The case of disappearing dilemma: Herbert Blumer on sociiological method.
History of the Human Sciences, 23(5)
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Herbert Blumer was a key figure in what came to be identified as the Chicago School of Sociology. He invented the term ‘symbolic interactionism’ as a label for a theoretical approach that derived primarily from the work of John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley. But his most influential work was methodological in character, and he is generally viewed today as a prominent critic of positivism, and of the growing dominance of quantitative method within US sociology. While this picture is broadly accurate, it neglects an important strand in his methodological thinking. He was committed to the goal of a science of social life, while at the same time he was uncertain whether such a science is possible. In his Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant, he identified a serious dilemma facing this project: the problem of how a scientific approach can be made compatible with the distinctive nature of human social life. In the first chapter of his most influential book, Symbolic Interactionism, he advocates a naturalistic approach to case study, and seems to treat this as avoiding the dilemma. However, there is evidence to suggest that, even towards the end of his life, he regarded the problem as still unresolved. In this article, I examine both sides of Blumer’s dilemma, and whether his attitude towards it changed. However, my interest here is not only historiographical. I evaluate Blumer’s arguments and show that his intellectual struggle with this issue remains relevant today, despite the shifts that have taken place in social science methodology and the philosophy of science since his death.
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