The Dilemma of Qualitative Method: Herbert Blumer and the Chicago Tradition

The Dilemma of Qualitative Method: Herbert Blumer and the Chicago Tradition

The Dilemma of Qualitative Method: Herbert Blumer and the Chicago Tradition

The Dilemma of Qualitative Method: Herbert Blumer and the Chicago Tradition


The dispute over the value of qualitative versus quantitative approaches to social research originated in 19th and early 20th-century debates about the relationship between the methods of history and natural science. Within sociology, this dispute first arose in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, between adherents of case study and statistical methods. One of the main advocates of case study was the Chicago sociologist, Herbert Blumer. His influential writings on methodology provide a link between this earlier controversy and the debates of later decades. However, Blumer's arguments for qualitative or naturalistic methods, retain a central ambivalence - does that method share the same logic as natural science, or does it represent a different form of enquiry characteristic of history and the humanities?



In previous chapters I have examined the philosophical background to the methodological ideas prevalent among Chicago sociologists in the 1920s and 1930s. I want now to look at Chicago sociology itself. This was the immediate context in which Blumer worked. It set the framework for his conception of the purposes and nature of sociology. In fact, it seems to me that though Blumer read widely in the philosophical literature, and while many of his arguments have precursors in that literature, Chicago sociology and its fortunes in this period were the most important influences upon him.

When Blumer arrived at the University of Chicago in the early 1920s, its department of sociology was pre-eminent in the United States, maintaining that status until at least the mid-1930s. Other social science departments at Chicago were also important centres in their fields (Bulmer 1984). It was a time of expansion and high intellectual excitement.

The University of Chicago had been established in 1892 by William Rainey Harper, using money from Rockefeller and other wealthy patrons. Harper succeeded in attracting prominent figures from other universities to most of the new departments at Chicago. From the beginning, the new university was in the front rank. One of the people Harper recruited was Albion Small, who became head of what was initially called the Department of Social Science and Anthropology.

The main stimulus to the development of sociology in the United States in the late nineteenth century was the social reform movement and the liberal theology and social philosophy associated with it. They arose in the face of the social problems created by rapid industrial expansion, rampant capitalistic enterprise, urbanization,

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