Criticisms Of Symbolic Interactionism Sociology Essay

This chapter will outline the research methods which are used to explain procedures for collecting data. In addition, it discusses literature which underlies the methods and reasons for the chosen data collection procedures. The chapter presents an outline of research methodology (qualitative approach) and the tools for data collection which are commonly used with each particular method. The chapter focuses on the research setting, instruments for data collection, data analysis, issues of validity and reliability, and ethical issues. This chapter will clearly define the research methods used to perform the study. The researcher will provide an explanation as to the collection methods of the data and information which was necessary to address the research objectives. As such, all data sources, instruments for research, data collection and analytical techniques, and research design, will be given.

Research design

There are many methodologies for collecting data, and it can be collected from many different sources. By research methodology, it is meant a set of techniques which are used in certain areas of research activity (Nachmias and Nachmias, 1996.) Methodologies do not fall into categories of right and wrong; it is the duty of the researcher to seek the most appropriate method, according to the questions being researched. Huberman and Miles, in 2002, in addition to Blaxter et al, in 2001, said that data collected is “qualitative” when it is in word and describes situations, circumstances of phenomenon, or individuals. Data are “quantitative” if they are represented in the form of numbers, counts, or measurements which attempt to provide precision to the observation set. Hence, the classification between quantitative and qualitative is most commonly used (Smeyers, 2002.)

According to Denzin and Lincoln (1994) both quantitative and qualitative approaches can be applied within any philosophy of research. The approach that all genuine knowledge is ultimately grounded in sensory experience is called the “positivist” approach. This approach also says that knowledge can only be advanced through experimentation and observation. The “interpretivist” approach, in contrast, holds that only through the standpoint of individuals who are part of the action being investigated, can the social world be understood (Cohen et al. 2008.) Therefore, the nature of the problem being researched will have a direct effect on the choice of research methods being employed. Also, practical consideration, such as funding and time, may influence a researcher’s choices. Also, when applying the scientific method, the researcher must keep certain considerations in mind, such as the investigator’s own involvement in the usage of the results, the precision of measuring devices, time constraints for obtaining results, difficulty in designing experiments which adequately test hypotheses, and the relative complexity of the subject being investigated.

In 1994, Gable reported that literature marked a distinction between the two approaches, but that the approaches are not mutually exclusive. Rather, sometimes researchers apply both. Qualitative and quantitative approaches and techniques may be conceptualized as opposite poles on a continuum (Gable, 1994.) The differences between the approaches are detailed on Table 4-1. Remenyi (1998) argued that the two approaches can be used together due to the complexity of answering “how,” “why,” and “what” questions.

Selection Criteria

Denzin and Lincoln (1994) defined qualitative research as follows:

“The word qualitative implies an emphasis on processes and meanings that are not rigorously examined or measured (if measured at all), in terms of quantitative, amount, intensity or frequency … Qualitative researchers stress the socially constructed nature of reality, the intimate relationship between the researcher and what is studied and the situational constraints that shape inquiry. Such researchers emphasize the value-laden nature of inquiry. They seek answers to questions given meaning” (p. 124).

Qualitative research sits within the phenomenological viewpoint, and involves at least some interaction between the researcher and the situation or individual which is being researched (Hussey and Hussey, 2003.) According to Morgan and Smircich (1980) the qualitative approach to research is not a set of techniques – but an approach. As such, the appropriateness of using it is based on the phenomena being studied, and the questions being asked. Additionally, Kirk and Miller (1986) set forth the following steps to describe the qualitative approach to research: invention, discovery, interpretation, and finally, explanation. Other views of the qualitative research approach note its possible design constraints. For example, an individual’s own account of attitudes, motivations, and behaviours, may be an influencing factor (Hakim, 2000.)

