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An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic
Inter actionism: Herbert Blumer's Perspective Revisited
Tsukasa Kuwabara (Associate Professor at Kagoshima University)
Kenichi Yamaguchi (Graduate Student at Tohoku University)
The main purpose of this paper is to examine the theory of Symbolic Interactionism formulated by
H.G.Blumer, from the following viewpoints;
1) How does Symbolic Interactionism understand "socialization" ?
2) How does Symbolic Interactionism understand "Vergesellschaftung" (Simmel, G.) ?
3) Why must human society be understood as "a changeable process" ?
As the result of our examining, the next things have been clarified;
1) Blumer thinks of "socialization" as the process in which the two "frameworks" ("schemes of definition" and
"generalized roles") that have been acquired by an actor through interactions with "groups of others", guide
2) In Blumer's theory, "Society" is seen to be possible only when each of the actors in interactions can grasp
properly the two "standpoints" ("standpoint of the other" and "one's own standpoint in the eyes of the other")
through doing a kind of self interaction (i.e., "taking into account of taking into account").
3) Because of the nature of "others" ("black boxness"), all the actors interacting with others are seen to be
necessarily forced to revise their interpretations/definitions continually. This is the reason why the "society" has
to be understood as "a changeable process".
Finally, we have tried to review critically the research method of Symbolic Interactionism (i.e., the approach
from the "standpoint of the actor"), based on the conception of man and society that has been clarified in the
earlier chapters of this paper. As the result of our reviewing, the next two points have been proved. That is; 4)
in doing the approach from the "standpoint of the actor", only an "individual" can be included in the category
of "actor", and 5) the "standpoint of the actor" grasped by researchers must never be seen as the standpoint in
the raw, but have to be seen as a kind of reconstruction of constructions created by the researchers. We finally
have confirmed that to test this conception of man and society empirically, based on the points (4 and 5) would
(and must) be one of our important tasks in future.
' This article is an English version of the next paper;
Kuwabara, T., 2006a, The Essence of Symbolic Interactionism: The Material Edition, Discussion Papers In
Economics and Sociology (ISSN.1347-085X), No.0601, The Economic Society of Kagoshima University, from T
page to 11 th page[
=Tohoku University, 2000, Hakase Gakui Ronbun: Naiyou No Youshi Oyobi Shinsa Kekka No Youshi(Bungaku/ Dai
11 Shu-/ Heisei 11 Nendo Jyuyo), Tohoku University44th, pp.248-259.
=Kuwabara, T., 2001, Introduction to a sociological perspective of Symbolic Interactionism (3) (The Summary of
a doctoral dissertation, Tohoku University), KEIZAIGAKU-RONSHU- OF KAGOSHIMA UNIVERSITY (ISSN:0389-
0104), No.54, The Economic Society of Kagoshima University, pp.69-86 (=http://book.geocities. jp/blumerl970/
=Kuwabara, T., 2005, The Essence of Symbolic Interactionism, Discussion Papers In Economics and Sociology
(ISSN:1347-085X), No.0501, The Economic Society of Kagoshima University.
=Kuwabara, T., 2006b, The Essence of Symbolic Interactionism: Blumer's Theory Revisited, Nakano, M., (ed.),
Gendai Shakai Ni Okeru Shikago Gakuha Shakaigaku No Ouyou Kanousei, Heisei 14 Nen- 17 Nendo, The Japan
Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS), Research Reports for Grants-in-Aid for Scientific Research(Kiban
Kenkyu- B), No.14310079, pp.157-164].
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"It is too early for the final assessment of Blumer's works. That will have to wait until the
twenty-first century, when future historians will be able to see what remains of current sociology.
It seems likely that many of his views will prevail."
Quoted from Shibutani, T., 1988, Herbert Blumer's Contribution to Twentieth-Century
Sociology, Symbolic Interaction, 11:23-31.
