COM 270
Introduction to Theories of Human Communication
Lecture 7: Symbolic Interactionism

I. Foundations of Symbolic Interactionism

A. Symbolic Interactionism is a theory that focuses on the role that communication plays in the formation and maintenance of interpersonal relationships and social groups.

B. Symbolic Interactionism is based on the ontological assumption that reality is "socially constructed." That is, what we believe to be true is based on how we, and others, talk about what we believe to be true. Reality, then, is based on observations, interpretations, perceotions, and conclusions we can agree on through talk.

C. The basic ideas of Social Interactionism are credited to George Herbert Mead (

1. Communication occurs through the medium of symbols and their accompanying meanings. Without symbols, "communication" is impossible.

2. The formation and maintenance of all social units depends on people sharing symbols and meanings -- binding force in any social unit.

3. Social units often develop their own specialized set of symbols and meanings; thus people gain acceptance into that social unit by utilizing the shared symbols and meanings of the group.

EX: "Valley Girls"

II. Assumptions of Symbolic Interactionsim

A. In the wake of Mead's ideas, one of his students, Herbert Blumer (, coined the terms "symbolic interactionism" to organize a set of propositions about the way humans interact with each other.

1. People are actors, not reactors -- i.e., Actions begin with an impulse, but ultimately involve conscious, rational choice.

2. People's actions towards others are based on the meanings that external stimuli (objects, events, behaviors) have for them.

3. The meanings that we associate with external stimuli are derived from past social interactions, and are constantly being modified through continued social interactions.


III. The Great Debate: Herbert Blumer vs. Manford Kuhn

A. One of the great intellectual debates the emerged following the development of "symbolic interactionism" revolved around the following question:

Are the actions of individuals governed my social roles that they play in everyday life? Or are they determined by inate personality traits?

B. Disagreement over the answer to this question led to the split of symbolic interactionist experts into two camps: The CHICAGO SCHOOL, led by Herbert Blumer, and the IOWA SCHOOL, led my Manford Kuhn.




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