Symbolic Interactionism Examples

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory of communication that came out of the University of Chicago in the early 20th century that espouses that communication in a society is based on linguistic, visual, and gestural symbols and understanding is subjective and shared. So, what does this mean, exactly?

Examples of Symbolic Interactionism:

As humans and as members of a society, we learn to understand through our interaction with symbols, including the letters of our language that make up words. For example, the word "cat" does not have meaning in and of itself. However, we understand what "cat" means through our social interactions with others and with actual "cats." What "cat" means is reinforced through our interactions with others and with the shared meaning that we have of this word.


While "cat" may seem to be a straightforward symbol, there are other words and symbols in our culture that are not so straightforward. This is where the subjectivity of symbolic interactionism comes in. For example, the word "wife" can mean different things to different people. If a husband and wife have different ideas of what this word actually means, their marriage may be full of conflict.


Based on the theory of symbolic interactionism, when a society has consensus around what a symbol means (i.e. "cat"), communication is clear. When consensus does not exist, then communication becomes more problematic.


More Examples to Demonstrate Symbolic Interactionism


There has been much controversy in the past few years over the American Flag and what it symbolizes. For many years, the American Flag was understood to be a symbol of national pride and freedom. Over time, different minority groups have questioned the meaning of the flag, and some groups interpret it as a sign of oppression or disenfranchisement. The subjectivity of the symbol has caused a divide in our culture because consensus is not clear.


The meaning of the "rainbow" has changed over time in our culture. Once, it was a Christian symbol-and it still is-of hope, as God placed a rainbow in the sky after the Great Flood. However, in today's popular culture, the rainbow symbolizes the LGBTQ community. At one time, as this change was occurring, there was not a consensus regarding the meaning of the rainbow; however, in today's culture, the rainbow is pretty universally recognized as a symbol of the LGBTQ community.


In the same way, the meaning of the word "gay" has changed over time. In the early 20th century, the word "gay" meant happy and light-hearted. In today's society, there is consensus that this word refers to homosexuality.

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