Herbert George Blumer
Born(1900-03-07)March 7, 1900
DiedApril 13, 1987(1987-04-13) (aged 87)
Main interests
Sociology, symbolic interactionism, sociological research methods

Herbert George Blumer (March 7, 1900 – April 13, 1987) was an American sociologist whose main scholarly interests were symbolic interactionism and methods of social research.[1] Believing that individuals create social reality through collective and individual action,[2] he was an avid interpreter and proponent of George Herbert Mead's social psychology, which he labelled symbolic interactionism.[3] Blumer elaborated and developed this line of thought in a series of articles, many of which were brought together in the book Symbolic Interactionism.[4] An ongoing theme throughout his work, he argued that the creation of social reality is a continuous process.[2] Blumer was also a vociferous critic of positivistic methodological ideas in sociology.[3][5][6]

Personal history

Blumer was born March 7, 1900 in St. Louis, Missouri. He grew up in Webster Groves, Missouri, with his parents. He moved to Webster Groves with his family in 1905 onto a farm, but his father commuted to St. Louis every day to run a cabinet-making business.[7] Blumer attended Webster Groves High School and later the University of Missouri from 1918 to 1922. Herbert Blumer was constantly being grounded in the world of economics and labor, insofar as having to drop out of high school to help his father's woodworking shop. Moreover, during the summer, Blumer worked as a roustabout to pay for his college education. While studying undergraduate at the University of Missouri, Blumer was fortunate enough to work with Charles Ellwood, a sociologist, and Max Meyer, a psychologist.[8]

Upon graduating, Blumer secured a teaching position at the University of Missouri. Then, in 1925, he relocated to the University of Chicago, a university where he was greatly influenced by the social psychologist George Herbert Mead and sociologists W. I. Thomas and Robert Park.[9] Upon completing his doctorate in 1928, he accepted a teaching position at the University of Chicago, where he continued his own research under Mead and became captivated with the prospects of examining the interactions between humans and the world.[10][11] Blumer taught at this institution from 1927–1952.[4]

Blumer was the secretary treasurer of the American Sociological Association from 1930–1935 and was the editor of the American Journal of Sociology from 1941–1952. In 1952, he moved from the University of Chicago and presided and developed the newly formed Sociology Department at the University of California, Berkeley. During World War II, he had a role as an arbitrator for the national steel industry.[7] Blumer was appointed the first chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, a post he held until he retired in 1967.[12] In 1952, he became the president of the American Sociological Association and he received the association's award for a Career of Distinguished Scholarship in 1983.[3] Blumer served as the 46th president of the American Sociological Association and his Presidential Address was his paper "Sociological Analysis and the 'Variable'".[13] With Emeritus Professor status until 1986, Blumer continued to be actively engaged in writing and research until shortly before his death on April 13, 1987.[14]

Professional football career

Herb Blumer
Position:Center / Guard / Tackle
Personal information
Height:6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight:200 lb (91 kg)
Career information
High school:Webster Groves (MO)
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Player stats at NFL.com · PFR

During much of the period that Blumer was at the University of Chicago from, 1925 through 1933, including all of the years that he was completing his doctorate,[15] Blumer played football professionally for the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals), a team in the American Professional Football Association which would later become the NFL. Blumer played as an end, guard and a series of other positions. During his first year of his doctorate, he also scored two touchdowns for the Cardinals.[16][17] During that season, the Cardinals won the league championship—although that victory remains controversial due to the disqualification of the Pottsville Maroons, a team with a better record. Blumer was selected to the 1929 All-Pro Team.[17]

Intellectual contributions

Symbolic interactionism

Although Blumer devised the term symbolic interaction in 1937,[18] the early development of this theoretical approach to social analysis is largely credited to the work of George Herbert Mead during his time at the University of Chicago.[2][19][20] Blumer played a key role in keeping the tradition of symbolic interactionism alive by incorporating it into his teachings at the University.[21] He presented his articles on symbolic interactionism in a single volume in which he conceptualized symbolic interaction into three main points:

