George Herbert Mead


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George Herbert Mead

The Person

George Herbert Mead Was born at South Hadley, Massachusetts, on February 27, 1863. His father, Hiram Mead, Was a minister who descended from a long line of New England Puritan farmers and clergymen. His mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings, like her husband, came from a family background in which intellectual achievement had been highly valued

When Mead was seven, his father was called to Oberlin College to take the chair of homiletics (the art of preaching) at the newly founded theological seminary. Mead grew up at Oberlin and went to college there. Although he was to revolt against its pious atmosphere, he was decisively influenced by the mixture of New England Puritan ethics and Midwestern progressive ideas that dominated the college.

Oberlin was founded in 1833 by a militant Congregationalist reformer, the Reverend John Jay Shipherd. Its first president, Asa Mahan, preached a some- what attenuated form of the perfectionist doctrine that later came to full flowering in the communal and sexual experiments of John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida utopian community. Oberlin was one of the first American colleges to admit Negroes and, in 1841, it became the first coeducational college to grant a bachelor's degree to women. In the years preceding the Civil War, Oberlin was one of the chief stations on the Underground Railroad that helped thou- sands of Southern Negro slaves escape to the North and to Canada. Another major social cause, that of temperance, also owes much to Oberlin. The Anti- Saloon League originated there.

While Oberlin displayed most prominently its Christian social conscience, in its curriculum it resembled the narrowness that characterized the New Eng- land sponsored Protestant colleges that had grown up in the Middle West throughout the nineteenth century. Mead's son recalls that his father's educa- tion at Oberlin consisted mainly of "the classics, rhetoric and literature, moral philosophy, mathematics, and a smattering of elementary science. . . . Ques- tioning was discouraged, ultimate values being determined by men learned in the dogmas and passed on to the moral philosophers for dissemination." In this respect Oberlin was similar to Carleton College where, it will be recalled, Thorstein Veblen formed his abrasive personality by pitting himself against the narrow theological dogmatism of his teachers. Mead had a like reaction to Oberlin, his robust intellect revolting against the excessive theological fare. The son of many generations of Puritan theologians lost his faith in the dog- mas of the church. Nevertheless, he continued to be marked throughout his life by the Christian ethics of brotherhood and the social conscience that he had absorbed at his father's house and at Oberlin.

In 1881 Mead's father died and the family, left with very little, sold their house and moved into rented rooms. The young Mead waited on college tables to earn his board, and his mother taught at the college to make ends meet. (She later became President of Mount Holyoke College.) In 1883 Mead grad- uated from Oberlin, and for the next half-year taught school amid circum- stances that have a curiously contemporary ring. Several teachers had re- signed from the school because they were unable to cope with a group of row- dies who terrorized teachers and classmates. Mead discharged the rowdies, but was fired by the board of trustees who believed that every child had a God- given right to be taught.

Having given up an earlier dream of starting a literary paper in New York, Mead lived for the next three years in the Northwest, alternating be- tween tutoring and doing survey work for railroad construction. He was on the team that laid out the first line from Minneapolis to Moose-Jaw, there to connect with the Canadian Pacific. In the winter months, when surveying was impossible, Mead supported himself by tutoring and read omnivorously. Dur- ing this period he seems to have been somewhat unsettled, not knowing where next to go or what career to take up. These doubts were resolved in the fall of 1887 when he decided to follow his close college friend Henry Castle to Har- vard and to pursue further study in philosophy.


At Harvard, Mead worked mainly with Royce and James, and both these teachers left a permanent mark on his life and outlook. Having been liberated from his father's Puritanism and Oberlin's Christian pieties by reading Darwin and other "advanced thinkers," Mead was converted to pragmatic philosophy by James. His contact with James seems to have been fairly intimate since he not only did much of his work with James but also tutored his children.

After the year at Harvard, Mead decided, as was very common in his generation, to go to Germany for advanced studies in philosophy. He first went to Leipzig to study with Wilhelm Wundt, whose conception of the "gesture" profoundly influenced Mead's later work. It was also at Leipzig that he met G. Stanley Hall, the eminent American physiological psychologist, who seems to have stimulated Mead's interest in the subject. Later in 1889, Mead went to Berlin for further studies in both psychology and philosophy (I have been unable to find a record of whose classes Mead attended at Berlin, but it is possible he may have listened to an already famous lecturer, Georg Simmel, who had begun to teach there a few y ears earlier.)

On October 1, 1891, Mead married Helen Castle, the sister of his friend Henry Castle, and the young couple left for Ann Arbor where Mead had been appointed instructor in the University of Michigan Department of Philosophy and Psychology. Charles H Cooley, John Dewey, and James H. Tufts were all then teaching at the university and they all soon became intellectual com- panions. Mead pursued the investigations in physiological psychology first sug- gested by Stanley Hall and began to elaborate a physiological theory of emo- tions that paralleled the teleological theory John Dewey was working on at the time.

The Meads' only son, Henry, was born in Ann Arbor in 1892. A year later Mead accepted John Dewey's invitation to join him at the new University of Chicago where the latter had become head professor in the Department of Philosophy. Mead stayed at the university until his death on April 26, 1931.

From Coser, 1977:341-343.

(Special acknowledgement to Larry R. Ridener and The Dead Sociologists' Society)

Mead at Chicago

Chicago, which had been only a small log fort in 1833, had become a major city only sixty years later. Crude, raw, full of vigor and energy, it boasted of spectacular advances in industry and commerce within one genera- tion. It was a major meat-packing center, the "Hog Butcher for the World." South Chicago and neighboring Gary, Indiana, became important steel mill centers where the Lake Superior iron ore shipped down to Lake Michigan joined coal from Illinois fields brought in by rail. Among the major users of that steel was the Chicago-based Pullman Company, which built the sleeping cars for the American railroads and was the location of one of America's most famous labor battles.

