Human beings are not slaves to reactions who think and act in a vacuum. We socially construct the lives we live and worlds that we live in, one choice at a time. This is symbolic interactionism, a Chicago contribution to the world of communication theory, psychology, sociology, and anthropology. Within the theory is the concept that in between stimulus and response lays a space to choose our interpretation that is unique to humans. Evaluating, studying, and understanding the causes and effects of how and why people use this space for interpretation is where the theory places itself at the front of communication studies. People and how they communicate with themselves and the world around them are not studied from afar, on an emotionless pedestal. Researchers are made to get up close and actively empathize with their subjects as human beings, not lab rats. This ability to look at people through a large scope of empathy rather than a narrow scope of universal morality goes a long way in helping researchers better understand their subjects and reach practical conclusions on why people do what they do. Consulting a series of scholarly articles on the subject shows that symbolic interactionism is as foundational a concept to behavioral sciences as any that has come before or after it.
Whether a long and detailed explanation of the theory (Grayson, 2008), a brief summary of the theory’s application to public relations (Domingo, 2003), combining the theory with other psychological and sociological concepts (Burbank, 2010 & Rosenbaum, 2009) or a combination of all of the above (Solomon, 1983) there is a general consensus among all of them in relation to symbolic interactionism. That consensus is that any study of human action begins at the micro level, using active empathy, and respecting the inherent ability of human beings to choose how they respond to internal or external stimuli. Whether it be for better or for worse, to help or harm, with themselves or with other people, humans have the choice of how to socially construct the world they live in whether they are conscious of that choice or not. It is striking how symbolic interactionism is truly foundational to understanding why people do what they do from buying things, to how we care for the sick, to understanding abstract relationships, to how people fit into organizations. Symbolic interactionism is the salt of the Earth in the study of how humans think and act towards themselves and the world around them both internally and externally.
All of the articles cite Mead at least once, it was refreshing to see the other contributors to symbolic interactionism be represented like Charles Cooley and Manford Kuhn. Though only one of them (Solomon, 1983) brought up William James’ four separately constructed social selves. The rest of the articles would have been better served if they plugged their summaries and conclusions into the material self, social self, spiritual self, and pure ego that James contributed to the theory. Though material and social are easier to define and assign than spirituality and ego. However, the failure of the rest of the articles to apply these four selves enhanced my understanding of the overall concept as a theory grounded in the science of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and communication theory. Spiritual self and pure ego are more philosophical concepts that although they fascinate me immensely, might not have a place in research/analysis based upon hard data and evidence.
However, though not wanting to include spirituality in their studies, the socially constructed pure ego self should have been raised across the board in these studies. The ego, unlike spirituality, is covered in psychological, sociological, and anthropological studies. It is not dabbling in the theoretical afterlife to incorporate the ego when trying to explain how people think, socialize, and take the actions that they take. When the majority of people hear the word ego, they think of pampered celebrities, millionaire athletes, and spoiled socialites gracing the cover of magazines, tabloids, and pop culture web sites. It is important that people be made aware of the ego and it’s practical applications to the way people socially construct themselves, the people they socialize with, and the world they interact with on a day to day basis. Going beyond selfishness and excessive self confidence into the realm of the majority of one’s thoughts and actions coming from an ego centered place can be as important as learning about the space between stimulus and response where humans are free to choose their interpretation. Author Eckhart Tolle brought studies and applications of ego centered thinking to mainstream culture in his books The Power of Now and A New Earth. The monetary success of both books shows a hunger by the population to know more about ego based concepts and spirituality.
The omission of spiritual self and pure ego is a rare example within these articles of failing to provide support for their claims. Each article provided detailed definitions of symbolic interactionism often times using word for word sentences and paragraphs to establish what the theory is according to Mead although Cooley’s looking glass self concept is also well represented. It was surprising how well proportioned the definitions, applications, and conclusions were between each of the articles. Some used the definition and history of the theory as a starting point (Solomon, 1983), others interjected them along the way as applications of the theory was being presented (Domingo, 2003). Detailing the history of the theory along with the different people and schools of thought that have crafted it over the past century provided a flow from theory introduction, to application, to conclusion piece by piece. Credit to symbolic interactionism as a foundational way to study the social psychological aspect of the human condition was paid throughout and added credibility both to the theory as well as to the authors plugging the theory in to both micro and macro level problem solving applications.
