4. Interactionism

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bayes’ Theorem But Were Afraid To Ask.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bayes’ Theorem But Were Afraid To Ask.

This is an interactive lecture which includes links to internet sources, videos, and polls. This lecture on the interactionism perspective contains copyrighted material under the educational fair use exemption to the U.S. copyright law.

Caption: Freedom Trash Can, Miss America Protest, Atlantic City, 1968
Throwing bras into the “freedom trashcan” symbolized the freedom from the Miss America beauty pageant’s objectification of women. Later the mass media used these images as a symbol of the women’s rights movement and constructed a demeaning image of feminists as “bra burners,” although no bras were burned.

Throwing bras into the “freedom trashcan” symbolized the freedom from the Miss America beauty pageant’s objectification of women. Later the mass media used these images as a symbol of the women’s rights movement and constructed a demeaning image of feminists as “bra burners,” although no bras were burned.

Thus far, we have examined macro-level sociological theories: structural functionalism and conflict theory.
Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that explains social life through a microanalysis framework. Symbolic interactionists see individuals agreeing on meanings resulting from relationships or interactions. Meanings are created through language both verbal and nonverbal.
George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is one of the fathers of symbolic interactionism. Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) and Erving Goffman (1922-1982) among others are also considered major symbolic interactionism sociologists.

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that explains social life through a microanalysis framework. Symbolic interactionists see individuals agreeing on meanings resulting from relationships or interactions. Meanings are created through language both verbal and nonverbal.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is one of the fathers of symbolic interactionism. Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) and Erving Goffman (1922-1982) among others are also considered major symbolic interactionism sociologists.

People cannot interact with each other without the use of symbols or language. Interaction through symbols allows social life to exist as people communicate with each other through language which is used to put definitions on thoughts, things, actions, etc. Without language, cultures would not be able to exist. Language is also learned and reflects our cultural upbringing. Complex human thought is possible because we have a learned and shared language.

It’s Your Turn: Think about thinking. Notice how you think in symbols or language. Remember that language includes both verbal and nonverbal representations of life. Is thought even possible without language or the use of symbols?

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Symbols have cultural meanings attached to them and are expressed verbally and nonverbally such as body language and gestures. Take for example the “thumbs up” gesture and the various cultural meanings behind it: “In the Unites States the thumbs up is used as a sign for approval and success, whereas the thumbs down conveys the opposite. In Europe the thumbs up is also a signal for goodbye, or a greeting in passing, especially among young people. The thumbs up sign in Middle Eastern countries, Iran, Iraq and Thailand, is an extremely obscene gesture, equivalent to flipping the finger in Europe. In India, the thumbs up, combined with a wagging of the fist means, I doubt that will work” (Bright Hub Education).
Some years ago, the relationship between Iraq and the United States suffered after an Iraqi journalist threw both of his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference. In the Middle East, bottoms of shoes are associated with dirt and so exposing the bottom of a shoe or throwing a shoe at someone is culturally considered offensive and insulting.
There have been numerous studies by psychologists on nonverbal communication and today social scientists generally agree that nonverbal communication such as gestures, body language, expressions of emotions, written language, and so forth make up the majority of our everyday communication. In fact, within the first few seconds of meeting a stranger, we will have sized up the person before we even exchange our first verbal or non verbal greeting.
It’s Your Turn: The next time you meet a person for the first time, pay close attention to your “story” about this person.

Some years ago, the relationship between Iraq and the United States suffered after an Iraqi journalist threw both of his shoes at President George W. Bush during a news conference. In the Middle East, bottoms of shoes are associated with dirt and so exposing the bottom of a shoe or throwing a shoe at someone is culturally considered offensive and insulting.

There have been numerous studies by psychologists on nonverbal communication and today social scientists generally agree that nonverbal communication such as gestures, body language, expressions of emotions, written language, and so forth make up the majority of our everyday communication. In fact, within the first few seconds of meeting a stranger, we will have sized up the person before we even exchange our first verbal or non verbal greeting.

It’s Your Turn: The next time you meet a person for the first time, pay close attention to your “story” about this person.

It’s Your Turn: Examine the image below. How do you interpret the social interactions? Is this a formal or informal atmosphere? Are there apparent relationships? How much of your “story” is influenced by cultural interpretations?

Check This Out: Read this article regarding anthropologist Edward Hall’s research on nonverbal communication and ethnic groups.

The “story” we carry in our minds about individuals is influenced by how they present themselves to us and the cultural stereotypes that we have about those representations. Stereotypes are generalizations and they help us quickly assess how we should interact with people. However since stereotypes are generalizations that often are not true, they also have consequences on individuals and social life.

Check This Out: Non-Verbal Cues Are Easy to Misinterpret

The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis predicts that when people share the same language; words then create certain mental images and those mental images might not exist among people who speak different languages. The meanings of some words or phrases in one language cannot necessarily be directly translated into another language because other cultures might not share the same contextual framework for understanding.

Check This Out: Read this article about controversies and stereotypes regarding Asian languages – Writing as a Block for Asians

It’s Your Turn: Pay close attention to the images in your mind as you read the following words: cute, pretty, beautiful, gorgeous, bootylicious.

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Symbolic interaction sociologists view social life as a social construction of reality. As people (social) interact or communicate with each other they develop (construct) same or similar understandings of social life (reality) that may or may not be logical or make sense to people of other cultures.
It’s Your Turn: Examine the image to your right and share it with several of your colleagues. Chances are that each person will see only one of the two images represented. Pay attention to how you and your colleagues come to share the same reality in which all of you see both images. Go back and re-read the above paragraph regarding the social construction of reality.
The common understanding of race in the United States is that race is biological. However, in most countries around the world people perceive race as social categories related to ethnicities rather than biology. Conflict around the world is usually among different ethnic groups.
Another example of the social construction of reality is the different degrees of eye contact that are permissible or expected. In some cultures, direct eye contact is respectful while in others direct eye contact with people of higher social status is disrespectful. There are further nuances such as young and elderly, males and females, workplace and other expressions of eye contact that are socially constructed within each culture.
As you can see, culture is the main component of the social construction of reality and is influenced by geography, history, science, and current events among other factors. Social change occurs as new cultural meanings and definitions are constructed through the interactions between people. To understand societal changes, symbolic interaction sociologists pay close attention to language as explained in the video below.

It’s Your Turn: Examine the image to your right and share it with several of your colleagues. Chances are that each person will see only one of the two images represented. Pay attention to how you and your colleagues come to share the same reality in which all of you see both images. Go back and re-read the above paragraph regarding the social construction of reality.

The common understanding of race in the United States is that race is biological. However, in most countries around the world people perceive race as social categories related to ethnicities rather than biology. Conflict around the world is usually among different ethnic groups.

Another example of the social construction of reality is the different degrees of eye contact that are permissible or expected. In some cultures, direct eye contact is respectful while in others direct eye contact with people of higher social status is disrespectful. There are further nuances such as young and elderly, males and females, workplace and other expressions of eye contact that are socially constructed within each culture.

As you can see, culture is the main component of the social construction of reality and is influenced by geography, history, science, and current events among other factors. Social change occurs as new cultural meanings and definitions are constructed through the interactions between people. To understand societal changes, symbolic interaction sociologists pay close attention to language as explained in the video below.

It’s Your Turn: Think about the meanings of the following words to determine the dominant group and minority group.

Cultural meanings significantly influence our self identities or personalities. We as individuals view ourselves both in relation to the cultural meanings of language (symbols) and in relation to others in our everyday lives (interactions).

Young men may be pressured to act “manly” due to cultural expectations and this behavior is further influenced through their interactions with others.

Since we have a story in our minds about others, others have a story in their minds about us. When people communicate with each other, each person in the interaction attempts to change h/her behavior to accommodate what we believe the other person is thinking of us. This is referred to as the looking glass self.

Examples of the Looking Glass Self:

Over time, through our interactions with others, we start to notice patterns in how people perceive us. The positive and/or negative perceptions and judgments that people such as our parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, peers, friends, neighbors, co-workers, coaches, etc. place on us slowly become engrained within our personalities or self-identities. The self-fulfilling prophecy is the condition that occurs over time as we become the labels that other people or groups of people have placed on us through verbal and nonverbal interactions.
Examples of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:

Examples of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy:

It’s Your Turn: Growing up, were you aware of positive and/or negative labels that your family members placed on you verbally and/or nonverbally? What about your teachers? What were some of those labels? In what respects did you become those labels today? Watch the two videos below regarding names as representations of meanings and their outcomes.

