Symbolic Interactionism as a Methodological Framework

  • Michael J. Carter
  • Andrea Montes Alvarado
Reference work entry


Symbolic interactionism is theoretical perspective in sociology that addresses the manner in which society is generated and maintained through face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions among individuals. In this chapter, we discuss symbolic interactionism as a methodological framework. We first provide a brief summary of interactionist thought, describing the general tenets and propositions that have defined the perspective over time. Next, we discuss methods commonly employed by symbolic interactionists, noting how the interactionist perspective informs and guides sociologists in empirical research. We discuss how symbolic interactionists employ a wide variety of methods to understand both intra- and interpersonal processes, and how methodological approaches in symbolic interactionism vary in terms of their inductive or deductive style, idiographic or nomothetic causal explanation, and quantitative or qualitative research design. We address five main methods that are commonly used in symbolic interactionist studies: interviews, surveys, ethnographies, content analysis, and experiments. Future directions of the perspective are discussed.


Symbolic interactionism Research methods Interviews Surveys Ethnography Content analysis Experiments 


  1. Asencio EK, Burke PJ. Does incarceration change the criminal identity? A synthesis of labeling and identity theory perspectives on identity change. Sociol Perspect. 2011;54:163–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Babbie E. The practice of social research. 14th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth Cengage Learning Publishers; 2016.Google Scholar
  3. Barton B, Hardesty CL. Spirituality and stripping: exotic dancers narrate the body Ekstasis. Symb Interact. 2010;33(2):280–96.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Becker HS. Becoming a marijuana user. Am J Sociol. 1953;59:235–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Becker HS, Geer B, Hughes EC, Strauss AL. Boys in white: student culture in medical school. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers; 2009 [1961].Google Scholar
  6. Benzies KM, Allen MN. Symbolic interactionism as a theoretical perspective for multiple method research. J Adv Nurs. 2001;33(4):541–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Berg BL, Lune H. Qualitative research methods for the social sciences. 8th ed. Upper Saddle River: Pearson; 2012.Google Scholar
  8. Berger P, Luckmann T. The social construction of reality. New York: Anchor Books; 1966.Google Scholar
  9. Blumer H. Symbolic interactionism: perspective and method. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1969.Google Scholar
  10. Burke PJ. Interaction in small groups. In: DeLamater JD, editor. Handbook of social psychology. New York: Kluwer-Plenum; 2003. p. 363–87.Google Scholar
  11. Burke PJ, Cast AD. Stability and change in the gender identities of newly married couples. Soc Psychol Q. 1997;60(4):277–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Burke PJ, Harrod MM. Too much of a good thing? Soc Psychol Q. 2005;68:359–74.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Burke PJ, Stets JE. Trust and commitment through self-verification. Soc Psychol Q. 1999;62(4): 347–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Burke PJ, Stets JE. Identity theory. New York: Oxford University Press; 2009.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burke PJ, Tully JC. The measurement of role identity. Soc Forces. 1977;55(4):881–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Carter MJ. Advancing identity theory: examining the relationship between activated identities and behavior in different social contexts. Soc Psychol Q. 2013;76:203–23. Scholar
  17. Carter MJ. An autoethnographic analysis of sports identity change. Sport Soc. 2016;19(10): 1667–89. Scholar
  18. Carter MJ, Fuller C. Symbols, meaning, and action: the past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism. Curr Sociol Rev. 2016;64(6):931–61. Scholar
  19. Carter MJ, Mireles DC. Deaf identity and depression. In: Stets JE, Serpe RT, editors. New directions in identity theory and research. New York: Oxford University Press; 2016a. p. 509–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Carter MJ, Mireles DC. Examining the relationship between deaf identity verification processes and self-esteem. Identity. 2016b;16(2):102–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Cast AD, Stets JE, Burke PJ. Does the self conform to the views of others? Soc Psychol Q. 1999;62(1):68–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Clay-Warner J, Robinson DT. Infrared thermography as a measure of emotion response. Emot Rev. 2015;7(2):157–62. Scholar
  23. Cooley CH. Human nature and social order. New York: Scribner; 1902.Google Scholar
  24. Cooley CH. Social organization. New York: Scribner; 1909.Google Scholar
  25. Cooley CH. Life and the student. New York: Alfred A. Knopf; 1927. p. 200–1.Google Scholar
