Interpretive Interactionism (Applied Social Research Methods Series)
Denzin, Norman K.
Sage Publications, London
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Norman K. Denzin, in the preface, links the key themes of the second edition to the first edition, which was published in 1989. Part of that goal, for him, was and remains one to:
' …provide students and scholars in the human disciplines with a relatively accessible description of the critical, existential, interpretive approach as it has been practiced by myself and others' (ix).
For Denzin, interpretive interactionism, is clearly part of both the more recent 'explosion' in the 'field of qualitative research' and the historic 'reformist movement' that began in the 1970s. Denzin, interestingly, intellectually grounds his project with reference to C. Wright Mills (1959), The Sociological Imagination. He states:
' Despite the enormous influence of Mills's work, there has never been a methodological discussion of how his theory and method might be put in place. This book continues Mills's project ' (xi).
Denzin outlines three assumptions that organize his work. First, the primacy of interpretation in human experience. Second, to make interpretations visible and finally, to stress that interpretations are unfinished and inconclusive.
The book is organized into eight chapters. The first chapter deals with the interpretive criteria and various turns of the 'seventh moment', which I find an awkward term. The second chapter comparatively and historically defines the 'interpretive point of view'. The third chapter examines the significance of 'securing biographical experience', with the fourth chapter articulating the steps in the 'interpretive process' and next one 'situating interpretation'. Chapter six critically discusses the 'thick description' concept of Geertz (1973) to a range of contemporary applications and problems. Chapter seven explores 'doing interpretation' which includes a range of 'alternative writing forms'. The final chapter concludes the book, followed by a glossary of terms, which seems a bolt on section for the more formulaic.
Denzin concludes, by repeating his previous claims, in a rather morally corrective manner, stating:
' And so here at the end, in the seventh moment, at the beginning of the 21st century, we confront the pressing demand to show how the practices of critical, interpretive qualitative research can help change the world in positive ways. That is what this book has been all about ' (p155).
The strength of the book is in attempting to link symbolic interactionist work with the more contemporary movements it has influenced as well as outlining a type of analytic position for its broad community. In particular, the chapter on thick description is very useful and considered. Moreover, the post modernist social research agenda is integrated well into the overall themes of the book.
The weaker part of the book, which I felt with the first edition and still feel with the second edition, is Denzin's general eclectic orientation, which results in a sort of strange mixture of all things qualitative. For some this is a compelling and attractive mix and such a mosaic tool-kit is the way forward and part of a modern sociological imagination. I would personally caution such broad integrationist moves as serious epistemological and ontological differences in the qualitative community can be glossed over. For example, ethnography is a populist umbrella term for a family of different approaches.
In some ways, I find Denzin's pluralistic stance problematic. I am not arguing as a purist that approaches cannot be mixed, some can and are, but others are not and by forcing integration one can end up in several conceptual knots and conflations. It is difficult enough for students and scholars to adequately comprehend one sociological tradition in its complexity, never mind a diverse series. Such comparative work is a detailed and careful enterprise and I am not convinced that Denzin is wholly successful at it. To me, his version of interpretive interactionism seems more like a type of 'lumpen analysis' that assimilates a loose confederation of positions. One position that is certainly marginalized in his umbrella is ethnomethodology, which is not given the coverage that it requires.
Ultimately, Denzin has produced a methodology book that is a very competent, interesting and useful companion addition to other works in the field. It will appeal to a wide social science audience and will definitely be very popular with both the general eclectic fraternity and those specific followers of this prolific writer.
Manchester Metropolitan University