refer to as the ‘generalized other’.

How Communication fulfills ‘Socialization’?

Socialization is not new to us, each one of our society goes through this process since childhood. A child is born with no symbols, no language, no society, and no mode of communication. He is not even aware of how to convey his message to society. Since at this stage his mother is the only society to which he belongs, therefore he starts communication with his mother by showing gestures of shedding tears or showing happiness. In this manner, his mother comes to know about his needs and requirements of being hungry and so on. Later on, he learns words, signs, and gestures which are common around him as part of society.

During play, he learns from various other children techniques to show specific attitudes and in this way, he goes on and learns various perspectives through his social gathering which mostly comprises of children of his age. His personality and the responses to stimuli are being developed, practiced, and groomed. In other words, his morality has been in a process of continuous grooming and development. His society is developed which comprises of other children.

Sociologists that has worked on children’s moral and social growth have affirmed Piaget’s emphasis on the child’s social interactions for the construction of social knowledge but have altered our view of how morality and social experience are related. In particular, Piaget’s analysis between adult-child social interactions and child-child interactions, and his mapping of those asymmetries in social relations in context with child morality defines social interactions within both sets of relations and resulting social cognitions (Turiel, 1998).

Empirical research has identified several behavioral changes beginning at about 9 months that appear to reflect a new level in infants’ social understanding. For example, a 10-month-old infant knows how to point towards another person (Carpenter et al., 1998), this way the infants engage in social referencing behaviors i.e. they display the tendency to look toward their parents and use their parents’ emotional expression when faced with ambiguous situations (Walden & Ogan, 1988). Their ability to acquire attention from other family members is essential for the emergence of communicative behaviors and social referencing, which is a prerequisite for language acquisition and makes further social and cognitive development possible.

A child’s personality is constructed based on various roles that he uses to play with other children of his age or level group. In certain children, it is often been observed that they unintentionally develop a unique skill of talking to themselves. This skill or habit teaches them different ways to respond to their reactions (Mead 1968: 416), which otherwise would remain unexposed and lacking.

The role of consciousness in social organization

A child is never free to accept and grasp changes; though he learns from his society and acts as a whiteboard upon which anything written or deleted has effects, either long-term or short-term, he still enjoys his own free will to decide. For example, in situations where he does not like to study, he expresses his opinion. In this way, a child often behaves in a manner that according to them is fair but his parents do not encourage him with his decision or opinion. When this thing occurs lately at a mature age, society perceives it as ‘arrogant’ and ‘authoritative’.

Internal consciousness plays a significant role in adopting various changes in society. This internal consciousness provides the individual with unique wisdom to see and visualize himself from the viewpoint of several other angles and positions. In other words, the individual enjoys seeing himself in many roles – all playing significant characters and parts of the society. (For example, a man has several roles what William Shakespeare has been named as ‘Seven Ages of Man’). A good husband might not be a good song, or a good father might not be a good husband or a good brother, and so on.

The connection between individual, group, and society is a scale through which an individual measure his efficiency in performing various roles. This ‘role taking’ according to Meads is a process that is itself a creative component of analyzing the morals of the society. It also goes a long way and fulfills the psychological theory of mind, because behind the individual is the mind which in the social context is defined as a self-organizing dynamic system of cognition. A social mind is what is composed of beliefs, values, emotions, and desires that give meaning to the procedures for maintaining, implementing, and changing these meanings.

Therefore the micro and macro-sociological levels that denote the society and an individual dwelling in the society, is not a cognitive model, but rather an approach that includes emotions, wishes, and desires as well as cognition. Whenever role-taking take place, the mind emerges from a relational activity matrix and takes the role of a person-centered concept because the approach being described takes the person standpoint (Carpendale & Miller, 2004, p. 37).

The Self-concept (I, Me, and the Self)

Mead proposes that an individual has three features that make him versatile. The I, (the subject, the biological organism), the Me, (the social Self, which grows out of the requirements of the reference groups), and the Self, which one can describe as identity. I and I are the objects that are created from sociality or social reality and experiences (Mead 1987: 242). On the other end ‘self’ is a by-product of two phases: the “I” response and the “Me” response. “I” is the outcome or response of an individual towards other members of the society whereas “me” is the response acquired from other members of the society.

However, the most significant thing to note down is the set of attributes or responses which an individual “assumes” himself. Man is a combination of “I” and “Me” that results in the development of “self”. The wiser and groomed “I” and “Me”, the better would be the “self”.

The Self-concept.

Symbolic Interactionism In context with the society

The main work carried on Symbolic Interactionism was conducted by Herbert Blumer, Mead’s focus was up till defining the keywords behind the formation of a society. After Mead, Blumer takes on this subject intending to give an edge to social psychological theories in context with the supporting evidence adopting from various methodologies. Therefore Blumer proposed three premises to distinguish between meanings, things, and modification.

  1. Things – What things mean in context with physicality, locations, daily situations, and relations.
  2. Things – In terms of social interaction, what others perceive and think of “things”.

