Archive: December 28th, 2008

Herbert Blumer: Symbolic Interactionism

[Readings] (12.28.08, 11:39 pm)

Blumer was a strong follower of George Herbert Mead, clarifying, expanding, and extending Mead’s sociological psychology and philosophy into empirical work. This text works well as a follow up to Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society, because it makes clear many of Mead’s points and applies them practically to the study of interaction. This text clarifies the ideas into an explicit position that is used by symbolic interaction. This view of interaction works well with Erving Goffman’s approach to performance. It is my goal in this to build a bridge between symbolic interaction and computational representation of social characters.

The Methodological Position of Symbolic Interactionism

There is a very clear review of the principles of symbolic interaction. These three premises form the foundation and basis for all of this work. The principles are as follows: (p. 2)

  1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from social interaction.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, and interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things encountered.

The first premise is straightforward and reasonable enough, but is generally not accounted for in other theories of social science and psychology. The meaning of the things involved is of central importance beyond the things themselves. To ignore that meaning (and the variability of the meaning to different individuals) undermines the study of behavior of subjects who might be interacting with the things. The meaning itself does not come from the object itself, but arises from interaction between people. The social origination of meaning for objects reverberates with Tomassello’s understanding of joint attention. It also opposes the idea of natural affordances that come from Gibson and Norman.

Symbolic interaction views action as the center of human society. Activity oriented approaches to modeling human behavior is totally consistent with the views here: “Culture as a conception, whether defined as custom, tradition, norm, value, rules, or such like, is clearly derived from what people do. Similarly, social structure in any of its aspects, as represented by such terms as social position, status, role, authority, and prestige, refers to relationships derived from how people act toward each other.” (p. 6-7)

Social interaction forms conduct. One must fit one’s activity into the space of others’ actions. There are two levels of interaction from derived from Mead: gestures and symbols. The difference is that gestures are non interpreted and symbols are interpreted. There is also a triadic nature of meaning that also derives from Mead. A gesture has three parts: “It signifies what the person to whom it is directed is to do; it signifies what the person making the gesture plans to do; and it signifies the joint action that is to rise by the articulation of the acts of both.” (p. 9) This triad and the unit of the gesture are an interesting and potentially useful target for simulation of social characters. Gestures are not interpreted, but they are dynamic, direct, and fluid.

Objects are posed generally, but the concept is well defined. Blumer explains Mead’s conception of objects: An object is anything that can be indicated or referred to. There are physical objects, such as trees, chairs, and other physical entities. There are social objects, such as a student, a mother, a friend. Finally, there are abstract objects, such as moral principles and ideas of justice or compassion. Objects involve commonality, perspective, and meaning. Objects take on different meanings according to the perspectives of the individual considering the object, where that perspective is determined by identity, role, and so on. Another interesting note on this is that this sense of objects strongly relates to the method of object interaction found in The Sims. Common objects are defined culturally, they have the same meaning to a class of people.

The possession of a self is the ability to treat oneself as an object. This works by taking the positions of others. The positions one can simulate correspond to stages of development: individuals (play stage), groups (game stage), and the community (generalized other). Self objects can be defined by roles. Role taking involves perceiving oneself as one might be seen by others. Given an object and activity oriented model for social behavior, this formulation gives a strong endorsement for the use of roles (and eventually performance) as integral to social interaction.

A bold chain of reasoning claims that human action comes from self-indications, rather than motives, needs, conditions, stimuli, etcetera. This is more in line with an identity oriented understanding of individuals. Observation gives way to interpretation, which is filtered through the roles and the frame of the self, and this interpretation creates self-indications. Action is made on the basis of these indications, not the stimulus itself. This approach rejects both the raw behaviorist position, and also the position of rational planning. Planning and thought may be considered, but they are formulated in the sense of self-interaction. Activity is a sequence of actions and situations, a formulation which is remarkably prescient and reverberates with Agre and Lave.

Blumer also challenges the dominant view which relies on the inherent stability of social structures. Participants build actions through designation and interpretation. Institutions are diverse sets of members who act according to some set of meanings. The institution itself is therefore an emergent phenomenon, and not inherently stable.

Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead

The self is a process, not a structure of internalized norms and values. On the act: the act is constructed by the self, based on self-interaction and indications. It is not constructed by responding directly to observations, which is the dominant view (Watsonian behaviorism), and is flawed because neglects the self.

Existing views of interaction pose it as about conflict, common sentiments, and so on. Mead’s symbolic interaction views that interaction is the interpretation and defining of one another’s acts. This position can accommodate a wide range of human relationships. Joint action interprets actions as having a common  shared meaning. A Joint act is a social act. It comes together through participants interpreting, defining, and fitting their actions. This idea is extremely relevant to the view of roles and performance. Social actions must be fit into the space of other actions and the current situation.

Society as Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interaction poses that interpretation occurs between stimulus and response. Interpretation forms symbols. This still seems a lot simpler and realistic than the mode of communication posed by BDI. Arguably, the BDI approach considers the selves of its participants, and it involves interpretation, a great deal of it, but that interpretation is divorced from the dynamic traits of participation and interaction. “Fundamentally, group action takes the form of a fitting together of individual lines of action. Each individual aligns his action to the action of others by ascertaining what they are doing or what they intent to do–that is, by getting the meaning of their acts. For Mead, this is done by the individual “taking the role” of others–either the role of a specific person or the role of a group (Mead’s “generalized other”).” (p. 82) Blumer also explicitly criticizes views of society as “social systems” which are composed by the collected actions of individuals trying to meet their life situations, which seems to aim to dissuade against the work of Axtell.

It is extremely important that society or culture be understood as made of individuals with selves, that is, they engage in active interpretation. Failure can lead to either viewing interaction as composed of raw stimulus and response, or can occur where the observer injects his own meaning.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBlumer, Herbert
TitleSymbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method
Tagssociology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

George Herbert Mead: Mind, Self, and Society

[Readings] (12.28.08, 3:06 pm)

George Herbert Mead is one of the seminal influences in symbolic interaction, which is a semiotically oriented subfield within sociology. Symbolic interaction alone claims that action is based on meaning, and meaning is socially derived. I think that the pair of meaning and action is strongly reminiscent of the semiotic dyad. I would like to consider symbolic interaction from the perspective of symbolic cognitive science and AI. The flaws of symbolic AI are tempered by the social origin and construction of meaning, and the manner in which action and meaning are interweaved.

Mead describes his work as behaviorist, but he interjects an important layer between stimulus and response, which is the matter of interpretation. I think this layer is extremely important, but I suspect that the pattern of stimulus, interpretation, and response is still not sufficient to serve as a model for simulation of social agents. When considered in context of roles and performance, as described by Erving Goffman, the perspective seems much more complete.

This book in particular is a compilation of Mead’s theory of social psychology. The ideas were developed in 1900 and the book was published in 1932. The preface argues that the work is incomplete, but is the fullest volume of Mead’s on social psychology. Mead is something of a bridge between science and philosophy. The emphasis is strongly on the dependence on society, which is at odds with the more individualistic trends in early cognitive science and psychology. According to Mead, the mind is an emergent phenomenon. Reminiscent of Vygotsky, Mead argues that language is the means for this emergence. The transformation from biology to mind is given in terms of language, but the examples given are about symbols and contextualized meanings. Interestingly, meanings are not subjective, private, or mental, but they are instead shared and objective within the situation. This sort of reference is akin to Agre’s diactic entities.

Contrary to trends within cognitive science, the manner of reasoning goes from the outside in, with society before the individual. “Instead of beginning with individual minds and working out to society, Mead starts with an objective social process and works inward through the importation of the social process of communication into the individual by the medium of the vocal gesture.” (p. xxii) This is a dramatically different perspective than engineered by Newell. Mead would probably argue that Newell’s model of cognition fails because of its failure to sufficiently consider the elements of interpretation and selfhood within everyday life.

