Microsociological Theory

 As the twentieth century dawned and the careers of the macro theorists such as Durkheim, Marx, and Weber matured, political, cultural, and academic power began to shift from Europe. As manifested by the waves of emigrants leaving the Old World for the New, America was seen as the land of opportunity, both material and intellectual. So it was in the twentieth century, and increasingly in the United States, that the discipline of sociology continued to develop and the ideas of its third major school of thought began to coalesce.

-Symbolic Interactionism

Sociology’s third grand theory, symbolic interactionism (or interactionist theory), proved its greatest influence through much of the 1900s. It is America’s unique contribution to the discipline and an answer to many of the criticisms of other paradigms. Symbolic interactionism helps us explain both our individual personalities and the ways in which we are all linked together; it allows us to understand the processes by which social order and social change are constructed. As a theoretical perspective, it is vital, versatile, and still evolving.


Symbolic interactionism is derived largely from the teachings of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). But there were many others involved in the development of this particular school of thought, and it is worthwhile to examine the social context in which they lived and worked. At the start of the twentieth century, sociology was still something of an import from the European intellectual scene, and American practitioners had just begun developing their own ideas regarding the nature and workings of society. The University of Chicago of the 1920s provided a stimulating intellectual setting for a handful of academics who built on each other’s work and advanced what became known as the first new major branch within the discipline. Since there were so few social theorists in the country, the head of the department, Albion Small, a philosopher by training, recruited professors from various eastern colleges who had often studied other disciplines such as theology and psychology. The fledgling sociology department grew to include such influential members as Robert Park, W. I. Thomas, Charles Horton Cooley, and later Mead and Herbert Blumer.

This group, the theories they developed together, and the way they went about studying the social world are frequently referred to (either individually or collectively) as the Chicago School of sociology. Chicago was in many ways a frontier city in the early twentieth century. Rapidly transformed by industrialization, immigration, and ethnic diversity, Chicago became a unique laboratory in which to practice a new type of sociology that differed both theoretically and methodologically from the European models. Instead of doing comparative and historical work like the macro theorists before them, the members of the Chicago School went out into the city to conduct interviews and collect observational data. Their studies were particularly inspired by Max Weber’s concept of verstehen as the proper attitude to adopt in the field. Their focus was on the micro level of everyday interactions (such as race relations in urban neighborhoods) as the building blocks of larger social phenomena (such as racial inequality). The new school of thought was strongly influenced by a

 philosophical perspective called pragmatism, developed largely by William James and John Dewey, which was gaining acceptance among American social theorists in the early 1900s. James was a Harvard professor whose interests spanned art, medicine, law, education, theology, philosophy, and psychology; he also traveled extensively and was acquainted with some of the most important scholars of the time. To James, pragmatism meant seeking the truth of an idea by evaluating its usefulness in everyday life; in other words, if it works, it’s true! He thought that living in the world involved making practical adaptations to whatever we encountered; if those adaptations made our lives run more smoothly, then the ideas behind them must be both useful and true. James’s ideas inspired educational psychologist and philosopher John Dewey, who also grappled with pragmatism’s main questions: How do we adapt to our environments? How do we acquire the knowledge that allows us to act in our everyday lives? Unlike the social Darwinists, pragmatists implied that the process of adaptation is essentially immediate and that it involves conscious thought.

George Herbert Mead would be the one who eventually pulled these ideas (and others, too) together into a theory meant to address questions about the relationship between thought and action, the individual and society. Mead came from a progressive family and grew up in the Midwest and Northeast during the late 1800s, where his father, a professor of theology at Oberlin College, died when George was a teenager, and his widowed mother eventually became president of Mount Holyoke College. Mead attended college at Oberlin and Harvard and did his graduate studies in psychology at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin in Germany. Before he became a full-time professor of psychology at the University of Michigan and later the University of Chicago, Mead waited tables and did railroad surveying and construction work.

He was also a tutor to William James’s family in Cambridge, Massachusetts; since his later theories were influenced by James, we can only wonder exactly who was tutoring whom in this arrangement! Mead’s background and training uniquely positioned him to bridge the gap between sociology and psychology and to address the links between the individual and society. Mead proposed that both human development and the meanings we assign to everyday objects and events are fundamentally social processes; they require the interaction of multiple individuals. And what is crucial to the development of self and society is language, the means by which we communicate with one another. For Mead, there is no mind without language, and language itself is a product of social interactions (1934, pp. 191–92). According to Mead, the most important human behaviors consist of linguistic “gestures,” such as words and facial expressions. People develop the ability to engage in conversation using these gestures; further, both society and individual selves are constructed through this kind of symbolic communication. Mead argued that we use language to “name ourselves, think about ourselves, talk to ourselves, and feel proud or ashamed of ourselves” and that “we can act toward ourselves in all the ways we can act toward others” (Hewitt 2000, p. 10). He was curious about how the mind develops but did not believe that it develops separately from its social environment. For Mead, then, society and self-are created through communicative acts such as speech and gestures; the individual personality is shaped by society, and vice versa.

Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), a graduate student and later a professor at the University of Chicago, was closely associated with Mead and was largely credited with continuing Mead’s life’s work. While completing his master’s degree, Blumer played football for the University of Missouri Tigers, and during the 1920s and 1930s, he maintained dual careers as a sociology professor and a professional football player for the former Chicago Cardinals. On Mondays, he would often come to class wrapped in bandages after a tough Sunday game. What he did off the gridiron, however, was of critical importance to the discipline. Blumer appealed for researchers to get “down and dirty” with the dynamics of social life. He also published a clear and compelling series of works based on Mead’s fundamental ideas.

After Mead’s death in 1931, Blumer gave Mead’s theory the name it now goes by: symbolic interactionism. Thus, Mead and Blumer became the somewhat unwitting founders of a much larger theoretical perspective. Blumer’s long career at the University of Chicago and later at the University of California, Berkeley, ensured the training of many future scholars and secured the inclusion of symbolic interactionism as one of the major schools of thought within the discipline. Despite its geographical location in a city full of real-world inequality (or perhaps because of it), the Chicago School of sociology had very few women or people of color among its membership.

Take  W.E.B.  DuBois and Jane Addams, for example, these two scholars were neither students nor faculty members at the University of Chicago, although both are often associated with Chicago School perspectives, values, and methods. Both led the way for other minorities and women to become influential scholars in the discipline of sociology. William Edward Burghardt (W.E.B.) DuBois (1868–1963) was a notable pioneer in the study of race relations as a professor of sociology at Atlanta University and one of the most influential African American leaders of his time.

After becoming the first African American to earn a PhD from Harvard University, DuBois did groundbreaking research on the history of the slave trade,  post–  Civil War reconstruction, the problems of urban ghetto life, and the nature of black American society. DuBois was so brilliant and prolific that it is often said that all subsequent studies of race and racial inequality in America depend to some degree on his work. Throughout his life, DuBois was involved in various forms of social activism. He was an indispensable forerunner in the civil rights movement; among his many civic and political achievements, DuBois was a founding member, in 1909, of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), an organization committed to the cause of ending racism and injustice.

Because of his anti-racist,  anti-poverty, and anti-war activism, DuBois was targeted by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy as a communist. However, he did not become a member of the Communist Party until he was 93 years old, and then only did so as a form of political protest against the persecution of its members by the U.S. government. Eventually, DuBois became disillusioned by the persistent injustices of American society and emigrated to Ghana, where he died at 95, one year before the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law. Jane Addams (1860–1935) was another pioneer in the field of sociology whose numerous accomplishments range from the halls of academia to the forefront of social activism. Though she never officially joined the faculty because she feared it would curtail her political activism, Addams did teach extension courses at the University of Chicago and was among a handful of women teaching in American universities at the time.

Though not a mother herself, Addams believed that women have a special kind of responsibility toward solving social problems because they are trained to care for others. She was one of the first proponents of applied sociology addressing the most pressing problems of her day through hands-on work with the people and places that were the subject of her research. This practical approach is perhaps best demonstrated by Hull House, the Chicago community center she established in 1889 to offer shelter, medical care, legal advice, training, and education to new immigrants, single mothers, and the poor. As a result of her commitment to delivering support and services where they were most needed, Addams is often considered the founder of what is now a separate field outside the discipline: social work. Addams also helped found two important organizations that continue to fight for freedom and equality today: the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and, along with W.E.B. DuBois, the  NAACP.  She served as the president of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and in 1931 became the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.


For symbolic interactionists, society is produced and reproduced through our interactions with each other by means of language and our interpretations of that language. Symbolic interactionism sees face to face interaction as the building block of everything else in society because it is through interaction that we create a meaningful social reality. Here are the three basic tenets of symbolic interactionism, as laid out by Blumer (1969, p. 2). First, we act toward things on the basis of their meanings.

For example, a tree can provide a shady place to rest, or it can be an obstacle to building a road or home; each of these meanings suggests a different set of actions. This is as true for physical objects like trees as it is for people (like mothers or cops), institutions (church or school), beliefs (honesty or equality), or any social activity. Second, meanings are not inherent; rather, they are negotiated through interaction with others. That is, whether the tree is an obstacle or an oasis is not an intrinsic quality of the tree itself but rather something that people must figure out among themselves. The same tree can mean one thing to one person and something else to another.

