Urban Life: a symbolic interactionist journal

This post traces the history of the emergence of symbolic interactionism as a distinct discipline. This involved the struggle to define its subject in such a way that did not involve becoming submerged in positivist research in urban studies. It traces the removal of the word urban from its title, and refocusing on ethnography.

Urban Life: a Symbolic Interactionist Journal Published in jimsresearchnotes 12 Jan 2012

The journal Urban Life and Culture, launched in 1972, was originally strongly focused on symbolic interactionism, and publishing exactly the kind of research that the Chicago School was already then famous for. These were ethnographic studies of everyday life in modern urban environments, dealing with the problems of poverty, addiction, illness and excluded outsiders from the perspective of those experiencing them. It was a journal fully in the symbolic interactionist tradition of ethnographic research.

Julius Roth “Staff and Client Control Strategies in Urban Hospital Emergency Services” was a symbolic interactionist whose work, especially Timetables, was part of the early work on power in interpersonal interaction applied to patient-doctor negotiations, and particularly suited to the ambiguous nature of illness when sufficient progress had been made to make release from medical supervision acceptable to the doctor responsible as well as to the patient. Another article in the same 1st issue of Urban Life and Culture is by Lyn Lofland on “Self-management in Public Settings – Part 1” applied Goffman’s “Behavior in Public Places”.

The entire seven-article issue of October 1982 (Vol. 11 No. 3) was devoted to negotiated orders, a subject I have always been particularly interested in. David Maines led off with his article on “In search of mesostructure: studies in the negotiated order”. Two articles dealt with medical institutions (Judith Levy “negotiations between hospices and medical institutions” and Sherryl Kleinman on a holistic health center).

The Founder-Editor of Urban Life and Culture was John Lofland. The journal was renamed Urban Life in 1984. Its editor was Robert Emerson. He introduced the changes in an editorial “From the New Editor” Urban Life April 1984 (13, 3: pp. 3-6). He added anthropologists to the editorial board and, importantly, emphasised the need to “reclaim “empirical” from its narrow equation with “quantitative”” (p. 4).

Then in 1987, under the joint editorship of Patricia A. Adler and Peter Adler the editors abandoned its titular connection to “urban” when Urban Life was renamed the  Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, a name it retains to this day. Their jointly authored editorial “The Past and Future of Ethnography” (April 1987)  Vol. 16, 1: pp.4-24,  makes it clear that the journal was receiving manuscripts that were more quantitative. John Johnson, the New Ethnographies editor, in a personal communication to the editors,”…commented on the frequency with which publishers sent him books to review on urban studies.” (p.5)

All of the above editors of the journal in all three of its incarnations were symbolic interactionists. The journal kept its symbolic interactionist focus from the start, but gradually shed its urban focus, so the change of title made sense. It also opened up the journal to anthropological work. So the journal began to publish more anthropological work alongside symbolic interactionism.  It had a special issue (Vol. 11) devoted to symbolic interactionist ethnography, including a special issue on the Chicago School. It remains an important journal for symbolic interactionist research but it is no longer self-defined as being about “urban life”.

The second article in the JCE was by John Lofland “Reflections on a Thrice-named Journal” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (April 1987) Vol. 16 No. 1 pp. 25-40 discusses the problems he had as the founder-editor of the journal in 1971 when he first proposed the journal as being needed. The date is significant as it was a few years before Symbolic Interaction was founded. So at the time it provided a key journal oriented toward symbolic interactionism in place of journals like Psychiatry and Sociometry as well as being more focused on qualitative ethnographic case studies than Social Problems.

John Lofland’s 1987 article is worth close examination. In a letter to John Lofland in 1971 Goffman argued that “there is no such thing as ‘urban life’ or even ‘urban culture'”, and I am reminded that his participant observation study that produced The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Goffman’s doctoral dissertation, was material collected on a remote crofting island in the Shetland archipelago off the north coast of Scotland, a less “urban” place is hard to imagine. The reason Goffman chose such a remote crofting isle to research must have been to find a setting in which there is little or no privacy to make it easier to base a dramaturgical analysis on. Backstage is all but lacking and so keeping up a public front is especially problematic.

I did not know until my visiting position at Aberdeen in the late 1980s that Phil Strong had written to Goffman, and it makes me wonder that given the considerable interest in the Highland Clearances among Aberdeen symbolic interactionists at the time, if the choice of a crofting community was one of Phil Strong’s questions, but it seems very likely.

The journal is now described as follows: The Journal of Contemporary Ethnography (JCE) is an international and interdisciplinary forum for research using ethnographic methods to examine human behavior in natural settings.

JCE brings you relevant material that examines a broad spectrum of social interactions and practices — in subcultures, cultures, organizations, and societies — from a variety of academic disciplines including, but not limited to, Anthropology, Communications, Criminal Justice, Education, Health Studies, Management, Marketing, and Sociology.

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