Symbolic Interactionism as defined by Herbert Blumer

1996. The Society for More Creative Speech

Herbert Blumer, originator of the term "symbolic interactionism," had a profound effect on social theory and methodology. A respected critic and devotee of George Herbert Mead, Blumer expounded with fervour on the importance of meaning to the individual as an acting entity, the primacy of direct empirical observation as a methodology, and the centrality of the "definition of the situation" introduced by W. I. Thomas. Blumer’s thought was also heavily influenced by John Dewey, the noted Pragmatist. This discussion of Blumer’s thought will be preceded by a brief overview of both Dewey’s and Mead’s main ideas, from which Blumer’s were largely drawn. The overview of Blumer’s contributions will touch on the premises underlying Symbolic Interactionism, follow with an exploration of what Blumer called the "root images" of Symbolic Interactionism, and conclude with a few remarks about Blumer’s assertions regarding methodology as it relates to empirical science.
Philosophy is the bedrock upon which any discipline is built. Blumer’s thought is shot through with the ideas of John Dewey. Dewey rejected the philosophical quest for certainty and what he called the "spectator theory" of knowledge -- that being the idea that thinking refers to fixed things in nature (i.e., the notion that for each idea there is a corresponding thing in reality). Further, Dewey insisted that human beings are best understood in relation to their environment and supported the practical turn of philosophy. Of chief importance in understanding his influence on Herbert Blumer is Dewey’s stress on the dynamic interaction between Man -- as a biological organism - and the natural world. For Dewey, the goal of thought was an adjustment between Man and his environment.
George Herbert Mead called his approach "social behaviourism." Drawing on Dewey and Charles Cooley, Mead stressed "the conscious mind and the self-awareness and self-regulation of social actors" (i.e., the individual who performs an action). Mead saw the Self as emerging from the social interaction of humans in which the individual takes on the role of the "other" and internalizes the attitudes he perceives in both real and imagined others. The interaction of an individual’s self-conception ("I") and the generalized, perceived view that others have of the individual ("Me") is central to Mead’s sociological viewpoint. Mead asserted that by continually "reflecting on ourselves as others see us we become competent in the production and display of social symbols." Mead also believed that, while human nature is part of evolution and nature, the "importance of language and symbolic communication as an aspect of this evolution is such as to free human action from natural determinism."
Blumer described his discipline as follows:
symbolic interactionism is a down-to-earth approach to the scientific study of human group life and human conduct. Its empirical world is the natural world of such group life and conduct. It lodges its problems in this natural world, conducts its studies in it, and derives its interpretations from such naturalistic studies.
Symbolic Interactionism rests on three primary premises. First, that human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings those things have for them, second that such meanings arise out of the interaction of the individual with others, and third, that an interpretive process is used by the person in each instance in which he must deal with things in his environment.
It was Blumer’s perception that the first premise was largely ignored, or at least down-played, by his contemporaries. If mentioned at all, he asserted, meaning is relegated to the status of a causative factor or is treated as a "mere transmission link that can be ignored in favour of the initiating factors" by both sociologists and psychologists. Symbolic Interactionism, however, holds the view that the central role in human behaviour belongs to these very meanings which other viewpoints would dismiss as incidental.
As to the second premise, Blumer identified two traditional methods for accounting for the derivation of meaning and highlights how they differ from the Interactionist approach. First, meaning is taken to be innate to the object considered (i.e., it inheres in the objective characteristics of the object). In this view, meaning is given and no process is involved in forming an understanding of it, one need only recognize what is already there. Second, meaning is taken to be the cumulative "psychical accretion" of perceptions carried by the perceiver for whom the object has meaning. "This psychical accretion is treated as being an expression of constituent elements of the person’s psyche, mind, or psychological organization." The constituents of the individual’s psychological makeup that go to form meaning, then, are all of the sensory and attitudinal data that the person brings to the instance of meaning formation with her.
In marked contradistinction to these viewpoints, Social Interactionism holds that meaning arises out of the "process of interaction between people. The meaning of a thing for a person grows out of the ways in which other persons act toward the person with regard to the thing," which is to say that the actions of others are instrumental in the formation of meaning for any given individual and in regard to any specific object.
The third premise further distinguishes Symbolic Interactionism from other schools of thought, insofar as it is the actual process of interpretation that is primary to Blumer’s explication of the formation of meaning. The other points of view, he avers, view the uses of meaning as being simply the calling upon and application to specific situations of previously established meanings. Blumer insisted that the interpretive process and the context in which it is done are a vital element in the person’s use of meaning and formation thereof.
