In other areas of this text, we have considered many different ways of thinking about communication – as exchange of symbols, as flows of information, as part of industries and relations of capital and power, and through the creation and consumption of texts.  But communication isn’t purely about transmission.  It is also about the ritual of communication, about the ongoing socio-cultural interactions that form a core part of the communicative process.  So this section looks at questions of identity performance between users in interactions, and starts to explore more deeply how we make and receive messages as social creatures.

To engage with these questions, there are a useful suite of theories and concepts that are known collectively as symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is concerned with the construction of identity within a social context – as such, it doesn’t address the psychological or developmental aspects of identity, but rather how an identity is presented and re-presented within a given social or communicative situation.  Symbolic interactionism fits in with ideas of identity as something we construct and reconstruct within different social contexts and base on our judgements of the nature and intention of the interaction.

There are a number of theories that fall under the banner of symbolic interactionism, but this section will focus on impressions management, the concept of the looking-glass-self, and dramaturgy and performance.  As you shall see, these theories and concepts historically share a great deal in common, and there is significant overlap between them.

One of the key assumptions of a symbolic interactionist approach to communication is to regard society as something that is constructed and reconstructed through signs generated and agreed upon by interacting individuals.  Or, as Mead noted, humans act towards things based on the meaning that those things have for them.  This meaning is generated by ‘playing the game’ (Mead) where, by engaging with symbols, they become meaningful and help shape the ‘me,’ the organized, social aspect of the self.  The self is constructed out of the I and the Me, or alternatively, the unstructured personality and the structured persona.  The I and the Me alternate as we engage with the symbolic landscape we participate in and help create, to help reform not only society but the self.

With that in mind, let’s look at some specific approaches within the symbolic interactionist tradition.

Discussion Questions

Before moving on to some specific theoretical perspectives, can you note some symbols, signs, mannerisms etc that identify you, or your subjects, as a communicative member of a  group, club, society or wider sub-culture?

Are these likely, or not, to be understood by anyone outside the group?

Mead, G.H. Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Vol. 1. University of Chicago Press 1934, rev 1967.

Theories of Identity Performance
impressions management
looking-glass self

Identity, Audiences, Receivers, Users: fandom