Irving Goffman is one of the leading proponents of symbolic interactionism, a legacy of the so-called Chicago school in modern sociological thought. He used the framework of "dramaturgy" to portray people as actors, whose actions are shaped by the type of interaction they make with others. His best known work is The Presentation of the Self in Everyday Life (1959).
The development of symbolic interactionism as a sociological perspective was associated with George Simmel, George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, and Herbert Blumer, among others. Goffman gave symbolic interactionism a profound importance and took it to the level of the average man.
Meaning and Elements of Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism is about social interactions, use of symbols and the assignment of meanings to these symbols, interpretation of stimulus and response, and development of the self as a construct emerging from interactions, use of symbols and interpretation. It was Blumer who coined the term and popularized it in 1937. Said he:
"The term 'symbolic interactionism' refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or 'define' each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their 'response' is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions." (Blumer, p. 180, in Paul Gingrich)
In psychology, symbolic interactionism corresponds with behaviorism or learning theory.
Principles of Symbolic Interactionism
- Human beings, unlike lower animals, are endowed with the capacity for thought.
- The capacity for thought is shaped by social interaction.
- In social interaction people learn the meanings and the symbols that allow them to exercise their distinctively human capacity for thought.
- People are able to modify or alter the meanings and symbols that they use in action and interaction on the basis of their interpretation of the situation.
- People are able to make these modifications and alterations because, in part, of their ability to interact with themselves, which allows them to examine possible courses of action, assess their relative advantages and disadvantages, and then choose one.
- The intertwined patterns of action and interaction make up groups and societies. (Ritzer & Goodman, pp. 351-355)
Life as a Drama
Goffman brought symbolic interactionism closer to home by studying the way roles are constructed in everyday life. Using the familiar concept of drama, or dramaturgy, he analyzes social life using an analogy to the theater, with human social behavior seen as more or less scripted according to the roles taken upon by actors.
Life as a drama, and the roles played to make it meaningful, are equated with theatrical conditions in which actors appear in a front stage according to the roles they are supposed to play as part of a crew or "team." After enacting their roles, the "real" self is presented at the back stage in a different way. The simplicity and variety of roles people play make symbolic interactionism appeal to the ordinary readers.
Roles come in many form, and are acquired in different manner. Role-taking is a key mechanism of interaction, defined by particular situations and environments.
A major critique of this perspective is that it is "overly impressionistic" in its research methodology. It is also charged with sharp criticism as somewhat "unsystematic" and overly concerned with small-group interactions.
Another criticism is that it lacks precision for operationalization and testing. It is highly subjective.
Finally, it is applicable mostly to small groups where members are usually closely knit and have face-to-face relations. In large groups, the informality makes it difficult to study social interactions and consensus on symbols or their meanings.