Symbolic Interactionism Research Paper

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The term ‘symbolic interactionism’ (SI) was coined in an article by Blumer (1937). SI presented a radical break from the traditional, macrostructural theories of sociology. SI rejected the scientific method and its reliance on predetermined hypotheses. SI’s goal was not predicting about society, as structuralist methodologies did, but understanding the nature of the social world. In basing its research in the real world of everyday life, SI relied heavily on the theoretical work of the pragmatists, especially that of Mead (1934).

1. Blumer And Naturalistic Research

In his book containing reprints of his earlier articles, Blumer (1969) applies a methodology, naturalistic research, to the theoretical work of Mead. In symbolic interactionism, theory and methodology are inter- twined very closely. Mead’s social pragmatism advocated a study of society that takes place in small group interaction; namely, the relation of self and others. This reciprocal interaction is derived, for Mead, through the use of symbols, primarily language but others as well. Thus, society, for Mead, is a consensual, intersubjective world where the sharedness of meanings among its members allows some stability in an ever-changing flux (cf. Adler and Adler 1980).

Blumer, who was first a student and then a colleague of Mead at the University of Chicago, followed the latter’s theoretical ideas and stated that society exists in action, in the reciprocal exchange of symbols, and the meaning these have for the members of society. If society is to be found in the interactional processes of its members we should study it in ‘the real world,’ i.e., the world created by societal members in their interaction, rather than in artificial settings or hypothetical situations. For Blumer, it follows that rather than constrain the study of social processes with controlled variables we should proceed with minimal intervention by the researcher. Also, in trying to maintain the integrity of the phenomenon under investigation we should not fit the ‘real world’ to our method, as typical in survey research, but should adapt out methodology to the world and thus use flexible data collection strategies. Finally, the model of the study should not be predetermined and then tested, but should be ever-changing to fit the changes and events in the real world.

For Blumer the naturalistic research has two phases: exploration and inspection. Exploration allows the researcher to gain a clearer understanding of the study, what methods to use, and to conceptualize the area of study in order to be able to talk from facts rather than speculations (Blumer 1969). Exploration should be flexible and change as necessary to understand the topic at hand and thus should rely on a multiplicity of methods including observation, interviewing, life histories, and personal documents. Exploration is the first step of naturalistic inquiry for Blumer but must be complemented by another, more analytic step, inspection. This latter step aids the researcher in developing an analytic understanding of the elements of inquiry and their relations. This understanding is sensitizing rather than definitive, since the world studied is a process, i.e., ever changing. Furthermore, inspection allows for the testing of theoretical propositions. Thus, naturalistic research uses exploration to define the parameters of the study, then turns to inspection to develop sensitizing concepts about the study, finally developing theoretical concepts about society and its members (Hammersley 1989).

1.1 The Chicago School

Blumer mentioned some works of the Chicago School and particularly The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (Thomas and Znaniecki 1918–20) as exemplars of the naturalistic method. Indeed, many works of the Chicago School are considered the antecedents of SI, since they tended to rely on some facet of the naturalistic method. Both Mead and Blumer were at the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s when the school had great influence on American sociology. Among many other important contributors to the naturalistic studies of the Chicagoans, besides W. I. Thomas, who was one of the theoretical leaders (but left as early as 1918), Robert Park must be mentioned. He was an ex-journalist trained in philosophy and took some courses from the pragmatists, John Dewey and William James. From his previous profession Park brought an understanding of studying the real world ‘out there,’ thus, being the inspirator of many studies of naturalistic nature. It must be noted that the Chicago School has been criticized for saying very little about their methods in their writings (Hammersley 1989) and for not really being a school of thought at all (Becker 1999). Some of the most notable works from the Chicago naturalistic tradition are The Ghetto (Wirth 1928), The Delinquent Gang (Thrasher 1927), The Gold Coast and the Slum (Zorbaugh 1929), The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man (Anderson 1923). For a detailed study of the Chicago School see Faris (1967) and Bulmer (1984).

