Symbolic interactionism, the meaning of communication

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Symbolic interactionism, the meaning of communication

Symbolic interactionism originated in the USA and is a theory of social interaction that analyzes the creation of meaning in human life and actions.

Last update: Augusts 04, 2020

Symbolic interactionism is a theory that has emerged in sociology, then extended to other fields such as anthropology and social psychology. This theory analyzes interactions and their meanings in order to understand the processes by which people become members of societies. In other words, it studies social activities and ego construction.



Symbolic interactionism is based on interpretations, those we all give to reality and which appear most similar between members of a particular social group. For example, when visiting a foreign country, one of the biggest cultural differences to cause problems is gestures. Making the gesture of stopping, with an open hand and an outstretched arm, is absolutely normal for us. However, calling a halt in this way in Greece or Lebanon could be considered a real offense.

The beginnings of symbolic interactionism

Symbolic interactionism positions itself against absolute truths. He argues that there is not a single truth, but several situated truths. There are different truths for each community. To understand these different truths, interactionism studies the relationships between people and symbols: the ultimate goal is to understand individual identity and social organization.

A classic example of symbolic interactionism is found in tea. This drink can be consumed accompanied by different rituals, in turn with different symbolisms. For example, it does not mean the same for a European person as it does for an Asian person.

Probably, a European drinks tea to warm up or relax, regardless of its preparation or consumption. A Japanese or Pakistani, on the other hand, will perform a preparation ritual and drink tea in company. In short, the "meaning" of tea is different in the three cultures.



Symbolic interactionism suggests that people define themselves by extrapolating the meaning of individuals from their specific context. Since we are social animals, the meaning of individual will largely depend on the interactions we have with other people.

Generations of symbolic interactionists

There are two great generations of symbolic interactionists who propose different interpretations: the first considers that actions always have a meaning, while the second describes social life as a kind of theater.

First generation

The proposal of these interactionists was that personal identity be built through relationships with other people. These relationships always had a meaning, they were symbolic. Each person's identity is therefore formed in specific situations and places when he interacts with others. The meaning given to these interactions is to define individual identity.

This proposal argued that actions are more than automatic habits or behaviors. All actions must therefore be interpreted. Language is therefore understood as the representation of the attitudes, intentions, positions and objectives of the subject of communication. Language was seen as a form of interaction, useful for the construction of reality.

The individual, from this perspective, is a representation constructed through language. Each subject is "shaped" through meanings that circulate interacting with other individuals. However, what is being constructed is not the person, but that person's self, the ego, the personal identity.

Second generation

The second generation introduced a major change. Even for these symbolic interactionists, identity is understood as a result of the roles people adopt. When we act in company, we usually adopt social roles, patterns of behavior defined by society.


To understand this dynamic, just watch reality TV shows. In them the participants play specific roles. There is always one subject who is against others, another who feels alone and never stops crying, two who end up getting together, etc.



With this second generation, a new perspective appears on which we are actors. Individuals act and represent a specific role within social roles. We do what others expect in relation to the role we have chosen for us. But the interpretation of this "task" does not occur only when we interact, but also in the spaces and moments when no one sees us. That is to say, it is a role that we end up internalizing and gluing to our identity.

Symbolic interactionism in social psychology

The relationship of symbolic interaction with psychology is explained above all in the context of social psychology. According to this branch, people form social identities that have specific norms and values. As social identities become more important, people will be more likely to act according to those norms and values.

But social psychology goes beyond roles and accepts that behavior is driven by social norms, from its beginnings in symbolic interaction. It is undeniable that people develop their identities, both individual and social, when interacting with others. Interacting with people from different cultures, while maintaining an adequate mental openness, will help us to know ourselves better, to redefine our personal identity and to change the way we understand the world.


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