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Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory has been a powerful theoretical framework for over sixty years. It provides striking insights about human communication behavior in a wide variety of contexts. The theory is logical in its development, beginning with the role of the self and progressing to an examination of the self in society. In this chapter we noted that the theory is heuristic, identifying its application in a variety of contexts, including media, organizational, and interpersonal. Yet, the theory is not without its critics.

The major objections raised in regard to SI tend to focus on the following areas: It is too broad, it places too much emphasis on personal behavior, it neglects other important variables, and it is not falsifiable. We briefly explore these criticisms below.

Some critics complain that SI is too broad to be useful. This criticism centers on the evaluation criterion of scope. SI covers too much ground, these critics assert, to fully explain specific meaning-making processes and communication behaviors. Related to this is the objection that the concepts that make up the theory are broadly drawn and rather vague. Additionally, due to this vagueness, SI is difficult to falsify. In response to this criticism, SI proponents explain that SI is not one unified theory; rather, it is a framework that can support many specific theories. In the more specific theories, like Role Theory, for example, the concepts are more clearly defined and are capable of falsification.

A second area of criticism concerns Mead's emphasis on the power of the actor to create reality. Critics observe that this ignores the extent to which people live in a world not of their own making. SI theorists regard a situation as real if the actors define it as real. But Erving Goffman (1974) comments that this notion, although true, ignores physical reality. For instance, if Roger and his parents agreed that he was an excellent engineer and that he was doing a wonderful job at his new firm, that would be reality for them. Yet, it would not acknowledge the fact that Roger's boss perceived his skills as inadequate and fired him. SI theorists counter by citing that they try to tread a middle ground between freedom of choice and external constraint. They recognize the validity of constraint, but they also emphasize the importance of shared meanings.

Another area of criticism suggests that there are important concepts that SI ignores, such as emotions and self-esteem. Critics observe that SI does not explain the emotional dimension of human interaction. Further, critics note that SI discusses how we develop a self-concept, but it does not have much to say about how we evaluate ourselves. With reference to the lack of attention to the emotional aspects of human life, SI theorists respond that although Mead does not emphasize these aspects, the theory itself can accommodate emotions. In fact, some researchers have begun applying SI to emotions with success. For instance, James Forte, Anne Barrett, and Mary Campbell (1996) used a Symbolic Interaction perspective to examine grief. Their study examined the utility of a Social Interaction perspective in assessing and intervening in a bereavement group. The authors found that SI was a useful model. Regarding self-esteem, symbolic interactionists agree that it is not a focus of the theory. But they point out that this is not a flaw in the theory; it is simply beyond the bounds of what Mead chose to investigate.

In sum, Symbolic Interaction has critics, but it still remains a heuristic, enduring theory. It supports research in multiple contexts, and it is constantly being refined and extended. Further, it is one of the leading conceptual tools for interpreting social interactions, and its core constructs provide the foundation for many other theories that we discuss in this book, such as Dramatism, Muted Group Theory, Organizational Culture Theory, and Standpoint Theory. Thus, because Symbolic Interaction Theory has stimulated much conceptual thinking, it has accomplished much of what theories aim to do.

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