Herbert Blumer on the Interactional Order of the Democratic Society

By Halas, Elzbieta | Polish Sociological Review, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Herbert Blumer on the Interactional Order of the Democratic Society


Halas, Elzbieta, Polish Sociological Review


Abstract: The article draws attention to the potential significance of Herbert Blumer's heritage in the sociological analysis of the issues with which modern democracy has to deal. It aims to strengthen that current of interpretation pertaining to symbolic interactionism which opposes the widespread tendency to consider it as a microsociological orientation. The article emphasizes medium-range phenomena - in other words, mesosociological problems of organizations, interest groups and social movements. Blumer helped George H. Mead's ideas, including the basic concept of the self, find a fuller application in sociology. To properly evaluate Blumer's achievements, one should consider him as a researcher of the changes occurring in modern societies in general. He emphasized the existence of a constant process of defining and redefining social institutions, and thus, the role of civic agency - in other words, ultimately, of the reflexive self. In Blumer's conceptions of symbolic interaction, joint action and negotiated order one may see an elaboration of the interactional order of the democratic society.

Keywords: Herbert Blumer, democracy, symbolic interactions, negotiated order.

Introduction: Blumer's Interactionism Revisited

This article, which appraises the heritage of a scholar who died a quarter of a century ago, just before the downfall of the Soviet Union and the communist bloc, was written for three reasons. The successive waves of democratization visible in various parts of the globe in the 20th and 21st centuries have rendered the problem of modern democracy a crucial issue not only in political theory, but also - perhaps even first and foremost - in sociological theory. Thus, my primary motive is to remind readers about the existence of a conceptual reservoir for the processual analysis of sociocultural phenomena and the dynamics of a democratic society. Viewed from such an angle, Herbert Blumer's heritage shows the civic value of the Chicago school's sociological traditions and of the public philosophy of pragmatism, which fueled both the Chicago school and Blumer's work. In the presented reflections, I allude to my previous studies on the same subject (Halas 1994: 45-68; Halas 2011a: 247-259; Halas 2007: VII-XX) and draw upon them. My second motive is the intention to strengthen that current of interpretation pertaining to the theory of symbolic interactionism which opposes the widespread, stereotypical tendency to read interactionism as a microsociological orientation. However, while it was correct to accentuate macrointeractionism as a counterbalance, as Robert Maines and Tom Morrione (2001: 55ff) did, the presented sketch emphasizes the sphere of medium-range phenomena - in other words, mesosociological issues: the problems of organizations, interest groups and social movements. In this meso-area, a field is indicated in which further research should be conducted, with potentially crucial implications for the theory of democratic societies. The third and final motive for this article is the need to confirm the significance of sociology's heritage, despite attempts to devalue sociological theory as a scientific undertaking under the pretext of its insufficient interdisciplinarity (Delanty 2006: XVIII). Sociological theory is being negatively compared with European social theory, which is a new term for the "critical social philosophy of the present" (Delanty 2006: XIX); this term, by the way, can be traced back to the program of the Chicago school, where it referred to an essentially interdisciplinary project of research on order and change, which involved - at the very least - social psychology and sociology (Thomas, Znaniecki 1927).

The name of Herbert Blumer (1900-1987) is rightly associated with symbolic interactionism, which he is considered to have established among sociological theories. However, just as symbolic interactionism cannot be viewed solely through the lens of Blumer's conception, since Blumer is not the only founder of this heterogeneous theoretical orientation, Blumer's heritage would also suffer, should we interpret it only in the simplified frames of symbolic interactionism. …

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