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Symbolic Interactionism and the Concept of Social Structure
University of Salford
Peter J. Martin
University of Manchester
Although Blumer asserts that to deny the existence of “structure” in human society is “ridiculous,” just such a denial has commonly been attributed to him. The more conventional mainstream understanding of structure in sociology, however, is theoretically incoherent, as demonstrated by classic and modern studies of, for example, stratiﬁcation. Blumer’s sociology is shown, with particular reference to its bases in the pragmatist tradition, to provide an alternative understanding of structure that is both theoretically coherent and capable of empirical investigation. Furthermore, it is capable of dissolving the dilemma of structure and agency in contemporary sociological theory.
In his remarks on the implications for sociology of the thought of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer emphasizes the point that, although Mead describes the social order as the outcome of collaborative “joint action,” such a position does not entail a denial of “the existence of structure in human society. Such a position would be ridiculous” (Blumer 1969: 75). Blumer’s critics would disagree, arguing that symbolic interactionism “prevents the understanding of social structures and their constraining characteristics or of patterns of human organization such as class hierarchies or power constellations” (Coser 1976: 157). Even apparently sympathetic commentators are prepared to accept that the perspective suffers from an “astructural bias,” and displays an “unconcern with social structure” (Meltzer et al. 1975: 113). More recently, Musolf (1992) has also accepted this criticism, arguing that only new directions in interactionist thought will allow the perspective to address the macrosociological concerns of power, inequality, and social structure. Ridiculous or not, then, the notion that Blumer denied the existence of structure has become widespread, from the publication of Symbolic Interactionism (Blumer 1969) to the present day (see, for example, the discussions in Denzin 1992: 56; Gouldner 1970: 379; Maines 1977: 236; Morrione 2003: xiv; Sauder 2005: 286). Our purpose here is to question the validity of this criticism, not only because it misrepresents Blumer’s sociological position—although many critics do present a
*Communications should be sent to Alex Dennis, School of English, Sociology, Politics, and Contemporary History, University of Salford, Salford, M5 4WT, United Kingdom. We are grateful to participants at the 2005 Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction annual meetings for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper and to the anonymous reviewers for their criticisms.
nor is the reality eternally real. Rather. Hall 2003). which can “talk back in the sense of challenging and resisting. then. “Mead was a pragmatist in philosophical stance. an individualistic or subjectivist position). understood through categories with largely stable relationships instead of through social actors actually doing things. or not bending to.03_C03pg287-305. its analytic utility depends on its being seen as the cause of human behavior: it is necessarily deterministic in application. reality does not exist in consciousness. his aim is to develop a sociological perspective that transcends the sterility of the realist—idealist or objective—subjective dualisms. Just as Mead concluded that “metaphysical problems were unnecessary ‘riddles’ created by dualistic philosophies” (Baldwin 1986: 24). . as it inevitably requires analysts to impose their own deﬁnitions of reality onto the social world they are investigating (Blumer 1969: 74). although symbolic interactionism has indeed developed an approach for the analysis of patterned social organization. including hierarchical differentiation and asymmetries of power (see. and embedded in. subjectivism. then. Blumer stresses that such a position ignores or denies the “obdurate character” of the empirical world. is the fact that Blumer was also concerned to show that an exclusive focus on the individual actor could not form the basis of a theoretically satisfying sociological alternative: his rejections of psychological reductionism. Moreover. . we will argue that the very conception of “social structure” is a product of.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 288 288 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS curiously myopic version of this but also because it fails to acknowledge symbolic interactionism’s status as a distinct and coherent alternative to more orthodox forms of sociological thought. independent of human experience with it” (Blumer quoted in Morrione 2004: xii). one of Blumer’s neatest arguments is that structural sociology is irredeemably subjective. This conception cannot be transported from one perspective to another. Blumer’s opposition to dualisms. however. . the structural conception of sociology takes society to be an external system that is the “overall determinant of social action” (Blumer 1969: 74). In short. interactionists have good reasons to regard “social structure” as a problematic concept. our images or conceptions of it” (Blumer 1969: 22). Third. Second. At the risk of tautology. Often neglected in the secondary treatments of Blumer. and solipsism were equally forthright (Morrione 2004: xi). then. it requires a reiﬁcation of social processes. it facilitates a portrayal of social life as static rather than processual. a commitment to Durkheimian structural sociology) could be dissolved into the other (here.” external to real people. so that (as in Durkheim 1982) they become “things. [F]or pragmatism. among them the fruitless opposition between realism and idealism in sociology. As Morrione puts it. should not be mistaken for a desire to show that one side of a dualistic relationship (in this case.NCSA40. for example. orthodox “structural” sociology—the same orthodoxy to which Blumer’s work stands as a principled objection. and so am I. Indeed. . Blumer’s theoretical work aims to overcome various problematic dualisms. First. In his own words. What. because its meaning differs between the different theoretical traditions. is this reality that Blumer regards as the “obdurate character” of the social world? Blumer’s answer cannot be clearer: “the empirical world of our discipline is the natural social world of everyday experience” (Blumer 1969: 148). The concept of social structure is an exemplary case of the former in three ways.
and in his view of the social order as a situated accomplishment. the presumption “that one cannot understand social life without understanding the arrangements of particular social actors in particular social times and places. We will make this demonstration with particular reference to the concept of social structure—a topic. Fundamentally empiricist in method. that symbolic interactionism has often been regarded as “incapable” of addressing. Unlike these approaches. then. It is our intention to show that these foundations provided Blumer with the tools to develop a coherent and distinct mode of sociological thought and inquiry that is incompatible with such notions as social structure and variable analysis as they are conventionally understood (Abbott 1997). as Abbott (1997: 1152) puts it. What is distinctive about the Chicago approach is. Blumer’s focus on “the social world of everyday experience” has clear foundations in pragmatist philosophy. and intersubjectively inseparable from the past and future” (Morrione 2004: xii. because of its current theoretical centrality. and (particularly) Mead as epistemological touchstones and methodological foundations. Our aim in this section is to question such an attribution and to offer a preliminary clariﬁcation of what we understand symbolic interactionism to be.NCSA40. structure/agency dualism tends to provide the means by which Blumer’s thought is understood. Dewey. this approach stressed the pragmatist arguments of James. Commentators overwhelmingly locate symbolic interactionism at the agency end of this dualism (Dennis and Martin 2005). common maxims (Athens 2005: 307). Blumer echoes the Schutzian phenomenological tradition evident in such contemporaneous works as Berger and Luckmann’s (1966) The Social Construction of Reality and Garﬁnkel’s (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology. is similar but irreducible to the same concept as used by structuralist sociologists. emphases in original).03_C03pg287-305. such an extraction would represent a redescription of those works in contemporary terms rather than a reasonable reconstruction of their authors’ own positions. BLUMER AND THE PRAGMATIST ORIENTATION OF THE CHICAGO SCHOOL Sociological classics tend to be reread through the lens of contemporary disciplinary developments. behaviorally. it will be readily recalled. and. Blumer’s thought emerged from a radically different approach to doing sociology (usually glossed as the “Chicago School”) from that which currently commands mainstream recognition. capable of . and that represents a viable alternative approach to the dominant sociological orthodoxies. however. In these formulations. In his exemplary excavation of Mead’s views on what society might be. Athens (2005) is careful to demonstrate that the meaning of institution in Mead’s thought.” This presumption is most corrosive to those forms of sociology based on the analysis of variables: the idea of context-independent Durkheimian social facts.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 289 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 289 “Blumer located action and the creation of meaning in an ever-emergent situated present that is cognitively. Although notions of structure and agency could be extracted from the Chicago School’s works.
located empirically through processes of description and comparison. the Chicago School provided both an intellectual home and a critical context within which he could pursue his methodological and conceptual arguments. (2) that sociological studies are descriptions of the formal features of such institutions. Blumer’s critique of variable analysis did not come out of nowhere: it is a contribution to. Blumer 1939). as Abbott (1997) points out. classes. Wirth’s (1928) The Ghetto will be used to illustrate their application. These characteristics might very generally be characterized as a militantly empirical sociological practice informed by pragmatist philosophical underpinnings. Although Blumer was often critical of this tradition’s orientations and organization (see. Becker 1999. This instantiates a key concept of pragmatist philosophy: rather than unquestioningly accepting or peremptorily denying the existence of a phenomenon (in this case contextindependent features of social situations).NCSA40. in Wirth’s (1928) work. and other structural aspects of the social world were treated as the product of people’s activities rather than the unquestioned bases for sociological investigations. and how political negotiations between different ethnic communities resolve . is utterly alien to the Chicago tradition. sociology remains committed to just the kinds of variable analysis Blumer (1956) sought to undermine. astructural bias. like anomie. contrasted. Although this did not preclude statistical or other larger-scale forms of analysis.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 290 290 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS allowing different settings to be compared. Although facts can be extracted from settings. traditional (usually ﬁrst-generation immigrant). in particular. of course. they remain the products of those settings. that phenomenon becomes something to be discovered. generated in the settings of professional sociologists. alienation. a particular synagogue was shown to be the product of the elaboration of secular. to the extent that there is a “Chicago School. and the social property of participants to their production—including those facts. For the purposes of our argument. or the masculine gaze. religions. Its relative stability is not taken for granted but is used to say something about the nature of religious institutions at times of social change. but their relationships require discovery and are not capable of being speciﬁed a priori. and development of. Abbott and Gaziano 1995).” it is one that shares many of the same characteristics and concerns of symbolic interactionism. the Chicago tradition’s emphasis on the speciﬁcity of situations. Institutions Are the Products of Interactions Blumer drew on the Chicago School’s orientation to a ﬁne-grained analysis of everyday activities. we will focus on three themes that illustrate these characteristics: (1) that institutions are the products of interactions.03_C03pg287-305. Although much has been written about the divisions between Blumer and other Chicago sociologists (see. it provided a background where some of the claims subsequently enunciated on their behalf were treated with suspicion: institutions. Settings are not. and organized on continua. his critique producing what has been called “one of the most telling 35-year silences in the recent history of academic life” (Watson 1995: 317). and “Americanized” forms of Judaism. hermetically sealed off from one another. and (3) that stability and change are context-dependent. organizations. Thus. for instance. But.
