Symbolic Interactionism

George Herbert Mead never completed his Ph.D. He was an influential philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. He was fascinated by the way human beings use symbols, and from observation and deduction he came up with the theory ‘Symbolic Interactionism’.

Mead believed that human symbolic activities account for the distinct character of human thinking, for individual identity, and for the persistence of society through the behaviours of individuals, (Wood, 1997).

He never published his ideas on the theory of symbolic interactions. However, after his death, one of his students and lead disciples, Herbert Blumer, further developed his theory, (Griffin, 2000).

Herbert Blumer at Berkley coined the term symbolic interactionism that deals with the core principals of meaning, language and thought.

  1. Meaning or the Mind starts with the premise that human’s act toward people or things on the basis of meanings they assign to those people or things, (Griffin, 2000).
Mead believed that at birth humans have neither minds nor selves. Both, he argued, are acquired in the process of interacting with others, (Wood, 1997). County sheriff regards Nell as crazy.

His depressed wife sees Nell as a free spirit.

The chief psychiatrist at the medical center sees this child of the wild as a change to make research history and wants her brought to his center.

A group of sleazy guys in the pool hall sees her as mindless and will mimic anything they do for sexual advantage.

The reporter sees her as a chance for a big story.

WHO IS THE REAL NELL? Is she the collective response of the group? Strange, weird, deviant? However, does being different mean demented?

Language is Blumer’s second premise. He believed that meaning arises out of the social interaction people have with one another. Meaning is negotiated through discourse to develop universal discourse, (Griffin, 2000).

As children interact with family, peers, and others, they learn language and, concurrently, they learn the social meanings attached to certain words. In Mead’s view, social life and communication between people are possible only when we understand and can use a common language,(Wood, 1997).

Nell is played by Jody Foster. Her language is based on the King James Version of the Bible, which her mother read to her out loud for twenty years. However, the language her mother spoke was distorted. Her mother had had a stroke, which had left the left side of her face paralyzed. So the words that Nell leaned were unintelligible to anyone else.

3. Thought, is Blumer’s third premise. He believed that our own thought processes modify our interpretation of symbols. Having an inner conversation with you. Mead called this minding. I. A. Richards called it "FEEDFORWARD". It is how we look to other people. Like sending videotape of us to someone else. (Griffin, 2000).

In the film Jerry is with Nell is her cabin. She runs to the mirror and reaches out to her reflected image in the mirror and says MAY, meaning ME, TAY, meaning I. In Paula’s viewing of the videotape she realizes that Nell sees herself as an objective and subjective self, proving that Nell is human and sane. She has a sense of the outside world in her own inside world.

According to Mead, Self does not exist at birth, (Wood, 1997).

Mead referred to the I, as the subjective self, as the impulsive, spontaneous, and generally unburdened part of us, which is not constricted by societal norms and rules, (Wood, 1997).

Me is the socially conscious part of the self which is analytical, evaluative, and above all, aware of social conventions, rules, and restrictions, (Wood, 1997).

Mean believed that by combining all of these images of ourselves, we form a composite picture called the generalized other. Our generalized other is the sum of total responses and expectations that we pick up from people around us, (Griffin, 2000).

At the end of the movie, Nell seems unconcerned about what other people think of her. But then, this is a work of fiction.


There are six separate applications of symbolic theory.

Creating reality - Social interaction is a dramaturgical performance.

Phenomena: (1) Why our homes are a place of nurture and comfort, a place we grow to love; (2) the art of Feng Shui; (3) the traditional baptismal or wedding dress carried down through generations; (4) Wedding Dress Colour; (5) why we love out cars.

Study of meaning - Mead advocated study through participant observation. He believed experimental and survey research ignored the meaning of experience.

Generalized other – We see ourselves as others do. Phenomenon: The boy who is not loved is unlovable.

Naming - Name-calling can be devastating because it forces us to view ourselves. through a warped mirror. Phenomenon: Name calling like stupid.

Self-fulfilling prophecy- Each one of us affects how others view themselves. Our expectations evoke responses that confirm what we originally anticipated. Phenomenon: The way I choose to see the world creates the world I see.

Symbol manipulation - Organizational logos or business cards. Phenomena: Business Cards.


Vague concepts, too large in scope


Griffin, Em. (2000). A First Look at Communication Theory. Fourth Edition. The McGraw-Hill Company,

McClish, Glen. (1997). "Instructor's Manual" to Accompany EM Griffin's: A First look at Communication Theory. Third edition. The Mcgraw-Hill Companies Inc.

Movie "NELL"

Wood, T. Julia. (1997). Communication Theories in Action. Wadsworth Publishing Company, USA.