This approach stands in contrast to the strict behaviorism of psychological theories prevalent at the time it was first formulated (in the 1920s and 1930s), behaviorism and ethology, and also contrasts with structural-functionalism. According to Symbolic Interactionism, humans are distinct from infrahumans (lower animals)simply respond to their environment (i.e., a stimulus evokes a response or stimulus -> response) whereas humans have the ability to interrupt that process (i.e., stimulus -> cognition -> response). Additionally, infrahumans are unable to conceive of alternative responses to gestures. Humans, however, can. This understanding should not be taken to indicate that humans never behave in a strict stimulus -> response fashion, but rather that humans have the capability of not responding in that fashion (and do so much of the time).
This perspective is also rooted in phenomenological thought (see social constructionism and phenomonology. According to symbolic interactionism, the objective world has no reality for humans, only subjectively-defined objects have meaning. Meanings are not entities that are bestowed on humans and learned by habituation. Instead, meanings can be altered through the creative capabilities of humans, and individuals may influence the many meanings that form their society (Herman and Reynolds 1994). Human society, therefore, is a social product.
It should also be noted that symbolic interactionists advocate a particular methodology. Because they see meaning as the fundamental component of human/society interaction, studying human/society interaction requires getting at that meaning. Thus, symbolic interactionists tend to employ more qualitative rather than quantitative methods in their research.
In symbolic interactionist thought, there is a difference between infrahuman and human society. In infrahuman life, cooperation is physiologically determined. In other words, it is not a cognitive process; it results from instinct and biological programming rather than conscious thinking. In human society, cooperation is cognitive and conscious. Human cooperation can only be brought about by:
- each acting individual ascertaining the intention of the acts of others
- each acting individual deciding on his/her own response on the basis of that intention
Another distinction drawn between infrahumans and humans is in the types of communication employed. Infrahuman communication is gestural; it takes place immediately, without any interruption of the act for interpretation or assigning meaning. In contrast to infrahuman communication, human communication is meaningful in that gestures are symbolic and do not invoke immediate responses - humans must interpret gestures and assign them meaning. Because human communication involves interpretation and the assignment of meaning, it is only possible when there is consensus in meaning. Meanings for symbols must be shared.
Shared meaning necessarily takes place through role-taking; in order to complete an act, the actor must put himself in the position of the other person. Behavior is viewed as social not simply when it is a response to others, but rather when it has incorporated in it the behavior of others. Human beings respond to themselves as other persons respond to them, and in so doing they imaginatively share the conduct of others.
The self refers to the conscious, reflective personality of an individual. It is the entity the person envisions when he/she thinks about who they are. In order to understand the concept of self, it is important to understand that the development of self is only possible through role-taking. In order to look upon your self, you have to be able to take the role of another, which, in turn, allows you to reflect upon your self. Because role-taking is a necessary part of self-development, it is concurrent with the development of self.
According to Mead (1967), the self develops in a series of three stages:
- preparatory stage - meaningless imitation by the infant
- play stage - actual playing of roles occurs; but no unified conception of self develops
- game stage - this is the completion stage of self-development; the child finds who he or she is; the child also must respond to simultaneous roles; the individual can act with a certain amount of consistency in a variety of situations because he/she acts in accordance with a generalized set of expectations and definitions he/she has internalized
The self consists of two parts, the I and the Me. The I is the impulsive tendency of the individual (similar to Freud's notion of the Id). The I is the spontaneous, unorganized aspect of human existence. The Me is the incorporated other (see generalized other) within the individual. The incorporated or generalized other supplies an organized set of attitudes and definitions, understandings and expectations (or meanings) that are common to the group to which the individual belongs (similar to Freud's concept of the superego).
According to Mead's presentation of the I and the Me, action begins in the form of the I and ends in the form of the Me; the I gives propulsion while the Me gives direction. Additionally, the I, being creative and spontaneous, provides for change in society. The Me, being regulatory, works to maintain society. Thus, in the concept of self is a powerful and comprehensive understanding of how humans function in society and, in turn, how society functions (by both changing and remaining constant). The concept also depicts the relationship between the individual and society (Meltzer 1978).
According to Meltzer (1978), there are three implications of selfhood:
- the possession of self makes of the individual a society in miniature; humans can engage themselves in interaction; they can view themselves in a new way
- the ability to act toward oneself makes possible an inner experience which need not reach overt expression; humans can have a mental life
- an individual with a self can direct and control his behavior
It is also important to recognize that the self and the mind are twin emergents in the social process...
The Mind or mental component of man emerges out of human communication. The mind is only present when significant symbols (as opposed to gestures that do not have meaning but simply evoke responses) are being used in communication. In this sense, mind is a process manifested whenever the individual is interacting with himself using significant symbols (symbols or gestures with interpretations or meanings).
The mind is also the component of the individual that interrupts responses to stimuli. It is the mind that attempts to pre-vision the future by exploring possible outcomes of actions before proceeding with actions. In minded behavior, the individual carries on an internal conversation.
The basic assumptions of symbolic interactionism, according to Herman and Reynolds (1994), are:
- humans live in a symbolic world of learned meanings
- symbols arise in the social process and are shared
- symbols have motivational significance; meaning and symbols allow individuals to carry out distinctively human action and interaction
- the mind is a functional, volitional, teleological entity serving the interests of the individual; Humans, unlike the lower animals, are endowed with the capacity for thought; the capacity for thought is shaped by social interaction
- the self is a social construct; just as individuals are born mindless, so too, are they born selfless; our selves arise in social interaction with others
- society is a linguistic or symbolic construct arising out of the social process; it consists of individuals interacting
- sympathetic introspection is a mandatory mode of inquiry
- Blumer, H. 1986. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. University of California Press. ISBN 0520056760
- Herman, Nancy J. and Reynolds, Larry T. 1994. Symbolic Interaction: An Introduction to Social Psychology. Altamira Press. ISBN 1882289226
- Mead, George Herbert. 1967. Mind, Self, & Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Morris, Charles W. Editor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226516687
- Meltzer, Bernard N. 1978. The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead. In Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology. Manis, Jerome and Meltzer, Bernard N. Editors. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0205060625
This chapter also draws heavily on the following Wikipedia articles: