An Interview with Herbert Blumer (1900-1987)
Horst J. Helle
The conversation took place on November 25th 1981 in Berkley, California. Blumer made minor changes to the transcript of the tape recording.
Helle: What is your reaction to this idea that Kant is an influential philosopher for the development of Mead's thinking and of your thinking?
H: Is that a correct assumption?
B: I think it is a very indirect relation, and I am quite positive that if that question were put to Mead himself, he would not acknowledge much influence of Kant along the line that is represented by this perspective of his version of American pragmatism that got incorporated in his point of view, which came to serve as a basis of this so called symbolic kind of an approach.
H: Well, the great pragmatists are of course William James...
B: Yes, William James, and of course he was definitely influenced by James.
H:...and John Dewey. But then in Peirce I noticed: doesn't he write on Kant? So it is indirect in any case.
B: It's indirect, there is no question, of course all those figures that tied in with one another indirectly, yes. I would say from that historical point of view in trying to identify lines so to speak that connected with one another, that probably the influence of Hegel on pragmatism is more significant than Kant.
B: Although the pragmatist position of course as voiced by Mead rejects in a sense the fundamentals of the Hegelian position on this matter. But in looking at this matter of the historical background in terms of what developed out of what, what led to what, I would say that probably the line of connection through Hegel is more significant than that through Kant.
H: I see. Another thing, I have heard contradictory, or at least stories not completely in agreement with one another on the reason for Mead's departure from the University of Chicago. There was the story that there may have been a harsh conflict with the administration about hiring a philosopher...
H: ...and I have read in your paper that he was seriously ill and had to undergo an operation...
B: I can explain to you what took place there in Chicago...
H: Please, do!
B: ...to account for the intention of Mead actually to go to Columbia University. What happened was that the University of Chicago chose a young man, Robert Maynard Hutchins as president. And he came to the University of Chicago, I think, at the age of 30, 31 as president, and he was brash, I think all of us would have to declare. And he had, in the East in Yale he had developed a very strong relation with Mortimer Adler, an American philosopher, also about the same age, who was also very brash, if I be permitted to use that statement, and so Hutchins was determined to put him in the Department of Philosophy...
B: ...and went about it in a rather ruthless fashion. The Department of Philosophy, unanimously, I understand, rejected the intention to have Mortimer Adler be placed on their faculty, but Hutchins pressed the matter. In pressing the matter he alienated Mead very, very much.
H: Yes, yes.
B: And so, John Dewey, who was at Columbia, invited Mead to come there in the department as full professor, which Mead, I understand, accepted. He was all prepared to go when his illness came later, you see.
H: I see.
B: So there is no connection between this matter. His going to Columbia and the illness just happened to coincide.
B: Does this give you a reasonably good picture...
H: Yes, yes thank you! So has he...
B: I could expand on it if you wish.
H: No, no, that is not necessary. Had he stayed healthy he would have continued to teach at Columbia...
B: Oh, there is no question about it. No question about it.
H: ...at Columbia University.
B: Oh, yes, sure, he would have gone there. It was all settled, yes.
H: Well, and then, how did it...What happened then after he left? Then you mentioned that you took over his lecture...
B: Well, what happened was that...
H: He asked you to come to the hospital, and...
B: Yes, well, I think this was in January of... 1931, I forget the exact year there. Mead had to go to the hospital because of prostrate difficulty. And in those days apparently they did not have the knowledge of how to handle it as well as they do in the present time.
B: Anyway, he went into the hospital three weeks after the winter quarter, the term there in Chicago, began. And he had to give up his teaching of course consequently, and he called me over to the hospital, in which he was, and asked me if I'd be willing to take over this course, his major course, on advanced social psychology.
H: Advanced social psychology.
B: I have a suspicion that he had probably asked Professor Ellsworth Faris first to take it over and inquire whether Faris could. But Faris was at that time chairman of the department and had many duties. So he did not do it.
H: What was your position at the university?
B: I was, let's see, I guess I was an assistant professor at that time.
H: At the department of sociology?
B: Sociology, yes.
H: Who was, who were the other sociologists at the department...
B: There at the time...
H: ...the tenured professors there at the time?
B: Well, there weren't many of them. Let's see if I will identify them: There was Faris, whom I have mentioned, Park, Ogburn, Burgess, Wirth...
H: And had you been trained in Chicago? Who had been your main teachers up to that time?
B: Well, as far as the department of sociology is concerned, the two teachers I think mostly I worked with were chiefly Ellsworth Faris...
H: Ellsworth Faris.
