The symbolic interaction communication theory, also known as symbolic interactionism, which was developed by George Herbert Mead, is a sociological theory which claims that all human interaction is based on individual response to a social system, and that social system’s understanding of what is real. Proponents of this theory believe that individuals are social creatures, and that interaction with others is the most important way in which individuals learn to understand their world.
Basic Concepts of Symbolic Interactionism
Because symbolic interactionism regards people as being basically social creatures, the concept of ‘self’ revolves not around a person’s feelings about himself per se, but about his feelings about himself as he fits into society in general or his own social group. Symbolic Interactionists believe that without the input of those around him, a person will be unable to develop a firm sense of self (Milliken & Schreiber, 2012). In other words, a person develops self-awareness by examining how others react to him and by how he interacts with others; self-awareness cannot, according to believers of Symbolic Interactionism, exist in a bubble. Without reacting to the actions and opinions of those around him, a person cannot develop any real sense of self-awareness.
Self-concept, like self-awareness, is developed by individuals through interaction with others. A person will come to conclusions about who and what he is and how he fits in with others by interacting with others socially and interpersonally. This is not to say that people are incapable of independent beliefs about themselves; just that in most cases these beliefs will be much stronger once they have been confirmed by interaction with others. It should be noted that people are also very likely to seek out social circles populated with people that possess the attributes that they already believe that they, themselves, possess. This increases the likelihood that a person’s self-concept will be confirmed by his social circle; people who share several personality traits and basically compatible belief systems are more likely to get along, and therefore reinforce traits in each other that they see and value in themselves (Milliken & Schreiber, 2012).
Self-Concept and Self-Esteem
A positive self-concept and healthy sense of self-esteem are important for psychological and sociological health in individuals. The lack of either of these attributes can lead to a negative sense of self, or the belief that one is a bad person not worthy of the love or caring of others. This negative mindset can lead, in turn, to serious psychological conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders. A person’s self-concept is his basic, core belief system about who he is and what he stands for; under any pretense he might present to the outside world, the true essence of what and who he is. While Symbolic Interactionism stresses the importance of others’ opinions in determining one’s self-concept, again it is important to acknowledge that in most cases, people will seek the company of those with similar interests and personalities, which increases the odds that these people will reinforce, rather than negate, whatever that person might already believe to be the truth about who he is as a person.
Self-esteem concerns itself more with how a person feels about himself as a human being and member of the social order, rather than focusing on what he knows about himself. While a person’s self-concept focuses on such things as personal strengths and weaknesses, beliefs, likes and dislikes, and other such basic facts he believes to be true about himself, his self-esteem focuses on whether he has a positive or a negative opinion of himself. Proponents of Symbolic Interactionism believe that a person’s self-esteem is as much a product of social interaction as any other part of his self-image, and is reciprocal in nature (Lal, 1995). A person might act in a pleasant, helpful, and friendly manner in order to be liked by others in his social circle; these people in turn react positively to his behavior, and it is reinforced. He then continues to act in a positive way because that behavior was rewarded by others, those in his social group indicate that they think of him as a “good” person and treat him as such, and the cycle continues. In this way, it could be said that a person does not develop a sense of self-esteem based on what he believes to be true about himself; he reacts to the opinions and behaviors of others in order to determine whether or not he, as a person, has worth to others, and to the world in general (Lal, 1995).
Self-actualization is a theory that has been used in various psychology theories to describe a person’s basic need to realize one’s full potential in life. Expressing one’s creativity, the quest for spiritual enlightenment, pursuit of knowledge, and the desire to give to society are examples of self-actualization (Interaction and symbolic interactionism, 2011). Basically, it is a person’s need to be part of something bigger than himself; to be a member of a group, and to contribute to that group in a positive way. This is a very important concept in Symbolic Interactionism, as it focuses not on the individual and his personal needs, but to how he helps to fulfill the needs of those around him. While this might be done on a personal level, inevitably the goal is for his growth as an individual to work for the good of society in general, and his social circle in particular (Interaction and symbolic interactionism, 2011).
The “looking-glass self” is a sociological concept important to Symbolic Interactionism which states that a person’s sense of self grows out of his interpersonal interactions with society and the perceptions of others (Interaction and symbolic interactionism, 2011). According to this concept, people, to a large extent, shape their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perceive them. In turn, they purposely act in ways that they believe will be perceived in positive ways by others in order to receive positive reinforcement and the approval of others.
A self-fulfilling prophecy is a phenomenon in which a person believes so strongly that a certain event is going to happen that he subconsciously behaves in ways which actually cause it to happen. While usually used in a negative sense, it can also be a positive situation. For instance, as earlier discussed, people tend to act “on their best behavior” in order to receive approval from those around them. If a person goes into a new situation believing that he is going to have a good time, meet nice people, and possibly make some new friends, he is likely to act in a way that makes this more probably—he will act in a friendly, outgoing manner when meeting new people, who in turn will react to him in a like manner, making the situation positive for all involved. Of course, the opposite is also true. If a person goes into a new situation believing that he isn’t going to like anyone, and that nobody is going to like him, he is more likely to act in a negative manner towards others, who in turn will think that he is not a person they want to be around, and treat him accordingly. In either case, positive or negative, it is likely that his “prophecy” will come true.
- Interaction and symbolic interactionism. (Sum 2011). Symbolic Interaction 34(3): 315-318.
- Lal, B. B. (Jan 1995). Symbolic interaction theories. American Behavioral Scientist 38(3): 421- 442.
- Milliken, P. J., & Schreiber, R. (2012). Examining the nexus between grounded theory and symbolic interactionism. International Journal of Qualitative Methods 11(5): 684-696.