Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München  

  Dead Sociologists Society


Tamotsu Shibutani (1920-2004) died on
August 8th 2004 in Santa Barbar, California















Horst J. Helle: "The Developing Perspective of Tamotsu Shibutani: Identity Issues in an Age of Individuation" :

The Devoloping Perspective of Tamotsu Shibutani: Identity Issues in an Age of Individuation


The problem of the rigid self is of special interest to Shibutani, and he pursues it in the context of his developing theoretical perspective. We shall outline in this chapter first his theoretical method, then review his article on reference group theory. The chapter closes with Shibutani's recent formulations on meaning and the self concept. The occasion, a celebratory volume in Shibutani's honor, suggests that this author's point of view remain far in the background. Presenting a fair recreation of Shibutani's contribution to identity issues in an age of individuation is important enough to resist the temptation of using this volume to other ends. lt also justifies a mode of literary production that deviates from what is expected: the following pages are filled with long quotations! However, most of them are not taken from other publications but from unpublished material, notably a tape recording of 1988. Therefore the rules that normally apply to quoting must here be ignored in part.


Critique of Positivism

While Shibutanis books are well known, the methods he applies remain implicit and only as it were in passing does he occasionally comment on his own position in the theory of knowledge and on his theoretical method in general. As one of Herbert Blumer's former students, he has frequently been counted among the school of symbolic interactionists. He did not feel happy with that label, because to him, it implies worshipping George H. Mead as a deity.

"George Mead and his ideas are kept alive in symbolic interactionism. And yet, what symbolic interactionists have done is to treat Mead like a deity. They take his texts and work with them as biblical scholars would study the great scriptures. They argue about the meaning of this text and that text. Then it is set up as an object of worship. This bothers me (Shibutani), because it is against the whole spirit of pragmatism. Pragmatism is a process philosophy. The universe is something that is constantly changing. Human knowledge is simply a temporary accommodation between people and the universe. The basic notion of pragmatism on human thinking is that it is constantly developing. And so, given this kind of philosophy, to set up a man's ideas as the word of God and worship them is just a flat contradiction to the whole spirit of pragmatism... And this is one reason why I have always Insisted that 1 was not a symbolic interactionist. The label has been stuck on me, there is nothing 1 could to. But 1 have always felt that symbolic interactionists did not really understand what Mead was about" (Shibutani 1988).

Regardless of which school Shibutani should correctly be associated, he is certainly not a positivist: he states his critique of that paradigm very clearly. In an unpublished oral presentation at an international summer institute In Munich in 1988 (from which the quotation above is taken) and for a publication that subsequently documented the major results of that symposium (1991), he revealed his theoretical method. For the sake of authenticity those sources will be quoted in more detail than is customary.

A sociologist in the pragmatist tradition, Shibutani is critical of an exaggerated fascination with quantifiable data: "Logical positivism has dominated much of the behavioral sciences in the twentieth century. The view that scientific verification is the sole criterion of truth and that such verification is possible only for phenomena that are observable, preferably measurable, has been widely accepted. Since the operations of the human mind are not readily observable, the tendency to reject anything that cannot be studied by its narrow, restrictive formula of scientific method has created severe difficulties for the systematic analysis of human behavior. Attempts to emulate what are believed to be the procedures of the physical and biological sciences have produced results that demonstrate imagination and technical virtuosity but contribute pitifully little toward enhancing our comprehension of how human society actually works and how individuals make their way through life" (Shibutani 1991, p. 183). But it is precisely this, that we ought to study. This statement leaves nothing to be desired in clarity. Shibutani gives those credit, who like himself have voiced their misgivings about the dominant paradigm in sociology: "In recent decades several circles of critics have challenged the positivist conception of science and its appropriateness for the study of human behavior. Although they differ considerably among themselves, all the critics have pointed to the neglect of human agency" (Shibutani 1991, p. 183). Shibutani's reference to agency is a reminder that humans should be able to - and in many instances do in fact - act in freedom rather than on the basis of predictable chains of cause and effect. The paradigm borrowed from the natural sciences can, however, not take personal autonomy into account (except as deviance from a rational choice), but relies on presupposed determination by forces beyond the control of the actor.

The impetus for Sir Karl Popper's work came from the shock that followed his involvement in communism as an ideal when he was an adolescent in Vienna, followed by his experience of the horrors of national socialism in the forties, and so, to him and to many Comte's critique of metaphysics was a safeguard against destructive ideologies of any kind. This attitude was prevalent among social scientists throughout the fifties, but the shortcomings of the paradigm became more and more visible. "Since the 1960s ... a chorus of objections have arisen, most of them in Europe, to the continued use of this orientation for the analysis of human behavior" (Shibutani 199 1, p. 184).

Pragmatism and Interpretive Sociology

Shibutani's critique of logical positivism would not be convincing had he not presented an alternative theoretical perspective in the continuity of pragmatism and of interpretive sociology. According to the epistemological tradition that has been handed down from Spinoza, Kant, Simmel, and James, reality as it is in and of itself cannot be captured. Therefore, theory is not a copy of reality but is a tool with which to approach reality as best we can. The process of constructing an image of reality is socially influenced and it incorporates non?rational aspects as well as rational ones. Eventually - since all theory is hypothetical - it will have to prove useful in order to prevail. This epistemological position taken by Shibutani is identical with that taken by Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and other neo ? Kantian followers of the interpretive school. Shibutani (1988) counts Simmel among the pragmatists. He also addresses the topic of the construction of social worlds. In doing that he anticipates the approach taken by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann in their book on "The Social Construction of Reality" (Berger and Luckmann1966). Furthermore, Shibutani agrees with John Dewey for whom society exists in and by communication.

The methodologies of these various authors may seem diverse, however, they all are critical of positivism. If we compare their approach with that of logical positivism, the crucial difference is whether we select our topics and data according to what will fit our method, or rather, confront the problems as they present themselves in lived social reality and then look for a theoretical approach that will enable us to study them. In other words, will the topic be subordinate to the method, or will the method be of service to the topic. It is clear that Shibutani sides for the latter.

