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.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Pragmatism, despite many variants, essentially means that we come to know the world through the practicality or usefulness of objects (or concepts).

explanatory context


Pragmatism is not easily defined as it is a term that covers a range of philosophical standpoints. It is not a coherent school and various thinkers have adopted the label and developed their own versions. A century ago, in his critique of pragmatism, Arthur Lovejoy (1908 [1965])) pointed out that different strands of pragmatism contradicted each other.

Pragmatism refers to both a philosophic perspective and also to political expediency.

Pragmatism was a term coined by C. S. Pierce to denote his analysis of meaning. He argued that our conception of an object is framed in its entirety by the conception we have of the possible practical bearings the object could conceivably have.

After Pierce, pragmatism was developed by various philosophers (which led Pierce to call his own work pragmaticism) and pragmatism is arguably the philosophy of turn of the century USA. Superficially, these developments turned pragmatism into an instrumentalist theory of truth. However, pragmatism is not easy to define as a philosophy as it includes several diverse positions.

It has been argued that the term pragmatism is a misnomer as the pragmatists as a group were not adherents of a doctrine but proponents of a method. Pragmatism is thus a way of analysing problems.

Pragmatism has long been recognised as having had a substantial impact on the development of sociology in the United States. It is strongly associated with both interactionism and symbolic interactionism and is therefore linked with the Chicago School of Sociology. However, through the work of Bridgman (operationalism) and Cooley in particular, pragmatism also had an effect on functionalist approaches.

The recognised group of pragmatists in the United States include: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882); William James (1842-1910); Charles S. Peirce (1839-1914); Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935); John Dewey (1859-1952); George Herbert Mead (1863-1931); Percy W. Bridgman (1882-1961); C. I. Lewis (1883-?); Horace M. Kallen (1882-?); Sidney Hook (1902-?). Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1864-1937) was the major British based pragmatist.

Pragmatism as a political perspective grew out of the pragmatist idea of keeping close to facts and seeing what resulted from certain actions. This became devalued to the notion of 'the art of the possible'.

Pragmatism as political expediency is seen as shrewd manipulation and shifting of ground. For some this is opposed to principled politics, and for other is is opposed to a dogmatic approach.


Tenets of pragmatism

Pragmatists, as their name would suggest, adopt a practical approach, albeit with varying emphases. Although varied, common elements can be discerned in pragmatism and it is characterised, in most versions, by adopting the following tenets:

1. Pragmatism treats knowledge, concepts and values as true if they are useful. Pragmatists emphasise the practical function of knowledge as an instrument for adapting to reality and controlling it.

2. The pragmatists rejected the rationalist view that reality is static and fixed and preferred a view of a changing, dynamic reality.

3. Pragmatism is primarily empiricist and inductive, testing hypotheses, prioritising experience, although not assuming that facts exist ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered. Facts are carved out of reality depending on peoples’ (scientists’) interests and purposes.

4. Pragmatism is opposed to doctrines that hold that truth can be reached through deductive reasoning from a priori grounds. The truth of a proposition is measured by its correspondence with experimental results or other processes of verification. Philip Weiner (1949, ch 9) described this anti-doctrinal empiricist approach as:

a pluralistic empiricism or method of investigating piecemeal the physical, biological, psychological, linguistic, and social problems which are not resolvable by a single metaphysical formula or a priori system; e.g., Chauncey Wright, William James, John Dewey, C. I. Lewis, John H. Randall, Jr., Sidney Hook, Ernest Nagel, Y. Bar-Hillel, Charles W. Morris.

5. Pragmatists were content with probabilistic relationships rather than with deterministic ones. Weiner (1949, ch. 9) described this as

a probabilistic view of physical and social hypotheses and laws in opposition to both mechanistic or dialectical determinism and historical necessity or inevitability, yielding a fallibilistic theory of knowledge and values opposed to dogmatic certainty and infallibility (W. James, C. S. Peirce, O. W. Holmes, Jr., J. Dewey, Ernest Nagel, Sidney Hook, H. Reichenbach).

6. Pragmatists, though, opposed the notion of passive objectivity. People cannot be neutral when observing the world; indeed they are suspicious of claims that one can observe independent of ones preconceptions.

