1 Chicago School
1.1 Introduction
1.2 The concept of 'school
1.3 Constructions of the School
1.4 A Chicago School?
1.5 Designations of the School
1.6 Brief chronology of the Department
1.7 Myths of the Chicago School

2 Chicagoans as ameliorists
2.1 The myth
2.2 Small and Henderson
2.3 Thomas and pure research
2.4 Park's anti-reformism
2.5 Burgess and action research
2.6 Local Community Research
2.7 Society for Social Research

2.8 Conclusion

3 Chicagoans as ethnographers
3.1 The myth
3.2 Nature of ethnography
3.3 Case study
3.4 Nomothetic orientation
3.5 Participant observation at Chicago
3.6 PO and community studies
3.7 PO and the Chicago approach

4 The quantitative tradition at Chicago
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Case study v statistics
4.3 Park's approach to quantification
4.4 Ogburn and quantification
4.5 Burgess as barometer
4.6 Methodological debate in SSR
4.7 Chicago eclecticism
4.8 Interdisciplinary network
4.9 Conclusion

5 Chicagoans as atheoretical empirical researchers
5.1 The myth
5.2 The empirical approach
5.3 Urban sociology at Chicago
5.4 Conceptual development
5.5 Chicago theorising
5.6 Chicagoans epistemology
5.7 Chicago alternatives
5.8 Conclusion

6 G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans
6.1 The myth
6.2 Mead's involvement in sociology
6.3 Mead's theoretical impact
6.4 Mead and symbolic intractionism
6.5 Mead and Blumer debate
6.6 The debate and the work of the Chicagoans
6.7 Conclusion

7 Chicago dominance
7.1 The myth
7.2 Chicago's role to 1930
7.3 The coup and decline
7.4 Chicago neglect
7.5 Chicago introspection
7.6 Loss of research ethos
7.7 Structural factors
7.8 Extent of the decline
7.9 Conclusion

8 Schools and metascience
8.1 Introduction
8.2 Potential of a unit approach
8.3 Conclusion



About Myths of the Chicago School (1987)



© Lee Harvey 1987, 2019, 2020

Page updated 30 March, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., [1987] 2020, Myths of the Chicago School, available at, last updated 30 March, 2020, originally published in Aldershot by Avebury, Gower Piublishing, all rights revert to author.


Myths of the Chicago School

6. G.H. Mead and the Chicagoans

6.5 Differences between Mead and Blumer: the recent [1970s] debate

6.5.1 Epistemological incompatibility

6.5.2 Theoretical divergence

6.5.3 Methodological incompatibility

Over the last twenty years a debate as to the Meadian underpinnings of (Blumerian) symbolic interactionism has simmered. The attribution of the genesis, of what Blumer came to label symbolic interactionism, to Mead conceals, it is argued, fundamental differences in Blumer's and Mead's approaches. Since Bales (1966) reply to Blumer (1966) concerning the nature of operationalisation, which incidentally questioned Blumer's appropriation of Mead's perspective, several acrimonious exchanges have taken place between Blumer and sceptics. The problem with this kind of argument is that of a 'correct' exegetical analysis of the compared theorists (Cook, 1977). Thus, no attempt is made here to determine 'what Mead really said'. The debate will be outlined below and its significance and relevance to the examination of the work of the Chicagoans as a whole assessed.
 Blumer is accused of differing from, or distorting Mead in a variety of ways. These may be grouped under the headings of epistemological incompatibility, theoretical divergence and methodological incompatibility. These, however, should not be seen as mutually exclusive.

6.5.1 Epistemological incompatibility

Lewis and Smith (1981) argued that pragmatism as a philosophy was not a unified approach and that Mead like Peirce was a realist while James and the other pragmatists were essentially nominalists. Blumer, and the Chicagoans, they argued, derived their pragmatism from James and Dewey and thus espoused a nominalist perspective. Thus, they argued, not only did Mead have far less contact with the Chicago staff and students than is commonly supposed, his epistemological orientation set him apart from his contemporaries and was even alien to the theoretical perspective he is supposed to have generated. Lincourt and Hare (1973) also recognise this distinction among pragmatists and associate Mead with a 'continuous tradition on selfhood' made up from Peirce, Royce and Wright that anticipate contemporary symbolic interactionism.

