ARTICLE 71: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Symbolic Interactionism

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel

What do you think is the one single concept that can save the world?

It is a concept that can solve all conflicts between individuals, communities and even countries.

It can solve corruption, prevent wars, heal physical and psychological illnesses.

And one day, when the aliens arrive, it is the concept that will decide if we will receive them as friends or enemies.

Sadly, our inability to utilise that concept to the full is responsible for most, if not all the things that it is supposed to solve.

I introduce you to the concept that can save the world in this video.

‘Symbolic interactionism’ emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings. Human interaction in the social world is mediated using symbols like language, which helps people to give meaning to objects. Symbolic interactionists, therefore, claim that by only focusing attention on individuals’ capacity to create symbolically meaningful objects in the world, human interaction and resulting patterns of social organisations can be understood. As a result, not only individuals change themselves through interaction, but also societies.

According to symbolic interactionism, human behaviour depends on learning rather than biological instinct. People communicate what they learn through symbols, the most common system of symbols being language. Linguistic symbols amount to arbitrary sounds or physical gestures to which people, by mutual agreement over time, have attached significance or meaning.

Symbolic interactionism also emphasises the role that the inner mental processes play in people’s subjective experiences. The mental processes are regarded as the key to understanding the link between individuals and the society to which they belong. Individuals and society are intrinsically linked. The individual is born into an already formed society and thus he or she emerges from, and is defined, in terms of an ongoing flux of social activity. Words of habit, fads, jargon, etc. lose their meaning, or the meaning is changed, if it is used in different contexts and different societies.

The emphasis on meaning and its influence on social behaviour are the key features of symbolic interactionism. There are three aspects to this.  Firstly, people act towards things based on the meanings that these things have for them. An example is how some, probably most, people react to how athletes from their own country or rival countries perform at the Olympic Games.

The second premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning arises out of social interaction. For example, students who would otherwise not have acted aggressively might well do so under group pressure during advocacy campaigns.

The third premise of symbolic interactionism is that meaning is handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process. Meaning is not permanently fixed or unchanged. For example, an inexperienced soldier might be highly upset the first time he sees the body of a comrade or even an enemy killed in action. As he gains experience in war and as he sees more bodies, he loses his sensitivity towards other people and, to an extent, his respect for life. The meaning of a message, regardless of the medium though which it is conveyed, requires time to be absorbed and reflected on before it will make sense to the receiver.

The core task of research following a symbolic interactionist philosophical perspective is to capture the essence of the process for interpreting or attaching meaning to various symbols.

Strictly speaking, symbolic interactionism is utilised in all research, be it quantitative or qualitative in nature. Logically a quantitative research approach will rely more heavily on the use of symbols to convey and interpret messages that require counting, measuring or statistical analysis. Data collection methods need to be selected with the value that symbols have to offer as an important deciding factor. Written questionnaires, for example, do not convey idiosyncratic expressions, such as irony, mocking, sarcasm, etc. as well as a face-to-face interview would. Written documents cannot have the same intonation value as spoken words.

Symbolic interactionism adopts a measure of romantic philosophy by accepting fiction and art as sources of information for research purposes. However, some qualitative researchers regard these sources as less rigorous, less useful, inaccurate, and even wrong while a second group considers such information as insightful and significant.

Symbolic interactionism can be used in conjunction with constructivism, ethnomethodology, hermeneutics, interpretivism, romanticism and phenomenology.

Symbolic interactionism does not agree with the preference of the technicist paradigms in favour of quantitative research methods. They include rationalism, scientism, positivism and modernism.

The peculiarity of this approach is that human beings interpret and define each other’s actions instead of merely reacting to each other’s actions.

Some researchers regard symbolic interactionism as too unfocused in the research methods that it supports, while at the same time being unsystematic in their philosophies. This loose approach to the research results in the findings of the research being difficult to motivate or prove and, therefore, also difficult to test for validity and accuracy.


Symbolic interactionism emphasises the understanding and interpretation of interactions between human beings.

Human behaviour depends on learning.

The role of inner mental processes is emphasised.

Individuals and society are intrinsically linked.

The emphasis on meanings and its influence on social behaviour are key.


  1. Can change in different contexts and societies.
  2. Is handled in and modified through interpretation.
  3. Is mediated using symbols.
  4. Is not permanently fixed or unchanged.
  5. Arises out of social interaction.
  6. Influences the actions and behaviour of people.

Symbolic interactionism can be used with quantitative or qualitative research.

Data collection methods are an important consideration in research.

The core task of research making use of symbolic interactionism is to capture the essence of processes.

Symbolic interactionism can be associated with all the interpretive paradigms.

And is opposed to all the technicist paradigms.

Points of criticism against symbolic interaction include:

  1. That it lacks focus.
  2. That findings are not based on testable evidence.
  3. That data is interpreted but not reacted upon.

In closing,

I hope you noticed that the concept that can save the world is meaning.

And meaning is what symbolic interactionism is all about.

How we act on the meanings that things have for us determine if our lives will be good or bad.

I hope you will inject some positive meanings to the world through your research.

Thank you for watching my videos.

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