Manford Kuhn Essay

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Manford H. Kuhn founded the branch of sociological social psychology referred to as the Iowa School. This branch was labeled as such because Kuhn spent his career at the University of Iowa (called the State University of Iowa upon his appointment). Though Kuhn was trained alongside Herbert Blumer and by George Herbert Mead, Kuhn’s epistemological stance differed in fundamental ways from that of his mentors and noteworthy contemporaries.

In terms of social psychology, the Chicago School was the social psychological camp of thought associated with Blumer. Its approach emphasized participant observation research in an attempt to understand both groups and individuals by identifying the process of meaning construction and the meanings themselves for the things that comprise their social environments. Unlike the Iowa School, the Chicago School was uninterested in discovering generalizable patterns of human behavior, instead focusing on the subjectivity of the individual actor.

The Iowa School inspired a number of outgrowths, such as the work of McCall and Simmons on social roles, and subsequently Stryker’s structural theory of social identity.

Kuhn’s approach, the early core of the Iowa School, put an emphasis on empirical techniques that could be used to investigate and generalize about human interaction and cognition. Among his most influential contributions to social psychology was the concept of the core self, the idea that every person has a stable set of components of the self that persist across different social situations. This became the foundation for his ”self theory.” This core self shapes and constrains the way we define situations. Humans seek and have continuity and predictability.

Where Blumer conceptualized behavior as situation-ally specific and emerging from potentially unique circumstances, Kuhn thought of behavior as being driven by existing elements of the self which were static and measurable. The Iowa School generated multiple, successful lines of research, among them Sheldon Stryker’s structural social identity theory.

Furthermore, while Kuhn conceptualized social structure as being created, maintained, and altered through social interaction, he also thought of social structure as providing constraints on social action. His structural view of social psychology informed his leaning toward developing objective measures of the self in the attempt to analyze quantitatively how the self-concept motivated cognition and behavior.

Kuhn’s structural perspective, combined with the understanding that the self is an enduring entity, resulted in the development of the often-used Twenty Statements Test (TST) in 1954 with Thomas McPartland. The TST equips social psychologists with a method for uncovering self-identifications which exist because of the social roles people embody. By responding to the question, ”Who am I?,” respondents report, in order of importance, the social roles they enact. The response patterns to this question provide insights regarding the structure of the self. These meanings associated with these roles can be used to explain and predict likely behaviors across social situations.


  1. Kuhn, M. (1964) Major trends in symbolic interaction theory in the past twenty-five years. Sociological Quarterly 5: 61-84.
  2. Kuhn, M. & McPartland, T. (1954) An empirical investigation of self-attitudes. American Sociological Review 19 (1): 68-76.

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