an emphasis was placed on the ways in which institutional features of one setting might reﬂect those of another. For example. it is absolutely not something that can be determined a priori by a sociologist or other disinterested observer. one such formal feature is community solidarity. Rather. and schism. compromise. In Wirth’s (1928) account of ghetto life. that such features could be used as sensitizing concepts. piety. in other investigations (Blumer 1954: 7). the community as a whole .qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 291 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 291 themselves through negotiation. Sociology Is the Description of the Formal Features of Institutions Blumer shared with earlier Chicago scholars an orientation to formalism as a means of organizing and presenting sociological ﬁndings (see Park and Burgess 1921 on the role of Simmel in Chicago sociology). more or less to their satisfaction. and about prostitutes by studying psychiatrists. Rather than seeking generalizations that can be applied to larger and larger groups. Although such congregations professed to be orthodox. Hughes evinces the Chicago desire to ﬁnd out what different jobs have in common and how they differ—and. with new circumstances and interested parties always having to be taken into consideration. There is no reason to believe that social phenomena necessarily have essential features in common.” rather than on the basis of their wealth.” thus providing “a place of dignity” for an individual who would be a “mere Jew” in the outside world. it is something that is constantly worked out between groups of interested parties. mediated by the synagogue. they were regarded as relatively secular by the strictly orthodox on the one hand and relatively conservative by the reformed congregations on the other. Social facts cannot be assumed. In turn. that these features could be speciﬁed on an a priori basis. indeed. does not imply a rejection of the notion that different settings might have features in common. This focus on empirical investigation furnished the Chicago School with the analytic resources to discover formal features of the social world. This reﬂects the pragmatists’ rejection of neo-Platonism on the one hand and what Mills (1959) called “abstracted empiricism” on the other. by asking questions of this kind. “[D]eep bonds of sympathy” emerge through “colorful ritual. or spurs to the imagination. This. Most important of all. conservative congregations were forced to postpone the Friday evening service from sundown until after supper to accommodate urban American working practices.03_C03pg287-305. Perhaps the clearest statement of this position is to be found in Hughes (1951: 320): “The comparative student of man’s work learns about doctors by studying plumbers. The centrality of the synagogue depends crucially on its capacity to provide families and households with the status they deserve. or that they could be unproblematically applied in different cases as a theoretical framework for understanding something novel. however. and services rendered to the community.NCSA40. the purity of family life.” Instead of reducing the study of different jobs to the sociology of work. ﬁnding out what the formal features of those different jobs might be in the ﬁrst place. What Wirth brings to our attention is the range of practices that count for members of a community as a congregation: having the status of a synagogue is not something that rests on either adherence to Judaic custom or the ability to maintain a large and active community of believers. based on their “learning. or.
For example. Ironically. “All societies of any great size have in-groups and out-groups. Their marginal status means that their capacity to be afforded respect by others. and one cannot treat such a situation as self-maintaining independently of the interpretative work of its members.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 292 292 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS “acquired a reputation . through its outstanding personalities. one of the best ways of describing a society is to consider it a network of smaller and larger in-groups and out-groups. The pragmatist roots of this approach should by now be evident: rather than treating stable social phenomena as the unquestioned starting points for analysis. just an instance of a religious institution. the ways in which those phenomena are constituted as stable becomes a topic of investigation. but both are to be regarded as the outcomes of meaningful action. but rather allows them to maintain their status as human beings as well as Jews and so—over time—reduce the extent to which they are treated as different.” and how individuals can move between the two categories. The synagogue is not.03_C03pg287-305. a religious movement—depends on the meanings people give it and take from it. Neither stability nor change is assumed to be a natural characteristic of human life or social phenomena. are the outcome of interactional work that determines what the boundaries of that institution are. then.NCSA40. that the concept of setting is itself one that requires further elaboration to be analytically useful. Formally. or even an instance of a synagogue like any other. . then. and gain a reputation for their actions rather than their ethnic and/or religious identity. Blumer (1990) takes this concern to its logical conclusion by demonstrating the radical incoherence of the idea that industrialization or its effects can be treated as consistent or analytically coherent between settings—and. In his careful critique of the concept of industrialization. . particularly through its philanthropists and scholars” (Wirth 1928: 37). who is “inside” and who is “outside. The formal features of the synagogue. a class. cannot be fulﬁlled elsewhere. prove to almost reverse its institutional features. then. Thus. the very institution which is at the heart of their religious beliefs becomes the thing that facilitates greater integration with Gentile culture. the synagogue does not represent that which makes Jews Jewish. Inertia alone will not maintain an orderly social situation. an apparently context-independent feature of human life is the nature of intergroup relations. What Wirth emphasizes is the ways in which the institution in this case is used by members of the ghetto community to satisfy certain basic human needs that. And an ingroup is only one because there are out-groups” (Hughes 1962: 8). viewed from a pragmatic Chicago School position. . just what something is—an institution. viewed from the perspective of structuralist sociology. cannot be taken for granted in the ways members of other communities might legitimately expect. Stability and Change Are Context-Dependent Notions of structural integrity and system maintenance were treated with analytic suspicion by Blumer and his earlier Chicago counterparts: “stable and recurrent forms of joint action do not carry on automatically in their ﬁxed form but have to be sustained by the meanings that people attach to the type of situation in which the joint action reoccurs” (Blumer 1969: 59). in fact. or by denying their stability altogether. given their circumstances. The formal features of a social institution. indeed. an ethnic group.