Theories in scholarly work are like points of view taken in everyday life;. there just is no way around letting the perspective taken influence the arriving image of reality. Early in his career Shibutani explains that in his famous article on reference groups as perspectives (Shibutani 1955). The reference group is the originator of a perspective. To make that suggestion plausible, he refers to the work of W.I. Thomas. According to the Thomas theorem, humans act by what they believe to be so. The notion of the "definition of the situation', belongs to this conceptual context. How someone defines a situation depends on the perspective taken.

To Shibutani, a perspective is the order ascribed to the world according to which certain qualities of objects and persons are viewed as normal. Thus, perspectives are ordered concepts of what is perceived as plausible and as possible. They each represent a matrix which helps humans make sense of their environment. As a pattern of interpretation, a perspective preempts all empirical experience in that it defines what is to be experienced and which course an ongoing experience will take, or what it will likely lead up to. This way it can be shown that judgments too are the results of perspectives taken.

These arguments by Shibutani are in agreement with Max Weber's writings on values and objectivity (Weber 1949). They also show Shibutani's methodological closeness to Robert Redfield's concept of culture. To Weber culture is reality seen from the point of view of a particular system of values (Weber 1949, pp. 55?57). Only by revealing the value system that applies and by relating to it can culture be interpreted In the way in which those would interpret it, who identify with it, and live as parts of it. In contexts in which Weber would discuss values, Shibutani introduces the perspective as an important tool for the interpretation of culture.

Sociologists in the tradition of the interpretive approach and of pragmatism "also stress the importance of subjective experiences," and "that human beings act in terms of their Interpretation of the situations in which they are involved" (Shibutani 1991, pp. 184). As Shibutani points out, subjective experiences are part of the reality under investigation. In the context of logical positivism there is the danger that they be separated from reality as non -objective.

The epistemological background against which Shibutani finds his own method is the pragmatism of Charles S. Peirce, William James, and John Dewey. George H. Mead, too, based his work on the premises of pragmatism. "Pragmatists have always recognized the importance of agency, but their position differs from that of many other critics of logical positivism" (Shibutani 1991, p. 183). Also "pragmatism repudiates the separation of mind and body, and Mead rejected outright the notion of free will, which rests on this dualism. But he was fascinated by the purposive, self ? organizing qualities of living organisms and recognized personal autonomy as a distinguishing mark of human beings" (Shibutani 1991, p. 187). Personal autonomy was difficult to locate in the context of the positivist approach to the social sciences. Thus logical positivism turned out to be prone to social determinism, assuming, for instance, that following the unbroken chain of cause and effect the Individual acts primarily on the basis of the social influences to which he or she has been exposed.

In his remarks during his visit to Munich in 1988, Shibutani looks at thinking as a dialogue which the person holds inside oneself. Accordingly, as a conversation with oneself, it is a form of interaction. Moreover: "Even though thinking is an individual and subjective activity, its organization is social, for we use the communication system of the community as a tool for Information processing. Cogitation is a private experience, but it is carried on with conventional tools. The mind is the incorporation of society into the life of each individual" (Shibutani 1991, p. 188).

"If meanings are organized predispositions to act, why can we not simply observe what people do and formulate clear definitions? However, what a person actually does with a given object differs from one historical context to the next. A chair is something on which to sit, but one may on occasion use it as a ladder, a room divider, or in unusual circumstances as a weapon. Dewey and Mead both noted the diversity of reactions in various contexts, but they did not account specifically for the unity of one's orientations" (Shibutani 1991, p. 189). Of course the problem of unity did not appear as pressing in their days as it does today. As society becomes more pluralistic and less integrated, potential predispositions to act become more numerous. The result can be the experience of freedom of choice but it can also be the experience of confusion. Thus adapting the self to a changing social environment may depend on the availability of membership in reference groups, and in the absence of such groups due to a high level of individualization, multiple predispositions to act may cause the fear to lose ones orientation and thus result in clinging to a rigid self.

Critique of the Symbolic Interactionist Reading of Mead

As a result of the growing awareness of the shortcomings of the positivist paradigm, the ideas of George Herbert Mead have gotten much attention. Shibutani supports that trend, but - as the preceding pages have shown - he does not want to rely on Mead alone. Accordingly he combines his critique of Mead's self concept with suggestions for overcoming its weaknesses. Using a constructed case as illustration, Shibutani describes the problem of the rigid self as an individual's inability to change, and demonstrates that the phenomenon of the rigid self contradicts Mead's theory.

In the life course each individual develops specific dispositions for viewing reality. The self as it is experienced by him or her is part of that reality. "The interesting thing about self concept is that once these predispositions get organized they often don't change in spite of the fact that the social context changes. Let's take a very spectacular instance, that is something that almost any psychiatrist can tell you from his own experience, because it happens so often: Take a man who has been treated as though he were obnoxious when he was a child. Maybe he was clumsy and had been picked on in school and people had made fun of him. Maybe he did well in school so that other people treated him as a sissy and pushed him around. Maybe he is not terribly physically attractive, so that girls would laugh at him instead of responding to his overtures and so forth" (Shibutani 1988).

"And so he would develop a very low level of self esteem. He thinks of himself as someone that nobody really likes: an unlikable person. Initially he is very conscious of it, also, initially he tries to compensate for it, but after a while, as he goes through life he has to worry about a lot of other things: He has to get his education, he has to work, he is busy, and this kind of self evaluation he just takes for granted, it simply becomes something that is habitual. Perhaps it may even become unconscious, because it is something that is very painful" (Shibutani 1988).

"And so it is something that he is not aware of at all. Well, if you are not aware of something, you cannot possibly correct it. There is no negative feedback. Well, this person goes on, let us say he becomes a corporation executive, he is also a pretty decent guy. So, after he gets high up, all the people around him address him with great respect, and maybe he is a very competent person. So the respect is quite genuine. And if he is a decent guy, people like him, and they are very nice to him. So, when you look at the social context, people address him with great dignity, respect, affection. And this is consistent, everybody addresses him in this way. And yet he continues to think of himself as totally unlovable. He does not change his evaluation of himself'(Shibutani 1988).

"And probably, one reason is, there is no consciousness of it. And therefore he goes on acting as if he is unlovable, even though nobody treats him in that way any more. Maybe he has not been treated that way for the last thirty years, but he still does the same thing ... I took an extreme case, but any psychiatrist could tell you that they run into cases like this. If you look into the psychiatric literature you find one case study after another in which this is so. And all you have to do is look around the university campus to see people like that. People who are in fact respected, admired, and who are still very shy, very timid and hypersensitive to criticism, can't take anything. This is a very common thing in life" (Shibutani 1988).

"And this flatly contradicts Mead's theory. It is a flat contradiction of Cooley too. Most of what Cooley and Mead say, is correct, and yet there are too many exceptions. There has to be some qualification to this general theory. For instance, Mead's notion of the generalized other must be modified to consider the fact that not all others who could potentially become sources of orientation have the same chance to be chosen. Some are more likely than others to impress themselves on the individual, due to influence, power, and so forth. In early childhood, when a child is totally dependent, the significant other, in most cases the mother, will cause him to develop a predisposition toward himself which will probably stick for the rest of his life. It becomes habitual, it becomes unconscious, and it simply does not change, because reevaluation of oneself is a very difficult thing to do, even if you get total support from the environment. So, we have this very famous theory of reflected appraisal, which works most of the time and in most situations, but there are some very significant exceptions which just cannot be ignored, because they are just too conspicuous, too frequent and too consistent. It therefore requires a set of hypotheses to qualify the major theory" (Shibutani 1988).

"What Mead developed was just a skeleton outline that needs to be filled in. George Mead is praised to the stars nowadays, but he is praised for the wrong reason. If Mead could be revived, he would be astonished to be counted among sociological theorists. He never even tried to form a theory of society. All he was concerned about was social psychology. He is a philosopher who never pretended to be a sociologist. Every other study about self concepts makes a reference to Mead. He would also be astonished if considered the founder of the study of self concept. He referred to that, but it was not central. Really he worked on self control. So, Mead is hailed for things he did not do. He should be credited for the skeleton work on self control" (Shibutani 1988).

"Now, one difficulty in Mead's work is: even though the word 'self' is central in his whole work, he used the word in four different ways. He does not tell you which way he uses it, he shifts from one meaning to another. And this is one reason why there has been so much confusion in secondary works on Mead's theory. And so let me spell out initially what the four ways are, and then Iwill deal with three of these four ways.

1. Generally, when Mead uses the word 'self' in any of his works he is referring to the process of self control. This is the way in which he uses the word most frequently. He says, for example, when human beings developed the 'self' then human society became possible. What he means by that is: when human beings developed the capacity for self control, then society as we know it today, became possible for the first time. He is talking in evolutionary terms. So, when he uses the term 'self' usually he means the whole process of self control.

2. Now, the second way, in which he uses the word 'self' is the self as an abstract object, the self concept. He shifts back and forth: In Mind, Self and Society in the initial section, where he says: What is the "self"? The self is not the body and it is not subject to experience, and So forth. Here he specifically talks about the 'self as an abstract object. I go into that in more detail later. But Mead speaks of this only in one section in Mind, Self and Society and that is all. And again, he does not distinguish it from the 'self' as an ongoing process.

3. The third way in which he uses the term is the 'self as the 'me.' The self is then an object formed in a particular historical context. lt is then not an abstract object but it is the 'self' in a particular historical situation. So that is the third use.

4. And then, later on in Mind, Self and Society, he talks about self realization. Because most of our adaptive behavior consists of self realization. Well, there he uses the term 'self really to refer to an individual's personality, a unique personality which is being realized in adaptive behavior" (Shibutani 1988).

"And so you have the same word which is central, and it is used in four different ways and he just switches from one to the other. Particularly in the central part, in the section entitled 'self,' he switches back and forth all the time. This is one of the difficulties in reading George Mead. I remember many times talking to Professor Blumer about it, as the founder of Symbolic Interactionism. If Blumer would just put self 1, self 2, self 3 ... everybody would understand. They would accept his word on it. And he agreed that this would be helpful. He knew what the difference was, and privately agreed that it would be helpful, but publicly he never did it. He would not use substitute terms, he would not use numbers, and just said that he could not depart from George Mead's terminology. I guess he felt that would be impure, and so he [Blumer] just kept it" (Shibutani 1988).


The Uses of Reference Group Theory

Since in Shibutani's research agenda the study of human agency presupposes the freedom of the individual, it follows that decision making becomes crucial. His interest in decision making of autonomous persons has led him as early as forty years ago to look at reference groups as sources of orientation. Conventional sociological studies on the relationship between individual and society tend to look at objective conditions as they present themselves in class membership and in general in the location of persons in the social structure. A person's behavior is then seen as the result of the objective class conditions he or she is facing. Shibutani has opened up an alternative approach to decision making in his article Reference Groups as Perspectives (Shibutani 1955). In the context of conflict research, he shows a way to identify the significant other as the symbolic representative of the reference group.This interpretive approach opens up a more personalistic view of conflict than followers of the Marxist perspective have been able to develop. Shibutani shows how this can be done by asking the individual to imagine a situation of doubt and confusion - or to remember one that occurred in the not too distant past - and then to visualize the significant other that would appear before his or her mental eye as counsellor and source of orientation in decision making. In any case, the concept of reference groups as perspectives, as Shibutani presents it, is more than helpful in studying processes of differential association, shifting loyalties, and selective perception in sociological research on the micro as well as on the macro level.