It is well known that the Chicago School of Symbolic Interactionism (hereafter abbreviated as "SI"),
in which the works of Herbert Blumer (Blumer, Herbert George, 1900-1987) are representative, played
an important part in the "Chicago Renaissance". It was critical of both Structural-Functionalism, as
established by T. Parsons and his followers, and Sociological Positivism (or Operationalism), in which
G.A. Lundberg was a central figure, and tried to develop an alternative sociological perspective or
conceptual framework and a new and appropriate research methodology. Si's emphasis on the
conceptual understanding of "the Dynamic Society" has been influential in the Japanese sociological
community. "The Dynamic Society" as a concept characterizes human society as constantly constructed
and reconstructed by "active individuals" 2 (Mamoru Funatsu), or as constantly in the process of
This article OKuwabara, T., Introduction to a sociological perspective of Symbolic Interactionism
(1)(2), KEIZAIGAKU-RONSHU- OF KAGOSHIMA UNIVERSITY (ISSN :0389-0 104), No.52-53, The
Economic Society of Kagoshima University=http://space.geocities.jp/isssn03890104no54/dissertation.htm]
examines the conceptual status of "the Dynamic Society" from the standpoint of a fundamental
problem in sociology, namely, that of the relationship between individual and society. More specifi-
cally, we attempt to answer the following three questions in terms of the theory of SI:
1) How does SI understand "socialization"?
2) How does SI understand "Vergesellschaftung" (Simmel, G.)?
3) Why must human society be understood as "in process of change" in SI analysis?
Thus, the intention of this article is to solve a fundamental sociological problem, that of how the
relationship between individual and society should be understood, from the perspective of SI. Previous
studies of SI by sociologists in Japan have given insufficient attention to this problem, which is a key
issue in the theory of SI.
It is important that the three questions above should be answered with the focus on a central concept
of SI, "self-interaction" or "interaction with oneself. Thus, it can be said that we have to solve a
basic problem of sociology by focusing on the concept of "self-interaction".
Funatsu, M., 1976, Symbolic Interactionism, Kouseisha Kouseikaku.
An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic Interactionism: Herbert Blumefs Perspective Revisited
In chapter one, we attempt to answer the first question of what "socialization" means in SI. Also,
it is clarified how SI understands "the relationship between individual and world" and "action". In SI,
"self-interaction" is defined as the process whereby an actor interacts with him/herself, or a form of
communication whereby an actor talks and responds to him/herself. That is to say, self-interaction is
an internalized equivalent of social interaction with "others". Self-interaction is a form of social
interaction, which usually involves other people, but carried on alone.
From the perspective of SI, self-interaction is synonymous with "the process of interpretation", which
has two distinct steps: first, the actor indicates a set of "things" which carry meanings for him/herself
(the step of "indication"), and second, he/she interprets these meanings by selecting, checking,
suspending, regrouping, and transforming them in the light of both the situation in which he/she is
placed and the direction of his/her action (the step of "interpretation").
It has been argued that the theorization of "self- interaction" in SI does not differ from "subjective
nominalism", which proposes that autonomous individuals function in society while never becoming a
product of that society. This criticism has long been made by a number of sociologists, for example,
such /as J.D.Lewis. His argument is particularly worth noting now. The first chapter of this article
includes a counterargument to J.D.Lewis's criticism.
Given "self-interaction" as the central concept, "socialization" in SI is the process whereby:
1) An actor derives "schemes of definition" and "generalized roles" from "groups of others" to
which he/she belongs.
2) The actor's interpretation/definition during social interactions in which he/she is participating is
guided by these two frameworks, i.e. the "schemes of definition" and "generalized roles", which he/she
has derived from "groups of others".
3) "Schemes of definition" serve to canalize an individual's social actions during social interactions
with others, and "generalized roles" serve to canalize the individual's actions in self-interactions or
interactions with oneself
Thus, "interpretation/definition" is understood as the following process: (a) the acquisition of "gene-
ralized roles," (b) the acquisition of "schemes of definition," (c) the scrutiny of "schemes of definition"
through self-interaction, which is guided by "generalized roles", and (d) perception of the environment
using the new "schemes of definition" resulting from the scrutiny in step (c). This is a social
phenomenon which is called "conferring of meaning" in SI. The environment, as in (d), above, is
called the "world of reality" (= the "social and physical sphere").
SI conceives of "human beings" as existences surrounded by an environment, which is composed of
a variety of "things". The "world" is created by human beings through making "objects" for him/her-
self from the world of reality by means of the act of "conferring of meaning". In SI, this act is
understood as synonymous with perception as organized by "perspectives" (i.e. "schemes of definitio-
U ifi -^ f& * *M 67 ■%
n" and "genera-lized roles"). So, an object is conceived as a portion or an aspect of the world of
reality, which a human being has created via his/her perspectives. SI divides objects into three
categories: "physical objects", "social objects"" and "abstract objects".
The "world" for any human being is an area consisting only of these objects. Human beings are understood
as entities living within such worlds. Hence SI proposes that "relationship between individual and world" is
established by the interpretation/definition (-'conferring of meaning" or "perception") of the world of reality
by human beings via successive processes of self-interaction.
However, SI has never considered this "relationship" to be "fixed" only by the one-sided interpretation of
an actor. According to SI, the world of reality that is to be interpreted by an individual is capable of "talking
back" to his/her interpretation/definition, even the individual does not sure whether his/her interpretations
have validity, he/she can judge the validity of definitions from this "talking back". If the interpretations prove
to be invalid, they are then modified. Thus in SI "the relationship between individual and world" must be
understood as the relationship with a capability of being formed and re-formed from moment to moment
through constant interaction/interplay between interpretation/definition by an actor and talking back from the
world of reality. Hence, this relationship, in SI, must not be considered to be fixed only by the one-sided
interpretation of the actor.
Keeping the point of "relationship between individual and world" in mind, let us try to clarify the concept
of "action"--"an individual act"-- in SI. In SI, first and foremost, an action is understood as an activity of
"fitting" or "adjusting" by an actor against the world of reality. As a result of this activity, the relationship
between individual and world is forced to be formed and re-formed from moment to moment, in the wake
of talking back from the world of reality. SI conceptualizes this process as a sequence of units consisting of:
1) "impulse", 2) "perception", 3) "manipulation", 4) "consummation". This is not, of course, terminated after
just one cycle, but is a perpetual cycling of the four units, as in, 1) "impulse", 2) "perception", 3) "mani-
pulation", 4) "consummation", 5) "impulse", 6) "perception", 7) "manipulation", 8) "consummation",
— *• n) "impulse ", and so on.
In chapter two, we attempt to answer the second question, as to how actors are constructing a society. SI
explains social interaction as a mutual presentation or an interconversion of actions by actors. SI classifies
social interactions into two categories, i.e., "symbolic interaction" and "non-symbolic interaction". The
former is mediated by self-interaction, the latter is not. It has been thought that symbolic interaction is the
equivalent of "the use of significant symbols", in Mead's terminology, and that non-symbolic interaction is
the equivalent of Mead's "conversation of gestures". However, the greater precision of our analysis on SI
demonstrates the existence of at least two types of symbolic interaction, distinctly different from each other:
11 Logically speaking, "Gestures" in G.H. Mead's terminology must be included in the category of this concept ("social
object"). So, from the perspective of SI, the "meanings" of "gestures" are also understood as social products. This view
of "meanings" is equivalent to the view of "meanings" in Mead's theory of social interactions.
An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic Interactionism: Herbert Blumer's Perspective Revisited
symbolic interaction in which a significant symbol does not yet exist but participants in the interaction are
trying to call a significant symbol into being, and symbolic interaction mediated by significant symbols called
into being by participants in a preceding interaction (="use of significant symbols"). The latter is called "a
real form of interaction". In SI, "society" or "human society" is understood as "a real form of interaction",
and this type of interaction is called "joint action" or "transaction". Therefore, "joint action (or transaction)"
is in fact the real form of interaction that is equivalent to "use of significant symbols".
