The Symbolic Interaction Perspective


The Symbolic Interaction Perspective 


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Nicole, Michael, and their teenage son, James, have agreed to participate in a social survey about family life. Survey officials requested that all three of them participate in answering questions. The doorbell rings, and they meet the interviewer, a young woman named Kim. Kim asks that each of the family members fill out a section of the questionnaire independently of the others. James takes his questionnaire to his room, Michael fills his out in the kitchen, and Nicole completes hers in the living room, where Kim is waiting. After all three family members have completed their questionnaires, Kim briefly examines them. She pauses and then says, “Gosh, all three of you answered the question about how traditional or nontraditional your family is in very different ways. Would you folks mind discussing this with me for just a moment? We are supposed to discuss differences of opinion as part of the survey, and if you don’t mind, I’ll take notes occasionally.” The family agrees.

It turns out that James believes that his family is fairly traditional. Nicole believes the family is very traditional. And her husband, Michael, thinks the family is extremely nontraditional. Nicole says that she thinks the family is traditional because she feels she has to do all of the cleaning up after the “guys.” Michael says he thinks they are non-traditional because his mother never worked outside the home. He points out that his wife earns more money than he does. James believes they are fairly traditional because he has a mother and father who aren’t divorced. Finally, Michael asks Kim, the researcher, what the survey means by “traditional.” After the family is told the meaning, Kim asks if that information would change their answers. All three family members say that it would and that the survey meaning is not very close to what they think of as traditional.

Contemporary social science applied to the study of groups such as families is for the most part concerned with people’s behavior. [59] Many of the media through which we communicate are taken for granted. For example, a researcher usually assumes that questions on a questionnaire hold the same meaning and will be interpreted in the same way by all respondents. The variation in answers to questions is supposed to reflect differences in behavior, not in the interpretation of a question. If we ask a husband and wife how many times they quarreled during the past week, we assume that they label the same events as quarrels. Yet even between husbands and wives who must both have been present for a “quarrel” to take place, we find differences in responses. We must conclude that differences in counting quarrels may be a difference of interpretation in what constitutes a quarrel, a difference of memory, or both. In an even broader perspective on diversity of meanings, we know some of the persons responding to our questions may have another mother tongue, the families in which they are raised are different, and they have diverse education levels and abilities. How then can we assume that they will interpret and understand our questions in the same way? Maybe their responses are based not on different reactions to the question but on very different interpretations. Symbolic interactionism, more than any other of the family theories, calls for paying attention to how events and things are interpreted by social actors.

Some social scientists have divided the subject matter of human behavior into disciplines studying personality (psychology), culture (linguistics and anthropology), and social behavior (sociology, economics, and political science). At the base of these distinctions is the assumption that a culture is composed of commonly shared signs and symbols from which actors construct the meanings found in the culture. Many social scientists approach the meaning of symbols and signs in a culture as being relatively uniform, and therefore the words on the questionnaire are viewed as commonly and uniformly understood. But some social scientists have argued that we cannot understand a behavioral response (including answering a questionnaire) unless we know what meaning the situation and the stimulus has for an actor. In broader terms, these social scientists believe that to understand social behavior, the researcher must understand the meanings actors assign to the situation and action. This uniting of the study of cultural meanings with social behavior is the prime focus of theories of symbolic interaction.

Intellectual Traditions

The symbolic interaction approach has a rich and complex history. Today, the term symbolic interactionism represents a diverse set of family theories, and it can be difficult to detect what many of these [60] variants now have in common that unites them under a single banner. The common threads that exist are perhaps best highlighted by understanding the common progenitors from which the current variants developed.

Without a doubt, the greatest single influence on social science thinking in the 20th century came from Charles Darwin. Darwin (1880) provided a concrete and biologically rooted approach that was in stark contrast to the more abstract idealism (e.g., Hegel) that was in philosophical favor in Europe at the time. To intellectuals in North America, the more concrete biological approach emphasizing the “adaptation” of organisms to their environment was much more attractive. Three North American scholars were particularly influential in generating ideas that would become incorporated in symbolic interactionism. Charles S. Peirce developed a theory of signs and symbols, William James (1975) developed a notion of self in relation to environment, and John Dewey (1930) developed the concept of mind. As Charles Morris points out in his preface to Mead’s (1934) Mind, Self, and Society, pragmatists saw no sharp distinction or conflict between science and philosophy. Together, these scholars represent the foundation of the philosophical school called pragmatism, from which symbolic interactionism sprang.

The philosophical foundation for symbolic interactionism is complemented by advances in social science thinking occurring in the first two decades of the 20th century. Charles Horton Cooley (1902, 1909) expanded William James’s idea of the self into the more elaborate social science concept of the looking glass self. The importance of Cooley’s (1909) notion is that it conceptualized part of the self as capable of reflection on its own behavior. This later became incorporated in Mead’s (1934) conception of the self. W. I. Thomas and D. S. Thomas (1928) expanded on the pragmatic premise formulated by Peirce (1905) that the conception of an object is wholly given by the conception of all possible effects. Thomas and Thomas (1928) reinterpreted the pragmatic maxim as the important social—psychological principle: What humans define as real has real consequences (p. 572). This has become known as the definition of the situation and provides a linkage between how we perceive our environment and how we act in it. Both of these notions guided the early formulations of symbolic interactionism.

Despite these important earlier influences, it is really the work of George Herbert Mead that most scholars identify as the start of symbolic interactionism. Mead’s thinking is, for the most part, only accessible through the lecture notes of his students, compiled and edited by the linguist Charles Morris (e.g., Mind, Self and Society, 1934). Indeed, Morris (1934) points out that although Mead’s students [61] took notes, Mead never even used lecture notes, and his thinking was constantly evolving. Yet Mead’s influence and contribution have been sufficiently strong to establish him as the paternal figurehead of symbolic interactionism.

Central to Mead’s approach is the idea that by sharing common symbols, humans can adapt to and survive in their environment. He was especially interested in the process by which the flexibly adaptive infant came to share the conventional understandings in any society.

His work incorporated the idea of stages of interactional learning through play and games, an especially important perspective for the study of socialization in the family.

Although Mead is an important starting point, numerous scholars have contributed to symbolic interactionism and it would be misleading to portray its development as monotonic and united. In fact, scholars have quarreled bitterly about the relative emphases and interpretation of ideas. Most secondary sources record an original bifurcation of symbolic interactionism into the Chicago school (Blumer, 1962, 1969) and the Iowa school (Kuhn, 1964), but we see more variants than just these two. We discuss many of these in the variants section below. We believe it is also important for the student to gain some notion of the unifying elements in this theoretical perspective.

