Blumer’s Ontological Claims and the Curious Absence of Any Argument

I am currently re-reading some foundational texts on Symbolic Interactionism (the school of sociology) for my thesis. One of the most influential is Herbert Blumer’s Symbolic Interactionism and I am struck by Blumer’s ontological claims and the curious absence of any argument for them. Consider the following passage:

For purposes of convenience one can classify objects in three categories: (a) physical objects, such as chairs, trees, or bicycles; (b) social objects, such as students, priests, a president, a mother, or a friend; and (c) abstract objects, such as moral principles, philosophical doctrines, or ideas such as justice, exploitation, or compassion. (Blumer 1969: 10)

Blumer proposes three categories for objects and we can discuss this proposal, but Blumer does not provide any argument for it. He just moves on. From my own research into social ontology I know that such categories are far from uncontroversial. I would also object to the examples Blumer offers. Consider the bicycle (or the chair), which he proposes as an example for a physical object: A bicycle has a teleological function. All bicycles necessarily have the purpose of serving as means of transportation. Electrons do not have a necessary teleological function. One might make the argument that only social objects can have such functions. But Blumer does not even attempt to defend his categorisation.

Do I apply the wrong standards? Blumer does not write a paper on analytic social ontology, but rather presents his position. He even prefaces his categorisation with “[f]or purposes of convenience one can classify objects in three categories”. But then again, the essay I quote from supposedly presents the basis of Symbolic Interactionisms. If the basis includes controversial ontological commitments, which Blumes fails to defend with arguments, then we should worry. An ontological commitment is an ontological commitment and needs defence.

Here is another statement:

I repeat that an object is anything that can be indicated or referred to. (p. 11)

Is it? A philosopher might have thought this to be controversial. Well, it is and Blumer might be aware, but again the text lacks any serious argument.

I find the following interpretation the most charitable one: Blumer assumes ontological positions from the philosophers he follows, in particular George Herbert Mead and John Dewey. He engages in social research on the assumption of the correctness of these philosophers. These two classical pragmatists might endorse Blumer’s analysis of objects. So Blumer might able to pass part of the burden on to others.

But what about the three categories and the categorisation of bicycles? What about all the other claims, like this one:

Similarly, social structure in any of its aspects, as represented by such terms as social position, status, role, authority, and prestige, refers to relationships derived from how people act toward each other. (p. 6-7)

I doubt that these ontological claims can all be found in Mead and Dewey. The burden would be on Blumer, or so it seems to me.

Blumer could point out that he only wants to sketch “the way in which symbolic interactionism views human society and conduct” (p. 6). It is just a proposal for how we could think about the social world and trying it out will show whether the proposal was right or wrong. I do not find this move convincing either. Blumer thought Symbolic Interactionism is right and others schools of sociology are wrong, because of the difference in their ontological assumptions. He commits to having more than just one proposal amongst others.

I am left baffled by the interesting ontological claims Blumer makes and the absence of any argument for them. Unless I am supposed to take his word for it, I just do not understand why he does not provide any argument. Am I missing a more charitable and plausible interpretation of Bumer’s claims?


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