Reading Guide to: Blumer H (1969) 'The methodological position of symbolic interactionism' in Hammersley M and Woods P (eds) (1976) The Process of Schooling: a Sociological Reader, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul

Empirical investigation involves a collective quest for answers to questions about the empirical world. Images of the empirical world are studied and these are tested 'through exacting scrutiny'. Methodology refers to the guiding principles of this activity. Three points are implied: (1) methodology involves the entire scientific quest; (2) each part must refer to and fits the 'obdurate character of the empirical world... [and must be]... subservient to that world' (12) and; (3) the empirical world provides ultimate answers to tests.

To take these in turn:

  • The first requirement is to devise a picture or scheme of the empirical world understudy, which sets the selection of problems, decides what counts as data and how to get it, and so on. It is important to render this picture of the world as a set of premises.
  • Inquiry begins with asking questions and posing problems, it avoiding if possible 'superficiality... humdrum conventionality and slavish adherence to doctrine' (12)
  • Data and means to get them have to be established, and tightly related to the problem. It is unhelpful to allow a method to determine the nature of the data gathered.
  • Relations between data have to be established, however these are arrived at (through statistical relationships or 'judicious reflection').
  • Findings have to be interpreted, which involves relating those findings to an outside body of theory. This requires checking whether there body of theory itself 'may be untested and may be false' (13).
  • Concepts are central, since they intervene in all the above processes.

Reality exists in the empirical world, not in investigative methods and can only be discovered in the examination of that world. Methods are only valuable in so far as they enable analysis of the empirical world, and must always respect its nature. Therefore, a critical examination of what is being assumed is crucial. An independent recourse to this empirical world is essential in the processes of testing. Interpretations especially have to be testable, and concepts examined to see if they 'match in the empirical world what they purport to refer to' (13). However, all this is rare in existing research.

It is usual instead to begin with 'a priori theoretical schemes, ... sets of unverified concepts, and...canonised protocols of research procedure' (13). It becomes easy to develop research which validates these different schemes, and rare to be able to demonstrate that concepts refer to the empirical world ('try this out with such representative concepts as mores, alienation, value, integration, socialisation, need it disposition, power, and cultural deprivation' (13).

In the case of human beings, the empirical world relates to their actual group life, 'what they experience and do, individually and collectively' (14). It is evidenced by 'what is happening in the life of a boys' gang, or among the top management of an industrial corporation, or in militant racial groups, or among the police confronted by such groups, or among the young people in a country, or among the Catholic clergy, or in the experience of individuals in their different walks of life'. (14). Relevant problems can include trying to establish what is going on immediately, or what might be the 'background causes' [sic --p. 14] of actions, or the ways in which lives are guided or affected by participation in group life.

Researchers rarely have first hand acquaintances with such social life, but nevertheless try to form a picture of its, drawing on existing beliefs and images, as do all human beings. Stereotypes play a part in this, but researchers also develop images based on theories, professional believes, and ideas of the social world. It is important to be faithful to the empirical world, and this can be difficult, because we commonly live in different worlds. Group life also takes place on different levels, depending on how closely one is involved in it -- observers may lack extensive specific knowledge, 'But there are levels of happening that are hidden to all participants' (15). We need to develop greater and greater awareness of what is taking place -- 'lifting the veils that obscure or hide what is going on' (15). This can only be done by a close investigation.

Human group life has been defined here according to the premises of symbolic interactionism. There are some additional methodological implications, relating to four central conceptions in symbolic interactionism:

(1) People act on the basis of meanings of the objects in their worlds. It follows that if we wish to understand the action of people we must try to see objects as they see them, and not substitute their meanings for our own social scientific ones. We must overcome the belief that our expertise alone guarantees findings, and that 'being objective' must mean only 'seeing things from the position of the detached outside observer' (15). It involves us first of all in trying to place ourselves in the position of the individual or collectivity, to take the roles of others. We need training to help us to do this. We also need a range of observations, not just those gathered by standard research procedures, but more like descriptive accounts from the actors themselves, sometimes involving 'probing and critical collective discussion by a group of well-informed participants in the given world (15). Researchers must also be prepared to reflect upon their own images and stereotypes are .

(2) Relations between people involve 'making indications to one another and interpreting each other's indications ' (15). This involves processes of mutual adjustments between both individuals and collectivities. Social interaction is not merely a 'medium through which determining factors produce behaviour' (16), although much social science assumes this. Social interaction 'is a formative process in its own right' (16), and this must be taken seriously, as a moving process, affecting the actions of participants. Social action must not be compressed -- described, merely as 'a process of developing "complementary expectations"', as in Parsons (16), or as a process that must involve conflict, or in the view that human interaction 'follows the principle of "game theory"' (16). There is a diversity of forms of interaction -- co-operative, conflicting, Torrance, in different, following rules, it sometimes involving 'a free play of expressive behaviour towards one another' (16). Researchers must try to establish empirically 'what form of interaction is in play', and must not presuppose it (16) .

(3) Social acts, both individual and collective involve the actors noting, interpreting, and assessing the situations confronting them. We derive categories from observing these, and use them 'to give conceptual order to the social make-up and social life of a human group -- each one of such categories stands for a form or aspect of social action' (17). Categories have no meaning 'unless seen and cast ultimately in terms of social action' (17). We need to see social action in terms of the actor, who are actively construct action, unlike the views of other social scientists that see actors as merely releasing the effects of external factors. Actors communicate with themselves and interact with themselves, and then establish a line of action, which can be abandoned, suspended, or revised subsequently. The actions of collectivities follows similar lines through their 'directing group or individual who is empowered' (17). We can analyse social action only by observing the process by which it is constructed, rather than looking for a determinations or causes. This means putting ourselves in the place of the actors, trying to follow their interpretations, whether or not we approve of them.

(4) More complex relationships -- organisations, institutions, networks of interdependency -- are dynamic and not static. Modelling them as systems is inadequate, which is what functionalism does -- actors are just seen as media to express underlying forces or mechanisms. We need to see them as arrangements of interlinked people instead. People develop interdependencies among themselves, and 'relate to the organised activities of other people' (18). The formal structure of an organisation represents this interaction, not some underlying organisational system principles (except where these represent a 'the application of some bodies definition of what the organisation should be' (18). We need to study how acting participants interpret principles as they handle specific situations -- only then can we understand factors such as morale, effective working, organisational deviance and so on. The system serves only to interlink these various aspects of action. It would help us identify important dynamic aspects of organisational life, such as how people adjust actions -- whether, for example, 'the rules may still be observed but the observance may be weak or hollow' (18). Analysis of organisations 'cannot afford to ignore' these processes (18). Finally, there is always an historical dimension to action, a back ground which should not be ignored.