This process has two distinct steps. First, the actor indicates to himself the things toward which he is acting; he has to point out to himself the things that have meaning. The making of such indications is an internalized social process in that the actor is interacting with himself. This interaction with himself is something other than an interplay of psychological elements; it is an instance of the person engaging in a process of communicating with himself. Second, by virtue of this process of communicating with himself, interpretation becomes a matter of handling meanings. The actor selects, checks, suspends, regroups, and transforms meanings in the light of the situation in which he is placed and the direction of his action.
This being the case, interpretation is vastly more important than a simple application of previously integrated meanings, but is, rather, an active process of formulation, reconsideration, and revision. "Like other Pragmatists, Blumer has insisted that the meanings of objects are primarily a property of behaviour and depend only secondarily upon the intrinsic character of the objects themselves. Meanings, furthermore, are constructed and re-affirmed in social interaction; they are shaped largely by the actual and anticipated responses of others." Meanings, for Blumer, are a dynamic part of any action through this self-interactive process.
Resting upon the three premises are a large body of basic ideas, what Blumer thought of as "root images.... These root images refer to and depict the nature of the following matters: human groups or societies, social interaction, objects, the human being as an actor, human action, and the interconnection of the lines of action." Taken in sum, these "images" constitute the foundation of the Social Interactionist view of human conduct and human society and form the skeleton around which Interactionist theory and interpretation is built. What follows is a brief description of each of these ideas, as explicated by Blumer himself.
Human Groups Or Societies are defined as being composed of human beings engaged in all the varied actions which they perform as they move through life and encounter one another and the massive array of situations imposed on them. Action may be taken by an individual, collectively, on behalf of others, or as the representative for an individual or group of others. However, action remains the property of the individual and is carried out in light of the current situational context in which the individual carries out the action.
This characterization of human society existing in action is the starting point from which social interactionism views human conduct. "A cardinal principle of symbolic interactionism is that any empirically oriented scheme of human society, however derived, must respect the fact that in the first and last instances human society consists of people engaging in action. To be empirically valid the scheme must be consistent with the nature of the social action of human beings."
The term Social Interaction presupposes that group life consists of interaction between members of a group (i.e., society consists in the interaction of individual human beings). While other schools of sociological thought treat the actual interaction of individuals as a medium or conduit along which other causative factors are channeled to produce behaviour, it is in the interactions themselves, seen as they are as a process, that Blumer places primary importance in the formation of human behaviour and, as described above, the formation of the meanings that underlie behaviour. The actions of others must be constantly considered in the decision-making process of the individual; thus it is the interaction -- real or imagined -- with those others that is the first and most important determinant of the behaviour of the individual.
Objects retain empirical reality outside of the process of social interaction but the significance of their relationship to human conduct is nonetheless a byproduct of interaction with others. Blumer devotes considerable energy to decrying ‘pure idealism’ and insists that, while reality is indeed comprised of the experiences of human beings, nevertheless, reality cannot be sought exclusively within the thoughts and images of human beings. The "empirical world can ‘talk back’ to our pictures of it or assertions about it -- talk back in the sense of challenging and resisting, or not bending to, our images or conceptions of it. This resistance gives the empirical world an obdurate character that is the mark of reality."
That said, Blumer distinguishes three classes of objects: 1) physical objects; 2) social objects; and 3) abstract objects. The environment in which a person conducts her life can consist only of the objects that have acquired meaning for her. The nature of this environment, on the other hand, is comprised of the content of those meanings. So, two persons living in largely similar physical environs may have subjectively different ‘actual’ environments.
Since a human being is an acting organism, therefore persons must be constituted such that they can interact with others, both on the non-symbolic level and in the sense of making indications as to their intended actions and interpreting the indications they perceive others as making. Blumer emphasizes the assertion, first made by G.H. Mead, that to do this the individual must possess a Self -- a recognizable object of one’s own actions. Just as is the case with other objects, it must be noted, "the ‘self-object’ emerges from the process of social interaction in which other people are defining a person to himself." Further, the possession of a Self enables the person to perform the all-important interaction with himself that Mead identified as the crux of the formation of social skills and which Blumer calls making indications to oneself -- in fact, Blumer says, this process of making indications to the Self is the distinguishing characteristic of consciousness.
The nature of human action follows from the ability to make indications to the Self. This facility allows the human being to engage the world as one who interprets it and forms decisions upon which to act from that interpretation rather than simply responding automatically to the environment bases on instinctually-given rules inherent in the organism’s makeup. "He has to cope with the situations in which he is called on to act, ascertaining the meaning of the actions of others and mapping out his own line of action in the light of this interpretation." The ‘objects’ confronted which must be taken into account, it should be noted, include not only physical objects, but the social and abstract objects that comprise the rest of the individual’s perceived reality, as well.