Bales (1966) ignored the nominalist-realist debate and simply accused Blumer of being a philosophical idealist, unlike Mead, who was a 'pragmatist and social behaviorist'. [3] McPhail and Rexroat (1979) similarly argued that Mead was a consistent pragmatist who rejected realism and idealism. For him, reality is presumed but science orders observed events through 'convergent responses which establish objective facts'. Similar to Lewis and Smith, McPhail and Rexroat suggested Blumer derived his pragmatism from James and Dewey rather than Peirce and Mead, and tended to vacillate between idealism and realism. Sometimes he presented reality as depending upon how it is perceived, at other times he insists that reality 'talks back' and does not 'bend to our conceptions of it'. For Mead, objectivity is consensual, for Blumer, it is contingent upon a perceptual event. Thus Blumer's claimed pragmatist stance 'bears no resemblance to Mead's position'.

Blumer, in reply, has repeatedly asserted that Mead's ontological position is the same as his own, namely that there is a real world but that it does not have a basic intrinsic makeup but changes as humans reconstruct their perceptions of it. This is neither idealist nor realist.

6.5.2 Theoretical divergence

Bales (1966), Stewart (1975), Lewis (1976), and Stryker (1977) have all pointed to theoretical differences between Blumer's symbolic interactionism and Mead's social behaviourism. Such differences are to do with, first, the centrality of 'self'; second, the relationship of the 'I' and the 'Me'; and, third, the universality of significant symbols.

On the first point of difference Blumer emphasised the active moment of the self (Carabana and Espinosa, 1978) and this is regarded as at variance with Mead. Mead placed social interaction at the centre of analysis rather than mind, or self, or society and that starting with any one of these three elements as fundamental was a dead end because the other two could not be derived from it. Blumer ignored this warning and, according to Bales (1966) seemed to start with the self, and in this sense he was not a social behaviourist like Mead. For Mead, the self arises out of human interaction and, thus, is an 'interposed process between stimulus and response'. Blumer saw the self as fundamental and thus argued for ascertaining the meaning that objects have for the social actor. He was opposed to an external 'objective' view of actors and actions. Mead, Bales argued, adopted both perspectives. Indeed, one could hardly conceive that social interaction, out of which emerge mind, self and society, is merely what the participant defines it to be.

Blumer, however, maintained that Mead did see the self as central. For Mead, human action is action that is built up through interaction and that objects come into being only in relation to the self. That the self is formed through interaction, Blumer argued, is irrelevant to the assertion that the self is central.

On the second point of difference, the relationship between the 'I' and the 'Me', Bales (1966, p. 545) argued that whereas 'Mead distinguishes between the "I" (the process) and the "Me" (the object or structure)—both aspects of the self. Blumer prefers to emphasize the "I"; he says that the self is a process and that that those who say it is a structure are mistaken'. Stone and Farberman (1967, p. 410) agreed with Bales' interpretation of the "I" and the "Me".

The "I" is transforming; the "Me" transformed. As Mead put it, "the me is a me which was an I at an earlier time, "and not the other way around". As Louis Wirth used to emphasize: "In the beginning was the act!" Clearly, only as a result of action can we transform unformulated experience into formulated knowledge. We must socialize, formulate or universalize experience to maintain the human dialogue that is human life. In this way, the unique, relative and percipient "I" emerges as the universal, structured and communally organized "me".

Blumer, in response to Bales and, later, to Stone and Farberman, reasserted that Mead definitely saw the self as a process and not as a structure, that the 'I' and the 'Me' were not process and structure respectively.

The "I" and the "Me" Bales has introduced into the discussion were regarded by Mead as aspects of an ongoing process - the "Me" setting the stage for the response of the "I", with the expression of the "I" calling in turn for control and direction by the "Me". To say that one (the "I") is process and the other (the "Me") is structure is nonsense; both were treated by Mead as aspects of action. Mead saw the "self" not as a combination of the "I" and the "Me" but as an interaction between them. (Blumer, 1966b, p. 547).

On the third point of theoretical difference, Stone and Farberman (1967, p. 409) argued that Blumer had not penetrated to the core of Mead's thought as he failed to present 'a firm grasp and explicated statement of the significant symbol as a universal—its meaning fundamentally established, transformed and re-established in an on-going conversation'. They pointed to the dichotomy that fundamentally divided Blumer and Bales. For Bales, people are beings who selectively apprehend and sustain a unique perspective of the universe. This was rejected by Blumer, in favour of a view that saw people as acting interactively to test apprehensions and attitudes.

Now we presume that Mead's great contribution is the demonstration that this dilemma is false: the production of a significant symbol everywhere and always is a particular production which mobilizes shared perspectives by its very universality. (Stone and Farberman, 1967, p. 410)

For some problems, they contended, the focus of attention is the particular act; for others, it is the universal. The stance of the observer is the universal stance, for this requires a grasp of the world in generalizations. Blumer, for the most part, explicitly accepted this position, but often drifted towards a 'subjective nominalism' similar to 'Cooley's sympathetic introspection'. Mead's critique of Cooley, they argued, led him to assert that permanence and structure is anchored in universal symbolism, that explanation is not effected by concentrating on process rather than structure but that the 'explanation of one cannot be accomplished without the explanation of the other'.