and their domestic and vocational situations shape their outlooks. the concepts and beliefs in one’s ﬁeld are gratuitously accepted as inherently true. and. his work is best understood with this in mind. In place of being tested and modiﬁed by ﬁrsthand acquaintance with the sphere of life they become a substitute for such acquaintance” (Blumer 1969: 37). rather than an ontological feature of the social world itself. but gradually changing. but not that pattern itself—because such a pattern is inevitably a way of facilitating sociological description. But just as the ghetto inhabitants and their beliefs are transformed in the areas of “second settlement” (those areas inhabited by “Americanized” Jews).qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 293 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 293 The idea of a stable set of institutions being driven from one form to another by a homogeneous set of social forces is revealed as a myth. For Wirth.” Many of the key tropes in his argument are just those of earlier Chicago sociologists. People orientate to different things. Structure is (sometimes) a useful placeholder. Blumer’s intellectual development is not. the institution of Judaism is challenged both by internal differences and by external pressures. elsewhere they remain static and traditional: the daily routine of the “ghetto Jew” “is conﬁned largely to the narrow area of his immediate vicinity.03_C03pg287-305. and a commitment to ﬁnding out through investigation how orderly social institutions are produced and maintained. indeed. then. to a continuous reinterpretation and analysis of Mead’s “social behaviorism. “Social types range themselves in constellations. and.NCSA40. consequently. in particular a rejection of the notion that one must either accept or deny the existence of social structure as an a priori theoretical matter. In short. move out . the Chicago School’s approach to the concept of structure takes it as a possibly useful redescription of the ongoing ﬂow of human activities. Individuals’ social and religious commitments shape where they choose to live and work. a way of illustrating how the pattern of social organization is perpetuated and reproduced. merely reducible to a commitment to ethnographic method or a suspicion of theory—or. that the images that stem from these sources control the inquiry and shape the picture of the sphere of life under study. these concerns map literally onto the geography of the ghetto area. we will argue. he does so with his eyes closed to the life that goes on” (Wirth 1928: 251). STUDIES OF SOCIAL STRATIFICATION In accordance with the pragmatist position. each stellar ﬁgure with its little circle of satellites seeking its place in the life of the group and changing its position and character as the culture of the area is transformed” (Wirth 1928: 250). therefore. members of the community locate and maintain themselves in particular. It is not surprising. not something intrinsic to the setting in its own right. One of Blumer’s great contributions to sociological thought was to demonstrate the dangers of not maintaining such a tentative position with respect to theory: “Theoretical positions are held tenaciously. Even when he drives his wagon through the other sections of the city. and the canons of scientiﬁc procedure are sacrosanct. self-consciously. Central to these arguments are a pragmatic rejection of dualisms. positions as participants and creators of this institution.
something that can be related to other real things. the ways in which the class structure has been represented in most sociological studies is an artifact of those studies’ theoretical and methodological preconceptions: “all class schemes are social constructs. Others. 1976. The problems of such approaches are well documented. however. attempted to incorporate an expanding middle class into their models: for Poulantzas (1975). the constructs of sociologists. Putting it bluntly. the dominant American approach has been to conceptualize social inequalities in terms of status (until challenged by neo-Marxian authors such as Bowles and Gintis. reinforce and change their institutional affiliations. Such approaches inevitably fail to be literal descriptions of the social structure as they are. Sociological descriptions of societies in terms of a hierarchy of strata. In the course of their doing this the structure of a social world changes or remains the same—but that structure is not something that inheres in the social world but is an artifact of the questions we ask of it. The very existence of such a divergent approach suggests that the definition of social classes.03_C03pg287-305. In the classic Marxian formulation. one would have to argue that such approaches cannot achieve the degrees of neutrality and objectivity to which they aspire. is to conﬂate a sociological description with the thing being described. In doing so our aim is to substantiate Blumer’s point that what is claimed to be an “‘objective’ approach holds the danger of the observer substituting his view of the ﬁeld of action for the view held by the actor” (Blumer 1969: 74). is not a neutral or objective process. Even among those theorists who accept the validity of the concept of class. but one in which theoretical perceptions of relevance are actively involved. Therefore different class schemes. and some authors (for example Braverman 1974) continued to argue for this view. and Wright 1978). . or rather. for example. From a pragmatist position. can produce quite different ‘class maps’” (Crompton 1993: 50). The concept of social class is itself a source of theoretical problems. It is a part of human activities in just these ways and no others—and to treat it as a real thing.NCSA40.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 294 294 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS of and into geographical areas and social circles. although most European researchers have accepted the validity of the term. whereas for Wright (1985: 45) those in the middle class occupy a contradictory class position. and to present the big picture of class inequalities as institutionalized features of such societies. Indeed. and those researchers’ a priori theoretical and methodological commitments (Scheff 1995). derive from an understandable wish to represent societies as wholes. from disputes about what classes consist of (Martin 1987) to arguments over the utility of different methodological and measuring techniques (Crompton 1993). or as a structure of classes. however. and have to be selective representations that depend on the particular interests—practical and theoretical—of researchers. major disputes exist concerning where boundary lines between class strata can be drawn. the real working class has been reduced to about a ﬁfth of the overall working population. when applied to the same occupational structure. and the assignment of people to them. In this section we will suggest that this distinction is clearly exempliﬁed by the ways in which conventional sociologists have understood and described social inequality and stratiﬁcation. and so on. a tiny bourgeoisie comes to confront a huge proletariat.
