Symbolic Interactionism and Gender

In the modern world of knowledge revolution, there are several theoretical frameworks that address the basic concepts of gender and gender identity. One of the very effective ways of comprehending the concepts of gender and gender inequality is to understand it with the assistance of social learning theories as the very definition of gender is based on the social roles and activities of human beings. Thus, a prominent definition of gender recognises it as “the socially constructed roles, behaviour, activities and attributes that a particular society considers appropriate for men and women. The distinct roles and behaviour may give rise to gender inequalities, i.e. differences between men and women that systematically favour one group. In turn, such inequalities can lead to inequities between men and women in both health status and access to health care.” (Gender, World Health Organization). Now another elementary facet of gender which is the social dimension of being male or female, is that it is very much linked with the social learning theories. Thus, these theories address the different elements of gender such as gender roles, gender typing, gender behaviour etc.

“Gender typing is the way society stereotypes males and females who have characteristics of the opposite gender… Social learning theory and gender are intertwined… There is a distinct line between the two genders. To be socially connected, one must know whom he/she is inside. They must realize that the most important thing in life is how they perceive themselves and also how they perceive others.” (Social Definition of Gender). Symbolic Interactionism is an effective theory that deals with gender and in turn there is abundant literature that refers to the respective premise of Symbolic Interactionism. “Symbolic Interactionism, or Interactionism for short, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology… Interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems… For the interactionist, society consists of organized and patterned interactions among individuals. Thus, research by interactionists focuses on easily observable face-to-face interactions rather than on macro-level structural relationships involving social institutions.” (Symbolic Interactionism) .

The following is an analysis of how the premises of Symbolic Interactionism are viewed in the gender studies and particularly in feminist literature.

People adapt to their symbolic environment (symbol=stimulus and meaning).

Premises of Symbolic Interactionism Feminist Literature about one (or more) of the Premises
Blumer’s premises:
  1. The first premise says that people behave towards ‘things’ on the basis of the meanings which these things have for them. ‘Things’ here encompasses everything which a person is capable of perceiving in his or her world – physical objects such as trees or chairs; other people such as a mother or a salesperson; categories of people such as friends or enemies; institutions such as school or government; ideals such as individual independence or honesty; other people’s actions or wishes; and such situations as the individual encounters in his or her daily life.
  2. The second premise says that the meaning of such things is derived or arises from the social interaction in which one engages with his or her fellow humans.
  3. The third premise says that these meanings are dealt with and altered in an interpretive process which the person uses in his or her engagement with those things which he or she encounters” (Blumer 1973: 81).

The (possible) modification of acquired meanings is equally a learning process which can occur as anticipatory in thinking (Rose)

These premises are very much useful in the understanding of family psychology and therefore, family researches and similar studies make use of these premises. “Many areas of family research reflect symbolic interactionist ideas, often in diffuse and diluted form. For instance, in much of the research on marital satisfaction, marital quality, patterns of dating and mating, and various family-relevant attitudes (e.g., premarital sex, abortion), symbolic interactionist ideas are likely to be implicitlyrather than explicitly stated and tested… many of its concepts and ideas have become a part of the common wisdom of family studies. The theory’s use in family research across cultural domains also points to the broad applicability of its fundamental premises and constructs.” (Conclusion)

One of the most notable criticisms of the theory is that it focuses on almost entirely on the small scale face to face interactions and seems to ignore notions of structure and constraints. Nobody can consider the society to be fiction and here large scale interaction takes place. Only in this broader perspective can we understand the interaction of different genders in the social situations and judge the feminist concerns. Therefore, greater provision for larger scale of social interaction needs to be incorporated in the approach. In the same way, this theoretical perspective fails to conceptualise power in the background for its concerns. It is mainly because it is linked to a notion of social structure. The point that interests us is that the approach “tends to imply that ‘society’ results from some sort of consensus achieved through interaction, but also – since we do not come into an empty world – through learning how to interact and the rules for interaction through social interaction.” (p 532, Sociology in Perspective, By Mark Kirby, Heinemann: 2000)

S.I. and Socialisation: The socialisation process takes place by learning and internalising the attitudes of others.

Premises of Symbolic Interactionism Feminist Literature about one (or more) of the Premises
Society = network of individuals involved in interaction with each other and their culture, i.e. meanings and values interrelated with each other; structures = bundles of meanings and values linked with each other, which control a given social framework, including the relations between the individual roles, which are the anticipated component of this framework.

Fine (1993): “The shared interests of interactionists and feminist researchers emphasize the gendered’ quality of self – that is, self is not biologically given, but is created from social demands learning about the “significant other” and the “generalised other” (Mead),
Learning steps in play and games processes
Balance between “social identity” and “personal identity” (Goffman)

Cooley: The primary group is “primary in several senses, but chiefly in that they are fundamental in forming the social nature and ideals of the individual” (Cooley 1962b: 145).
The primary group is the group which first puts its stamp on behaviour in the socialisation process, so normally the family in which one grows up, later one’s S.I. and emotions
There are basic human instincts such as self-assertion, subjugation or fear (Mead).

Emotions are shaped through socialisation

Feeling rules (Hochschild)

Feminist theory and society are greatly linked and the former gives more insights into the premises of social theories. The concerns of the feminist theory can completely be achieved only through an integration of social theories and in this background do we understand the significance of the premises of symbolic interactionism. “While feminist theory builds in important ways on the Conflict theoretical perspective, it is also sensitive to the need for social integrationadvocated by the Functionalist perspective. Feminist scholars… view gender differences as a reflection of the subjugationof one group (women) by another group (men)… The feminist perspective has given sociologists new views of familiar social behaviour and social structure.” (Lecture by L. M. Downes, Ph.D.) Thus, the social behaviour of people is instrumental in understanding the precepts of feminism. It is most notable here that the behaviour of males in the society has been a significant influence on the activities of females. If we consider the relation between the actions of the two genders, this relation seems to be evident. Male dominated society has contributed to the present position of women. For example, “Research conducted by Mead Cheney-Lind and Noelle Rodriquez (1993) showed that nearly all women in prison had suffered physical and/or sexual abuse when they were young; half had been raped. These experiences in a male-dominated society contributed to their present situations. In short, contributions by both feminist and ethnic scholars have enriched all the sociological theoretical perspectives, and second, Feminist theory is so diverse that it can be combined with any other theoretical perspective, such as… Symbolic Interactionist theory.”(Lecture by L. M. Downes, Ph.D.)It is useful in understanding how gender roles are defined and taught and how a society and culture creates the meanings of gender.
However, it is pertinent to note at this point that there is an opposite view that needs to be considered. “The symbolic interaction perspective did not explicitly consider women, and some feminists viewed this approach as male dominated, expressing how present structures of power are maintained through human interaction in the interaction order… [S]ymbolic interaction approaches tend to consider participants in the interaction order as more or less equal participants. This is not always the case for Goffman’s analysis, but the basic assumptions and methods of symbolic interactionists do not include power differentials.” (Adams and Sydie, Symbolic Interaction Perspectives, Sociology 250
March 14-17, 2003) However, there are evidences for the latest forms of symbolic interaction analyses including situations where there is oppression, power differentials, or other forms of inequality as experienced by females. That is to say, this approach, in the modern context, has proven to be flexible. In this connection, it is most relevant to note Goffman’s contributions such concerning asylums, prisons, and male-female relations. Even more recent contributions have come from Arlie Hochschild and Norman Denzin and all these are very much pointing to the premises of Symbolic Interactionism.

The Perspective of the other/s and role distance

Premises of Symbolic Interactionism Feminist Literature about one (or more) of the Premises
“The socialized human being takes the attitudes that others have towards himself and of each social situation, in which he and other human beings are put or could be implicated; therefore, in each particular situation, he identifies with the others, whereby he implicitly responds in the way that the others respond explicitly or would react, and thereby controls his own explicit response accordingly“ (Mead1968: 281).
The individual sees him- or herself through others’ perspectives (looking glass self, Cooley)
“We imagine how we must appear to others. We imagine the judgment of that appearance. We develop our self through the judgments of others. “
According S.I., individuals can look at themselves and their roles from outside:

Capabilities of role behaviour are empathy, tolerance of ambiguity, and role distance* (Krappmann)
* Two things are meant with ‘role distance’: Firstly the ability, to consider oneself and one’s role critically from outside and from a distance, so to say with the eyes of others. On the other hand it can also be a medium to create a distance to demands of others on one’s role, which one considers as status inadequate or unreasonable.