7. Pragmatism adopts a relative approach: truth is modified as discoveries are made and is relative to the time and place and purpose of inquiry. This is not to say that we cannot know things rather that things have a variety of meanings, which are not directly apprehendable, rather an object acquires meaning through encounters with people, who define it in practice. Weiner (1949, ch 9) described this as

a relativistic or contextualistic conception of reality and values in which traditional eternal ideas of space, time, causation, axiomatic truth, intrinsic and eternal values are all viewed as relative to varying psychological, social, historical, or logical contexts (Chauncey Wright, William James, George Herbert Mead, John Dewey, Stephen C. Pepper, F. P. Ramsey, and C. I. Lewis)

8. The function of thought is to guide action not provide timeless abstract truths; pragmatists interpret ideas as instruments and plans of action rather than as images of reality. Weiner (1949, ch 9) referred to this as ‘a temporalistic view of reality and knowledge as the upshot of an evolving stream of consciousness (W. James) or of objects of consciousness (C. S. Peirce), including ideas and claims to truth, processes of observation, measurement, and experimental testing’.

9. Thought is simply an instrument for supporting the life aims of the human organism. Pragmatists are not interested in knowledge for its own sake but knowledge as an aid to action. Ideas are suggestions and anticipations of possible conduct, hypotheses or forecasts of what will result from a given action, or ways of organising behaviour. The pragmatists objected to rationalist separation of mind and matter and regarded them as linked through human action.

10. Thought is grounded in practical reality and has no real metaphysical significance, pragmatists protest against speculation concerning questions that have no application and no verifiable answers. They are explicitly action-oriented and instrumentalist. Joas (1993, p. 1) stated that the pragmatists:

avoided replacing metaphysical assumptions with new certainties based on some philosophy of history, or theory of Reason, and did not regard the end of these certainties as a cause for desperation. Rather, their endeavor under these conditions was geared to inquiring after the possibilities of science and of democracy and to finding a meaningful life for the individual. As they saw it, neither science nor democracy had ceased to have validity simply because it no longer seemed possible to provide any final justifications for them.

11. In its ethical aspect pragmatism holds that knowledge, which contributes to human values, is real. Not only is an idea true if it works it is also ‘good’. Thus, values play as essential a role in the choice of means employed in order to attain an end as they do in the choice of the end itself.

12. Pragmatists also advocated human rights and individual freedom. As Weiner (1949, ch 9) put it, pragmatism championed

a secular democratic individualism asserting the right of individuals to live in a free society without the sanctions of supernatural theological revelation or totalitarian authority. This pragmatic individualism of the American pragmatists is linked to a political tradition that goes back to John Locke and the European Enlightenment, and is represented historically in the United States by thinkers from all walks of life: John Woolman, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Abraham Lincoln, and Walt Whitman.

There are some pragmatists that would disagree with some or most of these general tenets. The following explores the approach of key figures before showing how the ideas were developed in (mainly American) sociology in the first third of the 19th century and merged with interactionism and interpretive approaches.




analytical review

associated issues

The beginnings of pragmatism in the United States

There are different views on the roots of pragmatism, some suggesting it can be seen as a strand from ancient Greek philosophy and others that it started in America in the 1870s.

In Sociology and Pragmatism, C Wright Mills (1964) records that pragmatism was born in the ‘Metaphysical Club’: a group of thinkers including Peirce, James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Joseph Warner, Chauncey Wright, Nicholas St John Green (to whom Pierce accorded the label grandfather of pragmatism because he ‘urged the importance of applying Bain’s definition of belief as “that upon which a man I prepared to act”’. John Fiske and Francis Ellington Abbot also attended on occasion. It met, in all probability during the period 1872–2, although no definitive dates are available.

Peirce noted that the discussions were informed by British philosophy and thought and that he alone had a grounding in Kant but that ‘even my ideas were acquiring the English accent’. The specific influences identified by Peirce were Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Alexander Bain and Charles Darwin. In addition, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Johann Fichte and David Hume are reckoned to have been influences on pragmatism.

Despite their being European versions of pragmatism, the philosophical movement is usually seen as being founded in America by Charles Sanders Peirce and William James in the early 1870s and later taken up and transformed by John Dewey. Peirce developed the principles of pragmatic theory and James was the key figure in promoting the widespread influence of pragmatism during the 1890s and early 1900s. Dewey developed the instrumentalist aspects of the doctrine.

