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Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interactionism is one of three theoretical frameworks through which sociologists can study deviance. Most of the theories that fall under symbolic interactionism place an emphasis on the effects of the interpreted meanings people construct about everything in their environments.

Popular interactionist theories include Sutherland’s Differential Association, Neutralization Theory, Labeling Theory and Control Theory.

Interactionists believe that people do not directly respond to reality but to their social understanding of reality. This social understanding is constructed through the  communication, interpretation and adjustment that occurs between individuals.¹ Essentially, all interactions are a game of charades and reality is actually just a socially developed interaction with everyone around you. People respond to further interactions based on this personal reality.¹

Herbert Blumer (1969) set out three basic premises of the perspective¹:

  1. Humans act toward things based on the meanings they ascribe to those things
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and society
  3. These meanings are handled and modified through an interpretive process used by the person

What are the consequences of these premises in relation to deviance? These make the bold implication that deviance is actually a learned behaviour. The premises also argue that deviance results from social labeling and that the ones who create deviant labels also create that deviance.




1. Herman, Nancy. Deviance: A Symbolic Interactionist Approach. Retrieved May 8, 2014, from

Categories within Symbolic Interaction

Neutralization Theory

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Neutralization theory explains how deviants and criminals justify their behavior.

Labeling Theory

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George Herbert Mead posited that the 'self' is socially constructed based on someone's bonds to their community.

Control Theory

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Walter Reckless believed that structurally weak social systems lead to deviant members of society.

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