Ecclectica: Rethinking the Social Sciences
 Rethinking the Social Sciences

Rethinking the Social Sciences: Structural Legacies and Processual Opportunities (or Why Bloom Should Have Read Blumer)

Scott Grills, Sociology
Brandon University

Each department or great division of the university makes a pitch for itself, and each offers a course of study that will make the student an initiate. But how to choose among them? How do they relate to one another? The fact is they do not address one another. They are competing and contradictory, without being aware of it.... Most professors are specialists, concerned only with their own fields in their own terms, or in their own personal advancement in a world where all the rewards are on the side of professional distinction.... So the student must navigate among a collection of carnival barkers, each trying to lure him [or her] into a particular sideshow (Bloom 1987: 339).

This essay examines the promise of Blumerian social theory to serve as a model for resisting the specialization and departmentalization of the academy. Contemporary sociology departments and course offerings tend to reflect a structuralist understanding of social life, dividing theorists and interests along substantive lines. Departments and programs such as criminology, communications studies, family studies, labour studies, gerontology, women's studies, physical education, religious studies, and social and political thought continue to lay claim to a specialist interest in areas that have been (and to a greater or lesser extent continue to remain) a part of the sociological enterprise. The diversity of this list is indicative of sociology's status as a discipline marked by interdisciplinarity.

The question remains however, how is sociology to rethink itself so as not to be shattered by fragmentation? How does the particularity of sociology's status as a fragmented discipline within a fragmented university speak to the issue more generally? Were sociology's fate to be consumed by its young, Bloom's fears for university education as a whole would be both confirmed and illustrated through the discipline's collapse. However Blumer and his latter interpreters (e.g. Prus 1994; 1996) offer an alternative - a unity that transcends disciplinary bounds and articulates the common ground shared by social theorists who take process as their focus. This essay attempts to take seriously the call for a social science based upon generic social process by examining the unity it offers, the fragmentation it resists and the promise of both.

Bloom and the Crisis of the Academic Left

I have no intention of undertaking an exegesis of Bloom. Rather I wish to use his work as an exemplar of a class or argument - as representative of the voice of the academic right. While there are multiple variations on this theme, the argument tends to look something like this:

  1. Demonstrate that, in its current state, academia has failed some combination of its students, its self, and the state.
  2. Argue that the academic left, through its relativizing and liberal tendencies, is responsible for this decay.
  3. Conclude that the appropriate corrective is a return to the scholarship of certainty - the certainty of great books, of evils that are known, examined lives and scholars who pursue the Truth.

While this rather crude typification is intended to be more sensitizing than literally descriptive, in Bloom we find a proponent of this general argument. Bloom's understanding of the concepts of "value" and "self" and the relationship between the two are used as examples of the crisis in theorizing that is seen to threaten the university.

He argues that "the most important and most astonishing phenomenon of our time" is that there "is now an entirely new language of good and evil" (Bloom 1987:141 emphasis in the original). This new language is the language of "value relativism", and for Bloom it is indicative of an academy that "gave way under the pressure of mass movements, and did so in large measure because they thought those movements possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide" (Bloom 1987: 314). In the world of value relativism there is no basis upon which to choose between lines of action. As a result the undergraduate is cast adrift in a world where opinion substitutes for reason. The preferred alternative to all of this is the Platonic world in which, even though we may disagree about the nature of the good, there is no serious doubt that the good has a nature that is available through correct reason.

Bloom's analysis of the concept of the self also reveals similar themes. The self is cast as unknowable yet particular to the person, revealed through action yet indefinable. The self and its application to our lives is the source of a "three-hundred-year-long identity crisis" (Bloom 1987: 173). Ultimately, arising from its vagueness, its tempting solipsism and its chronic uncertainty, the concept of the "self" is found wanting as a viable answer to the question "Who am I." In its place, Bloom prefers the concept of "soul" - not the soul of the Old Testament but an Aristotelian soul. This is a soul that is at the centre of the person; it is bound to truth and nature. The essence of the soul is to be known through Socratic discourse, for "access to the nature of things is by way of thinking about what men say about them" (Bloom 1987: 179).