Reflections on American pragmatism (such as Wright Mills, 1966a) prioritized Peirce, James and Dewey, although Wright Mills (1966b) and subsequent writers (Sandstrom et al., 2006; Joas, 1993) have added G.H. Mead to this triumvirate as a major influence.


However, the recognised group of pragmatists in the United States also included Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), Oliver Wendell Holmes (1841-1935), Percy W. Bridgman (1882-1961), Horace M. Kallen (1882-?), Sidney Hook (1902-?) and C. I. Lewis (1883-?) who drew on Kant in the pragmatic investigation of empirical reality.

European pragmatism and American pragmatism’s links to other European philosophy

Pragmatism was less well-established in Europe. Ferdinand Canning Scott Schiller (1864-1937) was the major British based pragmatist

W. V. O. Quine... persisted in upholding the validity of some a priori knowledge, pointing out that mathematics greatly facilitates scientific research. Richard Rorty most closely reflected the American approach by arguing that theories are ultimately justified by their instrumentality, or the extent to which they enable people to attain their aims. (Joas, 1993, p. 1)

Joas (1993, pp. 6–7) claimed that:

For a long time, another major deficit was the lack of adequate attention paid to the link between pragmatism and similar currents of thought in the German, French, and Anglo-Saxon intellectual worlds. This lack has been remedied in a brilliant manner by a young American historian, James Kloppenberg. Although his assertion that a “transatlantic community of discourse” existed between 1870 and 1920 would appear exaggerated in view of the degree to which national discourses increasingly sealed themselves off from the international community during this period, Kloppenberg nevertheless demonstrates quite convincingly that there was a convergence of discourses which were originally very different in approach. This convergence occurs, on the one hand, at the level of philosophy; here Kloppenberg elaborates the features American pragmatists, British neo-Hegelians, German hermeneuticians, and French neorationalists have in common, while remaining sensitive to the differences between them. This confluence also took place at another level, for there was a convergence between the philosophical innovations of this period and the political search for a path that transcended dogmatic liberalism and revolutionary socialism. Kloppenberg’s account considers democratic socialists such as Eduard Bermstein, Jean Jaures, and the Webbs along with the major figures of American progressivism of that period, and he goes on to claim that an affinity existed between pragmatist philosophy and the theoretical basis of a radical-reformist form of social democracy. …“Steady, incremental change through the democratic process, with all its confusions and imperfections, is the political expression of this philosophical creed. These ideas, moderate, meliorist, democratic, and sensitive to the possibility that no perfect reconciliation of liberty and equality can be attained, are the consequences of pragmatism for politics.” (Kloppenberg, 1986, p. 194).

The dominance of pragmatism and the renaissance of pragmatism

Pragmatism dominated American philosophy from the 1890s to the 1930s and re-emerged to some degree at the turn of the century. Joas (1993, p. 2) explains:

The renaissance of pragmatism in American philosophy has admittedly been restricted to traditional core areas of philosophy. In the philosophy of science and in epistemology, in aesthetics and ethics, one can discern contributions that are “neopragmatist” in nature. By contrast, only rarely are links established to political philosophy and social philosophy. And, aside from Richard Bernstein, there is an even greater distance from discussions of sociological theory. A book such as Richard Rorty ‘s Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ moves with the greatest of elegance between the philosophical and literary discourses; however, a discourse in the social sciences is so conspicuously absent that one could be forgiven thinking that it does not exist at all.

Charles Peirce (1839–1914)

Charles Sanders Peirce is recognised as the founder of pragmatism. However he published little and was barely recognized during his lifetime. Wiley (2006, p. 47) suggests that ‘Evidently he [Pierce] was so disreputable, given the moral conservatism of the times, and personally obnoxious that he may not have been given the credit due to him.’ William James had to retrospectively acknowledge Pierce’s founding role. After his death his major essays were edited by M. R. Cohen in Chance, Love, and Logic (1923).

Peirce asserted that [Chauncey] Wright, James and I were men of science, rather scrutinizing the doctrines of the metaphysicians on their scientific side than regarding them as very momentous spiritually. Pierce has also been acknowledged as the first American experimental psychologist and he contributed to psychology, philology, the history and philosophy of science and mathematics, phenomenology, and logic. He also had an interest in science and made significant contributions to a variety of fields including chemistry, physics, astronomy, meteorology, engineering.

Peirce was also the originator of the modern form of semiotics and Wiley (2006, p. 23) contended that Pierce’s semiotics is virtually the same as the anthropologists’ concept of culture, which in turn was essential to clarifying the sociologists’ idea of the social or of society.

Peirce’s initial statement about pragmatism was prepared for the members of the club, not for general publication and it was only amended for publication in 1877. Peirce notes the impact of his interest in science on the development of his thought. He also notes a lifelong interest in methods of enquiry and that he was a ‘great student of logic having read everything of importance on the subject’. Pierce Collected Papers vol 1 1898 p. 3


'I came to the study of philosophy not for its teaching about God, Freedom and Immortality, but intensely curious about Comology and Psychology' (Pierce Collected Papers vol 4 1898 p. 2) Being a logician for Peirce means being a student of the methods of science.

Pierce was influenced by Kant and Scottish common-sense philosophy. Peirce sought to begin theoretical inquiry with empirically verified and common experiences rather than Cartesian absolute certainty.

Peirce regarded logic as the beginning of all philosophical study, Peirce felt that the meaning of an idea was to be found in an examination of the consequences to which the idea would lead. This principle, labelled pragmatism, was published in 1878 in Popular Science Monthly and later employed, with acknowledgment, by his friend William James. “Despite my argument that Peirce may have had a crucial influence during sociology’s formative years, he was not explicitly and openly used until well into the 20th century.” (Wiley 2006, p. 29)

According to Wiley, Pierce felt that thought would be self-corrective over time and that, in the long run, the general opinion, particularly that of the scientists, would be a true one. This means he was, to some extent, a social constructionist.

In contrast to William James, though, Peirce’s constructionism was a long, slow process, and it was thoroughly social. In his ‘will to believe’ James had suggested we could construct a reality non-socially, that is, by ourselves, and in the short run. James thought, for example, that he had constructed the truth of the idea of God and that of free will. But Peirce thought this version of constructionism was wrong. The community might create these ideas over a long period of time but not the individual and not at a moment’s notice. If anything, Peirce was somewhat closer to the social constructionism of Thomas and Znaniecki’s Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–20), the underlying theme of which was later stated as ‘if men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences’ (Thomas and Thomas, 1928, p. 572). Peirce’s ideas are very close to those of the 1920s Chicago School. (Wiley, 2006 p. 45)

Wiley (2006, pp. 45–6) conjectured that Pierce was, in effect, if unacknowledged, a founding father of symbolic interactionism. He maintained that Peirce also created the modern theory of the dialogical self, which explained the symbolic character of human beings and proved foundational for social psychology:

If we refer to the Chicago School’s position as ‘symbolic interactionism’, even though the term was invented later by Herbert Blumer, this expression could also be used to refer to Peirce’s sociological ideas. But Mead never acknowledged any debt to, or even much of an acquaintance with, Peirce. Yet Peirce invented the modern theory of the dialogical self, and Mead produced a variation of the same theory slightly later. Moreover, Mead was closely acquainted with William James and John Dewey, both in their writings and in personal, face-to-face relations. Both of these scholars were familiar with Peirce—James throughout his life and Dewey by the early 20th century. It seems implausible that Mead would not have heard about Peirce’s ideas from these two. Still, Mead did originate several important ideas that were his alone. Peirce had created an overall, umbrella idea of the sign, and this became the core of his semiotics. Mead, in contrast, wanted to understand the abstract or general symbol as such, which was only one of the kind in which Peirce was interested. Mead contrasted the non-significant symbol of the animals with the significant one of humans. He made this contrast both in a phylogenetic context, to explain the evolutionary birth of meaning, and in an ontogenetic context, to explain the birth of meaning in each infant. He thought that reflexivity was the key to meaning for humans. When communicating with others, these humans could reflect on their utterance and respond to it internally as others would respond to it externally. This theory, here perhaps stated over-tersely, is not without problems, and Mead stated it somewhat differently on different occasions, but still it is one of the most powerful theories of meaning in existence. So Mead did not copy Peirce’s ideas; he had his own. Nevertheless, there are so many parallels and affinities between Peirce and Mead that I think there must have been an influence, even if it was indirect and diffuse. Mead had subscribed to the Nation magazine, which had regular book reviews by Peirce. And he also subscribed to the Journal of Philosophy, which had a 1916 memorial issue on Peirce, including a paper by Dewey, two years after Peirce had died. (Wiley, 2006, pp. 45–6)

