Symbolic Interactionism and Criminology
When criminologists discuss the theoretical paradigms of social pragmatism, social interaction, labeling, and collective action Herbert Blumer surfaces as one of the forefathers of these approaches to understanding deviance. This paper touches on four major areas of discussion regarding the concept of symbolic interaction. First, it reviews the historical context from which Blumer's theorizing emerged. Then it endeavors to create a brief summary of Blumer’s original
theory. Third, the paper discusses how symbolic interactionism has adapted to new forms of knowledge, while assessing the critiques and criticisms that have been launched at the theory since its inception. Finally, the paper reviews the contemporary use of symbolic interactionism in the field of criminal Justice. Ultimately, my goal is to imbue the reader with a clear understanding of the history and controversy surrounding the past and present use of symbolic interactionism in criminology.
Born in 1900, Herbert Blumer was a man who experienced a lifetime of rapid social change. Yet he created a unique perspective by challenging conventional stereotypes both personally and intellectually. Born and raised in St. Louis Missouri, Blumer earned both his undergraduate and master's degrees from the University of Missouri. When he moved on to the University of Chicago to pursue his Ph.D. in sociology Blumer also took a job as a professional football player (Lyman, 1988). During his tenure as a student at the University of Chicago Blumer's education was heavily influenced by the philosophical tradition of pragmatism brought to the school by scholars like John Dewey, George H. Mead, Addison Moore, and Jane Addams.
Pragmatism is a unique philosophical theory that links meaning and truth to social interaction (Kemerling, 2002). The theory asserts that as discoveries are made the truth changes and that the only way to ascertain the truth is through empirical verification of a hypothesis (Ayer, 1968; Thayer, 1968). John Dewey and Charles Cooley were instrumental in forging the basis of Blumer's future theorizing by exposing him to their views on the nature of personality and how it develops as part of the social process. George H. Mead applied the principles of pragmatism to the discipline of sociology and developed the notion of self-consciousness being formed through social interaction (Kemerling, 2002) Under Mead's direction Blumer completed his Ph.D. in 1928 with a dissertation entitled, "Method in social psychology" (Smith, 1977). This work involved a critical investigation of the functional, logical, and technical methods used in
social psychology (Tucker, 1988). Blumer’s dissertation documented his commitment to naturalistic scientific procedure with the understanding that lived experiences were also fertile ground for collecting data. For Blumer investigating our ability to conceptualize and make sense out of our lived experiences was just as important as the use of abstract scientific concepts that govern chemistry and biology (Tucker, 1988). Following the tradition of Ameican Pragmatism, articulated by theorist such as John Dewey and Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer became the last resonant voice of pragmatism in the twenty century (Duster, 1987 p.16). The concepts outlined by pragmatism became the foundation for Blumer’s life work and the theory he espoused.
After completing his degree Blumer spent twenty-seven years working at the University of Chicago. At this time the University of Chicago was unique because it was the bastion of pragmatism, which became one of the most controversial and prominent intellectual movements of the early 1900s (Shook, 2000). During his tenure at the University of Chicago Blumer coined the term "symbolic
interactionism." The concept of symbolic interactionism moved his beliefs beyond ideological definitions and into theory construction. Blumer forged this theoretical perspective by living through and in World War I and II, the great Depression, and the Harlem Renaissance. He developed the core theoretical concepts, ideas, and definitions used by researchers who embraced symbolic interactionism. By teaching students like Erving Goffman and Howard Becker who flocked to the University after World War II, Blumer helped to create what became known as the Chicago school of symbolic interactionism.
There are various incarnations of the Chicago school and despite what we might view as a common theoretical tradition in symbolic interactionism that emanated from the area this was not a monolithic vision (Kemerling, 2002). The Chicago school was just as dedicated to developing sound methods and theory regarding quantitative analysis as it was in community studies, the utilization of participant observation, and symbolic interactionism (Becker, 2004). The theorist we have attributed to the unified development of the Chicago School often times disagreed with and disliked each other (Becker, 2004). So Blumer developed his theories in an environment filled with critiques from his contemporaries.
In 1952 Blumer became the chair of the newly formed
department of sociology at the University of California-Berkley. As the chair of this fledgling department Blumer transported his dedication to pragmatism and his experience with colleagues who held vehemently oppositional theoretical allegiances, into his new position. Thus, during
his tenure at the University of California-Berkley Blumer did not re-create his own image by hiring faculty members who mimicked his theoretical views instead he simply sought more interaction. His goal was to investigate how social interaction created meaning for the individual participants and the group. However, due to the fact that Blumer was so well known, students and faculty members who were interested in the study of symbolic interactionism migrated to the University of California-Berkley. So despite his attempts at becoming a theoretically objective leader, he ended up creating a new strain of intellectual tradition based on symbolic interactionism, instead of pragmatism.