  26. Couch CJ. Symbolic interaction and generic sociological principles. Symb Interact. 1984;7(1): 1–13. Scholar
  27. Couch C. Researching social processes in the laboratory. Greenwich: JAI Press; 1987.Google Scholar
  28. Couch CJ, Saxton SL, Katovich MA. The Iowa School. In: Couch CJ, Saxton SL, Katovich MA, editors. Studies in symbolic interaction, supplement 2. Greenwich: JAI Press; 1986.Google Scholar
  29. Cross JE. Processes of place attachment: an interactional framework. Symb Interact. 2015;38(4): 493–520. Scholar
  30. Curry TJ. A little pain never hurt anyone: athletic career socialization and the normalization of sports injury. Symb Interact. 1993;16:273–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Darley JM, Batson CD. From Jerusalem to Jericho: a study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behaviors. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1976;27:100–8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Day PR. An interview: constructing reality. Bri J Soc Work. 1985;15(5):487–99.Google Scholar
  33. Dennis A, Martin PJ. Symbolic interactionism and the concept of power. Br J Sociol. 2005;56(2): 191–213. Scholar
  34. Denzin NK. On semiotics and symbolic interaction. Symb Interact. 1987;10(1):1–19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Diekema DA, Couch CJ, Powell JO. The third party standpoint, postmodernism, and the study of social transactions. Sociol Perspect. 1996;39(1):111–27. Scholar
  36. Durkheim E. The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press; 1982.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Ellen RF. Ethnographic research. New York: Academic; 1984.Google Scholar
  38. Ellis C, Bochner AP. Autoethnography, personal narrative, and reflexivity: researcher as subject. In: Denzin NK, Lincoln YS, editors. Handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage; 2000. p. 733–68.Google Scholar
  39. Elo S, Kyngas H. The qualitative content analysis process. J Adv Nurs. 2007;62:107–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Fine GA. Kitchens: the culture of restaurant work. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1996.Google Scholar
  41. Fine GA. Morel Tales: the culture of mushrooming. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1998.Google Scholar
  42. Fine GA. Giften tongues: high school debate and adolescent culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press; 2001.Google Scholar
  43. Fine GA. Players and pawns: how chess builds community and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 2015.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Franklin BJ, Kohout FJ. Subject-coded versus researcher-coded TST protocols: some methodological implications. Sociol Q. 1971;12:82–9.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Gans H. The urban villagers. New York: Free Press; 1962.Google Scholar
  46. Garfinkel H. Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall; 1967.Google Scholar
  47. Glaser BG, Strauss AL. Awareness contexts and social interaction. Am Sociol Rev. 1964;29:669–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Goffman E. The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Doubleday; 1959.Google Scholar
  49. Goffman E. Frame analysis: an essay on the organization of experience. New York: Harper and Row; 1974.Google Scholar
  50. Goldstein JH, Arms RL. Effects of observing athletic contests on hostility. Sociometry. 1971;34:83–90.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Gottschalk S. The presentation of avatars in second life: self and interaction in social virtual spaces. Symb Interact. 2010;33(4):501–25. Scholar
  52. Grace SL, Kramer KL. Sense of self in the new millennium: male and female student responses to TST. Soc Behav Personal. 2002;30(3):271–80.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Haney C, Banks WC, Zimbardo PG. Interpersonal dynamics in a simulated prison. Int J Criminol Penology. 1973;1:69–97.Google Scholar
  54. Harvey DC. ‘Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer’: food as cultural performance in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Symb Interact. 2017;40:498–522. Scholar
  55. Heise DR. Understanding social interaction with affect control theory. In: Berger J, Zelditch Jr M, editors. New directions in contemporary sociological theory. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield; 2002. p. 17–40.Google Scholar
  56. Heise DR, Calhan C. Emotion norms in interpersonal events. Soc Psychol Q. 1995;58(4):223–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Hektner JM, Schmidt JA, Csikszentmihalyi M. Experience sampling method: measuring the quality of everyday life. Thousand Oaks: Sage; 2007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Herman-Kinney NJ, Vershaeve JM. Methods of symbolic interactionism. In: Reynolds LT, Herman-Kinney NJ, editors. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press; 2003. p. 213–52.Google Scholar
  59. Hochschild AR. The managed heart. Berkeley: University of California Press; 2003 [1983].Google Scholar