Blumer believed that what creates society itself is people engaging in social interaction. It follows then that social reality only exists in the context of the human experience.[25] His theory of symbolic interaction, some argue, is thus closer to a theoretical framework (based on the significance of meanings[3][22] and the interaction between individuals[22]) than an applicable theory.[24]

According to Blumer's theory, interaction between individuals is based on autonomous action,[3] which in turn is based on the subjective meaning actors attribute to social objects and/or symbols.[3][19][20][24] Thus individual actors regulate their behavior based on the meaning they attribute to objects and symbols in their relevant situation.[3] Blumer theorized that assigning objects meaning is an ongoing, two-fold process. First, is the identification of the objects that have situational meaning. Second, is the process of internal communication to decide which meaningful object to respond to.[23] Acknowledging that others are equally autonomous, individuals use their subjectively derived interpretations of others (as social objects) to predict the outcome of certain behaviors, and use such predictive insight to make decisions about their own behavior in the hopes of reaching their goal.[24] Thus, when there is consensus among individual actors about the meaning of the objects that make up their situation, social coordination ensues.[3] Social structures are determined as much by the action of individual actors as they determine the action of those individuals.[25] Based on this, Blumer believed that society exists only as a set of potentials, or ideas that people could possibly use in the future.[26]

This complex interaction between meanings, objects, and behaviors, Blumer reiterated, is a uniquely human process because it requires behavioral responses based on the interpretation of symbols, rather than behavioral responses based on environmental stimuli.[19] As social life is a "fluid and negotiated process," to understand each other, humans must intrinsically engage in symbolic interaction.[20] Blumer criticized the contemporary social science of his day because instead of using symbolic interactionism they made false conclusions about humans by reducing human decisions to social pressures like social positions and roles. Blumer was more invested in psychical interactionism that holds that the meanings of symbols are not universal, but are rather subjective and are "attached" to the symbols and the receiver depending on how they choose to interpret them.[21]

Blumer's 3 types of objects

The importance of thinking to symbolic interactionists is shown through their views on objects.[21] Blumer defined objects as the things "out there" in the world. The significance of objects is how they are defined by the actor. In other words, different objects have different meanings depending on the individual.

Summary principles of symbolic interactionism

Methodological contributions to sociology

According to Herbert Blumer, the most valid and desirable social research is conducted through qualitative, ethnographic methodology. He persistently critiqued the idea that the only form of valid knowledge is derived through a totally objective perspective.[3] Blumer believed that theoretical and methodological approaches to studying human behavior must acknowledge human beings as thinking, acting, and interacting individuals and also must employ that represent the humanly known, socially created, and experienced world.[27] As this directly challenges the thought process of traditional, positivism-based approach to sociological method, much controversy surrounds Blumer's sociological approach to empirical research.[28]

Blumer believed that when positivistic methods were applied to social research, they created results that were ignorant to the empirical realities of the social world. Because people act towards the world based on the subjective meanings they attribute to different objects (symbolic interactionism), individuals construct worlds that are inherently subjective. Therefore, "objective" analysis is intrinsically subjugated to the researcher's own social reality, only documents the researchers own personal assumptions about social interaction, and ultimately yields biased findings.[3][28] For a researcher to truly understand sociological phenomena, Blumer asserted, they must understand their subject's subjective interpretations of reality.[28]

Following this logic, Blumer discounted social research that blindly applies methods that have been traditionally used in the natural sciences. Such quantitative, objective analysis, he argued, does not acknowledge the difference between humans and animals – specifically the difference in cognitive ability to consciously entertain opinions and to apply meanings to objects, both which enables humans to take an active role in shaping their world.[28] Because society is composed of interactions between individuals or "joint actions/transactions",[29] the only empirical reality is that which stems from human interaction. Therefore, contextual understanding of human action is intrinsic to valid social research.[25]