An Interactionist Alternative: The Self In Process

Unfortunately, in current thought we suffer from a tradition descendant from ancient Greek philosophy and medieval scholasticism which favors the gaining of knowledge through elaboration of the concept.... Each social science has many protagonists or devotees who strive to attain knowledge by "manufacturing it out of their heads...." The result is a pompous and formal structure which, however, is as hollow as an empty shell (Blumer 1969: 168).

Blumer shares with Bloom a commitment to theorizing as the central activity of the scholar. For both, analysis is ultimately what we are about and is the purpose of our scholarship. Much of Blumer's body of work can be read in this light. In the hands of various interpreters Blumer's work is cast as: challenging the limits of functionalism, promoting a congruency between theory and method, articulating concepts grounded in the processes of everyday life (Prus 1994), resisting the excesses of idealism and solipsism (Bonner 1994), and encouraging a reorientation to the concept of "structure" (Maines 1989).

Despite the commonality that a commitment to theorizing provides, Blumer stands as an exemplar of the type of social science Bloom resists. Bloom's understanding of the concept of self is a curious mix of Locke, Freud, Descartes and Machiavelli. He writes:

Descartes' ego, in appearance invulnerable and godlike in its calm and isolation, turns out to be the tip of an iceberg floating in a fathomless and turbulent sea called the id, consciousness an epiphenomenon of the unconscious (Bloom 1987: 178).

This version of self is the self of selfishness - of ego, id and superego, of "truth to one's self" as the highest good, and of self actualization at the expense of relations to others. It is narcissism's handmaid.

An interactionist understanding of self stands in contrast to the structurally bound and isolationist self Bloom cobbles together from conceptual remnants. The interactionist self is the product of and exists in process (Blumer 1969: 62; Hewitt 1991). From a perspective which views the concepts of "individual" and "society" as sensitizing concepts which differentiate that which in fact exists in a unity, the self reflects the person in community (Cooley 1962). As Blumer makes clear "the ego, as such, is not a self; it would become a self only by becoming reflective, that is to say, acting toward or on itself" (1969:63). In this statement we have what is the essence of self, the processes that allow actors to stand as the object of their own action. There is however no "pre-social" self that can be reconstructed through some mystical voyage into the depths of the person. "We can conceive of an absolutely solitary self, but it is impossible to conceive of a self arising outside of social experience" (Mead 1977: 204).

Bloom laments the modern appeal of the self and its accompanying monism and individualism. But let us make no mistake, the self he rejects is not the self of Mead, Cooley and Blumer. Blumer too, albeit for very different reasons, rejects the self of motives, attitudes, ego, and internalized norms and values (1969:62). The interactionist self is a corrective to notions of self that are associated with psychological or personality structures (Blumer 1969: 63). Hence both Bloom and Blumer resist the self of Rousseau and Freud - a self best understood in the particular, relative to a particular history, and a self which is the source of individual and social pathology.

For Bloom the self opens up a Pandora's box of selfishness. When one embraces the self, the only choice is between "good and bad forms of selfishness" (Bloom 1987: 178). As political and moral actors, Bloom takes the self to require the assumption of selfishness. In such a world where all actors are assumed to act out of self-interest good political institutions are ones that constrain self-interest, good laws are ones that do the same. Relationships with others are usurious at best.

For us the most revealing and delightful distinction - because it is so unconscious of its wickedness - is between inner-directed and other-directed, with the former taken to be unqualifiedly good. Of course, we are told, the healthy inner-directed person will really care for others. To which I can only respond: If you believe that, you can believe anything. (Bloom 1987:178; emphasis in the original)

Bloom's position hinges upon an analysis of the qualities of the actor implied by the concept of self. The implication is clear. The inner-directed actor, who as a result cares only for their person and well-being, fails themselves and their role as citizens.

However, the assumption of the egoistic actor is not a necessary attribute of the self. In his attempt to demonstrate how the social sciences have failed students (and by implication that philosophy is the corrective to all of this) Bloom has constructed a straw version of the concept. For Blumer, actors that possess a self are able to become an object to their own actions. That is, such actors are symbol users, for symbolic representation is fundamental to the constitution of the self as an object. The self then shares a commonality with all social objects. It is constructed through interaction with others. The self therefore is not inherently selfish - it is inherently social. The self is conceptually bound to the other and is a social accomplishment (Grills, 1998).

