Studies in Symbolic Interaction: Volume 32

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Table of contents

(20 chapters)

The papers in this section come from an idea that popped up in a bar after a day of meetings at the annual Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction (SSSI) meetings a couple years ago. The idea was to create an annual session at the SSSI meetings where we could bring together thoughtful people who knew the history of symbolic interactionism (SI) to hash out where they thought SI was coming from, the advantages of where it is, and where they would like it to go. The session would be called “Investigating Interactions” and would, in alternating years, focus on theory and methods. One of the prime reasons I wanted to institute this session was that younger generations of interactionists could learn a bit about our collective history. We interactionists do love good debates from time to time and I figured that an annual opportunity to discuss our paradigm would give us all a fairly neutral setting for generating productive discussions among people who otherwise might not be inclined to talk shop across the political and/or theoretical divides – a common condition in academic circles.

Both the history and the historiography of SI show that multiple “different definitions and boundaries” have been applied to the subject of study (Atkinson & Housley, 2003, p. vii). Yet, despite the commonly agreed-upon understanding of SI's heterogeneity, in practice the institutional and disciplinary core of SI unmistakeably resides in its American heartland. For instance, Reynolds and Herman-Kinney (2003a, 2003b, p. ix) preface their fine Handbook of Symbolic Interactionism by aiming at making it “a fine addition to the sociological literature” (my emphasis). Maines (2001, 2003) himself – the most visible critic of the dissolution of SI – focuses on the growing invisibility of interactionism across American sociological theory and research while Fine (1993) and Sandstrom and Fine (2003, p. 1041) find that the “glorious triumph” of SI is due to its successes in “social psychology, medical sociology, deviance, social problems, collective behavior, cultural studies, media studies, the sociology of emotions, the sociology of art, environmental sociology, race relations, social organization, social movements, and political sociology” – hardly an interdisciplinary outlook.

Stressing (a) the authenticity of human-lived experience, (b) activity as an intersubjectively generated and informed essence, and (c) process-oriented concepts that are rooted in the comparative analysis of ethnographically examined instances, this paper not only addresses the fundamental (essential) contributions of symbolic interactionism to the study of human knowing and acting but also considers the implications of these emphases for the future of sociology as a more genuine pluralist, humanist, and enduring social science.

Symbolic interaction may not have much of a future. Rome is burning; the Titanic is sinking; and still the band plays on. With some notable exceptions, we symbolic interactionists, as a group, appear to be sitting around, paralyzed, watching events unfold from the dizzying heights of our ivory tower, grumbling under our collective breath about how bad things are, but not yet doing enough, much like the rest of the world.You take the blue pill; the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes. (Morpheus from The Matrix)

I will briefly suggest why Blumer's injunctions are crucial, and lay out several of their implications. To me, gaining intimate familiarity means gaining an in-depth knowledge of the research participants, their setting or settings, and their situations and actions. This notion of intimate familiarity has been espoused in Analyzing Social Settings from its earliest edition by John Lofland (1971) to the recent edition in which David Snow and Leon Anderson (2005) were centrally involved. Throughout the discipline of sociology, acceptance of a goal of establishing intimate familiarity has weakened.

This special section of Studies in Symbolic Interaction offers papers originally presented at the Second Anselm Strauss Colloquium, “Forty Years of Grounded Theory,” held at UC San Francisco on October 5, 2007.1 The colloquium celebrated several events: the 40th anniversary of The Discovery of Grounded Theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967), the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Doctoral Program in Sociology at UCSF (1968), the centennial of the UCSF School of Nursing (2007), and the life and work of Anselm Strauss.2

First, a little background to contextualize my research: Today, through expanding media coverage, most people are at least minimally aware of the plight of children and adolescents in foster care. Here are some of the major trends. Currently, over a half a million children in the United States live in foster care, with 124,000 of them living in my home state of California (Adoption & Foster Care Analysis & Reporting System (AFCARS), 2007). They are placed in foster care for a variety of reasons – mainly child abuse, neglect, and parental substance abuse (American Academy of Child Adolescent Psychiatry, 2005; Simms, Dubowitz, & Szilagyi, 2000). Nearly half these children are adolescents (AFCARS, 2007); most have been in care for over 2 years, with many spending the duration of childhood in foster care (AFCARS, 2007). And most experience multiple placement transitions which results in numerous caregivers, school changes, and loss of a variety of relationships (Harden, 2004; US General Accounting Office, 1999). Further, there is an overrepresentation of minority children in foster care, especially African Americans (Chibnall et al., 2003).

The purpose of this paper is to describe accomplishments and conundrums in a midcareer program of research with roots in the Strauss and Corbin seminars at UCSF in the early 1990s. My use of grounded theory methods in a succession of studies, all focused on family caregiving during cancer treatment, has generated theory on family caregiving skill, a phenomenon that was underconceptualized in the early 1990s. However, my successive grounded theory studies have raised a number of methodological conundrums pertaining to researcher perspective. I describe two here. First, how can a researcher develop grounded theory through successive studies without becoming so analytically enmeshed with previous study results that what gets noticed in new data is limited? Second, how strong a presence can a researcher's clinical perspective have in an analysis without violating the tenets of grounded theory? I argue that recent scholarship in grounded theory provides new ways of thinking about these conundrums.