Thus Blumer advocated for sociological research that sympathetically and subjectively incorporates the viewpoints of the subject, therefore pushing for a micro-sociological approach.[4] Concluding that there is little validity in research that attempted to understand the social world objectively, Blumer felt that objective interpretations of society are intrinsically bias to the researchers social location and thus have little empirical value.[28] To truthfully uncover the social realities of individuals different from one's self, an observer must be mindful of their framework and be open to different understanding of social reality.[3][28]

Macrostructures and microstructures

Blumer believed that society is not made up of macrostructures, but rather that the essence of society is found in microstructures, specifically in actors and their actions. These microstructures are not isolated, but consist of the collective action of combination, giving rise to the concept of joint action. Joint action is not just the sum of individual actions, but takes on a character of its own. Blumer did not reject the idea of macrostructures, but instead focused on the concept of emergence-our larger social structures emerge from the smaller. Blumer admitted that macrostructures are important, but that they have an extremely limited role in symbolic interactionism. Therefore, he argued that macrostructures are a little more than "frameworks" within which the really important aspects of social life (action and interaction) take place. Moreover, according to Blumer, macrostructures are important because they shape the situations in which individuals act and supply to actors a certain set of symbols that allow them to act.[21] Also, he did not deny systems such as culture and social order. In sum, Blumer said that large scale structures are the frameworks for what is crucial in society, action and interaction.[21] He is not denying that social structures influence our actions, just that they do not determine our actions.[4]

Techniques Blumer advocated

Sociological analysis and the "variable"

In 1952, Herbert Blumer became President of the American Sociological Association and his Presidential Address was his paper "Sociological Analysis and the 'Variable'.[30] In this paper, Blumer addresses the shortcomings with variable analysis that he sees in social research. Herbert Blumer says "there is a conspicuous absence of rules, guides, limitations and prohibitions to govern the choice of variables." Overall, he felt that variable analysis needed to be looked at more carefully and precisely to see if the variables are correct and connected to the social research at hand.

Generic variables Blumer does not find generic:

Blumer believed these shortcomings are serious but not crucial, and that with increased experience they can be overcome. This address was meant to question how well variable analysis is suited to the study of human group life in its fuller dimensions.

Blumer's criticisms of Thomas and Znaniecki

In 1939, Blumer published Critiques of Research in the Social Sciences: An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, criticizing what at the time was a popular social theory.[10] Blumer claimed that Thomas and Znaniecki failed to properly distinguish between attitude as subjective and value as a societal collective element. He said they used the terms interchangeably, and therefore making the theory unreliable. It is difficult to disentangle subjective factors and objective correlates because the objective world is dealt with only to the extent that it enters subjective experiences.[31] Blumer said,

This scheme declares that a value playing upon a pre-existing attitude gives rise to a new attitude, or an attitude playing upon a pre-existing value gives rise to a new value. With terms that are uncertain and not clearly disjunctive, the presumed causal relation becomes suspect.[32]

In conclusion, Blumer recognized that in society there was no clear distinction between attitude and value, and that even social theorists have difficulty distinguishing between the two.

Collective behavior

Based on the work of Robert E. Park, Blumer, in a 1939 article, called to attention a new subfield of sociology: collective behavior. This now developed area of inquiry is devoted to the exploration of collective action and behavior that is not yet organized under an institutional structure or formation. Blumer was particularly interested in the spontaneous collective coordination that occurs when something that is unpredicted disrupt standardized group behavior. He saw the combination of events that follows such phenomena as a key factor in society's ongoing transformation.[3]

Relationship with George Herbert Mead

Blumer is well known for his connection with George Herbert Mead. Blumer was a follower of Mead's social-psychological work on the relationship between self and society, and Mead heavily influenced Blumer's development of Symbolic Interactionism. Mead transferred the subject field of social psychology to Blumer's sociology. One important aspect Blumer learned from Mead was that in order for us to understand the meaning of social actions, we must put ourselves in others' shoes to truly understand what social symbols they feel to be important. However, Blumer also deviated from Mead's work. Blumer was a proponent of a more micro-focused approach to sociology and focused on the subjective consciousness and symbolic meanings of individuals.[4][21]