  60. House JS. The three faces of social psychology. Sociometry. 1977;40:161–77.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Jacobs J. A phenomenological study of suicide notes. Soc Probl. 1967;15:60–72.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Katovich MA. Identity, time, and situated activity: an interactions analysis of dyadic transactions. Symb Interact. 1987;10(2):187–208.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Katovich MA. Couch the Bricoleur: using ethnographic and laboratory traditions to establish data careers. Symb Interact. 1995;18(3):283–301. Scholar
  64. Katovich MA, Miller DE, Stewart RL. The Iowa School. In: Reynolds LT, Herman-Kinney NJ, editors. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press; 2003. p. 119–39.Google Scholar
  65. Kelly JR, McCarty MK, Iannone NE. Interaction in small groups. In: DeLamater JD, Ward A, editors. Handbook of social psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 2013. p. 413–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Kuhn MH. Major trends in symbolic interaction theory in the past twenty-five years. Sociol Q. 1964;5:61–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Kuhn MH, McPartland TS. An empirical investigation of self-attitudes. Am Sociol Rev. 1954;19:68–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. LaRossa R, Reitzes DC. Symbolic interactionism and family studies. In: Boss P, Doherty WJ, LaRossa R, Schumm WR, Steinmetz SK, editors. Sourcebook of family theories and methods. Boston: Springer; 2009. p. 135–66.Google Scholar
  69. Liebow E. Tally’s corner. Boston: Little Brown and Co.; 1967.Google Scholar
  70. MacKinnon NJ. Symbolic interactionism as affect control. Albany: State University of New York Press; 1994.Google Scholar
  71. McCabe J, Tanner AE, Heiman JR. The impact of gender expectations on meanings of sex and sexuality: results from a cognitive interview study. Sex Roles. 2010;62(3–4):252–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. McCall GJ. Interactionist perspectives in social psychology. In: DeLamater JD, Ward A, editors. Handbook of social psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 2013. p. 3–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. McCall GJ, Simmons JL. Identities and interactions: an examination of human associations in everyday life. Revised ed. New York: The Free Press; 1978.Google Scholar
  74. McPhail C. Experimental research is convergent with symbolic interaction. Symb Interact. 1979;2(1):89–94. Scholar
  75. McPherson M, Smith-Lovin L, Brashears ME. Social isolation in America: changes in core discussion networks over two decades. Am Sociol Rev. 2006;71(3):353–75. Scholar
  76. Mead GH. Mind, self, and society from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; 1934.Google Scholar
  77. Molotch HL, Boden D. Talking social structure: discourse, domination and the Watergate hearings. Am Sociol Rev. 1985;50(3):273–88.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Musolf GR. The Chicago school. In: Reynolds LT, Herman-Kinney NJ, editors. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press; 2003. p. 91–117.Google Scholar
  79. Musolf GR. The symbolic interactionism of Bernard N. Meltzer. Mich Sociol Rev. 2008;22:112–41.Google Scholar
  80. Nugus P. The interactionist self and grounded research: reflexivity in a study of emergency department clinicians. Qual Sociol Rev. 2008;4(1):189–204.Google Scholar
  81. Parsons T. The social system. Abingdon: Routledge; 2005 [1951].Google Scholar
  82. Pechmann C, Pirouz D, Pezzuti T. Symbolic interactionism and adolescent reactions to cigarette advertisements. In: Campbell MC, Inman J, Pieters R, editors. Advances in consumer research, vol. 37. Doluth: Association for Consumer Research; 2010. p. 138–42.Google Scholar
  83. Pennartz PJJ. Semiotic theory and environmental evaluation: a proposal for a new approach and a new method. Symb Interact. 1989;12(2):231–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Quin CO, Robinson IE, Balkwell JW. A synthesis of two social psychologies. Symb Interact. 1980;3(1):59–88. Scholar
  85. Rafalow MH, Adams BL. Navigating the tavern: digitally mediated connections and relationship persistence in bar settings. Symb Interact. 2016;40(1):25–42. Scholar
  86. Reid JA, Webber GR, Elliott S. ‘It’s like being in church and being on a field trip:’ the date versus party situation in college students’ accounts of hooking up. Symb Interact. 2015;38(2):175–94. Scholar
  87. Reynolds LT, Meltzer BN. The origins of divergent methodological stances in symbolic interactionism. Sociol Q. 1973;14(2):189–99. Scholar
  88. Robinson DT, Smith-Lovin L. Affect control theory. In: Burke PJ, editor. Contemporary social psychological theories. Stanford: Stanford University Press; 2006. p. 137–64.Google Scholar
  89. Salvini A. Symbolic interactionism and social network analysis: an uncertain encounter. Symb Interact. 2010;33(3):364–88. Scholar