The Point of View of Social Behaviorism

Social psychology is interested in the effect of the social group on individuals. The use of behaviorism seems to be a matter of method: it is argued that the observation of conduct is sufficient to understand psychology. This is in opposition to the study of introspection (encouraged by Wundt), which attempts to imagine and infer the internal cognitive processes at work in the human mind. Introspection and behaviorism are two ways of approaching a black box problem. The behaviorist position does not argue that it can explain what is inside the box, but it can explain how the box interacts with the outside world. Introspection aims to piece together the insides from both observation and self-reporting. Newell and Simon make use of introspection through their think-aloud protocols in their research for GPS. As an aside, the difference between introspection and behaviorism is interesting within the context of fiction. Introspection gives insight into character’s inner lives, which may be unreliable, where without that view, the reader is left to guess.

Mead favors the behaviorist position, making the claim that the behaviorist method is sufficient to study social psychology. This argument does not devalue the internal mind, but it argues that it does not need to be considered in this case. Mead’s position is understandable because he is constructing a perspective of social psychology, which is dependent on interaction. Interaction relies on individuals considering each others’ conduct, and not each others’ internal minds. Mead does argue that we can only understand conduct in terms of language. I might adjust this claim somewhat, and argue that we might consider gestures, gazes, and other expressions part of that language.

Despite his behaviorist claims, Mead makes a significant break from the traditional separation of stimulus and response. He also foremost prioritizes the society before the individual. In both senses of ‘prioritize,’ society both comes first and is of foremost importance. “We attempt, that is, to explain the conduct of the individual in terms of the organized conduct of the social group, rather than to account for the organized conduct of the social group in terms of the conduct of the separate individuals belonging to it. For social psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts. The social act is not explained by building up out of stimulus plus response; it must be taken as a dynamic whole–as something going on–no part of which can be considered or understood by itself–a complex organic process implied by each individual stimulus and response involved in it.” (p. 7) Also important in this passage is the sense of understanding individuals based on terms that are used to understand the society. This is the origin of shared social meanings, which are used to define individual thoughts and interactions. Mead’s approach at its onset rejects the idea of psychic unity because of his claim that individual minds are are formed through social interaction and must be understood in those terms.

Symbols and intentions are introduced as an awkward way of formulating communication. The model proposed is that symbols are presented in communication, and the goal of communication is for the intention behind the symbol in the speaker to be reproduced in the listener. This does not seem like a correct model of communication, as it misses elements where the intention is meant to be opposite and not shared, or misleading communication. One example of this is where one individual makes threatening gestures, and its intention is aggression, whereas the recipient’s intention (if the communication is successful) would be fear or submissiveness. This sort of example is discussed somewhat, but does not seem to be clear.

Mead is criticizing the Watsonain approach to behaviorism, which would involve raw stimuli and responses. Similarly, emotion is studied in terms of physical manifestations. Darwin treats emotion as a mental state (as opposed to a valenced reaction), and mental states necessarily depend on consciousness. Mead wishes to focus on the social, which precludes consciousness. The raw stimulus and response approach to psychology yields a study of psychoses that map to neuroses. Mead does not wish to emphasize or promote the difference between mind and body. Instead, he wishes to find a correlation between the experience of the individual and the situation, not the individual and the stimulus.


This section is on the symbolic nature of communication, which may be gestural (speech is seen as a kind of gesture). Communication, as described, works when one makes a gesture, and the intent of that gesture is shared and taken up by the recipient. This argument may be readily challenged. Interaction is applied to social symbols, and the recognition of a symbol generates a response.

Language does not reflect things that exist, but also makes it possible for new situations and objects to exist. This works in the sense that an object is dependent on circumstance and use. Social process enables new objects, and communication brings out new relationships between gesture and act. When the self and matter of interpretation is introduced, gestures become symbols. The general nature of objects is very useful and important. Mead has a somewhat idiosyncratic understanding of what an “object” is, but it is extremely relevant for representations of social interaction. An object is something that may be observed or referred to. In this sense, objects are different depending on circumstances, and new objects may be formed via communication and interaction.

The Self

Mead draws a distinction between the body and the self. I think this may still be challenged, but it is interesting that the distinction is not between body and mind. The “self” is reflexive: it may be either a subject or an object. Communication is enabled and operational by making use of the self as an object. With Mead’s nuanced understanding of an object, the idea that the self can be made into an object is actually quite remarkable. The self may take on different meanings according to the circumstances, and this is very important for the understanding of social behavior and action.

