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Symbols, Meaning, and Action: The Past, Present, and Future of Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theoretical perspective in sociology that addresses the manner in which society is created and maintained through face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions among individuals. This article surveys past theory and research in the interactionist tradition. It first provides an overview of three main trajectories in symbolic interactionist thought, focusing on the work of Herbert Blumer (the Chicago School), Manford Kuhn (the Iowa School), and Sheldon Stryker (the Indiana School). A brief summary of each figure’s general perspective on symbolic interactionism is given, followed by a discussion of the research methodology that defines and distinguishes each. The article then reviews and assesses the empirical research that has emerged from these trajectories over the past decades, beginning with the classical studies of the mid-twentieth century and culminating in research programs that have emerged in the contemporary era. Specifically, this article surveys significant contributions to the symbolic interactionist literature in areas such as dramaturgy, cultural studies, postmodernism, gender/status/power, self and identity, collective behavior and social movements, and social context and the environment. It concludes with a discussion of future directions symbolic interactionists should take in continuing to develop the field.