Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic Research

This post’s title is also the title of a book by Professor Robert Prus, Waterloo University, Ontario, Canada. Its full title is Symbolic Interaction and Ethnographic ResearchIntersubjectivity and the Study of Human Lived Experience (State University of New York Press, 1996). I bought the book in 1996, and it changed my life. Prus has written a number books on his research: Hookers, Rounders and Desk Clerks: the social organization of the Hotel Community (with Styllianos Irini, 1980); Pursuing Customers: An Ethnography of Market Activities (Sage, 1989); Making Sales: Influence as Interpersonal Accomplishment (Sage, 1989). I have not read any, so cannot comment. There is also one by Prus and what looks like an anonymous co-author – C. D. R. Sharper – probably an insider of the Road Hustler subculture: Road Hustler: Grifting, magic and the thief subculture (Lexington Books, 1991). He has also published numerous other works, edited collections, articles, etc. For a full list up to 2013 see Prus is the only symbolic interactionist I am aware of who has devoted his life to both researching in the tradition of William Foote Whyte‘s classic study of the Italian community of Boston North Side (Street Corner Society, 1943), Herbert Blumer‘s (Movies and Conduct, 1970), even further back work in the ethnographic tradition of the Chicago School of urban sociology under Robert E. Park, during the 1920s and 1930s. If anyone wants to thoroughly immerse themselves in the symbolic interactionist tradition of “Doing everyday life” using “ethnography as human lived experience”, this book is essential reading. I had no idea until I read it that the new discipline dubbed by Herbert Blumer in 1977 as symbolic interactionism had such a long methodological pedigree. Positivist urban sociology which sprang out of the same origins of the work of Tönnies, Durkheim, Weber and Simmel was founded originally by Albion Small where he was Head of one of the first U.S. Sociology Departments from 1892 for over 30 years, and who also founded the American Journal of Sociology in 1895. The Chicago School of Urban Sociology therefore is the common ancestry of both qualitative and quantitative urban sociology. One of the earliest qualitative studies was by Florian Znaniecki and William I. Thomas, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, based on documents and correspondence and in five volumes published between 1918 and 1920. W. I. Thomas is also known for his formulation in 1928 of the Thomas Theorem “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.” There is much more. Critical criminology owes much of its origins to this tradition. Clifford Shaw The Jack-Roller (1930): “…depicts the day-to-day situations that “street kids”encounter and portrays the reflectivity, enterprise, and interaction involved in the production of delinquency. Although The Jack-Roller  needs to be viewed in  the social context in which it was written, there is no better account of teenage criminality available.” (Prus, 1996 p. 122) Edwin Sutherland The Professional Thief (1937) is another landmark work, showing how criminal behaviour, like any other behaviour was learned “in the interactive context in which people found themselves (Prus, 1996 p. 124). Paul G. Cressey The Taxi-Dance Hall (1932) is particularly interesting because it is the context of commercial provision of entertainment with gender issues: “A taxi dance hall is a type of dance hall where dancers (who are usually young women) called taxi dancers are paid to dance with patrons (usually male). The owners of a taxi dance hall provide music and a dance floor for their patrons and taxi dancers. In the United States during the 1920s and 1930s, when taxi dancing was at its peak, patrons of taxi dance halls would typically buy dance tickets for ten cents each. When they presented a ticket to a taxi dancer, she would dance with them for the length of a single song. Taxi dancers earned a commission on every dance ticket that they collected from their male dance partners. The ticket-a-dance system is the centerpiece of the taxi dance halls.” ( See also Prus, 1996 p. 123). This brings me to the interpersonal emotions (as distinct from sex), another area which has been neglected in positivist studies. Willard Waller The Old Love and the New (1930) is about emotional adjustment to divorce and death in relationships (Prus, 1996 pp. 122-3). Another, Frances Donovan The Woman who Waits (1920), The Saleslady (1929), The School Ma’am (1939) are about gender roles in different occupations. The Saleslady can be downloaded as a pdf file here, and is a participant observation study (Prus, 1996 pp. 121-122). I have given just a sample of this rich and varied literature. Some, like Sutherland’s The Professional Thief  and William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society have become landmark classics, while others represent early ethnographic studies in a long process of development. No doubt everyone has their favourites. The odd thing is that I knew this nearly half a century ago in the late 1960s, decades before I became a housing and urban sociologist, but my entire production of housing and urban sociology was very much in the positivist tradition, using statistical data and keeping my symbolic interactionist interest muted, though it blossomed right at the end of my working life, together with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manci, at least in some respects. More important I never managed to undertake a single qualitative study: the one attempt failing utterly to get any support. That was due to the complete absence of sociologists in SIB who were symbolic interactionists or who even understood the principles of ethnographic research. Several women and a few men understood this and indeed practised it, though without the knowledge of the long tradition behind it, and certainly not calling themselves “symbolic interactionists”. The irony is made more acute by the fact that prominent in the Chicago School of urban sociology were eminent symbolic interactionism like W. I. Thomas and Herbert Blumer. As with the journal Urban Life urban issues had been dominated by positivism, making the editors of Urban Life   change its name twice until they felt the approach reflected the unique nature of the methodology used by symbolic interactionists. It is now called Journal of Contemporary Ethnology. There is another journal in this growing field of symbolic interactionism: Qualitative Sociology. Jock Young The Criminological Imagination (Polity Press, 2011 pp. 22-23) also points to a further handicap that was not present in SIB, but has now spread to all universities, including Uppsala University. He observed that although it began in the late 1970s, it did not fully take hold until the 1990s by which time Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) “…made ethnographic work on criminal and deviant groups almost impossible to conduct.” It is not a coincidence that the early days of this change coincides with Reaganomics followed by Thatcherism in the 1980s. Neoliberalism has clearly played an important part. And it is a supreme irony that the turn to The Free Market should have resulted in the growing bureaucratisation of University research, trammelling it within an almost impenetrable mesh of rules and regulations, of which Institutional Review Boards are just one manifestation. See The Knowledge Business (edited by Chris Allen and Rob Imrie) which, as its subtitle makes clear, is specifically about “the commodification of housing and urban research”. Prus’ book has a foreword by the eminent symbolic interactionist Kathy Charmaz. She contributed to the Anselm Strauss website, in a moving 15-page remembrance: . Her 15-page foreword to Prus’ 2006 book ends with the following very moving paragraph, which gets to the heart of the matter: “This book may be read as a historical chronicle of theoretical debates, as an interpretation of theoretical hegemony, as a statement of the status of the discipline, and as a call to renew the vitality of our research by radically reconstructing it. I think Prus makes his most significant contribution when he calls for the reconstruction of social scientific research. Yes, Robert Prus has an agenda for symbolic interactionists specifically and social scientist more generally. He calls us to return to the field, to share the worlds of those we study, to understand their realities, and to develop compassionate analyses of how they produce these realities. And while we do so, Prus enjoins us to hear the echoes of our theoretical predecessors and to see the imprint of their ideas on the pages we write. Only then will the current noisy, and often fruitless, theoretical fray grow distant, and for us to turn quiet and still. Only then will we deepen our theoretical insight and refine our research craft. His book is a major step in this direction. Read it. Use it. Dare to question and have the courage to grow.” (Kathy Charmaz, Foreword, pp. xv-xvi, in Prus (1996).

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