"Human society" is conceptualized as joint actions closely interlinked with each other "in a timeline and
in space" (or in other words, diachronically and synchronically). "Joint action represents not only a horizontal
linkage, so to speak, of the activities of the participants, but also a vertical linkage with the previous joint
action" 4 . Joint action, thus, is "the fundamental unit of society. Its analysis, accordingly, lays bare the
generic nature of society" 5
Joint action is formed through symbolic interaction. That is, interactants construct the real form of
interaction through symbolic interaction. In SI, symbolic interaction is formulated as a presentation of
"gesture" and a response to the meaning of the gesture. The meaning of the gesture has three components:
it signifies what an interactant who is presenting the gesture plans to do, what another interactant to whom
the gesture is directed is to do, and the form of joint action that is to emerge from the articulation of the acts
of the interactants. A state of "mutual understanding" occurs when the gesture has the same meaning for both
interactants, the one who has presented the gesture and the other to whom it has been addressed. In this
situation, "a significant symbol" or "a common definition" is shared by the interactants, and the terms "a
significant symbol", and "a common definition", indicate that each interactant is "conferring" the same
meaning on the gesture, through their individual processes of self-interaction.
Joint action can take place only when a significant symbol or a common definition exists among
interactants. In turn, "a common definition" can exist only when each interactant performs a process called
"taking into account of taking into account"~a form of self-interaction. As a result of this process, they are
able to grasp properly (^interpret properly) the "standpoint of the other" and "one's own standpoint in the
eyes of the other". SI proposes that for interactants, a proper grasp of these two "standpoints" is possible only
if interpretations/definitions are directed by interpretive instruments, i.e., perspectives (= "schemes of defin-
ition" and "generalized roles"). The interactants have already obtained such perspectives from "groups of
others". And, from the SI perspective, only in the presence of a common definition can "the regularity,
stability, and repetitiveness of joint action" 6 be maintained.
In chapter three, we address the third problem: the nature of human society is the one of unpredictable
continual transformation. SI has emphasized that human society or joint action must be seen to have a career
41 Blumer, H.G., 1969, Symbolic Interactionism, Prentice-Hall, p.20.
" Blumer, 1969, p.70.
M Blumer, 1969, p.71.
Tff ?A '?- ~im -1ft % 67 o"
or a history; its career is generally orderly, fixed and repetitious, by virtue of its participants' common
identification or definition in their joint action. The career of joint action must, however, also be seen to be
open to many possibilities of uncertainty.
Why must joint action/society be understood as having the character of being "open to many possibilities
of uncertainty" 7 ? To answer this question with the focus on the concept of "self-interaction", which, we
attempt to prove, necessarily implies that continuous regularity, stability, and repetitiveness of joint actions
that compose human society are actually, and logically, impossible. In other words, "a common definition' 1
cannot, in practice, keep its given form continuously unchanged.
In SI, a condition in which a certain common definition is maintained implies a situation in which a certain
significant symbol is maintained among interactants. This situation can be described as a state in which an
individual sees a gesture he himself presents in the identical way in which it is seen by those to whom it is
addressed. In order to maintain this state, the interactant who presents the gesture must interpret and define
properly, through a process of self-interaction, the "two standpoints" of the other interactant/"alter ego" to
whom the gesture is addressed. Moreover, the validity of his/her interpretation/definition must be continu-
ously maintained. But this is impossible, because of the nature of the "alter ego" or "other".
As we have seen in chapter one, the "worlds" that exist for human beings are areas that consist only of
"objects". Therefore "others", as they exist for each individual, must be included in the category/concept of
"object" ("social object"). Objects are, as we have said, able to be described as a part of the world of reality
that is seen by the individual from his/her perspectives. Therefore, it can be said that the object is, on one
hand, a percept created by the individual, but at the same time it continues to exist undeniably as a portion
of the world of reality. How, then, is the nature of the world of reality grasped? As clarified in chapter one,
SI proposes that the world of reality to be interpreted by an actor has continuous possibilities of talking back
to his/her interpretation/definition, and the actor can thereby know whether his/her interpretation has validity
or not. If an individuals' interpretation is found out to be invalid, the given interpretation will be modified.
This means that SI understands interpretation always has the possibility of being formed and re-formed from
moment to moment.
From these grounds, it follows that the individual cannot continuously use the same interpretation/defini-
tion of a given object. Therefore, because the "other" is also categorized as an object and as part of the world
of reality, it follows that the "other" which is to be interpreted by an actor has continuous possibilities of
talking back to the actor's interpretation/definition; and it also follows that the individual cannot continuously
give the same interpretation/definition to the "other" with whom the individual is engaged in
interactions/joint actions. The "other" or "alter ego" for the individual exists as a "black box" (Luhmann, N.)
