Symbolic Interactionism in the Boondock Saints Essay Sample

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The Boondock Saints was a film released in 1999 about the MacManus twins. The MacManus brothers began as two regular Irish men working in a meat factory, but after encountering several traumatic events they begin a new career, which involved the killing of men that they deemed corrupt and evil. With the help of their friend Rocco, a member of the Italian mob, they begin clearing the city of Boston of its criminals. Along the way FBI agent Smecker and a group of Boston detectives attempt to track them down but eventually begin to help the MacManus brothers in their quest to rid the city of scum. The movie is full of symbols that appear to influence all of the main characters including the MacManus twins in their conquest.

Symbolic interactionism was developed in the 1960’s and was exemplified mainly by George Mead’s student Herbert Blumer (Conley, 2011). Symbolic interactionism focuses mainly on smaller, more face-to-face interactions or microsociology unlike many other theories such as functionalism (Conley, 2011). The main idea of symbolic interactionism is that people act in response to the meanings that are assigned to them. For example a yellow stoplight means to slow down and prepare to stop (Conley, 2011). Erving Goffman’s dramaturgical theory was one of the base theories behind symbolic interactionism. This theory uses theatrical terms to explain how we act and then change how we act based on the responses we receive in our encounters in society (Conley, 2011). The idea of this theory involves a front stage and a backstage. Front stage is the performance or real life interaction with others while the backstage is where you practice for the front stage in order to save yourself from embarrassment. Another major theory of symbolic interactionism is the labeling theory.

The labeling theory involves the forming of an individual’s self-identity based on others and how they see or label them (Conley, 2011). This label influences their behavior as they can conform to that identity. For example if an adolescent is labeled a shoplifter they become more likely to shoplift and participate in other criminal behavior because that is their identity. This is best demonstrated with the Zimbardo prison experiment where students we assigned to be either guards or inmates. Those identities became a part of them and the experiment became out of control when these new identities overpowered their old ones. Negative labels are called stigmas and they change the behavior, personality, self-concept, and social identity of an individual, which goes along with the influence of the labeling theory and crime (Conley, 2011).

The MacManus brothers were strongly influenced by their religion. They believed that god assigned them to get rid of the criminals around after having being awoken from their sleep to the voices believed to be god. They wore necklaces with Celtic crosses, which symbolized their faith and meaning for doing these acts. They brought them out after killing their targets. They also placed pennies on their victim’s eyes and said a prayer for them. The pennies are a symbol from their Irish background where it was believed that a toll was needed to be paid in order to pass to god. These were just a few of the many religious symbols that influenced the behavior of the MacManus brothers and caused them to engage in this activity.

The labeling theory can account for a lot of the behavior that takes place throughout the film. After their first encounter with Russian mobsters, the MacManus brothers were given the name “Saints.” The name began to stick with them and formed their new identities. They were considered saints because they did the job that the police couldn’t. Many of the mobsters were let off with probation or other aspects of that nature when they deserved true punishment. They took it upon themselves to remove these people from the streets of Boston and protect the citizens. Rocco also found himself forming a new identity because of the labeling theory. He had the stigma of a “mobster” however he didn’t feel like he was with the jobs he was given. He was a simple package boy for the mob and wanted more. One day he finally took on that identity and killed three other mobsters in a dinner in order to show he was capable of being the mobster they didn’t think he could be.

In the beginning of the movie the two brothers and Rocco socialized at an Irish bar owned by a very close friends of theirs. This bar was a place of relaxation and comfort for them almost like a home. This was their back stage. It is where they practiced their social skills and interacted with other people that they were comfortable with. This allowed them to learn what thing that they should and shouldn’t do with others. Their front stage included places such as the police station and the meat factory where there was potential for embarrassment which could effect where they were in society.

Symbolic interactionism can be tied in with the Boondock Saints to explain why a lot of the actions occur throughout the film. They were influenced and acted upon symbols that they had meanings for especially religious symbols. Labeling theory and dramaturgy theory can easily explain why the twins decided to take on their titles as the saints and commit the acts that they did. It also showed how and why they interacted with others in society the way that they did.


Birkbeck, C., & LaFree, G. (1993). THE SITUATIONAL ANALYSIS OF CRIME AND DEVIANCE. Annual Review Of Sociology, 19(1), 113-137.

Conley, D. (2011). You may ask yourself: An introduction to thinking like a sociologist. New York: Norton Publishing.

Couldner, A. (2000). Other Symptoms of the Crisis: Goffman’s Dramaturgy and Other New Theories. In , Erving Goffman (pp. 245-255).

Interaction and Symbolic Interactionism. (2011). Symbolic Interaction, 34(3), 315-318. doi:10.1525/si.2011.34.3.315

Perry, B. L. (2011). The Labeling Paradox: Stigma, the Sick Role, and Social Networks in Mental Illness. Journal Of Health & Social Behavior, 52(4), 460-477. doi:10.1177/0022146511408913

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