Fordham University: Michael D. High's Communications and Media Studies Course: "Symbolic Interaction Theory"

Read this overview of Symbolic Interaction Theory. Be sure to take note of the examples. This website provides summaries of numerous common human communication theories that will be applied throughout this course.

Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory is the idea that communication relies on symbolic messages and the interpretations of those messages. The goal of all discussion is to create meaning and people are motivated to act based on meanings they assign to people, things, and events. This broad theory can be broken down into three different themes: human behavior, self-concept, and relationship between individual and society.

Human Behavior

This theory assumes that meaning is created through interaction and modified through interpretation. It also assumes that how people interact with one another depends on the meanings they give one another. It would be very difficult to communicate without a shared meaning. It is easy for us to communicate with friends or siblings based on glances and symbolic meanings that have been created rather than trying to communicate in a country that does not speak your language. The whole purpose of interaction with others is to create shared meaning. The example of the man with his hand up and the red stoplight that we discussed in class is an example of a shared meaning. There is nothing about the man with his hand up that instantly tells us to stop yet it is a well known societal meaning for that symbol which directs us when to go and when to stop.


This theory assumes that self-concepts develop through interactions with others and provide an important motive for behavior. Self-concept, or the answer to the questions "Who am I?", is concerned with concepts such as social skills, intellect, emotional states, and physical features. People are not born with self-concepts, rather they learn through interactions with others. In the earliest years of life when a child begins to learn its surroundings the earliest development of self-concept forms. Self-concept also provides an important motive for behavior. Having a self- concept forces people to construct their actions and thoughts positively rather than simply expressing them. This theme also considers the validity of the self-fulfilling prohecy, or the belief that people will behave in certain ways in order to meet their own self-expectations.

Relationships Between Individuals and Society

The final theme, assumes cultural and social processes influence people and groups, and that social structure is determined through social interaction. The theory considers how societal and cultural norms factor into individual behaviors. In the United States people who view themselves as assertive or individual are likely to be proud because our country values those attributes. Different cultures such as those in Asia may value other attributes more than individuality and assertiveness. Depending on the culture people have to change their self-concept. Social structure is also worked out through social interaction. Theorists believe that humans are choice makers. The structure in which an office or workplace is run may differ from that of a classroom. Individuals modify social situations within the structure but are not completely constrained by it.

Outside Research

Variability in Family Behavior
Each person's expectations for himself or herself weighs strongly on what that that person's role is in a family setting. Based on the "generalized symbolic interaction model,' a person's behavior is molded due to shared expectations within a society. People classify themselves and group themselves among others who behave in the same ways. Inversely, a person will behave based on how he or she is classified in a society. In other words, it is kind of a continuous loop of learning how to act within a society of people who act similar to oneself. Within a community, people create terms to create roles for each other and set up a hierarchy to establish a smooth system in which everyone knows his or her place. These roles and class influences sway people's self images as well. People feel like they are expected to behave in a certain way that corresponds with how the others around them are behaving. People generally create names for each other that define who each person is. In sum, a person's behavior is a result of the roles that are made for them within a society.

There are necessary confinements to this social structure such as a person must view himself or herself as a complex, differentiated unit. A person must be organized enough that he or she can create his or her own self image. They need to focus on their roles within their own families and notice how their specific interests and additions to the family are what identifies them as different from the rest. People give themselves or others titles to rank themselves or set themselves apart from the others around them. For example, within a family, there is the father, mother, and children. This explicitly explains the dominant roles that the parents have over the children. In politics, political figures have titles such as senator or governor to show their importance and gain credibility. Also, in occupations, some people have titles like "doctor" to establish that they have more knowledge about a specific job. Most of these titles, if not all, are used to gain credibility and importance within a community. People are constantly striving to climb up the hierarchy and become more well-known.

Pregnancy and Childbirth

When a couple is having a child for the first time, they should expect that the dynamic of their relationship will change. In society, they will now be identified as a family, having a new person to share that title with. The couple now gains the new familial titles of mother and father rather than just a couple. Having a child is also considered a rite that causes many different reactions. It can be stressful on a family to experience something like this for the first time. However, the first time someone becomes a parent is only this "shocking" for a small time period. After a short time, it becomes routine and the couple gets used to the new way of living. They create new behaviors and exectations for society based on their new experiences. They have now taken on a new role in their community and will be classified in a differentiated way as "family" instead of "couple." Also, the mother and father have new images of themselves based on their new titles and change their behaviors accordingly. Instead of just being concerned for themselves, they are also concerned with the behaviors and class of their new child.

Key Concepts


The ability to use symbols with common social meanings

Looking-glass Self:

Our ability to see ourselves as another sees us

Particular Others:

Individuals who are significant to us

Generalized Others:

The attitude of the whole community


An inner conversation

Role Taking:

The ability to put oneself in another's place


The relatively stable set of perceptions that people hold of themseleves

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Last modified: Monday, 11 April 2016, 1:38 PM