It is easy to say that symbolic interaction theories focus on meaning but quite a different and more difficult task to explain what that “means.” To understand this complex issue, we must return to the seminal work of Peirce and later Morris. Humans have the ability to mentally form invariant associations. For example, when Event A is associated with Event B, we could say that A is a sign for B. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Smoke is thus a sign for fire. An octagonal traffic sign is a sign to stop. A sign is the necessary ingredient for the development of a symbol. A symbol is any sign that is agreed on by convention. Now, although there are several important aspects to these distinctions, the question symbolic interactionism poses is,

“How do we agree on (convention) the sign?” Let’s apply this to language. We have words such as “dad” that stand as a sign for a particular person in our lives. Not only do you have a “dad,” but others understand the referent of that utterance. In addition, if you think about this issue for very long, you will note that many words (both written and spoken) refer not to things but to other clusters of symbols. The complexity of human symbolism and meaning as we now know it escapes any simple notion that every sign has a referent, because words can stand for other symbols as well as things.

To understand the term meaning in a social context, symbolic interactionist’s focus on the idea of how these complex symbol systems [62] are shared. Indeed, for communication to take place, symbols must be shared or commonly agreed on. Thus, the focus for Mead and many other interactionist’s is on the process by which the infant comes to acquire the symbol system of the society.

The symbolic content of any culture is constantly changing. Words such as limn leave our system through disuse and abuse, and new words such as groovy come into use. Even though the symbol system must be relatively stable for the achievement of agreement and convention, it nonetheless changes. But it changes within the rules of the system. As Chomsky (1965) and other linguists point out, a key ingredient to understanding a symbol system and therefore meaning is that users of the system adopt rules that allow the generation of new and meaningful utterances based on theg€ rules, or syntax. This insight is responsible for a second focus for interactionists. That focus is on the process by which meanings are constructed through interaction with both the environment and other people. In fact, most human symbol systems are so complex as to allow the generation of meanings for specific contexts and environments.

The general focus of symbolic interactionism can be summed up to be on the acquisition and generation of meaning. It should not be forgotten that in the study of the family and other social groups, we are assuming that actors think about and act according to the meanings they attribute to their actions and context. For example, a 3-yearold child may show no interest in a particular toy doll. But when an older sibling plays with the doll, it suddenly takes on new interactional and situational meaning. Now the doll is desired. The meaning of the toy is constructed by the situational interaction of the two siblings. Symbolic interactionism is not simply a motivational theory (as exchange); it is much broader. Certainly, symbolic interaction posits that humans are motivated to create meanings to help them make sense of their world. In addition, it encompasses actors’ motives as constructed from the meanings available to the actor and relevant to the situation in which the actor is located.

Another example is contained in the following story. A 5-year-old girl abruptly asked her mother, “How do babies get born?” Nervous as to what she should say about sex and reproduction, the mother paused and then responded, “Do you mean where babies come from?” The young girl briskly replied, “No, are they born with clothes on or clothes off?”

Meaning emerges through the course of social interaction. Words have no communicative meaning at all unless they are mutually understood by conversing actors. Of course, as the above episode illustrates, we all may have private understandings that are not [63] identical, so we must construct through an exchange of already meaningful symbols a common understanding of other words and expressions. When misunderstandings occur, we attempt to overcome them.

As focal points for intense interaction, families are crucial sites of meaning creation and verification. When children are young, the meanings of things are usually simply acquired and taken for granted, based on exposure to usage by parents, other family members, and others in society (including Big Bird on Sesame Street). Parents, in turn, acquired many meanings from elders when they were younger, so that at least some of our linguistic heritage is passed on from generation to generation. Still, in any specific encounter between humans, there must be a meeting of minds, with some assurance that a shared sensibility either preexists or is capable of being created through a new communicative process. Thus, effective relationships, both in and outside of families, are dependent on nurturing a culture of shared meanings.

Focus and Scope Assumptions

 Human behavior must be understood by the meanings of the actor. The most basic assumption in symbolic interactionism is that the explanation of human behavior is impossible without knowing the meaning such behavior holds for the actor. Interactionists believe that to be human is to use symbols. Indeed, they would say we live in a largely symbolic world. Our language structures the way we perceive and the way we think. Material objects, such as jeans and cars, not only perform functions (utility) but have symbolic significance aesthetically, religiously, and socially. Humans live in a symbolic world, and our actions have both physical and symbolic import. If we were to attempt to understand behavior simply from the physical side of the equation, we would miss the mark of understanding. For example, if we were to describe to you a man in the woods cutting down a tree, you would not understand that behavior unless we discovered the actor’s meaning (e.g., he is employed as a lumberjack, he is getting a Christmas tree, or he is a vandal). To understand behavior, we must understand the meaning that an action has for the actor.

Actors define the meaning of context and situation. The assumption that actors define the meaning of the contexts and situations in which they find themselves is in some ways an extension of the previous assumption. If humans live in a symbolic world, then the context in [64] which humans find themselves will be both physical and symbolic. This assumption is only fully understood, however, by returning to Thomas and Thomas’s (1928) maxim that what humans define as real has real consequences. Imagine that a terribly inebriated person hallucinates a herd of pink elephants charging down the street toward where he or she is standing. In response to the hallucinated charging elephants, the person begins to run down the street. Regardless of the fact that no elephants exist, the fact that the person defines the situation as dangerous is important in understanding why the person runs down the street. How we define the situation in which we find ourselves explains what problems we define and what actions and solutions we undertake. The fact that some definitions may be entirely mental rather than physical constructions makes our understanding of the actors’ definitions of the situation even more important.

 Individuals have minds. Another basic assumption of symbolic interactionism is that humans have minds. This may seem a trivial assumption unless we examine it more closely. All of us recognize that we have an organ of the body that sends and receives electrochemical impulses. But the idea of an individual mind presupposes an individual self that perceives, reasons, senses, and imagines. The notion of mind includes memory and willing actions as retrospective and prospective operations. Whether there is one organ or a system of interconnected organs that give rise to these complex operations is not totally resolved, even in the neurosciences. In addition, the recent discovery by Nobel laureate (2000) Eric Kandel that synapses are modified by experience further complicates issues in that the organ of the brain may be changed and modified throughout our lives by experience. Indeed, it is the assumption in symbolic interactionism that the human mind acquires, integrates, and processes information. At the same time, the mind is capable of reflecting on its own processes so that the individual can develop a self as both actor (I) and object (me).

 Society precedes the individual. When symbolic interactionists assume that humans live in a symbolic world and use their minds to manipulate and interpret these symbols, it is tempting to ask, “When did this all begin?” At some point in evolutionary time, we as a subhuman species lacked these talents. The problem with asking when we gained the abilities is that it was such a gradual process that there was no single point in time. Indeed, it might be considered a moot question whether symbols, social organization, or mind came first, because they are so strongly interdependent. But because we cannot conceptualize without symbols, and symbols are shared, society in rudimentary [65] form must precede the individual mind and self. The single most important point to understand about Mead’s conception of mind is that individual minds are results of the society and not vice versa. As Morris (1934) says,

Instead of beginning with individual minds and working out to society, Mead starts with an objective social process and works inward through the importation of the social process of communication into the individual by the medium of the vocal gesture. The individual has taken the social act into himself. Mind remains social.           (p. xxii)

Probably the best known empirical cases illustrating Morris’s point would be the two cases of infant isolation documented by Kingsley Davis (1947). In both cases, children lacked socialization and failed to develop language and social skills. The assumption that society precedes individuals leads interactionists to focus on the process of socialization.