Qualitative research has the problem of subjectivity. This is because the researcher is involved personally in the operation of the measurement tools (Walter and Gall, 1989.) There are several features which distinguish the nature and design of studies which use the qualitative approach, such as a holistic investigation of a particular phenomenon and the understanding of the study itself in its natural setting (Walter and Gall, 1989.) The very nature of the qualitative approach allows for some flexibility and responsiveness to “multiple realities” and complexity. Purposely selecting the sample, rather than selecting it randomly, can help the researcher avoid missing sample data which could otherwise be considered as outliers, and hence unimportant. Purposive sampling can allow the researcher to enrich the outcome of their research by designing a study which will include both non-typical and typical subjects (Tashakkori and Teddlie, 1998.)

Hakim (2000) indicates that the validity of the data being collected has a direct effect on the strength of the qualitative research itself. Data are usually collected in adequate detail so as to allow the results to be considered correct, complete, true, and believable accounts of the views and experiences of the participants. However, sample size continues to be a concern. A qualitative project will normally have a lower number of participants, which cannot be taken as representative (Hakim 2000.) This fact remains even when a fair cross-section of subjects has be carefully assembled.

Qualitative design methods usually include: 1) a case study providing data which describes the subject of the study; b) a meta-analysis designed to analyse statistical outcomes of previous research from diverse sources; c) research analysis on relevant administrative records; d) a record of focus group discussions which serve to bring together a group of informants, serving the investigated issue; and d) unstructured, semi-structured, or structured in-depth interviews (Silverman,2000; Kruger, 2001).

Qualitative research can be considered an independent field of inquiry, as it is focused on studying objects in their natural settings. It also attempts to make sense of various phenomena in terms of their meanings as related to a set field (Denzin and Lincoln, 1994.) This form of research examines activity which is situated, in which an opportunity is presents to both participate in, and then reflect on, the knowledge production process (Flick, 2002.) Denzin and Lincoln (2003) state that the potential for the interpretation of phenmoena is presented by qualitative research which takes place in a natural setting. The use of multi-methods may be used to provide interpretation and focus on individuals (Denzin and Lincoln,1998.) Additionally, qualitative research usually includes interviews, the practical components of a case study, a life story, observations, and personal experience. It can also involve descriptions of routines or moments which were problematic, and even the meaning in the lives’ of individuals (Denzin and Lincoln, 2003). Qualitative studies, then, are ultimately concerned with both how its participants fit into their environments, and how they make sense of their individual experiences.

Symbolic interactionism

The fundamentals of symbolic interactionism as a perspective have been shaped by the work of Mead (1932; 1934) who is acknowledged for his alternate views toward understanding human society (Blumer, 1969; Charon, 2004). Blumer (1969) expanded on Mead’s work to develop symbolic interactionism into a perspective with a methodology to investigate and interpret the interactions of individuals in a social context. Because we live in a complex, industrialized society, and come from different ethnic, racial, and social class backgrounds, it is unrealistic to think that we all share the same sets of norms, beliefs, and values. People will often have competing and conflicting beliefs rather than shared goals and interests. Instead of being the product of consensus, organized behavior may be the result of self-interested negotiations between two or more parties or the product of coercion on the part of more powerful individuals.

Herman-Kinney’s observation reflects the appropriateness of symbolic interaction as a suitable framework for this study: acknowledgement that social contexts are complex entities that involve complex interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. The context of a university in Japan that employs individuals with a range of cultural and social attributes reflects Herman-Kinney’s intention that people within a specific context carry conflicting beliefs and values, yet can function effectively as a group. Symbolic interactionism provides greater scope to explore such complexity. While other perspectives have made significant contributions to our understanding of the concept of identity, a noticeable absence from analysis of identity formation is the notion of the self as a separate concept to identity (Herman-Kinney, 2003: p.708; Beijaard et al., 2004). One of the fundamentals of symbolic interactionism is its emphasis on the notion of self and its relationship to the concept of identity. The notion of ‘self’ tends to be overlooked in the literature on teacher identity largely because ‘self’ and ‘identity’ can tend to be used interchangeably. Other perspectives imply that an individual is a composite of multiple identities, a view shared by symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism further contends that behind the multiple identities is the notion of ‘self’: a core entity that in many ways gives life to those multiple identities. This study is limited to exploring the nature of professional identities and not the nature of self. However, the distinction needs to be made that symbolic interactionism views self and identity as two separate but related concepts.


