Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Iowa School

core definition

The Iowa School is the popular name for an approach to symbolic interactionism developed at the Center for Research on Interpersonal Behavior at the University of Iowa that flourished in the 1970s.

explanatory context

The Center for Research on Interpersonal Behavior (CRIB) was set up at the University of Iowa in the 1960s and was at its most prominent into the 1970s. In the 1980s, however, the interactionist approach came under increasing pressure and the University effectively brought the interactionist tradition at Iowa to an end.


CRIB was initially dominated by Manford Kuhn and tended to a singular methodology. Kuhn wanted the study of social life to be based on systematically accumulated bodies of data in order to formulate generic principles. His preferred method was the use of questionnaires. The Iowa approach has often been seen solely as the originator of the Twenty Statements Test in which respondents were asked for reactions to a standardised set of statements. Nonetheless, the Iowa school is probably the most positivist of the various interactionist approaches.


A central presupposition of the Iowa approach is that the study of a spatio-historically specific phenomenon can result in abstract statements of principles that can asssist in the explanantion and understanding of a similar phenomenon at another spatio-historical juncture. Similar to other interactionists the Iowans accept the tenet that human activity is voluntaristic, reflexive and purposeful. Unlike many, they regard an interaction as 'real' wherever it takes place. Their intention is to discover invariant sequences of social activity necessary for the construction of social forms. Theoretic conceptualisations are developed in the process of forming generic principles. Such statements are not 'everlasting laws' but are declarations of the discovered principles at any one moment in an ongoing programme of study. The focus of attention is on how people construct different forms of social relationships, not why they do.


As usual for symbolic interactionists, Mead provides the theoretic roots. Significantly, the Iowans emphasise Mead's natural scientific methodological sympathies and see Mead as favouring experimentation. Simmel provides another string to the Iowans theoretical bow. Often alluded to but rarely developed in detail by other interactionists in the United States, Simmel brings a European heritage to the Iowans perspective and provides a way of unifying the phenomenological and existentialist philosophy with American pragmatism. Like Mead, Simmel also called for the formulation of generic principles of social action. This was to be achieved through formalist analysis. This essentially static approach does not gel well with the preponderant interactionist long-term observational approach. However, the Iowans saw the study of forms as complementing the study of processes derived from Mead.


The later (1980s) approach of the Iowa School tended towards an experimental approach, rather than the more widely used naturalistic approach of Chicago School. They argue that in principle experiments involve two or more comparison groups and the manipulation and control of some aspects of the experimental situation. Anything else is a secondary niceity. The reluctance of social researchers to develop experimentation is that they are overly concerned by the implications of the niceities. Most of the work of the Iowans during the 1970s and 1980s uses standard principles of experimental design and is conducted within the controlled environment of the small group laboratory. Some of the analyses adopt systematic observation, while other work is more inductive drawing on deviant case analysis in the field. Data are gathered on interactions between at least two persons over time so that the way people engage, construct and transform relationships can be analysed. Unlike most other interactionists the Iowans are not interested in the subjects' interpretations.


The analysis of the 'act-response transaction', which the Iowans argue makes up a social encounter, is based on video-recordings of such engagements. Audiovisual recordings, although initiated at CRIB in 1968, only became part of a well-formed and theoretically grounded research strategy in the mid-1970s. The use of audiovisual techniques developed in conjunction with a refinement of Mead's conception of social act and Simmel's notion of sociation. Essentially, this boiled down to the view that humans can simultaneously act towards and respond to each other. The kind of experimentation undertaken by the Iowans is one in which a situation is initialised and a set of social acts set in train.


See also Harvey's review of Couch et al. (1986) The Iowa School.

analytical review

Bloch (undated) wrote:

One of the leading critics of the Chicago approach was Manford H. Kuhn,who helped develop the contrasting Iowa School of symbolic interactionism. Scholars such as Kuhn accused Blumer and his fellow travelers for too hastily dismissing major aspects of sociological inquiry. First, Kuhn did not view the self as emerging from interactions per se, but rather from social structure. He felt that there were relatively stable statuses and roles that guided the self.

It therefore is not surprising that Kuhn argued that there is indeed a place for traditional techniques in symbolic interactionism. Counting, coding or classifying were not viewed as antithetical to the study of symbolic meanings, given the alleged relative stability of the social order. In fact, so doing could add to our understanding of shared symbolic meanings across individuals or groups. While the Chicago School believed that at most there should be sensitizing concepts, the Iowa School felt that concepts could be clearly defined and measured. Concepts such as "self" and "reference group" became operationalized, or defined in terms of measurement.

Moreover, Kuhn would have asserted that the social structure is very much what interconnects episodes of interaction, and so therefore can and should be explicitly explored and identified. Like Chicago scholars, Kuhn felt that the social structure was influenced by the nature of small-scale interactions. But he though it was important to remember that interactions were, in turn, often informed and constrained by the social structure.

Thus, while the Chicago School saw social interaction in terms of a fairly unpredictable process of negotiation, the Iowa school saw it as predictable and generalizable.

Kuhn promoted self theory, in which the notion of a spontaneous, unpredictable self (the equivalent of Mead's concept of the "I") was viewed as inconsequential for study. The emphasis instead was on the self as consisting of socially informed attitudes, judgments perceptions, stemming from one's status and roles in society. These furthermore were seen as relatively stable; who you thought yourself to be on Monday would probably be more or less the same on Tuesday.

To this end, he advanced the Twenty Statement Test (TST), which he felt lent credence to his basic assertion that symbolic interactionism and social structure indeed were related. To uncover self-identity, one referred to the content gathered from the TST.

In the TST, subjects were asked to complete twenty statements beginning with the phrase, “I am—” Time and again, subjects listed the more broad, macro-level aspects of their identity first—such as gender, ethnicity, and so on. Kuhn and his colleagues agreed that this signaled that the macro-level structure indeed was heavily embedded in our symbolic conceptualizations as social actors. Moreover, the patterns that emerged from instruments such as the TST indicated that this macro order could be spoken of in generalizable terms.

Essentially, Kuhn distinguished between consensual and subconsensual references. Consensual references were those that suggested common knowledge across individuals. In other words, the traits that tended to get mentioned first. Subconsensual references were social categories that were more a matter of individual interpretation—those traits that tended to get mentioned later.

The implications of these theoretical assertions become inseparable with methodological approaches to symbolic interactionism. Because the Chicago School was based on the premise that macro-level generalizations are to be avoided, methodologically it advocated qualitative approaches such as field studies, in which direct interactions could be observed.

By contrast, the Iowa School asserted that the macro order can be generalized in symbolic studies. Therefore it is possible to use quantitative instruments such as surveys to explore attitudes and perceptions for their symbolic meanings. Studies could be undertaken to determine perceptions of both consensual and subconsensual references.

Other Iowa theorists similarly explored issues of self, perception and attitude through numerical scores. One theorist [Sheldon Stryker] in particular developed a theory of self, and took this ability to generalize a step further by developing a list of propositions around symbolic interactionism.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section for an exploration of interactionism albeit without reference to the Iowa School


Bloch, J.P. (undated), 'Iowa School', available at, accessed 24 January 2013, page not available 23 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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