Symbolic interactionism as a theory to understand the micro-level phenomenon of the society was given by George Herbert Mead, though he did not do much work on this. It is a sociological theory, also known as a symbolic interaction perspective.
Symbolic interactionism focuses on looking at the actions and interactions among the individuals rather than at the group level. The basic premise of this theory lies in the fact that individuals use the process of communication to give meaning to the things around them, also others around them. This meaning is symbolic. It is subjective in nature, such a meaning may have developed due to being a part of a certain culture or a particular group. E.g. those belonging to the upper caste learn through interacting with the other members of their caste that they are supposed to follow certain rules to help maintain their purity, such as not eating with the lower castes and avoiding marriage with the lower castes.
Such meanings that we give to people and things around us, is believed by the advocates of the theory of interactionism to form our reality and thus one can say that the reality that we perceive is socially constructed.
Through socialization and throughout the experience with others or with events, we give meanings to the things, these meanings are different for everyone. They depend on factors like the culture, the social group, etc.
The theory of symbolic interactionism was carry forwarded by Herbert Blumer, who coined the term for the first time. He gave three basic premises to the story;
The first premise was that people carry out actions based on the meaning that they give to the world around them. Through this Blumer emphasizes on the meaning that may be behind a particular individual behavior and its psychosocial explanations. E.g. while working at an organization one may portray feelings of fear and mistrust towards their boss.
The second premise will explain that these meanings are derived from social interaction. We give meanings to things when we interact with others. And we also gain new knowledge about the same thing and in the process find that the meanings given to things differ from person to person or group to group.
e.g. if we were to look at why one of the workers was showing feelings of fear and mistrust, we find that this may be because of the knowledge gained from co-workers about strict and unfriendly behavior of the boss.
And lastly, the third premise tells us that these meanings are modified or changed based on one’s own experiences. Apart from the communication we also learn from our lived experiences, thus when the worker might approach the boss for some work he/she may find that the boss is friendly and approachable and willing to help out, this will create a positive image of the boss, opposite to the previously existing image.
Though it is used in the study of communication, symbolic interactionism has been criticized for taking into to account the individual as opposed to the actions of the larger society and such experiences and actions are subjective and thus cannot form the basis of generalizations in the study of sociology and make the study less objective. And thus the theory cannot be tested.