Medicine & USMLE

Symbolic Interactionism

Social Structure
  1. Conflict Theory
  2. (Social) Constructionism
  3. (Social) Exchange Theory
  4. Structural Functionalism
  5. Symbolic Interactionism


The Theory of Symbolic Interactionism is a microsociological theory that focuses on individual interactions. Specifically, it theorizes that society is built on individual interactions, which create shared symbols and meanings. Different people assign different meanings to different things, but those meanings can change or be shared through interactions. In turn, these meanings frame behavior, which collectively create society as we know it.

Key Points

  • Symbolic Interactionism
    • Society is built on individual interactions, in which people share symbols and meanings
      • Behavior occurs on the premise of meaning, so interactions shape behavior
    • Important people: Charles Cooley, George Herbert Mead


Symbolic interactionism focuses on individual interactions, and one example is a doctor-patient interaction. Say a patient comes to the doctor after hurting his knee. Since the patient has limited medical knowledge, the meaning he assigned to the hurt knee was that it was painful and that he should probably have a doctor look at it. On the other hand, the doctor looks at the same hurt knee, and assigns a different meaning: the X-ray shows that the knee is broken. The doctor then uses symbols (language) to share his interpretation of the x-ray with the patient. This shared meaning then affects behavior: the doctor will prescribe a painkiller to the patient, and the patient may opt to undergo surgery to fix his knee.