Article

Symbolic Interactionism

Gary Fine and Kent Sandstrom

in Sociology

ISBN: 9780199756384
Published online July 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0061
Symbolic Interactionism

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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.

Article.  13977 words. 

Subjects: Sociology ; Comparative and Historical Sociology ; Economic Sociology ; Gender and Sexuality ; Health, Illness, and Medicine ; Population and Demography ; Race and Ethnicity ; Social Movements and Social Change ; Social Stratification, Inequality, and Mobility ; Social Theory

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