The notion of self is pivotal in symbolic interactionism. But our understanding of this concept is not well served by translating Mead’s (1934) concept of self as that which we commonly understand as our identity. For Mead, self, mind, and symbol developed concurrently. Our notion of self is founded on symbols and consciousness. The essence of symbolic interaction is that the self is a symbolic representation of that which did an act (I) and that which was acted on (me).

In other words, we may represent ourselves as both subject and object. This means that humans can look at their own behavior as an object (me) and as such take “the role of the other.” The concept of taking the role of the other is directly analogous to what Cooley (1902) called “the looking glass self.” Mead (1934) extended this concept from looking at our actions as a specific other (How would my father see my action?) to looking at our actions as a “generalized other” (How would others in society look at my act?). The self, then, is constructed by our consciousness from the two perspectives of I and me. The self as object contains the perspective of specific others when we take on the role of particular persons to see ourselves as they might, and it is constructed from the perspective of generalization of roles, or generalized other. [66]


Socialization is the process by which we acquire the symbols, beliefs, and attitudes of our culture. Although the notion of socialization is central in symbolic interaction, Mead (1934) did not use it as a concept. Rather, Mead talked about this process as the “importation” of social symbols into the mind as part of the development of the generalized other: “Mind is nothing but the importation of this external process into the conduct of the individual so as to meet the problems that arise” (p. 188). For the child, the process of socialization is marked by two stages. First is the play stage, in which the child plays at being something like a police officer or mother. The play stage incorporates Mead’s notion of taking the role of the other, Second is the game stage, in which the child must be able to incorporate his or her self in an organized activity through the generalized other. As Mead says,

If we contrast play with the situation in an organized game, we note the essential difference that the child who plays in a game must be ready to take the attitude of everyone else involved in that game, and that these different roles must have a definite relationship to each other. (p. 151)

Thus, the play stage assists in the learning and practice of role taking, whereas the game stage assists in the more complex task of learning the rules governing all social actors in the game. It is the game stage that is most similar to the complex social game we play as adults with our ability to “play a role” in society.


Although the concept of role does not originate with symbolic interactionism, it is without a doubt one of the most basic concepts in symbolic interactionism. It is also the concept that has proved most problematic, because Mead (1934) uses the term throughout his work but seemingly takes its definition as self-evident. Probably the closest passage to a definition comes in a footnote in which Mead identifies social intelligence as depending on “the given individual’s ability to take the roles of, or ‘put himself in the place of,’ the other individuals implicated with him in given social situations; and upon his consequent sensitivity to their attitudes toward himself and toward one another” (p. 141n). From this, we can clearly see that a role must be the “place of an actor.” Mead also dealt with roles as rules to be learned in the game stage of a child’s development. Role taking then is to put oneself in the place of the actor, and it includes the rules that [67] the actor is expected to follow. The sketchiness of these references and lack of a clear definition has fueled bitter debates among later symbolic interactionists.

There are several dimensions of the concept of role that are significant in explaining family phenomena. If we assume that roles have the two characteristics alluded to above—rules of behavior for positions— then we can see how these rules also provide others with expectations for what someone in that position is to do. For example, the general norm, or rule, for a person who is “it” in the game of hide-and-seek is to close one’s eyes and count to 10 while others hide. If the person who is “it” does not do this, he or she has not performed the role as others expected. Note that the others’ behavior is predicated on the expectation of how “it” would behave. Thus, one important dimension of roles is the expectation that both the actor and others have about the performance of the role.

The clarity of the role expectations or rules of the role is another important dimension. Without clear expectations shared by both the actor and others, it is impossible for the actor to perform the role or for others to know how their behavior articulates with that of the actor. Returning to the game of hide-and-seek, if “it” only counts to five but others expect “it” to count to a higher number, their behavior cannot be successfully meshed nor the game carried on.

Role strain is an important dimension of roles. Role strain is where the actor does not have sufficient resources to enact a role or roles. When there are multiple roles, the overload of expectations may be so great as to create role overload or strain. A corollary to role strain is the special case in which the expectations of one role contradict or conflict with the expectations of another role. This role conflict usually produces role strain because the actor cannot enact the contrary roles simultaneously.


The concept of the definition of the situation originated with W. I. Thomas (Thomas & Thomas, 1928) but is also implicit in Mead’s (1934) work in his emphasis on the social situation and taking the role of the other and the generalized other. The definition of the situation refers to the dictum that what we define as real will have real consequences. The definition of the situation sensitizes symbolic interactionists to the role of perception in forming our behavior. Mead, however, seemed wary about an approach that was too perceptually oriented and lacked focus on humans as problem solvers interacting with their environment. He stated, [68]

This process of thinking, which is the elaboration of our responses to the stimulus, is a process which also necessarily goes on in the organism. Yet it is a mistake to assume that all that we call thought can be located in the organism or can be put inside the head. The goodness or badness of the investments is in the investment, and the valuable or dangerous character of food is in the food, not in our heads. (p. 115)

Thus, Mead, in a manner consistent with Thomas and Thomas’s (1928) dictum and Dewey’s (1930) pragmatism, focuses us once again on the problem-solving interaction with the environment rather than on isolated internal mental processes.


Although numerous authors have employed a symbolic interaction approach in the empirical study of the family (e.g., LaRossa & LaRossa, 1981), none of the contributions to date have equaled the theoretical presentation by Burr and his colleagues (Burr, 1973; Burr, Leigh, Day, & Constantine, 1979). They focus on the general propositions that are directly relevant to understanding families and, in our opinion, provide the most elegant and systematic statement of symbolic interactionism applied to families. For this reason, much of the clarity and power of the theory to explain family behavior and processes originates in the propositional inventory provided by Burr, Leigh, et al. (1979). Here we discuss a few of the propositions that we regard as among the most useful for understanding families.

 The quality of ego’s role enactment in a relationship positively affects ego’s satisfaction with the relationship. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 70)

Although most of us assume that our satisfaction in a relationship such as marriage is “made” by the other person, this proposition states a person (ego) is more satisfied in a relationship when he or she is doing a good job of enacting the role in that relationship. For example, a wife would feel more satisfied about her marriage when she feels that she is doing a good job in the role of wife. Burr and colleagues also offer a proposition regarding the role performance of the other, but that would be more expected. The proposition regarding ego’s role enactment is a little like the homilies, “You like what you’re good at” or “The more you put into something, the more you get out of it.”

The greater the perceived clarity of role expectations, the higher the quality of role enactment. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 74)

[69] A role is defined as the normative expectations attached to a specific position in a social structure. For example, the role of mother is defined by the social norms or expectations of nurturance and protection of her young. The more clearly defined these are to any person occupying the position of biological motherhood, the easier it is for that person to perform the role in a socially acceptable way. Obviously, a lack of clarity could result when biological mothers receive unclear or no anticipatory socialization as to the expectations of motherhood, or if the society lacks clear expectations and this lack of clarity is passed on through socialization to mothers. In either instance, the result would be decrements in the role enactment of the young mother. For example, years ago breast-feeding of infants was not as socially expected as it is today. Today, the normative expectations for breast-feeding are gaining increased force and clarity as role expectations for mothers.

