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Herbert George Blumer earned his doctorate in 1928 at the University of Chicago and went on to teach there until 1951. He later became the founding chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. In 1983 the American Sociological Association honored him with its Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award, acknowledging the importance of his codification of the fundamental theoretical and methodological tenets of the sociological perspective that he called symbolic interactionism.
While it is not possible to capture the great range and significance of his contributions to the study of human group life in a single quotation, this oft-cited passage from his most influential and widely read work, Symbolic Interaction: Perspective and Method, sets out the cardinal premises of symbolic interactionism and the central message of his scholarship:
The first premise is that human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.… The second premise is that the meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with one’s fellows. The third premise is that these meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he encounters (Blumer 1969, p. 2).
Accordingly, individual and collective actions of any scale or complexity reflect the meanings that people assign to things, as these meanings emerge in and are transformed within the context of human group life. Blumer incorporated these assumptions into his vision of social life as an ongoing stream of situations handled by people through self-indication and definition.
Blumer synthesized the pragmatist philosophy of George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) with Charles Horton Cooley’s (1864–1929) notion of sympathetic introspection, particularly as it informs contemporary ethnography, to develop a sociologically focused approach to the study of human lived experience. In opposition to behaviorist, structuralist, and positivist views that have dominated the social sciences, Blumer championed using an interpretivist perspective when examining social life. He contended that theoretical and methodological approaches to the study of human behavior must recognize human beings as thinking, acting, and interacting entities and must, therefore, employ concepts that authentically represent the humanly known, socially created, and experienced world.
Blumer’s pioneering sociological perspective informed his analysis of a broad array of subjects including collective behavior, social movements, fashion, social change, social problems, industrial and labor relations, public opinion, morale, industrialization, public sector social science research, social psychology, and race relations. And, because his rendition of symbolic interactionism invariably portrays people as possessing agency, as reflective interactive participants in community life, he routinely called into question analyses of social life that rely on more stereotypical factors-oriented approaches.
Although Blumer’s 1958 article “Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position” challenges psychological and psychoanalytic explanations of race relations by emphasizing social processes entailed in conflict, institutionalized power relations, and collective definitions of the situation, his most consequential contribution to the study of intergroup relations was his 1971 article “Social Problems as Collective Behavior.”
- Blumer, Herbert. 1958. Race Prejudice as a Sense of Group Position. Pacific Sociological Review I (Spring): 3–7.
- Blumer, Herbert. 1969. Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Blumer, Herbert. 1971. Social Problems as Collective Behavior. Social Problems 18 (Winter): 298–306.
- Blumer, Herbert. 2004. George Herbert Mead and Human Conduct. Ed. Thomas J. Morrione. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
- Lyman, Stanford M., and Arthur J. Vidich, eds. 2000. Selected Works of Herbert Blumer. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
- Morrione, Thomas J. 1999. Blumer, Herbert George. In American National Biography, eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, 73–76. New York: Oxford University Press.
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