One of Blumer’s direct contributions to criminology was that he connected the concept of collective action to deviance (Rock, 1974). Utilizing Blumer’s theories researchers have investigated collective group interaction as the architect of deviant action. Moreover, Blumer’s theoretical perspective influenced the beliefs of countless criminologist and sociologist whose worldviews and research paradigms he ultimately helped to shape (Rock, 1974). In order to better understand the impact that Herbert Blumer’s theory had on
criminology it is important to review the most important points of his theoretical model.
II. The Original Theory
Symbolic Interactionism, as fashioned by Herbert Blumer, is “a label for a relatively distinctive approach to the study of human group life and human conduct” (Blumer, 1969, p. 1). A close reading of his work reveals that this term rests on three premises. First, “human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them,--Second,--the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction one has with one’s fellows,--and
finally--these meanings are handled in, and modified through an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters.” (Blumer, 1969, p. 2). These premises provide the framework upon which Blumer’s concepts of “root images” rest and these root images make up the symbolic interactionist perspective (1969, p.6). This theory emanates from Blumer’s interest in documenting individual and group action as it relates to society (Blumer, 1937). I will discuss the meaning attributed to the concepts postulated by Blumer, the body of ideas they spawned, and how this meaning has changed since its inception.
Blumer’s three core theoretical principles can be summarized as meaning, interaction, and interpretation. First, Blumer argued that human beings interact with the stimulus in life based on the meanings they have associated with those stimuli.
This first core principle of meaning that states that we are able to imbue in things, ideas, etc is an essential component for understanding what makes us human. Essentially people create the meaning of things in their lives through their interpretation of these meanings.
The second core principle Blumer advanced was that meaning could only be created through interaction. Meaning arises from the process of interaction and it is a social product (Blumer, 1969, p. 5-6). The more interaction a person has with a particular topic, person, event, etc. the more meaning that thing has for the person. Here internal and external communication or language provides humans with opportunities for interaction. Language allows humans to share symbols and navigate towards shared meanings during their interaction.
The third core principle articulated by Blumer is that the only way people can share, use, and update these meanings is by interpreting the events. People are constantly being bombarded with interaction and therefore he created subcategories of interaction to aid in the analysis of events. So the process of interpretation has two steps. In step one the actor identifies, in their own minds, what does and does not have meaning. Then second, this internal or external dialogue serves as a form of interpretation of the event for the individual. Meaning, interaction, and interpretation are building blocks for discussions of symbolic interactionism. Blumer draws upon these core ideas when he discusses his root images of symbolic interaction.
Blumer’s root images explain the nature of group life, social interaction, objects, human actors, human action, and the nature of human action from a symbolic interactionist perspective. These root images are Blumer’s first attempt at creating a viable framework for
symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969, p. 6). The following is a brief review of each of these ideas in the form of excerpts and paraphrases from the author’s original text.
Nature of Human Society or Human Group Life
“Human groups are seen as consisting of human beings who are
engaging in action”(Blumer, 1969, p. 6). Blumer argued that humans
engage in a multitude of actions throughout their various encounters with each other. During these encounters they may act collectively or singularly, but their activities belong to the acting individuals. “Fundamentally human groups exist in action and must be seen in terms of action” (Blumer, 1969, p. 6).
Nature of Social Interaction
“Group life necessarily presupposes interaction between group members; or, put otherwise, a society consist of individuals interacting with one another” Blumer valued the formation of human behavior and the meanings that underlie that behavior. He regretted the fact that social interaction is taken for granted and overlooked as an integral component of sociological schemas. He pointed out that social interaction is, “a process that forms human conduct.”(Blumer, 1969, p. 9). Symbolic interaction is based on the interpretation of actions and any gesture can be attributed to an ongoing action. People interacting are required to decode information as basic as a gesture in a process called role taking.
Nature of Objects
“The position of symbolic interactionism is that the “worlds” that exist for human beings and for their groups are composed of “objects” and
that these objects are the product of symbolic interaction”(Blumer, 1969, p. 10). Blumer distinguishes three classes of objects: 1) physical objects; 2) social objects; and 3) abstract objects. “The meaning of objects for a person arises fundamentally out of the way they are defined to him by others with whom he interacts ”(Blumer, 1969, p. 11).
The Human Being as an Acting Organism
“Symbolic interaction recognizes that human beings must have a makeup that fits the nature of social interaction”(Blumer, 1969, p. 12).
Human beings are actors that interact with others. The self is an object and objects of ourselves are formed through role taking (Blumer, 1969). This ability to recognize ones self is a distinguishing feature of human consciousness.
