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Herbert George Blumer emerged from a rural Missouri background and matured into an internationally acclaimed scholar (University of Missouri, BA 1921, MA 1922; University of Chicago, PhD, 1928) whose work defined a pioneering and enduringly relevant theoretical and methodological position in sociology and social psychology. He taught at Chicago from 1928 until 1951, leaving there to become the first chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, a post that he held until he retired in 1967. He earned the American Sociological Association s ”Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award in 1983. Among his many non-academic activities, he served with the Department of State’s Office of War Information (1943-5) and chaired the Board of Arbitration for the U.S. Steel Corporation and the United Steel Workers of America.
Blumer’s preeminent contribution to the social sciences is his formulation of a sociological perspective known as ”symbolic interactionism. Based upon the philosophy and social psychology of George Herbert Mead and John Dewey, it is grounded in pragmatists assumptions about human action and the reflexive socially grounded nature of the self.
Blumer’s perspective and its associated empirically oriented methodological position characterize social action and social structures of any size or complexity as ongoing processes of individual and collective action predicated on the human capacity for self-indication and the construction of meaning. He rejects psychological behaviorism and deductively formulated, positivistic, and structural-functional sociology because they belittle the role of individuals in creating, sustaining, and changing the social world through self-indication, interpretation, and action. Instead, he affirms the significance of socially emergent individual and collective definition accompanying and directing attempts to handle life, which he depicts as an ongoing stream of situations. His non-reified conceptions of social structures as processes of action and interaction and of society as a ”network of interaction inform his analyses of macro- as well as micro-social phenomena.
Blumer (1969) set out his theory in Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method as it pertains to human group life, action and interaction, objects, actors, and interconnections among individual and group lines of action. His perspective s three fundamental premises are: (1) people act individually and collectively on the basis of the meanings of ”objects in their world, (2) the meanings of these material (an automobile), abstract (justice), or social (a friend) objects are constructed in interactions that people have with one another, and (3) during interaction people use interpretive processes to alter these meanings.
Blumer, like G. H. Mead and John Dewey, characterizes acts as being built up from processes ofself-indication and interpretation, which mediate between stimulus and response. Accordingly, he argues that we create symbols, or stimuli to which we attach meanings, and then act in regard to these meanings. Indication and the creation of objects are significant processes in so far as they inform the construction of action. Without self-indication and symbolic interaction, in fact, the social world would not exist.
Building upon this fundamental understanding, Blumer crafted what frequently became discipline-defining analyses of a wide range of subjects, including: research methods, collective behavior, industrialization, social movements, fashion, race relations, industrial and labor relations, social problems, morale, public opinion, social attitudes, social change, public sector social science research, and social psychology. Consistent with his perspective as a symbolic interactionist, and pertinent to his investigation of each of these areas and to social phenomena in general, he assigns social interaction and processes of individual and collective definition key roles in creating, maintaining, and changing social reality. This core element of his view remains a central feature of the perspective today.
- Blumer, (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.
- Blumer, H. (1939) Collective behavior. In Park, R. E. (ed.), An Outline of the Principles of Sociology. Barnes and Nobel, New York, pp. 219-80.
- Blumer, H. (1990) Industrialization as an Agent of Social Change, ed. D. R. Maines & T. J. Morrione. Aldine de Gruyter, Hawthorne, NY.
- Blumer, H. (2004) George Herbert Mead and human conduct, ed. T. J. Morrione. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.