The self is primarily not physiological, but the physiological organism is essential to the self. The self as a social object is socially (and therefore culturally) determined. Mead does discuss the performative element of action, but only briefly. Thinking is required prior to social action, but thought is merely inner conversation. The complete self is a reflection of entire social processes: “In other words, the various elementary selves which constitute, or are organized into a complete self are the various aspects of the structure of that complete self answering to the various aspects of the structure of the social process as a whole; the structure of the complete self is thus a reflection of the complete social process.” (p. 144; emphasis mine) This bold claim ties back to both a challenge of psychic unity and a use of Vygotsky’s internalization. The individual is thus a reflection of the social whole, complete with its cultural meanings and values.

Mead discusses children and games and play. Development is posed as a process (at the kindergarten level), where children play and enact roles, which involve role taking of the other. This also calls for the individual to simulate, through play, the “generalized other,” which is still situational. The elements of simulation and role taking reverberate with trends in modern developmental cognitive science (think Tomassello), and also bridges this with elements of play and performance. Play works in the sense of “playing at” another, but also in the sense of free movement within a permeable imagined social landscape.

Simulation of the generalized other is necessary for thought, that is, it is necessary to enable internal conversations. Through role taking, it enables continuation and enforcement of social practices, standards, and values. This goes hand in hand with identity (in the sense of Holland) and indentification, accounting for the diversity of social groups.

There are two stages of the self: (1) The individual self, which has personal attitudes. (2) The social self, which engages in role taking and simulation. Mead’s example in the latter is a game. I would argue that games have significant potential for role taking on their own. The game is a structure for an organic system of meaning. It is also worth it to compare these two stages with the capabilities of characters in digital games. Characters in digital games tend to be bound to some (somewhat social) system of meaning by its very rules, but most game characters only have fragmentary data that reflects their individual standing within the world. It is by incorporation of social attitudes, the achievement of the second stage of the self, that social patterns are internalized into the individual.

The metaphor of gameplay as a means for social integration is valuable, especially from the perspective of games in development, and the establishment of models. It is important that “He has to play the game.” Mead’s example is of children playing a ball game as a metaphor for introduction into society. It is necessary for a child to play the game in order to understand it, similarly, it is necessary for individuals to participate in society in order to understand the meaning of social interactions. Games and social value systems are understood through play, participation, performance, and practice.

A final important note: “No individual has a mind which operates simply in itself, in isolation from the social life process in which it has arisen or out of which it has emerged and in which the pattern of organized social behavior has consequently been basically impressed upon it.” (p. 222) Mead’s position is very much in contrast with the theories of cognitive science that emerged later in the 1960s. Despite their independence, Mead resonates with Vygotsky as well. Mead’s theory of social dependence is remarkably progressive and ahead of his time.


Society is dependent on communication, which, as was established earlier, is dependent on language. I would argue that human society as we know it is distinguishable because of symbols and meaning, although these are somewhat vague and abstract. Mead is interested in differentiating between human and insect society. The matter of symbol and communication are ambiguous in this context. Insect society is characterized by a certain direct mapping between stimulus and response. Human society is different because we possess selves, which allow us to interpret senses into symbols, rather than act directly on those senses themselves.

The development of society is dependent on the common experiences of its members. Communication is thus dependent on society: “You cannot build up a society out of elements that lie outside of the individual’s life-processes. You have to presuppose some sort of cooperation within which the individuals are themselves actively involved as the only possible basis for this participation in communication.” (p. 257) This exposes a complexity with Mead’s earlier claims about the individual’s dependence on social meaning. Here he claims that social meaning must originate from individual meaning. This is a cyclic argument, but accurate. The natural conclusion is that the individual cannot be separated from the social. In order to understand one, we must understand both. In order to understand meaning of symbols, it is necessary to consider the social meaning of the symbols, and the experience of those symbols by individuals.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorMead, George Herbert
TitleMind, Self, and Society
Tagssociology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon