Herbert Blumer coined the term Symbolic Interactionism in 1937 that is based on the works of G H Mead. John Dewey, Cooley and William Thomas influenced him. It rejected both social and biological determinism and argued that man himself creates social reality by meanings created through interaction. Symbolic Interaction was influenced by the view of Charles Horton Cooley that the sense of self is not self-generating but it is developed through interaction with significant others. In our social interaction other people act like a mirror or looking glass in which we see ourselves. What other people think of us is like a mirror image of ourselves in society. A person compares his self-image to how others perceive him.
It places a strong emphasis on symbols and language as core element of all human interactions. Mead understood the human behavior as governed by the internal processes by which people interpret the whole world around them and give meanings to their lives. These meanings are reinforced and modified during the process of interaction. Symbolic interaction stresses upon that social phenomenon which must be understood in terms of the interaction between the participating individuals. According to Mead, interactions are possible only through some symbols called significant symbols like language and gestures. Symbolic Interactionism springs from the concern for language and meanings. It directs the attention to the details of interpersonal interaction. Irving Goffman one of the Symbolic Interactionist made landmark contributions in his studies of mental asylums and the ways in which people present themselves in social encounters. To Blumer, behaviorism and structural functionalism both tend to focus on factors that cause human behavior. According to him, both theories ignored the crucial process by which actors endow the forces acting on them and their own behaviors with meaning. Individuals in human society are not seen as units that are motivated by external or internal forces beyond their control or within the confines of a more or less fixed structure. Rather they are viewed as reflective or interacting units that comprise the social entity.
According to Joel M Charon in his Symbolic Interactionism: An Introduction, An Interpretation, An integration 2004 talks about five characteristics of Symbolic Interaction which include the assumptions that human beings should be considered as social and thinking beings, human perceive their environment subjectively and not objectively cause of human action lies in present and they are not passive to their environment. The crucial assumption that human beings possess the ability to think differentiates symbolic interactionism from its behaviorist roots. The ability to think enables people to act reflectively rather than just behave unreflectively. The ability to think is embedded in the mind and mind is different from physiological brain. Mind is a result of socialization process and it is not a thing but is a process. To the social interactionist, socialization is a more dynamic process that allows people to develop the ability to think to develop in distinctively human ways. Socialization is not simply a one way process in which the actor receives information but it is a dynamic process in which the actor shapes and adapts the information to his or her own needs. Interaction is the process in which the ability to think is both developed and expressed. All types of interaction, not just interactions during socialization refine our ability to think. In most interactions actors must take account of others and decide if and how to fit their activities to others. However not all interactions involve thinking. According to Blumer, non-symbolic interactions do not require thinking, but symbolic interactions require thinking. Symbolic Interactionist conceives language as a vast system of symbols. Words are symbols because they are used to stand for things. Words make all other symbols possible. Acts, objects and other words exist and have a meaning only because they have been and can be described through the use of words. Symbols are crucial in allowing people to act in distinctively human ways. Because of the symbol the human being does not respond passively to a reality that imposes itself but actively creates and re creates the world acted in.
Arlie Hochschild in , The Managed Heart :1983 used symbolic Interaction that is based on her study of Delta Airlines. She studied how the airhostesses manage their emotions to serve the passengers better. She terms this as emotional labor. She used the perspective to understand an aspect of life that looked very basic and concludes that a very personal thing like emotion is also commoditized.