then. but none has been successful—and it is hard to see how any could succeed: the idea of producing a multidimensional model of the social structure cannot be realized. for the ‘objective’ research ends up simply reﬂecting the subjective preferences of the researcher” (Martin 1987: 95). there have been more recent efforts to incorporate women and ethnic groups into studies of class and social mobility. dependent on the a priori assumptions of the analyst. By restricting what counts as class to what happens to people at work. and by its inability to incorporate families. for example. if the theoretical justiﬁcation for the concept of class is correct. regarding the formation of social classes as an empirically open question. Because more than one theoretical reconciliation is possible. research in this tradition yields a picture of social life that is hard to relate to any real. such studies tend to reinforce the gap between individual experience and the social structure. and seeking to identify the structural conditions under which real classes actually come into existence—or fail to do so (see. ethnic or national identiﬁcation and their effects. the young. Our point here is that class is essentially a commonsense. Inevitably. and religion.03_C03pg287-305. Such studies are also problematic insofar as they seek to determine the life (or at least employment) experiences of all the members of a particular population. societies. Garnsey (1978) argued that the conventional approach to class analysis is “male-centered” both because it presupposes that women’s class position depends on that of husbands or fathers. Similar points could be made about the neglect of. Many of these concern the validity and reliability of data generated by sample surveys in which individual people are interviewed or sent questionnaires about their occupational experiences.NCSA40. In retaining the Marxian priority accorded to economic relations in the class structure. or political organizations and culture (Crompton 1993: 77). nationality. Goldthorpe 1980). however. rather than a scientiﬁc. As such it “cannot simply be taken for granted as the basis of sociological analysis which aspires to be scientiﬁc. More attention. Attempts to investigate the class structure have encountered equally intractable methodological problems. concept (Schutz 1962). and because it assumes that women’s domestic labor is marginal to the system of production. and the old. One problem with such an approach is that.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 295 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 295 Other sociologists have developed models of class that owe more to Weber than to Marx. a tiny proportion of that population will have a disproportionate effect on the social structure as a whole. and by treating those people as isolated experiencers of their structural position rather than members of social networks and other groups. then. Additionally. should be paid to . or possible. and in basing their analyses on the occupations of individual people. Such attempts illustrate the pragmatist view of knowledge as contextual—in this case. such analysts have been accused of neglecting the other factors Weber (1948) thought were important in social stratiﬁcation—in particular ethnicity. in each case the researcher has to select among alternative accounts to provide what can be construed as an objective account. Somehow what happens to individuals has to be reconciled with their class positions—but how this is actually achieved in practice depends on the skillful use of theory to bridge the gap. By excluding women. among other things.
he or she would necessarily have to deal with contingencies. to a sample survey of men between ages twenty and sixty-four. power. Moreover. . Others have foreclosed the debate by theoretical ﬁat (Cicourel 1964). . for instance. and the impossibility of conventional measurement until the details of the phenomenon under investigation could be adequately described. Studies of stratiﬁcation. related to social classes: theorists have been increasingly concerned by people in the routine nonmanual class category (those doing clerical and lower administrative work). It is likely that our understanding of the processes of social stratiﬁcation will be best furthered by the direct investigation of these activities in the . taking all the different factors that could inﬂuence patterns of stratiﬁcation into account.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 296 296 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS members of powerful and wealthy elites—but these are precisely the groups that are signiﬁcantly underrepresented in such studies: indeed. and so excluded from most studies of class. unfortunately. of individuals. in the Oxford Mobility Study of the 1970s no data whatsoever could be collected on these sections of the population (Martin 1984: 33). Are they members of the new middle class. There are also concerns about how occupational positions are. Just why this is so is unclear. The sample survey thus cannot reveal that the signiﬁcance of the same occupational position is very different for the different people occupying it. On the contrary. as Weber (1978: 15) pointed out: “We can accomplish something which is never obtainable in the natural sciences. sociological approaches must deal with large numbers of people. prestige. the signiﬁcance of occupying such a position is variable: for those whose origins are in manual work this may represent promotion to an office job. There are. One response to this problem is to allow the availability of methodological techniques to determine data collection and analysis—as in Blau and Duncan’s (1967) attempt to get the big picture of a social system’s stratiﬁcation. but to younger men it may be only a stepping stone on the way to a more senior managerial post (Stewart et al. In some respects things are easier in social life.NCSA40. uncertainties. as we have suggested. is a description of the American “occupational structure” that could not possibly describe any imaginable human society. There is surely a “cumbersome plurality” of chemical components in a complex protein. correctly observed that a rigorous Weberian approach. for men. then.03_C03pg287-305. in fact. patterns of inequality—of wealth. or are they becoming proletarianized? In fact. The result. and continual change. and thus it cannot be considered to be the same thing as far as class location is concerned. 1980). He therefore asserted that there are “only a limited number of classes” (Giddens 1981: 106) in any society. demonstrate that in order to bridge the gap between theoretical claims and research practice. Giddens. but a biologist or pharmacologist could not use this fact to decide a priori that they can be divided into discrete categories to simplify analysis. would lead to the identiﬁcation of a “cumbersome plurality of classes” (Giddens 1981: 104). the great majority of people in such occupations are female. being restricted. constant uncertainties. and so on—that are the outcomes of the activities of individuals and groups as they pursue their perceived interests. it has been shown that.” Certainly a wider scope of phenomena is readily observable. of course. namely the subjective understanding of the actions .
the “mature” Chicago School’s emphasis on institutional analysis. we are unaware of any coherent responses to them—then a central concern for nonstructural sociologies must be to radically separate description from the things being described: to remain faithful to the phenomena under investigation. and ﬁnd a radical expression in. . not individually mediated structure . the family. Although they defend Mead against the (common) misreading that his ideas lead to a “microsociology devoid of macroreference. the church.” We will return to this point subsequently. armies. What emerges from Mead’s account is not an understanding of social life as operating on different levels.” and that his followers neglected the possibility of this “collective link” so that “experience.NCSA40. Mead emphasizes the importance of the uniquely human capacity to communicate through the medium of language and the inﬁnite possibilities for symbolic representation it facilitates. In this. it is somewhat perplexing that sociological work in the interactionist tradition has been characterized by some of its critics as “subjective and voluntaristic” (Lichtman 1970: 77).” they conclude that “Mead lacked an institutional theory. but—particularly as a result of the ability to “take the role of the other” and the ways in which the “generalized other” enters into the thinking of individuals (Mead 1934: 256)—a perspective that sees organized patterns of social life as constituted and reproduced through the regular interactions of real people in particular times and places.03_C03pg287-305. became the hallmark of interactionist microanalysis” (Alexander and Giesen 1987: 9–10).” and emphasize the ways in which his analysis is “open to more collectivist concerns. for example. This reading presupposes that social life can only be conceptualized in terms of interactional (micro) or institutional (macro) levels. THE IDEA OF INSTITUTIONAL ANALYSIS If the concerns raised above are legitimate—and. as we mentioned. however. . Alexander and Giesen’s (1987) characterization of Mead stands as a fairly typical assessment of his ideas and inﬂuence. In fact. almost a third of Mead’s most famous work is concerned with society. is that a close examination of the concept and its usage reveals not only some (normally ignored) problems for the structural perspective but also the distinctiveness of the alternative vision of sociological work that animates interactionist studies. Our argument. and as “an atheoretical sociological theory [sic] that refuses in principle to transcend the peculiar characteristics . The concept of institution. as when.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 297 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 297 real world rather than through the heavy-handed imposition of concepts such as the “class structure. of course. Given this general perspective. and Mead’s (1934: 262) insistence on the profoundly social sources of the individual’s self. the nation-state. Such concerns are elaborated by. is usually seen (certainly in sociology textbooks) as one denoting collectivities basic to the perspective of mainstream structural sociology. and that the basic theoretical problem for sociology must be to provide a link between both sides of the great divide. and an entire section devoted to “The Community and the Institution” (Mead 1934: 260–273). or business corporations are described as institutions.
organizations. classes. In fact. although institutionalized patterns of activity are essential components of any form of social organization. or discourage any distinctive or original expressions of thought or behavior. systems. . Mead does not need a theory of institutions. Athens’ (2005) recent exposition of the relationships between selves. we can develop an empirical approach to what Blumer (1969: 148) called “the natural social world of everyday experience. Moreover. exaggerating the degree to which people are led to conform to the perceived expectation of the (internalized) “generalized other” (Katovich and Reese 1993). there is no higher level of social life that requires theorizing by sociologists. Only if the presuppositions of orthodox sociology are accepted a priori can interactionists be accused of being antitheoretical. there is a certain irony in the fact that Mead has also been criticized for presenting an oversocialized conception of human action.NCSA40. nor are they ontologically distinct emergent properties of social interaction. . Indeed. institutions are not entities existing on a separate level from that of the individual. and maxims in Mead’s thought is an excellent clariﬁcation of these issues. It is hard to reconcile this Mead with the one who has been accused of ignoring “social structures and their constraining characteristics” (Coser 1976: 157). in one speciﬁc sense.03_C03pg287-305. is neither on coercion nor unconstrained voluntarism. . and to propose a genuinely dialectical model of human conduct. they need to deﬁne the social. it is clear why. institutions. or socially responsible. Instead. Mead’s analysis is an attempt to transcend a sterile and false subjective-objective dualism.” We wish to emphasize that a focus on how the intersubjective world is constituted and sustained leads to an analytical approach in which the familiar concepts of mainstream sociology—such as structures. On the contrary. Alexander and Giesen (1987) are right to suggest that Mead lacks a theory of institutions. patterns of individual conduct only in a very broad sense” (Mead 1934: 262). for instance.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 298 298 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS of social processes in the here and now” (Coser 1976: 156). It makes little sense to argue that Mead lacks a theory of institutions or that interactionists ignore social structures. as they have no privileged place in his theoretical framework. institutions. since their understanding of the social world is based on premises fundamentally different to those of conventional structural sociology. institutions—as particular instances of all orderly patterns of social organization—are simply complexes of human interaction. then. Mead’s focus. For Mead. From this perspective. With this in mind. From Blumer’s perspective. so that “the collective concepts developed by early theorists have been reformulated in ways that recognize the processes through which people actively constitute their social worlds” (Martin 2004: 34. see also Jenkins 2002). but on how people deﬁne situations in ways they consider appropriate. . and interact with others on that basis. and for the interactionists who followed him. it may be further argued that modern sociology has gradually (and reluctantly) had to come to terms with the empirical inadequacies of the theoretical postulation of social systems or structures. and so on—appear not as objective entities but rather as modes of representing the complexity of human activity. chains of self-other relations in which processes of symbolic communication are of fundamental importance. institutions themselves need not “crush or blot out individuality. Thus.
