This blog is where I will be writing about symbolic interaction. Part of this is a history of my life journey from the earliest days when I became a lecturer in sociology at Aberdeen University in the mid-1960s until my retirement in 2005.

Symbolic Interactionism: In the last year of so before leaving I went to two of the National Deviancy Conferences hiring a car to make the journey south, the first time in 1969 with Maggie Voisey who was meeting a friend there, the second time in 1970 with my wife-to-be Kerstin.

My main interest was critical criminology. Jock Young The Criminological Imagination (Polity, 2011) has captured its essence well. This was indeed a time of deconstruction and reconstruction and how media stereotypes shaped and at times created reality, and I have been – and still am – profoundly influenced by it.

Also, early on Geoff had persuaded the Department head, Raymond Illsley, to install a TV studio for studying interpersonal interaction. That was duly done and before leaving I directed a TV programme that was based on the article of Tom Scheff, a critical criminologist, published in Social Problems (1968/9) “Negotiating Reality: notes on power in the assessment of responsibility“. I changed the subject from criminology to staff-student relations, with Alan G. Davis taking the part of the member of staff, as staff-student relations and equality and fairness were at the time important in university teaching. Mike Shaw was the producer who after graduating went into Scottish TV and eventually held a senior position there, before retiring. There was also a commentator, an American lady who was visiting Aberdeen at the time. If I remember right she was from Brown University.

The Breakup of Aberdeen Symbolic Interaction: The most important member of staff in Sociology at Aberdeen University for me has always been Geoff Sharp (see the post of 18th August 2014). His resignation and departure from Aberdeen Sociology to take up a post as leader of the Coventry Re-Development Project in the late 1960s (one of a number of inner city development projects introduced by the Wilson Government) was for me the trigger for my departure from Aberdeen. This was probably in late 1969.

There was another reason: Aberdeen medical sociology at the time was still very focussed on statistical methods and the collection of data. I knew, of course that researchers like Anselm Strauss, Eliot Freidson, Tom Scheff, Edwin Lemert, Howard Becker, Erving Goffman, David Mechanic and Julius Roth were developing critical perspectives on mental and physical health, but at that time medical sociology as practised in Aberdeen sociology was positivist and focused on the use of large-sale statistical analysis.

Finding an American University to study for the Ph.D.: I wrote to all of the departments but only had one positive response from Minnesota, from its new Head of Department George Bohrnstedt, with the offer of a one year Teaching Associate position, and Kerstin and I obtained US visas and moved to Minneapolis, arriving in 1971.

Minnesota Sociology – from Symbolic Interactionism to Statistical Methods: At the Sociology Department at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, there had just been a major reorganisation of the Doctoral Programme that I was intending to do. I learned to my dismay that George Bohrnstedt had become Head of Department as part of a systematic replacement of the symbolic interactionist perspective with mathematical methods of analysis. There is a rather full description of the history of the Department here: https://www.soc.umn.edu/about/history.html. There is also a history of the Department written by Gary Alan Fine and Janet Severance: Fine and Severance (1985) “Great Men and Hard Times: sociology at the University of Minnesota” The Sociological Quarterly 26 ((1): 117-134. Gary Fine was Assistant Professor at Minnesota Sociology from 1976 to 1980, then Associate Professor from 1980 to 1985.

The only course on symbolic interaction on offer that year was one by Harold Finestone. This was the only course at Minnesota that I felt I was in my element. At the end Finestone told me  he was sorry I was leaving as that I was “thoroughly imbued with the symbolic interactionist perspective”. Those few words gave me great encouragement in the 5 years after leaving Minnesota. Gary Fine also wrote an obituary note after Harold Finestone died in 1977, though I have lost the link to it. Its either an ASA item or a Symbolic Interaction note from SSSI Notes. Or it could be in a Social Problems Working Group.

We left at the end of spring term 1972 for Gothenburg. Three of the interactionist staff came up to me on my last day atMinnesota – Harold Finestone, Steve Spitzer – and John Clark who became the next Chairman two years later – to say how sorry they were I was leaving, and I got a sense that what had happened to me was part of a larger struggle in the department to preserve and build on its strong interactionist traditions, but also that it might lead to something positive for others in the future. I had no idea it would result not only in a return to more interactionism in the graduate course 3 years later – too late to be of help to me – but the founding of the Society for the Study of Symbolic Interaction, and the journal Symbolic Interaction (in 1977). So one could argue that the moral chaos that Martindale describes in Ch. 6 Anarchism and the Rule of Cliques 1964-1969  and that came to a climax in Ch. 7, The Power Brokers: 1970-1973 (covering the years of 1971-2 when I was there).

I guess what I did was quite unique, entering the graduate programme from a tenured lectureship and with 5 years experience of teaching in Aberdeen.

Years later I learned that the crisis was much deeper and far-reaching than I appreciated at the time. See the post on Martindale’s book.

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 http://www2.ibf.uu.se/PERSON/jim/backgr.html) 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: http://www.asanet.org/footnotes/1977/ASA.05.1977.pdf. 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 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. Joachim Israel was the only one I knew, a symbolic interactionist at Lund University. 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 advice.

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 of from Aberdeen. It was while I was still in Australia that I wrote the article on Tank Warfare, using the concept of negotiated orders and published in 1983. See http://www2.ibf.uu.se/PERSON/jim/abstract/tank.html.

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

The last decade of my active publishing career was when I wrote most on symbolic interaction. My co-authorship with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manci was particularly important, as was my association with David Clapham and Bridget Franklin, and many other housing researchers I met along the way.

The main peer review article in this last period are these: “Power, Discursive Space and Institutional Practices in the construction of Housing Problems”,  Housing Studies (with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi July 2003 Vol. 18 No. 4 pp. 429-446) and “Privileged or exploited council tenants? The discursive change in Conservative housing policy from 1972 to 1980Policy and Politics ( (2003 with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manci July 2003 Vol.31 No.3 pp.307-320).

In 1999 Susan Hutson and David Clapham edited a reader on Homelessness with a C. Wright Mills inspired sub-title: Homelessness: public policies and private troubles in which Keith Jacobs, Tony Manci and I wrote a chapter – “The struggle to define homelessness: a constructivist approach”.

Finally we jointly edited a book Social Constructionism in Housing Research (2004, with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manzi) Aldershot: Ashgate. Haworth, Anna and Manzi, Tony and Kemeny, Jim (2004) Social constructionism and international comparative housing research.

There is a certain irony in the fact that by 2004 I was ready to retire. I thought I had done well to stay for 5 years after open heart surgery, followed by a second operation in 2003 to remove steel staples from my breastbone. So Social Constructionism in Housing Research became my last major publication, together with Keith Jacobs and Tony Manci. Symbolic interaction has always been my passion, but I often wondered how things might have been different if I could have continued my publishing career for another decade. We had a group of housing researchers who worked well together, and my early retirement at the age of 63 clearly must have affected Keith and Tony who are both still actively publishing.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s