From Poverty to Happiness: Symbolic Interactionism and Structural Functionism

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Table of Contents

  • Symbolic Interaction
  • Structural Functionism
  • Conclusion

Based on real life events, “The Pursuit of Happiness” takes a complex look at the family environment, where dedication and a commitment to upholding one’s family overwhelm personal barriers faced. Chris, played by Will Smith, is a salesperson for medical equipment, and has dedicated his life to the profession. Financial difficulties lead to eviction, the loss of his wife, and compounding issues evident throughout the film. He decides to take an unpaid internship with a major firm on Wall Street, attempting to become a stock broker. Symbolic interactionism and structural functionism highlight the journey taken by the protagonist, where the relationship with his son remains the driving force to progress, and eventual happiness.

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Balancing his internship, being a single father and not having a means for financial support is overwhelming as he almost loses control and breaks down at several points throughout the film. He is the sole individual selected from the internship to become a full-time broker with the firm, culminating the dedication and commitment he has shown throughout the picture, and demonstrating how a commitment to family, particularly his son, delivers the ultimate gratitude when a goal is achieved. Symbolic interactionism views the child of a social being, where Chris understands each element in his journey impacts his son, Christopher.

Symbolic Interaction

Under symbolic interactionism, individuals provide subjective meanings to objects, events, places, and behaviors. That is, an environment is going to mean something different to an individual who lives in that environment compared with one who is an outsider. Anderson (2000) recognizes a distinct perception amongst individuals, relative to African Americans in historic and contemporary society. He states, “One of the most salient features of urban life in the minds of many people today is the relative prevalence of violence” (Anderson, 2000, p. 15). Anderson introduces this social theory in the text, where it becomes applicable to Black America. While Chris is an African-American, there is no discussion of racial bias or prejudice impactful on his life. Rather, symbolic interactionism takes place in each social situation, where Chris is trying to sell his medical devices, struggles to pay the rent, becomes evicted and rushes to the shelter so he and his son have a place to sleep at night. Symbolic interactionism appreciates each of these events as being meaningful in the wider path, where Chris seeks security for his son, symbolic of happiness.

Perspective changes throughout the film, where the individual self develops for the primary characters, particularly Chris. One specific moment is when they must sleep at the subway station. Chris engages his son, playing a game despite his woeful struggles, highlighted by sleeping at a train station. Here, money is the symbol of happiness, security, and support. Chris has no money, but is able to shift his mentality to one where he can appreciate this unique moment with his son. Rohall (2019) appreciates symbolic interactionism for its pursuit of engagement, where Chris upholds this ideology despite what could be a dark moment in his life. The ability to adapt to situations and find resilience is not only a primary element of the mission Chris is chasing, but appreciates symbolic interactionism as a critical theory throughout the film, highlighted by this scene.

Structural Functionism

The theory of structural functionism finds that society is a complex system. In order to promote stability within a society, all of these parts must work in accordance with one another. There are several social structures that shape society as a whole, where one can look at society as a collection of organisms (Hooper, 2013). Each of these organisms has a role, and when they work with one another, rather than competing against each other, society will function as it should, and will function for the benefit of the people living in society (Hooper, 2013).

Structural functionism is one of the prominent theories demonstrated throughout the film. Chris is relying on individuals, his ability to communicate, and his tenacity. These elements of structural functionism show its social value when the right person takes initiative (Hooper, 2013). He must develop relationships with those on Wall Street, where he aspires to work. Chris is relentless in getting the opportunity to become an intern, where only one is going to be hired. Despite his struggles with money, security and a failed marriage, Chris is able to maintain dedication to his internship, and is the sole intern selected for the position. Here, structural functionism is integral in the film, Chris’s agenda, and the relationships he has developed to achieve this successful position. Relationships, both intimate and non-intimate in nature are the framework of structural functionism (Strong, DeVault & Cohen, 2010).

Knowing that society functions in this way, one must ensure that each component of life in society is proper. By focusing too much attention in one area and abandoning any attention in another area, one is not following the theory (Hooper, 2013). For example, if one were to dedicate the majority of one’s life to a career, abandoning family and any social life that brings joy, one is not going to fulfill one’s life. That is, there will be a less-than-optimistic view for this individual, based on the theory (Hooper, 2013). The individual may believe that career comes first, and that there is happiness in paying so much attention to a career. Based on the theory, however, this individual will not find happiness as society has multiple areas that require attention, not just a career.

Structural functionism can be recognized as a supply chain. Within the supply chain, all parts must work properly to ensure that the end product is going to meet the demands of the user. If any component of the supply chain does not function properly, the end product is not going to be successful (Rohall, 2019). So, this theory works in society by recognizing that all components of society must work in accordance with one another to achieve goals. If one wants to have a successful life, one may require a job, a family, an exercise routine, and so forth. By having all of these parts of one’s life work together, one reaches a point of happiness, where Chris has achieved this at the end of the film. While not the prime example of structural functionism, one understands the idea: all parts must work together in order to reach a successful level in a society. Thus, each stage in Chris’s development, even his failures, are significant to his position and ability to achieve happiness in the film’s final chapter. Holding his son at the end, when he knows he has reached his goal, is symbolic of the struggle.


The film demonstrates many components of the family environment. While it was dire throughout for Chris and his son, the end chapter, according to the narrator, was titled “happiness.” The film proves that when family members stick together there is an essential light at the end of the tunnel, and satisfaction for the commitment that has been made to maintain order in the family. The sociological concepts described are reflective of how many different components there are in the film, each with a distinct connection to the family and its ability to progress under difficult circumstances. Even when in a state of poverty, failing to give up and demonstrating resilience and appreciation for what one does have. The film is indicative of something that could be viewed in the course to draw on examples and view the components of a dynamic family environment. The structural theories and sociological elements are profound throughout the film, where each relationship, all communication, and the desire to maintain resilience are all critical elements to Chris’s success.

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