Symbolic Interactionism Theory

Last Updated: 10 Mar 2020
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The role theory began when symbolic interactionism became part of Erving Goffman’s interest. His interest was observing individuals, groups in certain situations and settings rather than a social theorist and analysis through his work. (Birrell, Donnelly, 2004) He developed an interest in reactions that focused on facial expressions, body language. This can be shown in sporting ways through Erving Goffman being known as more of an observer rather than a social theorist. The theory began to emerge when Goffman realised symbolic interaction between groups in certain settings. Goffman’s approach was not developed on theory but on analysis of the interaction order such as, social situations or “environments in which two or more individuals are physically in one another’s presence” (Goffman Reader, p. 235). Symbolic Interactionism reveals the truth behind people’s actual role by observing their emotions, expressions it showed through their theatrical performances (Weiss, 2001) Out of all the sociologists Goffman was the only sociologist who found interaction from individuals through groups and one to one. Goffman was criticized for being unusual in his work as Goffman worked on essays rather than research as sociologists were expected to be known as a researcher. Critics found his work difficult to comprehend and this made situations complicated. Gouldner, (1970) discovered that Goffman was not interested in power, social class or social structure. Goffman took the criticism well that he was unable to talk about macro-concerns. These are the situations where we spend much or most of our life – in face-to-face activities involving others, whether these be everyday social situations, situations within organized structures (jobs, school), or unusual social situations (accidents, weddings, funerals). Goffman excels at observation, description, and insight, analyzing how people interpret and act in ordinary situations, and he provides guidelines concerning how to examine social situations. One of my colleagues recently read some articles by Goffman, noting how he sometimes became overly formal in his writings, and suggested that it is unfortunate the Goffman did not become a novelist rather than a sociologist.

Key terms that relate to Symbolic Interactionism; are, ‘self’ which are known as ourselves, identity, personality or in terms of identity finding what and where the person is in social terms (Vryan, Adler & Adler, 2003). Finding identity is through situations (Vryan, et al, 2003). The term ‘I’ meaning the actual individual itself, can be understood as the person being the person, could possibly mean the same thing as ‘self’. In relation to identity there are many issues with this term as identity can often be deceived when amongst other people. Nevertheless the person deceiving themselves may or may not be conscious of this role act always trying to impress others to be accepted. The way the theory can help sport sociologists understands social relations in various ways are observing roles that people play through experiences success through society’s attention, through its approval or disapproval (Weiss, 2001). Being approved for the person you are is a feeling of acceptance and feeling like you are essentially a part of a group, however if not feeling accepted this can influence the person to then act a different role or attempt to change personality traits which is clearly impossible. Self – recognition can only happen through internal belief that acknowledgement has been met by others. Humans are creating each other all the time through the experiences being produced. Therefore in terms of sport, the athlete being acknowledged by surroundings and the media is through the success or been unsuccessful that the athlete has made in certain performances. The reason for change in these situations are doubts about ‘self’ not having enough self-esteem to come face to face with situations and individuals that are more of a threat. Self- esteem is found through identity reinforcement or social recognition. Self- awareness is developed in confidence in this self-esteem and encouragement from an individual with the way the change takes place is recognised by others in the relationship to the self (Weiss, 2001). The positive that can be taken from this theory is that Goffman was aware of his surroundings. Goffman was criticised in his lack of knowledge when it came to macro-concerns. Functionalism and Marxism use strengths in this theory by functionalism being positive, appreciative about reality in society. Whereas Marxism is positive in revealing the truth to people therefore Erving would have experienced these approaches/theories during his observations. The strength that can be taken from Goffman is his awareness of people around him, and he emphasised this in his work so that people would be aware of existing roles being played. Goffman was able to observe certain situations such as, impression management, role distance and face work (Birrell et al., 2004). This relates to functionalism by showing a positive insight into peoples demeanour with values which is reflected through identity reinforcement (Weiss, 2001). Functionalism through socialisation had a way of learning norms and values.

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The way the theory has applied sport is through the connection of society which forms identity reinforcement or acceptance. Identity creates groups, specific sporting roles, and individuals in sporting performance (Weiss, 2001). Nevertheless in today’s society, there are many sporting issues that can be a barrier to forming an identity or being accepted. Issues that can arise in sports are sexism, racism, social class which mainly affect sporting performance being excluded or isolated from a group. For example, not being situated in the right class, a lower class member of society interesting in playing tennis but unable to, as there is low income from peers.

Class associations have a long duration effect on economic inequality on people’s lives that has led to various amounts of wealth and power, which is to say to differing classes. (Bourdieu, 1978) Being acknowledged through an assigned role that is dependent at birth determines age, sex, background and even social class (Weiss, 2001). For example, being accepted for the way you look and behave is acknowledged in this area that allows the person to be a part of the team. To be specific, female footballers are accepted playing in their team due to their ability and not to do with their gender (Weiss, 2001) Developing self-esteem is followed throughout the sporting life of a performer which influences the behaviour of an individual. Recognition can be found through a specific role or function. In sport, there is a certain link between the class and sport that the participant plays. Another sporting example is recognition as a member of a group. Acceptance in a group states that the member is part of the team due to being a popular member or being good at the role their given whilst playing the sport. Through acceptance it is by intimacy and symbolic ritual, the understanding between members of a groups that builds trust and close friendships (Weiss, 2001). This is met on the pitch and after the game at social events, especially with the bonding happening, it may demonstrate the connection on the pitch as well as off the pitch. Each and every one of the member of the team represents an individual of themselves. Even so the individuals are working towards their roles to make an impact of unity and belonging. However, the collapse in keeping a smooth interaction or even worse rejecting to act with others, gives Erving Goffman an opportunity to analyse the situation. An example that problems are accounted for are experienced in sports by not giving people a chance to express their speciality need, that gives the person their identity. The people being rejected are willing to impress the ones who avoid their presence. Women being rejected for wanting to play football, this would look deviant to some people. Apparently women are supposed to play in sports such as, gymnastics, diving. This is more appropriate for women to be taking part in this activity rather than playing a game of football or rugby. This is the way male critics and some women who may not have any experience with football. Looking at this in a sporting way arguing on both sides of the situation, women being involved in football could help men understand the meaning of fairness and equality.

Also ways in which to control behaviours on the pitch in a more controlled manner as women can bring good to the game. Birrell et al., 2004) supports the point by stating that women are best suitable in unnerved situations, well if that is the case then this can be demonstrated on the pitch especially in situations such as, penalty kicks, the build up to the penalty kick can be very intimidating and terrifying but if there is the support from other members of the groups and naturally being calm, it can put the situation at ease.


Weiss, O. (2001) Identify reinforcement in sport: revisiting the symbolic interactionalist Legacy, International review for the sociology of sport; 36; 393

Birrell, S. and Donnelly, P. (2004) Reclaiming Goffman: Erving Goffman’s influence on the sociology of sport. In: Giulianotti, R. (2004) Sport and modern social theorists, pp. 49-64, New York: Palgrave

Bourdieu, P. (1978) ‘Sport and Social Class’, Social Science information 17: 819-40.

Gouldner, A. (1970) The coming crisis of western sociology, New York: Basic books. In: Birrell, S. and Donnelly, P. (2004) Reclaiming Goffman: Erving Goffman’s influence on the sociology of sport. In: Giulianotti, R. (2004) Sport and modern social theorists, pp. 49-64, New York: Palgrave

Vryan, KD, Adler PA & Adler P, (2003) Identity in: Reynolds LT & Merman- Kinney NJ. Handbook of symbolic interactionism. Lanham: AltaMira Press

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