The more individuals perceive consensus in the expectations about a role they occupy, the less their role strain. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 79)

As Rossi and Berk (1985) point out, one critical aspect of a role is that expectations are shared or consensual. Indeed, Mead (1934) argued that all social symbols are the result of consensus. If a person perceives that there is a social consensus on a norm or expectation, then the role as an instruction for behavior is clearer. As we have seen with the second of our propositions, the clarity of such prescriptions facilitates enactment of the behaviors. Thus, if a young mother believes that there exists a broad social consensus that mothers should breast-feed their infants, she is less likely to feel that expectation is vague or ambiguous. Vague and ambiguous role prescriptions cause people to feel uncertain about what the prescriptions are and whether they can meet those expectations. This is the experience of role strain. Burr, Leigh, et al. (1979) defined role strain as the felt stress generated when a person has difficulty complying with the expectations of a role (see p. 57). The mother who is uncertain as to the socially approved pattern of infant feeding would undergo role strain.

The greater the diversification of a person’s roles, the less consensus the person will perceive in the expectations about those roles. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 80)

When a person plays multiple roles, there are multiple expectations. At the very minimum, the multitude of expectations may become murky, and, at worst, contradictory expectations may lead to conflict between the expectations of roles. In both situations, it is [70] difficult for the person to perceive clearly that there is a consensus about the expected behavior. For example, a working mother with an infant may feel that, among nonworking mothers and health care professionals, there is a consensus preferring breast milk for infants. Among fellow workers, she may feel that there is a consensus that expressing milk in the office situation is unprofessional and shows a lack of commitment to work. Among working mothers, there may be no consensus, some siding with fellow workers and some with health care professionals. Clearly, the stay-at-home mothers (without role diversification) perceive greater consensus.

The greater the perceived role strain that results from performing a role, the less the ease in making a transition into the role and the greater the ease in making a transition out of the role. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 86)

Naturally, most of us try to avoid feeling stressed, and it seems reasonable that roles that are perceived as producing stress are regarded as requiring a more difficult adjustment than roles perceived as carrying little stress. For example, the perceived role strain of motherhood suggests that although becoming a mother is a biological function, it is not an easy transition. As a result, we have developed elaborate rituals and forms of anticipatory socialization in attempts to clarify the role expectations and ease the transition. Prenatal classes for expectant parents are one example of such anticipatory socialization.

The systematic propositions above are only a few examples of the many proposed by Burr, Leigh, and colleagues (1979). These authors presented these propositions as part of a deductive formalization of symbolic interactionism. As you may recall from the introductory chapter of this book, one of the strengths of a deductive theory is that propositions can be chained together to produce new and informative propositions. If we assume that the propositions are conceptually equivalent and transitive, we can put them into deductive chains. For example,

The greater the diversification of a person’s roles, the less consensus the person will perceive in the expectations about those roles. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 80)


The more individuals perceive consensus in the expectations about a role they occupy, the less their role strain. (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979, p. 79)

[71] lead to the deduction that 

The greater the diversification of roles, the greater the role strain.

This deduction provides an illustration of how the propositions developed in symbolic interaction theory may be used to produce theoretically derived propositions important in guiding empirical research on families. Let’s now turn to some of the variants of symbolic interaction theory.


After Mead’s death in 1931, two major schools of thought within symbolic interactionism emerged. One of these is known as the Iowa school and is associated with the work of Manfred Kuhn (1964). The other is known as the Chicago school and is identified with the position of Herbert Blumer (1962, 1969). Briefly, Kuhn’s Iowa school is more positivistic and based on more structural and normative determinism and less interactional creativity than Blumer’s Chicago school. Although many authors, such as Turner (1991), continue to focus on the disagreements and intellectual battles between the two schools of thought, we see this as a useless emphasis. Indeed, although the warriors may still be fighting on the battlefield, the castle has quietly been occupied by noncombatants from elsewhere. Many contemporary family scholars spend no time on the metaphysical questions raised by Kuhn (1964) and Blumer (1962, 1969), such as the nature of causality, the truthfulness of observational versus quantitative methods, and the nature of sociological theory. Many of today’s family scholars have returned to the pragmatic roots of symbolic interactionism and use whatever methods are most appropriate to the research question they are asking.

The debate between Kuhn and Blumer served to focus interpretations of symbolic interaction on one or the other of these two, with the unfortunate consequence of de-emphasizing the important and considerable contributions of predecessors such as Dewey and Peirce. It must be recalled that pragmatists, including Mead, formulated symbolic interactionism. Yet this has all but been lost in the continuing interest in the two warring factions that still battle over problems, many of which were resolved by Dewey, Peirce, and James. The focus on these two schools has often forced new scholars to take sides, even though the debate is no longer particularly relevant or sophisticated. Many times, it would be far more helpful to examine advances in semiotics (a study founded by Peirce) or structural linguistics (such as [72] the work of Noam Chomsky) to see how these might further basic concepts in symbolic interaction such as gesture, sign, and symbol and their relationship to social behavior. But such influences and advances have been neglected because of scholars’ narrow focus on the two schools.

A central issue that divides most symbolic interactionists is whether interactions between people are (a) a product of the expectations residing in the social structure or (b) created and negotiated by the actors in each interaction. We use this issue as a theme in exploring the unique contributions of four variants of symbolic interactionism. In the study of the family, four relatively recent major variants of symbolic interaction theory have evolved. We identify these four as the structural approach, the interactional approach, the microinteractional approach, and the phenomenological approach. Although each could be related to the schools of thought represented by Kuhn and Blumer, we believe these variants are sufficiently well formulated to deserve to be considered on their own merits and that little clarity is gained by forcing them into the restrictive categories of belonging to either the Chicago or Iowa school.


We begin by examining the structural approach. Although many family scholars align themselves with this approach, it is probably most identified with the work of Sheldon Stryker (1964, 1980). Others who have made significant contributions include Nye (1976) and Burr, Leigh, et al. (1979). We intend a general characterization that does not focus on any one scholar but on the group of scholars who assume that social roles are learned and then enacted by people when they occupy positions in a social structure. The focus of the structural approach is so much on the concept of role that many scholars call themselves role theorists rather than symbolic interactionists.

The three most basic notions in this approach are position (or status), norm, and role. A position, or status, is seen as embedded in a social network of interrelated positions. Each position has associated social norms or expectations. In our society, as in most societies, a woman in the kinship position “mother” is expected to behave nurturantly toward her infant. A social role simply represents the complete cluster of the expectations or norms for any status, or position. A person may occupy several positions and therefore roles at any one time or across the life span. For example, the young mother may also be a teacher. Much of the research emphasis of the structuralists derives from the fact that an individual may play multiple roles at any one time and thus be exposed to role strain and role conflict.

