Symbolic Interactionist Theory in ‘Greenbook’

Symbolic Interactionist Theory in ‘Greenbook’


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The symbolic interactionist theory is a popular and practical sociological theory. It explains that human behaviour, including their words and actions, are influenced by interactions with other people. Many researchers have carried out studies into the effectiveness of the symbolic interactionist theory. The main purpose of this paper is to find out how symbolic interactionism applies in our society, especially when it comes to TV shows, films and other programs in the media. The problem to be addressed is how television programming has influenced the behaviour, words and actions of people through symbolic interactionism. With increased access to the internet and TVs, people spend a lot of time watching their favourite programs, and this affects the choices they make n their daily lives. For example, a person can decide to build a certain type of house because they saw it on TV, or begin to dress and act like their favourite reality TV star. 


The symbolic interactionist theory tries to explain human behaviour at the individual level. Communication is the primary means through which people develop their perspective of the social world in which they live (Blumer 1980). Human behaviour is formed through interactions and experiences with other human beings through the use of language and symbols. The problem is trying to find out the extent to which interactionists shape the behaviour of individuals, do they rely on others to shape their behaviour or do they make their own choices? 

The media is instrumental in the symbolic interactionist theory because many people rely on both mainstream and social media to get information and entertainment. The issue of racism and stereotypes is one that has been widely discussed in the country. In this case, the symbolic interactionist theory helps us to understand how people view such issues and how media portrayal will influence how they behave. TV shows and other forms of programming help to propagate certain ideas about racism and stereotyping in society. For example, how the news reports the shooting of an unarmed black man by the police will shape and influence public opinion. The media can portray the victim as a dangerous person using previous criminal record and the language used will lean heavily on the public. If the language used is strong and derogatory, people will begin to look at young black men as potential criminals. This is a popular stereotype among the population, where members of minority groups have many stereotypes associated with them. In the case of young black men whom the paper focuses on, they are often viewed as poor, criminal and irresponsible. 

Theoretical Framework

Theoretical Background

Herbert Blumer is credited with coining the term symbolic interactionism and using developing the theory that is used to explain human behaviour. However, Blumer was not the first person to come up with the theory. His teacher named George Herbert Mead is widely recognized as the founder of the theory, although he did not publish any work on the theory. Blumer outlines some of the basic premises upon which the symbolic interactionist theory is based. The first premise is that human interaction with things depends on the meanings associated with or given to those things (Watson 2010). For example, a person will give high regard to something just because other people do, not because of their own personal experience.

The second premise is that the meaning of things that people interact with comes from interactions with other people. The third premise is that a person interacts with things that have specific meanings based on circumstances. For example, a person who loves to read books may have spent a lot of time as a child with their parents reading to them. The process of reading a book is one that they associate with love, comfort and warmth. The two words that make up the term ‘symbolic interactionism’ also contribute to the meaning of the term. The term refers to the process of using symbols such as language acquired while interacting with others to find and understand the meaning of certain things. With regard to media, people begin to form a certain perception from the things that they see. For example, television shows love to glorify wealth as a source of respect and privilege, and people begin to look at money as a means to buy themselves the same status of respect that they idolize. When it comes to stereotypes, the media pushes a certain message when it comes to different groups of people and society begins to accept these stereotypes and act accordingly. 

Literature Review

The symbolic interactionist theory has been used by many researchers in the past. They have explored the relationships between human interactions and how it affects the way they act and think. Ashworth (2000) explains the main assumptions that Mead used in developing his theory. Mead believed that the ego and the mind are shaped and influenced significantly by the society in which a person lives. The person begins to develop symbols in their mind and then use these symbols when they think and interact with others. Korgen & White (2008) go a step further to explain how the developed symbols come to life during human interactions so as to create some meaning and order for people. For example, people rely on established symbols to maintain law and order in society. Certain behaviours and actions are frowned upon in human interactions, and this helps people to know what they should and should not do. Stryker & Vryan (2003) say that people have to use these symbols at unexpected times and thus, they have to improvise depending on the situation they find themselves in. The researcher explains that people in society show patterns of conforming to a certain ‘script’ in their actions and interactions with others. 

Blumer himself explained the role of symbolic interactionism in shaping racism. He says that when members of the dominant group interact, they propagate some of the racial stereotypes and these end up spreading all over the society (Blumer 1980) the interpretation of symbols may be accurate or not, but they still play a significant role in influencing human behaviour. When a person says something, different people can construe different meanings from the same words. This depends on a person’s background and past interactions (Reynolds &Herman 1994). Meaning is construed at the individual level, and a person chooses to infer any meaning that they find to be most relevant or convenient to them. This statement is the root of the statement that people will see what they want to see, but it can be explained by the reason that our interactions form the basis of understanding. As time goes by and a person interacts with others, their views and perceptions will have to change based on the situation (Berg 2000).

Poloma (1999) elaborates on the three propositions that form the basis for symbolic interaction. One of these is that the meaning of things changes based on human interactions. Take the example of a video player used in different contexts. In the first instance, it is used in a classroom setting to watch a World War 2 documentary, and the students see the video player as a learning tool. In the second case, the student and their family sit down to watch a movie on the video player, and it becomes a source of entertainment. In the last case, a prisoner’s family sends him a film to watch on the player, and for them it becomes their window into the outer world (Berg 2000)

Research Questions

The paper seeks to address how racism and stereotypes in society can be explained using the symbolic interactionist theory. The main research questions are 

How is racism portrayed in the movie ‘Greenbook’?

What are some of the stereotypes in the movie?

How has society contributed to the spread of racism and racial stereotypes? 

Racism and racial stereotypes have been a part of society for many years. These ideas are usually spread through the interactions of human beings. One person comes up with an idea and then soon many more people have adopted it. Racism is rooted in the idea that other races are superior while others happen to be inferior, and this is what helps to propagate negative ideas around race. Another explanation for the spread of racism and racial stereotypes is that as members of the dominant or ‘superior’ race converge and interact, they manage to share their ideas and most of them adopt them without really understanding or looking for evidence to support it. 

Case Summary

The movie to be analyzed to show the depiction of race and racial stereotypes is ‘Greenbook’. The movie is set in the year 1962 with most of it in the Southern states of the United States. At that time, racism was deeply rooted in that part of the country. The main reason for this is that slavery had been a major part of life there, and the white people had not changed their views of black people as being inferior. Mahershalla Ali is the main character in the movie. He plays the part of Don Shirley, an accomplished jazz pianist together with two other musicians to form a trio. Don Shirley and the trio travelled through the Southern states performing their music to delighted audiences. Tony ‘Lip’ Vallelonga acts as Don Shirley’s chauffeur during the trip. 

As they travel through the country, Tony comes to learn more about the doctor. In one instance, Tony tries to offer Don Shirley a bucket of chicken from KFC, but the doctor refuses. Don Shirley also gets attacked in a bar by a group of white men. In the south, there are certain facilities reserved for black and white people. Before embarking on their trip, Don Shirley gives Tony a green book that will guide them on the places where they can eat and stay in the segregated south (Beck 2019). Tony is surprised by the many instances of racism that they encounter during their trip. Once, they got lost in the heavy rain and got pulled over by some police officers. The officers were quite surprised to find Tony deriving a black man. In another instance, a shop attendant refused to let Don Shirley try on a suit before buying it. By the end of the trip, the two men become friends. Despite the fact that Don Shirley’s audiences marvelled at his musical prowess, they always looked upon him as a black man and treated him accordingly. 


The symbolic interactionist theory explains human behaviour as a result of interactions with others. The movie ‘Greenbook’ shows how some interactions have given rise to racism and racial stereotypes. There is a lot of racism and racial stereotypes in the movie that can be explained using the symbolic interactionist theory. The first instance of this is when Tony is reluctant to work for Don Shirley because he is a black man. Tony has a negative view of black people based on his interactions. When two black men come to fix the floor of his house, Tony’s friends urge him not to leave his wife alone with the men. This shows that Tony learned his reservations about black people from interactions with others. 

The second instance in the movie that shows symbolic interactionism is when Tony offers Don Shirley a bucket of chicken from KFC. Don Shirley explains that he has never had fried chicken his whole life, and Tony does not believe him. Tony says that he knew a black chef once that used to cook fried chicken all the time; thus all black people must like fried chicken. He never met a black person that does not like fried chicken. This instance is an example of how interactions give rise to racial stereotypes in society. The stereotype that black people like fried chicken is one that is widely acknowledged even today. 

The third example of symbolic interactionist theory in the movie is the part where the police officers pull over Don Shirley’s car. Tony and Don Shirley were lost, and they were actually relieved to find the police car to guide them back to the right track. Things turned out very different for them, however. The officer was shocked that Tony would drive Don Shirley around, remarking, “What are you doing driving him?” (Beck 2019) The officer’s opinion was informed by his interaction with other black people who were mainly in a position of servitude especially in the south. In addition to this, a group of black men and women working at a filed were surprised to see Tony fixing the car while Don Shirley stood watching. They too, were not used to seeing a black man in a position of power of authority, especially over a white man. 

Another scene that can be explained using interactionist theory is when Don Shirley is denied access to the men’s bathroom in a home owned by white people. Additionally, he is also not allowed to eat in the dining room before another performance. These two examples show that the white audiences for whom the group performed had a low opinion of the black community. They were deemed to be inferior and thus they could not share in a simple event like dinner. Most of the white people grew up knowing that black people were meant to serve them; thus they could not be treated as equals. One time, Tony urged Don Shirley to step into a suit shop to try on a suit. The attendant welcomed Tony warmly and welcomed him to try on a suit. When Tony explained that it was Don Shirley who wanted a suit, the attendant changed tact and said that Don Shirley would have to pay before trying it on (Beck 2019). The attendant’s actions came from interacting with people who thought that black people were poor and could not afford to buy nice things, and that is why he discriminated against Don Shirley for being black. There are many other scenes in the movie that show how interactions with others can influence how a person thinks or act in different situations. 


Symbolic interactionist theory is an important and meaningful way to interpret human behaviour. Because people spend a lot of time interacting with others, it is inevitable that they will start to act and behave in a manner informed by these interactions. The media is one form of interaction, and it can be used to show examples of how people behave. The movie ‘Greenbook’ shows many instances of racism and racial stereotypes, all of which are caused by human interactions. Herbert Blumer’s theory is still as relevant today as it was when it was first formed. People should be aware of this theory so that they can better understand the influence of some of the common actions and behaviours in society. 


Ashworth, P.D. (2000). Psychology and ‘human nature’. Routledge.Beck, B. (2019). Jim Crow and Internment in Green Book and George Takei’s Allegiance. Multicultural Perspectives, 21(2), 133-136.

Berg, B.L. (2000). Qualitative research methods for the social sciences. Allyn & Bacon.Blumer, H. (1980). Mead and Blumer: The convergent methodological perspectives of social behaviorism and symbolic interactionism. American Sociological Review, 409-419.

Korgen, K. & J.M. White (2008). Engaged sociologist: connecting the classroom to the community. Pine Forge Press

Poloma, M. (1993), Cagdas Sosyoloji Kuramlari, Istanbul: Gundogan Yayinlari.

Reynolds, L. T., & Herman, N. J. (Eds.). (1994). Symbolic interaction: An introduction to social psychology. AltaMira Press.Scheff, T. J. (2005). Looking‐Glass self: Goffman as symbolic interactionist. Symbolic interaction, 28(2), 147-166.

Stryker, S. & K.D. Vryan (2003). The symbolic interactionist frame. Handbook of Social Psycchology, Edt: J.D. Delamater, NewYork: Springer.

Watson, R. (2010). Symbolic interactionism. Society and language use, 7, 304.

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