Wiley (2006, p. 46) commented further that:

In addition to social construction, Peirce had other interesting ideas about meaning. For him the interpretive process, which was a continuing ingredient of meaning, eventually coalesced to some extent into a bundle of habits. In other words the meaning of an object was how we responded to the object. The meaning of God, for example, would be our habits of reverence, prayer, ethical commitment, and so on. This fits his famous pragmatic definition of meaning as consequences, or rather our conception of consequences. This definition sounded to some like a logical positivist definition of meaning in terms of observable and measurable sensory consequences.

Pierce’s view of pragmatism was that truth claims about useful concepts or beliefs should be verifiable: that one one should be able to make predictions and test them. Truth is defined, for Peirce, as the ultimate outcome of inquiry by a (usually) scientific community of investigators. Wiley (2006, pp. 46–7) explored this further, comparing it to logical positivism:

But Peirce has several variants of this maxim, and it is clear that, by ‘our conception’, he was referring to all possible consequences. In addition our conception could entail socially constructionist elements. An empiricist or logical positivistic interpretation of the pragmatic maxim would be guilty of the intuitionist fallacy. Moreover, the interpretive aspect of meaning has a similarity with Max Weber’s idea of Verstehen. For Weber, cultural, as opposed to physical, facts required a special methodology. Since these cultural facts were constructed and given meaning by humans, they could be understood only by capturing the intended meaning. These facts were primarily about meanings, just as physical facts were primarily about physical stuff. And this meaning could only be understood by a process of insight or Verstehen, during which we discover and reproduce the meaning in our consciousness. I do not think Peirce would disagree with Weber on this point.

Wiley goes on to show other similarities between Pierce’s ideas and those of Weber and of Durkheim before concluding that ‘some of Peirce’s ideas did enter into social theory, although in an indirect and diffuse way’ (Wiley, 2006. p. 47).

William James (1842–1910)

Joas (1993, p. 4) argues that: Not until the work of philosopher and psychologist William James did pragmatism begin to gain significant momentum in the philosophical world. James substantially altered Peirce’s pragmatism to fit the subjectivist viewpoint: an idea’s effectiveness is judged by an individual agent rather than determined objectively by a scientific community.


William James's view of pragmatism was that the value of any truth is dependent upon its use to the person who holds the truth. In Pragmatism James (1907) argued that the truth of ideas is instrumental. 'Ideas become true just so far as they help us to get into satisfactory relations with other parts of our experience'. Rather than seeking scientific verifiability, truth itself is not that which contributes the most good to the community but that which contributes the most good to the individual.

Alijevova (2005, pp. 215) claims that

along with the general recognition of special role of James among sociologists, we sometimes encounter a certain underestimation of his influence…. it was Jamesian postulate of radical empiricism that was so important for the formation of empirical orientation in early American sociology. A Jamesian emphasis on the empirical world as the point of departure and the point of return became the starting point for the interactionism in its research as well as in its social politics, which was based on the principle of meliorism….Pragmatism also declared the conception of active human being, which became the fundamental principle of early interactionists (W. I. Thomas, R. Park. G. H. Mead). This idea followed from Jamesian conception of the stream of consciousness. In The Principles of Psychology James has developed an original theory of “multiple Self”, which was the source of the Coolean and the Meadean conception of Self. His analysis of the elements of Self (Me and I) prepared the development of the reference group theory and the theory of role sets. James abandoned the position of dogmatic monism and tends toward pluralism. His persistent attempt to relativise the Self, the consciousness, the truth, led him to the discovery of a world that is very similar to our “risk-filled”, uncertain and fallible post-modern world. The fruitfulness of James´s legacy is evident today, when his idea of the “multiple Self” is successfully applied to building a theory of identity of post-modern man.

John Dewey (1859–1952)

Philosopher and public intellectual, John Dewey elaborated and defined his own system of pragmatism, which emphasised its place in popular democracy.


Joas (1993, p. 5) maintained that:

John Dewey’s work was crowned by his theory of art, or, rather, his theory on the aesthetic dimension of all human experience. Far from being geared exclusively to solving problems of instrumental action, the unifying element running through Dewey’s work, with the numerous areas it covers, takes the shape of an inquiry into the meaningfulness to be experienced in action itself.