'' Blumer, 1969, p.71.
An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic Interactionism: Herbert Blumer's Perspective Revisited
In summary of the above, in SI any common definition must, as a matter of fact, be considered impossible
to sustain a particular form forever. Forever, for the nature of the "other" (= "black boxness") doesn't allow
an actor to continue to use the same interpretation/definition, or to confer a particular meaning through a
process of self-interaction, forever. The "other" has continuous possibilities of talking back, and the resultant
need of the actor to change or modify any given interpretation/definition (^meaning) endlessly persists.
Hence, any common definition must inevitably be re-formed eventually, and hence, any joint action must also
inevitably be re-formed eventually.
The final chapter concerns the problem of finding a suitable research methodology for examining "the
standpoint of the actor", as the means to testing empirically the SI model of society, that is, "the Dynamic
Society", laid out in the previous chapters.
In chapters one, two, and three, we clarified the SI model of human society. First and foremost, "human
society" is conceptualized as a system of interlinked social interactions by interactants, and in reality human
society exists only as "a real form of interactions", i.e., "transactions" or "joint actions". In SI, social
interaction is the fundamental unit of society, which exposes the generic nature of "human society". To
understand society, we need only to study this "real form of interaction" (=transaction/joint action). This was
the initial hypothesis of SI for the study of society.
Summarizing the model of social interaction described in the previous chapters, for SI social interaction
is an interaction in which interactants, each having the nature of "black boxness" for other interactants,
perform "taking into account of taking into account" as a form of self-interaction, in order to grasp/define
properly both the "standpoint of the other" and "one's own standpoint in the eyes of the other". Thus social
interaction is a social process in which each interactant must continue to guess two things i.e., "from what
standpoints are others perceiving the world?" and "how are my perspectives being grasped by others?", by
the procedure of "taking into account of taking into account". Additionally, because of the nature of "black
boxness" which characterizes all interactants with respect to one another, the interactants are necessarily
forced into redefining the situation, and as a result of this re-definition, their interactions or their joint actions
are forced to change into yet another form. These possibilities of "change" continue ad infinitum.
We have discussed the conception of social interaction in the first three chapters of this article. This
conception should be categorized as a "sensitizing concept" in terms of Si's methodology. This means that
this conception must not be taken as a self-evident truth or a priori assumption on which a grand theory can
be built by a purely deductive approach, but must be understood as merely a hypothesis or tentative
proposition whose validity must be tested empirically. The approach to empirical testing recommended by SI
is as follows: "One moves out from a concept to the concrete distinctiveness of the instance, instead of
embracing the instance in the abstract framework of the concept" s .
"Blumer, 1969, p. 149.
m Xft ^ ^ * # 67 ?/
SI has promoted "naturalistic inquiry" as the ideal research method for the social sciences. This means a
"continuing interaction between guiding ideas and empirical observation" 9 . The methodology of naturalistic
inquiry is a continual testing and revising of the concepts with respect to the investigator's subject of research
through empirical observation. But "How can the investigator know whether or not the given concepts of the
subject of research are valid?" That is, how does SI envisage the process of testing and revising? In SI terms,
this is considered to be possible by way of the "resisting", or talking back, from the "empirical world" under
study to the concepts of the investigator (the occurrence of the "negative case").
What, then, is the methodological position of the investigator when carrying out the naturalistic inquiry
with the concepts of social interaction ("root images" of SI) laid out in chapters one, two and three? The
"position" assumed is identical with the approach from the ''standpoint of the actor". The investigator must
take on the same activity as that of the interactant described in SI theory.
The final chapter illustrates the problems, and the points to be kept in mind, when actually employing this
approach to research.
The study of society from "the position of the actor" requires that the investigator takes on the role of the
actor under study and sees "his/her own world from his/her standpoint". The concept of "actor" embraces
not only an individual, but also a group. In order to make this clear, SI often uses the term "acting unit" to
refer to "actor". The first problem is whether the "group" can be properly located in the category or concept
of "acting unit".
