In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Symbolic Interactionism in Communication

  • Introduction
  • Journals and Associations
  • Early Theoretical Roots: Pragmatism
  • Early Theoretical Roots: Social Theory
  • Later Theoretical Roots
  • Early Interactionist Strains in Communication
  • Media Studies
  • Information and Communication Technology
  • Methods
  • The Future of Symbolic Interactionism in Communication

Communication Symbolic Interactionism in Communication
Jan Fernback
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 June 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0232


Symbolic interactionism has nearly a hundred-year history as an approach to understanding human communication. With its roots in pragmatism (Dewey), social theory (Mead, Blumer), and later social psychology (Goffman), symbolic interactionism contends that humans interpret and assign meaning to events via an elaborate set of symbols. The meanings of these symbols originate and evolve through human social interaction. These interactions form the foundation for people’s notions of self and society. Thus, the material world, as well as concepts of self, is constructed through an interactive, communicative process. Observing neither idealist nor materialist suppositions about ontological precedence, symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theory addressing how the social world is created and sustained through continual and varied interactions among people. It is useful in the study of communication because it explains meaning creation among interlocutors; symbolic interactionism is a theory of language, communication, and socialization. Symbolic interactionism centers on the subjective interpretation of meaning by individual actors. Symbolic interactionists do not deny that institutional structures possess social importance; rather, they attend to the act of meaning construction—how repeated, significant interactions among people, within themselves, and with environments construct the social order. With the interpretive turn in social theory—in which subjective epistemologies gained scholarly value—during the 1980s and beyond, symbolic interactionism became more prominent and influential in other theoretical strains, including identity theory, feminist and queer theories, post-structuralism, critical race theory, and theories of performativity. Increasingly, symbolic interactionism is being applied to the study of social institutions in a meso or macro sense. Methodologically, symbolic interactionism’s emphasis on symbolic meaning, human agency, and interpretive epistemology compels it toward discourse and textual analysis, ethnography, observation, and performance studies. However, a form of symbolic interactionism promoted chiefly by Manford Kuhn introduced a quantitative vein to the scientific study of human interactive behavior. With its broad perspectives (including Karl Weick’s work in organizational culture), symbolic interactionism has gained status in the study of communication.

Journals and Associations

Several associations exist for the explicit study of symbolic interactionism. The Carl Couch Center for Social and Internet Research provides networking opportunities to scholars working on social and Internet research within the tradition inspired by Couch’s New Iowa School. The nonprofit center awards the Carl J. Couch Internet Research Award as well as awards named for other prominent interactionist scholars including Norman Denzin, James Carey, David Maines, and Bruce Gronbeck. The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) is a professional organization dedicated to serving scholars researching topics that focus on “identity, everyday practice, and language.” The SSSI bestows awards named for Blumer, Mead, and Cooley, and also holds the Couch-Stone Symposium each year to honor Carl Couch and Gregory Stone. It also publishes the journal Symbolic Interaction. The Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) operates as “a collective member of the SSSI” and, since 2010, has held annual conferences focusing on the study of symbolic interaction within European traditions. It is affiliated with the journal Qualitative Sociology Review. Other journals of note for communication scholars interested in interactionist research include Studies in Symbolic Interaction, Mind, Culture & Activity, Discourse & Communication, Communication Theory, the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, and Qualitative Research Reports in Communication.

  • Carl Couch Center for Social and Internet Research.

    The CCCSIR is a nonprofit association of interdisciplinary researchers who specialize in scholarship inspired by Carl Couch’s New Iowa School work on Internet technologies within the sociological and communication traditions. The center presents several awards to promote Internet research in the symbolic interactionist tradition, including the Carl J. Couch Internet Research Award, bestowed to student scholars through the Association of Internet Researchers.

  • Communication Theory. 1991–.

    A journal of the International Communication Association, Communication Theory publishes theoretical advancements in communication, and has included works on social interaction and symbolic activity.

  • Discourse & Communication. 2007–.

    This interdisciplinary journal publishes qualitative discourse analyses related to any branch of communication studies. Edited by Teun A. van Dijk, the journal invites works by scholars from other disciplines, including semiotics and linguistics, and has featured articles using interactionist concepts.

  • Journal of Contemporary Ethnography. 1972–.

    An interdisciplinary journal, it emphasizes naturalistic ethnographic approaches to the study of human behavior. Examining social practices and social interactions, the journal takes a broad view of social arrangements within “subcultures, cultures, organizations, and societies,” and includes a number of significant articles in the Chicago School genre.

  • Mind, Culture & Activity. 1994–.

    This journal’s mission closely parallels the aims of the interactionist tradition, publishing empirical studies examining the interconnection between the individual mind, the social environment, and the structure of mind/culture in human activity. An international and interdisciplinary journal, it stresses “theoretical approaches that locate culture and activity at the center of attempts to understand human experience and research that attends to the methodological problems associated with the analysis of human action in everyday activities.”

  • Qualitative Research Reports in Communication. 2000–.

    This journal, sponsored by the Eastern Communication Association, features brief research essays of 2,500 words or fewer on issues of human communication. The perspective includes interpersonal, intercultural, organizational, mediated, and legal communication.

  • Qualitative Sociology Review. 2005–.

    QSR is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal dedicated to the qualitative, interpretive inquiry into social phenomena. The quarterly journal focuses on symbolic interactionism as well as other social theories, including grounded theory, phenomenology, and various ethnographic theories.

  • Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI).

    The SSSI and its European branch, the EU SSSI, is a collection of scholars whose work is inspired by the American symbolic interactionism of Mead and Blumer as well as European social theory. Research conducted under the auspices of the SSSI focuses on identity, language, and common social practices.

  • Studies in Symbolic Interaction. 1977–.

    This series consists of theoretical and empirical research within a broad framework of the interactionist tradition. Drawing upon multiple perspectives informing symbolic interactionism, the volume seeks to address theories of language, self, social relationships, culture, history, media and communication, and identity. It also accentuates research based on qualitative methods from interpretive sources including feminist and queer theory, performance studies, postcolonialism, conflict theory, and critical race theory.

  • Symbolic Interaction. 1978–.

    Symbolic Interaction is a quarterly journal publishing research engaging with social theory inspired by the tradition of pragmatism. Focusing largely on qualitative methods, the journal is interdisciplinary and publishes work that expands interactionist theory involving a variety of subjects, including communication and media. It is the official journal of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction.

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