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G.H. Mead

Principle of symbolic interactions was formulated in the following way by Blumer: ‘Social acts, whether individual or collective, are constructed through a process in which the actors note, interpret, and assess the situations confronting them’ (Blumer).

The symbolic interactions perspective considers individuals as ‘selves’, i.e. as organisms who are able to respond to situations in terms of their perception of them – rather than as mere media situated between initiating factors such as motives, norms or structural constraints and – predictable- reactions.

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According to G.H. Mead, one of the progenitors of symbolic interactionism, successful social intercourse requires the ability on the part of individuals to ‘take the attitude’ of others and to direct their actions accordingly.

Social interaction consequently presupposes self-interaction which Mead depicts as the dialectic between them and the ‘me’ within the ‘Self. Here the is the immediate, conscious, acting, willing self engaged in a dialogue with the ‘me’, which represents the repository of experiences and memories in which the attitudes of others towards the self are stored:

“The “I” is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the “me” is the organized set of attitudes of others which himself assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized “me”, and then one reacts towards that as and “I” (Mead).

The irreducibly subjective element in social action and the sense of freedom and initiative which is associated with it, and which defies attempts to force it into the Procrustean bed provided by the stimulus-response scheme, can be accounted for by reference to the T; the response to given situations is uncertain science ‘there is a moral necessity but no mechanical necessity for the act’ (1934).

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In developing the sociological implications of Mead’s conception of the self and of the social act Blumer differentiates within social interaction between non-symbolic interaction, which takes the form of direct responses to gestures or actions, and symbolic interaction which involves the processes of interpreting the meaning of actions and definition or ‘conveying indications to another person as to how he is to act’. In both the latter cases, action takes place ‘on the basis of the meaning yielded by the interpretation’ (Blumer).

Projected on to the level of social analysis, this conception of the social act leads Blumer to consider society itself as symbolic interaction, i.e. as the ensemble of individual and collective actions which are all characterized by the fact that they involve a process of interpretation: ‘social action is lodged in acting individuals who fit their respective lines of action to one another through a process of interpretation; group action is the collective action of such individuals’ (Blumer).

It is clear from this strategy that symbolic interactionism aims at providing a coherent account of micro-and macro-social processes.

As far as the latter are concerned, such phenomena as institutions, large-scale organizations, systems of social stratification are seen as ‘arrangements of people who are inter-linked in their respective actions’.

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Symbolic interactionism therefore avoids the tendency to rectify social processes apparent in structural approaches in which ‘the participants in the given unit of societal organization are logically merely media for the play of the system itself.

Symbolic interactionism then, does not deny the importance of ‘objective’, structural features in social reality; but it denies that they exert any determining influence over actions since the latter issue from interpretations which generally vary between actors and contexts.

Role-theory as developed in structural- functionalist sociology conceives of actions as the resultant of a parallelogram of forces depicted as dispositions – which owe their origin to psychological processes – and sanctioned expectations.

The latter, in the form of role-expectations, serve to channel dispositional^ oriented interaction into socially approved, normative behaviour. In accordance with the requirement of predictability associated with this role-model, socialization consists of the internalization of the role-expectations operative in a given society in relation to given sets of roles.

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Mead’s dialogical view of the development of a ‘self made clear, such a mechanistic account allows little room for ‘moral necessity’ – and it is a concern with the unpredictable, spontaneous, purposive and deliberating moment in action, and a concern for the fate of individuals confronted by overpowering social forces, that led to the approach which strives to give the ‘inside view’ of actions.

The fruits of this labour can be found in such concepts as ‘role-taking’, ‘role-making’, ‘role-distance’, ‘role-performance’, all of which bear witness to the procession character or role-guided action.

The perspective on social interaction entailed by the stress on the situations of role-enactment does not lead to the denial of social behaviour that conforms to normative role-theory; but it would consider such behaviour to be occupying one extreme on a spectrum which might range from role-identification, as in the case of highly explicit, formalized actions, to actions which have self-expression as their aim. To indicate the place assigned to the twin pillars of role-theory, i.e. disposition and role-expectations which themselves eventually merge with need-dispositions), I quote Blumer again: ‘Factors o psychological equipment and social organization are to substitutes for the interpretative process; they are admissible only in terms Of how they are handled in the interpretative process. Symbolic interaction has to be seen and studied in its own right’.

Blumer

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Blumer’s methodological considerations can be summarized by the ‘simple injunction: respect the nature of the empirical world and organize a methodological stance to reflect that respect’ (Blumer). Organize a methodological stance to reflect that respect’ (Blumer) – an exhortation which is hermeneutic in its concern with methods which are appropriate to the object.

Its immediate consequence is a reaffirmation of the principle of subjectivity which is expressed in various ways at numerous occasions, but most clearly perhaps in this quote which states that:

Since actions forged by the actor out of what he perceives, interprets, and judges, one would have to see the operating situation as the actor sees it, perceive objects as the actor perceives them, ascertain their meaning in terms of the meaning they have for the actor, and follow the actor’s line of conduct as the actor organizes it – in short, we have to take the role of the actor and see his world from his standpoint.

His commitment to a faithful account of the object leads Blumer into an attack on some central conceptions within sociological analysis and to the adumbration of a counter-methodology.

Methodological issues in sociology are too frequently resolved with reference to the standard repertoire of statistical and quantitative techniques in social science. Blumer notes here a glaring discrepancy between the sophistication of the research apparatus and the quality of its results.

The limitation of a methodology unreflexively imposed on to social phenomena resides in the primacy given here to method over the ‘obdurate character of the empirical world’ and the likely failure to actually engage with the latter.

In this context, adherence to a standardized scientific protocol may act to blind the researcher as to the inadequacy of his approach and to provide him with illusory self-assurance as to the scientific character of his work.

In Blumer’s view, the deductive approach of macro-sociology is equally fraught with difficulty.lt commences with a pre-conceived scheme concerning the area under study and then proceeds to formulate hypotheses and subjects the latter to empirical tests. His objections are here not as principled as in the case of scientist’s sociology but act, rather, as a reminder that all too often the initial ‘as if underlying the conceptual framework is eventually mistaken to present an actual depiction of reality.

Blumer’s critique of much of contemporary sociology therefore amounts to this: “Theoretical positions are held tenaciously, the concept and beliefs in on’s fields are gratuitously accepted as inherently true, and the canons of scientific procedure are sacrosanct’.

As regards the employment of certain research methods, Blumer has mounted a strong attack on the survey methods favoured by, for example, structural-functionalists and most ably represented by the work of Stouffer (1949) – whose monumental study of the American soldier acted as a catalyst in the upsurge of empirical research since its publication.

This study is famous for exhibiting the limitations of common-sense conceptions, but at the same time has attracted a good deal of criticism. Some observers note a discrepancy between the amount of time and money lavished on the project and the comparative triviality of its findings which can be summarized on half a page.

Clearly, there is no obvious correlation between statistical and sociological significance. The discrepancy between input and insight tends to become more marked in the case of less able researchers investigating even more narrowly defined issues. It would consequently appear that the data gathered are only as telling as the hermeneutically derived framework within which they are interpreted.

The employment of survey methods is in danger of failing to conform to the central tenet of symbolic interactionism: to acquire first-hand knowledge of the object. It often does not bridge the gap which Blumer sees as separating the researcher and his object – a drawback which is accentuated by the fact that not only may the researcher himself have no direct knowledge of the object, but he is likely to be employing helpers, such as interviewers, who may have less interest in the project itself and in the concerns of the people under study.

The results derived from survey methods are therefore likely to be inaccurate due to both a failure to engage with the object and the mechanical acquisition and processing of data.

Blumer makes a further observation concerning the ‘democratic’ assumption underlying methods such as random survey: responses elicited from a randomly chosen population may not carry equal weight.

But even in matters of private opinion the differential distribution of power will make some responses more authoritative – if for no other reason than the one that we may be dealing with an ‘opinion-leader’, or even opinion-maker, whose views may soon become the property of the mass of other respondents.

The existence of manipulation and repression in society has also another important consequence: respondents actually are unable to given an adequate account of themselves and their situation.

Following on his not very incisive critique of conventional research methods, Blumer re-emphasizes his stress on first-hand knowledge and commences to draw some conclusions which serve as guideĀ­lines for a ‘naturalistic examination of the empirical world’.

The latter revolves around two central parts: ‘exploration’ and ‘inspection’.

The use of exploration frees sociologists from the fetters of cannonized research procedures and encourages them to be eclectic. Flexibility in approaching reality is, therefore, the key word and it allows the researcher to remain attuned to an ever-changing object through changing his methods or revising his concepts whenever required to do so.

This procedure, which introduces openness and an element of common-sense into methodology, is supplemented by ‘inspection’, i.e. the careful scrutiny of the object of study. The latter is hereby considered from all possible perspectives with a view to discovering relations between variables and their explanation through the use of theory.

The formulation of theory which provides an adequate account of empirical reality is seen as an inductive process in which generic propositions are abstracted from observed situations. For this purpose, ‘sensitizing concepts’ are given a high priority in contrast to defining ones employed in a deductive system which may act as a strait jacket on scientific investigation. The former can alert the researcher to nuances in his object and can provide valuable heuristic into the contextual determination of meaning.

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