“Symbolic interactionism is a down-to-earth approach to the scientific study of human group life and human conduct.” (Blumer, 1969: p.47)

Symbolic interactionism is a perspective that emerged chiefly from the work of American tradition of pragmatism, philosophy and social psychology (Fidishun, 2002; Charon, 2004: p.28). It challenged ‘the mechanistic world view and dualistic assumption of classic rationalism’ (Shalin, 1991: p.223). One of the most recognised challengers was Mead (1932; 1934) who viewed ‘human group life’ as the essential condition for the emergence of core attributes that characterise an individual. Blumer (1969) identified the core attributes as consciousness, the mind, a world of objects, human beings as organisms possessing selves, and human conduct in the form of constructed acts. From these core attributes, Blumer (1969: p.6) proposed a number of basic ideas or “root images” to frame human societies: human groups or societies, social interaction, objects, the human being as an actor, human action, and the interconnection of the lines of action. Together, these root images represent the way in which symbolic interactionism views ‘human society and conduct’.

Symbolic interactionism is used in this study to focus on the interactions of teachers with objects in a specific context. Core to symbolic interactionist principles is a focus on social interaction and meanings that result from the process of interpreting these interactions. The significance of symbolic interactionism, according to Rosenberg and Turner (1981), is that it places emphasis on researching ‘real-life events’, such as the practice of teaching. Within an educational context, Hargreaves (1995: p.11) argues that symbolic interactionism ‘helps clarify why teachers (and others) do what they do’ and that ‘… it addresses the practical realities rather than holding people to perspectives ideals or moral exhortation concerning human change and development’. Exploring the identity of teachers who teach English in the context of this study lends itself well to the principles of symbolic interactionism, due to the highly interactive nature of the context that is rich in symbols: language, objects and social interactions.


As mentioned previously, symbolic interactionism emerged from the work of Mead who viewed human society differently from the traditionally held views of his time. Through his interpretation of Mead’s work of interpreting human society, Blumer developed three premises that characterise the fundamentals of symbolic interactionism. In his first of three premises, Blumer begins with the nature of meaning that human beings hold towards things that are socially defined.

Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things

have for them (Blumer, 1969: p.2).

According to Blumer, meaning is not implicit in humans at birth, instead emerges through social interactions and interpretations of those interactions. Meaning is established in communication (Mead, 1932). Blumer’s explanation illustrates a divergence from “traditional approaches” to explain meaning. By “traditional”, Blumer referred mainly to the fields of psychology and sociology, which were predominant at the time of his writing. From a psychological perspective, factors such as ‘attitudes and conscious or unconscious motives’ were featured in attempts to understand human conduct, while sociological perspectives relied on factors such as ‘social position, social pressures and cultural prescriptions’ in its attempt to explain human conduct (Blumer, 1969: p.3). According to Blumer (1969: p.3), the meanings that things have for human beings are central in their own right. That is, instead of focusing on factors that are alleged to produce behaviour, meaning is the focus of analysis itself. The process of meaning refers to the act of interpretation, which has implications on our understanding of human beings, human action and human association (Blumer, 1969: p.79).

Blumer argues that other research traditions6 bypass a focus on meaning. It is either taken for granted and pushed aside as unimportant or it is regarded as a more neutral link between the factors responsible for human behaviour and the product of such factors (Blumer, 1969: p.3). According to Blumer, these perspectives are more concerned with the behaviour of individuals and with the factors regarded as producing the behaviour. However, while differences remain between symbolic interactionism and other research traditions, similarities are becoming more common, such as both stress the importance of language, the dynamic character of social and cultural life, and the unstable relations of difference (Dunn, 1997: p.689).

