One of the major sociological perspectives used in analyzing sociological phenomena today is the Symbolic Interactionist Perspective. It was mainly based on the works of George Herbert Mead and utilizes the bottom up approach. The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective emphasizes the importance of social interactions in the establishment of an individual’s understanding of, reaction to, and influence those other individuals and objects they come into contact with.
The thrust of Symbolic Interactionism is to study the symbols and meanings attributed by an individual to those he or she has socially interacted with and the resulting effects of having these symbols and meanings. Sexual behavior, in fact all forms of human behavior, is symbolic in function. In accordance with the Symbolic Interactionist Perspective, the symbols and meanings an individual associates with sexuality and sexual behavior affect the way that individual interacts with others and even the way he or she perceives those he interacts with.
Because sex and gender is an aspect that defines the self from the moment of birth, an individual’s interactions and formulation of meanings are deeply entwined with their sexual socialization. This means that the meanings they derived from their culture, their direct environment growing up, and their own assessment of sexuality will eventually affect their future social interactions in that the earlier socializations will have established specific meanings and symbols for sexual behavior.
(Longmore, 1998) Sexism, which is the discrimination in any form of an individual on the basis of their sex, is therefore a result of the sexual socialization of an individual. This means that their early sexual socialization resulted in attributing very strong symbols and meanings for sex. For example, a child who is continuously exposed to an environment wherein males are always made to do the heavy work and women are not might attribute weakness as a meaning of female sex.
As a result, future social interactions would result in the child, if male, treating women as weaker or if female, in perceiving herself as weaker and might thus result in the child having a diminished self-concept. This indicates that sexism, according to the symbolic interactionist perspective, is not a moral judgment based on the individual’s sexuality but rather a reflexive reaction stemming from symbols and meanings established even before the discriminatory act or discriminatory thought was formulated.
The propagation of discriminatory acts is made possible by the perpetuation of the pre-established symbol as a result of succeeding social interactions. In the given example this would mean that the child’s succeeding future social interactions would have confirmed the meaning of weakness attributed to females. If a female, the child’s actions of diminished strength would have resulted in allowing the males around her to perform the task requiring greater strength.
Perceptions in real life, when acted upon, result in real consequences that allow for a modification or perpetuation of the attributed symbol and meaning. It is clear, therefore, that the Symbolic Interactionist Perspective explains and analyzes sexism through an inspection of sexual behavior and an analysis of sexual socialization that occurred early in an individual’s life and also through sexual social interactions that occurred later on that serve mostly to confirm pre-established meanings and symbols.
These meanings and symbols were established during the earlier sexual socializations. Individuals, therefore, respond and interact with others around them as a result of their sex and as a result of the symbols they attribute to their own sexual status. The perception an individual has of a another is based on that individual’s understanding of the meaning of his or her sex. And interactions, as a result, are reflexive mechanisms.
Longmore, M. A. (1998). Symbolic interactionism and the study of sexuality. Journal of Sex Research, 35(1), 44-57