Herbert Blumer (1969), who coined the term "symbolic interactionism," set out three basic premises of the perspective:
- "Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things."
- "The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society."
- "These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters."
Blumer, following Mead, claimed that people interact with each and other by interpret[ing] or 'defin[ing]' each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their 'response' is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning which they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbolssignification, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions (Blumer 1962). Blumer contrasted this process, which he called "symbolic interaction," with behaviorist explanations of human behavior, which don't allow for interpretation between stimulus and response.
As Dey summarizes, "In the marriage of these two traditions, it was intended to harness the logic and rigor of quantitative methods to the rich interpretive insights of the symbolic interactionist tradition" (25). These two traditions are described as "naturalistic inquiry" and "variable analysis." Dey points out that later interpreters of Grounded Theory have leaned more toward the symbolic interactionist side of this marriage and bemoaned the quantitative roots of Grounded Theory. Naturalistic inquiry is valued for its ability to provide rich and deep interpretation that is contextually based, while variable analysis "facilitated easy measurement" and variables that were "consistent and stable" (27). How can this fixed and rational logic of variable analysis be married with naturalistic inquiry? Dey sets out to explain how Glaser and Strauss accomplish this strange blending of methodologies. His first explanation sets out the broad approach of Glaser and Strauss: "They locate inquiry in naturalistic settings, focused on interaction and its interpretation; and they construe analysis in terms of the identification of categories (variables?) and their relationships" (27). So inquiry and data gathering are purely qualitative, but when it comes to analyzing this data, it becomes more fixed and quantitative in nature. Can this be?
Dey identifies two bridges G&S create to make this marriage work. The first is the use of Categories as a "means of mediating between transient interpretations on the one hand and stable conceptualization on the other" (27). The term "categories" is used instead of variables or values. The second bridge Dey identifies is their notion that "theory can be grounded as it is generated" (27). Fluid concepts can be fixed through this back and forth interpretation between theory and data (the "constant comparative method"). The word G&S have for this connection between concepts (that indicate or lead to theory) and data is "sensitizing" (28). That means that these concepts "remain meaningful in the context of everyday interaction" (28).
Many problems, as Dey points out, exist with this strange mixing of methodologies, but I find I am attracted to GT because it seeks this hybrid goal toward knowledge. If one views GT from a strictly qualitative view point, I can see that they would miss the generalizable ambitions of GT. I believe everything is context-dependent; however, many similarities still exist across contexts and should be acknowledges as well. How come the hero has a thousand faces? Yet, how can we acknowledge and include the rich variety and influence of specific contexts? Can't we find a way to acknowledge both?
I think it is this mixed marriage found uneasily within the roots of GT that attracts me to this methodology. It does seek some generalizable truths (especially as the researcher moves from substantive to formal theory), and it has faith in systematic rigor for revealing truth, yet it must still be sensitized and matched with specific contexts. I need to feel out this paradoxical epistemology that seems to be at the heart of GT and think more about what that way of knowing and seeing the world means. I'm uncomfortable with an extremely context-dependent view of truth, yet I don't believe a transcendent truth that is devoid of context completely. There must be some middle ground.