Things – Modification based upon ‘interpretation’ and ‘consummation’.

Symbolic Interactionism In context with the society

Based on the above graph, one can easily set up his or her priorities in context with what Blumer proposed. Symbolic Interaction serves as the resultant of the triangle that Blumer has identified as things, meanings, and modifications according to our inner or outer self. This indicates that only through interpretation, definition, and meaning attachment it is possible to manipulate symbols, irrespective of an individual’s behavioral mechanism (Mead’s Sequence of Acts). A society is built up through different ‘personalities’ but with ‘similar’ meanings to symbols. As I have mentioned above that difference lies in the manipulation and consummation of meaning, as ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’ individuals differ in fitting Mead’s Sequence of Acts.

Both ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ individuals can be labeled in context with the social acceptance of society. Every individual psychologically requires attention and through adopting the common symbols to meaning it is easier for the individual to be perceived in the best possible manner in front of society. Though in this manner the oppressed group is unable to present themselves impressively, but psychologically and socially by adopting an attitude they utilize their best 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 Rose-presuppositions of Symbolic Interactionism

Rose (1967) expanded symbolic Interactionism (S.I) by stating that human beings possess two basic features that lead to S.I. First, they live and require natural surroundings and secondly, they prefer some kind of symbolic world. Now since natural surrounding is a vast world in itself, therefore we can only think of it as physical criteria for living. However symbolic world entails gestures, meanings, language, and so on (Rose 1967: 220).

Rose while integrating the surroundings in which human life, proposes that stimuli present his role after ‘surrounding’ and make the human realize other acquired meanings and values. It is these acquired meanings and values that tell the individual about his social reality, and position in society. That means social values and environmental influence has a profound impact on an individual’s perception and reaction to others. Indirectly, this serves as the implication of “I”, “Me”, and “Self”.

Symbolic Interaction arises through the individual’s behavior being acknowledged for possessing a self-definition. Up till now, the surrounding environment tells the individual about society, class, and status, and hence the creation of groups takes place. Groups are mainly of two types, those whose priorities are the necessities of life according to their traditional surroundings and those whose basic priorities have already been fulfilled.

Under the social eye, these two groups are named in terms of wealth and popularity. The latter one through the passage of maturity or time takes the form of an ‘Oppressive group’ and acts as it is being aware of their social reality. Though there is no issue of accuracy or stability of their existing ‘self’, still for the sake of their self-esteem they unconsciously want to be superior to 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 ‘self’ awareness behave, and surrounding oneself with elements conducive to the relevant actions. Hence oppressive groups behave in a structured manner but adopting the unstructured mode of convincing others to present a fake but powerful personality in front of society.

Social Structures proposed by Rose (1967)

  • Society – A group of individuals sharing common cultural values and norms.
  • Structures – Meanings given to values about each other.
  • Self – The resultant of meanings and values in the form of ‘Self’.
  • Symbol – How our stimulus manipulates the meaning.

How Goffman has worked with Symbolic Interactionism?

According to Goffman, social reality is maintained through communication. It depends upon the individual to what social or individual role he prefers to perform. Whenever a person participates in a social gathering or as a significant member of society, his role model restricts his ability to takes part in the interaction in a particular way. That is he does not participate ‘totally’ in the interaction but in a ‘partial’ manner which limits his capacity or sta­tus but in terms of a special self (Goffman 1956: 191).

Social behaviorism when restricts by some rules or commitments results in presupposed expectations. These expectations lead to behavioral patterns and behavioral constants in daily life. This when applied to society is transformed into codes that guarantee that everyone acts appropriately and receives his due (Goffman 1956: 192). Goffman has defined S.I as a phenomenon that takes place within the boundaries of perception and interpretation. This is what I have mentioned above in Mead’s Sequence of Acts (MSA).

How Goffman has worked with Symbolic Interactionism?

In other words, Goffman’s S.I goes parallel with MSA. When perception and interpretation combine, the reality is constructed which when combines with some kind of social influence becomes social reality. Goffman (1973, 1974) emphasizes the “Me” factor in social personality, as defined by Mead, and further states that it is due to this factor that individual wishes to be the same as others. Furthermore, an individual is influenced by personal identity, a wish to appear unique and uphold some particular self-respect. However, it depends upon the social situations in which the personal identity and the social identity go parallel with each other. In situations where social and personal identities likely collide, role problems like psychological illnesses take place. Common examples of this type are schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.

The Conventional and Inter-actionist Role Concept

To fit the example of Victorian women into the conventional role is a good concept which conforms that this role instead of empowering umpteen role models, select one single role model for itself to be declared as ‘oppressive’. 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 conventional 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 the social milieu of Victorian women is one traditional norm which they follow to satisfy their arrogant and negative emotions, to which they thought dominates others in the social gatherings, thereby making the Victorian women a prominent figure.

