Symbolic Interaction Methods
Exploratory study of human group life is the means of achieving simultaneously two complementary and interknit objectives. On the one hand, it is the way by which a research scholar can form a close and comprehensive acquaintance with a sphere of social life that is unfamiliar and hence unknown to him. On the other hand, it is the means of developing and sharpening his inquiry so that his problem, his directions of inquiry, data, analytical relations, and interpretations arise out of, and remain grounded in, the empirical life under study. Exploration is by definition a flexible procedure in which the scholar shifts from one to another line of inquiry, adopts new points of observation as his study progresses, moves in new directions previously unthought-of, and changes his recognition of what are relevant data as he acquires more information and better understanding. In these respects, exploratory study stands in contrast to the prescribed and circumscribed procedure demanded by current scientific protocol. The flexibility of exploratory procedure does not mean that there is no direction to the inquiry; it means that the focus is originally broad but becomes progressively sharpened as the inquiry proceeds. The purpose of exploratory investigation is to move toward a clearer understanding of how one’s problem is to be posed, to learn what are the appropriate data, to develop ideas of what are significant lines of relation, and to evolve one’s conceptual tools in the light of what one is learning about the area of life. In this respect it differs from the somewhat pretentious posture of the research scholar who under established scientific protocol is required in advance of his study to present a fixed and clearly structured problem, to know what kinds of data he is to collect, to have and hold to a prearranged set of techniques, and to shape his findings by previously established categories.
Because of its flexible nature, exploratory inquiry is not pinned down to any particular set of techniques. Its guiding maxim is to use any ethically allowable procedure that offers a likely possibility of getting a clearer picture of what is going on in the area of social life. Thus, it may involve direct observation, interviewing of people, listening to their conversations, securing life-history accounts, using letters and diaries, consulting public records, arranging for group discussions, and making counts of an item if this appears worthwhile. There is no protocol to be followed in the use of any one of these procedures; the procedure should be adapted to its circumstances and guided by judgment of its propriety and fruitfulness. Yet a few special points should be borne in mind in such exploratory research. One should sedulously seek participants in the sphere of life who are acute observers and who are well informed. One such person is worth a hundred others who are merely unobservant participants. A small number of such individuals, brought together as a discussion and resource group, is more valuable many times over· than any representative sample. Such a group, discussing collectively their sphere of life and probing into it as they meet one another’s disagreements, will do more to lift the veils covering the sphere of life than any other device that I know of.
It is particularly important in exploratory research for the scholar to be constantly alert to the need of testing and revising his images, beliefs, and conceptions of the area of life he is studying. Part of such testing and revision will come from direct observation and from what informants tell hi~, but since his task extends to a probing into areas beneath those known to his informants, he should cultivate assiduously a readiness to view his area of study in new ways. Darwin, who is acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest naturalistic observers on record, has noted the ease with which observation becomes and remains imprisoned by images. He recommends two ways of helping to break such captivity. One is to ask oneself all kinds of questions about what he is studying, even seemingly ludicrous questions. The posing of such questions helps to sensitize the observer to different and new perspectives. The other recommended procedure is to record all observations that challenge one’s working conceptions as well as any observation that is odd and interesting even though its relevance is not immediately clear; Darwin has indicated from his personal experience how readily such observations disappear from memory and that, when retained and subjected to reflection, they usually are the pivots for a fruitful redirection of one’s perspective.
The aim of exploratory research is to develop and fill out as comprehensive and accurate a picture of the area of study as conditions allow. The picture should enable the scholar to feel at home in the area, to talk from a basis of fact and not from speculation. The picture provides the scholar with a secure bearing so that he knows that the questions he asks of the empirical area are meaningful and relevant to it, that the problem he poses is not artificial, that the kinds of data he seeks are significant in terms of the empirical world, and that the leads he follows are faithful to its nature. Considering the crucial need and value of exploratory research in the case of the social and psychological sciences, it is an odd commentary on these sciences that their current methodological preoccupations are practically mute on this type of research.
It should be pointed out that the mere descriptive information unearthed through exploratory research may serve, in itself, to provide the answers to theoretical questions that the scholar may have in mind with regard to what he is studying. All too frequently, the scholar confronted with an unfamiliar area of social life will fabricate, in advance, analytical schemes that he believes necessary to account for the problematic features of the area. One of the interesting values of exploratory study is that the fuller descriptive account that it yields will frequently give an adequate explanation of what was problematic without the need of invoking any theory or proposing any analytical scheme. However, the picture of the sphere of social life that is formed through effective exploration does not terminate what is required by careful direct examination of the empirical social world. Such direct examination sets the need for another procedure that I find it convenient to label “inspection.”
The direct examination of the empirical social world is not limited to the construction of comprehensive and intimate accounts of what takes place. It should also embody analysis. The research scholar who engages in direct examination should aim at casting his problem in a theoretical form, at unearthing generic relations, at sharpening the connotative reference of his concepts, and at formulating theoretical propositions. Such analysis is the proper aim of empirical science, as distinguished from the preparation of mere descriptive accounts. How is scientific analysis to be undertaken in the direct examination of the empirical social world, especially in the case of the account of that world yielded by exploration? The common answer is to apply to that account the scheme of scientific analysis espoused in current methodology. This scheme has the following form: Start with a theory or model that is framed in terms of relations between concepts or categories; use the theory to set up a specific problem in the area under study; convert the problem into specific kinds of independent and dependent variables that represent concepts or categories; employ precise techniques to get the data; discover the relations between the variables; and use the theory and model to explain these relations. To apply this conventional scheme to the account yielded by exploration would certainly be a gain over what is usually done, in that one would be working with data derived from what is actually happening rather than from what one imagines to be happening. Yet, in· my judgment, this conventional protocol of scientific analysis is not suitable or satisfactory for the kind of analysis that is needed in direct examination of the empirical social world. Even though using the more realistic data yielded by exploration, the conventional protocol of scientific analysis still forces such data into an artificial framework that seriously limits and impairs genuine empirical analysis. Scientific analysis requires two things: clear, discriminating analytical elements and the isolation of relations between these elements. The conventional protocol does not pin down in an exact way the nature of the analytical elements in the empirical social world nor does it ferret out in an exacting manner the relation between these analytical elements. A different analytical procedure is necessary. I think that «inspection” constitutes this necessary procedure.
By “inspection” I mean an intensive focused examination of the empirical content of whatever analytical elements are used for purposes of analysis, and this same kind of examination of the empirical nature of the relations between such elements. Let me explain this abstract statement. By analytical elements I have in mind whatever general or categorical items are employed as the key items in the analysis, such as integration, social mobility, assimilation, charismatic leadership, bureaucratic relation, authority system, suppression of dissent, morale, relative deprivation, attitudes, and institutional commitment. As the examples suggest, such analytical elements may refer to processes, organization, relations, networks of relations, states of being, elements of personal organization, and happenings. These analytical elements may be cast in differing degrees of generality, ranging from something very broad such as integration to something more restricted such as mobility aspiration in the case of urban Negro adolescents. The procedure of inspection is to subject such analytical elements to meticulous examination by careful flexible scrutiny of the empirical instances covered by the analytical element. The empirical instances are those that appear in the area under study; their careful flexible scrutiny is done in the context of the empirical area in which they take place. Thus, in the case of an analytical element such as assimilation, referring let us say to the assimilation of girls into organized prostitution, the empirical instances would consist, of course, of the separate careers of girls undergoing the assimilation. The careful scrutiny of such instances with an eye to disengaging the generic nature of such assimilation represents what I have in mind by “inspection.”
As a procedure, inspection consists of examining the given analytical element by approaching it in a variety of different ways, viewing it from different angles, asking many different questions of it, and returning to its scrutiny from the standpoint of such questions. The prototype of inspection is represented by our handling of a strange physical object; we may pick it up, look at it closely, turn it over as we view it, look at it from this or that angle, raise questions as to what it might be, go back and handle it again in the light of our questions, try it out, and test it in one way or another. This close shifting scrutiny is the essence of inspection. Such inspection is not preset, routinized, or prescribed; it only becomes such when we already know what it is and thus can resort to a specific test, as in the case of a technician. Instead, inspection is flexible, imaginative, creative, and free to take new directions. This type of examination can be done also in the case of a social object, or a process, or a relationship, or anyone of the elements used in the theoretical analysis of a given area or aspect of empirical social life. One goes to the empirical instances of the analytical element, views them in their different concrete settings, looks at them from different positions~ asks questions of them with regard to their generic character, goes back and re-examines them, compares them with one another, and in this manner sifts out the nature of the analytical element that the empirical instances represent. This pinning down of the nature of the analytical element is done through scrutiny of the empirical life itself, by discovering what that empirical life yields when subjected to such a careful, flexible probing. I know of no other way to determine the nature of an analytical element that one proposes to use in the analysis of a given empirical area of social life and still be sure that the analytical element is both germane and valid for such use.
