Social interaction theory studies the ways that people engage with one another. Scholars from many disciplines, including anthropology, sociology, psychology and linguistics, are interested in social interaction and the patterns that can be found in such interactions. Observed patterns help social scientists develop theories to describe and predict human behaviour.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, German sociologist Max Weber rose to prominence as a social scientist. His theories on many topics are still widely referenced, and his theories on social interaction formed the basis of the field. Weber's definition of social interaction is still the most commonly accepted. According to Weber, social behaviour has two components. The first is the action or the behaviour itself. The second is the meaning that the actor attaches to his or her behaviour. That meaning, which Weber referred to as orientation, is how a person perceives his behaviour in relationship to other people. It is that knowledge of another who is affected that makes an action or interaction social.
Another early contributor to social interaction theory was German-American Kurt Lewin, who developed the concept of group dynamics. Lewin was concerned with the interaction not just between individuals but between individuals and the groups that they belong to. The main contribution of group dynamics to later theories is that human behaviour results from the interaction between a person and his or her environment. Lewin wrote this theory as a mathematical equation, making behaviour equal to the function of individuals and the environment.
Symbolic interactionism is a set of theories that explore social interaction from a linguistic perspective. In the first half of the 1900s, American philosopher, sociologist and psychologist George Herbert Mead and later his student, Herbert Blumer, developed this theory. Their main contribution is the idea that humans interpret meanings through symbols. The theory holds that human behaviour in general and speech in particular does not have inherent meaning. Instead, humans interpret the behaviour of others as a sort of symbolic cipher to be decoded.
The idea of networks developed in the 20th century from the desire to study whole groups of people rather than just individual interactions. Scholars who study networks try to map out connections between members of a group. Connections can consist of conversation, written communication and any other type of information exchange between people. Networks are generally fluid, meaning they change and evolve over time.
The study of status and power dynamics in human interactions is related to the study of networks. This field grew out of a growing concern with social inequality in the 1970s. Scholars began to examine not just the lines of communication between group members, but the lines of power those communications created. They found that individuals with the largest networks, who interacted with and gained information from the largest number of people, were those with the highest status and the most power in the groups.