School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Language And Symbolic Interaction

 

"Words mean what I say they mean" (Humpty Dumpty, Alice in Wonderland)


Humpty could certainly teach Peter Mandelson a thing or two. Human beings have the unique ability to make the absent present using language, and it is this which Symbolic Interactionism concerns itself with. Ian Craib describes it as characterising society as a conversation, and ethnomethodology as characterising society as a conspiracy.

Using Herbert Blumer, he identifies three assumptions that lie behind SI, viz:
1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them
2. These meanings are the product of social interaction in human society
3. These meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is use by each individual in dealing with the signs each encounters

Craib also asks if Symbolic Interactionists are blind and stupid. Who on earth is going to be surprised by the revelation that human beings produce meaning through language, or engage in impression management? The application of SI appears to be limited because it is so vague. However, this vagueness is necessitated by the original approach of the theory. It is easy to make very definite, but abstract, claims about social structures. Indeed, the more abstract and synthetic our claims the more definite they can be. Putting interaction at the heart of their analysis of human behaviour moves the Symbolic Interactionists out of describing society as a set of definitive abstractions and into that of understanding society as a 'shapeless agglomeration of fluid exchanges' (Paul Rock).

Doing so allows us to get to grips with another fundamental of human existence, to wit: human beings relate to the external world through language. They, or rather we since sociologists can usually be considered as human beings, also construct society through language. Describing a person, a situation, or whatever, is not a neutral activity, but goes into shaping that person, that situation. We are all familiar with the power of language as manipulated by dictators, spin doctors, newspapers, television etc. to remake society in the way that they wish. What could be more definite and structural than that? This also means that the way sociologists describe society feeds back into the way ordinary people describe it. Hence our description of society influences and changes the society we describe. So there you go.

Adapted from Modern Social Theory by Ian Craib





These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010