As we fulfill the predictions (prophecies) that others place on us we then begin to view social life within the prism of this identity. The Thomas Theorem states: “if men define the situation as real, they are real in their consequences” (Garfield Library). This means that certain things happen to us because of the way we interpret or react to issues or people around us.
Examples of the Thomas Theorem:

Examples of the Thomas Theorem:

It’s Your Turn: How do the above examples relate to the cultural stereotypes we have about females and males? Think about what you read earlier about language and culture.

The looking glass self, self-fulfilling prophecy, and the Thomas Theorem are key terms coined by three different sociologists and therefore the definitions are interrelated as Cooley, Merton, and Thomas through their observations of society came to make similar conclusions. Here are examples of all three of the concepts:

It’s Your Turn: Watch the two videos below on self-mutilation and a coming out. Practice applying some of the key terms from the symbolic interactionism theory to both videos.

Check This Out: The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families

Erving Goffman a symbolic interaction sociologist, examined how individuals attempt to control the perceptions of others around them. His theory is referred to as: dramaturgy. Using the theatre as an example, Goffman viewed society as a stage and people as actors. Impression management refers to people (actors) modifying or controlling their image and behaviors (performance) in an attempt to influence what others (audience) think. How people control their image depends on the social environment (stage).
Front stage involves places or settings that have cultural expectations of people being on their best behavior and therefore involve people working hard to influence what others think of them.
Back stage involves places or settings that have lower cultural expectations of people being on their best behavior and therefore involve people being able to let their guard down. This can involve places or settings where a person is alone or with confidants such as certain family members, or close friends.
Face Saving involves teamwork in which people protect the image of another person in awkward situations.
Examples of Impression Management

Front stage involves places or settings that have cultural expectations of people being on their best behavior and therefore involve people working hard to influence what others think of them.

Back stage involves places or settings that have lower cultural expectations of people being on their best behavior and therefore involve people being able to let their guard down. This can involve places or settings where a person is alone or with confidants such as certain family members, or close friends.

Face Saving involves teamwork in which people protect the image of another person in awkward situations.

Examples of Impression Management

Check This Out: Read this article about impression management online.

Harold Garfinkel, a symbolic interaction sociologist, examined how people take for granted the social construction of reality within their everyday life. He coined the term ethnomethodology which is a way to study how people make sense and attach meaning to their environment.
Background assumptions are basic cultural ideas about social life that when violated leave people confused and shocked. Garfinkel had college students assist him in his study of social life by having them go out into everyday social settings and challenge the norms (expectations for normal behaviors) in different social settings. Today, the “breaking norm” assignment is popular among sociology college professors and you can find lots of these student projects on You Tube.
Social media popularized “flash mobs” in which a group of people give a planned but spontaneous in appearance performance (usually involves dancing). It is fun to watch the reactions of people in these public places get caught off guard by the “mob” as their background assumptions about human behavior are challenged and they attempt to make sense of the unusual behavior.
Here’s one of the most popular YouTube videos of all time (over 35 million views at the time of this writing). What patterns do you observe as people who are caught off guard attempt to make sense of the unusual behavior of others?

Background assumptions are basic cultural ideas about social life that when violated leave people confused and shocked. Garfinkel had college students assist him in his study of social life by having them go out into everyday social settings and challenge the norms (expectations for normal behaviors) in different social settings. Today, the “breaking norm” assignment is popular among sociology college professors and you can find lots of these student projects on You Tube.

Social media popularized “flash mobs” in which a group of people give a planned but spontaneous in appearance performance (usually involves dancing). It is fun to watch the reactions of people in these public places get caught off guard by the “mob” as their background assumptions about human behavior are challenged and they attempt to make sense of the unusual behavior.

Here’s one of the most popular YouTube videos of all time (over 35 million views at the time of this writing). What patterns do you observe as people who are caught off guard attempt to make sense of the unusual behavior of others?

It’s Your Turn: What do you imagine might happen when a person who is waiting in line at a McDonalds during lunch starts staring up at the ceiling?

Quiz Yourself: Complete this self-assessment related to the information in this lecture.
View Videos and Additional Resources: Interactionism Theory
Next Unit: Research Design

View Videos and Additional Resources: Interactionism Theory

Next Unit: Research Design

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