Reading Guide to: Joas, H. (1987) Symbolic Interactionism, in Giddens, A. and Turner, J (eds) Social Theory Today, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Work in this tradition grew alongside the more systematic theoretical work by Parsons, who did not acknowledge it in his first syntheses. When the Chicago School tradition did appear, it was as a number of fragmentary and empirical studies. Blumer revived the tradition and invented the term 'Symbolic Interactionism' in 1938. Later, in the Sixties and Seventies, the tradition became merged in a 'theoretically muddled... so called interpretative approach' (page 83). Attempting to systematise the work in this tradition is difficult, and is best done through an historical account. This is an improvement on approaches which attempt to identify a bifurcation between Peirce and Mead on the one hand and Dewey and James on the other, around the issue of nominalism and realism, or to attempt to expose some implicit theoretical assumptions.

The core of the approach is usually defined, after Blumer, as emphasising 'processes of interaction of -- social action that is characterised by an immediately reciprocal orientation -- and the investigation of these processes... based on a particular concept of interaction which stresses the symbolic character of social action... definitions of the relations are... jointly and reciprocally proposed and established' (84). But this definition is too narrow, and is responsible for most of the usual criticisms, such as ignoring structure and power. Referring to the whole background of the Chicago School shows how limited this definition is.

The Chicago School is best seen as a loose conglomeration of thinkers and researchers, flourishing before the full institutionalisation of sociology. The members had some shared assumptions, however, including a commitment to pragmatist philosophy, political and social reformism, and attempting to develop empirical social sciences. Pragmatistic philosophy can be seen as the main source of theoretical ideas which had to be transformed into concrete theory and research, however fragmentarily.


In its American form, this provided a full philosophy of social action. It was critical of utilitarianism, for example, which it saw as offering too narrow a view of action and consciousness. One of its philosophical projects was to overcome Cartesian dualism and this led to new ideas of intentionality and sociality, especially the notion of self-regulated action as the key to social order. Self-regulation in particular involved collective problem-solving, as we shall see, and this had political implications in supporting a kind of democratic community of problem-solvers (86).

Descartes established the right for the individual to doubt as a powerful way of overcoming the weight of received authority, and also made it the basis of a science. Yet isolated individuals were to be the objects that doubted, leading to problems when trying to re-establish the social world [see Husserl on this too]. Peirce was against this abstract and individualised notion of doubt:

'We cannot begin with complete doubt... [Our]... prejudices are not to be dispelled by a maxim, for they are things which it does not occur to us can be questioned. Hence this initial skepticism will be a mere self deception and not real doubt; and no one... will ever be satisfied until he has formally recovered all those beliefs which in form he has taken up... A person may... find reason to doubt what he began by believing; but in that case he doubts because he has a positive reason for it and not on account of the Cartesian maxim'. (Peirce, cited by Joas, page 87).

This is indicative of the whole project, involving the 'anchoring of cognition to real-problem situations' (87). A co-operative search for truth was to overcome these real problems. As a result, truth was not a matter of an accurate representation of reality in cognition, but a matter of providing increased power to act. Peirce was to work this through against the usual views of the stages of cognition, and his colleague James was to apply this insight to a wide range of problems. However, after realising the difficulties in establishing universal solutions to complex cultural problems, James was to try to limit the notion of truth to a matter if evaluating the 'actually occurring results of action rather than those that could generally be expected to occur ' (87). Peirce was to influence both Dewey and Mead.

Dewey and Mead initially saw the solution to Descartes through Hegel, 'recast in terms of the evolutionary processes of nature' (87). They came to see US pragmatism as offering a new ground for this, first through developing a functionalist Psychology, where all thought was recast as problem-solving. Dewey, for example was to reject behaviourist psychology, which implied causal relations between environmental stimuli and the responses of the organism, in favour of a notion of action as a totality. What behaviourism saw as phases of action were really functional distinctions within it, seen best when the flow of action was interrupted: only then would aspects appear as external stimuli involving an apparently specific response. Mead also saw 'the psychical ... [in terms of]... conflicting impulses which robbed the object of its character as object-stimulus, leaving us so far in an attitude of subjectivity; but during which a new object-stimulus appears due to the reconstructive activity which is identified with the subject "I" as distinct from the object "me"' (Joas quoting Mead, page 88). [This quote therefore shows the cognitive dimensions, so to speak, of the distinction between the I and the me].