[73] Jonathan Turner (1991) points out that the metaphor for the structuralists is clearly that of “actors on a stage.” Indeed, one approach within symbolic interactionism in which this metaphor is emphasized is Goffman’s (1974) “dramaturgical approach.” In the most general terms, the structuralists think that the scripts for the roles are passed down to the actors from society, which precedes the individual. The actors’ performance of the roles is largely a matter of how well they have learned their roles through primary and anticipatory socialization. And although the actors’ role performances vary somewhat, the actual normative content of the roles changes little from actor to actor. According to this view, despite decades of talk about equal participation by both spouses in household chores, chores remain largely the province of wives rather than husbands because the norms are deeply embedded in the social structure and are not strongly affected by the whims of individual actors.

The structuralist perspective has produced an impressive array of theoretical propositions (Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979) as well as an impressive amount of empirical research on such topics as role strain and identity. Sheldon Stryker, one of the major theorist in this area, has pioneered work in the area of roles and an actor’s identity (e.g., Stryker, 1968, 1987, 1989, 1991; Stryker and Serpe, 1994). Indeed the topic of roles and identity has been of great interest to family symbolic interactionist (e.g., Marks & McDermid, 1996) because of the multiple roles (work and family) assumed by most of today’s parents.

The structuralist perspective has garnered some rather severe criticisms, especially from the “interactionist” wing of symbolic interactionism. Most significant among these criticisms is the argument that the structural perspective provides a deterministic view of humans being poured into the molds of the social system. This “oversocialized” self has little freedom to adapt to or change the environment. The problem-solving and adaptive nature of humans stressed by both Mead and Dewey seems lost within the structural symbolic interaction perspective. As a result, interactionists accuse the structuralists as viewing social change as, at best, slow and phlegmatic.


The interactional variant of symbolic interaction is most closely associated with the work of Ralph Turner. Turner (1970) focuses on individual families. His work is not concerned with aggregate patterns for families or cultural patterns. Instead, he focuses on the patterned

processes within the family as a small group. Turner, unlike the structuralists,  believes that many of these patterns are developed through interaction. Rather than seeing social structure as encompassing and [74] monolithic, Turner believes social structure and culture provide a broad, vague, and often ambiguous outline for behavior. The individual’s role taking is not simply the enacting of a well-defined role but is “making” the role through interaction with others and the context. Individuals have the freedom to make roles and communicate those roles to others. Thus, Turner emphasizes the creative and problem solving dimension of roles that is neglected by the structuralist symbolic interactionists. Whereas the structuralists emphasize how humans are constructed by their culture and society, the interactionists emphasize how culture and society are created by interacting actors.

After Ralph Turner’s (1970) work Family Interaction, he continued to refine and formalize his thinking on role theory. The formal propositions that Turner and his associdtes (Turner, 1980; Turner & Colomy, 1987) have developed have led them into more and more structural terrain. For example, Jonathan Turner (1991) describes Ralph Turner’s recent deductive system as containing some laws: “Functionality is, therefore, one of Turner’s ‘laws’ of social organization, at least among ‘roles’ as a basic property of all patterns of social organization” (p. 439). Although it would be inaccurate to describe Ralph Turner as straying far from interactionism, his program to develop a nomothetic deductive role theory is bound to lead to more general statements. He increasingly focuses on the explanation of more aggregate phenomena than any one family or situation (e.g., Turner & Colomy, 1987). It probably is not unfair to say that interactionists may have assumed too much power for the individual to “role-make” and they may have failed to adequately consider the constraints of the preexisting social structure and its tenacity in maintaining the status quo.


The micro-interactional perspective is not so much a coherent school of thought as an extension of interactionism focused mainly on the individual and self. Certainly, the influence of the early work by Ralph Turner resides within this approach, but if we were forced to identify one major progenitor for this approach, it would be Erving Goffman. In his first major work, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman (1959) elaborated the dramaturgical metaphor as central to his approach. This metaphor returns to the notion of role as it is found in stage productions. In contrast to the type of influence Goffman’s work has exerted on structuralists, a different dimension of Goffman’s work has affected the microinteractionists. Microinteractionists emphasize the fluidity and contingency of roles. Actors play roles with [75] scripts and props; there is a backstage reality and an onstage reality. Roles are contingent on the interactions with other actors and thus are organized by systems of rules, such as rules about talk and rules of relevance. The self is relatively fluid and defined by the interactional context and the way in which the person frames or schematically understands the context and the rules. Microinteractionists view Goffman’s work as focused exclusively on microinteraction and make no attempt to extend their explanations to a macroscopic level.

Although Goffman did not directly apply his work to the family, his influence is nonetheless present among family scholars studying family microprocesses, for example, LaRossa and LaRossa (1981), in their study on the transition to parenthood and the ways in which parents formulate “accounts” of their parenting contributions. New fathers were found to have a greater number of socially available accounts to justify noninvolvement in child-care duties than mothers had. LaRossa and LaRossa’s work relies heavily on an analytic strategy centered on the way people frame their behavior. This strategy is closely aligned to the microinteractional approach with an emphasis on roles being contingent on other interactions and the context and the frame that the actor is using.


Of the many “post-positivist” schools, phenomenology has received the greatest attention and application in the work of family scholars. Although phenomenology originated in Europe, it has found a North American home within the broad framework of symbolic interaction.

The term phenomenology, which means the “study of phenomenon,” had circulated in philosophy for centuries (e.g., Kant, Hegel) before the French philosopher Edmond Husserl (1859-1938) applied the name to an entire philosophy. Husserl’s work was applied to the social sciences by his student Alfred Schutz, who along with the ideas immigrated to the United States in 1939. Schutz’s ideas and the more general paradigm of phenomenology landed on fertile ground among the microinteractionists and symbolic interactionists of

North America. As Turner (1991) notes, however, Husserl’s ideas, then, have been selectively borrowed and used in ways that he would not condone to develop modern phenomenology and various forms of interactionist thought (p. 383). This statement is certainly true of the way in which phenomenology has been developed and applied to the study of the family. Even the most accurate applications of Husserl’s project, such as by McLain and Weigert (1979), also include other diverse sources of influences, such as the psychoanalytic theory of [76] R. D. Laing and the work of ethnomethodologists such as Garfinkel. It seems doubtful that this work can be conceived of as part of Husserl’s original project to discover the underlying essences of consciousness by a radical stripping away of associations (phenomenological reduction) that are unnecessary to the way something appears in our consciousness. Rather than pursue Husserl’s philosophical phenomenology with its technique of phenomenological reduction, most North Americans and many Europeans (e.g., Schutz, Habermas) have pursued a sociological phenomenology focused on the taken-for-granted everyday lifeworld and the ways in which these taken-forgranted meanings are created and maintained.

The major thrust in sociological phenomenology of the family is to identify the assumptions and typifications that enter into the construction of the everyday life of families (McLain & Weigert, 1979). For example, phenomenologists insist that families are different from the general taken-for-granted everyday world even though they are part of it. Families share in the “public” dimension of the common everyday world, but they also generate their own “private” understandings. The larger everyday public world acknowledges the family as a relatively private sphere in which many things happen (sexual intercourse, wife assault, intense emotions) that do not routinely occur outside of the family. The private understandings constructed by family members are based on their shared history, perspective, and interpretation of events. Dating and marriage are viewed as a process by which separate individuals “fuse” into a common living arrangement and worldview. On the other hand, children gradually separate from their parents’ world (fission) and eventually construct their own families (Berger & Kellner, 1964). The focus in phenomenology of the family is to find out how, at any point in history, the “public” typifies families and how, for any family, family members typify and understand their family activities.

