Symbolic Interactionism

all communication is symbolic and based upon interaction and meaning.

History and Orientation

Symbolic Interactionism, formulated by Blumer (1969) is the process of interaction in the formation of meanings for individuals. The inspiration for this theory came from Dewey (1981), which believed that human beings are best understood in a practical, interactive relation to their environment.

Core Assumptions and Statements

The theory consists of three core principles: meaning, language and thought. These core principles lead to conclusions about the creation of a person’s self and socialization into a larger community (Griffin, 1997).

Meaning states that humans act toward people and things according to the meanings that give to those people or things. Symbolic Interactionism holds the principal of meaning to be the central aspect of human behavior.

Language gives humans a means by which to negotiate meaning through symbols. Humans identify meaning in speech acts with others.

Thought modifies each individual’s interpretation of symbols. Thought is a mental conversation that requires different points of view.

With these three elements the concept of the self can be framed. People use ‘the looking-glass self’: they take the role of the other, imagining how we look to another person. The self is a function of language, without talk there would be no self concept. People are part of a community, where our generalized other is the sum total of responses and expectations that we pick up from the people around us. We naturally give more weight to the views of significant others.

Conceptual Model

Not applicable. Verbal statements are preferred.

Favorite Methods

Participant observation, qualitative interviewing, interaction analysis and context existing sources analysis.

Scope and Application

The theory is used in effective evaluating of human interaction. Different meanings can easily lead to communication problems. Problems can arise if the lines of communication are not open and assumptions are made.


A boy (Jeremy) and a girl (Kim) broke up last year. When Jeremy received an email from Kim to go out he agreed and they went to a bar. Jeremy had a different kind of meaning though in comparison with Kim. Jeremy went out as friends, where Kim went out as with the meaning of ‘potential boyfriend’. Also in the communication the language was misunderstood. Kim wanted to have a romantic night, while Jeremy wanted to have a talk in a bar. This is also caused by the nonverbal element of emails. The third miscommunication is under thought. When Jeremy replied so fast Kim thought that they were going out to a romantic place. Jeremy went out just as ‘friends’. They both used an internal dialogue to interpret the situation and to make a perception of the evening.

Source: Griffin (1997).


Key publications

Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at Communication Theory. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Garfinkel, Harold. (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Goffman, Erving. (1958). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh, Social Sciences Research Centre.

Ed. by McDermott, J. (1981). The Philosophy of John Dewey, Chicago.

The society for More Creative Speech. (1996). Symbolic Interactionism as Defined by Herbert Blumer.

See Interpersonal Communication and Relations,