” Putting the matter another way. and as our experience of social participation conﬁrms. indicate. As Blumer (2004: 95.” An interactionist approach need not deny the authority of the president. It is not a preestablished organization conceived in terms of the completed acts that it is believed or hoped the people will carry out. but must seek to explain such phenomena as the results of. nor of an articulated product of that acting. Moreover.03_C03pg287-305. political parties. and although we may modify it in some ways. or heavy metal fans. the activities of real people in particular situations. or open to arbitrary redeﬁnition. has an organized character. the scheme is not their action.NCSA40. Group life consists of the actual acting of people—not a conceived organization that antedates that acting. not before it or after it. . we are not at liberty to abandon it or invent a new one.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 299 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 299 To anticipate a misunderstanding that has become tediously familiar. He differed from the bulk of philosophers . emphases in original) points out: Group life exists in what people do. often over considerably long periods of time. As Maines (1977: 238) has put it. does not (as some critics would have it) mean that the organized patterns of social life are to be seen as subjective. its “obdurate character. to commit the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness” (Whitehead 1925: 72). and so on. pointing out that Mead was “primarily a philosopher. “Blumer’s message should not be lost . Such complexes of human activity constitute the very facticity of the social world. churches. but that character exists in it. . . To do so would be to illegitimately reify them. . and a corresponding focus on the ways in which they are socially constituted. organized. . malleable. for example. Yet as any empirical investigation shows. for example. we could say that although collective concepts may constitute powerful symbols in everyday discourse—indeed. we are confronted with the social reality of established. the reality of income differentials. and so on. It is inconceivable that we could sustain even routine conversations without making reference to such notions as. Nor is group life a kind of product of the acts of the individual participants. normative patterns of activity and a stable environment of symbolic representations—the fact that the norms and the symbols are ultimately sustained through patterns of interaction does not make them any less resistant. However much people may conform in their acts to a preestablished scheme. or use it more or less effectively. nation-states. because these very constraining processes are composed of and expressed through interacting individuals. it should be emphasized that this perspective does not entail a denial of the reality of armies. above. such as the articulated arrangement into which one ﬁnds the completed acts of the individuals to have fallen. and as sustained or challenged by. Blumer has also made explicit the direct link between this interactionist approach to the empirical analysis of the social world and Mead’s pragmatist philosophy. they are indispensable in the process of communication—this does not mean that they should therefore be treated as real for the purposes of sociological analysis. . We learn the language of our culture. the power of global corporations. or. Group life . as Blumer (1969: 22) had it. no such grouping is a uniﬁed entity composed of participants sharing the same ideas and motivations—as our comments on Wirth. As individuals. . bureaucracies. a principled refusal to accept the ontological reality of structures or systems.
and the relationship between people’s values and that world’s constitution. interactionist analyses reﬂect the pragmatists’ principled objections to essentialism. including symbolic representations and the taken-for-granted aspects that inﬂuence their interpretations of what is going on.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 300 300 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS in believing that the cardinal problems of philosophy arose in the realm of human group life and not in a separate realm of an individual thinker and his universe” (Blumer 1981: 902). score.” The person who in certain times and places is the “conductor” may also. privileged. interests. composer. as we have mentioned. or transcendent way of describing such a person—any person in fact—independently of the discursive contexts in which particular modes of representation are established. The Social World Is a Negotiated World As we argued above. such an analysis will make explicit the bases on which such situations are deﬁned by participants. critic. the analytical focus of interactionist studies is on the creation and maintenance of a shared social world by real people in particular situations. In seeking to understand social activities in such contexts. and so on are generally unproblematic. the notion that structural features of society have stable properties independent of the activities of members of that society is deeply problematic. and purposes of the various people in different social worlds. Such discourses and their conventionally established concepts may reveal much to the sociologist about the assumptions. In what Becker (1982) calls the “art world” of symphonic music. though. be “a father. other “worlds. in other contexts.” “a board member.” and so on.03_C03pg287-305.” “the accused. An example will make this point in a less abstract way. There are many other ways in which the person could be deﬁned.” for example. The concept of “conductor. To achieve this we will consider three areas of sociological concern: the creation and maintenance of the social world. the negotiated nature of that world. THE PRAGMATIST BASES OF INTERACTIONIST STUDIES The Creation and Maintenance of the Social World First. It does not follow.” “a high coronary risk. is not an objective description of a particular individual. objective descriptions that will reveal the intrinsic meanings of cultural objects. but rather something that tells us about the role such a person is expected to play within the symphonic art world. If successful. That is to say. This intimate connection between pragmatism and the interactionist approach to sociological study is at the heart of our argument.NCSA40. audience. The manner in which this connection manifests itself in sociological practice therefore requires explication. all of which are (potentially) relevant to other situations. What it does not aim to produce are decontextualized. there is no single. that these concepts correspond to ontologically real entities that can be ultimately or unambiguously deﬁned. In order to generate a model of those features—of that society—it is necessary either to systematically reduce the empirical complexity of the phenomena under . interactions take place against a background discourse in which such terms as orchestra. conductor.
Both strategies must be adopted as a priori matters as they do not represent analytical claims based on empirical data. and Aaron Cicourel. their extraorganizational networks and affiliations. might imagine. It is not the case.NCSA40. Such a structure simply does not exist in the ways Blau and Duncan.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 301 SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM AND THE CONCEPT OF SOCIAL STRUCTURE 301 investigation (as in Blau and Duncan 1967) or to make a theoretical decision about how such phenomena must operate (as in Giddens 1981). however. Rules govern participants’ activities. Where norms do appear they do so not as individuals’ personal. the early Erving Goffman.” Interactionist sociologists. In accordance with pragmatist ideas. “[f ]or Herbert Blumer. Instead. what seem to be “things”—stable structures—are empirically investigated and found to be “activities”—human interactions—that maintain and develop the stable operations of the setting under investigation. And. (This does not mean that they are capable of being interpreted however one likes—as with any social phenomena they do have an “obdurate character. Through these negotiations work gets done. do not reduce the nature of social norms and human values to mere psychological phenomena—indeed. and collective values but as the products of social systems. domestic circumstances. then. values are found to be . economic conditions. Values Shape How the Social World Is Constituted In conventional structuralist sociology there is a tendency to treat activities as determined by objective and external social facts. professional. and so on. George Homans. that a stable.03_C03pg287-305. or Giddens. Rather. their relationships with other staff members. Thus. the idea that they must either be located at the level of a “prior social structure” or inside the heads of social interactants is entirely alien to their perspective. 1964. The structured and stable features of any organization are necessarily the products of the webs of interaction undertaken by that organization’s members. partly on the basis of their role. but also on the basis of their personalities and personal preferences. Durkheim’s (2006) analysis of suicide relocates individuals’ feelings of alienation and hopelessness away from their psychological makeup and toward the normative order of the society they inhabit: these things become functions of religious affiliation. the later Garﬁnkel. as Alexander (1988: 98–99) argues. they negotiate with one another to get work done. the only way to emphasize the importance of individual. contingent action was to neutralize the inﬂuence of values and prior social structure as such. but those rules are themselves interpreted and negotiated as part of the ongoing work of the organization. because many such people with different and possibly contradictory roles are required to cooperate to get the work of the organization done. Strauss 1978). however.”) Finding out what rules might apply and how activities can be shown to be conducted with proper respect to their authority are themselves part of ongoing organizational work. The interactionist alternative to such positions may be exempliﬁed by the concept of a “negotiated order” (Strauss et al. People in complex organizations operate not on the basis of their role alone. but rather specify what is to count as an instance and what each instance might be an instance of. to whom they owe favors and who owes them favors. Ralph Turner. classically. and so on. objective structure preexists those negotiations or is produced by them.
with reference to efforts to describe the class structure sociologically. in his careful analysis of the relationships between native Canadians and Canadian Somali immigrants. the symbolic interactionist tradition has focused on institutional analysis in which—instead of presupposing that institutions are collective entities—the regular. the interactionist perspective. This focus on what Blumer called the “natural social world of everyday experience” (Blumer 1969: 148) is. symbolic interactionism is a coherent alternative to structural approaches. CONCLUSION We have argued that. we believe. and crystallized through intergroup interactions. rather than predetermining the ways in which those interactions could occur. far from being deﬁcient in its ability to deal with “macro” sociological phenomena. from the latter point of view the concept of structure is itself problematic. That is. So. but that the structural features of difference emerge from the two groups engaging in social activities with one another: cultural values are elaborated. and explained in terms of the process of interpretation engaged in by the acting participants” (Blumer 1969: 58).NCSA40. the interactional work of participants to a setting. the supposedly objective concepts of “macro” sociology are themselves ultimately subjective in that they are formulated on the basis of analysts’ assumptions and presuppositions. In contrast. Although most white Canadians orientate to other ethnic groups on the basis of their race. Just what values will be relevant in any situation is a function of the situation and its participants—without people doing things the “normative order” can be no more than an analytical ﬁction. studied. from the start.03_C03pg287-305. strengthened. or imposed upon. as Blumer argued. concerned with the ways in which social order emerges out of the dynamics of human interaction. Maines (2001: 158–161) shows how each group’s attitude to the other is shaped by their culturally speciﬁc values. Thus. indeed.qxd 7/20/07 11:01 AM Page 302 302 SOCIOLOGICAL FOCUS things that emerge through. and as a consequence the concept of structure (in any of the various ways in which it has been employed in mainstream sociology) cannot simply be imported into. Somali migrants make such in-group/out-group distinctions on the basis of nationality. The point here is not that these distinctions are structural. following the directions indicated by Mead. Somalis experience majority Canadian understandings as denigrating and respond with hostility. This was certainly Blumer’s conclusion: “The point of view of symbolic interactionism is that large-scale social organization has to be seen. and are modiﬁed by. at the heart of interactionist sociology. By being reduced to their racial characteristics. and allows the analyst to avoid the determinist account of human behavior inherent—and inescapable—in structural approaches. We have suggested that the Chicago tradition of research—strongly inﬂuenced by pragmatist currents of thought—has been. thus accelerating and worsening divisions between the two groups. orderly patterns of social life (including inequalities of . we have argued that the (widely varying) results not only betray the theoretical presuppositions of the researchers but also are representations of no conceivable societies.
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