Mead also suggested a new conception of intentionality, where we set ends, not as something altogether external to our thoughts, but as a 'result of reflection on resistances met by conduct that is oriented in a number of ways' (88). In other words, the ends of action arise were motivated selection among competing and varied 'compulsions to action'. However, it is unusual for us to be aware of this -- unless there is resistance or constraint. This also explains the importance of play, since it offers creative possibilities with no particular pressure to achieve concrete ends: we thus have a notion of 'creative intelligence as the overcoming of action problems through the invention of new possibilities of action' (89), which is very far from the simple calculations of gain in utilitarianism.

In this way, US pragmatism was used to criticise excessive instrumentalism and a picture of the world as excessively objective (89). It was not always tied to the immediate present -- experiences were stored by human beings in the form of 'habits' , and we are aware of our consciousness immediately only if there are problems from deploying these. This approach may be too general, however, for example in not distinguishing between relationships to objects and to other humans. Peirce's semiotics might imply 'an interpreting consciousness', but it is not spelled out. Cooley went further in arguing that this self depends on primary groups, and that it includes an emotional dimension. But Mead made most progress, looking at those actions where there were problems even despite a 'heightened awareness to objects' (90). These problems were very often interpersonal ones, where the actor himself was a source of stimuli to the other. Here, successful action requires reflection on one's own ways of acting to prevent misunderstanding, as a block to successful action. There is therefore a functional need for self consciousness, and this might be something that evolves -- which is how Mead 'sought [to develop] pragmaticistically the legacy of German idealism' (91).

Mead saw this process as a developmental one. Phases of action were represented in gestural signs, which then provided the possibility of reflection, and enabled the representation of actions to others, which finally involves increasing one's orientation to the others. It is this process that underlies the famous concepts about role taking, the split self, the Generalised Other and so on. It is clear that these processes affect cognition as well, [as the work, unknown to me,  on the constitutional body image and of subjective time indicates -- see page 91 for references]. Action becomes a matter of self control, but in a far from instrumental manner. There is also an implied notion of social order here, involving 'democratic self government combined with Peircian ideas about unrestricted communication' (91), but this was never particularly well elaborated in the sociological writing. [Mead apparently also engaged in political journalism].

Dewey does develop these implications for social order, and sees collective action as central. Problems are to be processed not by individuals but by the collectivity, which includes both specialised institutions and all those individuals affected. Communication among the parties is therefore essential, and there is a genuine individual interest in solving collective problems. Out of this collectivity might develop both the independent State and the autonomous individual. Dewey thought this a better model of social order than those based on shared values or on a Hobbesian contract. [It seems to be a kind of advanced organic solidarity?] (92). The market was not adequate as a self regulator, since economic activity was only a part of social life. Collective self regulation, solving collective problems, was seen as a social version of the self control discussed above. This was not intended to be value free, but was used to investigate real actions: the model provided licence for extensive investigation and moral and political commentary [one of many passages which suggest links to Habermas's work]..

The Development of the Chicago School

The work was never exclusively empirical, although empirical research was obviously valuable as a part of the project of pragmatism. An implicit theoretical framework seems to have been shared; not an narrowly Protestant reformist one (because the practitioners operated with early versions of professional standards in research, objectivity, rigour and so on); not particularly based on European thought (some German philosophers, especially Simmel, were widely read, and there are some affinities -- but Joas thinks that US pragmatism as far more important). Indeed, even Parsons believed that the School had made more progress than the European tradition in developing a theory of action. Nor was Spencer particularly important, since he had been rejected as excessively individualist, and needing to be fitted into American models of community.