Georeg Herbert Mead (1859–1952)

Joas (1993, p. 5) wrote:

As for George Herbert Mead, his famous theory of the emergence of the self is primarily directed against the assumption of some substantive self; his concept of the human individual and the individual’s actions is radically “constructivistic.” In all four cases the pragmatists’ ideas are not devoted to the creative generation of innovation as such, but to the creative solution of problems. Despite all the pathos associated with creativity, the pragmatists nevertheless endeavored to link it to the dimension of everyday experience and everyday action.

Rock (1979) argued that the self became a fundamental element in Mead's pragmatism. He cites Elsworth's Faris's statement that Mead has been misrepresented:

‘Faris’s review of Mead’s posthumous work, ‘Mind, Self and Society’, maintained that the title belied the author’s intention and argument. he suggested that ‘Society, Self and Mind’ would have been more fitting (E. Faris, review of ‘Mind, Self and Society’, American Journal of Sociology, 41: 6 (May 1936))’. (Rock, 1979, p. 254, footnote 109).

Rock's position is that considerable sociological work has been done by symbolic interactionists assuming that their epistemology is rooted in Mead. Whether or not it is what Mead would have preferred seems to be a matter of conjecture, and the discussion of importance only in so far as it provides a legitimating founding father for a particular methodic orientation.

Pragmatism and formalism have both raised the self of the observer to a position of special prominence. Not only was the self a source and synthesis of all viable knowledge, it constituted the elemental unit of sociological analysis. It was thus simultaneously an intellectual subject and an intellectual object. The self is taken to be a social construct, emerging from language, which lends order to all interaction. It is man made conscious of himself as a social process, and its basis is a reflexive turning-back of mind on itself. Reflexivity is made possible by the social forms and it advances the evolution of those forms. It is in the self that a fundamental grammar or logic of the forms is allowed to unfold. All social phenomena stem from that logic so that a socially formed mind and the processes of society display a unity. (Rock, 1979, p. 102)

Symbolic interactionism thus conceives the self to be the lens through which the world is refracted. It is the medium which realises the logic of social forms. Fundamentally, however, the self emerges from the forms. It is made possible only by the activities and responses of others acting in an organised manner. A self without others is inconceivable. Its doings and shapes must be understood as a special mirroring and incorporation of the social process in which it is embedded. Because language and society are taken to be historically and analytically prior to mind interactionism does not proceed by deducing social phenomena from consciousness. Neither does it assume that individuals are ‘given’ and therefore unproblematic. It is the self which arises in sociation, not sociation from the self. As Luckmann argued, Mead’s description is characterised by ‘a complete reversal of the traditional understanding of the relation between society and the individual’. Anchoring analysis in the geometry and grammar of the social forms, interactionism is also able to furnish a conception of social structure which is relatively free of scientific reification. Structure is animated by the everyday behaviour of people, not by an immanent and sui generis logic of its own. (Rock, 1979, p. 146)

Rock raises some concerns about the interactionist idea of self:

In its original formulation, the interactionist model of the self offered a limited but useful description of the relations between mind, body and society. It was useful because it referred to observable and communal processes which shaped mind. It permitted a synthesis of the different phases of social and individual processes into one master scheme. The model was limited because it did not pretend to embrace private, subjective experience. It was not comprehensive or phenomenological. Rather it adhered to the behaviourist principles which Mead had advanced. In that guise there has been one other major limitation which is not commonly recognised. By focusing on one ideal-typical self as a general process, there has been a tendency to portray all selves as undifferentiated and interchangeable. Further, the organic anchorage of the self has been lost in the writings of interactionism. The self has consequently become a rational, distant, observer of social scenes rather than a varied participant which alters with them. It is fundamentally outside the interpretative scope of sociology although it represents sociology’s chief object. In its phenomenologically revised form, the self has also lost much of the practical utility which it once enjoyed. It has become a somewhat mysterious process whose problematic qualities are little appreciated by the revisionist interactionists. Although nothing private is excluded from analytic survey, few directions are provided to guide descriptions of the enlarged self. (Rock, 1979, p. 147)

