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The Iowa School in Sociological History

The department of Sociology at Iowa played a key role after World War II in the development of the symbolic interactionism paradigm. Manford Kuhn, a leading symbolic interactionist of his time, taught at Iowa from 1946 until his death in 1963. He developed here what would be called the "Iowa school" of symbolic interactionism, and which was differentiated from the "Chicago school" developed through the work of Herbert Blumer.

The Iowa school became distinctive for its emphasis on operationalizing symbolic interactionist concepts (such as self, reference group, or social object) in a standardized way so that hypotheses could be developed and empirically tested. The ultimate goal was to be able to put forth generalizable statements about human behavior. In 1950 Kuhn developed the twenty statements test (TST) as a research instrument. It became a very widely used research tool, garnering its own session at the 1958 American Sociological Association Meetings.

By contrast, Blumer's Chicago School relied more heavily on participant observation research. The Chicago school was more anthropological in that it strived to understand the meaning system of an individual or group of people, without the emphasis on uncovering generalizable patterns in human behavior.

Another important figure in the history of our department, Carl Couch (1965-94), continued to keep the Iowa school of symbolic interactionism in the public eye after Kuhn's death. He edited several volumes of articles written in the Iowa school tradition, including Constructing Social Life: Readings in Behavioral Sociology from the Iowa School (1975, co-edited with Robert A. Hintz, Jr.), and The Iowa School (1986, co-edited with Stanley L. Saxton and Michael A. Katovich).


Fine, Gary Alan. 1993. "The Sad Demise, Mysterious Dissapearance, and Glorious Triumph of Symbolic Interactionism." Annual Review of Sociology 19:61-87.

Meltzer, Bernard N., John W. Petras, and Larry T. Reynolds. 1975. Symbolic Interactionism: Genesis, Varieties, and Criticism. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.