Herbert Blumer was a key figure in what came to be identified as the Chicago School of Sociology. He invented the term ‘symbolic interactionism’ as a label for a theoretical approach that derived primarily from the work of John Dewey, George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley. But his most influential work was methodological in character, and he is generally viewed today as a prominent critic of positivism, and of the growing dominance of quantitative method within US sociology. While this picture is broadly accurate, it neglects an important strand in his methodological thinking. He was committed to the goal of a science of social life, while at the same time he was uncertain whether such a science is possible. In his Appraisal of Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant, he identified a serious dilemma facing this project: the problem of how a scientific approach can be made compatible with the distinctive nature of human social life. In the first chapter of his most influential book, Symbolic Interactionism, he advocates a naturalistic approach to case study, and seems to treat this as avoiding the dilemma. However, there is evidence to suggest that, even towards the end of his life, he regarded the problem as still unresolved. In this article, I examine both sides of Blumer’s dilemma, and whether his attitude towards it changed. However, my interest here is not only historiographical. I evaluate Blumer’s arguments and show that his intellectual struggle with this issue remains relevant today, despite the shifts that have taken place in social science methodology and the philosophy of science since his death.
Recounting my late 1940s graduate student contacts with Herbert Blumer on the topic of fashion, 1 go on to assess his important contribution to the sociological study of fashion. Conceptually rich, the corpus of Blumer's writing on fashion is yet surprisingly small. His major opus on fashion, anticipated only in part by several of his earlier, less exhaustive writings on the subject, did not see print until 1969 with the publication of the justly famous Sociological Quarterly piece “Fashion: From Class Differentiation to Collective Selection.” There Blumer pursues two aims: (1) to challenge the then prevalent functionalist view of fashion as a “trickle down” symbolic mechanism for effecting social class differentiation, a view associated with such sociological eminences as Simmel and Veblen, and (2) to offer in its place his own quite original approach to fashion as a massive “collective selection” process wherein choices are guided more by the elusive lure of modernity than by invidious class tinctions as such. Prominent among the strengths of Blumer's position is the demonstrably greater empirical validity of “collective selection” as compared to “class differentiation.” Among its shortcomings are Blumer's slighting of a salient social psychological theme in Simmers dialectical approach to fashion and, more important, his failure to address in any sustained way the role of the fashion industry in the fashion process. The recently emerging, symbolic interactionist concept of social world offers a means for redressing this omission and for advancing further upon the ground opened by Herbert Blumer's still exciting breakthrough in the sociology of fashion.