The source of meaning emerges from social interactions between individuals and things within social contexts and situations. Blumer’s (ibid: p.3) explanation of ‘things’, or objects, reflects the down-to-earth nature of symbolic interactionism to include: physical objects (such as classrooms, office space, textbooks), other human beings (such as a wife, an officemate), categories of human beings (such as friends, management, students, native English-speaking teachers of English, native Japanese-speaking teachers of English), institutions (such as university, government), guiding ideals (such as individual independence, approach to teaching, university policy), activities of others (such as demands from management or requests from colleagues),


Symbolic interactionism is concerned with people, the meaning that people have towards things, and that these meanings are subjected to a process of interpretation within social contexts. Woods provides a convincing argument, claiming that:

… the emphasis is upon the construction of meanings and perspective, the

adaptation to circumstances, the management of interests in the ebb and flow of

countless interactions containing many ambiguities and conflicts, the strategies

devised to promote those interests, and the negotiation with others’ interests

that is a common feature of all teaching situations.’ (Woods, 1996: p.7)

Woods’ account of symbolic interaction reflects the complexity of social situations, viewing symbolic interaction as a perspective that offers flexibility ‘to explore the mysteries of social interaction’ in educational contexts. Woods was attracted to symbolic interactionism because ‘it offered the kind of intellectual equipment needed to explore some of the mysteries of social interaction in the school’ (Woods, 1996: p.7). This study recognises that other research perspectives are equally suitable to explore the concept of professional identity. Symbolic interaction, however, allows meanings to be explored in the richness of the context: individuals hailing from broad cultural, educational and personal backgrounds. If identity is formed through relationships and interactions in a social context, a symbolic interactionist perspective is appropriate for exploring the negotiating of identities of EFL teachers in a Japanese higher education context. The nature of teaching English in higher education in Japan is highly interactive between students and colleagues within a context rich in symbols open to complex processes of interaction and interpretation.


Symbolic interactionism has changed considerably since its emergence as a perspective, becoming fragmented at times as a result of conflict from different schools of thought and interpretation (Fine, 1993). It, however, is not without its imperfections or its critics, of which many emerged from within the perspective itself as well as from other research traditions. The criticisms toward symbolic interactionism were more intense earlier in its history than of late due to its perceived departure from scientific methodology that was dominant at the time of its emergence. Criticisms emerged at a time when qualitative research was seen to be unscientific, with positivist research dominating approaches to research (Meltzer et al., 1975). Rogers (1973) accused interactionists of examining human interaction in a vacuum, focusing on small-scale face-to-face interaction, with little concern for its historical or social setting. Skidmore (1975) found that interactionists failed to explain why people consistently chose to act in given ways in certain situations. While the criticisms are valid, they were made at a time when symbolic interactionism had barely established itself as a theoretical perspective. There is an argument developing that the differences between symbolic interactionism and other perspectives are narrowing (Dunn, 1997).

The criticism from within symbolic interactionism is characterised by the four main schools of thought that have been identified under the umbrella of symbolic interactionism: the Chicago school, the Iowa/Indiana school, ethnomethodology, and dramaturgy. The differences are largely methodological, between preferences for more humanistic, qualitative approaches to researching social interactions and those that were more scientific and quantitative (Meltzer et al., 1975). Blumer (1969) argues the case for a distinctive methodology in the study of human behavior that made modern society more intelligible (Meltzer et al., 1975). Regardless of methodology or school of thought, however, symbolic interactionism encompasses both a qualitative and quantitative tradition, reflecting ‘an approach that strives to understand human behavior, not to predict and control it, nor to have more statistical knowledge of it’ (Musolf, 2003: p.91).

Kuhn (1964) argued symbolic interactionism should reflect quantitative methodology, stressing the importance of unity of method in all scientific disciplines. Reflecting on its short history at the time, Kuhn (ibid) identified a number of problems that ‘stunted the growth’ of symbolic interactionism and its acceptance by other research traditions as a credible research perspective. One of the main issues was lack of scientific credibility, which characterised the schism between the two schools. Kuhn attempted to elaborate Mead’s view on social behaviorism in an effort to establish a theory of self that was both testable and usable. Kuhn’s 20-point test to measure the self reflected the leaning toward scientific quantitative methodology of exploring self.

According to Dunn (1997) there are critics who claim that symbolic interactionism provides little indication of sources of meanings. While these criticisms are valid, they were made not long after symbolic interactionism emerged as its own perspective and had yet to fully utilise the way in which other perspectives have developed over the past few decades. Dunn (1997) documents recent comparisons between symbolic interactionism and other research traditions to illustrate narrowing differences and shared fundamentals, such as importance of language. Likewise, Callero (2003) argues that recent sociological approaches to self within a symbolic interactionist paradigm reflect emphases on power, reflexivity, and social constructionism. Recent literature on teachers’ professional identities provides evidence that symbolic interactionism has survived the criticisms to prosper and prove it to be a suitable framework for this area of research (Swann, 1987; Beijaard et al., 2000).

Methods of data collection

Primary data

There are several types of collection methods involved in qualitative research.

The Interview Method

The definition of an interview is the interchange, between two or more persons, of views on a topic of mutual interest. This enables both the discussion of individual points of view, and the expression of points of view (Cohen et al., 2008.) Cohen et al. note that the interview serves three distinct purposes: 1) as the primary means for gathering information that directly affect research objectives; 2) for the purpose of either testing a hypothesis, or suggesting a new one, also, as an explanatory method for the identification of variables and their relationships; 3) for use in conjunction with other methods.

The three types of interviews are: unstructured, semi-structured, and structured. The unstructured interview contains questions which are open-ended, allowing the question to be adapted, according to the intelligence, beliefs, and understanding of the respondent. These interviews are more flexible and may be used for probing issues in greater depth than the other interview types, though it can take more time and involve greater difficulty to analyse (Kidder et al., 1986.) In the semi-structured interview, both open-ended and close-ended questions are employed. This means that not all questions are designed in advance. The semi-structured interview technique has some of the advantages of the other two techniques (Kidder et al., 1986.) This technique has the flexibility of allowing the interviewer to formulate new questions during the interview, as a result of the respondent’s answers to previous questions. This allows the interviewer to seek additional illumination and information. The interviewer usually has a framework of themes to be explored in a semi-structured interview (Blackman, 2002.)

The structured interview, also known as the standardized interview, employs closed ended questions, and a standard sequence which is used in every interview. This approach has the aim of presenting the very same questions, in the very same order, in every interviewing session, and for every interviewee. Though this approach is not very flexible, its data is more easily analysed, and is considered to be more objective (Nachmias and Nachmias, 1996.) Blackman (2002) cites three essential characteristics which can be used to distinguish between the unstructured and the structured interview. 1) A highly structured interview requires that all interviewers present the same set of questions to all interviewees, with use of follow-up questions being prohibited. 2) Structured interviews form the foundation for tighter analysis. 3) Interviewers are trained to use both a priori rules and a standardized rating form in order to strictly rate and score question responses.

Researchers choose between several strategies when planning an interview, including (Thomas, 2003, p. 63):

An approach of loose questioning, which is meant to elicit the respondent’s interpretation of a general situation or circumstance.

An approach of tight-questions, using a limited number of options (e.g. Yes/no, like/dislike) to discover a respondent’s preferences.

An approach of converging-questions. This is designed to blend the advantages of the loose method and the tight method. At first broad questions are asked, in an open-ended manner. These are followed up with additional questions to more thoroughly explore the interviewee’s opinions.

An approach of response-guided questions. This approach includes the interviewer beginning with prepared questions, which are spontaneously follow-up by questions created as logical extensions of the given answer. This strategy allows the researcher to delve more deeply into the respondent’s opinions relating to the issues presented in the original question.

Focus group interviews

A focus group is a special type of group which has more involved as its purpose than simply getting people to have a conversation. It is special in terms of its purpose, composition, size, and procedures, which guides, through interaction, to outcomes and data (Cohen et al., 2008.) Listening to information, and gathering information, is the purpose of this interview, as well as to understand people’s thoughts and feelings about particular issues (Krueger and Casey, 2000.) Focus groups can encourage an environment which allows participants to share their points of view and perceptions without pressure. Researchers may be able to identify patterns and trends from the group discussion. This may lead to a systematic and careful analysis (Krueger and Casey, 2000.) According to Cohen et al. (2008,) focus groups are good for:

Orienting to a specific field of focus.

The development of topics, schedules, and themes which can be used in subsequent questionnaires or interviews.

Use insights and data, collected from the group, to generate hypotheses.

Producing and evaluating data relating to differing subgroups of a given population.

Assembling feedback related to previous studies.

Kruger and Casey (2000) specified some of the characteristics of a focus group. A focus group involves a limited quantity of participants, so that every person has a chance to share; participants should have similar characteristics, so that the researchers my accomplish the purpose of the study; collection of qualitative data, of interest to the researcher, is the primary purpose of the focus group – usually to discover the range of opinions between several groups; the group must have a focused discussion; the group should ultimately help to understand the topic of interest.

Researchers (Krueger and Casey, 2000; and Cohen et al., 2008) indicate that the data which is collected from a focus group may be negatively influenced by two kinds of participant: a) close friends who may inhibit free expression on a given topic; b) participants who may be difficult to join with others. For this reason, it is considered more useful when the data is triangulated by using traditional interviewing forms, observation, documentation, and questionnaires (Cohen et al., 2008.)

Observation methods

Observation is routinely used in everyday life (Frank, 1999,) but it is multi- faceted as a scientific method (Wajnryb, 1992.) Bohem and Weinberg (1987) stated that techniques for observation are key to the developments in the sciences, and this is because data which is collected is more likely to lead to decisions, conclusions, and new ideas. Obaidat et al (2002) made the claim that many phenomena and ideas, which are the subjects of study interviews and questionnaires, are selected because of the need to test them and understand them by field researchers. So, observation is considered a prime tool for the gaining of both information and experience.

According to Cohen et al (2008,) observation enables researchers to gain understanding of the context which is being investigated, to be more inductive and open-ended, and to see certain aspects which otherwise may have been missed. It also allows for the discovery of issues that participants may not have wanted to discuss in their interviews. While observation in a social context can easily be accomplished, scientific observation may require more detailed planning, and defined recording protocols (Summerhill and Taylor, 1992.) Cohen et al (2008) refer to observations in many settings: physical, human, group or individual, gender, class, and even interaction in settings which may be formal or informal, planned or unplanned, verbal or non-verbal. Additional settings would include programme settings, such as school resources, curricula, and style.

Secondary data

The analysis of secondary data, involving the analysis of data collected by other institutions and researchers, will be part of the basis for this research. Additionally, by treating this undertaking with diligence and care, an efficient method or learning about research questions, which are both time saving and cost effective, will be gained. The major sources of secondary data, which are used in this research, are:

Official stats. This comprises of statistics collected by various bureaus, departments, agencies, and the government. Because this information is easy to obtain and easy to comprehend, it is considered an important secondary data source.

Scholarly Journals (Peer Reviewed) – As they contain reports of both original research and reports of experimentation, scholarly journals are important to this study. Experts review scholarly journals in order to check their accuracy, originality, and hence – relevance.

Literature Review Articles – these articles review and arrange original research about a particular subject of interest.

For this research the researchers consulted online databases and the library, in order to find the requisite relevant pieces of data to be used in this research.

Data analysis

Qualitative research findings, methods, disciplinary orientation, and types of findings represent great diversity (Yardley 2000). Qualitative research has many traditions. These include, as a partial listing, cultural ethnography (Agar 1996; Quinn 2005), institutional ethnography (Campbell and Gregor 2004), analyses for historical comparison (Skocpol 2003), case studies (Yin 1994), focus groups (Krueger and Casey 2000), interviews (in-depth) (Glaser and Strauss 1967; McCracken 1988; Patton 2002;

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