Blumer, Herbert 1900-1987

views updated

BLUMER, Herbert 1900-1987

PERSONAL: Born 1900 in St. Louis, MO; died March 7, 1987; son of a cabinet maker and a homemaker. Education: Attended University of Missouri, 1918-1922; University of Chicago, Ph.D., 1928.

CAREER: Sociologist, educator, and writer. University of Missouri, teacher, 1922-25; University of Chicago, professor of sociology, 1928-52; University of California—Berkeley, chair of sociology department, 1952-72. Active in professional football; worked as an arbitrator in labor negotiations.

MEMBER: Society for the Study of Social Problems (president, 1955), American Sociological Association (president, 1956).


Movies and Conduct, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1933, reprinted, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1970.

(With Philip M Hauser) Movies, Delinquency, and Crime, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1933, reprinted, Arno Press (New York, NY), 1970.

Critiques of Research in the Social Sciences: An Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Social Science Research Council (New York, NY), 1939, reprinted, Transaction Books (New Brunswick, NJ), 1979.

Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1969.

(Coauthor) Principles of Sociology, introduction by Samuel Smith, Barnes & Noble (New York, NY), 1969.

Social Order and the Public Philosophy: An Analysis and Interpretation of the Work of Herbert Blumer, edited by Stanford M. Lyman and Arthur J. Vidich, University of Arkansas Press (Fayetteville, AR), 1988, published as Selected Works of Herbert Blumer: A Public Philosophy for Mass Society, edited, with critical commentary and an afterword by Stanford M. Lyman and Arthur J. Vidich, University of Illinois Press (Urbana, IL), 2000.

Industrialization as an Agent of Social Change: A Critical Analysis, edited with an introduction by David R. Maines and Thomas J. Morrione, A. De Gruyter (New York, NY), 1990.

Editor of publications, including "Prentice Hall Sociology Series," 1934, and American Journal of Sociology, 1940-52.

SIDELIGHTS: American sociologist Herbert Blumer, known for originating the symbolic interactionism concept in sociology, was born in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1900.

While attending the University of Chicago, Blumer was influenced academically by George Herbert Mead, W. I. Thomas, and Robert Park. He even took over Mead's classes upon Mead's death in the early 1930s. Blumer's theory of symbolic interactionism, which he first set forth in a 1937 article on the nature of social psychology published in Man and Society, was based in large part on Mead's "understanding of the individual as an acting entity and the importance of empirical observation as primary to methodology," according to a contributor to World of Sociology. "He was also influenced by Thomas's idea that each situation must be defined, and John Dewey's understanding of the interaction between humans and the natural world."

Blumer's theory of symbolic interaction was based on his idea that meaning is created and re-created through social interaction. "He built symbolic interactionism on three main principles," it was noted in the World of Sociology profile. "First, human beings respond to things based on the meanings those things hold for them. Second, those meanings are formed from the interaction of the individual with others. And, third, the individual uses an interpretive process to assess, formulate, and modify these meanings each time the person encounters them in his or her environment."

Traditional sociological methodology drastically underestimated the importance of the meaning a person places on things they encounter, Blumer believed. Blumer thought that objects have an independent empirical existence, and in order to determine the meaning of an object most relevant to human behavior, it has to be interpreted in the context of social interaction. Blumer's ideas were contrary to those of traditionalists who believed that objects have innate meaning. Blumer asserted that meaning is assigned to an object through a person's interactive interpretative process. With interaction as the basis of the creation of meaning, Blumer derived a series of basic ideas he called "root images." These ideas depict self-interaction as well as interaction between human groups and societies.

"Emphasizing the action of individuals as key, Blumer asserted that social interactionism allows for the best, direct observation of human behavior and interaction because the sociologist must necessarily be involved in the exploratory study at the micro-level of individual phenomenon," it was stated in the World of Sociology profile.

Among Blumer's more influential works were his studies from the early 1930s on the effects of movies on children. "By the 1920s, concern about movies was part of a general debate about children's behavior and child rearing," explained Richard Butsch in Journal of Popular Film and Television. "The press was full of articles expressing shock at the behavior of affluent teenagers and young adults in the 1920s, labeling them the 'lost generation.' … Exemplifying the shock were the comments of sociologist E. A. Ross, who saw movies as the culprit, making young people prematurely 'sex-wise, sex-excited, and sex-absorbed.' He blamed movies for less-concealing fashions, pornographic literature, provocative dances, and briefer bathing suits," Butsch observed. "Yet the discourse found its way back to class distinctions."

