Herber Blumer (1900 to 1997) was a symbolic interactionist who argued that society consisted of individuals temporarily agreeing on shared meanings to the extent that they could act together. However, meanings and social situations were constantly being weighed up and negotiated by individuals in different ways and thus society itself was something unstable, and which was contingent upon social interactions.
Bluemer’s main contribution to sociology is that he developed Mead’s Symbolic interactionism in a more sociological direction. He theorised more about how society emerges out of social interaction.
Meaning emerges from social interaction
For Blumer, meaning is a social product which emerges out of individuals actively interpreting the social and natural world.
There are three main aspects to Blumer’s social action theory…
- Human beings act on the meanings they give to people, objects and situations, rather than just reacting to external stimuli.
- Meanings emerge through the process of interaction rather than being present from the outset. Meanings are created and modified within interaction situations rather than being fixed. Actors do not just slavishly follow pre-existing norms or roles.
- Meanings are the result of interpretations by individuals within interaction contexts and meanings develop over time, thus social norms and institutions can change.
Society emerges from groups of people committing to classifying a situations along particular lines to the extent that there is shared meaning, but these shared meanings and interpretations are always potentially open to change.
Blumer’s theory of society
Society is the sum total of all joint actions or social acts taking place at a given moment. Society happens when individuals co-ordinate their interpretations of the social situation and what Blumer calls ‘joint action’ occurs.
The main acting units within society can range from individuals to small groups to large scale institutions.
Every individual in an acting unit has a different interpretation of the situation, but sufficient agreement with others for collective action to take place.
We tend to take meaning for granted when social situations run smoothly, but even when those situations run smoothly, there is still a complex and active process of every actor interpreting the situation – a process of individuals checking meaning, weighing up their options and considering alternatives. Thus at any moment there is the potential that the entire social situation may break down.
Social ‘structures’ only seem stable
Blumer acknowledged for that most part that social reality is experienced as taken for granted, and predictable. Over time individuals learn accepted and legitimate ways of acting associated with specific contexts and roles and so social reality often seems stable to individuals.
Nonetheless situations are continuously being weighed up and are potentially alterable, and thus in reality society is fluid and more unstable than it appears.
Social institutions similarly place restrictions on individuals but even when there are clearly established rules and long standing traditions, individuals still have room for interpretation and creativity.
In Blumer’s own words…
“The common repetitive behaviour of people… should not mislead the student into believing that no process of interpretation is in play…. even though fixed, the actions of the participating people are constructed by them through a process of interpretation.” (Blumer, 1969).
Especially in our global society where people regularly encounter other groups of people with different symbolic systems of meaning it is hard to maintain a position that there is just one set way of seeing the world. The more diversity is, the more it becomes apparent that there are multiple interpretations and thus that society is fluid.
Social action and research methods
Blumer was very involved with developing appropriate social research methods, arguing that research should be empirical and small scale.
Because social reality was constructed by individuals, each of whom had their own slightly different interpretations of social situations, the only appropriate methodologies were those that could get the complexities of these multiple interpretations, namely qualitative research methods such as unstructured interviews and participant observation.
Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology
This material is primarily relevant to the Theory and Methods aspect of second year sociology.
Blumer (1969) Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method.
Inglis, D (2012) An Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.
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