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Summarize and Discuss the Major Theoretical Ideas Associated With Symbolic Interactionism

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When you are in public, do you ever catch yourself changing your stance, adjusting your look, or the way you speak based on how you think other people are looking at you? You might want people to see you in a certain way - friendly, attractive, or approachable, or even unapproachable or tough - whatever is ideal in the moment. Those adjustments that you're making can be explained by symbolic interaction theory, also called symbolic interactionism, a theory about social behavior and interaction. This theoretical perspective looks at how people navigate their interactions with others and assign meanings based on their interpretation of those interactions. As this theory focuses on the behavior of individuals as opposed to the collective behavior of people as a group (a macro-level approach to social theory), symbolic interactionism is considered to be a micro-level sociological theory.

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For example, while a conflict theorist studying a political protest might focus on class difference, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in how individuals in the protesting group interact, as well as the signs and symbols protesters use to communicate their message. Janitors and supporters strike with signs in front of MTV network in Santa Monica.The focus on the importance of symbols in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a technique called dramaturgical analysis. Goffman used theater as an analogy for social interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” Because it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, he or she has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live. Constructivism is an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans cognitively construct it to be. We develop social constructs based on interactions with others, and those constructs that last over time are those that have meanings which are widely agreed-upon or generally accepted by most within the society. This approach is often used to understand what’s defined as deviant within a society. There is no absolute definition of deviance, and different societies have constructed different meanings for deviance, as well as associating different behaviors with deviance. One situation that illustrates this is what you believe you’re to do if you find a wallet in the street. In the United States, turning the wallet in to local authorities would be considered the appropriate action, and to keep the wallet would be seen as deviant. In contrast, many Eastern societies would consider it much more appropriate to keep the wallet and search for the owner yourself; turning it over to someone else, even the authorities, would be considered deviant behavior.

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By considering the other’s role we can then adjust our behavior to create effective collaborations (Turner, 2013). For example, if you pick up cues from a teacher that she is laid back, an easy grader, and not very demanding, you consider the “role” she is playing and adapt your behaviors (enact the appropriate role) to create collaboration. On the other hand if you pick up cues that a teacher is a hardnosed, demanding taskmaster, you are hopefully wise enough to adapt your role accordingly. As this example illustrates, roles normally come in complementary pairs where one role is defined in relationship to another— teacher-student; husband-wife; doctor-patient; boyfriend-girlfriend. According to Turner’s (2001) theory, roles are cultural resources that are actually not clearly spelled out but people act as if they are. We engage in a process of role-making in which we continually construct and modify our roles while interacting with other people and their roles

Related to role theory is identity theory which “seeks to explain why, where choice is possible, one role-related behavior choice is made rather than another (Stryker, p. 227).” In essence, why have you chosen the role of student over the other roles you might have chosen. Our identity is dependent upon the roles we choose to play. Identity theories focus on the interplay between our sense of self and society. Sociologist Sheldon Stryker (2000) was particularly interested in how social structures impact self and how self affects social behavior. Stryker’s identity theory begins with the premise that we have as many identities as we do social groups or organizations in which we play a role or occupy a position. However, we hold some identities to be more important, which leads us to engage in some role behaviors more than others (Stryker, 2001).

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In conclusion, from the perspective of interactionists, human society is composed of individuals with personal “I”, who themselves form norms and values. Individual action is a construction, not just a commission, as it is carried by the individual using the estimation and interpretation of the situation in the social environment

Personal “I am” can serve as a person’s target for his actions. Formation of values is presented as a set of actions in which the individual sees the object, gives it value, and decides to act on this matter. Interpretation of the actions of another is a definition of the value of certain actions of others. From the perspective of interactionists, an object is not just external stimulus, but something that distinguishes man from the outside world, giving him certain value.

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Shalin, D. N. (2011) George Herbert Mead. In G. Ritzer & J. Stepnisky (Eds.), The WileyBlackwell companion to major social theorists (pp. 373-425). Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Stryker, S. (2001). Traditional symbolic interactionism, role theory, and structural symbolic interactionism. In J. H. Turner (Ed.) Handbook of sociological theory (pp. 211-231). NY, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Turner, R. (2001). Role theory. In J. H. Turner (Ed.) Handbook of sociological theory. (pp. 233- 254). NY, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.

Wood, J. (1992). Spinning the symbolic web: Human communication as symbolic interaction. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing

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