Influence of Charles Ellwood

Similar to George Mead, sociologist Charles Ellwood also influenced the development of Herbert Blumer and symbolic interactionism. There are four prominent areas where Ellwood's ideas can be found in both Blumer's work and symbolic interactionism: interactionism, methodology, emotions, and group behavior. The concepts of "interstimulation and response," "intercommunication," and "coadaptation" function in Ellwood's social psychology in the same way that "self-indications" and "interpretations" that are found in Blumer's symbolic interactionism. There are six areas where Ellwood and Blumer are similar when addressing methodology: studying human behavior in context, a disdain for the physical science method, understanding the people being studied, using sociology to assist humanity, using inductive reasoning, and avoiding hypotheses. Looking at their ideas on emotion, both Ellwood's and Blumer's ideas deal with the relationship between emotion and interaction, with Ellwood stating, all our social life and social behavior are not only embedded in feeling, but largely guided and controlled by feeling." Similar to that, Blumer states that feeling is intrinsic to every social attitude." Both Ellwood and Blumer were social nominalists and positioned that reality is reduced to properties of individuals and their interrelations.

Scholarly critiques of Blumer

Many have argued that Blumer's theory is a simplified and distorted version of Mead's. Many contemporary positions see "Blumerian interactionism" as "old hat," because it is gender blind (as argued by feminists) and is too conservative. It is also contested that symbolic interaction needs to adopt an agenda that takes race, class and gender into consideration more. Moreover, it is argued that the social constructionist perspective of Blumerian interactionism provides an "over-socialized" account of human life, and downplays and ignores our unconscious.[33]

Theory of symbolic interaction

Perspective of empirical research


Selected works

One of Blumer's best-known studies, "Movies and Conduct" (1933), was part of the Payne Fund research project. The project, which included more than 18 social scientists who produced eleven published reports, was initiated out of fear about the effect movies might have on children and young adults. Blumer thus conducted an ethnographic, qualitative study on more than fifteen hundred college and high school students by asking them to write autobiographies of their movie-going experiences. His findings were that children and young adult spectators reported that they learned from movies life skills such as attitudes, hairstyles, how to kiss, and even how to pickpocket.[35]