It is almost unbelievable that it is already 11 years ago that our most beloved friend and teacher Anselm Strauss died. In 1999 we had a conference in Magdeburg, Germany, where we tried to commemorate his very personal and creative way of doing sociological research and of teaching sociology that established an almost miraculous bridge to the minds of German and other European social scientists even though Anselm Strauss was very American. He was American in the best sense of using and encouraging creative freedom of expression, of showing witty nonconventionality, of relating in an egalitarian way to his interaction partners, of being empathically cooperative and practical in his thinking and in his personal relationships with his European students and colleagues. Today, instead, I would like to talk a little bit about his longer lasting impact on German-speaking social sciences and on other European social sciences as far as I have insight into them.

Anselm is perhaps best known for creating the grounded theory method with Barney G. Glaser. The Discovery of Grounded Theory was a cutting-edge book that fueled the qualitative revolution. I agree – strongly – with Norm Denzin and Yvonna Lincoln (1994, p. ix) that a qualitative revolution has taken place in the United States. The Discovery book arrived on the sociological scene at just the right time. Quantitative research had become systematic and quantitative researchers saw their work as “scientific.” The worship of a narrow conception of science abounded. By the time Anselm studied at Chicago, qualitative scholars had moved from life histories to case studies and established a rich ethnographic tradition that shaped Chicago School sociology in the 1940s. Yet, by the time Barney and Anselm wrote The Discovery of Grounded Theory in 1967, quantification was becoming entrenched as “the” sociological method. The ethnographic tradition was losing ground.

Sociology and nursing have served each other's purposes for many decades in the United States. Not only has the profession of nursing been a subject for sociological study, but since the 1930s if not before, sociology has been considered an important part of educational preparation for nursing practice in the United States. Sociology textbooks for nurses in hospital training programs were published from the 1930s to the 1970s (Bogardus & Brethorst, 1945; Smith, 1976). Even the Catholic Church found it fitting to provide nursing students with a grasp of social issues; a text authored by nuns, one a nurse and the other a sociologist, received the imprimatur of the local bishop (Preher & Calvey, 1950).

During Strauss's formative years as a sociologist, neither sex nor gender, nor for that matter race/ethnicity, was central to the broader American sociological agenda. Social class and mobility were, and Strauss wrote on these issues, both in terms of their social psychological dimensions vis-à-vis transformations of identity (1959) and their situatedness (1971b/2006). Immigration issues were also vivid for American sociology (especially for Chicago School sociologists) and for Strauss, a child of German Jews. He took up these concerns most directly in his urban sociology (Strauss, 1961, 1991, pp. 287–312), and in his work on large-scale symbolization (1971a, 1971b/2006, 1993, pp. 162–167).

Through a critical viewing of All in the Family and Curb Your Enthusiasm, significant shifts in popular conceptions of racialized others can be identified. All in the Family, represented by the character Archie Bunker, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, represented by Larry David, are deconstructed and contrasted to represent distinct eras in the portrayal of race relationships. All in the Family takes a sanctimonious and judgmental stance toward prejudice that embodies a simplistic conception of race humanized through the defects of Archie Bunker. Curb Your Enthusiasm, in contrast, offers a complex conception of racialized relationships, humanized by the character of Larry David. Comparisons of the two portrayals suggest that (1) conceptions of race have shifted from fixed, definitional and “individualized” contents toward situational, fluid, and ironic ones, (2) this shift parallels transformations in society, and (3) sarcastic and framed narratives of the consequences of interracial relationships and race prejudice have displaced optimistic and challenging portrayals. For their respective eras, each program reflects conceptions of race in popular consciousness.

This article summarizes and makes the case for the continued relevancy of the scholarly works of the late sociologist Norma Williams. Informed by the multicultural tradition in which Norma Williams and the author both inhabit, and drawing upon their autobiographical experiences as data, the article makes an argument for the relevancy, indeed desirability of multiculturalism (especially as an alternative to assimilation) for clarifying the multiple ways in which diversity and diverse claims promote basic human rights. Drawing extensively from the scholarly works of Herbert Blumer, we highlight how some of the assumptions upon which assimilationist arguments are constructed do not hold up empirically.

SI offers a distinctive theoretical language for practice: a vocabulary and a grammar for identifying the personal troubles and joys of group members and for locating these experiences in shared symbol systems and in associated social arrangements (Weigert, 1995). SI can provide the ideal base for social work and sociological helping work (Forte, 2004a, 2004b). It is a coherent organizing language that can guide practitioner thinking, acting, and feeling especially when professional action is blocked.

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Studies in Symbolic Interaction
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