The Nature of Human Action
“The capacity of the human being to make indications to himself gives a distinctive character to human action”(Blumer, 1969, p. 15). Conduct is formed and guided through the process of indication and interpretation (Blumer, 1969, p. 16).
Interlinkage of Action
“Human group live consist of, and exists in, the fitting lines of action to each other by the members of the group”(Blumer, 1969, p. 16). Humans engage in joint action and this is the essence of human life. (Blumer, 1969).
Blumer points out that symbolic interactionism was conceived of as a perspective or approach in empirical social science (1969). He states that this perspective is “designed to yield verifiable knowledge of human group life and human conduct”(Blumer, 1969, p. 21).
So, symbolic interactionism acts as a framework for a mico-level analysis of society. Blumer was primarily interested in investigating the actual process of social interaction, uncovering how this interaction is given meaning by the actors, and explaining how decoding this meaning can help researchers understand human criminal behavior. Blumer averred that social problems like deviance were, “fundamentally products of a process of collective definition instead of existing independently as a set of objective social arrangements with an intrinsic makeup”(Blumer, 1971, p. 298). Thus, in order to understand deviance we must understand collective social interaction and definition.
However, when Blumer initially began to utilize the term, symbolic interactionism, he realized that it did not possess a clear articulation of its components or a methodological framework. These shortcomings would be fodder for the methodological critique of symbolic interactionism
Over the years, since his articulation of the symbolic interactionist perspective, Blumer has consistently served as a lightening rod for criticisms (Morrione, 1988, p.2). Blumer was extremely close to the perspective and people perceived symbolic interactionism and Blumer as one in the same (Fine 1993). This connection resulted in a form of symbolic interactionism that has become known as the “Blumerian” approach. For practitioners of symbolic interactionism, the Blumerian approach represents a traditional and classical articulation of the perspective. Mainstream sociologist may have directed more attention to critiquing Blumer’s theory because he seemed to spend a large portion of his intellectual time criticizing dominant methods and theories in sociology. The bottom line is that although symbolic interactionism is a powerfully
insightful theory, it possesses several inadequacies that provide a strong foundation for critique.
Overall, symbolic interactionism was considered a marginal oppositional perspective that rejected the dominant positivistic and functionalist theories in sociology and criminology (Fine, 1993). One critic even declared that its influence had ceased to exist (Mullins, 1973). However, one of the most specific criticisms of the perspective has been on methodological grounds. Critics allege that the perspective is attractive and fluid, but that it lacked methodological development and therefore was not useful in modern scientific contexts (Wellman, 1988). Critics have also alleged that the perspective is apolitical, unscientific, hostile to macro-sociology, astructural, and limited in content and style (Fine, 1993; Maines, 1988). While, Joan Huber, one of the more vociferous critics of symbolic interactionism, argues that the perspective encourages researcher bias. She claims that Blumer’s 1969 attempt at offering a
methodological basis for the perspective falls short because it fails to explain how scientists are to “approach reality with blank minds”
(1973, 279). She queries how one might be objective and subjective simultaneously. Subsequently, she alleges that the researchers’ bias will be embedded in any theory that emanates from symbolic interactionism.
George Reitzer provides the most concise analysis of the critiques lodged against symbolic interactionism in his book, Modern Sociological Theory. Reitzer notes four main charges against symbolic interactionism. First, the perspective is accused of being non-scientific and this has resulted in the atrophied development of empirical research methods. Subsequently, symbolic interactionism is an untested and subjective theory. Second, symbolic interactionism is seen as being vague and confusing. The obvious lack of variables that can be operationalized creates an unstable field that is best addressed by qualitative research methods. Fundamental, to this critique is the positivist belief that qualitative research methods are not scientific. Third and fourth, because symbolic interactionism is a reaction to functionalism it has been accused of ignoring structure in society and being unable to address maco-level societal analysis. Essentially, the perspective is accused of being unable to see the forest because it focuses on the trees. Additionally, it is accused of being unable to see those trees clearly because it is not focusing on the meaning, emotions, and unconscious articulations of its actors.
There seems to be a cacophony of theorist willing to criticize symbolic interactionism. Therefore, it only makes sense that the perspective would use these critiques as social interaction to reformulate itself and this is exactly what has happened in the past twenty years. Symbolic Interactionism is a phoenix that has been reborn in a variety ways.