In replying to Stone and Farberman, Blumer (1967) denied the dichotomisation that he is supposed to have set up to distinguish between himself and Bales. Blumer referred to the original article in which he outlined that group life consists of fitting together participants' actions through a process of adaption of developing acts so as to grasp each others’ perspectives. In so doing, participants use universal significant symbols. These universals do not however imply common action but are the basis for articulated action. Irrespective of any explication of universal symbols, Blumerian symbolic interactionism assumes the universality of social symbols.

6.5.3 Methodological incompatibility

McPhail and Rexroat (1979) suggested that Mead is not the forefather of Blumerian symbolic interactionism, nor is Blumer's theory and methodological perspective a contemporary extension and manifestation of the 'Meadian tradition'. They argued that there is a divergence in the methodological perspective of Mead and Blumer that rests upon divergent ontological assumptions. Mead's emphasis on systematic observation and experimental investigation is quite different from Blumer's naturalistic methodology, and Mead's theoretical ideas are not facilitated by Blumer's naturalistic enquiry, nor does this latter complement Mead's methodological perspective. Blumer's emphasis on sensitizing concepts was contrary to Mead's more definitive approach. Even if Mead regarded scientific laws as provisional, they acted as benchmarks against which exceptions can be noted and acknowledged as contradictions to be explained. All theories and beliefs are sources of hypotheses to confront contradictions.

Similarly, McPhail and Rexroat regarded Blumer's concentration on observation techniques as indicative of an attempt to derive the essential nature of objects to the exclusion of the 'reconstruction of observed fact’. The concern of Blumer’s, with phenomenological essences at the expense of empirical evidence, they argued was in contrast to Mead who essentially saw scientific enquiry as problem solving. They further argued that Mead treated hypotheses as tentative solutions grounded theoretically and subject to empirical test and that he thought experiments constituted the method of modern science, as essential procedures for generating knowledge. Mead emphasised exact definition of the problem and careful techniques of data gathering and execution of the experiment along with the obligation of experimenter to specify replication procedures. Whereas Blumer, they suggested, derived hypotheses inductively and atheoretically from empirical instances and rejected hypothesis testing because it seldom 'genuinely epitomizes the model or theory from which it is deduced'; neglects the search for negative cases; and is limited to the particular empirical circumstances of the test.

McPhail and Rexroat argued that Blumer is wrong to assume an implicit and separate methodology in Mead vis à vis the social sciences. For Mead, the psychological laboratory, as with the physical laboratory, serves to 'render specific, exact and hence formally universal the instruments and behavior of untechnical conduct'. Blumer's demand for investigation which is naturalistic, i.e. directed 'to the given empirical world in its natural ongoing character', as opposed to 'a simulation of such a world', is seen by McPhail and Rexroat as opposed to Mead who 'chastizes critics of experimental research'.
 Blumer's reply (1980) was to state that his views of social reality and of naturalistic research had been distorted and that through their efforts to reduce Mead's thought to a narrow scheme of how human social study should be examined, McPhail and Rexroat had misrepresented Mead's view of scientific method and of social behaviour. This misrepresentation, he suggested, is to

justify and promote a special mode of scientific enquiry that relies on controlled experiments or on observation closely akin to to those made in controlled experiments. [Cottrell, L.S., (1971), O'Toole and Dubin (1968), and Smith, L. (1971)] But they also regard themselves as followers of George Herbert Mead. They are, thus, forced to interpret Mead in such a way as to support their methodological orientation. They seek to do this in two ways. First, they try to interpret Mead's thought on "scientific method" in such a way as to uphold their methodological preference. Second, they endeavor to depict Mead's "social behaviorism" in such a manner as to fit their experimental or near-experimental commitment. (Blumer, 1980, p. 415)

 Blumer argued that his emphasis on sensitizing concepts was not at variance with Mead, who saw no definitive concepts in social science and thus saw no possibility of the rigorous testing carried on in physical science. The sensitizing concepts provided a way to grasp the empirical reality and a basis for discovering more analytic concepts. It was not, as suggested in chapter five, an attempt at uncovering phenomenological essences.



[3] This accusation of philosophic idealism has been extended to all symbolic interactionists (Carabana and Espinosa, 1978). Return


Next 6.6 An examination of the recent debate in relation to the work of the Chicagoans