Keeping My Symbolic Interactionism Alive

Introduction: In this post I will try to explain how I kept my research interest in symbolic interaction alive. My last post on the ordoliberalism blog was about the way my interest in ordoliberalism grew after leaving Minnesota: http://ordoliberalism.wordpress.com/2014/08/21/how-did-ordoliberelism-replace-symbolic-interactionism/. I did not plan either its replacement or its sustenance, rather it just happened that I kept my symbolic interactionist interests.

How does Ethnographic Research differ from quantitative research?: The lacuna in my interactionist work has been the absence of ethnographic research which has figured so prominently in the work of symbolic interactionists for the last hundred years. I was, of course, aware of the Chicago School of Urban Sociology, the work of Herbert Blumer Movies and Conduct (1933) and Howard Becker et al, The Boys in White (University of Chicago Press, 1970), Outsiders (Free Press, New York, 1963) and Becker et al., Making the Grade (Free Press, 1968).

The Early Quantitative Research: I did not try to do any ethnographic research for 25 years after Aberdeen. When I was appointed to a research post at SIB in 1983, the big discussion point at the time in the media was immigration, while symbolic interaction was still barely known in Sweden. My Masters degree at Sheffield University was a straight questionnaire survey of secondary technical school pupils. At the Centre for Housing and Urban Research at Birmingham University I worked with Valerie Karn and Peter Williams on a questionnaire-based analysis of inner city low-income housing: Home Ownership in the Inner City: salvation or despair? (with Valerie Karn and Peter Williams) Gower (Studies in Urban and Regional Policy 3) Farnborough, 1985. Both Sheffield Sociology and CURS at Birmingham were good average research universities, but symbolic interaction was not represented.

While I was at SIB and IBF I was the only researcher with any interactionist publications. But with the support of SIB after being appointed in 1983 I began to formulate a project to collect statistical data from the Swedish Central Bureau of Statistics SCB on ethnic groups in different housing tenures. This involved going to Örebro where the SCB was located, and formulating the problem in relation to the data they had. The methods were therefore driven by the statistics available, which in turn determined the problem formulation. This is standard as the model for quantitative research, and was also the case at both Sheffield and CURS. The research has a limited period of validity while some crisis or other is present or expected and some funding body is interested in the particular issue.

After that, I restricted my publishing to theoretical issues. Three articles in the 1980s were in the symbolic interaction tradition, a small proportion of my production in that decade. In sequence these were the following:

1983 “Professional ideologies and organisational structure: tanks and the military” European Journal of Sociology Vol.24 pp.223-40:

1984 “The social construction of housing facts” Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research Vol.1 No.3 pp.149-64 

1988 “Defining housing reality: ideological hegemony and power in housing research” Housing Studies (October) Vol.3 No.4 pp.205-218

Late 1980s: After these three articles I felt confident enough to apply for SIB approval of a project on interactionist housing. I had hoped to be able to do an empirical participant observation study of how people interact with staff when applying for housing in a housing exchange. I had noticed that a lot was about being aggressive and persistent – harassing the staff until they gave you something to go and view. But it had to be done subtly, so it didn’t make the staff feel threatened. It also involved a good street-knowledge of Swedish bureaucracy, how to push hard and when to give way. So it disadvantaged immigrants who lacked both the language and interactional skills as well as a finger-top feel for the system.

The Appointment of Robert Eriksson as SIB’s sociologist on the Board: I was the only symbolic interactionist at SIB, and this made me stay silent when his candidature came up at Division 2 Housing Market and Housing Policy in which I was based. It was one of the best Divisions at SIB, with political science well-represented by Sverker Gustavsson, Bo Bengtsson, Lennart Lundquist, Lars Nord and Stephan Schmidt. It also included economists Bengt Turner and Rune Wigren. There were, of course, other Divisions with many good researchers, including several gifted women of whom  but spread out among several Divisions.

I visited the well known ethnologist Åke Daun who had studied and published on Swedish Mentality. He was very helpful and I eventually submitted the proposal and attended the Board Meeting. The Board (Styrelsen) had senior external representatives of the main disciplines, but the sociologist was a number-cruncher – Robert Eriksson. He dismissed the proposal as rubbish and nonsense, which effectively put paid to it.

Late 1990s York University: For some years I taught on Stuart Lowe’s course for Housing Managers. They were mostly mature students with experience in housing management. I lectured on comparative ordoliberal housing policies, and it was a success. Their interest and outright astonishment that other countries could be different was very apparent. While there Stuart and I co-authored an article on convergence and divergence in housing policy: “Schools of comparative housing research: from convergence to divergence” (with Stuart Lowe) Housing Studies, March, 1998, Vol.13 No.2 pp.161-176). York University was an excellent place to do research, so we were kept busy.

Since I retired in 2005 two further symbolic interactionists have, to my knowledge, been appointed at Swedish universities. Both are working on ethnography projects. One is at IBF: Tora Holmberg, with interests in feminism and animal research, the other at Linköping University, Michael Tholander, whose dissertation Doing Morality in School looks to be very much in  the tradition of ethnography. No doubt there are others, elsewhere in Sweden. After all, the editor of Symbolic Interaction since 2011 is Robert Dingwall, who is British. In any event symbolic interactionism and ethnographic studies are most likely to become more common, as time passes.

I discuss the ethnographic research tradition that I never managed to engage with in the next post, notably in the work of Robert Prus, the only symbolic interactionist who has devoted his entire research to the ethnographic tradition of the Chicago School of Sociology, including several major research projects of his own. His book Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research (1996) is a detailed and definitive statement of his work.

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