This means we can conceive of humans that lack self. If Mead (1934) is right, and I think he is, that language is the source of self, then pre- or non-linguistic humans lack the fundamental requirements of self (cf. Evans 1994). Selves are not so much possessed as they are acquired and the qualities that are acquired tell us more about interaction patterns and the relational nature of group life than some supposed qualities of individuals. Therefore, if we take the interactionist self as our reference point, instead of being an anathema to responsibility and democracy, the self is a requirement for such action.

Of the classic interactionist scholars perhaps Cooley and Mead understood this most clearly. Without the "we" attitude, neither democracy nor law can lay claim to the individual, for the "good" would lie outside of both interest and attention. In the final analysis the person that Bloom prefers is one who pursues the common good over self-interest. This however I sonly possible on the part of an actor with a developed sense of self and generalized other. The pragmatist understanding of self is not hostile to the idea of the "citizen", it is, rather, a prerequisite for engage participation in community.

I have used the concept of the "self" here to illustrate what I take to be a fundamental problem in Bloom's message. It seems that we are to prefer Bloom's approach to philosophy to the social sciences because, in part, philosophy offers us more authentic concepts for living. To make such a case, the social sciences and their concepts need to be discredited or at least relegated to a position of relative inferiority. However philosophy is not the corrective to flawed social science. Unless we are to give up on the enterprise altogether, it can never be. That the empirical social sciences are relativizing, disrespectable and debunking (Berger 1963) is not their central flaw, but arguably their strength. The interactionist notion of self reflects such a critical tradition.

The Fragmentation of Academy and the Crisis of Empiricism

Nature should be the standard by which we judge our own lives and the lives of peoples. That is why philosophy, not history or anthropology, is the most important human science. (Bloom 1987: 38)

From the opening salvo where he asserts, "the real motive of education is the search for the good life" (Bloom 1987:34) to his nationalist conclusion that the "fate of philosophy in the world has devolved upon our universities" (Bloom 1987: 382), Bloom privileges the place of philosophy within the university. It is cast as the truly great legacy of Athens, lost to the likes of the "sexual adventurer" Margaret Mead (p. 33), and to be restored through a curriculum reflecting the Great Books approach. Specialization is to be resisted. A unified view of nature and a person's place in it is to be pursued. Philosophy is the corrective to the fragmentation of empiricism.

In some ways this is a tempting argument. The modern university is organized more around substantive specialization than the questions we ask. Our course calendars are testimonials to specialization. Sociology shares the stage with its offspring (gerontology, urban/rural studies, demography and media studies), philosophy becomes compartmentalized (medical ethics, business ethics, philosophy of science) and regionalized (African, Native, European). Interdisciplinary programs become routinized (Chicano studies, women's studies, development studies, Native studies) and in the process may end up looking not much different from the rest of academia's little boxes into which we slot faculty and students. (Soldatenko 2001)

In some respects this is positivism's last "gift" to all of us -an organizational structure more suited to minds that preferred Marx or Durkheim than to those who embrace the interpretive referents of Blumer and Gadamer, Husserel and Dilthey. The way we organize our lives reflects our shared understandings of what we are doing together. Our structures always reflect some paradigm or another - some theory of living and of purpose. When paradigms shift but organization belonging to other times and other theories remain, we perpetuate the ideology of an earlier time.

We may profitably frame the "crisis in education" as a disjunction between the intellectual/perspectival life of the academe and its relational/organizational life. Bloom's essay is arguably an attempt to address such an incongruity through a retreatist or antiquarian agenda. By rejecting the scholarship of "self", "culture", and "value relativism", Bloom is in essence asking us to join in the project of reclaiming the Pre-Socratics and the Socratics and reorganizing our universities on that basis.

For the first time in four hundred years, it seems possible and imperative to begin all over again, to try to figure out what Plato was talking about, because it might be the best thing available (Bloom 1987: 310).