The US context was important in another way too, given the social problems provided by waves of immigration and urbanisation, focused in Chicago, of course. Industrialisation had led to both the rise of a new professional middle-class and a considerable interest in reform, to protect self government against the 'hegemony... of great corporations and the central federal government' (95). Small local communities in cities were to be preferred. At the most local level, the university context also prove to be important, with its encouragement of empirical research and interdisciplinary inquiry: sociology was not particularly threatened by other disciplines, so micropolitical struggle was less apparent. [A very important point this, to be compared with Durkheim's position later on. For a substantial discussion of the academic impact of university micropolitics of this kind, compare the development of Cultural Studies in the UK -- see Harris (1992)].

W.I. Thomas was among the first to attempt to link the pragmatic tradition with sociology specifically. His early ethnographic interest in cultural variety was to be generalised and applied to 'non exotic objects' (96). Thomas insisted on cultural rather than biological factors in discussing differences based on race and sex. He used the 'habits' model to explain routine social interaction, and saw conscious awareness of problem-solving ('attention') as arising only in breakdown and crisis. Habits were more closely tied to cultural traditions and cultural resources, though, and Thomas relied on a notion of individual perceptions to link culture and the individual -- this, incidentally is one example of how sociology was able to peaceably co-exist with psychology in Chicago, and Joas compares this specifically to Durkheim's need to emphasise the contrasts between the two disciplines.

One problem for Thomas concerned how people managed to shift from 'traditional' responses to 'modern' ones, and this led him to his classic work on Polish immigrants. Thomas drew on a great deal of autobiographical material and pieces that appeared in Polish newspapers to examine the impact of modernisation and how it was dealt with. He developed a more concrete interest in collective action in this process of adjustment: thus his famous view about definitions of the situation ['If men define situations as real they are real in their consequences'] should not be seen as taking place in consciousness but in action. Definitions vary according to the social role and the motive of the desire. People also vary according to how 'integrated' a life they lead. Modernisation was not just a simple threat to community but an opportunity to escape tradition: Thomas abandons the old oppositions (such as those between mechanical and organic solidarity) in favour of a continuous process of social disintegration and renewal. Renewal was by no means always functional here.

When Thomas was dismissed, for 'political and moral non-conformity' [!], Park replaced him. Park's background included working as a journalist and he also knew some prominent black activists. He brought this concrete experience to discussions of public communication as in Dewey -- for example, he was interested in the implications of cultural heterogeneity for the idea of social control. Methodologically, he favoured first hand reports. Politically, he still retained faith in some sort of communicative democracy, which he saw as an alternative to gloomy predictions of industrial society. Together with Burgess, he defines sociology as a 'science of collective behaviour', seeing social life as constraint but also as a a matter of liberation and enhancement. He borrowed from Durkheim the idea of 'collective representations', such as religious symbols, public opinion, and even fashion (101), but he saw these as embodied in concrete forms of communication, in 'modern and every day forms' (101).

The moral order of society was threatened, however by an 'ecological order' (101), used to explain unintended outcomes and arrangements where there was no consensus. The parallel was found in plant ecology and the market economy -- spatial and temporal distributions of populations were seen as forms of adaptation to competition for scarce resources. This enabled Park to make a link between the social and physical environment, but at the risk of 'naturalist' determinism. Park assumed that eventually the unplanned and threatening ecological order would come under democratic and social control. Joas cites his work on race relations here, which apparently were to go through a number of stages; competition, conflict, accommodation and then eventual assimilation (102). Park meant these stages to be concrete and empirical ones, not ideal typical ones, and this has led to some dispute about the 'facts' of such staged development. However, the work on race relations was also meant to be used critically, to rebuke those who were not making sufficient progress or who believed progress was impossible.

However, overall the work tended to ignore class relations, bureaucracy, and the development of the international order, although it did offer some sort of framework for lots of useful empirical studies which ensued -- of the hobo, gangs and so on -- which certainly went beyond middle-class values [and anticipated 'taking the side of the underdog'?].