The interlinkages of human actions are the building blocks of human group life. It is the process of corresponding these lines of individual action to those of others that best characterizes human society. The ability to do this allows for ‘joint actions’ which are consciously entered into and which can then be referred to without the necessity of segregating out the various individual actions that make them up or identifying the individuals who perform them. Thus, it is actually the articulation of lines of action to the Self, an ability that distinguished human action from that of other species, which gives rise to the collective actions that serve to distinguish human society.
Blumer points out that
in dealing with collectivities and with joint action one can easily be trapped in an erroneous position by failing to recognize that the joint action of the collectivity is an interlinkage of the separate acts of the participants. This failure leads one to overlook the fact that a joint action always undergoes a process of formation; even though it may well be a well-established and repetitive form of social action, each instance has to be formed anew.
This distinction allows for Social Interaction, which concerns itself primarily with micro-level actions of individuals and small groups, to account for the macro-level phenomena which arise out of the actions of those individuals by re-asserting that all action begins in the interpretive process of the individual.
"Empirical science," Blumer avers, "is an enterprise that seeks to develop images and conceptions that can successfully handle and accommodate the resistance offered by the empirical world under study." Blumer decries the notion that the empirical world has an im-mutable character the discovery of which is the purpose of empirical study. Rather, he asserts that each new scientific discovery reveals a new vision of reality which demands that previously held conceptions be completely revised.
In Blumer’s judgment the proper picture of empirical science... is that of the collective quest for answers to questions directed to the resistant character of the given empirical world under study. One has to respect the obdurate character of that empirical world -- this is indeed the cardinal principle of empirical science. Empirical science pursues its quest by devising images of the empirical world under study and testing these images through exacting scrutiny of the empirical world.
So, methodology, for Blumer, encompasses the entire scientific endeavour to understand the empirical world and not just subjectively important aspects thereof. Further, each and every aspect of that endeavour must conform to "obdurate" reality, which implies that methods are subject to testing by reality and subsistent upon it. Also, it is the empirical world that maintains final arbitrary authority in regard to the veracity of any account of it, not any model upon which a scientific inquiry is based.
Blumer recounts these fundamental principles of the scientific method to support his assertion that only Social Interaction meets the test of truly scientific procedure, as compared to other schools of sociological thought which rely on more indirect methods of observation. That the adherents of those schools believe that they are not only observing the empirical world and in what they believe to be the only proper fashion (i.e., in conformity with previously established scientific procedure), is not lost on Blumer. He avers, however, that only social interaction’s methodology yields a true, direct observation.
Blumer defines the social world as "the actual group life of human beings" and asserts that very few research scientists will have much direct, firsthand knowledge of the social worlds they choose to study and that, therefore, any conception the researcher forms of that world prior to conducting a study of it will necessarily be limited and that stereotypical images will automatically enter into any model subsequently used as the basis of that study. This being the case, only the penetrating and familiarity-breeding methods of deep personal immersion in the world under study can yield data which is not biased by the (inherently faulty) model used to interpret it. Thus, Blumer stresses the vital importance of involved exploratory study of the micro-level phenomena that comprise any social world to be studied.
Symbolic interactionism recognizes that the genuine mark of an empirical science is to respect the nature of its empirical world -- to fit its problems, its guiding procedures of inquiry, its techniques of study, its concepts, and its theories to that world. It believes that this determination of problems, concepts, research techniques, and theoretical schemes should be done by direct examination of the actual empirical social world rather than by working with a simulation of that world derived from a few scattered observations of it, or with a picture of that world fashioned in advance to meet the dictates of some scheme of ‘scientific’ procedure, or with a picture of the world built up from partial or untested accounts of that world.
This last subject best displays one of the principal characteristics of Blumer’s writing: its polemicism. There is an overarching tendency in Blumer’s accounts of his theories to attack his detractors in the midst of explaining his own point of view. No attention is given in his discussion of the faults of other methods of inquiry to the danger that direct, interpersonal observation may also skew the data collected by the presence of the researcher, for instance, but each time he seeks to describe an aspect of Social Interactionism, he includes an assertion as to why that viewpoint is superior to one not in agreement with it. His cautions as to the dangers of forming theoretical models from incomplete data, deserve careful consideration and serve to point to one of the chief difficulties of engaging in social research.

Social Interactionism, then, comprises a micro-level framework for studying social phenomenon not afforded by other majour schools of sociological thought. Blumer places his principal emphasis on the process of interaction in the formation of meanings to the individual. He proceeds to place those meanings in the central role in explaining and accounting for human behaviour. Resting on this theoretical foundation are several "root images" of the nature of human social action and their relationship to the process of meaning formation. Out of these "images" derives a natural and useful research methodology -- which, it must be noted, is not entirely free of potential to distort the data collected by means of it -- that involves personal immersion into the world the researcher wishes to study in order to assure that the most direct possible observation of that world can be made.