Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method

Blumer, Herbert

Herbert Blumer's Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method is an essential read for any student/teacher of sociology or the social sciences/humanities. Written in 1969 Blumer's book was and still is the cornerstone of symbolic interactionism and exemplifies the philosopy of the 'Chicago School' of social science. Blumer expands on philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead's highly illuminating work 'Mind, Self and Society' which was published in 1934. Blumer went on to coin the term symbolic interactionism in 1937. With this book Blumer emphasises the sociological implications of Mead's work most importantly the importance of the self conscious social actor and how he 'defines his situation' and acts accordingly due to his possession of 'self'. The human social actor for Blumer is not merely a product of the structural elements of his/her society but how s/he actively shapes their environment. Thus Society for Blumer is not the product of structural factors such as society's institutions, social conflict or consensus, or other deterministic factors. Society is comprised of many social actors all involved in the process of interaction and how each person is 'reflexive' in their own 'definition of the situation'. Blumer states that symbolic interactionism rests on three simple premises. Firstly that human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings the things have for them. Meanings and objects become of central relevance when viewed from Blumer's perspective rather than taken for granted or pushed aside as is the case with conventional sociology and psychology. Secondly meanings of such things occurs through social interaction that is we only recognise a chair for example as a place to sit because we are taught this through interaction with others. Thirdly meanings are handled and modified through an interpretative process by the person who is interacting with any given object. This means that social life is an ongoing process of activity whereby the social actor interprets the situation which confronts him and acts accordingly. Parochial schemes advocated by conventional sociology such as social conflict, consensus, norms, values etc fail to recognise the importance of social actors and the interaction which occurs between people as Blumer states they 'leap over the acting units which comprise society'. Group life for Blumer is the 'fitting together of individual lines of action' by many individual actors. This is not to say that symbolic interactionism denies the existence of social structure what Blumer is saying is that social structures exist but they do not determine action. For Blumer the empirical world 'stands over and above the scientific observer' and therefore must be the central point of concern. Symbolic interactionism should as Blumer states cover the 'full scientific quest' and should be prepared (to quote Robert Park) 'to get the seat of your pants dirty' in other words get out into the empirical world rather than being a 'detached observer'. Blumer shuns grand theoretical theory which only sets out in proving what it sets out to prove in the first instance. Blumers book is immensely illuminating and I would recommend it highly to anyone studying sociology, social science or the humanities. It has been highly influential in the development of sociological theory and methodology and influenced many great sociologists over the years. The 'Chicago School' also produced many great theorists such as George Herbert Mead, Howard Becker, and Erving Goffman. Blumers book is a concise, no nonsense read which illustrates the symbolic interactionist perspective which has been an immense influence on sociological issues and debates. It remains fresh and timeless and is often cited throughout the discipline of sociology. Blumer has produced a work which still has repercussions within sociology more than thirty years after it was penned. Thus making it an essential read which should be placed alongside Becker's 1963 classic 'Outsiders' and Goffman's work. The sociological cannon has become immensely enriched due to this book.

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