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Chapter 5

SOC 3310 Chapter Notes - Chapter 5: George Herbert Mead, Symbolic Interactionism, Herbert Blumer

Course Code
SOC 3310
Reza Barmaki

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Textbook: Chapter 5 - Symbolic Interactionism and Dramaturgy
Herbert Blumer
Intellectual Influences and Core Ideas
-sophisticated the ideas that George Herbert Mead put forth….developed them into the discipline known
as Symbolic Interactionism
view of the Self —> does not passively react to its environment, but actively creates the conditions to
which it responds
Mead’s views were counter to those associated with behavioural psychologist John B Watson…whose
leading ideas claimed that both human and animal behaviour can be explained and predicted on the
basis of laws that govern to association of behavioural responses to external stimuli
it is against this picture of a passive non reflexive self that Mead developed his picture of “social
Mead viewed the mind as a behavioural process that entails a “conversation of significant gestures,” in
this internal conversation the individual becomes an object to him or herself through “taking the
attitude of the other” — individuals then shape their actions on the basis of the imagined responses
they attribute to others
self-control of what we saw and do is in actuality a form of social control, as we check our behaviours
against the responses we anticipate will be elicited from others
Mead describes meaning in the context of social interaction as a “threefold” relationship between;
1.1. an individual’s gesture
1.2. the adjustive response by another to that gesture
1.3. the completion of the response to a gesture developed within a social act
meaning does not exist within one’s consciousness, nor does it exist independently of the reality of
-like Mead, Blumer also contrasts symbolic interactionism with the views of psychological
behaviourism by emphasizing interpretation (constructing the meaning of another’s actions as well as
one’s own, since meaning is not realized by, or inherent in the actions themselves)
-thus self consciousness is only experienced indirectly from the standpoints of other individuals, seeing
our self as an object becomes possible only by taking the attitudes of others toward our self
-thus, self-consciousness makes possible joint action — “the larger collective form of action that is
constituted by the fitting together of the lines of behaviour of the separate participants”
“the first premise is that human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that things have
for them…the second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of,t he
social interaction that one has with it’s fellows…and the third premise is that these meanings are handled
in, and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he
Blumer’s Theoretical Orientation
-individualistic and non-rationalist
-social order is continually constructed and reconstructed through the fitting together of acts by
individuals who are attempting to interpret and define the situations in which they find themselves
developed through his critique of the overly “static” traditional view of social life presented in
collectivist orientation to social order
-believed that societal factors such as norms, values, culture, roles and status positions (all collectivist
concepts) play an important role in organizing social life, however they only become significant as they
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enter into the process of interpretation and definition out of which joint actions are formed
-individuals approach situations pragmatically, or as “problems” to be solved
-whether the occasion of a joint action is a first time collaboration between new coworkers, or a weekly
family dinner, fitting together lines of conduct is based on the shared meanings that participants ascribe
to the situation
-meanings are themselves subject to pressure as well last o reinforcement to incipient dissatisfaction as
well as to indifference; they may be challenged as well as affirmed, allowed to slip along without
concern as well as subjected to infusions of vigour
Primary Source — “The Methodological Position of Symbolic Interactionism” — Herbert Blumer
The Nature of Symbolic Interactionism
-rests on 3 simple premises;
human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them (physical
objects, people, institutions, categories of humans, guiding ideals, activities of others, etc.)
the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with
one’s fellows
these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in
dealing with he things he encounters
-tendency to ignore first premise, and treat human behaviour as the product of various factors that play
upon human beings — concern is with the behaviour and with the factors regarded as producing them
psychological explanations — stimuli, attitudes, conscious or unconscious motives, perception and
sociological explanations — social position, status demands, social roles, cultural prescriptions, norms
and values, social pressures, group affiliation
-in contrast, the position of symbolic interactionism is that the meanings that things have for human
beings are central in their own right
-several other approaches share the premise that human beings act towards things on the basis of the
meaning of such things — what differentiates symbolic interactionism is the second point; which refers
to the source of meaning
-2 dominant traditional views in accounting for origin of meaning;
meaning is intrinsic to the thing that is — meaning is merely disengaged by observing the object
for what it is — “realism” (a chair is a chair, a cow a cow, a cloud a cloud, a rebellion a
regards meaning as a psychical accretion brought to the thing by the person for whom the thing
has meaning —treated as being an expression of elements of the person’s psyche, mind, or
psychological organization
-symbolic interactionism takes a 3rd view — meaning arises in the process of interaction between
the meaning of a thing for a person grows out of the ways in which other persons act toward the
person with regard to the thing
sees meanings as social products, as creations that are formed in and through the defining
activities of people as they interact
-the use of meanings by a person in his action involves an interpretive process
2 distinct steps
-first actor indicates to himself the things toward which he is acting (internalized social process)
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-second, the actor selects, checks, suspends, regroups and transforms the meanings in the light of the
situation in which he is placed and the direction of his action
-symbolic interactionism grounded on a number of basic ideas — human groups or societies, social
interaction, objects, the human being as an actor, human action, interconnection of lines of action
Nature of Human Society or Human Group Life
-human groups or society exists in action and must be seen in terms of action
-life of any human society consists of an ongoing process of fitting together the activities of its members
-this complex of ongoing activity that establishes and portrays structure or organization
-culture —> clearly derived from what people do (customs, traditions, norms, values, rules)
-social structure —> refers to relationships derived from how people act toward each other (social
position, status, role, authority, prestige)
Nature of Social Interaction
-typical sociological theme downplays importance of social interaction…ascribes behaviour to such
factors as status position, cultural prescriptions, norms, values, sanctions, role demands, social systems
-symbolic interactionism recognizes social interaction to be of vital importance due to the fact that it is a
social process that forms human conduct instead of being merely a means or a setting for the
expression or release of human conduct
activities of others enter as positive factors in the formation of their own conduct
-George Herbert Mead identifies 2 forms or levels of social interaction in human society
“conversation of gestures”/ non-symbolic interaction — involves interpretation of the action
“use of significant symbols”/ symbolic interaction — occurs when one responds directly to the action
of another without interpreting that action [reflexes]
…in their association human beings engage plentifully in non-symbolic interaction as they respond
immediately and unreflectively to each other’s bodily movements, expressions and tones of voice —
but their characteristic modes of interaction is on the symbolic level
gestures have meaning for both the person who makes it, and for the person to whom it is directed —
the parties understand each other when this meaning is the same
finally, parties to such int reaction must necessarily take each other’s role…in order to anticipate
response as well as grasp the intention and forthcoming action
-central place and importance of symbolic interaction in human group life and conduct — a human
society exists of people in association — human group life is a vast process of such defining to others
what to do and of interpreting their definitions…people come to fit their activities to one another and
form their own individual conduct
Nature of Objects
-the “worlds” that exist for human beings are composed of “objects” and that these objects are the
product of symbolic interaction
-object = anything that can be referred to
physical objects — chair, book, banker, ghost, religious doctrine
social objects — student, priest, mother, friend
abstract objects — moral principles, philosophical doctrines, justice, exploitation, compassion
-an object may have different meanings for different individuals
-meaning of objects for a person arises fundamentally out of the way they are defined to him by others
with whom he interacts
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