Each individual’s report of subjective experience must necessarily contain intersubjective components that are shared with and communicable to others. These intersubjective meanings are the foundation of the social world. It is these intersubjective components that are the “data” for most social analyses by ethnomethodologists and phenomenologists.

Intersubjective meanings are shared in a set of actors, whether it be a subpopulation such as convicts, an ethnic group, or the more general society. These meanings compose the commonly held and understood meanings of our everyday life, or lifeworld (e.g., McLain & Weigert, 1979; Schutz, 1967). Sectors of these commonly held meanings in our common lifeworld represent frames of reference, provinces of meaning, in which we operate in a more restricted sense.

[77] Within each frame of reference, or province of meaning, such as art, science, and family, there are more restricted shared assumptions and meaning constructions that guide and form our experience. For example, the family domain contains a sense of shared history and future and a sense of “biography.” When we marry, we enter a process of “biographical fusion” in which we not only share experiences but increasingly share a common way of typifying and explaining those experiences (Berger & Kellner, 1964).

The way actors explain or typify (e.g., Schutz, 1967) their experience, both in the lifeworld and in the more restricted frames of reference, is the subject matter for the social analysis of meaning. These typifications allow us to understand (verstehen) the way meanings are constructed and explained to others in the shared lifeworld.

The principal method of contextual understanding is not positivistic measurement but hermeneutics. Technically, hermeneutics refers to the interpretation of textual materials. The technique is currently applied to the contextualized actor’s language reports and activities. But hermeneutics is not just a technique of analysis. In addition, it is a way the researcher can, to some degree, experience what the actor experiences:

Hermeneutics is both a form of experience and grammatical analysis at the same time. . . . The quasi-inductive course of the hermeneutic sciences is based on the specific capacity of ordinary language, which makes it possible for the function of general categories to be communicated indirectly in a concrete life context. On this foundation the language of the hermeneutic interpreter adapts itself in the course of interpretation to the life experience concentrated around individual meaning. (Habermas, 1970, pp. 162-163)

Thus, hermeneutics offers an openness, sensitivity, and adaptability to the meanings in ordinary language and context of the actor as opposed to the rigidity of a priori techniques such as used in positivism.

Because the focus is clearly on the ways in which actors typify and construct meanings for their family activities, quantitative, statistical data are viewed as largely useless. Quantitative approaches involve use of previously established categories and counting of frequencies within ranges of those categories (strongly agree, agree somewhat, etc.). The result is only mildly interesting to the phenomenologists, to the degree that those categories are indeed the constructs or typifications used by actors. For the “public” everyday world, it is the role of the sociological phenomenologists to discover the typifications used by actors so that they may then be investigated by sociologists. In the more “private” realm of the family, more open and sensitive approaches must [78] be used to discover the typifications and understandings employed by the family members.

In the past 20 years, it appears that phenomenology of the family has increasingly merged with the microinteractionist approach to the family (e.g., Gubrium & Holstein, 1993). Sociological phenomenologists, ethnomethodologists, and interactionists view theory not as a deductive tool but as an open and sensitizing set of concepts that initially guide the researcher but that are constantly altered as interactional research proceeds.

Empirical Applications

We examine two areas of study in which symbolic interactionists have contributed to an explanation. The first area entails research on the proposition we earlier derived that “The greater the diversification of roles, the greater, the role strain.” We examine this proposition as it applies to working mothers’ role strain. The second area of application is the study of aggression in dating.


As a research question, our derived proposition is of some interest. Indeed, it provides one of the two major perspectives on the role strain experienced by working mothers. In the study of working mothers, two relatively simple conceptual hypotheses have been developed. One perspective is sometimes referred to as enhancement theory (Marks, 1977). The enhancement hypothesis is based on the assumption that multiple roles lead to an enhancement of role performance in any given role and to lower role strain. The logic behind this claim is that multiple roles allow the person to gain more skills, experience, and coping strategies. These greater skills can be transferred by a person from one role to another so that the ability to competently perform any role is enhanced. As people gain increased competency in their roles, role strain is decreased. The other conceptual hypothesis is derived from the symbolic interaction proposition that states that “role diversification is positively related to role strain” commonly called role overload. This theory is based on the assumption that the more roles one has, the greater the strain. Clearly our deduction fits better with the role overload perspective.

Research on role strain among working mothers provides a lessthan- clear resolution between the competing perspectives of enhancement and role overload. The dominant finding seems to be that [79] whether a mother perceives work strain or not is related to her reported feelings of well-being and the reports of other family members (Crouter, Bumpus, Maguire, & McHale, 1999). Research reviewed by Menaghan and Parcel (1990) fails to resolve the conflicting hypotheses but does show us that there are more variables relevant to the question than is suggested in our initial derivation. Some of the most salient of these are whether the mother desires to enter the labor force, whether her husband supports her work and family intentions, and the amount of spousal support in household and family tasks. These variables are called moderating because they change the effect of maternal employment on role strain.

In addition to learning that more variables than simply the number of roles are necessary to explain role strain, researchers have created some valuable theoretical insights to add to our theory. Voydanoff (1987) proposed that a more processual and dynamic approach is useful for examining the relationship between employment and mother roles. She argues that there are various paths by which families may articulate the relationship between work and family roles and that these change over time. For example, the demands of small children may be so great as to create role strain with most types of employment. As the children become more self-sufficient, maternal employment may have a salutary effect. Thus, Voydanoff argues that the time dimension should be incorporated. Menaghan (1989) correctly cautions that not all roles are equally demanding and that motherhood is especially demanding. Role diversification is affected by the differing strengths and extent of role demands. White (1999) showed that the balance between family and work roles is strongly related to satisfaction with the division of household labor, which further implicates concepts such as role performance and the literature on division of labor (e.g., Voydanoff & Donnelly, 1999). Other researchers caution us that both minitheories may apply. Tiedje et al. (1990) propose that every set of roles probably has some areas of enhancement and some areas of strain and overload.

It also is worth remembering that fathers can experience strain between work and fathering roles, especially when being a good father means more than bringing home a paycheck. Alleviating strain for one family member may simply shift it to another family member. No wonder the question is commonly asked, “If both parents feel like they have to work full-time, who will take care of young children?” You can begin to imagine all sorts of answers, some of which may reduce the total role strain in a family more than others.

The dynamic interchange between empirical research and symbolic interaction theory leads us to some wariness regarding our derivation,

[80] yet we are far from obtaining a definitive resolution to its truth or falsity at this time. This area of application provides a clear and important example of how theory guides research and research clarifies and extends theory. This interchange between theory and empirical research provides us with an illustration of the very heart of the process of rational—empirical social science.


The study of aggression in dating is one that is particularly salient for university and college students. It is easy to assume that such acts occur in groups less privileged than university students, but, as recent research has shown, this would be an incorrect assumption. In addition, the notion of a hurtful act deliberately aimed at a dating partner, a person that is supposedly liked, seems almost a contradiction. How can we explain why such acts occur among university student couples?

