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Symbolic Interactionism: what it is, historical development and authors

Symbolic Interactionism is a sociological theory which has had a great impact on contemporary social psychology, as well as other areas of study in the social sciences. This theory analyzes interactions, and their meanings, to understand the process through which individuals become competent members of a society.

Since the first half of the 20th century, Symbolic Interactionism has generated many different currents, as well as own methodologies that have been of great importance in understanding social activity and in the construction of "me".

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What is Symbolic Interactionism?

Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical current that arises in sociology (but quickly moved on to anthropology and psychology), and who studies the interaction and symbols as key elements to understand both individual identity and organization Social.

In very broad strokes, what Symbolic Interactionism suggests is that people define ourselves according to the meaning that 'the individual' acquires in a specific social context

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; an issue that depends largely on the interactions we engage in.

At its origins are pragmatism, behaviorism and evolutionism, but far from registering in any of them, Symbolic Interactionism transits between one and the other.

Its antecedents also include the defense of ‘situated truths’ and partial, as opposed to ‘absolute truths’, which have been criticized by much of contemporary philosophy considering that the notion of ‘truth’ has been quite confused with the notion of ‘beliefs’ (because, from a pragmatic point of view on human activity, truths have the same function as beliefs).

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Stages and main proposals

Symbolic Interactionism has gone through many different proposals. In general terms, two great generations whose proposals are connected to each other are recognized, sharing the bases and antecedents of the theory, but characterized by some proposals different.

1. Beginnings of Symbolic Interactionism: actions always have a meaning

One of the main proposals is that identity is built primarily through interaction, which is always symbolic, that is, it always means something. That is, individual identity is always in connection with the meanings that circulate in a social group; it depends on the situation and the places that each individual occupies in that group.

Thus, interaction is an activity that always has a social meaning, in other words, it depends on our ability to define and make sense of individual and social phenomena: the ‘order of things symbolic'.

In this order, language is no longer the instrument that faithfully represents reality, but rather it is rather a way of manifesting attitudes, intentions, positions or objectives of the speaker, with which language is also a social act and a way of constructing that reality.

Thus, our actions are understood beyond a set of habits or automatic behaviors or expressive behaviors. Actions always have a meaning that can be interpreted.

From this it follows that the individual is not an expression; it is rather a representation, a version of himself that is constructed and discovered through language (language that is not isolated or invented by the individual, but belongs to a logic and social context in concrete).

That is, the individual is constructed through the meanings that circulate while interacting with other individuals. Here arises one of the key concepts of Symbolic Interactionism: the "self", which has served to try to understand how a subject constructs these versions of themselves, that is, their identity of him.

In short, everyone has a social character, so individual behaviors must be understood in relation to group behaviors. Therefore, several authors of this generation focus especially on understand and analyze socialization (the process by which we internalize society).

Methodology in the first generation and main authors

In the first generation of Symbolic Interactionism, qualitative and interpretive methodological proposals emerge, for example the Speech analysis o the analysis of gestures and images; that are understood as elements that not only represent but also construct a social reality.

The most representative author of the early days of Symbolic Interactionism is Mead, but Colley, Pierce, Thomas and Park have also been important, influenced by the German G. Simmel. Likewise the Iowa school and the Chicago school are representative, and Call, Stryker, Strauss, Rosenberg and Turner, Blumer and Shibutani are recognized as first generation authors.

2. Second generation: social life is a theater

In this second stage of Symbolic Interactionism, identity is also understood as the result of the roles that a person adopts. individual in a social group, with which, it is also a kind of scheme that can be organized in different ways depending on each situation.

It takes special relevance the contribution of the dramaturgical perspective of Erving Goffman, who suggests that individuals are basically a set of actors, because we literally constantly act out our social roles and what is expected of us according to those roles.

We act to leave a social image of ourselves, which not only occurs during interaction with others (who are the ones who reflect the demands that will make us act in a certain way), but it happens even in the spaces and moments in which those other people are not seeing us.

Methodological proposals and main authors

The everyday dimension, the study of meanings and the things that we appear during interaction are objects of scientific study. On a practical level, empirical methodology is very important. That is why Symbolic Interactionism is related in an important way with phenomenology and with ethnomethodology.

This second generation is also characterized by the development of ethogeny (the study of human-social interaction, which analyzes above all these four elements: human action, its moral dimension, the agency capacity that people have and the very concept of person in relation to their performance public).

In addition to Erving Goffman, some authors who have influenced much of the Symbolic Interactionism of this moment are Garfinkel, Cicourel and the most representative author of ethogeny, Rom Harré.

Relationship with social psychology and some criticisms

Symbolic Interactionism had an important impact the transformation of classical Social Psychology to Postmodern Social Psychology o New Social Psychology. More specifically, it has impacted on Discursive Social Psychology and Cultural Psychology, where from the crisis of the traditional psychology of In the 1960s, concepts that had previously been dismissed took on special relevance, such as reflexivity, interaction, language or meaning.

In addition, Symbolic Interactionism has been useful to explain the socialization process, which was proposed initially as an object of study of sociology, but that quickly became connected with social psychology.

It has also been criticized for considering that it reduces everything to the order of interaction, that is, it reduces the interpretation of the individual to social structures. Likewise has been criticized at a practical level for considering that its methodological proposals do not appeal to objectivity nor to quantitative methods.

Finally, there are those who consider that it raises a rather optimistic idea of ​​interaction, since it does not necessarily takes into account the normative dimension of interaction and organization Social.

Bibliographic references

  • Fernández, C. (2003). Social psychologies on the threshold of the 21st century. Editorial fundamentals: Madrid
  • Carabaña, J. and Lamo E. (1978). The social theory of symbolic interactionism. Reis: Spanish Journal of Sociological Research, 1: 159-204.
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