In his article of 1955, Shibutani first intended to help overcome the misconceptions resulting from a lack of clarity of what was meant by a reference group. In the tradition of Simmel and Blumer he defines a reference group," as that body of humans whose perspective an individual adopts as a frame of reference for his or her actions. In order to achieve this goal, Shibutani begins his article by presenting the different meanings which have been attributed to the concept of reference group in sociological literature.

The term "reference group" was initially used by Herbert H. Hyman (1942). The empirical point of departure was the inconsistency in the behavior of adolescents, for which there appeared to be no explanation until Hyman interpreted them as acts of loyalty to different reference groups with conflicting values. Thus, juvenile delinquency was one of the first areas in which the concept of the reference group was usefully applied. As I am writing this in Honolulu during my sabbatical, I find myself confronted with the findings that in Hawaii the number of arrests of adolescents has increased by 86.2 percent between 1980 and 1992 (Green, Richmond and Taira, 1993). Fortunately a large proportion of the causes for the arrests (30. 1 % of the arrests in 1992) were based on non-criminal behavior like runaway and curfew violations (Green, Richmond and Taira 1993). Interviews with selected young Hawaiians expose a striking inability in their attempts to find answers to questions such as: Who am I? What is my goal? What purpose and meaning does my life have? Such expressions of uncertainty and insecurity are not just the problem of adolescent Hawaiians. They reflect a widespread condition in highly individualized society. They also confirm that Shibutani's research agenda remains topical and that we can profit from his work in our efforts to find answers to the confusion and indecision of modern individuals.

Orientation and Decision Making

Shibutani points out that the reference group approach made it possible to explain decision making on the part of the adolescent, particularly when on the surface the decision in question seemed to be contrary to the young individual's best interest. But, as he writes also, the potential usefulness of the reference group concept was soon lost sight of because it had not been made sufficiently clear what was to be meant by it. In spite of that, the different authors who refer to reference groups agree that they have a clearly delineated group in mind, to which an actor relates in such a way as to acknowledge as valid the norms and values of that particular group. Thus the reference group becomes the point of departure for comparisons and judgments that include a critical evaluation of the individual's own behavior and status.

The picture becomes more complex when several groups are taken into consideration by the acting person. In principle any group can become a reference group, and accordingly the preferences in the decision making of an individual in a given situation may depend on the group with which he or she identifies at the time. That reference group, the membership in which is given higher priority in comparison with other available groups, will then supply the criteria by which a given situation and the position of the individual in that situation is evaluated. The empirical test for this type of decision making hinges on the question: if faced with the alternative, membership in which group is of the highest importance to you? The answer will identify the top ranking group and will make it possible to predict decision making in situations of conflicting values

Shibutani introduces a distinction between two different meanings which reference groups can have for the individual: either the group is simply seen as the originator of certain norms and values which the individual may or may not decide to adopt, or the group is seen as that assembly of people to which a person wants to belong. In the second case, membership is a fundamental motivation for taking over the groups orientation, and the desire to qualify as a member determines which group's norms and values will be abided by in case of conflict. This is significant in light of the frightening fact that some juvenile city gangs will initiate as members only those who have killed someone. Shibutani suggests the distinction between cases in which membership is hoped for in the future (anticipatory socialization) on the one hand, and cases in which the actor is already a group member, on the other.

To the options of (a) looking at reference groups as the originators of norms and values, and (b) considering reference groups as an assembly of people in which one is or hopes to be a member, Shibutani adds a third. Following Muzafer, Sherif, he points out that (c) group norms can determine the perception of the individual by defining for him or her what is important or relevant, and what is not.

By taking the perspective of one's reference group as one's own, the individual adopts a frame of reference for interpreting life and the world. Participation in the groups life either directly or in an imagined fashion, enables the person involved to experience and view everything in the way in which one would typically do so as a member of the group (Shibutani 1955, p. 563). The decisive service that the reference group performs for the person is to furnish him or her with a pattern for the organization of experience. This notion finds its continuity later in Erving Goffman's book Frame Analysis (1974). Shibutani in 1955 and Goffman in 1974 agree that perception occurs in a field that is structured in a characteristic way.

Shibutani's use of the concept of reference group implies that any social group, be it real or imagined, be it a person's real family of origin or his or her deceased ancestors in the beyond, have the potential of becoming the source of that persons's perspective. Since this may occur either by positive or by negative identification, a group can become a reference group even regardless of whether the person concerned admires or despises that group. The perspective can be created ex negativo. This explains in part the breakdown in communication that sometimes happens between a young adult and his or her parent.

Shibutani summarizes by pointing out that he intends to confront three different notions of the concept of the reference group:

1. groups which people use to get a comparative orientation,

2. groups in which one wishes to be a member,

3. groups whose perspective one takes.

He then proposes to make the concept more useful and more readily applicable by limiting its meaning to - and by concentrating on - the third alternative: reference groups as origins of perspectives.

We could take a somewhat critical stance toward Shibutani's article in stating that he simply defines as reference groups those social entities, real or imagined, which can be perceived as the originators of the perspectives that actors take in order to organize their experience and to make decisions. If indeed reference groups have the potential of existing in the imagination of actors only, then that would bring Shibutani closer to Cooley than to Mead. A reference group comes about as a consequence of the internalization of a set of social norms. They then represent the structure of expectations which are ascribed to that group as if it were an audience in relation to which one acts as on a stage. Given the present inclination to emphasize emancipatory values at the expense of membership and of devotion to group causes, the theater metaphor becomes problematic because individuals increasingly find themselves on stage alone without any audience watching them and - to stretch the metaphor a little further - without any lights on and behind a closed curtain. This raises the question if imagined membership will be a sufficient source of orientation, Or if the loss of membership as lived reality will result in the loss of perspectives as the interviews with Hawaiian adolescents suggest. If membership is not a perspective then there just may not be any perspective.