Jan Stets (1992) attempts to explain dating aggression in university couples using concepts and propositions from symbolic interaction theory. Stets proposes that interactional rather than demographic variables can explain date aggression. She argues that taking the role of the other entails putting yourself in that person’s place and feeling and understanding the other’s emotions and actions. She states that role taking has been previously related to relationship satisfaction and to the use of less abrasive styles in interaction. It appears that as role taking increases by both partners in a relationship, the chances of conflict leading to aggressive acts would decline. Following this logic, Stets predicts that when at least one person is low in role-taking ability, there is a higher probability for aggressive acts in dating relationships.

The findings in Stets’s study offer considerable support for this theoretical perspective. First, interactional variables explain more of the variance in dating aggression than do demographic variables. This leads Stets to conclude cautiously that interaction is probably more important in explaining and producing date aggression than background variables such as age, race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Role taking is related not only to aggression in dating but also to the seriousness of the aggression. The less the role-taking ability of one partner, the greater the seriousness of aggression when it occurs. Although complete prediction of dating aggression would require additional variables, this research supports the contention that symbolic interaction propositions and concepts must be part of any such explanation [81] 

Implications for Intervention

Although symbolic interaction theory has been used in many intervention contexts (e.g., Boss, 1993, 1999), one of the major uses of symbolic interaction theory currently is in the area of family life education. Family life education is a professional field in which our knowledge about families is used to better educate family members. It is the belief of family life educators that by establishing more realistic expectations and enhancing the skills needed in family life, families will become more stable and healthy (e.g., Arcus, Schvaneveldt, & Moss, 1993). This perspective fits well with the basic notions of symbolic interaction.

Most of the developed world has relatively high divorce and remarriage rates. For many, remarriage is not as simple as a first marriage. Although one can divorce one’s spouse, parental and kin roles and responsibilities are not so easily sundered. Indeed, many remarriages incorporate parental roles from previous families in addition to any children born into the remarriage. These stepfamilies have obstacles and stresses unlike those encountered in first marriages. One focus of family life education has been to better prepare people for the strains encountered in remarriage.

Kaplan and Hennon (1992) developed the Personal Reflections Program to assist in preparing people for remarriage. The program is intended to assist those entering a second marriage in identifying unrealistic or potentially stress-producing expectations by means of self-reflection. The theoretical orientation of Kaplan and Hennon is symbolic interaction: “Grounded in symbolic interactionism, the program includes exercises that emphasize bringing into awareness and sharing self and partner’s expectations for playing roles within the structure of a remarriage and/or stepfamily” (p. 127). Thus, concepts such as self, role stress, and role enactment are central in developing this intervention program.

Critiques and Discussion

Although symbolic interactionism enjoys great popularity among family scholars, it is not without its detractors and critics. Most interesting in this regard is that some of the more vicious attacks on parts of the theory have come from those whose work is included under the same theoretical umbrella. The critiques of structural interactionists offered by microinteractionists and vice versa contain some of the most devastating criticisms. We regard some of these as red herrings [82] and begin this section by identifying those criticisms we believe are relatively baseless.

The branching of symbolic interactionism into the structural and interactional perspectives derived from profound differences, but with time and academic progress, we believe that at least some of the differences between these schools no longer represent valid criticisms. First, is social behavior mainly created by social structural norms or by interactional role making? To a large extent, the contemporary interactional theorists (e.g., Turner & Colomy, 1987) have moved to increasingly include macrostructural elements in their theories, and the macrotheorists have witnessed the interactional emergence of relatively new social structures, such a; cohabitation. We think it is now clear to most scholars that there are some norms and roles in every society that are clear and strictly sanctioned and as a result provide little room for role making. There are many other roles and norms that are less clearly defined and are sanctionless (e.g., grandparental roles, mother-in-law role), providing room for individuals to make roles. Thus, we see both perspectives as valid and necessarily complementary for a truly useful analysis of social behavior. The two major critiques associated with this debate have been that the structuralists put forth an oversocialized conception of humans and that the interactionists overestimate the actor’s influence in creating roles and downplay structural constraints. In our view, for any given social role, there are degrees of truth to each of these criticisms based on the clarity and strength of the norms for the role.

Although symbolic interactionists agree that perceived clarity of and consensus about roles have important consequences, they do not agree about how common clarity and consensus are. The structuralists believe that social meanings and behavioral expectations are clearer and more widely shared than do adherents to the other varieties of the theory. Perhaps people in relationships usually do have a pretty good idea about reciprocal roles and do not struggle to define situations. Other symbolic interactionists, however, place relatively more emphasis on the necessity of people to create meaning and order as situations and relationships unfold. And, the enactment of roles may depend more on the coming together of unique personalities than on a single generalized formula or script for all actors.

For example, suppose that you marry a spouse who has adolescent or young adult children from a previous marriage. To what extent would you feel like you know in advance how to play the stepparent role with these new children, in terms of power, emotion, or communication? How sure would they be about how to interact with you? It may very well be that some family circumstances are not [83] clearly defined, and that actors must therefore improvise. Therefore, one way to resolve this dispute among symbolic interactionists is to seek and specify the conditions under which each is correct.

The ongoing construction or reconstruction of meaning may be most important in times of rapid social change. When relationships of a particular kind are fairly new and uncommon in the collective historical experience of a population (or in the biographical experience of the actors themselves), the search for meaning and order is likely to be a process with some duration. One way that you might judge which aspects of family life are ill defined is to visit a major bookstore and explore titles in the family or relationships section. If there are a variety of self-help or “how-to” books on a particular topic, this suggests that social norms and meanings are somewhat ambiguous. After all, if almost everybody already knows how to act when the topic becomes relevant in their lives, there would be a small market for books that provide advice.

A second area of disagreement between these two perspectives that we believe fails as a valid criticism of either is the argument about qualitative versus quantitative methods of data collection. Again, we see this dispute as being resolved by the earlier pragmatists, such as

William James (1975). Indeed, this argument is only unresolvable when it becomes a metaphysical argument about which method is “true,” similar to asking how many angels fit on the head of a pin. Most researchers now agree that there are research questions that are best addressed by qualitative methods and those that are best addressed by quantitative methods. If we are interested in how people in specific situations feel, perceive, and experience, then qualitative methods are appropriate; if we ask questions about how many people behave in a certain way or what most people do, then quantitative methods are appropriate. If we want to know why young people find cohabitation appealing as an added step toward marriage, we would start with in-depth observation and talk. But if we want to know what proportion of young people who finish university then cohabit, we would use quantitative methods. Many times both methods can fruitfully be used in a multimethod approach to answer a research question. Thus, we see no critique of substance for either school of thought.

One of the principal criticisms of symbolic interactionism as a whole is that the concepts it offers are vague and poorly defined. Although this may be a problem in some cases, researchers such as Burr, Leigh, et al. (1979) are careful to define and elaborate their terms. Still others, such as Turner (e.g., 1970), have argued that some terms such as role should not be defined at the outset, but rather one should allow definitions to arise from how the terms are used. [84] Certainly, such a strategy has a long history in mathematics, in which certain terms are considered “primitive” or are defined as tautologies, such as “equals” and “identity.”

