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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ARTICLE 43: Research Methods for Ph. D. Studies: Behaviorism


Many Baby Boomers will remember the teachers at school who would not allow you to verbally respond to their scolding and reprimands.

“Listen to me and don’t talk back!”, they would say.

The consequence of this was that sometimes, when you had a good reason for behaving in a manner that they did not approve of, you just kept quiet and took your punishment with a stiff upper lip.

Just to set the record straight – I am deeply thankful to every teacher that taught me at school.

They did what they thought was right and they always had the interests of their pupils at heart.

Of course, there were also the difficult teachers, but I was fortunate not to have such a teacher ever.

All right – almost never.

Teachers in those days adopted an exaggerated behavioristic approach towards pupils.

They reacted to what they saw and did not care to think about the reasons why children behaved the way they did.

Hello, my name is Hannes Nel and I will discuss the nature and elements of behaviorism in this article.


Behaviorism is a set of doctrines that argue that human and animal behavior can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learner history and reinforcement.

Behaviorists argue that the human mind cannot be known.

Therefore, it cannot be shown that human thinking has an effect in the individual’s behavior.

All mental states, including beliefs, values, motives and reasons can only be described, defined and explained in terms of observable behavior.

Any data of a mental kind should be regarded as unscientific.

Reinforcement can increase or decrease the desired behavior.

Thus, reinforcement of behavior can be positive or negative.

All human behavior can be understood in terms of cause and effect.

Therefore, research should focus on that which is determined by and is the product of the environment.

This implies that research should focus on observable behavior which can be objectively measured rather than on cognitive processes which can only be inferred.

Intentionality and purposiveness are excluded or regarded as less important.

Behaviorism is related to positivism because positivism also believes that understanding human behavior can be gained through observation and reason.

Behaviorism can also be associated with empiricism because both make use of experimentation, specifically experimentation with experience and the simulation of experience in research.  

Symbolic interactionism is also related to behaviorism because both believe that learning takes place through the interaction between human beings, that is, external stimuli.       

Both behaviorism and symbolic interactionism depend on language to convey and share research findings.

Consequently, the accuracy and validity of findings through both behaviorism and symbolic interactionism depend on the ability of the researcher to use language.

So, you might have noticed that behaviorism, positivism, empiricism and symbolic interactionism gain comprehension through the observation of cause and effect.

Here we have the possibility of using different types of paradigms together, because:

  • Behaviorism, empiricism and symbolic interactionism are predominantly interpretivist paradigms.
  • Positivism is a predominantly technicist paradigm.

Behaviorism disagrees with phenomenology because phenomenology considers experience through direct interaction while behaviorism takes external stimuli into consideration.

Behaviorism disagrees with constructivism because constructivism claims that understanding is gained through experience and reflection while behaviorism largely neglects the cognitive processes, especially reflection.

The same applies to pragmatism because pragmatism postulates that knowledge is gained through observation and interpretation.

Again, the difference is vested in cognitive processes.

The problem with behaviorism as a research paradigm is that changes in behavior without taking cognitive processes into consideration are often only temporary.

Consequently, it does not deal with subjective, but lasting, human meaning-making.

Some behaviorists, however, do recognize the fact that cognitive thinking and the accompanying emotions can influence behavior.

This would be called radical behaviorism.

A second criticism against behaviorism is that the causes of changes in behavior are not always scientifically corroborated.


Behaviorism argues that behavior can be explained in terms of external stimuli, responses, learner history and reinforcement.

The human mind cannot be known.

Cognitive processes can only be inferred.

Therefore, all mental states can only be described, defined and explained in terms of observable behavior.

Behavior can be improved or suppressed.

All human behavior can be understood in terms of cause and effect.

Behaviorism is related to positivism, empiricism, and symbolic interactionism.

Behaviorism disagrees with constructivism and pragmatism.

Criticism against behaviorism includes that change without cognitive processes will probably be temporary.

And that the causes of changes in behavior are not always scientifically corroborated.


In closing, There are four ground rules for research that one should meet regardless of which paradigm or paradigms you use.

Firstly, you should not ignore cognitive processes.

Secondly, you should always try to integrate and systemize your findings into a meaningful pattern and theory.

Thirdly, keep in mind that text constructed by human beings is fallible.

Therefore, you must always corroborate your data and findings.

Fourthly, personal preferences can damage the accuracy of your data collection, analysis, conclusions, finding and recommendations.

Despite paradigms not always supporting all four these ground rules, I strongly recommend that you keep them in mind.

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