Conscious of its phenomenal rise to eminence among American cities, Chicago boasted of its accomplishments. The first steel-framed skyscraper had been built there, the flow of the Chicago River had been reversed, land values had risen with fabulous rapidity, and even the crime rate, partly the result of rapid migration and the attendant disorganization of many slum districts, was spectacular. Soon the city would claim the world championship in organized crime.

The new university, endowed by John D. Rockefeller, opened its pseudo- Gothic doors in 1892 under the presidency of William Rainey Harper. From the beginning it was meant to be another Chicago spectacular. Rainey ruth- lessly raided the campuses of Eastern universities and promised those he wanted to attract not only a salary roughly double what they had been earn- ing, but also the prospect of working in a university that would soon be the greatest in the world. He was eminently successful. Within a very few years the University of Chicago ranked among the first in the country. The original faculty boasted no fewer than eight professors who had given up college presi- dencies to join its ranks. Although ten among the original thirty-one full pro- fessors taught theology, thus still continuing the traditional emphasis of American universities upon training men of the cloth, the university soon be- came a major center of secular learning.

One of President Harper's proudest coups was young John Dewey. Soon after Dewey assumed his duties as head professor, he enticed his friends Tufts and Mead to join him, thus creating a department in which the new pragmatic philosophy could flourish, unhampered by the resistance of traditional philoso- phers who impeded the growth of the discipline in older universities. "A real school, and real Thought, Important thought too"--this was the reaction of William James to the group of philosophers gathered around Dewey at Chicago in the early 1900'S.

In accord with the reforming activism of its founder, the Philosophy De- partment did not limit itself solely to academic work but wanted to have a part in solving the manifold social problems of the city. Educational experi- mentation, settlement houses, industrial education, and general social reform were all very much on the minds of Dewey and his associates. They wished to learn by doing good, and they took their pragmatic philosophy seriously.

Progressive education was Dewey's foremost preoccupation, and Mead, though himself not as active as his friend, joined him in many of his educa- tional ventures. He was not much inclined toward writing, but nevertheless managed to write eight articles on educational matters between the time he joined the faculty and the First World War. He was active from its inception in the experimental school Dewey had founded. He was president of the School of Education's Parents' Association, and also for a time was an editor of one of the university's major educational journals, The Elementary School Teacher. He spoke out as an observer, critic, and advocate of new educational policies, and served as a member, and sometimes as chairman, of a variety of committees dealing with educational affairs.

Mead's concerns for reform were not limited to education. He was as- sociated with Jane Addams' Hull House and its pioneering work in the settle- ment house movement, as well as being actively involved for many years in the City Club of Chicago, an association of reform-minded businessmen and professionals. For a while he served as president of this club.

All this outside activity did not distract Mead from his teaching duties. A man of exceptional strength, he conveyed, in Dewey's opinion, "a sense of energy, of vigor, of a vigor unified, outgoing and outgiving." And so he gave to his lecture audience the same energetic devotion he displayed in his reform activities. He prepared his lectures with care, and they were always well at- tended. His delivery was clear and orderly. Although he had great difficulty in writing down his thoughts, he had no similar impediments when it came to oral delivery.

In particular, Mead's course in social psychology attracted many students from other departments, especially from sociology and psychology. Herbert Blumer has said that he always considered it rather curious that the response to Mead's lectures was invariably bimodal. Some students, among them Blumer himself, were deeply impressed by Mead and felt that he changed their whole outlook. Others, by no means less intelligent than the first group, never under- stood what the course was all about. There were enough men in the first group to spread Mead's renown and to assure him a steady supply of major students, among them, T. V. Smith and Charles Morris in philosophy, and Ellsworth Faris and Herbert Blumer in sociology.

Something of a myth seems to have spread recently, namely, that the mem- bers of the Department of Sociology formed a unified Chicago school of social psychology around the person of Mead. This was not the case. For example, although both W. I. Thomas and Robert Park held Mead in high regard, the former pretended not to understand him and the latter claimed not to have read much of his work. While it is easy to conclude retrospectively that Mead should have had a special appeal for sociologists, in fact, the only major link between Mead and the Sociology Department was Ellsworth Faris, Mead's former student now teaching in that department. Mead's ideas, as well as Dewey's, were surely prevalent in sociology at Chicago, and it may even be true that W. I. Thomas gave up his earlier emphasis on instinct in favor of a more social-psychological orientation under the influence of the pragmatic philosophers. But this is a far cry from the myth of a unified Chicago school of social psychology created by Mead. Park and Burgess included none of Mead's writings in their famous textbook. Mead never saw himself as head of a "school." And it might be noted that the term "social interactionism" was never known at Chicago while Mead lived.

In his early period at Chicago, Mead was overshadowed by the more dy- namic and outgoing Dewey. Even after Dewey had left for Columbia because he felt that his educational experiments were not given enough support at Chicago, Mead did not assume the eminent position his friend had occupied in university affairs. One reason for this was the sparsity of his publications.

Mead experienced great difficulty in putting his ideas down in writing. He would spend agonizing hours at his table, sometimes verging on tears when he despaired of giving adequate expression to the rapid flow of his thought. "In consequence," writes Dewey, "he was always dissatisfied with what he had done; always outgrowing his former expressions, and in consequence so reluc- tant to fix his ideas in the printed word that for many years it was [only] his students and his immediate colleagues who were aware of the tremendous reach and force of his philosophical mind.''

Mead's preferred medium was the spoken, not the written, word. He was clearly autobiographical when he wrote: "We do our thinking in the form of conversation, and depend upon the imagery of words for our meanings." "Conversation was his best medium," wrote his student T. V. Smith, "writing was a poor second best. When he wrote 'something'--as he says in one place of another matter--'something was going on--the rising anger of a titan or the adjustment of the earth's internal pressures.' But true of him as of his illustra tion, what the reader gets is certainly 'not the original experience." That ex- perience he was able to convey and articulate only in the flow of verbal ex- changes and significant gestures.

Quite apart from the objective fact of his scanty record of publications, Mead himself did not subjectively feel any urge to reach for a public role similar to that of Dewey. A most modest, balanced, and harmonious man, he was not much attracted by the prospect of major recognition and always saw himself as only a relatively minor worker in the vineyard. Blumer remembers that in the twenties, when Bertrand Russell was to give a lecture at Chicago and Mead was to introduce him, Mead, then about sixty, was as nervous as a young instructor about to meet with one of the great minds of his discipline.

Mead's humility and diffidence should not be interpreted as a weakness of character. He was a man of principle and could act decisively when the oc- casion demanded it. When the then new president of the university, Robert Hutchins, attempted to force the Philosophy Department to add to its staff Hutchins' friend, the neo-Thomist philosopher Mortimer Adler, and Mead's protest seemed of no avail, he handed in his resignation and prepared to re- join John Dewey at Columbia. Only his untimely death cut short the prepara- tions for this move.

Toward the end of his life Mead wrote the sentence that might characterize his own life: "The proudest assertion of independent selfhood is but the affirmation of a unique capacity to fill some social role." In his gentle and unassuming way, Mead had no desire to shine in the limelight. He saw him- self as an ordinary soldier in the battle for social and intellectual reform and did not aspire to lead the troops. His profound devotion to scientific inquiry was always controlled by his desire to contribute his share to the betterment of mankind. "We determine what the world has been," he wrote just before his death, "by the anxious search for the means of making it better." His son told Dewey that the phrase which he most associated with his father when any social problem was under discussion was: "It ought to be possible to do so and so."

Mead died in the belief that he would be known to posterity, if at all, only as the writer of a few technical articles. He seems to have had no inkling of the fact that the impact of his work would grow from decade to decade so that he may now well be reckoned as one among a handful of American thinkers who have helped to shape the character of modern social science.

From Coser, 1977:343-347.

George Herbert Mead

The Work

John Dewey said of George Herbert Mead that he had "the most original mind in philosophy in the America of the last generation." Though this may have been a slight exaggeration, there seems to be consensus among students of philosophy that Mead ranks in the forefront of the exponents of pragmatism in America.

Mead, a very modest man, published relatively little. Dewey has remarked that "while [he] was an original thinker, he had no sense of being original." This may account for the fact that during his lifetime he was not recognized as being on the same level of importance as his teacher William James or of his intimate friend John Dewey. But the posthumous publications of many of his lectures and continued critical interest in his work make it abundantly clear that Mead has a central position in philosophical thought, linking as he did the themes first adumbrated by James and Pierce with the philosophical pre- occupations of Dewey, Whitehead, Bergson, and Santayana.

This account is mainly based on Mead's posthumous Mind, Self and Society and on some of his earlier papers in social psychology, most of which can now be found in his Selected Writings. That is, only one facet of Mead's work will be commented upon here: his contribution to social psychology. His wider philosophical concerns--for example, the nature of time in his The Philosophy of the Present, his exposition of pragmatism in The Philosophy of the Act, and his history of Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Cen- tury--will be dealt with only tangentially.

From Coser, 1977:343-347.

The Self in Society

Social psychology for Mead is the discipline that "studies the activity or behavior of the individual as it lies within the social process. The behavior of an individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social group of which he is a member, since his individual acts are involved in larger, social acts which go beyond himself and which implicate the other members of that group." While earlier social psychology had dealt with social experience from the individual psychological standpoint, Mead suggested that individual experience be dealt with "from the standpoint of society, at least from the standpoint of communication as essential to the social order." His social psychology presupposed "an approach to experience from the standpoint of the individual," and was therefore at variance with Watsonian behaviorism, but it undertook "to determine in particular that which belongs to this ex- perience because the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a social order."

Mead argued that there can be no self apart from society, no consciousness of self and no communication. In its turn, society must be understood as a structure that emerges through an ongoing process of communicative social acts, through transactions between persons who are mutually oriented toward each other.

Mead saw in gesture the key mechanism through which social acts are effected. But he sharply separates nonsignificant (unself-conscious) gestures, as found on the animal level, from the significant (self-conscious) gestures that characterize most human intercourse. On the animal level, gesture involves an immediate response to a stimulus. The growling advance of dog A is a stimulus to dog B to react by attack or withdrawal, as the case may be. In contrast, at the human level of communication, significant gestures come into play. These rest upon "an arousal in the individual himself of the response which he is calling out in the other individual, a taking of the role of the other, a tendency to act as the other person acts." Significant gestures are based on linguistic symbols carrying a content that is more or less the same for different individuals and hence meaning the same thing to them all. Ani- mals do not put themselves in the position of others predicting, in effect "He will act in such a way and I will act in this way." They can not be said to "think." Human thought arises when there are "symbols, vocal gestures gen- erally, which arouse in the individual himself the response which he is calling out in the other, and such that from the point of view of that response he is able to direct his later conduct." Significant gestures involving the use of symbols always presuppose the ability of each participant in a communicative process to visualize his own performance from the standpoint of the others, to take the role of the others. In nonsymbolic interaction human beings, like animals, respond directly to one another. In symbolic interaction, where they use significant gestures, they interpret each other's attitudes and act on the basis of the meaning yielded by such interpretations. As Blumer puts it, "Sym- bolic interaction involves interpretation, or ascertaining the meaning of the actions or remarks of the other person, and definition, or conveying indica- tions to another person as to how he is to act.'' Human communicative processes involve the constant self-conscious adjustment of actors to the conduct of others, a repeated fitting together of lines of action through definitions and redefinitions, interpretations and reinterpretations.

Following William James, Mead argues that consciousness must be under- stood as a thought-stream arising in the dynamic relationship between a person and his environment, more particularly his social environment. " 'Mental phenomena,' " he reasoned, cannot be reduced "to conditioned reflexes and similar physiological mechanisms,'' as the behaviorists would have it, but neither can they be understood in terms of the insulated conception of the Cartesian ego. Experience is not first individual and then social. Each indi- vidual is continually involved in a succession of joint enterprises with others, which form and shape his mind. Consciousness is not a given; it is emergent.

From Coser, 1977:334-335.

The Genesis of the Self

Among Mead's most notable achievements is his account of the genesis of consciousness and of the self through the gradually developing ability in child- hood to take the role of the other and to visualize his own performance from the point of view of others. In this view, human communication becomes pos- sible only when "the symbol [arouses] in one's self what it arouses in the other individual." Very young children do not yet have the ability to use significant symbols; therefore, when they are at play, their behavior in many ways is similar to that of puppies playing with each other. As children grow older, however, they gradually learn to take the role of others through play. "A child plays at being a mother, at being a teacher, at being a policeman; that is, it is taking different roles." The growing child who playfully assumes these roles thereby cultivates in himself the ability to put himself in the place of others who are significant to him. As he matures, he will not only be able to take these roles by acting them out; but he will conceive of them by assum- ing them in his imagination. A crucial landmark in the child's social develop- ment is made when, in showing a picture to someone facing him, he will turn the picture away from himself rather than, as he did up to then, hold it to- ward himself in the belief that his partner can see only what he himself sees.

Child play at the level of simple role-taking is the first stage in the gradual transformation from simple conversations of gestures--a child's running away when chased--to the mature ability to use significant symbols in interaction with many others. Although he has learned to put himself, in imagination, in the position of his partner, the child still does not relate in his mind the roles that several others play with one another outside himself. Thus, he can under- stand the relation of mother or father with himself, but he cannot understand that his own mother is not his father's mother also. This breakthrough in his conceptualization comes with his ability to play complex organized games, when he will have in his mind all the roles of other players and make assess- ments about their potential responses to one another. Such games must be distinguished from simple games such as hide-and-seek, which involve only two types of role partners, or playing jacks, in which the actors do not modify each other's play and hence do not have to anticipate the response of the other partner. In hide-and-seek, "everyone, with the exception of the one who is hiding, is a person who is hunting. A child does not require more than the person who is hunted and the one who is hunting." But in a game in which a number of individuals playing different roles are involved, in baseball for example, "the child taking one role must be ready to take the role of everyone else." This differs not only from the two-role game, but also from what Mead calls "play," from those so-called games that do not involve mutual role-taking, such as jacks.

The fundamental difference between the [complex] game and the play is that in the former the child must have the attitude of all the others involved in that game. The attitudes of the other players which the participant assumes organize into a sort of unit, and it is that organization which controls the response of the individual. . . . Each one of his own acts is determined by his assumption of the acts of the others who are playing the game. What he does is controlled by his being everyone else on that team, at least in so far as those attitudes affect his own particular response. We get then an "other" which is an organization of the attitudes of those involved in the same process.

The difference between play and games resides in the number of partici- pants and in the existence or absence of rules. Play undertaken by one child has no rules. Games have rules but differ as to the number of players. Two person games require only simple role-taking; multiple person games require taking the role of the "generalized other," that is, each player's having an idea of the behavior of every other player toward each other and toward him- self. With the help of the rules that govern the game, the child develops the ability to take the place of all the other players and to determine their re- sponses. These "rules are the set of responses which a particular attitude calls out.'' The final stage in the maturation process of the child, Mead argues, occurs when the individual takes the role of the "generalized other"--the atti- tude of the whole community.

The fully mature individual, according to Mead, does not merely take into account the attitudes of other individuals, of "significant others," toward him- self and toward one another; he must also "take their attitudes toward the various phases or aspects of the common social activity . . . in which, as mem- bers of an organized society or social group, they are all engaged. As Natanson puts it, "[rules of the game] . . . mark the transition from simple role-taking to participation in roles of a special, standardized order. Through rules the child is introduced to societal compulsion and the abrasive texture of a more nearly adult reality." "Only insofar as he takes the attitudes of the organized social group to which he belongs towards the organized, cooperative social activity or set of such activities in which that group as such is engaged, does he develop a complete self." Hence, the mature self arises when a "gen- eralized other" is internalized so that "the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members."

Thus, in the Meadian view of the emergence of role-taking capacities, the self that arises gradually through a progressive widening of the scope of human involvement must never be conceived as a mere body. It is rather a social entity emerging in a social process of development from simple con- versations of gestures to the process of identification with the "generalized other." "The conscious self," Dewey comments on Mead's conception, "was to him the world of nature first taken up into social relations and then dissolved to form a new self which then went forth to recreate the world of nature and social institutions."

The essence of the self, according to Mead, is its reflexivity. The individual self is individual only because of its relation to others. Through the individual's ability to take in his imagination the attitudes of others, his self becomes an object of his own reflection. The self as both subject and object is the essence of being social. The peculiar individuality of each self is a result of the peculiar combination, never the same for two people, of the attitude of others that form the generalized other. Hence, although individuality is rooted in sociality, each person makes an individual contribution to the social process.

From Coser, 1977:335-338.

The "I" and the "Me"

Mead tried to clarify his views of the social foundation of the self and his concomitant belief that "the self does not consist simply in the bare organiza- tion of social attitudes," by introducing the distinction between the "I" and the "me." Both "I" and "me" necessarily relate to social experience. But the "I" is "the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the "me" is the organized set of attitudes of others which one assumes. The attitudes of the others constitute the organized 'me,' and then one reacts toward that as an 'I'." As a "me" the person is aware of himself as an object. He reacts or responds to himself in terms of the attitudes others have toward him. His self- appraisal is the result of what he assumes to be the appraisal by others. The "me" is the self as conceived and apprehended in terms of the point of view of significant others and of the community at large. It reflects the laws and the mores, the organized codes and expectations of the community. The "I," in contradistinction, is "the answer which the individual makes to the attitude which others take toward him when he assumes an attitude toward them . . . it gives the sense of freedom, of initiative." What appears in consciousness is always the self as an object, as a "me," but the "me" is not conceivable without an "I" as a unique subject for which the "me" can be an object. The "I" and the "me" are not identical, for the "I" "is something that is never entirely calculable . . . it is always something different from what the situation itself calls for."

"We are," Mead writes, "individuals born into a certain nationality, located at a certain spot geographically, with such and such family relations, and such and such political relations. All of these represent a certain situation which constitutes the 'me'; but this necessarily involves a continued action of the organism toward the 'me.' Men are born into social structures they did not create, they live in an institutional and social order they never made, and they are constrained by the limitations of languages, codes, customs. and laws. All of these enter into the "me" as constituent elements, yet the "I" always re- acts to preformed situations in a unique manner, "just as every monad in the Leibnizian universe mirrors that universe from a different point of view, and thus mirrors a different aspect or perspective of that universe." To Mead, mind is "the individual importation of the social process," but, at the same time, "the individual . . . is continually reacting back against . . . society.'' The self as a whole, as it appears in social experience, is a compound of the stabilized reflections of the generalized other in the "me" and the incalculable spontaneity of the "I." This is why the self as a whole is an open self. "If it did not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience." Mead valued personal auton- omy, but he saw it emerging from feedback rather than from attempts at in- sulation from others. Human actors are inevitably enmeshed in a social world, but the mature self transforms this world even as it responds to it.

Mead was somewhat ambiguous in his definition of social acts. Sometimes he makes it appear as if these acts necessarily involve cooperation between the actors. Elsewhere he talks about social acts when referring to competitive and conflictful interaction. At one point he says specifically: "I wish . . . to re- strict the social act to the class of acts which involve the cooperation of more than one individual." But in other places he speaks, for example, of fights among animals as social acts. It would seem, on balance, that what he had in mind was not that social acts are restricted to cooperation but only that social action is always based on "an object of common interest to all the individuals involved." In this formulation, conflict and competition, as well as coopera- tive behavior, may equally be seen as social action as long as they all involve a mutual orientation of actors to one another. It is only in this way that Mead's interpretation of the nature of social acts can be articulated with his often repeated insistence on the crucial functions of social conflicts. To Mead, just as to Simmel, conflict and cooperation are correlative to each other and no society can exist without both.

A highly developed and organized human society is one in which the individual members are interrelated in a multiplicity of different intricate and complicated ways whereby they all share a number of common interests . . . and yet, on the other hand, are more or less in conflict relative to numerous other interests which they possess only individually, or else share with one another only in small and limited groups.

From Coser, 1977:338-339.

Mead as a Pathsetter

Mead's work abounds in suggestive leads for the sociology of knowledge. He prepared the ground for consideration of the concrete sociological links between social and thought processes, to the extent that he stressed, along with his pragmatist co-thinkers, the organic process by which every act of thought is linked to human conduct and to interactive relationships, thus re- jecting the radical distinction between thinking and acting that had informed most classical philosophy. When Mead advanced the idea that consciousness is an inner discourse carried on by public means--that is, a private experience made possible by the use of significant social symbols and hence organized from the standpoint of the "generalized other"--he paved the way for detailed investigations linking styles of thought to social structures. Mead provided valuable indications for future inquiries linking individual modes of discourse to the "universe of discourse" of total epochs or of special strata or groupings within a particular society. Insofar as he stressed that thought is in its very nature bound to the social situation in which it arises, he set the stage for efforts to ascertain the relations between a thinker and his audience.


As in the sociology of knowledge, Mead also provided rich leads for future disciplined inquiry in other spheres of sociological inquiry though only through hypotheses and illustrations. His notion of role-taking, that is, of tak- ing the attitudes of others toward oneself, is not to be confused with what modern sociologists call role performance, or living up to the expectations en- tailed by a specific position. However, it is hardly a subject of dispute that modern role theory from Linton and Parsons to Newcomb and Merton has been enriched by freely borrowing from Mead. Although reference-group theory has gone beyond Mead in considering not only those groups to which a person belongs but also groups to which he aspires or which he takes as a point of reference while not aspiring to be a member, it owes a good deal to Mead's insistence that individuals always be considered under the angle of their relations to groups of significant others.

More generally, Mead's work has led to the final demise, at least within sociology, of what Simmel once called the "fallacy of separateness," which considers actors without reference to the interactions in which they are vari- ously engaged. For Mead, no monads without windows ever exist in the social world; there is never an I without a Thou, to use Martin Buber's terminology. An ego is inconceivable without an alter, and the self is best visualized as a vivid nodal point in a field of social interaction. This perspective on human action has by now become an essential characteristic of all thinking that wishes to be called sociological. Although Mead was by no means alone in having prepared it, he surely was one of its major sources.

Little need be said in regard to Mead's contributions to the methodology of the social sciences since the essential points have already been made in the previous chapter on Cooley. Mead must be credited alongside Cooley and other pragmatists with having been instrumental in stressing the need for always considering situations from the point of view of the actor. For him, just as for Weber, when the sociologist refers to meaning, it is to the subjective meaning actors impute to their actions.

While Cooley's theories veered perilously close to a subjectivist and solipsis- tic view of society, Mead remained steadfast in his social objectivism. The world of organized social relationships was to him as solidly given in inter- subjective evidence as the physical world. He did not attempt to reconstruct the world through introspection in the manner of Cooley. He took as funda- mental datum that an "objective life of society" exists, which it behooves the scientist to study. To Mead society is not a mental phenomenon but belongs to an "objective phase of experience." The extent to which the differences be- tween these two otherwise closely related thinkers can be accounted for by their differing life situations and existential conditions will become clear later in this chapter.

From Coser, 1977:339-341.

George Herbert Mead

From George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Mind, Self, and Society

Social Attitudes and the Physical World

The self is not so much a substance as a process in which the conversation of gestures has been internalized within an organic form. This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part. The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes then the mind of the individual. It still includes the attitudes of others, but now highly organized, so that they become what we call social attitudes rather than roles of separate individuals. This process of relating one's own organism to the others in the interactions that are going on, in so far as it is imported into the conduct of the individual with the conversation of the "I" and the "me," constitutes the self. [1] The value of this importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual lies in the superior co-ordination gained for society as a whole, and in the increased efficiency of the individual as a member of the group. It is the difference between the process which can take place in a group of rats or ants or bees, and that which can take place in a human community. The social process with its various implications is actually taken up into the experience of the individual so that that which is going on takes place more effectively, because in a certain sense it has been rehearsed in the individual. He not only plays his part better under those conditions but he also reacts back on the organization of which he is a part.

The very nature of this conversation of gestures requires that the attitude of the other is changed through the attitude of the individual to the other's stimulus. In the conversation of gestures of the lower forms the play back and forth is noticeable, since the individual not only adjusts himself to the attitude of others, but also changes the attitudes of the others. The reaction of the individual in this conversation of gestures is one that in some degree is continually modifying the social process itself. It is this modification of the process which is of greatest interest in the experience of the individual. He takes the attitude of the other toward his own stimulus, and in taking that he finds it modified in that his response becomes a different one, and leads in turn to further changes

Fundamental attitudes are presumably those that are only changed gradually, and no one individual can reorganize the whole society; but one is continually affecting society by his own attitude because he does bring up the attitude of the group toward himself, responds to it, and through that response changes the attitude of the group. This is, of course, what we are constantly doing in our imagination, in our thought; we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which we are a part; we are exerting ourselves, bringing forward our own opinion, criticizing the attitudes of others, and approving or disapproving. But we can do that only in so far as we can call out in ourselves the response of the community; we only have ideas in so far as we are able to take the attitude of the community and then respond to it.


Mind as the Individual Importation of the Social Process

I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a social process, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organism takes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its own attitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to that response calls out other organized attitudes in the others in the community to which the individual belongs. This process can be characterized in a certain sense in terms of the "I" and the "me," the "me" being that group of organized attitudes to which the individual responds as an "I."

What I want particularly to emphasize is the temporal and logical pre-existence of the social process to the self-conscious individual that arises in it. [2] The conversation of gestures is a part of the social process which is going on. It is not something that the individual alone makes possible. What the development of language, especially the significant symbol, has rendered possible is just the taking over of this external social situation into the conduct of the individual himself. There follows from this the enormous development which belongs to human society, the possibility of the prevision of what is going to take place in the response of other individuals, and a preliminary adjustment to this by the individual. These, in turn, produce a different social situation which is again reflected in what I have termed the "me," so that the individual himself takes a different attitude.

Consider a politician or a statesman putting through some project in which he has the attitude of the community in himself. He knows how the community reacts to this proposal. He reacts to this expression of the community in his own experience--he feels with it. He has a set of organized attitudes which are those of the community. His own contribution, the "I" in this case, is a project of reorganization, a project which he brings forward to the community as it is reflected in himself. He himself changes, of course, in so far as he brings this project forward and makes it a political issue. There has now arisen a new social situation as a result of the project which he is presenting. The whole procedure takes place in his own experience as well as in the general experience of the community. He is successful to the degree that the final "me" reflects the attitude of all in the community. What I am pointing out is that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, but rather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of this social situation, this great co-operative community process which is going on.

I want to avoid the implication that the individual is taking something that is objective and making it subjective. There is an actual process of living together on the part of all members of the community which takes place by means of gestures. The gestures are certain stages in the co-operative activities which mediate the whole process. Now, all that has taken place in the appearance of the mind is that this process has been in some degree taken over into the conduct of the particular individual. There is a certain symbol, such as the policeman uses when he directs traffic. That is something that is out there. It does not become subjective when the engineer, who is engaged by the city to examine its traffic regulations, takes the same attitude the policeman takes with reference to traffic, and takes the attitude also of the drivers of machines. We do imply that he has the driver's organization; he knows that stopping means slowing down, putting on the brakes. There is a definite set of parts of his organism so trained that under certain circumstances he brings the machine to a stop. The raising of the policeman's hand is the gesture which calls out the various acts by means of which the machine is checked. Those various acts are in the expert's own organization; he can take the attitude of both the policeman and the driver. Only in this sense has the social process been made "subjective." If the expert just did it as a child does, it would be play; but if it is done for the actual regulation of traffic, then there is the operation of what we term mind. Mind is nothing but the importation of this external process into the conduct of the individual so as to meet the problems that arise.

This peculiar organization arises out of a social process that is logically its antecedent. A community within which the organism acts in such a co-operative fashion that the action of one is the stimulus to the other to respond, and so on, is the antecedent of the peculiar type of organization we term a mind, or a self. Take the simple family relation, where there is the male and the female and the child which has to be cared for. Here is a process which can only go on through interactions within this group. It cannot be said that the individuals come first and the community later, for the individuals arise in the very process itself, just as much as the human body or any multi-cellular form is one in which differentiated cells arise. There has to be a life-process going on in order to have the differentiated cells; in the same way there has to be a social process going on in order that there may be individuals. It is just as true in society as it is in the physiological situation that there could not be the individual if there was not the process of which he is a part. Given such a social process, there is the possibility of human intelligence when this social process, in terms of the conversation of gestures, is taken over into the conduct of the individual--and then there arises, of course, a different type of individual in terms of the responses now possible. There might conceivably be an individual who simply plays as the child does, without getting into a social game; but the human individual is possible because there is a social process in which it can function responsibly. The attitudes are parts of the social reaction; the cries would not maintain themselves as vocal gestures unless they did call out certain responses in the others; the attitude itself could only exist as such in this interplay of gestures.

The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols. We must remember that the gesture is there only in its relationship to the response, to the attitude. One would not have words unless there were such responses. Language would never have arisen as a set of bare arbitrary terms which were attached to certain stimuli. Words have arisen out of a social interrelationship. One of Gulliver's tales was of a community in which a machine was created into which the letters of the alphabet could be mechanically fed in an endless number of combinations, and then the members of the community gathered around to see how the letters arranged after each rotation, on the theory that they might come in the form of an Iliad or one of Shakespeare's plays, or some other great work. The assumption back of this would be that symbols are entirely independent of what we term their meaning. The assumption is baseless: there cannot be symbols unless there are responses. There would not be a call for assistance if

there was not a tendency to respond to the cry of distress. It is such significant symbols, in the sense of a sub-set of social stimuli initiating a co-operative response, that do in a certain sense constitute our mind, provided that not only the symbol but also the responses are in our own nature. What the human being has succeeded in doing is in organizing the response to a certain symbol which is a part of the social act, so that he takes the attitude of the other person who co-operates with him. It is that which gives him a mind.

The sentinel of a herd is that member of the herd which is more sensitive to odor or sound than the others. At the approach of danger, he starts to run earlier than the others, who then follow along, in virtue of a herding tendency to run together. There is a social stimulus, a gesture, if you like, to which the other forms respond. The first form gets the odor earlier and starts to run, and its starting to run is a stimulus to the others to run also. It is all external; there is no mental process involved. The sentinel does not regard itself as the individual who is to give a signal; it just runs at a certain moment and so starts the others to run. But with a mind, the animal that gives the signal also takes the attitude of the others who respond to it. He knows what his signal means. A man who calls "fire" would be able to call out in himself the reaction he calls out in the other. In so far as the man can take the attitude of the other--his attitude of response to fire, his sense of terror--that response to his own cry is something that makes of his conduct a mental affair, as over against the conduct of the others. [3] But the only thing that has happened here is that what takes place externally in the herd has been imported into the conduct of the man. There is the same signal and the same tendency to respond, but the man not only can give the signal but also can arouse in himself the attitude of the terrified escape, and through calling that out he can come back upon his own tendency to call out and can check it. He can react upon himself in taking the organized attitude of the whole group in trying to escape from danger. There is nothing more subjective about it than that the response to his own stimulus can be found in his own conduct, and that he can utilize the conversation of gestures that takes place to determine his own conduct. If he can so act, he can set up a rational control, and thus make possible a far more highly organized society than otherwise. The process is one which does not utilize a man endowed with a consciousness where there was no consciousness before, but rather an individual who takes over the whole social process into his own conduct. That ability, of course, is dependent first of all on the symbol being one to which he can respond; and so far as we know, the vocal gesture has been the condition for the development of that type of symbol. Whether it can develop without the vocal gesture I cannot tell.

I want to be sure that we see that the content put into the mind is only a development and product of social interaction. It is a development which is of enormous importance, and which leads to complexities and complications of society which go almost beyond our power to trace, but originally it is nothing but the taking over of the attitude of the other. To the extent that the animal can take the attitude of the other and utilize that attitude for the control of his own conduct, we have what is termed mind; and that is the only apparatus involved in the appearance of the mind.

I know of no way in which intelligence or mind could arise or could have arisen, other than through the internalization by the individual of social processes of experience and behavior, that is, through this internalization of the conversation of significant gestures, as made possible by the individual's taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward what is being thought about. And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind or thought.


1. According to this view, conscious communication develops out of unconscious communication within the social process, conversation in terms of significant gestures out of conversation in terms of non-significant gestures; and the development in such fashion of conscious communication is coincident with the development of minds and selves within the social process.

2. The relation of mind and body is that lying between the organization of the self in its behavior as a member of a rational community and the bodily organism as a physical thing.

The rational attitude which characterizes the human being is then the relationship of the whole process in which the individual is engaged to himself as reflected in his assumption of the organized roles of the others in stimulating himself to his response. This self as distinguished from the others lies within the field of communication, and they lie also within this field. What may be indicated to others or one's self and does not respond to such gestures of indication is, in the field of perception, what we call a physical thing. The human body is, especially in its analysis, regarded as a physical thing.

