The overall goal of Symbolic Interaction Theory is to explain how humans, through interaction with one another, create symbolic worlds, and how these worlds affect behavior.
At the heart of Mead’s Theory are the concepts of Mind, Self, and Society. According to Mead, “Mind” is our ability to use language (i.e., a symbol system). Once we have that ability, we can interact with others in our “society”. In addition to enabling us to interact with others, one of the most critical activities that people accomplish through “Mind” (i.e., their use of language) is their ability to think. Mead further explains that thought allows for role taking–the ability to symbolically place ourselves in an imagined self of another person. This process of “role taking” requires us to suspend our own perspectives on an experience and instead view it from the imagined perspective of someone else. Whenever we try to imagine how another person might view something or when we try to behave as we think another would, we are role taking.
Mead believes role taking is a symbolic act that can help us clarify our own sense of self, and allow us to develop the capacity for empathy with others. He defines self as the ability to reflect on ourselves from the perspective of others. It involves an ability for us to use language to see ourselves as both subject and object — to distinguish between “I” and “me.” Our ability to see ourselves as others see us he called the looking-glass self. Other researchers call this reflected appraisals.
Mead’s concept of Self puts much power into the labels that others ascribe to us. The Pygmalion Effect occurs when the labels others place on us have a significant influence on our self-concept and on our behavior. Self-fulfilling Prophecies are self-expectations that affect behaviors. That is, people sometimes feel compelled to behave in such a way that the expectations of others are realized. Self-fulfilled prophecies may be self-imposed (your own expectations influence your behavior) or other-imposed (the expectations of another person influence your behavior).
Below is a short story by Jean Mizer entitled “Cipher in the Snow”. Please read the story then analyze it using concepts from Mead’s Symbolic Interaction Theory.
Cipher in the Snow
It started with tragedy on a biting cold February morning. I was driving behind the Milford Corners bus as I did most snowy mornings on my way to school. The bus veered and stopped short at the hotel, which it had no business doing, and I was annoyed as I had to come to an unexpected stop. The boy lurched out of the bus, reeled, stumbled, and collapsed on the snow bank at the curb. The bus driver and I reached him at the same moment. The boy’s thin, hollow face was white even against the snow.
“He’s dead,” the driver whispered.
It didn’t register for a minute. I glanced quickly at the scared young faces staring down at us from the school bus. “A doctor! Quick! I’ll phone from the hotel . . .”
“No use, I tell you, he’s dead.” The driver looked down at the boy’s still form. “He never even said he felt bad,” he muttered. “Just tapped me on the shoulder and said, real quiet, ‘I’m sorry. I have to get off at the hotel.’ That’s all. Polite and apologizing like.”
At school the giggling, shuffling morning noise quieted as news went down the halls. I passed a huddle of girls. “Who was it? Who dropped dead on the way to school?” I heard one of them half-whisper.
“Don’t know his name. Some kid from Milford Corners,” was the reply.
It was like that in the faculty room and the principal’s office. “I’d appreciate your going out to tell the parents,” the principal told me. “They haven’t a phone, and anyway, somebody from the school should go there in person. I’ll cover your classes.”
“Why me?” I asked. “Wouldn’t it be better if you did it?”
“I didn’t know the boy,” the principal admitted levelly. “And in last year’s sophomore personalities column I noted that you were listed as his favorite teacher.”
I drove through the snow and cold down the bad canyon road to the Evans’ place and thought about the boy, Cliff Evans. His favorite teacher! I thought. He hasn’t spoken two words to me in two years! I could see him in my mind’s eye all right, sitting back there in the last seat in my afternoon literature class. He came in the room by himself and left by himself. “Cliff Evans,” I muttered to myself, “a boy who never talked.” I thought a minute. “A boy who never smiled. I never saw him smile once.”
The big ranch kitchen was clean and warm. I blurted out my news somehow. Mrs. Evans reached blindly toward a chair. “He never said anything about bein’ ailing.”
His stepfather snorted. “He ain’t said nothin’ about anything since I moved in here.”