2. Other Methods Based On Mead

While Blumer’s adaptation of Mead’s theories is the methodological mainstay of SI, there are other methodologies based on SI, and these will be mentioned next. Analytic induction was first discussed by Znaniecki (1928). It was later used, with minor variations by Lindesmith (1937, 1968) (he was a graduate student of Blumer), Cressey (1950) (a student of Lindesmith), Becker (1963) (see Hammersley 1989), and others. Analytic induction, according to Znaniecki, recognizes the fact that objects in the world are open to an infinite number of description and, thus, our account of them must be selective; this selectivity will be based on the interest at hand, which for sociologists is primarily social and cultural systems; commonly used sociological methods relying on preidentification (deductive) or superficial description (inductive) will not work, only analytic induction will accomplish the task. The researcher will select a small number of cases (10–12, usually) and study them in depth, continually defining and redefining the event and formulating and reformulating theoretical propositions until they will fit all cases. Negative cases must also be examined (this was Lindesmith’s idea).

Another student of Blumer, Strauss, together with Glaser, developed another SI method, grounded theory (Glaser and Strauss 1967). Closely related both to Blumer’s methodology and to analytic induction, grounded theory placed more emphasis on the generation and development of theory. Relying on the inductive method, grounded theory is akin to Blumer’s inspection, only much more elaborate. Rather than relying on a priori population, in analytic theorizing one continues to study new cases until the point of saturation, generating theoretical categories.

Not all SI methods followed the constructionist approaches outlined above. A notable exception came from the Iowa School of Sociology. Kuhn (1964) adopted a much more deterministic approach to Mead’s discussion of the self and the nature of the ‘me,’ the various roles and images we have of ourselves. The methodology he adopted to discover the nature of the self was called the Twenty Statements Test (TST), a series of open-ended questions about the self. Kuhn felt that rather than use the oblique method of observing people one ought to ask them directly about the nature of their inner feelings and they would honestly disclose them to the researcher. The results of TST would be used, by Kuhn, to outline generic laws that would apply to human beings in different situations. Other positivistic oriented symbolic interactionists are Sheldon Stryker, described as a ‘structural role theorist,’ who influenced numerous students at the University of Indiana and Carl Couch, who was a stalwart of the discipline, with his ‘Behavioral Sociology’ at the University of Iowa (cf. Reynolds 1993).

In the 1960s and 1970s a plethora of theoretical approaches, largely based on the naturalistic method, appeared. Some were based on basic Meadian tenets, such as dramaturgy (Goffman 1959), and labeling (Becker 1963). Others based their constructionist approach not only on the ideas of Mead but on those of the phenomenologists (Husserl, Schutz,Heidegger, Dilthey) and the existentialists (Merleau-Ponty, Sartre), and ordinary language philosophers (Wittgenstein). They are phenomenological sociology, existential sociology, ethnomethodology, and the sociology of emotions (see Douglas et al. (1980) for a survey of these sociologies and a list of references to them; also, see Adler et al. (1987)).

3. Postmodern-Informed Symbolic Interactionism

More recently, with the influence of postmodernism on the social sciences, the methodology of SI has undergone some dramatic changes (Marcus and Fischer 1986, Dickens and Fontana 1994). Again, the closeness of theory and methodology in SI affects methodological approaches to SI. Postmodernism (Lyotard 1984) advocates a disenchantment with metatheories, claiming all we can possibly know about society is much smaller in scope, and it is relative due to its historical, temporal, regional nature, as well as other elements. Thus, society becomes fragmented and we should question and deconstruct all overarching metatheories and reduce the scope and intent of our studies to our immediate surroundings, to the details of everyday life.

These beliefs impact the naturalistic method of SI in a number of ways. First, we can no longer claim to be aiming at universal laws of human behavior since that would be a metatheory. Second, metatheories come under scrutiny and are deconstructed, i.e., their basic assumptions are rendered problematic and questioned. This leads to the questioning of the role of the researcher and author in terms of authority of selectively choosing data to record and report, thus biasing the study. Postmodern-informed interactionism attempts to remedy this authorial bias by the use of polyphony, by this meaning to allow the many voices of the respondents to speak for themselves. Additionally, researchers disclose as much information as possible about themselves—role, interest, possible bias, and more. This is only a partial solution to the authorial influence, which is ultimately, irremediable, as we cannot help but to perceive and report selectively.

