Symbolic interaction in the classroom: social action theory and its relevance to pedagogy

In December, I wrote a blog that I doubt anybody read on Max Weber, erklärendes Verstehen and teaching empathy. In a similar vein, I think it is also worth looking at the concepts of symbolic and social interaction, which is another area of sociological thinking that can be seen as coming under the wider umbrella of ‘social action theory’, and how these can impact on teaching and learning. The ideas behind symbolic and social interaction build on the Weberian notion of erklärendes Verstehen as they seek to understand how our relationships with other people impact on our own individual behaviour.

Symbolic interaction

Although symbolic interactionism originated with George Herbert Mead’s work on the meaning and symbolism of ‘significant gestures’ between individuals, it was further developed by his student Herbert Blumer who believed that people act toward things or phenomena and behave in certain ways based on their understanding of the meanings these things or phenomena have for them (see Ferris and Stein, 2012, p. 30). A simple example is the colour red, which is often associated with danger or caution if on a sign or light. Consequently, people will tend to stop or think twice when faced with a red sign or light.

In an educational setting, such things or phenomenon could include the stern unwavering stare of a teacher who is unimpressed with a particular pupil’s behaviour; the stare symbolises a warning to stop. Importantly, Blumer believed these meanings were derived from social interactions with others. Therefore, the stern stare will only have any symbolic meaning if other pupils act in a same way if on the receiving end of such a stare. Moreover, it may take on more significance if others look concerned or become silent as the teacher stares at the pupil in question.

Here, I would argue that behaviour management, praise and sanctions are highly symbolic and dependent on interactions. For instance, a ‘strict’ teacher builds up their reputation by consistently interacting with pupils in a formal, perhaps symbolically formal, manner in the classroom. Moreover, sanctions – from verbal warnings to identifying what constitutes a detention – are symbolic in the sense that they are categorised and based on a socially accepted hierarchy (within the school, which arguably reflects wider society) that will not only involve the dishing out of an actual punishment, but more formalised speech by staff (including potential changes in their tone and volume), more serious demeanours and body language when the sanction is communicated to the pupil; these changes in speech, demeanour and body language are essentially symbolic as they have no other practical purpose other than conveying the seriousness of the reaction/sanction from the teacher.

Social interaction

Building on the ideas of Mead and Blumer, Giddens (2009, p. 251) suggests that understanding our everyday social interaction is an essential aspect of sociological thought and has three key uses: 

  • firstly, we can learn a great deal about social life and ourselves as social beings from studying our day-to-day routines; 
  • secondly, we see how individual actions can help us creatively shape and even change social reality within certain social structures; 
  • and, thirdly, we know our everyday social interactions can add to a more holistic understanding of how larger social systems and institutions affect social life. 

These sociological concepts can arguably be applied to pedagogy and classroom management as we need to be aware of how our day-to-day interactions with pupils impacts on their learning. In practice, social interaction can be relevant to our application of teaching methods in the classroom. As Powers suggests, we need to comprehend how our students learn (in terms of cognitive psychology) in order to apply the best strategies for maximising their learning and academic progress (1999; cited in Halasz and Kaufman, 2008, p. 308). 

However, ideas associated with personalised learning can be appropriated here as, according to the now defunct National College of Teaching and Leadership (NCTL), it aims to provide a tailored education for every learner; including an in-depth understanding of each learner’s needs in order to identify and provide learning opportunities that challenge and support students in their learning (NCTL, n.d.). The NCTL states that personalised learning should include ‘active commitment from pupils’, individual ‘responses from teachers’ and, if possible, ‘engagement from parents’. This is significant to interactionist approaches to pedagogy as it recognises the importance that these individual interactions can have on shaping student behaviour in the classroom. 