Adherence to a Subculture

In his writings about socialization, Mead describes how the individual takes the role of the generalized other; Shibutani interprets that as meaning each person approaches his environment from the point of view of the culture of his or her group. The socialized person to him is a society en miniature. Thus he concludes: When Mead wrote about the role of the generalized other being taken by the individual, he did in fact not refer to the people who made up that group but rather to the perspective in which they participate by their interaction (Shibutani 1955, p. 364).

Shibutani's concept of reference groups as perspectives can therefore be used in explaining why there is so much consistency and reliability in the behavior of persons. Although in theory, many individuals can potentially take the perspective of a variety of reference groups, they are frequently not conscious of having any alternatives at all. This is so, because most people entrust the planning of their lives to one perspective alone. As Shibutani reminds us, in many of the cultures studied by cultural anthropologists, and in the theoretical discussion on the origins of world views in the context of the sociology of knowledge we find humans tied to one particular point of view which is precisely the perspective of the group in the life of which they regularly participate, or - as Shibutani argues more recently - in which they used to participate in their formative years.

Thus it can be shown that the general thesis derived from the sociology of knowledge about the social determination of human thinking can be applied in empirical research on culture and politics in the much more refined and differentiated form which Shibutani gave it in this article. That is particularly true for sociological research on mass societies. Three points are important in this context:

1. In modern mass societies, humans frequently act on the basis of values and norms which they have taken over from a certain group of which they may never be a member, in the life of which they may never actually participate, and which - in the extreme case - may not even exist as a physical reality. The groups may be taken from a wide variety of backgrounds such as the saints of a church, the knights at King Arthur's Table, or the Star Trek crew.

2. In modern pluralist societies, people are confronted with alternatives of incompatible perspectives. This creates conflicting orientations the results of which ought to be given special attention. The family of an adolescent, particularly If he is a member of an immigrant culture like Asian Americans, may clash with the peer group in school.

The application of Shibutani's version of reference group theory opens the door to overcoming a one-sided emphasis on structural studies and to paying more attention to subjective experiences as causes for large scale social change. Increasing interest of young adults in international travel plus increasing exposure to alternative ideas via computer networks may be examples.

Shared perspectives and shared cultures come about through participating in shared channels of communication. Social participation enables individuals to internalize the perspective shared by the members of a group (Shibutani 1955, p. 565). This opens up a processual view: depending on how frequently and with what intensity one participates in certain groups, one will or will not acquire those groups' perspectives. This is the notion of differential association that has become an important tool in criminology.

These concepts help explain the origins and dynamics of subcultures and the way in which they maintain a distance from mainstream culture. Members of different social strata develop particular lifestyles and values. This is not so much the case due to circumstances inherent in their economic condition but rather to similarities in their occupations and to other determinants of their social contacts and of the contents of their communication. The approach advocated by Shibutani thus helps shift the emphasis of sociological inquiry from topics of objectivist social structure to topics of symbolic interaction and communication. Every clearly delineated field of consistent social interaction is seen as potentially a culture of its own. Its borders are not a question of geography or physical space, but rather of group boundaries and of the limits to which effective communication extends (Shibutani 1955, p. 566).

Looking at subcultures from Shibutani's perspective has significant heuristic value for explaining their origin as well as their change. Social worlds must not be looked at as static units. The perspectives taken by acting and perceiving persons are subject to constant change and are continually reconstructed. Social worlds are created and destroyed depending on how channels of communication are initiated or disrupted. If living conditions change so do the ways in which information is being transmitted. This will necessarily result in a change of the social worlds that rely on relations of communication.

Personal Identity

The method of reference group analysis also opens up opportunities for the study of personal identity, including research on the dynamics of what it is that stabilizes or destabilizes the self concept. As we have seen, this topic stays in the center of Shibutani's attention. It can be shown for each individual how he or she realizes within him? or herself a unique combination of social worlds. Shibutani refers to Georg Simmel, who in his chapter on the intersection of social circles, describes how each person can be unique in how he or she combines what separate existing groups have to offer (Simmel 1890, pp. 100-116).

Next, Shibutani points out that most humans lead lives that are concentrated on one specific sector of society at a time. However, they shift from one social world to another and in each of those they play a distinct role thus emphasizing a different aspect of their personality depending on the context in which they operate. Cutting the lives of humans apart in separate segments can become a danger to the self unless the person succeeds in integrating the various areas of experience into one coherent pattern of meaning (Shibutani 1955, p. 567).

Provided the disintegration of separate segments of life can be avoided, the person may still experience situations in which conflict between the life sectors arise, and in which, therefore, a choice must be made. Such decision making is possible only on the basis of a rank order of values which determines for the person involved which sector is more important and which is less important to him or her. This type of problem solving implies a process that resembles that of the definition of the situation. Alternative definitions can be derived from alternative perspectives. The definition of the situation thus depends on the perspective that is selected. Mead wrote about taking the role of the generalized other, but Shibutani, conscious of the problems of orientation in a pluralist society asks: the role of which generalized other do I want to take.

In social constellations in which the individual is faced with the task to chose between alternatives in defining a situation, he or she may experience a conflict in loyalty. The adoption of a perspective is linked to the identification with a reference group, and such an identification in turn may depend on feelings of personal loyalty toward a significant other. That is true because emotional ties are crucial for creating and maintaining loyalties. The process in which loyalties between individuals come about, helps explain ? as we have seen why a specific reference group is taken as a source of orientation, and as a consequence, why that reference group's perspective then becomes the point of departure for interpreting the world and for making decisions.

Mead leads us to think that perspectives are constantly subject to examination and modification depending on their usefulness in dealing with experienced reality: according to him, all perception is at first qualified as hypothetical. If expectations that are derived from that hypothetical perception prove to have been well founded, the perspective is supported and reinforced. If, by contrast, disappointment and confusion frequently result from the hypothetical reading of reality, the perspective may be eroded to the point where eventually it is given up entirely. Shibutani, on the other hand, points out how difficult it frequently is to change one's identity even if an eroded perspective should be given up.

