Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

In order to understand the complexity of human interactions, scientists have developed a number of theories on the process of communication. Several disciplines study communication, and each of them focuses on different factors.


Theory of communication is an area of scientific knowledge, which studies communication, its role and place in society, as well as communication methods, systems, processes and patterns of their functioning and development. So far, there is no single approach to the understanding of the object and subject of communication theory: it has multi-disciplinary character. In a broad sense, the theory of communication is a set of scientific disciplines that study communication along with its main subject. The general theory of communication deals with universal laws and mechanisms of information exchange. Communication theory aims to identify and study the basic laws of communication, which are objective, expressing the universal exchange of information, and can be dynamic or random, but always working in conjunction with other biological and social laws.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

George Mead (1863-1931) is considered to be the founder of symbolic interactionism. He recognized the importance of studying observable behavior, but also believed that there were hidden aspects of behavior. George Mead and Herbert Blumer, his follower, developed a doctrine, which was opposed not only to behaviorism, but also to structural functionalism. According to scientists, both of them focused on factors affecting human behavior. Both theories neglected the process by which actors attach importance to the forces, which influence them and their behavior. Human lives in a world of values, rather than incentives (Dennis, 2011).Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

The interaction is considered as a continuous dialogue between people, during which they observe, comprehend each other’s intentions and react to them. Any action by the people is a manifestation of social behavior based on communication between participants. Communication, in turn, is possible only thanks to the fact that people who come into contact, give the same value to the same symbols. Particular importance is given to language as the main mediator of symbolic interaction. Thus, society is a complex, ever-changing mosaic of subjective values.

The name of symbolic interactionism was proposed in the 30-ies of the twentieth century by American sociologist Herbert Blumer (1900-1987). Its basic principles consisted of three items:

people make their actions to objects on the basis of the values that they attach to these objects;Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper
these values arise from social interactions;
any social action stems from adapting individual lines of human behavior to each other (Lehn, 2011).
George Herbert Mead, Professor of Philosophy in University of Chicago, using the concept of “role” as a central, showed in detail how social processes create human “self” – man’s consciousness of himself and his place in society. According to George Mead, the difference between man and any other active creature (non-human animals) lies in two following:

all creatures, including humans, are equipped with the brain, but only a man has a mind;
all living beings have bodies, but only human has the sense of self-exclusive and unique personality.
The human mind emerges and develops within the social process, the most important factor of which is language. Human formation occurs within language, and the man himself “exists” in the language. The ability to realize his “I” develops in social life by “taking on” the role. Man becomes an actor thanks to the reaction of other people towards him. Social life depends on the ability of people to imagine themselves in other social roles, and this ability is directly related to reflection.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

According to Mead, the most significant in men is that they live in the world of meanings, interpretations and content, and do it with other people regardless of whether they know it or not. Children’s games, in which children “play” various roles basing on society’s model of behavior, are a necessary part of the process of inclusion into society. People with whom the person (child) interacts most intensely and whose behavior determines his life are called “significant others” (Burbank, 2010). Significant others play a crucial role in the process of socialization.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

Blumer, follower of George Mead, in addition to further theoretical development of the concept of interactionism, pays more attention to practical research. According to him, sociology must adapt its methods to the situations it faces. The researcher himself must be like those he learns in order to access interpretation schemes that are used in this situation. Hence, the main methods of interactionists are observation and interview.

Symbolic interactionism is based on the following postulates:

1) Any action takes place only on the basis of the sense that the actor gives it. All personal meanings derive from common social symbols. For example, refusal from taking part in hostilities can mean (symbolize) personal cowardice, and in another case, the same act may symbolize conscious pacifism, ie, personal heroism. In both cases social symbols determine acts of behavior.

2) These symbols are built by the interactions of people. Man, is constantly looking at other people as in the mirror, and takes into account their opinion about him.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

3) In the process of interaction, people constantly interpret, explain a meaning of certain characters. This process creates the personality of a person. If two people understand something differently, the normal interaction between them can be established only if they understand the meaning of what is happening in the same way (Hanitzsch, 2013).
Mead distinguished two types of actions: 1) insignificant gesture (automatic reflex like blinking) and 2) significant gesture (in this case, people do not react automatically to the impact from the outside, but unravel the value of the act before replying to it). Significant action is connected with comprehension not only acts, but also intentions. To do this, you must “put yourself in the other person’s place,” “rut on the role of the other” (Oliver, 2012). Only attaching importance to the gesture, we can react to it – for example, to go to another person or leave him alone. Human becomes a member of the society (community) by learning patterns and norms of a group action. Each group has its own specific norms and values.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

Blumer formulated the basic tenets of the theory of interactionism:

human society is composed of individuals with their “I”. This means that they can refer to themselves in their relations with the outside world. In these relations, the individual is a creator, he gives meaning of the world around;
the main feature of a person is thinking. At the same time, Herbert Blumer emphasizes that a man is a being with intentions (Oliver, 2012).
Transferring these tenets to the macro level, interactionism argues that society does not have the objective structure. It should be understood as a constant interaction between the various individuals that occur within situations. People create the meaning of these situations and their interpretation.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

It should be noted that modern interactionists see active creative personality as the basis for the development of not only the individual, but also an explanation of the changes that occur in society. As they are abstracted from the historical conditions and socio-economic patterns, the causes of changes in society, in their opinion, should be sought in the specific personality structure, namely the presence of impulsive “I” is a prerequisite for the emergence of different variations in patterns of role behavior and even deviations from these templates. These random variations and deviations ultimately lead to the fact that the latter become the norm of new patterns of behavior and the corresponding changes in the society. Consequently, changes in society are random and are not regulated by any laws, and their reason is personality. Subjectivist-idealistic position interactionists are particularly evident in this kind of reasoning and explanations.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

Three-component structure of the personality proposed interactionists to some extent overlaps with the model of personality developed by Freud. You can draw a certain analogy between the interactionist impulsive I and the Freudian subconscious It; between the normative Me and the Freudian super-ego; as well as between the concept of self and Freud’s ego. But there are also significant differences in the interpretation of the content of personality structure. This is primarily manifested in the understanding of the function of the component of personality, which carries out internal social control. If Freud’s superego function is to suppress instinctive, subconscious beginning, then for interactionists regulatory function of Me lies not in suppression, but in the direction of the person to achieve a successful social interaction. Internationalists primarily study state and behavior of the individual, which is characteristic for the successful interaction of the individual with others.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

We should also say that there are certain advantages and disadvantages of symbolic interactionism. They most significant ones are as follows:

1) the main advantage of symbolic interactionism is that it makes it possible to understand social interaction deeper than another theory (the theory of social exchange): people do not just react, but interpret each other’s behavior;

2) However, symbolic interactionism is overly focused on subjective aspects of interaction, too much importance is given to the role of symbols, and thus the role of the social structure of society is diminish, has exaggerated attention episodic and transient; society is reduced to a set of executable roles, but there is no analysis, where these social roles come from.