Burgess was prepared to see spatial dimensions as more deterministic, hence his famous work on city zones [the so called 'ecological theory of deviancy', which located deviants in 'zones of transition' or areas of social disorganisation].

The demise of the Chicago School can be seen as rooted in the flaws of pragmatism, and the ending of optimism about democratic progress. To some extent, the tradition was carried on by both Blumer and Hughes:

(a) Blumer invented the term Symbolic Interactionism for the work done in Chicago and systematised the work on theory and methods. He favoured interpretive methods based on close relations between observer and observed, and enshrined at the notional process as a 'methodological tenet' (104) (see file). His more sociological version of pragmatism was designed to overcome the limits of psychological and functionalist accounts, but he restricted inquiry to 'moral' relations, and ignored the problems of links with the 'ecological' order.

(b) Hughes retained the distinction between normative integration and market process, leading to his interest in the double aspect of social relations in organisations. These relations took place in systems, but they were not fully integrated or functional. Hughes developed work on reference groups instead. His work on organisations represents the best case studies, though -- they provide ideal examples of structures with both objective constraints and other kinds of constraint as well. The structure that results only partly derives from objective constraints, and draws upon subjective agreements among the participants as well. This is especially seen where professionals are at work. Hughes pursued critical analyses of professional ideologies as a means to '[escape] the control of objective constraint, but also to avoid undesirable tasks and to conceal mistakes' (105). Organisations and the workers in them always featured definitions of the situation and struggles for autonomy.

Those continuing the tradition include Becker with his work on outsiders, and Goffman. Strauss was responsible for a particularly explicit development, however known as the 'negotiated - order approach'(106). This approach arises from case-studies like the one we've seen above of professionals and the organisations they work in. These organisations are neither fully functionally organised nor are they bureaucracies. They feature unspecific goals, a loose division of labour, and 'tacit agreements, unofficial arrangements and official decisions', which together produce order. This provides the central role for the process of 'negotiation', which involves continual reconstruction and reproduction through action. Goals are typically diverse and agreements arise in different forms according to different types of working consensus between the parties. Finally, the actors have their own theories of the organisation too.

This notion was to be extended to all types of social order where neither absolute consensus nor pure force are responsible for integration. Examples include studies of political order, market phenomena or personal networks [and classrooms] . Further work developed to clarify the processes of negotiation according to, for example, the number of participants, the relevant experience of the participants, whether they were acting alone or as representatives, how they were regulated, the differences of power among them, the complexity of the task, the options should they disagree and so on. The working consensus that emerges is far from ideal. We negotiate from the basis of our experiences of both consensus and conflict, and indefinite structural conditions. This is a suitably complex picture compared to Park's two orders, but it has still not been sufficiently theorised, and needs to be brought into contact with 'the great schools of theory' (109).


Much depends on comparisons with the rival theories and metatheories. Symbolic Interactionism can be developed in connection with different traditions. This rejection of utilitarianism leads to possible alliances with Durkheim, Weber or Parsons, but these writers overemphasise the role of norms, while Symbolic Interactionism stresses inconsistency and the lack of a determining effect of norms. Marxism also has a theory of action, seeing work as the embodiment of human skill, as in the concept of praxis, but links with the sociology of action are underdeveloped. Habermas has attempted to establish connections with his theory of communicative action, but this still excludes 'many dimensions of action' (110).

US pragmatism is especially 'fecund', and it is still important to develop its insights. It offers the best model of the self conscious actor and the context of action (its 'conditions of possibility'). Pragmatism has already developed an analysis far beyond a study of consciousness, and is thus exempt from the criticisms of consciousness found in post structuralism. Pragmatism allows for both utilitarian and functional patterns of action, but insists these are neither universal or comprehensive. Instead it seems capable of developing a whole typology of actions, ranging 'from totemistic ritual to successful self government and ideal discourse' (111). It offers a suitable focus on the collective processing of results of action, and the 'collective constitution of normative regulations, and collective procedures for dealing with normative conflicts' (111). These developments should lead it far away from mere 'qualitative empiricism'.