In This Article Symbolic Interactionism

  • Introduction
  • History and Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Organizational Home and Key Journals
  • Classic Works and Original Statements

Sociology Symbolic Interactionism
Gary Fine, Kent Sandstrom
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0061


While the history of symbolic interactionism stretches back through the 20th century, it emerged as a prominent theoretical perspective in American sociology during the 1960s. Currently most undergraduate sociology textbooks highlight this perspective, along with functionalism and conflict theory, as one of the three distinctive models for understanding social life. In contrast to functionalism and conflict theory, symbolic interactionism emphasizes the micro-processes through which people construct meanings, identities, and joint acts. In doing so it accentuates how symbols, interaction, and human agency serve as the cornerstones of social life. Symbolic interactionism grew out of the American philosophical tradition of pragmatism in the late 19th century, especially as elaborated by William James, John Dewey, and Charles S. Peirce. The most important bridge between the pragmatic tradition and sociology was George Herbert Mead. One of his most famous books, Mind, Self, and Society (see Classic Works and Original Statements) is often taken as a charter for the symbolic interactionist approach. Along with Mead, two other important early sociologists who shaped the interactionist tradition were Charles Horton Cooley and William Isaac Thomas. The most influential contributor to the symbolic interactionist tradition was Herbert Blumer, who coined the perspective’s label in 1937. Blumer’s book, Symbolic Interactionism (see Classic Works and Original Statements) serves as another foundational work for the perspective. Symbolic interactionism had its most significant impact on sociology between 1950 and 1985. In challenging functionalism, the dominant sociological paradigm of the 1950s, interactionists urged their colleagues to examine how people “do social life”—that is, how they construct and negotiate meanings, order, and identities in their everyday interactions. Interactionists stressed that sociologists could best understand social life’s core features by taking the role of the individuals or groups they were studying, particularly by engaging in participant observation. By the 1980s mainstream sociology had accepted much of the core of the symbolic interactionist approach, with its emphases on meaning, agency, and the interpretive analysis of interactional processes, as a legitimate and central part of the discipline. Thus, interactionism no longer represented a distinctive oppositional perspective as it had previously. In recent decades interactionism has grown in a number of new directions. With respect to methodology, its approach has broadened to include contextualized discourse analysis, ethnographic observation, content analysis, textual analysis, performance studies, and autoethnography. Interactionism has also become a more prominent perspective in a diverse array of disciplines.

History and Overviews

Scholars interested in interactionism have often reflected upon and debated about the origins, evolution, and future directions of this perspective. For instance, in the late 1970s McPhail and Rexroat crafted an influential and controversial assessment of Herbert Blumer’s role in translating George Herbert Mead into sociology (McPhail and Rexroat 1979). In a related vein, Lewis and Smith 1981 proposes that the links between pragmatist philosophy, Mead’s social behaviorism, and the symbolic interactionist perspective were less direct than Blumer claimed. Shalin 1986 offers a detailed analysis of the connections between pragmatism, Mead, and interactionist theory, concluding that they were closely tethered. Fine 1993 examines the shifts that took place in symbolic interactionism from the 1970s to 1990s, highlighting the processes that led to these changes. Sandstrom, et al. 2001 builds upon Fine’s earlier observations while also taking stock of symbolic interactionism’s place within social theory at the end of the 20th century. Finally, Maines 2001 is a critical analysis of the relationship between interactionism and mainstream sociology, highlighting how sociologists are often unaware of interactionism’s contributions to social theory.

  • Fine, Gary Alan. 1993. The sad demise, mysterious disappearance, and glorious triumph of symbolic interactionism. Annual Review of Sociology 19:61–87.

    DOI: 10.1146/ Citation »

    This review article describes the shifts that have taken place in interactionism. It also highlights the impact of the perspective on the key debates (e.g., structure/agency) characterizing sociology. Fine addresses the decline of symbolic interaction as a distinctive, oppositional perspective in sociology, in part because of the acceptance of many of its principles by sociologists outside of the perspective.

  • Lewis, J. David, and Richard L. Smith. 1981. American sociology and pragmatism: Mead, Chicago sociology, and symbolic interaction. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    In exploring how pragmatist philosophers influenced the development of symbolic interactionist theory, Lewis and Smith challenge prevailing beliefs regarding the unity of pragmatist thought and the centrality of George Herbert Mead to Chicago sociology. The authors emphasize the splits between the Peirce-Mead and James-Dewey clusters of pragmatist philosophy. They also stress that Mead was best characterized as a social behaviorist.

  • Maines, David. 2001. The faultline of consciousness: A view of interactionism. New York: Aldine.

    E-mail Citation »

    Maines reveals and critiques sociologists’ misguided views of interactionism. He also demonstrates how many prominent sociologists are “unaware interactionists,” making theoretical arguments based on interactionist concepts without recognizing they are doing so. This book includes several empirical chapters that illustrate how interactionism applies to the study of narratives and to the analysis of race, gender, urban inequality, and social institutions.

  • McPhail, Clark, and Cynthia Rexroat. 1979. Mead vs. Blumer: The divergent methodological perspectives of social behaviorism and symbolic interactionism. American Sociological Review 44:449–467.

    DOI: 10.2307/2094886E-mail Citation »

    McPhail and Rexroat critique Herbert Blumer’s translation of George Herbert Mead’s philosophical insights into sociological theory. They argue that Blumer misinterprets Mead by ignoring his emphasis on social behaviorism and positing a naturalistic perspective. In a comment, Blumer responds to this critique and defends his interpretation of Mead’s key ideas.

  • Sandstrom, Kent, Daniel Martin, and Gary Alan Fine. 2001. Symbolic interactionism at the end of the century. In The handbook of social theory. Edited by George Ritzer and Barry Smart, 217–231. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE.

    E-mail Citation »

    In this wide-ranging overview, the authors emphasize the key contributions of interactionism, demonstrating how it has informed and extended core elements of sociological theory. The authors also consider the new voices that have emerged within interactionism, such as feminism, conflict theory, and postmodernism, and the challenges these voices pose for the future of the perspective.

  • Shalin, Dmitri. 1986. Pragmatism and social interactionism. American Sociological Review 51:9–29.

    DOI: 10.2307/2095475E-mail Citation »

    Shalin demonstrates the multiple effects that pragmatic philosophy had on the writings of George Herbert Mead and subsequently on the development of symbolic interactionist theory.

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