Symbolic interactionism as a social theoretical framework starts from the presupposition that the construction of our social world is through the mundane acts of everyday social interaction. Through the repetitive act of interaction, individuals as actors in relation to social groups constitute symbolic and shared meanings. Importantly, symbolic interactionism does not deny the unique; it is directly concerned with how distinctive meanings are adapted and interpreted through social practice.
Methodologically, symbolic interactions are generally investigated through various qualitative approaches, such as ethnography or participant observation. Geographers’ interest in symbolic interactions developed in parallel to their growing interest in humanistic philosophies. As well as cultural and social theory.
Post-positivist geographies are as a result of by social interactionist approaches. They continue to investigate the complex relationships between individuals and societies, peoples and places. More generally, geography’s interest in symbolic interactions stems from the larger concern with symbolic social practices. Particularly as the ‘symbolic’ informs understandings of and meanings found in various social spaces.
Drawn from Cooley and Mead, symbolic interactionism now emphasizes the significance of self and identity processes. Self is increasingly a series of identities that individuals seek to verify in interactions with others; and depending upon whether or not verification occurs, persons will experience either positive or negative emotions (Burke and Stets, 2009).
There are many variants of these identities theories. However, most emphasize that there are several levels of identity. These include core or person identities, social identities, group identities, and role identities. These are often a hierarchy with a persons’ core feelings and cognitions about self-being the most general. Social identities attached to membership in categories (gender, ethnicity, age, etc.) as the next most general, group identities or attachments to corporate units being the next most general, and finally, role identities being the least general.
To some extent, these various levels of identity interconnect, with verification of identity at one level having effects on confirming identity at another level. Some symbolic interactionist theories (e.g., Scheff, 1997; Turner, 2002, 2007) introduce psychoanalytic dynamics, emphasizing that individuals will often repress negative emotions like shame and guilt when their identities are not verified. With repression, the dynamics of emotion often disrupt interpersonal processes, while having potentially large effects on people’s commitments to macrostructures in a society.