Social Structure Seemed a Simple Thing

Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society
Herbert Blumer, Stanford M. Lyman and Arthur J. Vidich, Eds.


If you wait long enough, everything comes around again.

At least that’s how it seems to me. Those long gaps between acquiring a book and actually reading it are just me waiting for the zeitgeist to align with the author at hand and my interest of the moment.

So as soon as I picked up Blumer there he was in The New Yorker. Well not him, of course–Herbert George Blumer’s been dead almost 30 years–but his work, cited by Jill Lepore in an article on polling.

There’s a reasonable explanation for that and it has nothing to do with completing my self-imposed grad school reading list or the convergence of like minds. Lepore’s parents are sociologists and she and I are near contemporaries. Given that context, knowledge of noted mid-20th century sociologists should not be unexpected. Polling’s not all Blumer studied, though. and reading his select works gives one a lot to chew on.

Herber George Blumer 1900-1987 The big man scored two touchdowns as a professional football player. Photo borrowed from Prof. Howard Becker. Apologies to the good professor.

Herber George Blumer
The big man scored two touchdowns as a professional football player.
Photo borrowed from Prof. Howard Becker. Apologies to the good professor.

Blumer has another claim to fame that sets him apart from any other social scientist I know of. While completing his studies for his PhD he played professional football for the then Chicago Cardinals, being named to the All Pro team at least once. They were giants in those days.

Blumer  finished that doctorate and taught at the University of Chicago, an institution particularly strong in the social sciences. Typically its  economists get noticed and earn Nobel Prizes. But the school’s sociology faculty and alums number among them James Q. Wilson, Erving Goffman and Howard S. Becker, all equally notable. (If you’re counting, Jane Addams of Hull House fame was also at Chicago and won a Nobel.) So Blumer was no academic slouch either.

I don’t think you can be a sociologist without doing some empirical work. I’m pretty sure, though, that you needn’t be a theorist to  gain some renown as one. I came across Blumer as a theorist and he’s stuck in my brain that way even though I have since learned he conducted studies on labor relations and more.

Jim Thorpe (Wa-Tho-Huk)1887-1953 Native American, World Class Athlete, Teammate of Blumer's

Jim Thorpe (Wa-Tho-Huk)1887-1953
Native American, Olympic Medalist, Teammate of Blumer’s

In science, a theory is defined as  the explanation that best accounts for the facts, confirmable by experiment and replicable in the extreme. This causes real-world confusion since most people use theory as a substitute for hypothesis. I do this myself. ‘I have a theory,’ for all its pedantry, still sounds less off-putting than, ‘I have a hypothesis.’ At least to me. It gets worse in the realm of the social sciences.

I’m usually the first to point out that ‘science’ is the weaker partner in the term ‘social science.’  And in the social sciences theory is neither definitive nor is it strictly hypothetical. It’s better to think of theory–political theory, sociological theory–as an explanatory framework. So rather than codifying or working out, it’s an ordering principle. It is also offers a way for academics to sort themselves into schools.

Blumer is best known for advancing the work of George Herbert Mead, referred to by Blumer as symbolic interactionism,  and rooted in qualitative studies. Blumer formalized the approach which seeks to explain social choices as arising at the intersection of personal meaning, interpretation and interaction with others. Accordingly, language plays a large role in those interactions which brings us, or me at least, to the doorstep of postmodernism. At least in my limited understanding of the matter.

George Herbert Mead 1863-1931 Blumer's intellectual godfather.

George Herbert Mead
Blumer’s intellectual godfather.

Symbolic interactionism also stands in somewhat stark distinction to a school of thought know as structural functionalism. That approach, which has seeped into other disciplines, suggests that social structures arise because they serve a purpose. Generally that purpose is some form of stability. You can find such inklings in the work of Durkheim and Weber. In fact, Weber’s American translator, Talcott Parsons, may be the most influential adherent of the approach.

At this point the savvy reader might be wondering whether all this explication is a dodge to keep away from a text I don’t understand. So I will fess up that I understand it only in its broadest outlines. This book, assembled by two contemporary sociologists, is actually divided into two parts. The first, accounting for about a third of the book, is a joint  essay in which they suggest that Blumer’s work can serve as the foundation for ‘a public philosophy.’

I’m not sure they persuaded me and I couldn’t help wondering if this was a response to what might be termed the breakdown of structures. (See the current US election cycle for a good example of social structures breaking down.) Blumer’s work grabbed me more.

The fist work collected, in fact, is the paper on which Lepore based her critique of polling. Entitled “Public Opinion and Public Opinion Polling,” the paper, delivered at the 1947 ASA Annual Meeting, was blunt. “I refer to the narrow operationalist position that public opinion consists of what public opinion polls poll. Here, curiously, the findings resulting from an operation…are regarded as constituting the object of study.” (p. 148).  For an academic, them’s fighting  words.

Talcott Parson 1902-1979 The ur-structural functionalist.

Talcott Parson
The ur-structural functionalist.

There’s more. On labor relations Blumer is an adherent of the strike. Not for political or economic reasons, but because it  ” …is indispensable for proper and effective labor-management relations.” (p. 247)  On the subject of race he suggests “A basic understanding of race prejudice must be sought in the processes by which given racial groups form images of themselves and others.” (p. 197)

There’s even something for the managerial caste, enamored of coaching, training and motivating, to chew on: ” It is easy to conceive of a group of well-adjusted individuals hopelessly weak in morale…If the individuals have little heart in the undertaking, their condition of happy adjustment is of little value.” (p, 169)

Do I think Blumer has all the answers? No. With no academic ax of my own to grind I can borrow whatever framework fits the situation I find myself in. Do I think Blumer is on to something when he says how we react to things and interact around those reactions is vital to our understanding? Absolutely.





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