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The editor's have focused the volume around Blumer's neglected works in the general area of public philosophy, so as to cover a range of areas, such as: race prejudice; industrialization and social disorder; and the role and functions of organizations. In doing so, what is apparent is the extent to which Blumer was engaged with the major issues of his day, and willing to construct an informed academic commentary upon them. This is a trait that he shares with his academic progenitors, John Dewey and William James writing in the pragmatist tradition.
The book is constructed around two halves. The first is an extended critical commentary by the editors as they seek to situate Blumer's writings on public philosophy in an intellectual and socio-political context. The second half of the book reproduces a number of Blumer's key writings in this area culled from a range of sources.
In their opening essay the editors seek to make the case for understanding Blumer's writings on public philosophy as being an important albeit limited component of his opus. As they put it,
Herbert Blumer's approach to a public philosophy proceeds indirectly. Its beginnings are to be found in his conception of meaning as the basis of action and his emphasis on the inextricable intertwining of action and meaning. (p.35)In developing this concern, they usefully locate this aspect of Blumer's work in relation to that of his 'Southern Comtean' antecedents, together with his concern for the contemporary social context and its various social problems.
For Lyman and Vidich, underpinning Blumer's work is a sense that the foundations of public ethics should be a pragmatic respect for freedom. A particularly interesting example of how Blumer's ideas in this area informed his writing, is provided in the second half of the book where he concerns himself with the governmental problem of sustaining public morale in war-time. What emerges both from his text and the insightful commentary provided by the editors, is that Blumer had a more subtle and nuanced understanding of the problems associated with negotiating morale than either of his contemporaries Walter Lippman and Talcott Parsons. Blumer recognised that it was possible, under different conditions, to develop different forms of morale amongst the populace, from which different consequences would flow. He was particularly appreciative of the fact that an all encompassing morale based upon engendering hatred for the enemy may not be needed to galvanise the war effort to a sufficient level to secure victory. Indeed, he suggests that such forms of morale may create unrealistic expectations amongst the populace that will be revealed once the physical conflict is concluded. Over the longer-term such expectations may then be the cause of disorder and social conflict.
Another interesting set of writings contained in the collection are on the nature and causes of 'racial prejudice'. Blumer identifies a macro-level social process of prejudice leading to discrimination, which in turn facilitates segregation, as he writes,
To understand segregation it is necessary to see its position in the life of the segregating group. Almost always the practices of exclusion or rejection which it involves have grown up naturally in the life experiences of the group…This general process which imparts toughness and fixity to established practices of group exclusion is usually intensified in cases of racial segregation. (pp.s 226-227)For Blumer the only ways of combating such processes were affirmative action programmes and the law enacted as a 'strong strategic weapon'. Without such interventions Blumer foresaw that the effects of a colour line and segregation would be to undermine social order.
Overall this is an interesting book that does much in terms of broadening our awareness of the intellectual project of one of the great luminaries of sociological thought. At a more personal level, I remain undecided as to whether Blumer's writings on matters of public philosophy have stood the test of time as well as his more celebrated theoretical work. It seems at least plausible to suggest that notions of a 'mass society' are now redundant and consequently the ethical foundations for such a society, that Blumer seeks to uncover, are increasingly irrelevant. Nevertheless, for contemporary scholars there is plenty of interest in this book. In particular, for students of the symbolic interactionist perspective and Herbert Blumer's sociology, it represents a worthwhile investment.
University of Surrey