Interactionist Theories in Education

In general, interactionist theories about the relation of school and society are critiques and extensions of the functionalist and conflict perspectives. The critique arises from the observation that functionalist and conflict theories are very abstract and emphasize structure and process at a societal (macro-sociological) level of analysis. While this level of analysis helps us to understand education in the “big picture”, macro-sociological theories hardly provide us with an interpretable snapshot of what schools are like on an everyday level. What do students and teachers actually do in school?

Interactionist theories attempt to make the “commonplace strange” by turning on their heads everyday taken-for-granted behaviors and interactions between students and students and between students and teachers. It is exactly what most people do not question that is most problematic to the interactionist. For example, the processes by which students are labeled “gifted” or “learning disabled” are, from an interactionist point of view, important to analyze because such processes carry with them many implicit assumptions about learning and children (Ballantine and Spade, 2004).

Symbolic Interactionism

Interactionist theory has its origin in the social psychology of early twentieth-century sociologists George Herbert Mead and Charles Horton Cooley. Mead and Cooley examined the ways in which the individual is related to society through ongoing social interactions. This school of thought, known as symbolic interactionism, views the self as socially constructed in relation to social forces and structures and the product of ongoing negotiations of meanings. Thus, the social self is an active product of human agency rather than a deterministic product of social structure.

The basic idea is a result of interaction between individuals mediated by symbols in particular, language. The distinctive attributes of human behavior grow from people’s participation in varying types of social structure which depend in turn, on the existence of language behavior.

Symbolic interactionists are, of course, interested not simply in socialization but also in interaction in general, which is of “vital importance in its own right.” Interaction is the process in which the ability to think is both developed and expressed. All types of interaction, not just interaction during socialization, refine our ability to think. Beyond that, thinking shapes the interaction process. In most interactions, actors must take others into consideration and decide if and how to fit their activities to others. How: ever, not all interaction involves thinking.


  1. Human beings unlike lower animals, are endowed with a capacity for thought.
  2. The capacity for thought is shaped by social interaction.
  3. In social interaction, people learn the meanings and the symbols that allow them to exercise their distinctively human cavity for thought.
  4. Meanings and symbols allow people to carry on distinctively human action and interaction.
  5. People are able to modify or alter meanings and symbols that they use in action and interaction on the basis of their interpretation of the situation.
  6. People are able to make these modifications and alterations because, in part, of their ability to interact with themselves, which allows them to examine possible courses of action, assess their relative advantages and disadvantages, and then choose one.
  7. The intertwined patterns of action and interaction make up groups and societies.

Non-Symbolic Interactionism

The differentiation made by Blumer (following Mead) between two basic forms of social interaction is relevant here. The first, nonsymbolic interaction — Mead’s conversation of gestures — does not involve thinking. The second symbolic interaction does require mental processes (Ritzer, 2000).

Mead’s approach to symbolic interaction rested on three basic premises.

  1. The first is that people act toward the things they encounter on the basis of what those things mean to them. (Things, in this context, refer not just to objects, but also to people, activities, and situations).
  2. Second, we learn what things are by observing how other people respond to them, that is through social interaction.
  3. Third, as a result of ongoing interaction, the sounds (or words), gestures, facial expressions, and body postures we use in dealing with others acquire symbolic meanings that are shared by people who belong to the same culture. The meaning of a symbolic gesture extends beyond the act itself. A handshake, for instance, is a symbolic gesture of greeting among Filipinos. As such, it conveys more than just a mutual grasping of fingers and palms. It expresses both parties’ shared understanding that a social interaction is beginning. In other cultures, such as Japan, willingness to interact is expressed or symbolized in a bow (Calhoun et al.,1994).

The importance of thinking to symbolic interactionists is reflected in their views on objects. Blamer differentiates among three types of objects: physical objects, such as a chair or a tree; social objects, such as a student or a mother; and abstract objects, such as an idea or a moral principle. Objects are seen simply as things “out there” in the real world: what is of greatest significance is the way that they are defined by actors. The latter leads to the relativistic view that different objects have different meanings for different individuals: “A tree will be a different object to a botanist, a lumberman, a poet, and a home gardener” (Blumer as cited by Ritzer, 2000).

Another important concept that has long been used by symbolic interactionist is the looking-glass self. This concept was developed by the early symbolic interactionist theorist Charles Horton Cooley. The basic notion of the looking-glass self can be summed up as “We see ourselves as others see us.” In other words, we come to develop a self-image on the basis of the messages we get from others, as we understand them. If your teachers and fellow students give you the message that you are “smart,” you will come to think of yourself as an intelligent person. If others tell you that you are attractive, you will likely think of yourself as attractive. Conversely, if people repeatedly laugh at you and tease you about being clumsy, you will probably come to decide that you are clumsy. In Cooley’s terms, you use other people as a minor into which you look to see what you are like (Farley, 1990).