Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

February 13, 2006

Quotes from Herbert Blumer


1. Symbolic interaction.  The term “symbolic interaction” refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings.  The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or “define” each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions.  Their “response” is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions.  Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions.  This mediation is equivalent to inserting a process of interpretation between stimulus and response in the case of human behavior.  (Blumer, p. 180).


2. Society.  Human society is to be seen as consisting of acting people, and the life of the society is to be seen as consisting of their actions.  The acting units may be separate individuals, collectivities whose members are acting together on a common quest, or organizations acting on behalf of a constituency … There is no empirically observable activity in a human society that does not spring from some acting unit.  This banal statement needs to be stressed in light of the common practice of sociologists of reducing human society to social units that do not act – for example, social classes in modern society.  (Blumer, pp. 186-7).


3. Premises.  (1) Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meaning things have for them.  (2) The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction one has with one’s fellows.  (3) These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters.  (Blumer, 1969, quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 166).


Source:  Blumer, Herbert.  1962.  “Society as Symbolic Interaction,” in Arnold Rose, editor, Human Behavior and Social Processes: An Interactionist Approach, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, pp. 179-192.



Goffman on “interaction order”

Universal human nature is not a very human thing.  By acquiring it, the person becomes a kind of construct, built up not from inner psychic propensities but from moral rules that are impressed upon him from without.  These rules, when followed, determine the evaluation he will make of himself and his fellow-participants in the encounter, the distribution of his feelings, and the kinds of practices he will employ to maintain a specified and obligatory kind of ritual equilibrium.  … Instead of abiding by the rules, there may be much effort to break them safely.  But if an encounter or undertaking is to be sustained as a viable system of interaction organized on ritual principles, then these variations must be held within certain bounds and nicely counterbalanced by corresponding modification in some of the other rules and understandings.  Similarly, the human nature of a particular set of persons may be specially designed for the special kind of undertakings in which they participate, but still each of these persons must have within him something of the balance of characteristics required of a usable participant in any ritually organized system of social activity.

Source:  Goffman, Erving.  1967.  Interaction Ritual, Chicago, Aldine, p. 45. HM 291 G59