Moreover, behaviour management is heavily reliant on understanding our social interactions with pupils, especially in understanding the context of their behaviours. Pupils will undoubtedly be affected by primary socialisation at home, secondary socialisation amongst their peers (and the school) as well as a whole host of day-to-day events outside of the control of the teacher. For instance, our interactions will often account for this; knowing a pupil is currently homeless, experiencing a bereavement of a close family member or just having had a falling out with a group of friends, will probably mean we adjust our own behaviours in dealing with them at that particular time. More often than not, less experienced teachers and – arguably – weaker teachers will not account for this in their interactions with pupils (although we are all guilty of getting these nuances wrong on occasion); this can result in full blown arguments, walk-outs and tears.

Dramaturgical analysis

Although he did not consider himself a social action theorist nor a symbolic interactionist, it is worth briefly looking at how Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis of social action can be applied to our understanding of pedagogy and behaviour management in addition to social interaction, especially in relation to how we act and behave in the classroom (1999; see also Halasz and Kaufman, 2008).

Goffman argued that individuals put on acts in front of different people in order to fit in or impress others. This is relevant to teachers as we are constantly being reminded that we are role models and that we have certain professional standards that might make us hide or subdue some aspects of our personalities, thoughts or emotions in front of our classes (or, rather, audience). This is no doubt true of pupils, too. I have often felt guilty about putting shy pupils on the spot in class discussions or forgetting that young people are not always going to gel with every other pupil in the class as they are concerned about their ‘performances’ in front of others. 

Labelling theory

Lastly, perhaps we can also use Hargreaves (1998) research on labelling theory to see how Goffman’s dramaturgical analysis, and social action theory more generally, can be applied to pupils’ behaviour and subsequent achievement in school. Labelling theory examines how the self-identity and behaviour of individuals is often influenced by the words used to describe them.

For instance, labelling by teachers or peers can lead pupils to perform or act in line with these labels. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the pupil’s self-identification with others’ stereotyping of them. In his study, Hargreaves linked the existence of non-conformist and conformist subcultures in secondary modern schools to the effects of labelling and streaming by teachers. Importantly, Hargreaves found that pupils placed in lower sets (or streams) were almost immediately labelled as ‘trouble-makers’ or even ‘worthless louts’ whereas pupils in more academic sets or streams were seen as well behaved and academic. This distinction inevitably had a knock on effect for the troublemaker’s self-esteem and they would often seek out fellow troublemakers and give up on behaving well and progressing academically; in other words, failure and poor behaviour brought prestige in their subculture. Unsurprisingly the opposite was true for those labelled as well behaved. It is essential, then, that as teachers we are aware of how our own prejudices can affect our pupils’ perception of self and try to be mindful of how our day-to-day interactions can impact on their learning.

A word of caution

Of course, one major criticism of these approaches is that they can burden the teacher with more work, especially if we are always trying to unpack individual pupils’ behaviour, emotions and perceptions of themselves and others. Moreover, it will also lead to teachers spending more time on figuring out pupils’ individual needs or the dynamics of the groups within the class at the expense of other aspects of curriculum and lesson planning. And, lastly, by centring pedagogy on individual actions and interactions within the classroom we may be ignoring the wider implications of social structure discussed already with Marxism and to be highlighted by feminism in previous blogs.

Some of the above text is adapted from Jones, A. (2017). Teaching Sociology Successfully. Abingdon: Routledge.


Ferris, K. and Stein, J. (2012) The Real World: An introduction to Sociology (3rd ed.), New York: W. W. Norton.

Giddens, A. (2009): Sociology (6th Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press.

Goffman, I. (1999) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, London: Penguin.

Halasz, J.R. and Kaufman, P. (2008) ‘Sociology as Pedagogy: How Ideas from the Discipline Can Inform Teaching and Learning’ in Teaching Sociology, Vol. 36, pp. 301 – 314.

Hargreaves, D. (1998) Social Relations in a Secondary School, London: Routledge.

NCTL (n.d.) ADSBM Phase 3 Module 1: Enabling learning [online]. Available at: [Retrieved 06/08/2015].

Featured image: Pixabay (used under a Creative Commons Licence)


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