Collectively, the articles address the fact that people aren’t aware of their inherent choice in being able to socially construct their individual lives and the world they live in. The writers are writing to inform on the specific applications and conclusions to various questions and problems. But it boils down to making people aware that they always have a choice. It is made very clear that it may not be easy for people to be aware of the choices they are constantly making inside their heads, nor is it portrayed to be easy to habitualize the awareness of making certain choices to improve quality of life or solve societal problems. Whether concepts like the looking glass self are referenced it boils down to the choices we make when socializing on an intra and interpersonal level. Other theories like social exchange (Rosenbaum, 2009), grounded theory (Jeon,2004), or critical perspective (Burbank, 2010) are used to combine with symbolic interactionism to reach a micro and/or macro level conclusions . But even those studies build upon the foundation of human beings socially constructing their identity, the identity of the people they socialize with, and the environments that they socialize in.
Across all of these articles, the concept of active empathy is stressed when applying recommendations and drawing conclusions. The need to understand each individual person, how they think, feel, and act towards themselves, others, and their environments is crucial. People are not numbers on a spreadsheet, rats in a race, or sheep on a farm. The space between stimulus and response at the heart of symbolic interactionism dictates that people be looked at with respect and dignity. The internal tenderness of people is often ignored in modern society in the name of being first to make a point or draw a conclusion. These articles pay the respect to the human condition that the theory requires. The understanding of the theory shown in the articles gives them as much credibility as the data and evidence they present. Whether making therapeutic recommendations for unconsummated marriages (Rosenbaum, 2009), trying to help people understand their meaning in an organization (Grayson, 2008), or showing a correlation between a person’s social identity and product purchases (Solomon, 1983) people are observed and reported on in a positive light that only active empathy allows to shine.
It is inherently understood and communicated by the authors that if people are flawed they are not willfully, and are not doomed in any sense of the word. Simply awareness and understanding of the theories, concepts, conclusions, and applications will do the bulk of the legwork for people to enact any micro or macro level changes within themselves, their social circles, or environments at large. Delving more into the spiritual and ego selves could have provided a deeper insight and understanding to the theory’s application to each individual article. However, the inherent belief that people are more than even their repeated actions across all the articles shows a philosophical understanding and enlightenment that is as subtle as breathing. It doesn’t need to be brought to the forefront of attention, it is so foundational it can be assumed.
Symbolic interactionism explains that people do not think or act in a vacuum. We have a space between stimulus and response where we are able to exercise the freedom to choose our interpretation. That interpretation is dependent on the social construction we have of ourselves, the people in our lives, and the environments with interact with. Every aspect of human communication is unique to the people and situations involved. Active empathy on a case by case basis is needed to understand the problem and formulate a solution. I now have a greater understanding of this foundational communication theory. What I felt was missing from the theory was a philosophical/spiritual aspect that dealt with ego centered thinking and living. To learn that it exists within the theory was a moment of enlightenment.
Though the articles neglected to go in depth on the ego and spirituality, to know that it is there and has been written about by authors like Charles Haanel, Eckhart Tolle, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Stephen Covey, Jack Canfield, and Tony Robbins provides a sense of inner peace that I did not have before investigating this theory formally. The informal research I have conducted on my own time by reading books by the authors listed above has allowed me to cultivate a heightened sense of awareness of space between stimulus and response within my own mind. My biggest quest in life over the past two years has been to dissolve my ego and achieve a level of mastery in self actualization. To know that the knowledge I have consumed and been applying to the way I live has a foundation in credible behavioral science and in the universities within the city I was born and raised in is shamanic feeling. I am happy and grateful for this knowledge and only hope I can contribute to others’ understanding of it going forward as I graduate college and begin the next chapter of my life.
Burbank, P. M., & Martins, D. C. (2010). Symbolic interactionism and critical perspective: divergent or synergistic?. Nursing Philosophy, 11(1), 25-41. doi:10.1111/j.1466-769X.2009.00421.x
Domingo, B. (2003). Stop Slammin’ Sammy: A Theoretical Approach to the First 24 Hours of a Communications Crisis in Sports. Public Relations Quarterly, 48(4), 20-22.
Grayson, C. (2008). Understanding Organizational Ontology: A Symbolic Interactionism Approach to Organizational Sense-Making. Conference Papers — National Communication Association, 1.
Jeon, Y. (2004). The application of grounded theory and symbolic interactionism. Scandinavian Journal Of Caring Sciences, 18(3), 249-256. doi:10.1111/j.1471-6712.2004.00287.
Rosenbaum, T. Y. (2009). Applying theories of social exchange and symbolic interaction in the treatment of unconsummated marriage/relationship. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 24(1), 38-46. doi:10.1080/14681990902718096
Solomon, M. R. (1983). The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective. Journal Of Consumer Research, 10(3), 319-329.
SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AS AN APPROACH TO THE STUDY OF HUMAN COMMUNICATION. (1977). Quarterly Journal of Speech, 63(1), 84.