Whether the "acting unit" consists of an individual or a group, its activities must be equally understood as
the products of its own interpretive processes. The assertion of SI is that even in cases where the "acting
unit" represents a group, we must adopt the approach from the standpoint of the actor and "take the role of
the acting unit". However, our analysis makes it clear that SI does not explain persuasively and systemati-
cally how it is possible for the investigator to take the role of an entire group, and that the discussion above
only provides that only an individual can be included in the category of "acting unit", if we are to do the
approach from the standpoint of the actor 10 '.
The next problem, "Can we take the role of the acting unit in the rawT is discussed below.
Supposing that social interactions occur between two interactants, then, in terms of our analysis, the two
interactants are considered to be engaged in the "taking into account of taking into account" (a form of
1 Blumer, H.G., 1977-1992, Comment on Lewis' "The Classic American Pragmatists as Forerunners to Symbolic Inter-
actionism", Hamilton, P., (ed.), George Herbert Mead Critical Assessments, vol.2, sec.2, Routledge, p. 154.
* According to Mamoru Funatsu, however, Blumer' s theory on "social problems" based on SI has a potential for making
significant contributions to develop a macro theory of SI. See next two articles: Funatsu, M., 1990, Interpretative
Approach to Social Problems, The Study of Sociology, 55, Tohoku Sociological Association, pp. 155-174; Blumer, 1971,
Social Problems as Collective Behavior, Social Problems, 18: 298-306=2006, translated by Kuwabara, T. and
Yamaguchi, K., H.G.Blumer, Social Problems as Collective Behavior, Journal of Economics and Sociology, 66, The
Economic Society of Kagoshima University, pp. 41-55. In this translation by us, a brief examination as to relationships
between Blumer' s theory on SI and Social Constructionism is included.
An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic Interactionism: Herbert Blumer's Perspective Revisited
self-interaction) each other, in order to grasp the "standpoint of the other" and "one's own standpoint in the
eyes of the other"; and it is further considered that each of the two interactants has the nature of a "black
boxness" for the other. So, when an investigator attempts to study social interaction from the standpoint of
an actor, he/she must take into account the assumption of "black boxness" that the interactants can never
know the real identity of the other, and also must build the research method or methodology compatible with
this assumption. As a result, "delimiting an awareness context always requires that the sociologist ascertain
independently the awareness of each interactant. The safest method is to obtain data, through observation or
interview, from each interactant on his own state of awareness. To accept the word of only one informant is
risky, even perhaps for the open awareness context" u .
It must also be borne in mind that an "investigator 1 ' who studies social interaction becomes one of the
actors or acting units on the same level as the two interactants studied. So, an act of studying or a "research
act" by the investigator must also be understood as one of the interpretive processes, and the interaction
between the investigator and the investigated is, equally, located in the category of "symbolic interaction";
and even for the investigator the two interactants whose roles are under study also have the character of black
hoxness. For this reason, although the research act involves taking the standpoint of the actor, it never means
taking directly the standpoint in the raw. The standpoint of the actor as taken by an investigator can only be
the "reconstruction of constructions" (Naohito Tokugawa) 12 .
How, then, can the investigator relativize this "reconstruction of constructions" and test its validity? The
obvious answer to this question derived from SI theory, that the investigator can do this in the light of talking
back from an empirical world, is unsatisfactory. It is too incomplete for practical use in sociological research.
A major issue being to be dealt with in future work is to devise testing standards that can verify empirically
the SI conception of social interaction or its model of society, namely, "the Dynamic Society".
We are deeply indebted to many people for their assistance in the writing of this article. Special thanks go
to M. Hougetsu (Professor at Ritumeikan University), K. Ihara (Associate Professor at Kagoshima Univer-
sity), Makoto Kuwabara (Honorary Professor at Tokyo University) and S. Coda (Associate Professor at
Kagoshima University) who gave us much advice and many helpful suggestions.
'Glaser, B.G., and Strauss, A.L., 1964=1970, Awareness Contexts and Social Interaction, Stone, G.P., and Farbcrman,
H.A., (ed.). Social Psychology through Symbolic Interaction, Xerox College Publishing, p. 338.
'Tokugawa, N., 2001, The "Individual and Collaborative Character'of Narrative Actions, Kitamura.. T., et al., (cd.). The
Renaissance of Human Beings in 2 1st century, Hassakusha, p. 129.