In the context of blaming movies for the rebellion of the younger generation, the Payne Fund, a foundation for research on children, hired a number of prominent social scientists to study the influences of movies on children. Blumer was among the social scientists hired for the project. "Blumer employed a concept he called 'emotional possession' to describe the grip movies held on viewers," Butsch wrote. "Emotional possession refers to experiences wherein impulses which are ordinarily restrained are strongly stimulated," Butsch remarked. "In this heightened emotional state the individual suffers some loss of ordinary control over his feelings," becoming so deeply preoccupied with a theme (or a movie) that "he is carried away from the usual trend of conduct." Usually suppressed impulses and ideas are often expressed under these circumstances.

Although Blumer was thorough in his research, he reached some conclusions without evidence, such as his idea that "emotional possession was worse among the less educated lower classes," Butsch wrote. In addition, "Blumer personally held a strong anti-movie bias that he expressed in correspondence with the Payne committee."

Other recent researchers, including Luigi Esposito and John W. Murphy, wrote in Sociological Quarterly, that Blumer's theories of race relations and the formation of racial identity are undermined by the application of traditional elements of research design, such as surveys, public opinion polls, variables analysis, and statistical techniques. "The result is a static depiction of race relations that has nothing to do with the variegated experiential complexities that Blumer claimed underlie all human group life," Esposito and Murphy wrote. Although some researchers believe that "Blumer's analysis is thorough, malleable, and compatible with quantitative research techniques," Esposito and Murphy noted otherwise. Such researchers "should keep in mind that in spite of their presumably reliable techniques, they are essentially contradicting Blumer's social imagery, as well as the idiographic, contextually sensitive methodology he promotes."

Blumer theorized that "race prejudice is not a result of individual feelings or attitudes but rather an outcome of how racial groups view themselves in relation to other groups," wrote Esposito and Murphy. However, utilizing this group position theory in tandem with quantitative research is a misuse of Blumer's theory for a number of reasons, according to Esposito and Murphy. For example, Blumer himself was opposed to the use of such "variables paradigms" that his theory is often incorporated into. Quantitative methods remove the concepts of prejudice and group conflict from their original cognitive sources. A clinical collection of survey items "disregards humans as creative beings." And, finally, quantitative methods and rigorous techniques "are in direct opposition to the sort of sensitizing, nongeneralizing methodology Blumer advocates," observed Esposito and Murphy.

Blumer himself wrote, according to Esposito and Murphy, that "when vague and indefinite concepts are broken down into very precise and definite terms that can be tested empirically, it frequently happens that those simple terms cannot be recombined to produce the original concept." Thus, stated Esposito and Murphy, "Social existence cannot be disassembled and reassembled without a serious loss of meaning. … In short, precise but irrelevant results will likely be generated."

In order to properly apply Blumer's theories and traditional research methods, such "shortcomings must be addressed," wrote Esposito and Murphy, "for they pose serious problems to the way Blumer—and the whole interactionist tradition—intends social research to be conducted."



Palmisano, Joseph M., editor, World of Sociology, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.

Shibutani, Tamotsu, editor, Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer, Prentice-Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1970.


Contemporary Sociology, March, 1991, Anselm Strauss and Stanford M. Lyman, reviews of Industrialization as an Agent of Social Change: A Critical Analysis, pp. 171-174.

International Journal of Comparative Sociology, September-December, 1992, Andrzej Jablonski, review of Industrialization as an Agent of Social Change: A Critical Analysis, pp. 247-249.

Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, July, 1989, Martyn Hammersley, "The Problem of the Concept: Herbert Blumer on the Relationship between Concepts and Data," p. 133, David R. Maines, "Herbert Blumer on the Possibility of Science in the Practice of Sociology: Further Thoughts," p. 160, Martyn Hammersley, "A Response to Maines's 'Further Thoughts' on Blumer," p. 178.

Journal of Popular Film and Television, fall, 2001, Richard Butsch, "Class and Audience Effects: A History of Research on Movies, Radio, and Television," p. 112.

Social Forces, March, 1991, Stanley H. Udy, Jr., review of Industrialization as an Agent of Social Change: A Critical Analysis, pp. 967-968.

Sociological Quarterly, fall, 1989, Clark McPhail, "Blumer's Theory of Collective Behavior: The Development of a Non-Symbolic Interaction Explanation," p. 401; spring, 1990, Michael G. Flaherty, "Two Conceptions of the Social Situation: Some Implications of Humor," p. 93; summer, 1999, John W. Murphy and Luigi Esposito, "Desensitizing Herbert Blumer's Work on Race Relations: Recent Applications of His Group Position Theory to the Study of Contemporary Race Prejudice," p. 397.*