What is Symbolic Interactionism?

Jessica Reed

Symbolic interactionism is one of three main classes of sociological thought and is the view that people react to other people and objects based on the personal views they've given that object. The way people interact with each other can change a person's views so that the object has a different meaning to them. The term comes from Herbert Blumer who explained the theory of symbolic interactionism and drew from the work of George Mead, Charles Cooley, and John Dewey. The theory states that people assign everything a symbolic meaning and alter this meaning to fit with current social norms. They then react to different situations based on what specific meaning that situation holds for them.

Symbolic interaction says people use thought to examine their beliefs and change their interpretation of things based on new information about the object or person.
Symbolic interaction says people use thought to examine their beliefs and change their interpretation of things based on new information about the object or person.

Herbert Blumer drew on a number of important theories to create symbolic interactionism. He looked at the work of John Dewey who felt that people's actions can be better understood if we look at their environment and the type of people they interact with. George Mead felt that language is made entirely of symbols and people create new words so they can assign meaning to an object. This also played a role in Blumer's theory along with the work of Charles Cooley who is one of the major contributors to the theory of symbolic interactionsim.

The theory of symbolic interactionism draws on three important parts: meaning, language, and thought. People assign different meanings to objects or people they come into contact with and act differently depending on the specific meaning they've given that person or thing. To express themselves to each other, people create language as a set of symbols to give names to the different meanings we find in the world. Finally, people use thought to examine their beliefs and change their interpretation of things based on new information they've learned about the object or person.

For example, if Mary is attracted to Paul but Paul does not share these feelings, the two will act differently toward each other. Mary will interpret Paul's actions as possible signs that he likes her since she has assigned him the symbolic meaning of being a potential boyfriend. Paul still sees Mary as only a friend and acts this way toward her. If Mary were to admit her feelings to Paul, he might see her differently and she would have affected the symbolic meaning he has given her. This is a prime example of symbolic interactionism at work in everyday life.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


When I took my first job as a graphic designer, I looked up to my coworker a lot. He had so much knowledge of the programs and design in general, and he taught me a lot.

To other people in the office, he was just a grouch with a chip on his shoulder. Once I got past this first impression that he gave, he came to represent something entirely different to me. He became my safety net in times of trouble. He was the one I would go to for advice and answers to my questions. It seemed he had a solution to everything.

When he decided to leave the company a year later, I think I grieved more than anyone. Suddenly, I had to be to the new guy what my mentor had been to me, and I felt extremely ill-prepared. I had to deal with this while also losing a good friend.

Some people were glad to see him go. To them, he symbolized something different altogether.


My young cousin’s fish became symbolically important to her after her mother died. She had given the fish to her as a present, and it seemed to comfort her once her mother was gone.

Fish don’t live for very long, and this one died in about a year. She wasn’t home at the time, and her father found it floating and got rid of it. He went out and bought another fish just like it to replace it, hoping she wouldn’t notice.

She didn’t notice, and he did this every year for seven years, until she found it dead in the tank before he did. She sobbed terribly, because she viewed this fish as the last living link to her mom.


I can think of an example of symbolic interactionism involving my perspective on dragonflies. They used to be just another insect to me. I actually found them kind of creepy.

However, after my close friend died, I started seeing dragonflies everywhere. It was as though they were stalking me. Often, they would circle around me multiple times or fly next to my car window for a bit.

I have heard that dragonflies represent spirits of those no longer in this realm of existence. To me, the dragonfly came to symbolize comfort and the presence of my friend, who had come to tell me that everything was all right.

Now, I collect objects with dragonflies on them. I have a dragonfly necklace that I wear all the time. What was once insignificant to me became a very part of my soul.


Symbolic interactionism played a part in my brother’s teenage love life. He had a crush on his high school teacher. He treated her with the utmost respect and politeness. She had no idea that he felt that way about her. She just thought that he was a really nice kid.

One day, he was passing a note back and forth to his friend when the teacher intercepted it and read it to herself. The note stated his undying love for her. She smiled knowingly and just handed it back to him.

After that day, she looked at him with pity in her eyes. He was embarrassed for the rest of the semester, and every time she smiled at him like he was a little puppy, it added to his shame.

His symbolism had changed. In her eyes, he had gone from being just another good student to someone she should pity. He no longer looked at her with love in his eyes. She had become the source of his shame, and he did not associate her with happiness anymore.


If you travel a lot you can really start to see things from a symbolic interactionism perspective. People in other countries have a vastly different relationship with some objects than we do, and it can be really hard to understand why things are important to others when we are lacking the social and physical environment that has helped shape their view of something.

One thing that always strikes me when I go to different countries is how they view things like "the foreigner". In some places you'll notice that their language means guest, while in others it means outsider. There is a very different mindset behind so many of the things, and words we take for granted.


When I was in university symbolic interactionism was one of the first things they went over in my beginner sociology classes. For myself, some of the best symbolic interactionism examples my professor's gave were those that were simple and concise.

Symbolic interactionism can be a complicated subject, but if you take something like the burning of a religious book in protest for example, you can see how it plays out. The book burning may be a horrible insult to some, and irrelevant to others. It really depends on their relationship and background with the object and how they have interacted with it that creates the symbolism that some people fiercely protect.

Post your comments
Forgot password?