Rock pointed out that Chicago interactionism up to 1930s was rather loose. Mead was a possible focus through which ideas tightened up, especially for those concerned to challenge the ‘operationalisation’ tendency? Rock commented on what he saw as Mead’s complex conception of the ‘I’ (and ‘Me’):

The ‘I’ projects organic drives into activity, it serves as the unorganised and spontaneous phase of the self, and it looms up from the realm of indescribable and immediate existence. But it is also organising, formed and conscious. It is not to be contrasted with the social ‘me’ a prereflexive or animal facet of humanity. It is, instead, a part of consciousness which arises with the emergence of language. It has been portrayed as the individual confronting his socially situated self: the reply which a person makes to his ‘me’. It is as much a rational and vocal aspect of the self as the ‘me’: it launches the stimuli to which the self can immediately respond in the stance of another; it answers that response; and it houses some of the most profound structures of imposed social organisation. If the ‘me’ presents the self with the social reality of others, the ‘I’ itself is not socially unformed. It has been portrayed as a kind of sedimentation of social processed which fold back on the gestures and projects of the self. In all its guises, the ‘I’ is taken to be unclearly distilled out of social experience and the stirrings of the organism. It seals together what no reflecting mind could ever comprehend or master. It is itself permanently elusive, escaping conscious surveillance and known only in vague caricature.... The imputations of others may become as plausible as one’s own in the effort to determine one’s ‘I’. Outsiders do not then only establish one’s me, they may contribute to knowledge of what one ‘essentially’ is. Of course that knowledge can only be addressed to the phenomenal presentation of a ‘me’ and may be taken to be an essentialisation of the ‘me’. But it also refers to the ‘real person’ behind all phenomena, the person who organises and takes attitudes towards his phenomenal self. It is an imputation about the concealed essence of man. (Rock, 1979, pp. 119–120)

‘A ‘me’ cannot then be regarded as some kind of existential mayfly. It is embellished with an ancestry and a life that moves out beyond the present. It has solidity and depth. Almost any ‘me’ has within it the potential to turn back on the self which made it as a form of more-than-life. It can become alienated and external, opposing its ‘I’ as an autonomous phenomenon which requires a certain deference. (Rock, 1979, p.126)

related areas

See also






symbolic interactionism

Researching the Real World Section


Alijevova, D., 2005, 'James´s contribution to the crystallization of interactionist sociology', Sociologia—Slovak Sociological Review, 37(3), pp. 215–26.

James, W., 1907, Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking, Hackett Publishing.

Joas, H., 1993, Pragmatism and and Social Theory, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Kloppenberg, J.T., 1986, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought. 1870–1920, New York.

Lovejoy, A.O, 1908, 'The Thirteen Pragmatisms', Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Methods, now the Journal of Philosophy, Part I, 2 January 1908 p. 5–12. Part II, 16 January 1908, p. 29–39.

Mills, C. Wright, 1964, Sociology and Pragmatism: The Higher Learning in America, edited with an Introduction by Irving Louis Horowitz,
Paine-Whitman, New York, Oxford University Press.

Mills, C. Wright, ‘Postscript: Some last reflections on pragmatism’, in Wright Mills, C., 1964b, Sociology and Pragmatism: The higher learning in America, pp. 464–67, New York, Oxford University Press.

Peirce, C., 1923, M. R. Cohen Edin Chance, Love, and Logic (1923)

Sandstrom, K., Martin, D.M. and Fine, G.A., 2006, Symbols, Selves and Social Life: A Symbolic interactionist approach to sociology and social psychology, second edition, Los Angeles, CA, Roxbury.

Rock, P., 1979, The Making of Symbolic Interactionism, Rowman & Littlefield.

Weiner, P.P., 1949, Evolution and the Founders of Pragmatism, with a foreword by John Dewey, Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press.

Wiley, N., 2006 ‘Peirce and the founding of American sociology’, Journal of Classical Sociology, 6(1), pp. 25–50, available at, accessed 3 June 2013, still available 24 December 2016.


For primary sources on pragmatism, William James’s best known and most influential work is Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking (1907). A good place to start with John Dewey is the two volume The Essential Dewey (Indiana, 1998), which includes a thorough selection of his important writings. For neo-pragmatist readings, see Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton, 1979) by Richard Rorty, Reason, Truth, and History (Cambridge, 1981) by Hilary Putnam, and The Trouble with Principle (Harvard, 1999) by Stanley Fish.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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