  90. Sandstrom KL, Fine GA. Triumphs, emerging voices, and the future. In: Reynolds LT, Herman-Kinney NJ, editors. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Lanham: AltaMira Press; 2003. p. 1041–57.Google Scholar
  91. Sawicka M. Searching for a narrative of loss: interactional ordering of ambiguous grief. Symb Interact. 2016;40(2):229–46. Scholar
  92. Schnittker J. Social structure and personality. In: DeLamater JD, Ward A, editors. Handbook of social psychology. 2nd ed. New York: Springer; 2013.Google Scholar
  93. Scott G, Garner R. Doing qualitative research: designs, methods, and techniques. Upper Saddle River: Pearson; 2013.Google Scholar
  94. Serpe RT, Stryker S. The symbolic interactionist perspective and identity theory. In: Schwartz SJ, Luyckx K, Vignoles VL, editors. Handbook of identity theory and research. New York: Springer; 2011. p. 225–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  95. Serry T, Liamputtong P. The in-depth interviewing method in health. In: Liamputtong P, editor. Research methods in health: foundations for evidence-based practice. 3rd ed. Melbourne: Oxford University Press; 2017. p. 67–83.Google Scholar
  96. Silva EO. Neutralizing problematic frames in the culture wars: anti-evolutionists grapple with religion. Symb Interact. 2014;37(2):226–45. Scholar
  97. Sjoberg G, Gill EA, Tan JE. Social organization. In: Reynolds LT, Herman-Kinney NJ, editors. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press; 2003. p. 411–32.Google Scholar
  98. Smirnova M. ‘I am a cheerleader, but secretly I deal drugs’: authenticity through concealment and disclosure. Symb Interact. 2016;39(1):26–44. Scholar
  99. Smith-Lovin L. Social psychology. In: Blau JR, editor. The Blackwell companion to sociology. Malden: Blackwell; 2001. p. 407–20.Google Scholar
  100. Smith-Lovin L, Douglass W. An affect control analysis of two religious subcultures. In: Gecas V, Franks D, editors. Social perspective in emotions. Greenwich: JAI Press; 1992. p. 217–48.Google Scholar
  101. Stets JE, Carter MJ. The moral identity: a principle level identity. In: McClelland K, Fararo TJ, editors. Purpose, meaning, and action: control systems theories in sociology. New York: Palgrave MacMillan; 2006. p. 293–316.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Stets JE, Carter MJ. The moral self: applying identity theory. Soc Psychol Q. 2011;74:192–215.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  103. Stets JE, Carter MJ. A theory of the self for the sociology of morality. Am Sociol Rev. 2012;77:120–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  104. Stets JE, Serpe RT. Identity theory. In: DeLamater JD, Ward A, editors. Handbook of social psychology. New York: Springer; 2013. p. 31–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  105. Stoddart K. The presentation of everyday life: some textual strategies for adequate ethnography. Urban Life. 1986;15(1):103–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  106. Stryker S. Symbolic interactionism: a social structural version. Menlo Park: Benjamin Cummings; 1980.Google Scholar
  107. Stryker S. Traditional symbolic interactionism, role theory, and structural symbolic interactionism: the road to identity theory. In: Turner JH, editor. Handbook of sociological theory. New York: Kluwer/Plenum Publishers; 2001. p. 211–31.Google Scholar
  108. Stryker S, Burke PJ. The past, present, and future of an identity theory. Soc Psychol Q. 2000;63:284–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  109. Stryker S, Vryan KD. The symbolic interactionist frame. In: DeLamater JD, editor. Handbook of social psychology. New York: Kluwer-Plenum; 2003. p. 3–28.Google Scholar
  110. Tedlock B. The observation of participation and the emergence of public ethnography. In: Denzin NK, Lincoln YS, editors. The Sage handbook of qualitative research. 3rd ed. Thousand Oaks: Sage; 2005. p. 467–81.Google Scholar
  111. Thomas WI. The unadjusted girl. Montclair: Patterson Smith Publishing Corporation; 1969 [1923].Google Scholar
  112. Thomas WI, Thomas DS. The child in America: behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf; 1928.Google Scholar
  113. Thomas WI, Znaniecki F. The polish peasant in Europe and America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press; 1996.Google Scholar
  114. Thorne B. Gender play: girls and boys in school. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press; 1994.Google Scholar
  115. Turner RH. The role and the person. Am J Sociol. 1978;84(1):1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  116. Warren CAB, Karner TX. Discovering qualitative methods: field research, interviews, and analysis. Los Angeles: Roxbury; 2005.Google Scholar
  117. Weigert AJ. Identity: its emergence within sociological psychology. Symb Interact. 1983;6:183–206.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  118. Wiggins B, Heise DR. Expectations, intentions, and behavior: some tests of affect control theory. Math Sociol. 1987;13:153–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sociology DepartmentCalifornia State University, NorthridgeNorthridgeUSA

Personalised recommendations