One example of the perspective’s reaction to criticism is evidenced by the fact that Nicholas Mullins’ declaration that the
perspective was dead resulted in the founding of the society for the study of symbolic interactionism (Fine, 1993). Furthermore, the criticism created what is now known as a Post-Blumerian age that blends symbolic interactionism with theories and methods from Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, semiotics, postmodernism, and fiction. This revision rejects the narrow micro view and addresses structural issues as they relate to macro views. Modern symbolic interactionism has several active empirical lines that include positivist research methods and theories. One of these empirical lines, social constructionism, has been used as a part of labeling theory in the field of criminology. There have even been attempts to link symbolic interaction to chaos theory (Young, 1991), social ecology (Frese & Roebuck, 1980), the medicalization of deviance (Rossol, 2001), and victimization (Dunn, 2001). The perspective has developed a mainstream, multi focal outlook that is no longer perceived of as an oppositional movement. IV. Contributions
It is clear for my review of theory in sociological criminology that Herbert Blumer's work has had considerable impact on the discipline (Shibutani, 1988). Unfortunately, he has not received credit for his vast conceptual contributions. Most often writers have chosen to refer to George Mead's work as their theoretical progenitor. This conclusion is supported by fact that a search of the social science citation index on Herbert Blumer's name produces no results. Moreover, at one point critics of symbolic interactionism attempted to declare that the perspective had died. However, Blumer's contributions become more evident when we investigate the impact of his perspective instead of focusing merely on his name.
Understanding Herbert Blumer's contributions requires us to focus on his perspective and how that perspective has become entrenched in modern sociological criminology. For example, Blumer's "insistence on the direct observation of people in their indigenous settings" (Shibutanim 1988, p. 23) has had profound methodological
implications for the study of deviance (Denzin, 1974). It is also important to note that Blumer's work on symbolic interactionism is based on George H. Mead's approach to social psychology. However, through George Mead, Herbert Blumer became known as the
theoretical forefather of research on personal identity, the study of self-concepts, collective behavior, crowd behavior, social interaction, and the theory that "social control is at the bottom of self-control" (Shibutau, 1988, 25). Still though Blumer's most significant contribution can be found in his advocacy for "direct observation of people in their natural settings--be they gang members, corporate executives, soldiers, or lesbians” (Shibutai, 1988, p.28) and his
influence on the development of theories regarding labeling and the social construction of deviance.
Focusing on Blumer's theoretical and conceptual contributions reveals a plethora of influence in the area of sociological criminology. A review of the Criminal Justice abstracts reveals 38 results when the words “symbolic interactionism” are used in a keyword search. A
similar query run in the Criminal Justice periodicals produces 38 articles. A review of the American Society of Criminology 2003 conference paper abstracts, reveals five papers that rely on symbolic interactionism as a theoretical foundation. So despite numerous critics’ desires for the death of symbolic interactionism it seems as if the perspective has undergone a form of transmogrification. Instead of being a single fixed perspective is has made itself available to contemporary writers in a variety of forms. This versatility has made symbolic interactionism the theoretical foundation for a variety of research perspectives in criminology.
The versatility of symbolic interactionism can be seen by simply reviewing some of the ways in which researchers have incorporated his perspective into their work. For example in a paper presented at the 2003 American Society of Criminology conference William Pizio, blended situational theory with elements of symbolic interactionism to explore police use of non-lethal force. At the same conference Alex Heckert used the perspective to argue that deviant self identities are influenced by social interaction within primary groups. Whereas, Melissa Hensarling used symbolic interactionism to study the self-concept of criminology students vis-à-vis the perceptions of them held by non-criminology students (2002) and Anita Kalunta attempted to explain the overrepresentation of black people in custody as it relates to the symbolic interactionism of the court process itself (1999). Some authors present symbolic interactionism as a valuable approach to a general developmental perspective on crime and delinquency
(Thornberry, 1997). While others researchers have used the perspective to investigate educational settings (Hensarlling, 2002), the relationship between law violation and depression (Coster, 2001), women's experiences with crack (Murphy, 1992) and violence against women (DeCoster, 2001; Ferraro, 2003). Finally, one of symbolic interactionism's largest contributions can be found by interrogating its relationship to labeling theory in criminology. One author explains that labeling theory "is a representative within criminology of a major source of social thought-- symbolic interactionism" (Wellford, 1993). Symbolic Interactionism has outgrown the label that Blumer originally assigned it and now it is perceived of as the origin for a form of social thought. Therefore, when attempting to assess the contributions that Herbert Blumer has made to criminology we must focus on his intellectual and conceptual contributions and not simply limit ourselves to his writings or the number of people who have cited his work.
Regardless of where one stands on their perception of symbolic interactionism its importance to criminology and sociology cannot be denied. This line of social thought has permeated our perception of methodology and methods in the social sciences. Additionally, it has extended our understanding of deviance by forcing us to focus on the experiences of the deviant. Symbolic interactionism has gone through multiple incarnations since Herbert Blumer's original articulation of the perspective in 1939, but each new enunciation has served as a form of refinement making the perspective stronger and more versatile each time.
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