The Study of Mass Society

Finally in his article, Shibutani suggests that his outline of a reference group theory is also useful for research on modern mass society. Organized perspectives come about due to participation in communication and thus, due to access to channels of communication. The plurality of mass society is based on the plurality of communication channels that mass media make use of. In a study in macro?sociological contexts, all forms of social mobility, sudden conversions as well as gradual changes of position, can be interpreted as a change of reference group (Wiesberger 1990). In the course of such an alternation, the perspective of one group is replaced with the perspective of another. In analyzing human agency in mass society, Shibutani recommends that three questions be asked:

1. How does someone define a situation?

2. From which perspective does he or she define the situation?

3. Which individuals form the audience? Or, the anticipated reactions of whom are experienced as confirmation for the correctness of the perspective taken? This real or imagined audience is the reference group.

"In a mass society like ours with so many different social worlds, so many different generalized others, we are not only somewhat different people in that we emphasize somewhat different phases in each" world "but we can be caught on the margin of these worlds, particularly when these social worlds and their norms conflict with each other. And in changing societies quite often you have social worlds in which the customary procedures conflict. That is what the Chicago School of Sociology refers to as marginality, Parks Marginal Man, this large body of literature on marginality. There are different demands of people, different generalized others, and they sec themselves from two or three different perspectives. That makes it quite difficult to develop highly integrated self concepts because they have the conflict within themselves. And so, people who are marginal, as Park and many of his students pointed out, often can go through life guilt ridden, because no matter what they do, they make someone unhappy. So, even if they are doing what they think is right, they are still stuck with a sense of guilt, it is a very difficult situation" (Shibutani 1988).

"You find it especially with assimilation among immigrants. But You also find it among other people in mass societies. It may be caused by upward mobility. You may get the sense, you are betraying the people you used to know before you moved up. This is part of living in a mass society. Sometimes people make a transition and really alter their self concept. But then there are some people who just never make that. Some people are just marginal all their lives, even though they don't see anybody from their original world ... The fact that reality?testing is social, that there has to be some kind of consensus, keeps individuals moving toward what kind of reality there is. There has to be consensus that something works... " (Shibutani 1988). And thus, in the absence of consensus chances are, that again, the individual may rely on his or her rigid self out of fear from the disorientation that might arise in the process of reshaping ones self concept.


Shibutani is conscious of the methodological problem of doing research on the meaning that a person's self has to that person. To Dewey as well as to Mead, meaning was "primarily a property of behavior and only secondarily a property of objects" (Shibutani 1991, p. 189). "Each person acts as if they had certain characteristics. Everyone has countless predispositions to act toward oneself?, the self?concept is a stable relationship between a person and him? or herself. This helps to account for much of the consistency in the voluntary conduct of each individual. Using a dispositional approach enables us to analyze the meaning of an abstract object in the same way that we can study concrete objects by observing what is done" (Shibutani 1991, p. 189).

Shibutani gives an example for an imagined object: "It may not exist physically but you still have a way of acting toward it. Take for example something like a negative number. A negative number does not exist. How can anything be less than nothing. But the mathematicians have formulated a set of rules, and the rules tell you, what the pattern of behavior is ... For our purposes this becomes very important because the self concept is an abstract object. The 'me', the self in a particular situation, is not an abstraction. But the self concept, or the way in which a person identifies himself, is an abstraction, and it becomes possible then to get at organized predispositions to act toward oneself You can deal with any kind of object in this way and you do not have to get into a long argument about words" (Shibutani 1988).

The notion according to which the meaning of an object is identical with the predisposition to act toward that object, (or in other words, an object , meaning is what I can envision myself doing with it) Shibutani applies to the self. I suspect this is a little different way of getting at the question of meaning, there is no right way or wrong way, but this is an alternative way which opens the door for some kind of empirical study. It is possible to study any kind of meaning including what human beings mean to one another, such as in a love relationship. It is thus possible to get at any kind of meaning, even at the meaning of objects that do not exist physically at all" (Shibutani 1988).

If meaning can be found in objects that exist as well as in those that do not, the question arises: what do we consider to be real? "We keep acting on the basis of the same hypothesis unless something happens that does not quite work out the way we had anticipated. And then we redefine. And when we redefine often it leads to a change in behavior. Well, that is a change in reality, that requires a redefinition. That means that reality is changed. So what people actually do is reality. So, it is a continuous process" (Shibutani 1988).

But then here too we must leave room for the possibility that someone may not want to - or be unable to - "redefine" even in the face of failure, and stubbornly - or in the posture of the stoic - accept disaster rather than change. Because, with reality changing, the picture of what people experience as reliably true becomes vague, and the question arises, which criteria determine the concepts that prevail as truths in the long run. "There is a selective process continually in operation. And whether something persists or not depends upon whether living organisms are sufficiently satisfied. And in the case of social events, the selective process is basically social as a collective process, and eventually it becomes a matter of consensus" (Shibutani 1988).


by Tamotsu Shibutani

We looked at Shibutani's article on reference groups of 1955 as tribute to the celebration of which this volume is a part, because the article was published forty years ago. Maybe at the occasion of his birthday Tom will accept the following "surprise" as a small present. It is a transcript of the tape recording of August 1988. It has not been edited or authorized by Shibutani himself, so he has the possibility of disowning it at any time. The editor, however, claim. s that the remainder of this text is a true rendering of Shibutani's very words:

Self Control and Knowledge of Self

Any sociological theory will have to take into account the fact of self control on the part of each participant, because there is no way you can account for human society apart fro m the self control exercised by each individual. And so, the whole notion of accountability and moral responsibility is an essential part of all societies. And I don't see how an adequate sociological theory can possibly avoid the subject. Maybe on that point there is considerable agreement, but, as you know, it is a subject which has been pretty much ignored in sociology. Most sociologists just don't mention the subject. Psychologists have largely bypassed lt. Philosophers are about the only people who have taken this seriously, and among the philosophers, George Mead is one of the very few who have developed a point of view which we can use in the soeial sciences. lt happens to be behavioristic and therefore - at least in principle - it is something that ean be handled empirically.