It should be clear that inspection as a mode of inquiry is the antithesis of scientific inquiry as outlined in current methodology in the social and psychological sciences. Inspection is not tied down to a fixed mode of approach and procedure; it does not start with analytical elements whose nature has been set in advance and never tested or revised in the course of their use; and it develops the nature of the analytical elements through the examination of the empirical world itself. Inspection is the opposite of giving a “nature” to the analytical element by operationalizing the element (for example, defining intelligence in terms of the intelligence quotient). It seeks, instead, to identify the nature of the analytical element by an intense scrutiny of its instances in the empirical world. Because of the failure to employ the procedure of inspection, the use of analytical elements in current social science research is somewhat scandalous. Nowhere is this more evident than in the state of our concepts, which in the last analysis are our analytical elements. The preponderant majority of our concepts are conspicuously vague and imprecise in their empirical connotation, * yet we use them right and left in our analyses, without concern about elaborating, refining, or testing their empirical connotation. The needed improvement of their empirical meaning is not accomplished in any degree whatsoever by “operationalizing” the concepts. It can be done only by the careful inspection of their empirical instances, in the course of which one disengages and refines their character.
Inspection is also the appropriate procedure for carrying out the other part of social analysis-the isolation of relations between analytical elements. Such a relation presumes the existence of a meaningful connection between the components in the empirical world. As something so presumed, the relation stands in need of scrutiny in that world, just as much as is true of assertions about the empirical connotation of analytical elements. The asserted relation needs to be pinned down and tested by careful, flexible scrutiny of its empirical instances. Without this inspection one is captive to one’s prior image or conception of the relation, without the benefit of knowing whether that conception is empirically valid and without the means of refining and improving the conception through a meticulous examination of empirical instances.
Exploration and inspection, representing respectively depiction and analysis, constitute the necessary procedure in direct examination of the empirical social world. They comprise what is sometimes spoken of as “naturalistic” investigation-investigation that is directed to a given empirical world in its natural, ongoing character instead of to a simulation of such a world, or to an abstraction from it (as in the case of laboratory experimentation), or to a substitute for the world in the form of a preset image of it. The merit of naturalistic study is that it respects and stays close to the empirical domain. This respect and closeness is particularly important in the social sciences because of the formation of different worlds and spheres of life by human beings in their group existence. Such worlds both represent and shape the social life of people, their activities, their relations, and their institutions. Such a world or sphere of life is almost always remote and unknown to the research scholar; this is a major reason why he wants to study it. To come to know it he should get close to it in its actual empirical character. Without doing this he has no assurance that his guiding imagery of the sphere or world, or the problem he sets forth for it, or the leads he lays down, or the data he selects, or the kinds of relations that he prefigures between them, or the theoretical views that guide his interpretations are empirically valid. Naturalistic inquiry, embracing the dual procedures of exploration and inspection, is clearly necessary in the scientific study of human group life. It qualifies as being “scientific” in the best meaning of that term.
My presentation has set forth rather sharply the opposition between naturalistic inquiry, in the form of exploration and inspection: and the formalized type of inquiry so vigorously espoused in current methodology. This opposition needs to be stressed in the hope of releasing social scientists from unwitting captivity to a format of inquiry that is taken for granted as the naturally proper way in which to conduct scientific study. The spokesmen for naturalistic inquiry in the social and psychological sciences today are indeed very few despite the fact that many noteworthy studies in the social sciences are products of naturalistic study. The consideration of naturalistic inquiry scarcely enters into the content of present-day methodology. Further, as far as I can observe, training in naturalistic inquiry is soft-pedaled or not given at all in our major graduate departments. There is a widespread ignorance of it and an accompanying blindness to its necessity. This is unfortunate for the social and psychological sciences since, as empirical sciences, their mission is to come to grips with their empirical world.
Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method
* In order that this charge not be left hanging in the air, the reader is invited to try to pin down the empirical meaning of the following representative array of commonly used social science concepts: mores, integration, social role, alienation, socialization, attitude, value, anomie, and deviance. Empirical meaning is not given by a definition that merely serves the purpose of discourse; it exists instead in a specification that allows one to go to, the empirical world and to say securely in the case of any empirical thing that this is an instance of the concept and that is not. Let the reader try his hand at doing this with the above concepts in observing what happens around him.
Blumer, Herbert. Symbolic Interactionism. The University of California Press. Berkley, California. 1969