Blue Ribbon Papers: Interactionism: The Emerging Landscape: Volume 36

Cover of Blue Ribbon Papers: Interactionism: The Emerging Landscape

Table of contents

(13 chapters)

Signs of a new period of theoretical and methodological ferment – consequent real growth – are finally appearing on the horizon. Old theoretical and methodological issues that have merely been papered over in the past, stymieing progress for decades, are now undergoing long-awaited resolution. New burning issues necessary to stimulate theoretical and methodological growth are now being raised for resolution in the future. Perhaps, no better evidence of this potential renewal of interactional thought can be provided than in the seven chapters published in this edition of the “Blue-Ribbon Papers.” The first three of these chapters aim to resolve, or – at least – reframe long-standing theoretical and methodological controversies.

This chapter seeks to evaluate the charges made by a number of Herbert Blumer's critics who claim that he has in various ways misconstrued or misapplied the social psychological ideas of George Herbert Mead. My examination of these charges leads me to conclude that numerous passages in which Blumer discusses Mead's thought are in fact open to several legitimate objections: Blumer seldom documents or supports his discussions of Mead's ideas by means of specific references to relevant passages in Mead's lectures or writings; he fails to note that his own theoretical project typically begins where Mead's project ends; he often uses the concepts of meaning, interpretation, and “taking the role of the other” in ways that differ somewhat from the uses Mead makes of these notions in his theorizing. Nevertheless, these shortcomings and differences by no means support the arguments of those critics who exaggerate the significance of Mead's so-called behaviorism or of Blumer's alleged subjectivism; nor do they justify the claims of those who fail to see how Blumer's theory of experiential objects, despite its inadequate formulation and development, is a legitimate attempt to extend the account of such objects one finds in Mead's later writings. Blumer, in short, may not always have been a completely accurate interpreter of Mead, but he was in most important respects a faithful, creative, and effective champion of Mead’s social psychological ideas.

My main point is that the 1920s Chicago School got its scholastic or school-like quality primarily from its notion of what a human being is, from its social psychology, and only secondarily from its sociology. These sociologists developed the novel idea that humans are constituted by symbolic or cultural elements, not biological forces or instincts. They applied Franz Boas's discovery of culture to human nature and the self. In particular, they showed that ethnic groups and their subcultures are not biologically determined or driven by fixed instincts. In the 1910s and 1920s, the Americanization movement held that ethnic groups could be ranked on how intelligent, how criminal, and therefore how fit for democracy they were. This powerful movement, the extreme wing of which was lead by the Northern Ku Klux Klan, advocated different levels of citizenship for different ethnic groups. The Chicago sociologists spear-headed the idea that humans have a universal nature, are all the same ontologically, and therefore all the same morally and legally. In this way, they strengthened the foundations of civil liberties. The Chicago professors advanced their position in a quiet, low-keyed manner, the avoidance of open political controversy being the academic style of the time. Their position was nevertheless quite potent and effective. The actual sociology of the school, also quite important, was largely an expression of the democratic social psychology. In addition, the sociology was dignified and elevated by the moral capital of their theory of human nature.

G. H. Mead's social, developmental, and emergent conception of language and mind is a foundational assumption that is central to the interactionist tradition. However, the validity of this model has been challenged in recent years by theorists such as Albert Bergesen, who argues that recent advances in linguistics and cognitive psychology demonstrate that Mead's social theory of language learning and his theory of the social nature of mind are untenable. In light of these critiques, and drawing on Chomsky's debates with intellectuals such as Jean Piaget, John Searle, and Michael Tomasello, this chapter compares Chomsky's and Mead's theories of language and mind in terms of their assumptions about innateness and the nature and source of meaning. This comparison aims to address the major strengths and weaknesses in both models and shed light on how interactionists might frame these conceptual challenges in future theoretical and empirical research.

Various sociological theories about the nature of money are reviewed here and a claim that money could be fruitfully examined from the standpoint of Peircian semiotics and Meadian interactionism is presented. The work of Marx and Simmel are interpreted in semiotic terms leading to the claim that the selves of human agents are constituted within a political and social economy resulting in the emergence of semiotic subjectivation and objectivation of money as features of the self.

The work of George Santayana belongs simultaneously to North American and European traditions of social thought. Although an important figure of the Western tradition, Santayana is not well known among sociologists. The main purpose of this chapter is to introduce Santayana's social thought to sociologists, and especially to those interested in interactionist and interpretivist theory. I pay particular attention to the concepts of psyche, domination, and dramatic sympathy. I also analyze how some of Santayana's concepts fare when compared to those by Mead and radical interactionism.

Million Dollar Baby displays a contrived, provocative, and dramatic sequence of events that culminates in the death of a paralyzed woman, Maggie (played by Hilary Swank), a boxer by trade, who became a quadriplegic after her opponent “cold-cocked” her during a championship fight. The cheap shot caused her to fall on her wooden stool and break her neck. She calls upon her trainer, Frankie (played by Clint Eastwood), to kill her through an injection of adrenaline. Maggie claims that she has already died in that she can never be a boxer, which represents the only self she knows and loves. Ignoring Frankie's efforts to dissuade her, Maggie evokes a story from their shared past. The story, first told in a diner in which Maggie and Frankie had stopped to eat, described her own father's decision to kill the family dog. She iterates the story from her hospital bed and begs Frankie to do what her dad (to whom Maggie refers as “daddy”) did to the dog. In effect, she asks Frankie to assist her suicide, as she defines herself as useless beyond any reason to live.

In this chapter, Jeffrey Togman recounts how Home, an ethnographic film, which he directed, came to be made. While directing the film, Togman fluctuated between the various classical roles of the participant observer – complete observer, observer as participant, participant as observer, and complete participant. The camera and the microphone allow the researcher to record information in quantities and at speeds than are exponentially larger and faster than what can be accomplished by conventional note-taking, but the equipment is also more obtrusive and disruptive. The tyranny of the camera demands that the director puts it in a “real” place, and thus, it is the nature of ethnographic films to challenge generalizing, predictive theories of human behavior. Togman also presents the findings of his filmic project, stripped of its visual elements. The film's main character, Sheree Farmer, a single mother of six children, tries to get her family out of public housing in Newark, New Jersey. With the help of Mary Abernathy, a former fashion executive turned community activist, Sheree endeavors to purchase her own home. As Sheree struggles to clear her credit and qualify for a mortgage, it becomes clear that she faces more than material obstacles to becoming a homeowner.

Cover of Blue Ribbon Papers: Interactionism: The Emerging Landscape
Publication date
Book series
Studies in Symbolic Interaction
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN