Meltzer, Petras, and Reynolds. 1975. “Varieties of Symbolic Interactionism.”

Meltzer, Bernard N., John W. Petras, and Larry T. Reynolds. 1975. “Varieties of Symbolic Interactionism.” Pp. in Symbolic Interactionism: Genesis, Varieties, and Criticism (eds same).  Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Multiple schools of SI thought – debate on how to distinguish schools (between 2-10), mostly based on methodology – Chicago and Iowa schools, versus three groups proposed by Reynolds ad Meltzer (1973):

  • unorthodox – favoring participant observation
  • semi-conventional – favoring positivism
  • conventional – combination of PO and positivism

Reports on spin-offs of SI – ethnomethodology, phenomenology, ‘philosophical anthropology’, dramaturgy (though doesn’t mention it here) of Goffman— all united by how they “emphasize the meaning element in everyday activities” (53), here attributed to origins in Mead

Warshay (1971) categories:

  • Blumer School – subjective aspects
  • Iowa school – self-theory, positivistic methodology
  • emphasizes interaction, minimizes language
  • role-theory with cognitive emphasis, using traditional scientific methods
  • dramaturgy – role and self-manipulation
  • field theory – combines Mead, Lewin, and Lundberg
  • existential brand
  • ethnomethodology – participatory methods, complexity of social life


**** BUT! For the purposes of this work, they discuss four: Chicago School, Iowa School, Dramaturgy, and Ethnomethodology — all operation on the same assumptions put forth by Blumer:

  • “human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them
  • “these meanings are a product of social interaction in human society”
  • “these meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is used by each person in dealing with the things he/she encounters” (54)

SI as a truly “American” theoretical perspective – bolstered by mobile class structures, perceptions of egalitarianism (where behavior can be amended, instead of locked in by previous generations’ traditions), individualism, gradual social change, fluidity, flexible interpersonal relationships (see also Shaskolsky 1970).

Chicago school – Blumer – humanist methods – distinctive methods to study behavior — “idiographic”/non-generalizing — making society “intelligible” (57) through methods that “get inside the actor’s head” to see the world as it is experienced, demanding intersubjectivities and taking on standpoint of the researched. Observational techniques (life histories, case studies, autobiographies, diaries, letters, interviews — particularly free/non-directive ones, and participation observation) – counter the detachment from reality that experimental/quantitative/instrumental methods posed — sensitizing concepts (inference), rejection of variables – preferring instead the discovery of knowledge

Iowa school – Kuhn, methodological unity (purity?) across all sciences — “nomothetic”/generalizing — “universal predictions of social conduct” (57) — “the key ideas of symbolic interactionism could be operationalized and utilized successfully in empirical research” (Kuhn 1964: 1972). Developing set of generalizations to be tested by observations — taking heavily from previous bodies of knowledge (deductive) and testing them, through standardized, objective methods eliciting dependable measurements. Attitudinal scales, questionnaires, carefully defined and operationalized concepts.

Proposed sites of difference:

  • Why science – discovery of ideas vs. testing of knowledge
  • Is behavior free or determined? Chicago – unpredictable, Iowa – identifying site of impulse
  • Self and personality – the roles of roles, influence of external social controls like status, etc., collection of attitudes, etc. (whence the Self – organic, and developing or in response to pre-set constraints?)
  • levels of interaction – pretty much ignored by Iowa school (inferred that Iowa school viewed behavior as highly cognitive, instead of Chicago’s wiggle room for symbolic/non-symbolic interaction)


Dramaturgy – more inclined toward Chicago school.

  • life as theatre
  • self as object which actors foster impressions of to others
  • roles as frameworks, not determinants of behaviors

“We find in his work no explicit theory, but a plausible and loosely-organized frame of reference; little interest in explanatory schemes, but masterful descriptive analysis; virtually no accumulated evidence, but illuminating allusions, impressions, anecdotes, and illustrations; few formulations of empirically testable propositions, but innumerable provocative insights” (70-71).

Ethnomethodology – Garfinkel – defines: “Their study is directed to the tasks of learning how members’ actual, ordinary activities consist of methods to make practical actions, practical circumstances, common sense knowledge of social structures, and practical sociological reasoning analyzable…” (1967: vii) — “the investigation of the rational properties of indexical expressions and other practical actions as contingent ongoing accomplishments or organized artful practices of everyday life” (1967: 11).

  • meaning/structure through process, not activity.

Agree or disagree with authors’ placement of ethnomethodology with Chicago school?

Criticized for being too micro, ignoring macro/mezzo connections — instead of mourning Goffman’s alienation/depersonalization, seem to want deliberately inflict these through disrupting interactions –  rending “the investigator as a superordinate manipulator and his subjects as mystified dupes” (81)



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: