Today we’re going to look at George Herbert Mead’s theory: Symbolic Interactionism. This theory of communication surmises that people act towards things according to the meaning those things have to them.
Okay that sounds kinda complicated. So let’s break it down, shall we?
Mead theorised that we continually use language and gestures – the symbols – in anticipation of how the other person will react. It includes five core principles:
- Meaning, which involves the construction of social reality.
- Language, which is the source of meaning which arises out of social interaction, and is not in the object itself, but in the language used to describe that object.
- Thinking, which is the process of taking the role of the “other”. We interpret symbols based on our own thought processes and have the ability to take other’s standpoint to do the same.
- The Self, which is divided into the subjective self (the “I”) that constructs all that is novel, unpredictable and unorganised; and the objective self (the “me”) that constitutes the image of the self seen from the other’s perspective.
- Society, which refers to the socialising effect of other’s expectations .
Emmanuel Levinas would have us believe that without the Other, there is no “I”. (Am I the only one who thinks this sounds really philosophical and existential?). He opines that we have an obligation to take care of each other and the way we do this shapes our “I”. This is called the ethical echo.
In Real Life…
I think a good way to examine an example of this theory is by looking at how much our communication content can affect others.
Okay, it might not be “real life” since I’m using a movie, but if you’ve seen Mean Girls you already sort of get what symbolic interactionism is all about – even if you’re not aware of it.
Mean Girls all about this girl named Cady who was home-schooled in Africa for 15 years moving to Chicago and going to public school for the first time. (Thank you IMDb!). First she befriends the generally ‘outcast’ group, consisting of a supposedly lesbian girl Janis, and Damian who is “too gay to function”. (There words not mine). Then she tries to get in to the A-clique, the Plastics.
Cady, only now learning the rules of high-school hierarchy, spends pretty much the entire movie trying to decide whether to become a “Plastic”, or to continue her existence in the school’s out crowd.
Let’s talk about that in terms of the theory.
Cady has the ‘benefit’ of being exposed to messages from both the out-crowd an the in-crowd. Her affiliation with Janis and Damian comes out of their goodness. Her association with the Plastics paints them as bad people – weird, not the norm.
What either party says about the other is what she uses to construct her views on them both (as mixed up as they eventually become). I think though that Cady takes assuming the role of the other too far. Mostly because she associates popularity with the traits of the Plastics – it becomes her own reality.
She doesn’t only look at herself in this warped manner, she looks at her friends the same way – so much so that eventually a comment slips about how Damian is too gay to function. (Told you it wasn’t me who said it)
Cady does all of this in a context where the more she associates with the Plastics, the more their viewpoint constructs her reality. She basically gives up who she is for the sake of having a legacy that isn’t even good. Tch, the price ya pay for popularity.
If we were to treat symbolic interactionism as an objective theory, then we could poke holes in it all day for being a poor one. However, this theory falls under the sociocultural tradition as a variation. It should thus be evaluated as an interpretive theory.
On the upside, Mead successfully clarifies values by examining the human as able to determine their lives through free choice, rather than have it determined for them. He looks socially constructing the self and the influence of society, thus offering a new understanding of people. Symbolic interactionism garnered support from sociologists, and inspired extensive research of the topic.
If memory serves, good interpretive theories also supposedly spark some reform of society, and have aesthetic appeal. I can concede that knowing about the ethical echo Levinas mentioned at least provokes thought about being careful communicators. As for aesthetic appeal, I’m not quite satisfied on this front. Even in breaking it down, to it’s basic elements it gets easy to lose oneself in all the theory – and I would like to think clarity is rather aesthetically appealing.
Still, it’s interesting…what do you think?
Cyndi, the Theory Analyst