Three theoretical perspectives may be applied to discussing social factors: functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist theories. It seems reasonable to analyze the problem of inequality and factors perpetuating it from the point of the symbolic interactionist perspective. According to this outlook, society is regarded as an entity created by interactions between people. Hence, it is viable to investigate how these interactions, or the lack of them, can contribute to the problem of inequality.
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Symbolic interactionism is the perspective used to study people’s ways of communicating. The adherents of this approach think that “face-to-face, repeated, meaningful interactions” among people form and maintain societies (Carter and Fuller 931). The trend appeared as opposing to the earlier established top-down view on society, which presupposed that macro-level structures affected individuals. Contrary to this perspective, symbolic interactionism supporters argued that society operated by the bottom-up approach, meaning that micro-level processes among individuals shaped major societal relations (Carter and Fuller 932). According to Blumer, there are four main premises of symbolic interactionism:
- individuals’ actions are governed by the meanings they give to objects;
- communication happens within concrete cultural or social contexts, where all people and objects are categorized “based on individual meanings”;
- meanings appear from cooperation with other humans or society;
- meanings are constantly formed and reshaped through understanding processes during communication with others (qtd. in Carter and Fuller 932).
The foundational principles of symbolic interactionism allow singling out several factors that are responsible for allowing inequality to persist in society. First of all, the problem is people’s tendency to assign meanings to objects. Such meanings can be highly subjective, based on one’s personal beliefs or experiences, or governed by a single occurrence. Meanwhile, if individuals’ decisions were controlled by reliable statistical data, there would be much less space for bias. For instance, if a native-born American citizen has been robbed or otherwise offended by an immigrant, he or she will treat all immigrants with suspicion, although there are no grounds for such a sweeping conclusion.
Another problem is that communication occurs with people or groups that are categorized by a person. Again, such categorization cannot be accepted as objective, which illustrates another connection between symbolic interactionism and inequality. Every human being should have the possibility to show their potential and their true worth. If being put in some category deprives the individual of the right to self-expression, there is yet another indication of prejudiced treatment.
Finally, there is a problem of forming meanings about others through cooperation in society. Some people do not have an opportunity to meet the ones whose decisions determine their lives. For instance, many clever and eager young specialists cannot receive the position they want because human resources departments do not forward their applications to companies’ managers. As a result, due to the lack of interaction, which is the core idea of the symbolic interactionist perspective, many individuals are neglected opportunities.
There is a variety of conditions and circumstances perpetuating inequality. Some of these are discussed and analyzed in different social theories. Among them, the symbolic interactionist approach produces a considerable effect on promoting inequality by allowing people to govern their opinions by choosing with whom to communicate and whom to respect. Because of focusing on one’s subjective opinions, people frequently undermine the potential of those who have effective ideas and valid solutions.
Carter, Michael J., and Celene Fuller. “Symbols, Meaning, and Action: The Past, Present, and Future of Symbolic Interactionism.” Current Sociology, vol. 64, no. 6, 2016, pp. 931–61.