Symbolic Interactionism and the Concept of Social Structure

Article excerpt

Although Blumer asserts that to deny the existence of "structure" in human society is "ridiculous," just such a denial has commonly been attributed to him. The more conventional mainstream understanding of structure in sociology, however, is theoretically incoherent, as demonstrated by classic and modern studies of, for example, stratification. Blumer's sociology is shown, with particular reference to its bases in the pragmatist tradition, to provide an alternative understanding of structure that is both theoretically coherent and capable of empirical investigation. Furthermore, it is capable of dissolving the dilemma of structure and agency in contemporary sociological theory.

In his remarks on the implications for sociology of the thought of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer emphasizes the point that, although Mead describes the social order as the outcome of collaborative "joint action," such a position does not entail a denial of "the existence of structure in human society. Such a position would be ridiculous" (Blumer 1969: 75). Blumer's critics would disagree, arguing that symbolic interactionism "prevents the understanding of social structures and their constraining characteristics or of patterns of human organization such as class hierarchies or power constellations" (Coser 1976: 157). Even apparently sympathetic commentators are prepared to accept that the perspective suffers from an "astructural bias," and displays an "unconcern with social structure" (Meltzer et al. 1975: 113). More recently, Musolf (1992) has also accepted this criticism, arguing that only new directions in interactionist thought will allow the perspective to address the macrosociological concerns of power, inequality, and social structure. Ridiculous or not, then, the notion that Blumer denied the existence of structure has become widespread, from the publication of Symbolic Interactionism (Blumer 1969) to the present day (see, for example, the discussions in Denzin 1992: 56; Gouldner 1970: 379; Maines 1977: 236; Morrione 2003: xiv; Sauder 2005: 286).

Our purpose here is to question the validity of this criticism, not only because it misrepresents Blumer's sociological position-although many critics do present a curiously myopic version of this but also because it fails to acknowledge symbolic interactionism's status as a distinct and coherent alternative to more orthodox forms of sociological thought. At the risk of tautology, we will argue that the very conception of "social structure" is a product of, and embedded in, orthodox "structural" sociology-the same orthodoxy to which Blumer's work stands as a principled objection. This conception cannot be transported from one perspective to another, because its meaning differs between the different theoretical traditions. Moreover, although symbolic interactionism has indeed developed an approach for the analysis of patterned social organization, including hierarchical differentiation and asymmetries of power (see, for example, Hall 2003), interactionists have good reasons to regard "social structure" as a problematic concept.

Just as Mead concluded that "metaphysical problems were unnecessary 'riddles' created by dualistic philosophies" (Baldwin 1986: 24), Blumer's theoretical work aims to overcome various problematic dualisms, among them the fruitless opposition between realism and idealism in sociology. The concept of social structure is an exemplary case of the former in three ways. First, it requires a reification of social processes, so that (as in Durkheim 1982) they become "things," external to real people. Second, it facilitates a portrayal of social life as static rather than processual, understood through categories with largely stable relationships instead of through social actors actually doing things. Third, its analytic utility depends on its being seen as the cause of human behavior: it is necessarily deterministic in application. In short, then, the structural conception of sociology takes society to be an external system that is the "overall determinant of social action" (Blumer 1969: 74). …