Mrs. Evans pushed a pan to the back of the stove and began to untie her apron. “Now hold on,” her husband snapped. “I got to have breakfast before I go to town. Nothin’ we can do now, anyway. If Cliff hadn’t been so dumb, he’d have told us he didn’t feel good.”
After school I sat in the office and stared blankly at the records spread out before me. I was to read the file and write the obituary for the school paper. The almost bare sheets mocked the effort. Cliff Evans, white, never legally adopted by stepfather, five young half-brothers and sisters. These meager strands of information and the list of “D” grades were all the records had to offer.
Cliff Evans had silently come in the school door in the mornings and gone out the school door in the evenings, and that was all. He had never belonged to a club. He had never played on a team. He had never held an office. As far as I could tell, he had never done one happy, noisy kid thing. He had never been anybody at all.
How do you go about making a boy into a zero? The grade-school records showed me. The first and second grade teachers’ annotations read, “Sweet, shy child,” “timid but eager.” Then the third grade note had opened the attack. Some teacher had written in a good, firm hand, “Cliff won’t talk. Uncooperative. Slow learner.” The other academic sheep and followed with “dull,” “slow-witted,” “low I.Q.” They became correct. The boy’s I.Q score in the ninth grade was listed at 83. But his I.Q. in the third grade had been 106. The score didn’t go under 100 until the seventh grade. Even the shy, timid, sweet children have resilience. It takes time to break them.
I stomped to the typewriter and wrote a savage report pointing out what education had done to Cliff Evans. I slapped a copy on the principal’s desk and another in the sad, dog-eared file. I banged the typewriter and slammed the file and crashed the door shut, but I didn’t feel much better. A little boy kept walking after me, a little boy with a peaked, pale face; a skinny body in faded jeans; and big eyes that had looked and searched for a long time and then had become veiled.
I could guess how many times he had been chosen last to play sides in a game, how many whispered child conversations had excluded him, how many times he hadn’t been asked. I could see and hear the faces that said over and over, “You’re nothing, Cliff Evans.”
A child is a believing creature. Cliff undoubtedly believed them. Suddenly it seemed clear to me: When finally there was nothing left at all for Cliff Evans, he collapsed on a snow bank and went away. The doctor might list “heart failure” as the cause of death, but that wouldn’t change my mind.
We couldn’t find ten students in the school who had known Cliff well enough to attend the funeral as his friends. So the student body officers and a committee from the junior class went as a group to the church, being politely sad. I attended the services with them, and sat through it with a lump of cold lead in my chest and a big resolve growing through me.
I’ve never forgotten Cliff Evans nor that resolve. He has been my challenge year after year, class after class. I look for veiled eyes or bodies scrounged into a seat in an alien world. “Look, kids,” I say silently. “I may not do anything else for you this year, but not one of you is going to come out of here as a nobody. I’ll work or fight to the bitter end doing battle with society and the school board, but I won’t have one of you coming out of there thinking himself a zero.”
Most of the time — not always, but most of the time — I’ve succeeded.
Please analyze the story using Mead’s Symbolic Interaction Theory. Specifically:
Looking Glass Self: What do you suppose the boy saw when he “looked in the mirror”? Why do you think he perceived himself in that way?
Pygmalion Effect: Do you see the Pygmalion effect working in this story? How? How did it affect the boy’s behavior/self concept? How did it affect his communication with others?
Particular Others: Who were the boy’s particular others? How do you think they affected his sense of self?
Generalized Others: Who were the boy’s generalized others? How do you think they affected his sense of self?
Self Fulfilling Prophecy: Was a self fulfilling prophecy operating in this story? What was it? How do you think it occurred?
1. Generally speaking, how do you think Mead’s concepts of Mind, Self, and Society operated to “cause” this young man’s death?
2. Do you think Mead’s Symbolic Interaction Theory provides a good theoretical framework for understanding what happened in this story? Why or why not?
3. Can you think of an example from your own life where Symbolic Interaction Theory was at work?
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