Symbolic Interaction in Housing Research

Even if Housing, Theory and Society has very little symbolic interaction evident this only reflects the lack of contributions in the perspective, which says more about the state of housing research than reflecting on the journal. But Keith Jacobs, Jim Kemeny and Tony Manci (eds) Social Constructionism in Housing Research (Ashgate, 2004) will one day prove to have been a landmark in its development as Symbolic interaction becomes more and more common in housing research: see the pre-publication draft on my home page.

On a personal level, writing my chapter in this book was the most rewarding and enjoyable experience of my publishing career, as well as being the last. Chapter 4, “Extending Constructionist Social Problems to the study of Housing Problems” (pp. 49-70) made it possible for me to write about symbolic interaction and housing research in my own way, untrammelled by positivist scepticism.

For over 60 years the prime journal for research in the symbolic interactionist perspective was Social Problems, founded in 1953. I felt the time had come when housing research could begin to seriously engage with symbolic interaction. The Founder President of the Society for the Study of Social Problems was the famous Chicago School sociologist Ernest Burgess, and the Vice President was Arnold M. Rose at Minnesota University.

“In the 1970s constructionist explanations of social problems became well established in sociology as well as in a number of related disciplines…Early constructionist approaches to social problems were strongly influenced by symbolic interactionism, and particularly by labelling theory, and only later, in response to the linguistic turn, became increasingly influenced by discourse analysis. Constructionist approaches eventually became established as the dominant approach to the study of social problems…”

“Yet perversely, the debates raging around how to study social problems passed housing studies by, almost entirely unnoticed. This is particularly puzzling as housing studies has always been – and remains to this day – a very applied field in which the study of housing problems and the housing policies to deal with them comprise a central concern. Until very recently housing research has remained a bastion of traditional positivism, heavily influenced by structuralist explanations and strongly oriented toward the use of quantitative methods, including the use of official statistics and the collection of additional data through large-scale interview surveys.” (pp. 49-50)

I then trace the emergence of the constructivist approach to social problems, originating in the formation of the Society for the Study of Social Problems in 1951 (pp. 52-54), with which there have always been prominent symbolic interactionists associated. In the early 1970s its President was Edwin Lemert and the membership of the Executive Committee included Helena Znaniecki Lopata and Arlene Kaplan Daniels. The Editorial Committee included Earl Rubington, Severyn Bruyn, and John Kitsuse. See the full list of presidents, vice-presidents and editors of the Society.

Jock Young in The Criminological Imagination (2011) has The Problem of American Ethnocentrism as a sub-title (p. 114) and spends a considerable amount of time pondering the reasons for it, especially in terms of zero-tolerance (pp. 114-130). I have also noticed it in the Society for the Study of Social Problems, of which I have been a member for several years. The Great Society forms the starting point for much research. But then the US is no different in this than any other country: the main difference being that the USA is a larger and vastly more diverse country than most. I am probably a Little Englander, just as most countries have this focus on their own stories. Every country has its own big or little bubble of interest. Trying to force a combination of greatly varying cultures never works, the EU being a prime example.

But back to the main issue I take up in my chapter: that of “doing” in situ research:

It is important to bear in mind that the study of social situations as integral and dynamic wholes has always been a central tenet of interactionism. Following an epistemology known as ‘grounded theory’ (Glaser and Strauss, 1967), theory is inducted from a social situation, or a ‘life world’ that the analyst enters, becoming immersed in, and thoroughly imbued with, taking the actors’ definitions and learning what it is to be a member.”

This is sometimes referred to as ‘in situ’ research or ‘doing’ whatever situated activity of everyday life is being researched (‘doing everyday life’ as Dietz et al., 1994 call it).

There are many different ways of approaching this matter.


Dietz, Mary Lorenz; Prus, Robert; Shaffir, William ( editors, 1994) Doing Everyday Life: Ethnography as Human Lived Experience Cop Clark Longman, Ontario, Canada

Glaser, Barney G. and Strauss, Anselm L. (1967) The discovery of grounded theory: strategies for qualitative research. Chicago.: Aldine.

Further Reading: The internet has become a much more powerful tool for finding information. Although Anselm Strauss has his own dedicated page after he died in 2006  Barney Glaser has continued to develop their ideas. See this website: which lists various resources. The Grounded Theory Institute has a number of services, including seminars, courses, books, and the peer review journal Grounded Theory Review. See also the Wikipedia page Grounded Theory. The work of Anselm Strauss in co-operation with many other sociologists on Negotiated Order has been one of my main sources for researching meso and macro sociology because it was designed for the study of organisations. It was also central in my doctoral dissertation.

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