I suppose this is the reason why Mead has gotten so much attention, and we have been looking at his theory of self control, and as I indicated in the discussion of the Iand the me, his theory of self control is essentially a cybernetic theory. He says, a voluntary behavior is something which is constructed step by step in a succession of self-correcting adjustments. The 'self' then becomes a very important part of this theory: The object that a persons forms of oneself, and the whole theory deals with self control...

Today we are dealing with self control generally, so 1 would like to deal primarily with self concept and with the 'me' the object formed in a particular situation, the second and third meaning (see here pp. 377-378!). And then self realization I think we leave out, which is really the 'I,' and it becomes rather complicated, and ... Mead said very little about the subject... I know he is widely credited with developing the idea of self concept, and it is in his work. But he really did not say very much about the subject. Almost nothing. And as to what I am going to say today I want to make clear that very little of it is actually in Mead's work. But it is the logical implication of his work.

In the earlier part of Mind, Self and Society he talks about the meaning of objects, and he says a great many things about the meaning of objects. Since the self is an object, I am raising the question, what is the meaning of the self as an object? So the ideas are coming from the discussion of meaning and are being applied to the self. This is the clear logical implication of what he said, but he never said this. However, it is clearly implied in his work. This will make it easier to understand the 'me', which is in his work.

So what about this whole notion of personal identity? Everybody has a working conception of what he or she is. None of us have any doubts that each one of us is a unique human being. No matter where we are and what we do, we are thinking about ourselves as the same human being. And if we think about what we did ten years ago or what we plan to do ten years hence, again, we are thinking about the same human being. And so, obviously we are talking about the same object. All of us form an object of ourselves as something that persists throughout our lives. This object - at least in western society - is encapsuled within the skin of a single body. Furthermore, there is continuity of experience from birth do death, many of which are held together by our memory. And except in unusual cases like amnesia, the memory continues, and furthermore it is the memory of the single individual, the unique individual. There is not any question in our mind. We just work on the assumption that each of us is a unique human being and that we are the same object ...

The meaning of the self concept is a stable relationship between a human being and the object which that person forms of oneself. And the meaning is that kind of a relationship which consists of an organized predisposition to act, habitual ways of acting toward the object, and so we have configurations of habitual ways of acting: organized predispositions to act toward oneself. These predispositions rest on all kinds of assumptions, there are thousands of assumptions that we make about ourselves. And we go on acting as if we had certain characteristics and in many instances we may have outgrown them, so that we don't really have them any more. But we may go all through life acting as if we were the kind of people we were when we were children.

And so, the meaning of the self concept is really the regularized ways in which a person acts with reference to oneself. And this is something which consists of a set of behavior patterns. We act with reference to ourselves as if we had certain characteristics. So, the description of the self concept would be virtually impossible. The self concept as an abstraction then, is an enormously complex object, like the University of Munich, even more complex. We have so many attributes of which we are not conscious at all. In spite of the fact that we are very familiar with them, we have no awareness of them. So you can see, how complicated the empirical study of self concepts would be ...

Now, let us take the third conception, the third way in which Mead used the term 'self' (see here pp. 377-378!). The 'me' in the 'I' and the 'me', in the way in which voluntary conduct is being constructed. He said: as we go along in our action we are constantly involved in a process of self?monitoring. We keep track of what it is that we are doing. And we wonder how other people are likely to react to the things that we are going to do. So we are constantly forming an object of ourselves: the 'me', the object that we form in a particular historical context does not have thousands of characteristics: as a matter of fact, just one or two. A person wonders: what kind of a salad dressing should I take? So he thinks, "I am a peasant". That is just one characteristic, that is all. Or if you make up your mind: should I go to a picnic on Sunday or shouldn't I? Well, there are only a couple of things that you take into account. Out of the thousands of characteristics we have, we take into account only those few items which are relevant in that particular context.

And this is true of all the beliefs we have about ourselves including very important pervasive ones. Take as an example something like ethnic identity on the one hand, which you would think would not be so pervasive that it would enter into all decisions, or something like, let us say, a woman who identifies herself as a lesbian. You would think that is something that is so important that it would enter in just about all decisions. But the fact of the matter is, it doesn't. When ethnic identity become important? Only when it matters. And there are a great many situations in which it does not make any difference. Someone, let us say in the United States, is black or gay. In a black-white relationship, the fact that he is black makes an enormous difference. But when he lives in a black community, it does not make any difference that he is black. Also for the lesbian, there are thousands of situations in which it does not make any difference, because it does not enter into decisions.

So it all depends on what you are doing, on who makes up your audience. It depends on which characteristics are relevant to carrying out an act which is already under way. And in most instances, there are only a few characteristics that a person has that are relevant. But those few characteristics which are relevant make all the difference in the world.

This is basically the difference between people and then the choices that they make, and the way in which their careers develop and so forth. Because those few traits that we enter into, make a difference in the direction of voluntary conduct. This is basically what Mead was pointing to. The way in which you define yourself within a situation, the way in which you define your interests are the most important considerations in explaining the direction and execution of voluntary behavior. So, when you put it this way you can see not only that it is very important to see how a person defines oneself to understand what the person does, but you can see that it is virtually impossible to understand many decisions that people make apart from self definitions. It is virtually impossible to account for conscious selections, that is, behavior that involves choice. You have to take into account what the person defines himself to be, for otherwise it simply will not make any sense. And this is why Mead kept talking about the self over and over. As sloppy as it was, this is what he was pointing to.

