Herbert Blumer: Symbolic Interactionism

[Readings] (12.28.08, 11:39 pm)

Blumer was a strong follower of George Herbert Mead, clarifying, expanding, and extending Mead’s sociological psychology and philosophy into empirical work. This text works well as a follow up to Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society, because it makes clear many of Mead’s points and applies them practically to the study of interaction. This text clarifies the ideas into an explicit position that is used by symbolic interaction. This view of interaction works well with Erving Goffman’s approach to performance. It is my goal in this to build a bridge between symbolic interaction and computational representation of social characters.

The Methodological Position of Symbolic Interactionism

There is a very clear review of the principles of symbolic interaction. These three premises form the foundation and basis for all of this work. The principles are as follows: (p. 2)

  1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.
  2. The meaning of such things is derived from social interaction.
  3. These meanings are handled in, and modified through, and interpretive process used by the person dealing with the things encountered.

The first premise is straightforward and reasonable enough, but is generally not accounted for in other theories of social science and psychology. The meaning of the things involved is of central importance beyond the things themselves. To ignore that meaning (and the variability of the meaning to different individuals) undermines the study of behavior of subjects who might be interacting with the things. The meaning itself does not come from the object itself, but arises from interaction between people. The social origination of meaning for objects reverberates with Tomassello’s understanding of joint attention. It also opposes the idea of natural affordances that come from Gibson and Norman.

Symbolic interaction views action as the center of human society. Activity oriented approaches to modeling human behavior is totally consistent with the views here: “Culture as a conception, whether defined as custom, tradition, norm, value, rules, or such like, is clearly derived from what people do. Similarly, social structure in any of its aspects, as represented by such terms as social position, status, role, authority, and prestige, refers to relationships derived from how people act toward each other.” (p. 6-7)

Social interaction forms conduct. One must fit one’s activity into the space of others’ actions. There are two levels of interaction from derived from Mead: gestures and symbols. The difference is that gestures are non interpreted and symbols are interpreted. There is also a triadic nature of meaning that also derives from Mead. A gesture has three parts: “It signifies what the person to whom it is directed is to do; it signifies what the person making the gesture plans to do; and it signifies the joint action that is to rise by the articulation of the acts of both.” (p. 9) This triad and the unit of the gesture are an interesting and potentially useful target for simulation of social characters. Gestures are not interpreted, but they are dynamic, direct, and fluid.

Objects are posed generally, but the concept is well defined. Blumer explains Mead’s conception of objects: An object is anything that can be indicated or referred to. There are physical objects, such as trees, chairs, and other physical entities. There are social objects, such as a student, a mother, a friend. Finally, there are abstract objects, such as moral principles and ideas of justice or compassion. Objects involve commonality, perspective, and meaning. Objects take on different meanings according to the perspectives of the individual considering the object, where that perspective is determined by identity, role, and so on. Another interesting note on this is that this sense of objects strongly relates to the method of object interaction found in The Sims. Common objects are defined culturally, they have the same meaning to a class of people.

The possession of a self is the ability to treat oneself as an object. This works by taking the positions of others. The positions one can simulate correspond to stages of development: individuals (play stage), groups (game stage), and the community (generalized other). Self objects can be defined by roles. Role taking involves perceiving oneself as one might be seen by others. Given an object and activity oriented model for social behavior, this formulation gives a strong endorsement for the use of roles (and eventually performance) as integral to social interaction.

A bold chain of reasoning claims that human action comes from self-indications, rather than motives, needs, conditions, stimuli, etcetera. This is more in line with an identity oriented understanding of individuals. Observation gives way to interpretation, which is filtered through the roles and the frame of the self, and this interpretation creates self-indications. Action is made on the basis of these indications, not the stimulus itself. This approach rejects both the raw behaviorist position, and also the position of rational planning. Planning and thought may be considered, but they are formulated in the sense of self-interaction. Activity is a sequence of actions and situations, a formulation which is remarkably prescient and reverberates with Agre and Lave.

Blumer also challenges the dominant view which relies on the inherent stability of social structures. Participants build actions through designation and interpretation. Institutions are diverse sets of members who act according to some set of meanings. The institution itself is therefore an emergent phenomenon, and not inherently stable.

Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead

The self is a process, not a structure of internalized norms and values. On the act: the act is constructed by the self, based on self-interaction and indications. It is not constructed by responding directly to observations, which is the dominant view (Watsonian behaviorism), and is flawed because neglects the self.

Existing views of interaction pose it as about conflict, common sentiments, and so on. Mead’s symbolic interaction views that interaction is the interpretation and defining of one another’s acts. This position can accommodate a wide range of human relationships. Joint action interprets actions as having a common  shared meaning. A Joint act is a social act. It comes together through participants interpreting, defining, and fitting their actions. This idea is extremely relevant to the view of roles and performance. Social actions must be fit into the space of other actions and the current situation.

Society as Symbolic Interaction

Symbolic interaction poses that interpretation occurs between stimulus and response. Interpretation forms symbols. This still seems a lot simpler and realistic than the mode of communication posed by BDI. Arguably, the BDI approach considers the selves of its participants, and it involves interpretation, a great deal of it, but that interpretation is divorced from the dynamic traits of participation and interaction. “Fundamentally, group action takes the form of a fitting together of individual lines of action. Each individual aligns his action to the action of others by ascertaining what they are doing or what they intent to do–that is, by getting the meaning of their acts. For Mead, this is done by the individual “taking the role” of others–either the role of a specific person or the role of a group (Mead’s “generalized other”).” (p. 82) Blumer also explicitly criticizes views of society as “social systems” which are composed by the collected actions of individuals trying to meet their life situations, which seems to aim to dissuade against the work of Axtell.

It is extremely important that society or culture be understood as made of individuals with selves, that is, they engage in active interpretation. Failure can lead to either viewing interaction as composed of raw stimulus and response, or can occur where the observer injects his own meaning.

Reading Info:
Author/EditorBlumer, Herbert
TitleSymbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method
Tagssociology, specials
LookupGoogle Scholar, Google Books, Amazon

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