Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological perspective that has also influenced areas that involve human interaction like communication and human interaction. The perspective basically propose that man construct symbols and give meanings to those symbols and respond to those symbols according to the meanings that we attach for each social symbol (Griffin, 1997). Mead proposed symbolic interactionism in the early years of sociological thought, but it was Herbert Blumer (1969) who coined the term symbolic interactionism and applied it to explain the process of communication. For Blumer (1969), symbolic interactionism theory explains how a person develops his/her self in relation to his/her society as well as a means of understanding the process with which socialization is manifested. The theory has three integral constructs; meaning, language and thought. These three elements are necessary for the understanding of human interaction.

Blumer (1969) said that the element of meaning refers to how individuals behave towards people and things in conjunction with the meanings they have attached to those things or people.

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Blumer (1969) contends that the element of meaning is a key element why people behave as they do. The second element is language, in itself, language is a symbol that man have learned to create and use in order to express the meanings that he/she have ascribed to that word or language. Mead has argued that the use of speech to interact with others is the basis for symbolic interaction, thus when an individual engages in discourse, he/she is able to identify the meaning of the exchanged information. Lastly, the element of thought refers to the tendency of man to modify his/her interpretation of the meaning of the symbols that he/she uses in discourse. That is, man is equipped with the ability to consider different views, opinions, or understanding of a symbol, which may be influenced by social norms or social groups.

One of my friend announced that she was getting married in a few months, the preparations were well under way and I was happy for her. After a month, I called again to ask her the final details of her wedding day, to my surprise she said that the wedding has been postponed indefinitely and to top it off, she was two months pregnant! I was curious with what really occurred between her fiancée when they were clearly so in love and ready to settle down. She told me that while they were planning for the wedding, she found out that she was pregnant, and then she told her fiancée and said that they should inform her parents. However, they decided to the keep it a secret and just go ahead with the wedding preparations, however, her fiancée said that they might move the wedding date because he could not pass up a very important job promotion which was an international assignment for 8 months. My friend vehemently opposed because that would mean that she had to give birth first before they could get married and with most of the preparations almost completed it was pointless to postpone it. But her fiancée decided to take the assignment and left her saying that it would be the best for their future, so she decided that her fiancée is really not that keen on marrying her and refused to communicate with him. To this day she have not called or emailed him and she plans on keeping the baby but she have given up hope of a marrying the father of her child.


After much thought, I analyzed the problem between my friend and her fiancée using Blumer’s symbolic interaction theory using the three core elements of meaning, language and thought.

The miscommunication between my friend and her fiancée can be explained through the element of meaning. They have assigned different meanings to each other and their relationship. To my friend, a fiancée is an “almost husband” that has to put his family first above all other things. Thus when her fiancée left and chose to seek a career move, she was disappointed and devastated since her fiancée’s behavior was not congruent with the meaning she has of a fiancée. On the other hand, the fiancée’s meaning of my friend was a girlfriend who should be supportive of his aspirations and be understanding of his decisions. From this vantage, one would see that they both have valid arguments and point of view neither is wrong nor right. It just so happened that they have attached different meanings for each other, which may also be a product of how they were socialized to take on gender roles.

Using the lens of language, the miscommunication between my friend and her fiancée can also be explained with the different meanings they ascribed to the phrase “not passing up an important job promotion”. Apparently, to my friend’s fiancée, his concept of the phrase included being encouraged and supported to take the offer, that the opportunity is a once in a lifetime chance of getting ahead in his career, that it would enable him to become economically more stable and able to start a family. This meaning was brought about by his interaction with his boss and peers that encouraged him to grab the opportunity. To my friend however, it was something else, she assigned meaning to it as valuing money more than family or relationships. She imbibed this meaning from her parents and friends that have told her that family is more important than earning more. Moreover, another language they had different meanings of the word “wedding”. To my friend wedding means the ultimate expression of one’s commitment to each other and the start of a lifetime together. She sees it as a once in a lifetime event that should take center stage in one’s life when the time comes. With the effort and expense spent in preparing for the wedding, she was able to form the said meaning of the word. For her fiancée, wedding was just a ceremony that could be scheduled and postponed. This indicate that even two people who have been together for sometime and are in love with each other who agree to commit themselves to a wedding can have entirely different meanings to the same word.

Lastly, the element of thought can also cause misunderstandings in how people communicate. My friend thought that her fiancée’s decision to take the overseas assignment was an abandonment of his responsibility towards her, their coming child and to their friends and parents who have already been informed of their wedding. When she said that her fiancée is not that keen to marry her and that she would not have anything to do with him, is just a reaction base don what she thought of her fiancée’s action. On the other hand, the fiancée probably chose to take the offered promotion because he thought that my friend would appreciate the effort.

From the analysis of their misunderstanding, it is clear that miscommunication could easily occur when two people fail to share the same meaning, language and thought of their words and manner of interaction. Symbolic interactionism have provided the tools that would digest the miscommunication and possibly can be used as basis for conflict resolution if one could just bring these two people on the same frame of reference.

Symbolic interactionism as a theory has its strengths and weaknesses. One of its strength is that it gives us a framework in which to understand how meaning is formed, shared and exchanged by people. For me, symbolic interactionism can be identified to belong to the humanistic tradition that is the focus of the concept is the person. Man has the ability, the freedom and the choice to attach different meanings to different symbols that we use in everyday life. A word, an action, an event or even an object can contain different meanings and these meanings are always in accordance to the personality and the values of that person. The theory is also utilitarian, in that it has prescriptions for how to interpret meaning, language and thought. It also considers the culture of the person and how the self is developed as a function of socialization based on the different symbols that that culture use and value.

Based on the standards of what makes a good theory, symbolic interactionism meets the criteria (Anderson & Ross, 1998). First it offers a novel way of understanding human nature, it explains how man form meaning. Values are clarified wherein the theory favors human interaction since it is where meaning is developed and shared. The theory in essence is a practical one, it only has three parts that can be used to analyze any given interaction, and therefore it is aesthetically appealing. Blumer’s theory have also been accepted by the academic community and empirical studies have given it a scientific basis, thus academicians are in agreement about the claims of the theory. Lastly, the theory emphasized the role of human interaction in the development of society and in the socialization process. It underscores the necessity of interaction as a way of transmitting cultural values and should be given more importance.

The weakness of symbolic interactionism is that even if it explains how meaning is formed, it does not explain why people hold such meaning and it cannot fully account for the difference of meaning that people have for the same thing it just says that they are just different (LaRossa & Reitzes, 1993). It also appear that the emphasis of meaning in interpreting the actions of individuals is a simple attempt at naming that specific behavior when in fact a person may behave towards a person or an event based on previously held beliefs or acquired meanings. Take for example the engaged couple, whose interaction was focused on whether to get married or to take the promotion, each of them reacted to that interaction based on their previous learning and socialization and that discovering the meanings they have for it is merely identifying what they thought of it and not how they formed that meaning. The three elements used to understand human interaction is simple and yet it seemed to be explaining the same thing, meaning is ascribed to a person or event based on his/her language and how a person thinks about that symbol or language is based on its meaning.


The theory of symbolic interactionism offers a new way of understanding human interaction and how miscommunication can occur. It allows us to dissect the interaction and analyze it in its context, that is meaning rose from the interaction and it is a good way of explaining why so many of us fail to understand each other. I personally think that the theory is noteworthy in that it gives us a tool to explain social interaction. Based on the case presented in this paper, how a person interacts with another leads the person to develop its own meaning, language and thought.