Does this contradict what Goffman has proposed above that personal and social identity are in balance with each other? Certainly not, because Victorian women as conservatism choose one role to be fulfilled and not various roles, therefore their personal and social identity follows one criterion, and that is to see themselves superior among others. In this sense, Goffman’s proposition that personal and social identity goes parallel with each other is correct. In other words, their role has a stronger ‘reality’ once it becomes a social fact and is more obeyed by other groups as compared to that of inter-actionist. Therefore by showing arrogance through their behavior, Victorian women wan to be depicted as a social factor of high prestige and a symbol of a noble social entity that would satisfy their ego and self-esteem.

There has been a considerable tendency, in the body of theory relating to attitudes, to assume that attitudes and behavior are related and that attitudes at least partly determine our behavior. However, Wicker (1969), after reviewing a great deal of the empirical research on the attitude-behavior link, concluded that the relationship between obvious behavior and measured attitudes could be very weak (Burr, 2002, p. 27). This can be seen in the case of Victorian women, whose conventionalism is the most dominating aspect that rules their personalities.

It is human nature that every individual wants to present him or her in front of society in such a manner as if he or she is the best person society has ever got to know. In the case of Victorian women, this situation is significant as they have opted for a single role model in their social reality. This behavior provides them with the opportunity for social interaction through which they could be analyzed by other members of society.

On one hand, this is an opportunity for the Victorian women to reveal their role and to influence others but at the same time, this showcasing does not allow them to see or higher their inner ‘Self’. The reason is that symbols are limited in their “Me” and “I” dictionaries and the combination is too vague for them to realize their inner ‘Self’.

Since cognition comprehends what it takes to be a member of a more powerful group, therefore an oppressed person is familiar with all the unconstructive customs that would make the other powerful person more pestilential. In this way, they do accomplish the task or assign negative labels to the other group. By the notion ‘self-prototype may play a critical role in selecting and abstracting pertinent information about familiar others’, it is stated in depth that an oppressed group understands another oppressed group more than what he comprehends about the one who does not belong to his group of family.

Since their habits are the same, therefore it is not difficult for one pessimistic person to understand the other pessimistic individual. Similarly, individuals or groups whose nature conforms understand each other more than they understand the individuals or groups of opposite nature.

Victorian women present 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 their influence. Social psychologists labeled this as a ‘social adjustment function’, proposing that attitudes mediate self-other relationships through their judicious expression (Pratkanis, 1989, p. 146).

‘Self-definition’ can be defined in terms of cognition about oneself in which an individual perceives having permanent qualities, which in turn have implications for future behavioral and thinking patterns. Self-definitions depend upon being narrow or broad or being occupationally-directed irrespective of what the social roles it performs. It can also be constructed in terms of what society fears about, that is being obnoxious, criminal, or a maniac, independent of what human qualities are not prescribed in self-definition.

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, 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.

The Power of Social Role

Role taking in social psychology comes under ‘symbolic interactionism’, which may occupy status positions given by our sex, age, occupation, membership of kinship and friendship groups or exclusive clubs, and so on. Each of these statuses is a description of the person’s position in their society relative to other persons, and each brings with it a set of prescriptions for how a person of that status should behave in their role. Roles refer to those norms and expectations that are directly or indirectly associated with a particular status in society.

The power of social roles to produce our behavior and experience is great, but Zimbardo, in line with the predominant social psychology of his day, frames this power in terms of environmental contingencies and situational controls. Although the self-contained, rational, and moral individual is characterized as weak and easily undermined here, the concept of the pre-social individual, at least in principle, is retained in the form of the dichotomy between the individual and the social (Burr, 2002, p. 58).

The question that awaits us is that are we self-determining agents who are capable of making decisions without being unduly influenced by conservatism, inter-actionism, or other social factors, is our behavior determined by situational factors beyond our control?’. Having shown the apparent ease with which the individual can be undermined, the alternative seems even bleaker that our behavior is determined by factors of which we are unaware while we retain the illusion that we have free will.


Burr Vivien, (2002) The Person in Social Psychology: Psychology Press: New York.

Byrnes P. James & Amsel Eric, (2002) Language, Literacy, and Cognitive Development: The Development and Consequences of Symbolic Communication: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Mahwah, NJ.

Carpenter, M., Nagell, K., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Social cognition, joint attention, and communicative competence from 9 to 15 months of age. Monographs of the Society for Research in ChM Development, 63 (Serial No. 255).

Hare A. Paul, Blumberg H. Herbert, Goffman Erving, David A. Snow, Louis A. Zurcher, Robert Peters, R. S. Perinbanayagam, Ronny E. Turner & Charles Edgley, (1988) Dramaturgical Analysis of Social Interaction: Praeger Publishers: New York.

Pratkanis R. Anthony, Breckler J. Steven & Greenwald G. Anthony, (1989) Attitude Structure and Function: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hillsdale, NJ.

Turiel, E. (1998). The development of morality. In W. Damon (Ed. ), Handbook of chUd psychology: Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development (5th ed., pp. 863-932). New York: Academic Press.

Walden, T., & Ogan, T. (1988). “The development of social referencing”. Child Development, 59, 1230-1240.

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