Background of the Theory
Discuss about the Symbolic Interaction Theory.
The symbolic interaction theory explains the means through which a society or a family ascribes sense to non-verbal communication, people, objects, and verbal communication. Fundamentally, the theory characterizes the perception of actions or objects as a means of communication (Estes & Edmonds, 1981). The scope of the research, therefore, will be limited in outlining the background, basics of the theory, and significance of the symbolic interaction theory especially in understanding human communication as well as to give a reflection. In the communication process, the meaning given to symbols can be altered during the interpretive process which is intrinsically a part of the communication process within a given society. Therefore, symbolic interaction theory is fundamental in interpreting both nonverbal and verbal communication (Joel, 2009). The theory utilizes the ordinary means and symbols to pass or obtain a message. The primary symbols used by humans to intermingle include words, gestures, rules, and roles. Through the development of a complex set of symbols, humans interrelate in particular environments. The exceptional role of the symbolic interaction theory to society is to aid individuals to build the idea of self in the midst of social interrelations (Carpendale, 2014).
The symbolic interaction theory has developed out of contributions of two scholars George Herbert Mead and Heabert Blummer. Blummer is considered the father of the theory since he was the first to coin the word ‘symbolic interactionism' and to organize Mead's concepts into a unified theory with a given methodological propositions for study (Aksan, AydÃÂ±n & Demirbuken, 2009). Carter & Fuller (2016) recognizes symbolic interaction a progressive theory because it's the role of the social actors to ascribe meaning to objects around them. The significance of George Herbert Mead in the formulation of the theory can be derived from his conviction that mind and ego are a creation of the society. Herbert postulate that symbols build-up the mind and thus utilized as a mode of thinking and communication (Mead, 1934). Mead, therefore, focused on the way people relate daily by use of symbolic interaction and generated meaning and order.
On the other hand, Blummer understands ‘meaning' in two perspectives: Meaning is perceived as something being predicated to a phenomenon, object or event. It is also seen as the ‘physical attachment' forced to an object or event by man. Blummer, therefore, considers meaning as a provision which results from interrelations of a given group of people rather than, an inherent characteristic of an object (Blummer, 1986). Consequently, the meaning of symbols results from interactions. Symbolic interaction theory thus recognizes meaning as the core of man activities. However, language grants meaning to human activities through the use of symbols. Hence, it is proper to conclude that symbols distinguish human social relations from any other form of communication. Man attributes meaning to a symbol which results to a language. As a result, symbols shape the foundations of communication (Tubbs, 2012).
Fundamental Concept of the Social Interaction Theory
The most basic building block of the theory is the analysis of human communication about a symbol or what Mead referred to as the significant symbol. A significant symbol, therefore, is defined as a verbal or any other type of a gesture that arouse a mutual response in the one using it and to whom it is intended (Becker & McCall, 2009). Consequently the ability to utilize significant symbols makes human interaction possible by the meaning attached to the symbol. Human communication is thus perceived as engagement in symbolic interaction. In social interaction theory, human language is understood to be constituted by a set of conventional symbols which man can identify. However, Blummer proposes that they are three central principles of the theory which include Meaning, Language, and Thought (Bretherton, 2014).
According to the principle, human behavior towards others and things is founded on the meaning, they have attached to them. For example, when a Muslim extremist think of a Christian there is an image that forms in his or her mind and his or her behavior towards the Christian will be based on that image (Blummer, 1986).
Language is the principle that makes it possible for symbols and interaction to be understood by the mind and aids in the formulation of assumptions. In addition, the naming of things is vital in creating meaning to all things because everything is deemed to have a name. In human interaction people construct the meaning of words and gestures based on comprehension and perspective of the symbol (Blummer, 1986). For example, having dinner out may mean just going out and getting something to eat to some people while to others it may mean having a date.
Thought principle is understood to imply the interpretation that is attributed to a symbol. It refers to the mental a process that communicates regarding the names, symbol, and meaning and intrinsically linked to language. It is also constituted of mental activity such as imagination (Blummer, 1986).
Denzin (2008) acknowledges that Social interaction theory is very helpful especially in understanding how miscommunication happens amid people. A given symbol either vocal or a gesture can have a different meaning in different contexts. Miscommunication, therefore, occurs when symbols are scrutinized outside their attached meaning. For example, there was a time President Richard Nixon gestured to a group of Australian with an intention to pass a message of peace and good will. Regrettably, the identical gesture that communicated ‘peace' in the United States had an awfully vulgar connotation in the Australian community. A precise knowledge in symbolic interactionism is thus important in comprehending the various message interpretation depending on different meaning attached to words and symbols (Smith-Lovin & Heise, 2016).
In conclusion, social interaction theory is vital in creating a common understanding especially by employing of symbols. However, for it to be effective there must be mutual understanding resulting from the communication using the symbols. It is worth noting that communication by use of symbols is a process by which meaning is attributed and put across to generate a mutual understanding. It is also critical to point out that this process demands extensive repertoire of proficiency in intrapersonal and interpersonal especially in analyzing, listening, observing, and evaluating human communication. As a result, social interaction theory is practical, and its future is bright.
Since infancy, we are taught how to express ourselves using both verbal and non-verbal communication. The theory, therefore, helps in understanding certain actions within the members of the same family. Members of the same family know which symbols and meaning are acceptable within the family. As a result of close interaction between the family members, it is easy to find out when one of the family members is stressed simply through the body language. As family members, we learn the non-verbal communication signaled by fellow family members when they are sad, happy, stressed or angry. Therefore, in a family set-up, some actions or symbols are attributed a given meaning which is shared by all the family members.
In my family, for example, it is easy to know when my dad is angry and needs time alone. He expresses this need non-vocally by going outside to smoke his cigar. As family members, we know at that moment no one should go to him for a conversation until he is back to the house and has cooled down. Therefore for my dad, a cigar is symbolic of anger. Failure to understand my father this way could lead to conflict. For example, if we the family members and especially my mom have not learned the meaning of his action as needing time alone there could have occurred arguments and confrontations. My dad expects that our close interaction with him should aid us in recognizing the symbolism and therefore respect his need for time alone.
The example of how my dad deals with anger is connected to the symbolic interaction theory. We the family members have attributed meaning to the action of my dad smoking and have learned to behave accordingly. The action is a means of expressing the need of time alone. Though some symbols are common to society, others make sense only to a group of people or to given situations. The understanding of given action or a symbol, therefore, determine the human behavior in a particular situation. Symbolic interactionism is thus vital in evaluating the meaning of human action within a society.
From the example, it is clear that human is not a creation of the society but rather a creator of the society. They shape their behaviors and give meaning to their environment through conventional symbols and shared meaning. Hence, to understand the human behaviors the focus should be on human interaction. In my family to understand the behavior of the family members towards my dad's action one primarily need to comprehend the family interaction. Symbolic interaction theory is unique in that it emphasizes on the interpersonal relation and human thought rather than external factors that influence human behavior. It can be concluded that human interactions that create symbols and their meaning also generate social structures. The theory, therefore, aids individuals in formulating the concept of self-identity in the midst of social interactions.
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