Symbolic interactionism is a theory that has emerged in sociology and has spread to other areas such as anthropology and social psychology. This theory analyzes interactions and their meaning. In this way, he understands the processes by which people become members of societies. In other words, he studies social activities and the construction of the "me".
Symbolic interactionism is based on interpretations. People will give different interpretations of reality and these interpretations will be more similar among the people around us. One of the biggest cultural differences that create problems when traveling are the symbols. If someone stretches the palm of their hand to another person, I would understand that it means that he must stop, that he must remain motionless, but a Greek would take it as an insult and for a Lebanese he would neutralize the evil eye.
The beginnings of symbolic interactionism
Symbolic interactionism opposes absolute truths. He argues that there is not one single truth, but different truths. That is, the "truth" will be different in each community. To understand these different "truths", interactionism studies the relationships between people and symbols: the ultimate goal is to understand individual identity and social organization.
Tea is a classic example of symbolic interactionism. This drink can be consumed accompanied by different rituals, which will all have a different symbolism. For example, tea does not represent the same thing for a European as for a Japanese. It is possible that the European will drink tea to activate and will not give more importance to the preparation and consumption of tea. However, the Japanese will perform a preparation ritual and drink tea accompanied, as will the Pakistanis. The meaning of tea will be different for these three people.
In summary, symbolic interactionism suggests that people define themselves by the sense of being an individual in a specific context. As we are social animals, this meaning of "individual" will depend to a large extent on the interactions we have with other people.
Generations of symbolic interactionists
There are two great generations of symbolic interactionists who propose different interpretations: the first considers that actions always have a meaning, while the second considers that social life is a theater.
The first generation
At the beginning, the proposal was that personal identity is built through relationships with other people. These relationships always made sense, they were symbolic. As a result, each person's identity was formed in specific situations and places by connecting with others. The meaning given to these interactions would define personal or individual identity.
This proposal indicated that actions were more than habits or automatic behaviors. All actions would be interpretable. Thus, language was understood as the representation of the speaker's attitudes, intentions, positions and goals. Language was a form of interaction: it was through it that reality was built.
The individual, from this point of view, is a representation that is constructed through language. Which means the individual is constructed by meanings that circulate while interacting with other individuals. However, what is constructed is not the person but the self of that person, his identity.
The second generation
The second generation introduced a strong change. For his supporters, identity was also understood as the result of the roles people adopt. When we interact with others, we often take on social roles. These are behavior patterns defined by society. One way to understand the roles is to watch reality shows. At home, participants adopt the same roles each season. There is always one who is against others, another who is alone and who does not stop crying, two who end up being a couple, etc.
With this second generation, a new perspective is emerging that people are actors. Individuals act and play a role that is determined by social roles. We do what is expected of us based on our role. But the interpretation of this role is not only given when we interact with other people, but also in the spaces and moments where these other people do not see us.In other words, in a way, it is a role that we end up internalizing and integrating into our identity.
The relationship of symbolic interactionism with psychology can be explained mainly in the context of social psychology. According to this branch, people form social identities with specific norms and values. At a time when social identities are becoming more important, people are more likely to act according to these norms and values.
Although social psychology goes beyond roles and accepts that behavior is guided by social norms, it is rooted in symbolic interactionism. What is undeniable, is that people develop their identity, both individual and social, when they interact with other people. Therefore, interacting with people from different cultures while keeping an open mind will help us to know ourselves better, to redefine our personal identity and to change the way we understand the world.