MCAT Content / Theoretical Approaches / Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic Interactionism

Topic: Theoretical Approaches

Symbolic Interactionism focuses on small scale perspectives with small interactions between individuals. It explains how individuals act in society and can be expanded to look at the interactions of larger social groups to explain social change.

George Herbert Mead was the driving force behind symbolic interactionism and postulated that the development of individuals is a social process. He stated that individuals change based on their interactions with other people, objects and events by assigning meaning to them to decide how to act.

Herbert Bloomer coined the term symbolic interactionism and developed three tenets that it exists by:

  1. We act based on the meaning we have given something – If I like the type of food I act like I like it and it is tasty
  2. We give meaning to things based on social interactions – If someone tells me that food is unhealthy and harmful for me, this is their opinion.
  3. The meaning given to an event or object can change – as I learn the food is unhealthy, I stop eating it.

According to symbolic interactionism, the objective world has no reality for humans; only subjectively defined objects have meaning. There is no single objective “reality”; there are only (possibly multiple, possibly conflicting) interpretations of a situation. Meanings are not entities that are bestowed on humans and learned by habituation; instead, meanings can be altered through the creative capabilities of humans, and individuals may influence the many meanings that form their society. Human society, therefore, is a social product.

The three tenets of symbolic interactionism as devised by Bloomer are reflected in the looking glass self-experiment by Charles Horton Cooley. The looking-glass self states people see themselves based on how they believe others perceive them during social interactions. There are three main components of the looking glass self: we imagine how we must appear to others, we imagine the judgment of that appearance, we develop our self through the judgments of others.

As an example, as children, humans begin to define themselves within the context of their socialization. The child learns that the symbol of his/her crying will elicit a response from his/her parents, not only when they are in need of necessities, such as food, but also as a symbol to receive their attention.

However, there are drawbacks to symbolic interactions, such as that data collected tends to be qualitative, rather than quantitative. It also overlooks macro-social structures (e.g., norms, culture) as a result of focusing on micro-level interactions.


Practice Questions


Khan Academy

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Sociology Question 9

Online Flashcards Sociology Question 13


Key Points

• Symbolic interactionism focuses on humans interaction and that these interactions elicit actions dependent on the meaning

• Through our interactions, we assign different meaning to objects and events, and these are different perspectives for different people

• Meaning of objects and circumstances can change to an individual based on experiences


Key Terms

interpretations: personal perception of a situation, event or object

Looking-Glass Self: the looking-glass self is a social psychological concept, created by Charles Horton Cooley in 1902, stating that a person’s self grows out of society’s interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others



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