Symbolic Interactionism Theory


Interactionism comes in two theoretical forms: Symbolic Interaction and Social Exchange. 

Symbolic Interaction claims that society is composed of ever present interactions among individuals who share symbols and their meanings. This is a very useful theory for: understanding other people; improving communications; learning and teaching skills in cross-cultural relations; and generally speaking, “not doing harm to your roommates” 

Values, communication, crisis management, fear of crime, love and all that comes with it, “evil and sin,” what’s hot and what’s not, “who I am,” litigation, mate selection, arbitration, dating joys and woes (September 1, 2001—WTC) can all be better understood using Symbolic Interactionism.


Once you realise that individuals are by their social natures very symbolic with one another, then you begin to understand how to persuade your friends and family, how to understand others’ points of view, and how to resolve misunderstandings. This theory magnifies the concepts of meanings.


Sociologists like Harold Garfinkel say that humans define reality by the way they make sense of their everyday surroundings. People don’t experience things out of nothing. We shape our reality based on our individual and cultural experiences. E.g., when a pilot looks up into the sky, he sees good flying weather or perhaps turbulence. An atmospheric scientist sees oxygen and carbon dioxide. Two lovers look up into a starry night sky and find romance. And the weather man wonders if he’ll still have a job after predicting rain on this gorgeous day. 


Symbolic Interactionism makes it possible for you to be a university student. It makes it so you understand your lecturers’ expectations and know how to step up to them. Our daily interactions are filled with symbols and an ongoing process of interactions with other people based on the meanings of these symbols. “How are you?” Ever had anyone you’ve greeted actually answer that question? Most of us never have. It’s a greeting not a question in the UK culture. 


Symbolic Interactionism Theory explores the way we communicate and helps us to understand how we grow up with our self-concept. It helps you to know what the expectations of your roles are and if you perceive yourself as doing a good job or not in meeting those expectations.


There are many other Symbolic Interactionism concepts out there to study, let’s just talk about one more—The Thomas Theorem or Definition of the Situation. The Thomas Theorem is often called the “Definition of the situation” which is basically if people perceive or define something as being real then it is real in its consequences. 


For example: a woman was diagnosed as HIV positive. She made her funeral plans, made sure her children would be cared for then prepared to die. Two-years later she was retested. It turned out her first test results were a false positive, yet she acted as though she had AIDS and was certainly going to die soon from it.

Social Exchange Theory

The remaining theory and second interactionist theory is Social Exchange. 

Social Exchange claims that society is composed of ever present interactions among individuals who attempt to maximise rewards while minimising costs. Assumptions in this theory are similar to Conflict theory assumptions yet have their interactistic underpinnings. Basically, human beings are rational creatures, capable of making sound choices once the pros and cons of the choice are understood. 

This theory uses a formula to measure the choice making processes.



(“What I get out of it”-“What I lose by doing it”)=”My decision”

We look at the options available to us and weigh as best we can how to maximise our rewards and minimise our losses. Sometimes we get it right and other times we make a bad choice. One of the powerful aspects of this theory is the concept of Equity. Equity is a sense that the interactions are fair to us and fair to others involved by the consequences of our choices. 

For example, why is it that women who work 40 hours a week and have a husband who works 40 hours per week do not perform the same number of weekly hours of housework and childcare? Scientists have surveyed many couples to find the answer. Most often, it boils down to a sense of fairness or equity. Because she defines it as her role to do housework and childcare, while he doesn’t; because they tend to fight when she does try to get him to perform housework, and because she may think he’s incompetent, they live with an inequitable arrangement as though it were equitable.

Each of us tries constantly to weigh pros and cons and to maximise the outcomes of our choices.