The Evolving Self

Also, if self definitions and self concepts are so important, then actually, the next question arises: how do they develop, how do they take the shape that they do? And here, of course, symbolic interactionists have dealt with this question, and they have often put Cooley and Mead together. And as a result, Ithink there is some misunderstanding. The two... did not contradict each other, but their positions are quite different. In symbolic interactionist theory, the shape of the self concept is said to develop through reflected appraisal of other people. And usually Cooley and Mead are cited, but the only accurate citation should be Cooley!

Cooley in his book Human Nature and the Social Order said that the self as an idea develops when three things happen:

1. When you get into a situation you imagine how you appear from thestandpoint of someone else.

2. You imagine how the other person reacts to this image that he forms of you.

3. A sense of pride of mortification results, depending upon the kind of judgment that you expect.

And so, the idea that you have of yourself is a reflection of what you imagine that other people think about you. That is why he called it the looking?glass self.

Mead did not disagree with this notion, but he objected to it on the grounds that Cooley was an idealist, a phenomenologist, and that therefore his position was solipsistic. This was simply not acceptable to someone who - like Mead is a behaviorist and pragmatist. But Mead's position was not really quite as different as you might expect from his critique of Cooley. Mead's position really is much closer to that of ethnomethodology. The notion being that the meaning of the object is something which is socially constructed: that is, constructed in social interaction, and continuously reaffirmed in social interaction. And so, he is saying that the meanings of all objects are developed in this way and so obviously the meaning of the self would also be developed in this way.

And so, if you are treated as if you are a bad boy, or if society were to address you as if you were a bad boy, then this would become a very important part of the meaning of one's self. And so it is the way in which other people consistently treat you which is important in the formation of the self concept. But also the second part that the ethnomethodologists are constantly emphasizing, namely, as long as this treatment continues, then you get a constant reinforcement and a reaffirmation of the meaning which is formed in that way. So, presumably, if the treatment of other people changes, well then, the meaning of the self should change; and in many instances it does. The point is of course: it does not always happen. This is - I think - where symbolic interactionists have to be a little more honest ...

Most meanings that we learn as children we continue to use throughout our lives. If somebody migrates to another country, some of his meanings will change, but he will continue to carry others with him. It is important that he has some support, at least in his imagination. If he is all alone, at least his imagination will support him. Even if the psychiatrist tries year after year to help the patient to redefine himself, it is extremely hard to achieve that ... (Shibutani 1988).

Shibutani's Research Agenda

The following remarks were not part of Shibutani's formal presentation. He made them spontaneously in the discussion period during the Munich conference. When asked what he himself was doing in his research, he hesitated for a moment, then said jokingly that some would consider what he is doing insane, because it is difficult and will not likely be applauded. Yet, Shibutani did describe what he wants to do: "Take the skeleton that Mead developed and put some more bones on it (Shibutani 1988). He felt that there were two sets of "bones" to be worked with: those relating to unconscious behavior and those relating to individuality. In both instances what Mead did needs to be made more fully rounded and complete:

1. On "unconscious behavior, all Mead said is that it exists, that it is important, and that Freud said something about it, and that is all."

2. On "individuallty or individual personality, all Mead says, each individual is unique, individuality is important, and each contributes something, however small, to the community. He says it is important, but he does not say why" (Shibutani 1988).

"These two sets of bones can be filled in from the work of Harry S. Sullivan. Sullivan was a close friend of Edward Sapir's, the anthropologist, who was a part of the circle of pragmatists at the University of Chicago. What Sullivan did, was to try to reformulate psychoanalytic theory from the standpoint of pragmatism. In Sullivan's work we have an approach to the unconscious from the point of view of pragmatism" (Shibutani 1988). So it is in the continuity of Mead and Sullivan that Shibutani works on the self concept, filling in missing bones, as he calls it, and developing an alternative to the approach of orthodox Freudian psychoanalysis when it comes to dealing with the unconscious. In Munich he invited suggestions and assistance in finding meaningful case studies for this project, and said: "So, I think it is very handy to have this material to fill in the bones. If I live long enough I hope to put some meat on the bones too, but that is something I am not counting on' (Shibutani 1988).

When asked what he was planning to do in order to fill in bones and put some flesh on them, he responded that he was interested in decision making, in research into the ways in which individuals make use of their autonomy: "What I want to do is to examine protocols of subjective experience, I mean simply accounts of how people go around thinking, making up their minds. I do not know exactly where I am going to look.

I would like to get the kind of material that you get, let us say, in the writings of Proust or James Joyce, except that I would like it to be non?fiction ? presumably some of Proust isn't but we don't know for sure. But there is a lot of material around ... autobiographies ... I want to examine these protocols, not necessarily a large number, but detailed protocols.

And then on the basis of examining these, develop more explicit hypotheses, and after those hypotheses are developed then Iwill decide were to look more systematically for data. But right now, frankly, I am still putting together a framework. I do not have enough hypotheses really to say. I think I want to focus on decision-making, but I will not go the way of modern rational choice theory of decision-making. All these mathematical models deal with is how people ought to make up their mind, but it has nothing to do with how people think. I have not had a chance to look at what data are available on how humans think, how they actually think, and that is were I want to begin" (Shibutani 1988).

I would like to begin with as detailed an account as I could find of important decisions that people make. Important decisions, no matter what they are, will involve self consciousness. And what I want to do is go through this material and then start asking: What are the things that the person believes about himself? Then the second question is much harder but probably also much more important: What are the things that the person takes for granted about himself? And I have been looking at some work on discourse analysis because these people claim that they know how to get at assumptions, but that is something that is extremely difficult, and I am not so sure that there is a regular procedure for it, but that is what I want to pursue: What are the things that the person takes for granted about himself" (Shibutani 1988).

"And then, on the basis of these materials, I would like to start formulating hypotheses about the relationships between self definition and the choices that are made, how alternatives are defined. And if anybody could suggest any procedure or any body of data, I would be very grateful... So, this is what I am doing. I cannot guarantee to come out with anything, but I think it is a worthwhile way to spend the rest of my life" (Shibutani 1988).


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Prof. Horst J. Helle