Symbolic interactionists in the family field no doubt sometimes offer vague and ill-defined concepts. But the root of this criticism probably lies in the fact that symbolic interactionism is so fecund. It has given birth to many variants. Critics would say that some of this richness is supplied by vagueness and ambiguity in the original concepts. There is some truth to that claim, but today’s symbolic interactionists seem to be on the way to rectifying this shortcoming. Indeed, it may be that every theory starts out containing ambiguity and vagueness, and it is the task of future theorists to refine the efforts of the forebears. We must also remember that symbolic interactionism emphasizes the processes by which meaning is constructed. Groups of family scientists are meaning makers just as families are. Both sets of actors can be vague and ambiguous while the process unfolds. Ultimately, of course, what scientists say about families should bear some connection to what family members say about them.

Another major question about symbolic interaction theory is whether a symbol-specific theory can ever be nomothetic, or cross-culturally relevant. The interpretation of behavior in symbolic interactionism relies in large part on the meaning of symbols and context to the actors. Not only does the actor’s interpretation depend on his or her culture and situation, it is also subjective. If our explanations are always subjective and context and symbol specific, can symbolic interactionism ever amount to more than low-level interpretations constrained by the culture and time in which they occur? Another way of posing this question is to ask if symbolic interactionism can generate statements such as the general laws associated with scientific theory. This criticism is a fairly easy one for symbolic interactionists to answer, because the propositions provided by scholars such as Turner (e.g., Turner & Colomy, 1987) and Burr (e.g., Burr, Leigh, et al., 1979) are  clearly not culture or period specific. In addition, social psychology has a long history of scientific (and objective) study of the uniformities in subjective interpretations, such as attitudes and attributions.

The problems surrounding the concepts of mind and self are more serious. The concept of mind incorporates aspects of neurophysiology that are not rooted in the organ of the brain. Indeed, even Mead (1934) was aware of the reflex arc (muscle memory) and the problems it provided his concept. The fact is that the mind, like our notions of group and society, turns out not to be a “thing” or “organ” but a complex system for which we have a name. Most social scientists have not had to confront this conceptual problem, but when they do they [85] will find that it provides the same problems inherent in the question “Are families just a collection of individual members or are families something more than just the individual members?” This is a very old question in philosophy and social science. The early pragmatists, especially William James, paid a great deal of attention to this question. We do not pretend that others or even that we have resolved this question to the satisfaction of those who believe that a function must be attached to an organ that performs that function.

The problems with the concept of mind carry over to the concept of self as a construction of the reflexive activity of the mind. Just because humans act (I) and are able to see themselves as actors (me) does not necessarily imply the existence of self. Because the mind is unidentified and self is a construct of mind, self raises the same problems as our concept of mind. Particularly when you add in the notion of developmental change and maturation, the notions of self and identity become difficult to pin down. At least one symbolic interactionist, Turner (1970), does not use the concept of self but prefers the concept of “self-conception,” for it appears more fluid and less of an immutable structure than does the concept of the self.

LaRossa and Reitzes (1993) mention the criticism that symbolic interaction theory has failed to deal effectively with emotions. The absence of emotions, feelings, and affect as major concepts has in some ways limited the theory’s conceptual utility. Symbolic interactionists invariably discuss an actor’s feeling as part of the definition of the situation but leave the details of conceptualizing the type and degree of the actor’s emotional experience to psychologists and psychotherapists. LaRossa and Reitzes expressed some optimism that this oversight is being addressed, but we do not share their opinion. None of the major contemporary theorists, such as Turner (1970), seem inclined to tackle this question. Furthermore, it may be that dealing with the subject of emotion would move symbolic interactionism into a more subjectivist position. Nevertheless, it is possible to clearly theorize about emotions and their symbolic significance. Family members certainly look for cues about how other family members are feeling, and they communicate with each other as if those feelings matter. Indeed, mixed emotions may be common in families. What parent or adolescent has not worried about his or her feelings concerning independence, trust, and loss when the adolescent first leaves for college? Is this occasion ever 100% cheerful? Perhaps we will see in the future more family theories about ambivalent emotions and attitudes between spouses, across generations, and among siblings (e.g., Liischer & Pillemer, 1998).

Some critics of symbolic interactionism see the theory as too focused on the individual and “self as agent,” ignoring the causal [86] efficacy of social institutions and social structure. Although some of these criticisms can be dismissed as more feuding between the structuralists and interactionists, some of the critiques apply to both schools of thought. For example, the notion of norms is central to both the structuralists and interactionists, but neither examine the development and change of institutional norms. The structuralists take institutional norms for granted with the axiom that “Society preceded the individual.” Interactionists see norms as emerging from interaction but fail to explain how it is that social institutions exist with relative permanence.

Additionally, we could accuse symbolic interactionists of losing their way. The early pragmatists and Mead (1934) took the interpretation of sign and gesture as central to their study of human behavior. Among today’s symbolic interactionists, we seldom hear theoretical discussions about the nature of signs and gestures. Today, in discussions of interpretation and meaning it might be needed to incorporate “schematic processing” from psychology into the concept of “framing” as well as the work of linguists and contemporary semiotics.

Lastly, some have voiced concern about the continual emphasis by symbolic interactionists on the person’s construction of meaning even in quantitative measures such as marital satisfaction. These critics worry that the behavioral sciences are forgetting that the observation of behavior may be significantly different than phenomenological reports by actors. Indeed, Gottman and Notarius (2000) voice such a concern in relation to the study of marriage: “Observational measures will always be [the] most informative data source we will ever get about process, which will be the richest source we will ever have for describing and building theory” (p. 942).


There can be little doubt that symbolic interactionism has had an influence on how we study families. Both role theorists and interactionists have contributed greatly to our understanding of families. Thus far, however, although interactionists’ claims about the symbolic nature of human interaction have sensitized researchers, they have not tackled many critical questions, such as how patterns evolve as lasting rather than momentary and idiosyncratic. Within symbolic interactionism, role theory undoubtedly offers the most formal theoretical propositions and conceptual definitions. All four variants that we have discussed offer promise as we move away from dogmatic divisions toward a more systematic and thorough investigation of which and [87] what type of family interactions lead to and sustain longer-term social patterns of behavior within the family.

Suggested Readings

Burr, W., Leigh, G., Day, R., & Constantine, J. (1979). Symbolic interaction and the family. In W. Burr, R. Hill, I. Nye, & I. Reiss (Eds.), Contemporary theories about the family (Vol. 2, pp. 42-111). New York: Free Press. This is an excellent propositional approach to symbolic interactionism. The diagrams within this chapter should assist anyone in thinking about role variables.

LaRossa, R., & Reitzes, D. C. (1993). Symbolic interactionism and family studies. In P. Boss, W. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. Schumm, & S. Steinmetz (Eds.), Sourcebook of family theories and methods: A contextual approach (pp. 135-163). New York: Plenum. This more recent chapter on symbolic interactionism is especially good on the microinteractional variants.



pete padilla  sociology 

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