B: who was the chairman incidentally of my dissertation, I wrote my dissertation under him, and the other person of course with whom I was rather closely identified, was Robert Park. Of course I have worked with Burgess. Louis Wirth and I were colleagues of the same age, same period, we never took each other's courses. Ah , I had no work with Ogburn, many conversations with him. So, in the sociology department, I just have to repeat, my primary instructors were Faris and Park.
H: Yes. Now I noticed in your article on fashion that you of course knew Simmel and quote Simmel, and so does Park. Now, how important would you say the influence of Simmel has been on the Chicago school?
B: I would say fairly considerable through Park.
H: Through Park, hum.
B: Park was very much influenced by Simmel.
H: Was he a student of Simmel at one time?
B: I think so. At least of course Park spent time, he was over, did his doctor's degree, I think, over in Germany.
B: And his doctoral dissertation "Masse und Publikum" was of course reflecting the background of German sociology. And he was unquestionably very much influenced by Simmel. This comes out, I would say, particularly in the organization of the book which Park and Burgess brought out, the "Introduction to the Science of Sociology". A lot of treatment there is a reflection, so to speak, of the way in which Simmel would have thought.
H: I did not understand you, what was his dissertation? You said...
B: Masse, I hope I got the pronunciation correct: Masse und Publikum.
H: Oh, ja: Masse und Publikum, I am sorry.
B: Crowd and Public.
H: So you could say, collective behavior.
B: That is the source of it. That is where Park 's ideas arose, germinated. He subsequently incorporated them under the rubric of collective behavior.
B: Where I had, what I regard as the opportunity, the privilege of picking him up. Of course Park asked me, originally asked me to write a section on collective behavior in a very good book that was brought out, and I think that section did more than anything else to make this field of collective behavior known to American sociologists. It was very definitely right in line with Park 's perspective. I made some addition, this matter of fashion is something that Park knew nothing about, it intrigued him. This is probably the only real additional kind of feature that I incorporated in that work...
H: Yes, yes.
B: of, of collective behavior . But, as I said, Park invited me to do that, and of course when he was prepared to retire, he asked me to take over his field of collective behavior at the University of Chicago.
H: Now, how about Max Weber? Was there anyone there who got interested, more than average, interested in Max Weber...
B: I would say, not...
H: just as Park was in Simmel?
B: I would say, not. It's a curious thing that this was true, because in many ways, in my judgment, the general perspective and approach of Max Weber was something that was rather kindred in character to what they were doing in Chicago.
H: That was my impression.
B: Yes, it's true, but it is really interesting that there is very little reference to Weber during the earlier period of the so-called Chicago school of sociology. Later Wirth did bring in Weber a great deal. Of course Wirth, as you know, probably know, was born in Germany and reared in Germany. A rather brilliant scholar, who came to know the literature there very well.
B: He had, I think, a very high regard and respect for Weber, and he brought that in. But this, his participation along this line was not in the beginning of this so-called Chicago school, which is not a very good term in my judgment. - Wirth joined the faculty at about the same time I did, in 1929 or 30, somewhere around in there, and in the earlier years the orientation of Park was already, so to speak laid down, even in the expression, in the direction of quite a number of doctoral dissertations. That was something that Wirth had nothing to do with, and I had nothing to do with either.
H: Well, and then, to switch now from the question of who influenced you to the other side of the picture: Who were your pupils? I know some of them, but then, how can I visualize this? You start teaching Mead's course, then gradually the idea of symbolic interactionism develops and grows, and more and more people come and use it as an approach, or how...
H: how did that come about?
B: I think that perhaps it is necessary here to avoid kind of getting tangled up somewhat with this term 'symbolic interaction', and 'symbolic interactionism'. That term 'symbolic interactionism' I devised more or less casually and accidentally, later, along in the mid-thirties when I had to write an article. Nobody was using it, I was not using it, it was not known there. And I mention this merely to signify that I think that the term 'symbolic interactionism' kind of picked up a scholarly kind of inherence, largely just because it is a catchy term, to be very frank about it.
B: And it brought together - this is certainly the way in which I view it - it brought together perspectives that had, arose historically in different segments of the area of sociological interest. I would say that the influence of W. I. Thomas is very pronounced in this whole symbolic interactionist approach. Now...
H: I included him in that little book too.
B: I see. Well, on making these observations for the purpose of trying to indicate that if one, so to speak, tries to trace back the historical happenings, which might be thought of as giving rise to symbolic interaction as a perspective so to speak at Chicago, one would have to make identification of a variety of different individuals. And I do this for the purpose of indicating that the position of Ellsworth Faris in this is much stronger than I think that it is recognized.
B: It is much stronger than I have stated it, I think. This is one of the weaknesses in whatever I may have said and written about symbolic interactionism, in not acknowledging sufficiently Faris's position in this whole matter. His position in the matter of course - this is my point of view, no more - was that of a primary expositor of Mead's position.
B: Faris had worked with Mead, was very much impressed by Mead. In Faris's course in social psychology in the department of sociology there he was extensively laying the groundwork, organized in terms of Mead's perspective.
H: In which way did they cooperate? Did they co-teach a course or...
B: No, they taught separate courses.
H: They just knew each other and exchanged ideas?
B: Oh, yes. Faris had been a student of Mead, and they maintained close - I say close, I think close personal relations with one another, after Faris came and was appointed to the faculty there. So what I am trying really to indicate is that Faris was in a major sense the link between the students in the sociology department who were interested so to speak or came to be interested in Mead's work on one hand, and Mead and his course on advanced social psychology on the other hand. That was my own channel that I pursued when I came to Chicago to take graduate work on the doctoral program. Of course I went there, and I already knew about Faris, and I was interested in social psychology, which was his field, so I worked with Faris. Well, I had known something about Mead previously, but that was very, very scanny. And it was through Faris and his... that I got directed towards Mead.
H: Well, and then you also mentioned W. I. Thomas as an important influence.
B: Well, it was. Of course that came in partly through Faris, Faris paid a great deal of attention to W. I. Thomas 's work, especially on the topic of attitude. This was one of the primary matters of concern to Faris there. So, there was the feeding in of Thomas 's work through Faris, but also through Park.
B: Faris and Park have been very, very close together.
H: Now, Thomas is another example of a person, who suddenly left Chicago. What was the reason?
B: Well, he got into trouble. Supposedly, I never did get all the details, and never was too much interested in them, but it was trouble over women.
B: He was supposed to have engaged in extra-marital relations with some woman, and it created a bit of a scandal there. So...
H: Today nobody would care, but in those days it was a major issue.
B: Well, it was more of an issue, yes, in those days, oh, very definitely, so, no question about it.
H: Now, how did then the school develop? Who are some of the people who were students with you and got their Ph.D.s under your direction and later on became...
B: Under my direction?
B: Well, I would say, my teaching on the graduate level there began in the late twenties. I went to Chicago as a graduate student first in the summer 1923, came back the summer of 1924, I was teaching at the University of Missouri at the time as an instructor, then came back in the summer of 1925 and stayed on as a graduate student there. See, I was imported as an instructor on the faculty in 1927, that was not actually a faculty appointment. But I got my degree in 1928...
H: Your Ph.D.?
B: My Ph.D. degree, yes.
H: And you mentioned, again, who was on your committee?
B: Oh, Faris was on it, and Mead was on it.
H: Faris and Mead.
B: Faris and Mead, yes. Thomas was not around during that period. He was of course a very revered figure, and the graduate students under the influence particularly of Park but also under the influence of Faris, as I have been trying to indicate, became interested in W. I. Thomas. He exercised a great deal of influence, he had a great deal of influence upon me. I have always tended to look upon my work, if one was to characterize it narrowly, as being chiefly a bringing together of the perspectives of Mead on one hand and Thomas on the other hand.
H: Aha, ja.
B: The perspective of Mead providing, so to speak, the theoretical picture, with the perspective of Thomas doing something that Mead did not do: getting out there and actually study things.
H: Right, right.
B: That's the combination. And I am very much indebted to Thomas in that respect, because Thomas, I think, unwittingly in this regard - he was not going to give expression to Mead's point of view - he was just giving expression to his own perspective and its sides. Thomas very definitely was working on the assumption that to understand the behavior of people you better get in their position and see how they see the world. They cannot do anything else but act in terms of how they see the world, and meet situations, and so doing it sums up somewhat this very ambiguous term of defining a situation, which people could associate with Thomas. Well, it is in this sense that one finds a merging together here, it really is Mead's perspective and Thomas 's perspective.
H: Didn't Thomas like Park spend some time in Europe as a student or...
B: I don't know, not, well, he may...
H: Didn't he meet Znaniecki in Poland?
B: Oh, that was later.
H: That was later.
B: Oh, yes, sure, that was after Thomas got 50,000 dollars to carry on a study. He wanted to make a study of European immigrants coming to the United States, and he got this sum of 50,000 dollars to do it. Then it was a question of which immigrants he was going to study.
