Group Contributors: Andrée Dumont, Mubeen Ladhani, Amy Wright, Tara Litherland, Naseem Aidid, Tahani Ibrahimkahn

Keywords: Interaction, action, symbolic, meanings, communicating, self-interaction

Symbolic Interactionism Pioneers:

George_Mead.jpgGeorge Herbert Mead (February 27, 1863 – April 26, 1931) is known as one of the founders of social psychology. He was an American philosopher, sociologist, and psychologist and was associated with the University of Chicago. Mead was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts and was raised in a Protestant middle class family. In 1883, Mead received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Oberlin College and then taught grade school for four months. After that, he became a surveyor for the Wisconsin Central Rail Road Company for three years. In 1888, he received his Master’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University and moved to Leipzig, Germany to study with the psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. In 1891, he transferred to the University of Michigan where he met Charles H. Cooley and John Dewey, who influenced his thinking greatly. In 1894 along with John Dewey, Mead moved to the University of Chicago where he taught for the remainder of his life. Although Dewey’s influence coaxed Mead into pursuing educational theory, he eventually developed his own ideas pertaining to the psychological theories of mind, self, and society. On April 26, 1931, Mead died of heart failure.

Herbert_Blumer.jpgHerbert Blumer (March 7, 1900 – April 13, 1987) was an American sociologist who further developed the work of George Herbert Mead. More specifically, he named the concept that Mead had initiated and called it: Symbolic Interactionism. Blumer’s research focused on the empirical method and the observation of popular culture. He was a firm believer in using a cultural anthropological perspective while conducting research: sympathetic introspection and participant observation versus the alternative, scientific and/or objective approaches. Herbert Blumer was born in St. Louis, Missouri and attended the University of Missouri from 1918- 1922, and he also secured a teaching post at this very same university. In 1925, he moved to the University of Chicago where he came into contact with Mead and Park, two sociologists that had a major influence on Blumer’s thinking. While at the University of Chicago, Blumer earned a doctorate in 1928 and then stayed at the university where he taught and continued his own research and that of Mead’s. In addition to his teaching positions, he was treasurer of the American Sociological Association (ASA) from 1930-1935 and later became president of the ASA in 1952. In 1952, he also moved from the University of Chicago to the University of California, Berkley where he established and developed the Sociology Department. Herbert Blumer died on April 13, 1987.

Blumer on Mead:

  • Understood human beings to be living organisms with a self
  • Having a "self" means that humans are a distinctive type of "actor" in this world
  • This affects and transforms everything that takes place for that person, and how that person relates to the world
  • Human beings can interact with themselves: I want - I need - I think
  • Can judge and analyze his/her own wants, needs, and thoughts
  • The self is a process, not a structure - and not the "ego" of psychology

"In short, the possession of a self provides the human being with a mechanism of self-interaction with which to meet the world - a mechanism that is used in the forming and guiding of his conduct." (Blumer, 1966)

What is Symbolic Interactionism?

The core principles of symbolic interactionism can be distilled down into three major concepts: Meaning, Language, and Thought

1. Meaning: Refers to the fact that people act or behave in a certain way towards a particular thing, because of the meaning that they have assigned towards that particular thing.

“Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.” (Blumer, 1969)

2. Language: It provides a way for humans to negotiate meaning through symbols. In essence, humans identify meaning based on the interactions they have with others and the society around them.

“The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.” (Blumer, 1969)

3. Thought: It refers to an individual’s interpretive process, which allows individuals to modify their interpretation of symbols. It is sort of like having a self-interaction or an internal dialogue with one self.

“These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.” (Blumer, 1969)

Symbolic Interactionism & Education:

  • Symbolic Interactionism is concerned with the social interactions between groups in schools
  • Involves classroom communication patterns and practices such as "labeling"
  • Affects students self concept, motivation, and aspirations

Teacher-Student Interactions

- In the classroom environment, the teacher and the student have certain expectations of each other
- Symbolic interactions relates to how teachers' expectations influence student performance, perceptions, and attitudes
- The expectation a teacher has for a student can create the same behaviour. Self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when people act in a manner consistent with the expectations of others
- The teachers own cultural background may shape their interpretation of student's behaviour
- Lower expectations may translate into teacher behaviours that provide less opportunity and encouragement to learn
- Students from economically advantaged homes may be more likely to bring to the classroom social and verbal skills that elicit approval from teachers
- Students from economically disadvantages homes often bring fewer social and verbal skills to those social middle class teachers who may inadvertently hold up social mirrors of disapproval

Teacher-Parent Interactions

- Research has considered interactions between parents and teachers, the meaning teachers assign to parental activities and how this interpretive process may affect children’s schooling experiences
- Middle class parents are generally more comfortable and confident in interactions with teachers
- The involvement of working class parents is hampered by their lesser access to material resources to facilitate participation at school

Symbolic Interactionism & Technology:

- Meaning is a social product: it is formed through the activities of people as they interact
- Information is processed internally by students and teachers, therefore individuals may come to different understandings
- Information is reinforced or clarified through the social process: teachers and students interact with one another to define a common understanding of the information
- Society (classroom, adobe connect, etc) consists of people (students/teachers) engaging in action
- The meaning of everything is facilitated through a social process of indication (a chair is a chair because that knowledge has been learned through a social process of transmission)
- The institution of education does not function automatically as a system; there are actors in the institution who at different points do something to fulfill certain aspects of the institution (teachers, principals, trustees, directors, parents, secretary, students, volunteers, etc.)
- What each contributor does within the institution is a result of how he defines the situation. In other words, an institution does not function because it is in place; it functions because of the common understanding of the actors and their roles in the institution (students are there to learn, teachers are there to teach the curriculum).
- There is no uniform approach to teaching, learning, acting as an administrator: it is all based on our understanding of our roles within the system
- We direct our conduct or handle situations in terms of what we take into account.

Critique of Symbolic Interactionism:

  • It neglects the social structure, power, and history
  • Meaning is already established in a person's psychological make-up not out of the interaction between people
  • Methodology criticism
  • It is unable to deal with macro sociological issues
  • SI is too broad. The theory is vague and therefore difficult to use


—Anderson A.L. and Taylor H.F. (2006). Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. CA. Thompson Learning. Retrieved from——Blumer, Herbert (1966). Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead. American Journal of Sociology, 71 (5) March 1966, 535-544.——Calvin J. Larson (1986). Sociological Theory from the Enlightenment to the Present. General Hall, Inc.. p. 143.—Herbert Blumer's Symbolic Interactionism by Lindsey D. Nelson —— —— —— ——Lindsey D. Nelson Comm 3210: Human Communication Theory University of Colorado at Boulder Spring 1998——Reynolds, L.T. and Herman-Kinney N.J. (2003). Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism. CA: AltaMira. Retrieved from—Symbolic Interactionism by University of Twente — Picture of George Herbert Mead from Picture of Herbert Blumer from