This chapter will continue its exploration of the intricacies of communication by reviewing one of the more complex theories devoted to to the subject. George Herbert Mead, a philosopher and sociologist from the early 20th century, developed a communication theory known as Symbolic Interactionism. This theory states that meanings for objects and experiences become derived from social interaction and modified through interpretation. Furthermore, individuals act toward those objects and experiences based on the meanings they create.
So what does that mean? Imagine a college student (call him Dave) who has never seen a table before in his entire life. What would happen when Dave walks into his communication classroom, and sees it filled with several large objects with broad, flat surfaces suspended a few feet above the floor by stick-looking things at each corner. To make sense out of these completely new objects, the first thing Dave will do is name the objects. He will likely choose a name to bookmark these objects based upon something similar that he has experienced before, and comes up with “four-legged monoshelf.”
Now that he has named it, Dave will seek out validation for his hypothesis by trying to share his newfound meaning with others. He approaches a classmate, who has just entered the room, and suggests his newly minted moniker to his classmate, while simultaneously asking if that person has ever seen such an object before. As he talks about the object, the other person might look at him strangely and say, “It’s a table,” which starts up a conversation about what it is and its purpose. Through their mutual dialogue, they both derive meaning for the object, which has solidified Dave’s sensemaking of the new experience. Every time he sees a “four-legged monoshelf” (or table) from that point forward, he will act toward that object partially or wholly based upon the interaction that helped him to understand it.
Symbolic Interactionism does not represent the only theory of communication. Researchers can employ any number of different theories to help define and explain the complicated process of communication. Agenda-setting theory, framing theory, social exchange theory, and many others exist to help humanity study of all forms of communication that pervade the modern world.