How Did Ordoliberalism Replace Symbolic Interactionism?

First Published as…interactionism/ Published here with minor revisions.

Introduction: I’ve been a symbolic interactionist ever since going to Aberdeen in the mid 1960s. At the same time I’ve never published a book on interactionism, nor even an article in one of the earlier interactionist journals like Social ProblemsUrban LifeSociometry, or Sociological Quarterly, nor in Symbolic Interaction. Instead I have kept to the housing journals, like Housing StudiesPolicy and PoliticsThe Sociological Review, and Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research (SHPR).

To understand this it is necessary to go back to the time I first came to Gothenburg, Sweden in 1972 from Minnesota Sociology. I was immediately struck by how similar Sweden was to Austria, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The first obvious difference – even before I began to learn Swedish – was the Swedish konditori. They were less common in Gothenburg which looked west to Britain (Gothenburg is nicknamed “Little London”), but were much more common in Stockholm and Gävle. The Viennese Coffee House catches the atmosphere very well, serving a variety of cream cakes, and its atmosphere and newspapers to read:

“The social practices, the rituals, the elegance create the very specific atmosphere of the Viennese café.[2] Coffee Houses entice with a wide variety of coffee drinks, international newspapers, and pastry creations. Typical for Viennese Coffee Houses are marble tabletops, Thonet chairs, newspaper tables and interior design details in the style of Historicism.[3] The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig described the Viennese Coffee House as an institution of a special kind, “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”[4] Zweig in fact attributed a good measure of Vienna’s cosmopolitan air to the rich daily diet of current and international information offered in the coffee houses.” (

This is gradually changing everywhere as since 1945 US global hegemony replaces German European hegemony. The konditori is increasingly being replaced with the simpler and more crowded self-service coffee bar and fast food eateries.

Besides such social factors (including the Gymnasium (school), the Germanic legal system and the  Swedish language which is a North Germanic language), Sweden also had the remnants of its ordoliberalism in terms of historic cost rents, rent averaging, a large rental sector and tenure neutral housing policies. See my IBF Home Page, especially A Personal Background to my Research Focus.

Since then further erosion has taken place, almost without us being aware of it.

I increasingly became interested in ordoliberalism, especially international comparisons, and eventually recruited researchers from European countries with ordoliberal housing policies.

This has always been my main formal research commitment. Yet I remained not just interested in symbolic interaction but publishing in the perspective. By necessity this had to be a secondary interest. Symbolic Interaction was never prominent in Sweden. It has been very much an American perspective. For me this has been fundamentally an emotional connection and it stems from the late 1960s in Aberdeen and the York National Deviancy Conferences.

Most of my working life has been spent in a Swedish housing research institute. Symbolic interaction was barely known in Sweden in 1972. The Institute for Housing and Urban Research did not have any symbolic interactionist research staff there at the time I retired in 2005.

When I started my Ph.D. at Gothenburg there were no members of staff there with a publishing record in the perspective. But I already had a doctoral dissertation in mind that I had originally hoped to work on at Minnesota.

This split in my work meant that my aim became to build up a core of housing interactionists and hope it would be sufficient to at least help establish symbolic interactionism in the otherwise highly positivist field of housing research.

Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research (SHPR) was founded by the Swedish National Institute for Building Research (SIB) soon after I was appointed as a contract researcher in 1981, then again as Editor of the journal after moving back to take up the Chair after the Institute for Housing and Urban Research replaced SIB. With the agreement of the Institute we changed the Journal name from SHPR to Housing, Theory and Society. During my editorship I wrote a few short pieces on the place of symbolic interaction in housing research, before handing over to David Clapham.

Gothenburg University 1972-75: We went straight to Gothenburg, Sweden, where Kerstin, travelling ahead of me, had found an old flat for us on Artillerigatan in the Old Town (see and I immediately went to see the Head of Department, Edmund Dahlström. Already in 1962 he had published a co-authored book on Women’s Life and Work, gender being one of his special interests, on gender roles. I believe his wife was a feminist, at a time well before it was common. I took with me a couple of large box files of my references covering symbolic interactionist research, which I showed Dahlström.

He looked through them with interest, but in retrospect I wonder whether symbolic interaction meant much to him, as there were no symbolic interactionist in the department while I was there. One American visiting professor came and he was well-versed in symbolic interaction, commenting helpfully on my dissertation draft. But he was only there a short time. Charles H. Anderson visited Gothenburg Sociology in 1973, but he died in 1976. His obituary can be read here: He was a classic critical sociologist in the spirit of C. Wright Mills. My Supervisor was Hans Horst, an industrial sociologist. It was here I also met Laurence Teeland an Alaskan sociologist doing a Ph. D. in the department. Like me, he ended up being active in the European Housing Research Network that Bengt Turner founded.

Australia 1975-1979: I finished my dissertation in early 1976, and returned to Gothenburg early in 1977 for its public defence. It was an application of micro-level symbolic interactionist analysis to a detailed case-study the Highland Clearances, primarily using John Prebble Highland Clearances and Ian Grimble The Trial of Patrick Sellar. It was an attempt to develop a macro sociology understanding of how the Highland Clearances were accomplished, how resistance and opposition to the process were countered by lairds and their factors, including use of police and courts to enforce the landlord’s view of tenant status as temporary and revokable. Against this the crofters based their resistance to clearance on the traditions of clan membership and the crofting tradition of holding land as a clan member rather than as a tenant paying rent in kind or in cash, based on maintaining traditional social and military duties to the laird. The Dissertation title is An Interactionist Approach to Macro SociologyIt was an attempt to link macro processes to the micro level.

Reading through the dissertation nearly 40 years after publication I am struck by how much I was influenced by critical criminology. I used Anselm Strauss’ concept of negotiated order as a key element, an early example of Ian Carter’s work (1971) on the Highland Clearances, many books and articles by critical criminologists like Stan Cohen Folk Devils and Moral Panics (McGibbon and Kee 1972) and Jock Young (including their jointly edited book The Manufacture of News (Constable, 1973), Ian Taylor with Paul Walton and Jock Young The New Criminology (Routledge, 1973) and Laurie Taylor Deviance and Society (Michael Joseph, 1971).

Early symbolic interactionism also figured prominently, notably Aaron Cicourel, Norman Denzin, Jack Douglas, Harold Garfinkel, Erving Goffman, Joseph Gusfield, G.C. Homans, John Kitsuse, Edwin Lemert, David Matza, G. H. Mead, Paul Rock, Arnold Rose, Alfred Schutz, Marvin Scott, Tamotsu Shibutani.

The dissertation contained 2 appendices: Appendix 1 (pp.201-213) is the full text of the TV programme I directed before leaving Aberdeen. Appendix 2 is a case study of one series of 13 episodes of interaction (the evictions at Sollas pp.214-217), that covered some 4 years.

At the time of my defence of my dissertation I was in Australia and went back for the Disputation. I was even then surprised how much more interest there was in symbolic interaction in Australia than in Sweden. In Australia I got useful feedback from Alec Pemberton, as he had joint-authored an article on “Casework and Social Interaction Theory” published in the Australian Journal of Social Issues in 1972. I didn’t know that Alan G. Davis, like me an exile from the collapse of Aberdeen symbolic interactionism, arrived in Australia at about the time I left in 1979 to go to CURS at Birmingham University. Roy Fitzhenry, at Adelaide University had already joint-published a reader in 1970 on Introducing Sociology, and gave me useful adviceIt was in Adelaide I also met the social anthropologist Bruce Kapferer whose work on Dance interested me.

Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, Birmingham University: Again, I was surprised that there were no symbolic interactionists at CURS or Aston University or indeed anywhere else in Birmingham that I could find. It was this that made me realise that before the interactionist diaspora from Aberdeen, critical criminology or symbolic interactionism was limited to Aberdeen, York and the London School of Economics. Of them all, Aberdeen was almost certainly the largest and most important with Mike Mulkay and Bryan Turner in addition to the Young Turks. I had a 3 year contract at CURS but decided to return to Sweden in 1982 to the National Swedish Institute for Building Research (NSIBR, shortened to SIB) where I applied for a grant to study immigrants to Sweden. This was an exercise in straight statistics collection and presentation of the “findings”: as if the result of the choice of data and their interpretation were somehow the result of “objective” methodology.

The blossoming of Symbolic Interactionism in the USA

What I didn’t know at that time was that there was a new journal, Symbolic Interaction that had started in 1977. But at the Institute I did find the journal Urban Life and Culture (founded in 1972) and, of course, Social Problems which  I knew from Aberdeen.

One of the first papers I wrote at SIB was in their new journal Scandinavian Housing and Planning Research , published in 1984 “The Social Construction of Housing Facts” was an application of Bruno Latour and Steve Woolgar‘s ground-breaking study of “the social construction of scientific facts”, Laboratory Life (Sage, 1979) to housing.

So Symbolic Interactionist research only became a world-wide independent research discipline in the 1970s, with two new journals (Urban Life and Culture, 1972 and Symbolic Interaction, 1977). This was about the time I began to work at NSIBR, so the sudden expansion of symbolic interactionism coincided with my first housing and urban research post. I stayed in housing and urban sociology for nearly all the rest of my time before my early retirement in 2005, the only diversion being a year or so at Plymouth University.

During this time I continued to publish in symbolic interactionism alongside my urban interests. In 1983 I published an article on tank warfare and the German Blitzkrieg Doctrine. In 1984 came The Social Construction of Housing Facts. My 1988 Housing Studies article “Defining Housing reality“, is a constructionist approach to the sociology of knowledge applied to housing research. It is very much in the style of Thomas Scheff, focusing on power in interaction. See his article Academic Gangs (1995)  published in Crime, Law, and Social Change 23: 157-162.

Project Proposal (late 1980s): After these three articles I felt confident enough to apply for SIB approval of a project on interactionist housing. My symbolic interactionist work has been patchy, both in being about housing and in terms of methods, as I have never conducted qualitative research on  the doing of everyday life (Alfred Schütz on phenomenology).

I had hoped to be able to undertake a study of “the doing of everyday life”, a 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.

I submitted the proposal and attended the Board Meeting. The board had senior external representatives of the main disciplines, but the external sociologist was a number-cruncher – Robert Erikson: He dismissed the proposal as rubbish and nonsense, which effectively put paid to it.

After this I concentrated on housing and theory, Housing and Social Theory (Routledge, 1992), and From Public Housing to the Social Market (Routledge 2005).

But more exciting has been collaboration. In 2003a and 2003b came the first fruits of my co-authoring with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manci in Housing Studies and Policy and Politics respectively and in 2004 an edited book Social Constructionism in Housing Research, to which we wrote the Introduction and contributed chapters.

This was for me the highlight of my constructionist work. Ch. 4 “Extending Constructionist Social Problems to the study of Housing Problems” was particularly exciting as here for the first time I was able to draw on existing literature and debates in social problems and apply them to housing, from Becker, Berger and Luckmann, Blumer, Garfinkel, Goffman, Strauss and many others. Chapter 9 jointly with Anna Haworth and Tony Manci on constructionism in comparative housing research, was the final chapter. Finally there was the chapter in Allen and Imrie The Knowledge Business (2010) in the preceding post on this blog. jimsresearchnotes also has several posts on aspects of symbolic interactionism.

Concluding thoughts:

Most of my working life has been spent in a Swedish housing research institute. Symbolic interaction was barely known in Sweden in 1972. The Institute for Housing and Urban Research did not have any symbolic interactionist research staff there at the time I retired in 2005.

My symbolic interactionist work has been patchy, both in being about housing and in terms of methods, as I have never conducted qualitative research on the doing of everyday life. But it has been continual, while the last years before retiring were in many ways the best. Ray Forrest arranged for me to spend time at the School for Advanced Urban Studies at Bristol University (SAUS) where I wrote my last two Routledge book, as well as a number of SAUS Working Papers. Tremendous facilities and perfect for doing research.

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