The approach of Symbolic Interactionism is useful tool in understanding how individuals are influenced by social structures and social interaction. This is helpful in addressing the roles that each sect of people in the society is attributed to. Sexual attitudes of the different gender categories are also studied with the help of Symbolic Interactionism. “Research, inspired by the need to develop a more sophisticated understanding of adolescent sexuality, has begun to examine multiple influences on sexual attitudes and behavior… Symbolic interactionism suggests that attitudes, a component of self concept, influence behavior because individuals pursue “self-initiated and identity-confirming lines of action… [and] resist behavior that violates personal principles or values”… Symbolic interactionism also suggests that individuals are influenced by social structures and interaction, particularly relationships with significant others; this influenced the choice of independent variables. Statistical analyses were conducted separately and simultaneously for individual and family characteristics because they are both theoretically relevant and have been identified as important predictors of sexual attitudes. Additionally, since research suggests that males and females hold different attitudes about sexuality, separate models were developed for each.”

(Symbolic Interactionism, Gender Differences in Adolescent Sexual Attitudes: The Influence of Individual and Family Factors, Journal article by Ronald Jay Werner-Wilson; Adolescence, Vol. 33, 1998) Role distance is one important aspect of the Symbolic Interactionism. Gender roles and their distance can be analysed by the approach. “For Goffman, the purpose of “everyday life” performances is precisely the normalizationof appearances with regard to social standards; it is therefore only when the performance is “interrupted” — i.e., when the illusion is thwarted — that the dependence of the front-stage appearance on back-stage preparations becomes apparent. The presentation of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and universality by the modern individual is compromised should he be seen while burdened with the menial tasks of office maintenance or household life. Thus, the wife stays at home, the janitor only comes in at night, and the “self-made man” is free to engage in his “higher” purposes.” (Brian Milstein, Moral Critique and Symbolic Interaction: Augmenting Tronto’s “Ethic of Care”)

It is also noticeable that the social roles of women as interpreted in the modern society can be studied with the help of Symbolic Interactionism. “Symbolic interaction, part of the social behaviorism views of sociology, is concerned with how culture influences people’s learning and considers where learning takes place… Contemporary critics suggest that people’s interpretation of the environment is based on communications, including advertising. What people know of the world is based on their prior experience, including indirect experiences from communications. These communications guide people in their everyday lives in their concept of self, their roles, situations, and expectations. Portrayals of men and women in mass media help create and maintain images of each gender.” (Women in Advertisements across Cultures, Pamela K. Morris)

Reference groups: family and neighbourhood.

Premises of Symbolic Interactionism Feminist Literature about one (or more) of the Premises
Reference groups are central for the development of the self (Mead, Goffman)

Primary reference groups (e.g. family) and secondary reference groups (neighbourhood, colleagues).

One of the significant points in this connection is that Symbolic Interactionism is an approach that looks at the reference groups in the social system. The social roles and reference groups are addressed by this approach as well as the identity theory which is based on Symbolic Interactionism. “A particular interest of symbolic interactionists is the development of the self created through interactions with others. Our reference groups and social roles have an important influence on how we perceive ourselves. Stryker et al. notes that there is an “internalized set of meanings attached to a role played in a network of social relationships with a person’s self viewed as an important part, and organization of the various identities held by the person.” People have different reference groups and social roles that can lead to differing social identities. An identity is apt to become salient if others give positive reinforcement for being involved in that role, want the person to be involved , and give him or her positive feedback for being so and if one views one’s own group in a favorable light.” (Adrienne M. Trier-Bieniek, To Be or Not To Be A Feminist: A Qualitative Study)


Gender, World Health Organization. Web.

Social Definition of Gender. Web.

Symbolic Interactionism. Web.

Conclusion. Web. p 532, Sociology in Perspective, By Mark Kirby, Heinemann: 2000).

Lecture by L. M. Downes, Ph.D. “The Power of Social Structure: Lessons from the Feminist Theoretical Perspective Regarding the Power of Social Structure To Limit or Increase our Life Chances”). Web.

Adams and Sydie, Symbolic Interaction Perspectives, Sociology 250. 2003. Web.

Symbolic Interactionism, Gender Differences in Adolescent Sexual Attitudes: The Influence of Individual and Family Factors, Journal article by Ronald Jay Werner-Wilson; Adolescence, Vol. 33, 1998. Web.

Brian Milstein, Moral Critique and Symbolic Interaction: Augmenting Tronto’s “Ethic of Care”. Web.

Women in Advertisements across Cultures, Pamela K. Morris. Web.