H: Who donated the money?
B: A woman in Chicago.
H: A wealthy woman.
B: Yes, this is all a matter of public record, however. But Thomas, I have heard Thomas himself say that he did not know whether he should focus his study upon Italians or Poles. He finally said Poles. The reason he gave - I presume he did jokingly - but he said he did it because he found that they had a better golf course in Poland! (Laughs) He liked to play golf!
B: It's probably not the real reason, but anyway I've heard him say that. But, he made that study, as I say, really out of the background that it was an area of tremendous public interest and importance in this country at that time, namely European immigrants and their assimilation. They did not assimilate, and it was a big public issue down there.
H: Why? Because there was a lot of crime?
B: Well, it was that in part, but there was the feeling that these - voiced by many people of course an ethnocentric expression of feeling, that the European immigrants, who were coming in, and they did come in in big droves during the first, yes in the first decade of the present century, there was the feeling that they weren't really becoming Americans, you see, they clung to their old cultures and what not and... So, this had become a matter of rather grave public concern. So Thomas and others got involved in studying this, and that is the background of the study of the Polish Peasant.
B: And Thomas met Znaniecki in his effort to work out the... for studying the Polish peasant. The study there was really, as you know, a study of the Polish peasant in two areas, Poland on one hand and the United...
H: and Chicago.
B: Chicago is quite correct, on the other hand, that is what it turned out to be. The results were great in my judgment, well, a number of things, but I would point out it was really a naturalistic study. I love that term, because it meant, going out and study the people as they actually are, just like the anthropologists might do with primitive tribes, or the botanist might do in the study of, let us say plant life in a given community. He is going out to study what is really going on. Also the biologist doing it, zoologist doing it on animal life, and so on. Naturalistic study, that was one thing, and the other thing is that in trying to study that life naturalistically, as I was saying before, Thomas came to recognize that - you probably already know it - but he certainly employed this as his theme, namely that people act upon the basis of what they are confronted with. They see what they are confronted with, so they organize themselves to meet what they have to meet in order to live.
H: The topic of 'meaning', yes.
B: Of course! What the things meant, of course!
H: Well then, who were some of your Ph.D. students that you...
B: All right, oh, you asked that question, well, my Ph.D. students of course came after I of course was elevated to the position of giving graduate instruction at the department. That began in the later part of the nineteen-twenties and then carried through the thirties. Who were they, that is an interesting question: Donald Pearson, whose name probably doesn't mean much, although he became, perhaps he did more than anything else to develop sociology down in Brazil. He is not so well known in this country, he is down there. Now let's see. I forget names, I should really have a list of names that I could go down and check off those who were working with me early in the nineteen-thirties.
H: Well that was before people like Strauss and Shibutani...
B: Yah, they came later. I was trying to think of the earlier group. Dunham, H. Warren Dunham, of course you may not know him, he got directed over to the field of psychiatry and has done some very substantial work there in social psychiatry. He is one of my early students, in the early thirties...
H: What I was really interested in, how could this misrepresentation develop if there is an almost uninterrupted line of tradition, then these misunderstandings and misrepresentations that come up must have a reason. How would one explain this, is there an intention behind it or is it sheer coincidence?
B: Well, I think Kimball Young has something to do with this. Kimball Young had been a student at the University of Chicago, I think he got his Master 's degree there. He had taken work with Thomas, incidentally, he worked as an assistant to Thomas, and also worked, I believe, with Mead, I am not too certain about this. And he did not complete... He got his doctor's degree elsewhere, I forget where it is now, and then of course he went to the University of Wisconsin to teach. Now I mention all this to signify that Kimball Young became a focal point for the development of a perspective on Mead that is different from that which I have. And this perspective on Mead came to be developed by Kimball Young at the University of Wisconsin, where he had graduate students, and then got transplanted, I guess that's the proper word to use, to the University of Iowa.
H: Is that how the Iowa school got started?
H: I see. When about was that that Kimball Young...about what year was Kimball Young starting to work in Wisconsin?
B: Well, that was already in the late twenties...
H: The late twenties.
B: ...you see, and the early thirties. And so they grew up under particularly the influence of another person. I know him well, but I can't recall his name at the moment, who was the head of that group at Iowa, who were presenting his point of view. And then this point of view at Iowa developed an offshoot...
H: Was it Kuhn?
B: Kuhn, Yeah!
H: Manford Kuhn?