Other methodological changes take aim at the relation between the researcher and the researched. Traditionally, interactionists have attempted to remain as neutral and invisible as possible in order not to influence the study. Postmodern-informed interactionists make their presence felt in an attempt to establish a one-to-one partnership with the respondents. In so doing researchers are no longer aloof observers collecting data but become a part of the interaction and influence the research findings. Now data stems from a negotiated process between researcher and respondent (Gubrium and Holstein 1997) (notice that this goal contradicts the previous goal of reducing authorial bias).

Another change involves the notion of ‘value free’ research. Some postmodern-informed interactionists wish to overthrow traditional sociology (Clough 1998, Denzin 1997, 1999a) which they consider patriarchal, instead they envision a new researcher who is a ‘feminist, communitarian reseacher … who builds collaborative, reciprocal, trusting, and friendly relations with those studied’ (Denzin 1997).

4. Current Trends

Postmodern-informed interactionists not only have made dramatic methodological changes from Blumerian interactionism but are experimenting with radically different reporting styles, which are closely intertwined with the new methodological ethos. Some of these styles include poetry and performances, as well as the writing of short stories about one’s personal past (autoethnographies). While some of these reports are highly engaging (Richardson 1997, Denzin 1999b), they raise a question about standards—should these works be judged and evaluated by the standards of sociology or poetry and literature? Some interactionists have been highly critical of postmoderninformed interactionism (Seidman 1991, Shalin 1993, Best 1995, Prus 1996). As a result the field of interactionism is currently divided in many groups with different methodological approaches.

Adler and Adler (1999), in describing the varied groups of interactionists at the turn of the millenium, use the metaphor of ‘the ethnographers’ ball’ and sit the factions at various tables. We will rely upon the Adlers’ description in the following section. The first table sits the ‘postmodern-informed’ ethnographers, next to them is the ‘autoethnography group,’ a bit further down sit the ‘interpretive discourse analysts’ who attempt to integrate interactionism, ethnomethodology, and postmodernism. At another table the Adlers have the ‘classic interactionists,’ in the wake of the old Chicago School. Next to them sit the ‘no mo pomo’ (Adler and Adler 1999), the Blumerian group critical of the new postmodern influence. Near by are the followers of Erving Goffman, the ‘dramaturgists,’ studying everyday life by using the metaphor of the theater. They are followed by the ‘grounded theorists,’ next to the ‘conversational analysts’ who are continuing the work of ethnomethodologists such as the late Harvey Sacks and others. Next, the Adlers have a table for those who practice ‘the extended case study,’ using ethnography to do applied research. Finally we see the ‘visual interactionists’ who capture symbolic interaction through the eye of the camera lens. As the Adlers themselves say, ‘the list can go on’ (Adler and Adler 1999).

We would add to the Adler’s list three more tables, before we run out of room in the ballroom. One would be the ‘phenomenological/existential’ table sitting Jack Douglas and his former students at the San Diego campus of the University of California. Another table, right next to the postmodernists, would be the ‘feminist interactionists’ who are ‘united in their criticisms of ‘‘Eurocentric masculinist approaches’’’ (Collins, quoted in Denzin 1997). Finally, there would be a table of ‘theoretical interactionists’ who have written extensively in the area without actually engaging in ethnographic work (cf. Lyman and Scott 1989).

The methodology of Symbolic Interactionism has become the methodologies of symbolic interactionism, and can no longer be grouped under Blumer’s guiding ideas, yet their diversity is exaggerated and exacerbated by rivalry among various subgroups. By and large, while differing in some methodological points, the great majority of interactionists still wish to study the real world and the meaning that its members make of it and how they manage to maintain and achieve social order as a negotiated interactional accomplishment.


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