Theory of symbolic interactionism was chosen for consideration in this work, since this theory is important for the study of communication. Symbolic interactionism in its theoretical constructions put strong emphasis on linguistic or substantive side of communication, especially on the role of language in shaping the consciousness of the human self and society. The study of the nature, forms and means used by people for various symbols, as well as social values and the meaning attributed to them by individuals in the course of their interaction, is one of the main ways to study social behavior, activities of the individual. In general, it gives an opportunity to obtain a certain pattern and model of a particular society.Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) and Symbolic Interaction
• American philosopher and sociologist
o Never published his theories
 His student, Herbert Blumer published Mead’s theories after his death
• Blumer was the one who consolidated Mead’s work and it was Blumer who coined the term ‘Symbolic Interaction’
• Symbolic Interaction (Micro-level theory)
• We learn to interpret and give meaning to the world through interactions with others
• People act in certain ways based on the meaning those things have for them
• Meanings are derived from social interaction and modified through subjective interpretation
o People interact through subjective symbols
• Everything is subjective because a symbol can be interpreted in different ways by different individuals
o A guy smiles at a girl at a bar – nice or creepy? […Depends…]
o A valentine’s day heart –
 does not accurately depict a human heart in any way
 We don’t use our ‘hearts’ for anything other than to pump blood
o Symbols can change over time and geography
 Swastika – Nazi symbol or Buddhist symbol? – Depends who you ask…
 Words – F-word(s), N-word – meanings changed over time
• Meaning evolves from the interactions of individuals in their environment
• Interactions are subjectively interpreted through pre-existing symbols (e.g., language, gestures, et cetera)Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper
• Interpersonal interactions/meanings are extended to the whole of society
o Interactions with larger social groups affect individuals, just as individuals affect the larger group
o Interactions like these result in the concepts of larger social structures as well as concepts of The Self
o An individual’s concept of ‘self’ and ‘identity’ is formed through social interaction
• Language is key in this process
o The ultimate set of shared meaning
• Taking on the role of the ‘other’ allows/causes us to act in certain ways – Role-taking
• Core Principles of Symbolic Interaction
• Meaning is not inherent to objects, but rather we give meaning to objects/things
• We then act in accordance with the meanings that we give to things
• Meaning arises from the interactions between individuals in the context of relationships
o As a result, if people believe something to be real, it is real in its consequences
• Meaning can and does shift depending on how we define and respond to the ‘thing’
o Perceived meaning shapes our actions
 Language is learned through interaction with groups –we are not born with language
• Social meanings are developed as a result of those interactions
o Language is the source of meaning
• Social life is only possible because of the mutual understanding and use of language
o The ‘I’ and The ‘Me’
o “I am not feeling like myself today”
 Which self is the self that is not feeling like the other self?
• “Beasts abstract not”
o Abstractions allow us to distinguish ourselves from lower level animals
o Humans ability to think abstractly allow them to develop a sense of the self and the generalized other
o We do not act instinctively, but rather we put forethought into our actions based on our concepts of the roles we play in life
 Inner conversations w ourselves
o We have the ability to take on the role of the ‘other’
 We can walk in someone else’s shoes
• Related to, but not the same as, the sociological imagination
• Since we are able to use symbols/language, we can express ourselves and have others understand those expressions (a sigh, a laugh, et cetera), thus enhancing communication and social interaction
• The Looking Glass Self (Charles Horton Cooley)
• The mental image we have of ourselves, tied to our own perceived appearance to others
• Our individuality is the active and organized part of ourselves that we extract from society  Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper
• “The ‘I’ is a militant social tendency, working to hold and enlarge its place in the general current of tendencies… To think of it as apart from society is a palpable absurdity of which no one could be guilty who really saw it as a fact of life.” (middle, pg 2)
o Individuality is what distinguishes me from you, but just as multi-cellular organisms are made up of individual cells, so too is society made up of individuals – but society is the organism within which we find our individuality
• By looking at ourselves through the eyes of the ‘other,’ we take into account the ways in which others view our actions. We then modify our behaviors to conform to the ideas we wish to express
• We internalize social interactions and the result is the ‘me’ – the sum of all the social interactions we have experienced, and the anticipation of the interactions we will enter into in the future
• When we express ourselves as a result of that interaction/perspective, that is what is termed the ‘I’ – the individual expression of our expectations
o We can act in ways in which we conform to what we think others expect of us
 Being a ‘team player’
o We can act in ways that go against what we think others expect of us
 Being ‘difficult’
o Life is a spectrum of actions and depending on the situation/time of day/how we feel/ we decide to act in different ways


• Vocabulary/Terms/Concepts
• Roles
o The sum of all the expectations that make up the regular patterns of a particular part of society
 Roles within the family: decision-maker, nurturer, provider, et cetera
• Role-taking and the ‘Generalized Other’
o The ability to objectify oneself in order to see how others perceive you
 We think generally about how other individuals will think/act twds us
• This allows us to modify our behavior in order to facilitate interaction as well as anticipate the responses of others
o Who do we think about when we are getting ready to:Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper
 Go to work? to school? to the club/bar? To go out on Valentine ’s Day?
• We act/dress/think differently according to our expectations
• Identity
o The sum of all of the roles we take on, along with the various meanings associated with them
• Language
o The most common, shared, system of symbols within society, used for communication and representation
• Symbols
o Anything external to humans that is used to convey meaning
 A stop sign symbolizes the command to stop your car
• The stop sign is the symbol that calls us to action – to apply the brakes
• Gestures
o “Certain stages in the cooperative process which mediate the whole [social] process”
 One gesture can start a relationship that lasts decades…
• Mind
o The “importation of this external process into the conduct of the individual so as to meet the problems that arise
• The Self, The ‘I’ & The ‘Me’
o The Self is our outward expression of the sum of our hereditary and social experiences
 How we relate ourselves to the other human organisms we interact with
o The ‘Me’ is the sum of all of our social experiences – it is what allows us to know that there are others out there in the world
o The ‘I’ is the way in which we distinguish ourselves from other humans
 We all share the same experiences, but how we choose to differentiate/organize those experiences is different for everyone Symbolic Interactionism of George Herbert Mead Research Paper

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