  1. ^ Herbert Blumer (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc. p. vii.
  2. ^ a b c Morrione, Thomas (Spring 1988). "Herbert G. Blumer (1900–1987): A Legacy of Concepts, Criticisms, and Contributions". Symbolic Interaction. 11, Special Issue on Herbert Blumer's Legacy (1): 1–12. doi:10.1525/si.1988.11.1.1.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n Shibutani, Tamotsu (Spring 1988). "Blumer's Contributions to Twentieth-Century Sociology". Symbolic Interaction. 11 (1, Special Issue on Herbert Blumer's Legacy): 23–31. doi:10.1525/si.1988.11.1.23.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Mann, Douglass. Understanding Society: A Survey of Modern Social Theory. Oxford University Press. 2008
  5. ^ George Ritzer (1996). Classical Sociological Theory. McGraw Hill Companies. p. 59.
  6. ^ Martyn Hammersley (1989). The Dilemma of Qualitative Method: Herbert Blumer and the Chicago tradition. London: Routledge.
  7. ^ a b Norbert Wiley. "Interviewing Herbert". Symbolic Interaction. 37: 300–308.
  8. ^ Morrione, Thomas. "Herbert George Blumer (1900–1987)". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  9. ^ Calvin J. Larson (1986). Sociological Theory from the Enlightenment to the Present. General Hall, Inc. p. 91.
  10. ^ a b Eta Gerhardt. Ambivalent Interactionist: Anselm Strauss and the "Schools" of Chicago Sociology (PDF). p. 7.[dead link]
  11. ^ Morrione, Thomas. "Herbert George Blumer (1900–1987)". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  12. ^ Morrione, Thomas. "Herbert George Blumer (1900–1987)". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  13. ^ Blumer, Herbert. "Herbert Blumer". Presidents of ASA. American Sociological Association. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  14. ^ Morrione, Thomas. "Herbert George Blumer (1900–1987)". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  15. ^ Cf. Herbert Blumer, 1928, Method in Social Psychology, Ph. D. Dissertation, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Chicago.
  16. ^ Blumer, Herbert. "Herb Blumer, E at NFL.com". Player Statistics. NFL Enterprises LLC. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  17. ^ a b Blumer, Herbert. "Herb Blumer NFL Football Statistics". Sports Reference LLC. Retrieved October 2, 2012.
  18. ^ Ferris, Kerry; Stein, Jill (2012). The Real world An introduction to Sociology (third ed.). W. W. Norton. p. 30. ISBN 978-0-393-91217-3.
  19. ^ a b c Dingwall, Robert (2001). "Notes Toward an Intellectual History of Symbolic Interactionism". Symbolic Interaction. 2. 24 (2): 237–242. doi:10.1525/si.2001.24.2.237.
  20. ^ a b c James Farganis (2008). Readings in Social Theory. McGraw Hill Companies. p. 331.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory. McGraw-Hill. 2011.
  22. ^ a b c d e f Snow, David (2001). "Extending and Broadening Blumer's Conceptualization of Symbolic Interactionism". Symbolic Interaction. 3. 24 (3): 367–377. doi:10.1525/si.2001.24.3.367.
  23. ^ a b Calvin J. Larson (1986). Sociological Theory from the Enlightenment to the Present. General Hall, Inc. p. 143.
  24. ^ a b c d Borgatta, Edgar (2000). New York: Macmillan References USA. ISBN 978-0-02-865899-5. Missing or empty |title= (help)
  25. ^ a b c Low, Jacqueline (2008). "Structure, Agency, and Social Reality in Blumerian Symbolic Interactionism: The Influence of Georg Simmel". Symbolic Interaction. 31 (3): 325–343. doi:10.1525/si.2008.31.3.325.
  26. ^ Allan, Kenneth. Explorations in Classical Sociological Theory: Seeing the Social World. Pine Forge Press. 2005
  27. ^ Morrione, Thomas. "Herbert George Blumer (1900–1987)". Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology.
  28. ^ a b c d e f Wellman, David (1988). "The Politics of Herbert Blumer's Sociological Method". Symbolic Interaction. 11 (1, Special Issue on Herbert Blumer's Legacy): 59–68. doi:10.1525/si.1988.11.1.59.
  29. ^ Blumer explains social interaction as a mutual presentation of actions by actors. He 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 Kuwabara's analysis demonstrates the existence of at least two types of symbolic interaction, distinctly different from each other: symbolic interaction in which significant symbols do not yet exist but participants in the interaction are trying to call them into being, and symbolic interaction mediated by significant symbols called into being by participants in a preceding interaction. The latter is called "a real form of interaction" or transaction/joint action. Cf. Kuwabara T., and K. Yamaguchi, 2013, An Introduction to the Sociological Perspective of Symbolic Interactionism, The Joint Journal of the National Universities in Kyushu, Education and Humanities, 1(1), pp. 1–11.
  30. ^ Blumer, Herbert. "Sociological Analysis and the "Variable"" (PDF). Official Journal of the American Sociological Society. American Sociological Review. Retrieved October 1, 2012.
  31. ^ Coser, Lewis A. (1977). Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in the Historical and Sociological Context. New York: Harcourt Brace Jonanovich. ISBN 978-0-15-555130-5.
  32. ^ Herbert Blumer (1939). An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. NY: Social Science Research Council. p. 26.
  33. ^ Puddeuphat, Antony (2009). "The Search for Meaning: Revisiting Herbert Blumer's Interpretation of G.H. Mead". American Sociologist. 40 (1–2): 89–105. doi:10.1007/s12108-009-9067-0.
  34. ^ James Farganis (2008). Readings in Social Theory. McGraw Hill Companies. p. 332.
  35. ^ Herbert Blumer (1933). Movies and Conduct. NY: Macmillan & Company Council. p. 192.

Further reading