Symbolic Interactionism


Role of language in enabling the co-creation of individual and cultural beings

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … scope of possible symbol-mediated interpretation
  • Knowing is … co-created reality
  • Learner is … a co-creator (individual in social or cultural context)
  • Learning is … participating (in creating and recreating reality)
  • Teaching is … N/A




Symbolic Interactionism aims to offer insight into how culture is preserved through interactions among individuals. It posits that formal symbolic systems – and, in particular, language – are the sources and media of all meaning. Symbolic Interactionism is focused on how individuals interact to create and recreate symbolic worlds and, in turn, how those co-created symbolic worlds shape each individual’s actions and interpretations. Importantly, Symbolic Interactionism’s focus on co-created worlds is not a denial of a physical reality; however, the theory does entail that one’s experience of reality is conditioned by interpretations encoded in shared language.


Some critics have argued that Symbolic Interactionism is not one theory, but a framework comprising many theories. A closely related criticism is that Symbolic Interactionism is too broad, general, and unsystematic to be of much use.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

George Herbert Mead; Charles Horton Cooley; Herbert Blumer

Status as a Theory of Learning

Symbolic Interactionism is a theory of learning on both individual and collective levels, including an emphasis on their mutually specifying dynamics.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Symbolic Interactionism is not a scientific theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Symbolic Interactionism is frequently criticized by researchers with empiricist leanings as too reliant on qualitative research methods and/or being untestable. In our analysis, given the clarity of around its foci and constructs and its substantial evidence base, Symbolic Interactionism meets our criteria of a scientific theory.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Symbolic Interactionism” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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