And third, meanings can change or be modified through interaction. For example, the contractor who sees the tree as an obstacle might be persuaded to spare it by the neighbor who appreciates its shade. Now the tree means the same thing to both of them: it is something to protect and build around rather than to condemn and bulldoze. Symbolic interactionism proposes that social facts exist only because we create and recreate them through our interactions; this gives the theory wide explanatory power and a versatility that allows it to address any sociological issue. Although symbolic interactionism is focused on how self and society develop through interaction with others, it is useful in explaining and analyzing a wide variety of specific social issues, from inequalities of race and gender to the group dynamics of families or co-workers.


Symbolic interactionism opened the door for innovative sociologists who focused on social acts (such as face to face interaction) rather than social facts (such as vast bureaucratic institutions). They were able to extend the field in a variety of ways, allowing new perspectives to come under the umbrella of symbolic interactionism. Erving Goffman (1922–1982) furthered symbolic interactionist conceptions of the self in a seemingly radical way, indicating that the self is essentially “on loan” to us from society; it is created through interaction with others and hence ever-changing within various social contexts. For example, you may want to make a different kind of impression on a first date than you do on a job interview or when you face an opponent in a game of poker. Goffman used the theatrical metaphor of dramaturgy to describe the ways in which we engage in a strategic presentation of ourselves to others. In this way, he elaborated on Mead’s ideas in a specific fashion, utilizing a wide range of data to help support his arguments.

Harold Garfinkel, the founder of ethnomethodology (the study of “folk methods,” or everyday analysis of interaction), maintains that as members of society we must acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to act practically in our everyday lives (Garfinkel 1967). He argues that much of this knowledge remains in the background, “seen but unnoticed,” and that we assume that others have the same knowledge we do when we interact with them. These assumptions allow us to make meaning out of even seemingly troublesome or ambiguous events; but such shared understandings can also be quite precarious, and there is a good deal of work required to sustain them, even as we are unaware that we are doing so. Conversation analysis, pioneered by sociologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, is also related to symbolic interactionism.

It is based on the ethnomethodological idea that as everyday actors we are constantly analyzing and giving meaning to our social world (Schegloff 1986, 1999; Clayman 2002). Conversation analysts are convinced that the best place to look for the social processes of meaning-  production is in naturally occurring conversation and that the best way to get at the meanings an everyday actor gives to the things others say and do is to look closely at how he responds. Conversation analysts, therefore, use highly technical methods to scrutinize each conversational turn closely, operating on the assumption that any larger social phenomenon is constructed step by step through interaction.


As society changes, so must the discipline that studies it, and symbolic interactionism has invigorated sociology in ways that are linked to the past and looking toward the future. The founding of symbolic interactionism provided a new and different way of looking at the world. It is “the only perspective that assumes an active, expressive model of the human actor and that treats the individual and the social at the same level of analysis” (O’Brien and Kollock 1997, p. 39). Therein lies much of its power and its appeal. As a new school of thought focusing on the micro level of society, symbolic interactionism was not always met with immediate approval by the academy. Over time, symbolic interactionism has been integrated relatively seamlessly into sociology, and its fundamental precepts have become widely accepted.

During the second half of the twentieth century, the scope of symbolic interactionism widened, its topics multiplied, and its theoretical linkages became more varied. In fact, there was some concern that symbolic interactionism was expanding so much that it risked erupting into something else entirely (Fine 1993). One of symbolic interactionism’s most enduring contributions is in the area of research methods. Practices such as ethnography and conversation analysis are data rich, technically complex, and empirically well grounded (Katz 1997; Schegloff 1999), giving us new insights into perennial questions about social life.

As a relative newcomer to the field of social theory, symbolic interactionism was dubbed “the loyal opposition” (Mullins 1973) by those who saw it solely as a reaction or as merely a supplement to the more dominant macro- sociological theories that preceded it. Gary Fine sums up the critiques in this way: symbolic interactionism is “apolitical (and hence, supportive of the status quo), unscientific (hence, little more than tenured journalism), hostile to the classical questions of macrosociology (hence, limited to social psychology), and a structural (hence, fundamentally nonsociological)” (1993, p. 65). Critiques argue that the scope of symbolic interactionism is limited, that it cannot address the most important sociological issues, and that its authority is restricted to the study of face to face interaction. Each of these critiques has been answered over the years. Ultimately, some critics have seen the usefulness of an interactionist perspective and have even begun incorporating it into more macro work. Even in the hotly contested micro-versus, macro debate, a kind of détente has been established, recognizing that all levels of analysis are necessary for sociological understanding and that interactionist theories and methods are critical for a full picture of social life.


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