B: His name was Kuhn, you are absolutely correct, that's the person, whose name I was trying to get. Now, that point of view also, as I say, got developed into kind of an offshoot at Michigan State University, where a number of people, like Jane Hubert for example was attached. What I am stating is a frightfully cursory kind of account here, but all I am trying to imply, to bring out, is a double approach here, an approach, which I think would be regarded historically as identified with the developments at the University of Chicago itself, and a second approach, which, I think, came into being originally through Kimball Young and through Kuhn, and branched out up to Michigan State. So, that's where this thing arose, in other words, I would say - there are probably a few little exceptions here, but I would say that by and large the division that is represented by this article of mine that you referred to there, that was written in response to a fellow by the name of McPhail, that division in not taking place inside of the ranks of students who had their training in Chicago. It's rather between those on one hand, who think of themselves as symbolic interactionists on one side, and this other group that have a different historically background.
H: I see
B: And in a sense this has in the present time come to expression in a book which I have just examined cursorily, I'll have to read it carefully, and reply to it obviously, a book by two people, Lewis of Notre Dame, a young man there at Notre Dame, and Smith, a person from one of the universities in North or South Carolina, I forgot which, where they are taking the point of view, that Mead stood very definitely apart from Dewey, and that Mead was, as they declare, a realist, Dewey was a nominalist, and they are presenting the contention that the symbolic interactionism as associated with my work they declare contrary to Mead's position, and that it is an expression of Dewey's position. It's a crazy kind of view, but what they are seeking to do really to lay a groundwork for this to declare that pragmatism itself as a philosophy split into two groups: One group represented by the founder, Charles Peirce, who developed a realistic position, the other founder William James, representing a nominalist position in terms of the traditional philosophical distinction there. And the contention is that I have misinterpreted Mead very profoundly in the sense that the position which I have presented is actually a nominalist position, whereas Mead's is a realist position, and this original separation I referred to is taking place between the so-called Iowa school and the Chicago school that has gotten now incorporated into this division.
H: That means that this McPhail, did he grow out of the Iowa school?
B: Yes, out of the influence of those.
H: I see.
B: See, he is connected there with Jane Hubert, who I think wrote her doctoral dissertation, I understand she did, on pragmatism, and she regards herself as an authority on pragmatism, and of course takes a very different view of pragmatism than, I think, most of the scholars in the field do. But McPhail fits right into that.
B: Some of my philosopher friends speak of a revisionist group that is emerging there in Urbana in philosophy, in sociology, twisting around this whole philosophical perspective.
H: I would like to get your reaction to the state of the discipline today. Now, it so happens that Talcott Parsons died in Munich as my guest...
B: Oh, in Munich, that's right.
H: ...we had the very difficult task of consoling Helen Parsons and of taking care of the body, all of this very sad. But this is only maybe the symbolic side of the question behind it: Parsons's theory has really been a very clear alternative to your approach, and there have been two opposing schools for a long time. Today it seems that the Parsons school has almost disappeared, or...
B: Well, I would not say that...
H: what are the major trends now in American sociology as you see it?
B: I would say American sociology, looking at it as a person from abroad and then realizing all the different perspectives that one can identify with some legitimacy, I think American sociology is in a state of great confusion.
B: Great confusion. I think that confusion exists in a much more pronounced way in what for the moment here let us speak of as the theoretical realm, than it does let us say on the side of actual study. In other words, actual study as so-called research I think is still undeniably under the influence to a great major extend of a perspective which looks upon human group life as being organized in terms of a structure, and probably in terms of a system, which of course was Parsons's contention. That represents the actual research that is going on. But when one passes over to what I referred to here as the arena of theory, one finds such a range of different points of view: It does signify confusion. Now, in this theoretical area I think there is no doubt but what the structural-functional point of view, as it was referred to, is becoming very weak, there is no doubt about it...
H: Well, I must not take anymore of your time. I am very grateful that I could have this conversation with you...
* The Erving Goffman Archives (EGA) is the web-based, open-source project that serves as a clearing house for those interested in the dramaturgical tradition in sociology and biographical methods of research. The EGA is located in the Intercyberlibrary of the UNLV Center of Democratic Culture, http://www.unlv.edu/centers/cdclv/archives/interactionism/index.html.
Postings on the website are divided into four partially overlapping sections: “Documents and Papers,” “Biographical Materials,” “Critical Assessments,” and “Comments and Dialogues.” For inquiries regarding the EGA projects, please contact Dr. Dmitri Shalin, email@example.com. When you cite the materials collected for the EGA, please use the following reference: The Erving Goffman Archives, ed. by Dmitri N. Shalin (UNLV: CDC Publications, 2009).