Rethinking Fragmentation: An Interactionist Alternative

The fragmentation that distresses Bloom is the product of empirical specialization. It is what our universities produce when we organize ourselves on the basis of the topic of study - all sorts of little (and not so little) departments studying invertebrates, ethnic groups, hotel management, law breakers and the like. Since, as interactionism teaches, human group life is relational, fragmentation of the social world isn't so much to be avoided as it is to be expected. People do and will establish relations out of a variety of shared interests, problems, agendas and concerns. Human group life is relational, and to that extent is fragmented. However, on what basis do we choose to form our relations within the academy and does our theory of relations serve to resist the fragmentation it creates?

Our current practices in universities take disciplinary and substantive interest to be the most important and salient organizational and associational dynamic. This is reflected in our departments, our programs of study, and our job postings. All reflect the notion that organizing our work around disciplinary allegiances and substantive interest is an adequate relational dynamic. This is a way of sorting, but it is not much more than that.

Our structures are the product of relations established upon the realist assumption of a unity derived from the object of study (Grove 1989), which works well, if when we attend to a social object we see similar sorts of things. In a realist world there is an internal logic to ordering the academy around the topic of study. From a phenomenological perspective, it makes little sense at all. Humans do not act on the basis of a response to objects; they act on the basis of meanings attributed to objects.

I am suggesting that process rather than structure, perspective rather than object, can serve as a model for denoting the various (fragmented) interests of scholars while providing a meaningful underlying unity produced through shared traditions of questioning. We do not, as Bloom implies, have to give up on empiricism and retreat to the comparative certainty of a canon of great questions and even greater books. Blumer argues for a unity of assumption - between theory and method, perception and conception, method and the empirical world. I am proposing a critical evaluation of phenomenological interactionism's relationship to the curricula. How ought we to best model our assumptions of the social world in our teaching, courses, and programs of study?

Prus (1987) recognizes the tension between a processual/interpretive theoretical commitment and the courses we are asked to teach.

One way of promoting a generic [social science] through teaching activity is to develop courses focusing on one or more generic processes (e.g. courses on relationships, negotiations, recruitment practices). This would seem the most desirable way of proceeding (Prus 1987:267).

Prus leaves it to the reader to imagine the problematics of realizing this option in our own unique settings. However, if we are serious about resisting the fragmentation of our structural heritage, the following are a few of the practical activities that can be undertaken within the confines that many of us find ourselves:

  1. Introduce courses that take process and interpretation as their central topic, thereby making the concept of inquiry the focus (eg. the self, accomplishing gender, conflict and conflict resolution, power and parenting, dying, myth making, emotion and everyday life).
  2. Recast existing courses in process terms. A variety of traditional structuralist courses can be thought of in everyday life terms (e.g. cognitive psychology, history of France, twentieth century women's writing, sociology of deviance).
  3. Engage in the department-by-department struggles necessary to ensure that degree requirements (core courses, liberal arts requirements, departmental examinations) can be met by interpretive, process attentive courses.
  4. Establish degree programs which are organized around concepts and questioning traditions. As foreign as they may be to our ears degrees in areas such as "evolutionary process", "creative arts", "self and other", "phenomenological interpretation" and "moral entrepreneurial activities" hold the potential to offer a more integrated program of study than we may be accomplishing in our current departments.


This essay is a modest foray into academic debates surrounding competing versions of the university. This is the stuff of lively debate on university campuses. Rosaldo, describing the debate at Stanford, suggests, "the battle's weapon of choice has been the epithet" (Rosaldo 1989:219). Embracing this form of "combat", Bloom can be seen as representative of those loosely collected into the "objectivists", "foundationalists" and "antiquarians". Blumer's focus on meaning places him with the "interpretivists", his focus on process with the "constructionists", his argument for the relation between perception and conception with the "empiricists". It is my contention that symbolic interaction's concepts, theory, and emphasis on interpretation hold implications for the academic debates surrounding the legitimization of knowledge and curricular change and development. This is a part of symbolic interactionism's legacy from its predecessors within American Pragmatism (e.g. Dewey, James, Pierce). The promise in Blumer's vision resists Bloom's sense of crisis.


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Soldatenko, Michael
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