The line of demarcation between the self and the body is found, then, first of all in the social organization of the act within which the self arises, in its contrast with the activity of the physiological organism (MS).

The legitimate basis of distinction between mind and body is be tween the social patterns and the patterns of the organism itself. Education must bring the two closely together. We have, as yet, no comprehending category. This does not mean to say that there is anything logically against it; it is merely a lack of our apparatus or knowledge (1927) .

3. Language as made up of significant symbols is what we mean by mind. The content of our minds is (1) inner conversation, the importation of conversation from the social group to the individual (2) . . . . imagery. Imagery should be regarded in relation to the behavior in which it functions (1931).

Imagery plays just the part in the act that hunger does in the food process (1912).

Bibliographical Notes

1. Mead's major articles can be found in: Andrew J. Reck (ed.), Selected Writings: George Herbert Mead (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).

2. The volumes were: The Philosophy of the Present (1932); Mind, Self, and Society (1934); Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936); and The Philosophy of the Act (1938). An excellent brief introduction to Mead's social psychology can be found in an edited abridgement of his works: Anselm Strauss (ed.), The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956). The major critical work dealing with Mead's position is: Maurice Natanson, The Social Dynamics of George H. Mead (Washington, D.C. Public Affairs Press, 1956) .

3. Several varieties of Symbolic Interactionism exist today; cf., Manford Kuhn, "Major Trends in Symbolic Interaction Theory," Sociological Quarterly, 5 (1964), 61-84; and Bernard Meltzer and John W. Petras, "The Chicago and Iowa Schools of Symbolic Interactionism," in T. Shibutani (ed.), Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970). The best known variety of symbolic interactionism today is represented by the position of Mead's student Herbert Blumer; cf., Herbert Blumer, "Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead," American Journal of Sociology, 71 (1966), 534-544; and Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969). For a variety of studies done by members of this school, see: Arnold Rose (ed.), Human Behavior and Social Processes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); J. G. Manis and B. N. Meltzer (eds.), Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1967); and Gregory P. Stone (ed.), Social Psychology through Symbolic Interaction (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970). Numerous modern theoretical approaches also owe a great debt to the work of Mead, for example, Walter Coutu, Emergent Human Nature: A New Social Psychology (New York: Knopf, 1949) .

(Perdue 1986:236-239)

Perdue, William D. 1986. Sociological Theory: Explanation, Paradigm, and Ideology. Palo Alto, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.


George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)

Mind, Self, and Society


Mead's assumptions on the nature of human being, society, and theoretical social science are clearly those of the pluralist paradigm. As to the first of these, he envisioned a rational, conscious, and reflective human mind in constant quest of meaning. And although centering on the role of social influence, his vision commanded a crucial place for individual freedom. Finally, a pluralist signpost is discernible in Mead's ambivalence about human nature. He held that social (i.e., cooperative) and antisocial (i.e., hostile) impulses are universals. Both are essential for all social organization (Mead 1934:304). 

Mead's assumptions concerning the nature of society parallel the ambivalence he discerned in human impulses. He believed that those societies most highly developed and organized feature multiple and intricate relationships. In some instances such relationships are formed through common societal interests. However, conflict arises naturally through differences among groups, individuals, and even the various dimensions of the same "individual self" (Mead 1934:307). 

On the ethical side, Mead argued that the ideal society would constantly seek the perfection of its values through a pragmatic process of redefinition based on the most advanced knowledge (1934:xxxiii). In political terms, such a society of moral beings would find "revolution incorporated in the institution of government itself" (1964:150). However, the means of that revolution would be "legislation and amendment." At root, Mead's society is a democracy, "an open society of open selves" (Mead 1982:6).

As for the nature of theoretical social science, Mead's philosophy includes a synthesis of German idealism and American pragmatism. The idealism was not nurtured purely through a reading of Kant and Hegel, or through study with Dilthey. It was advanced by Josiah Royce at Harvard. It was Royce who professed the social nature of self and moral issues, arguing that "the individual reaches the self only by a process that implies still another self for its existence and thought" (Mead 1964:382). Also at Harvard, William James planted the seeds of Mead's pragmatism, later to be given water by John Dewey. For James, knowledge is an "expression of the intelligence by which animals meet the problems with which life surrounds them" (Mead 1964:384). Under this pragmatic test, good knowledge is not preordained but revealed through its efficacy in solving problems.

Mead's intention was to study behavior within the social process, an objective that encouraged his students to attach a subtitle to his classic. Hence the book was called Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (1934). The "social" appellation distinguishes this system of thought from the behaviorism of Mead's contemporary, John Watson, and the later work of B. F. Skinner and George Homans...In opposition to these psychological systems, Mead viewed the human mind as unique, with its higher functions having no important parallels among lower animals. This difference is clearly evidenced in the richness of linguistic systems. For Mead and later symbolic interactionists, language is the distinguishing criterion for being human. 

Mead's theory is distinctive by means of its interest in the creative (as opposed to deterministic) nature of behavior and the role of contemplation and definition in experience. As to charges that such concerns are too subjective for science, Mead believed that if one's actions evoke the same response in others, then the meaning of symbols is not longer private but a behavioral reality that can be studied. Those phenomena that require perceivers are legitimate objects of sociological inquire and in Mead's words: "We have returned these stolen goods to the world" (Mead 1982:5). 

Theoretical Content

Mead's conception of mind is that of a "social phenomenon--arising and developing within the social process, within the empirical matrix of social interactions" (1934:133). Not  only does the mind emerge through such exchange, its nature is that of an internal process of communication grounded in the utilization of significant symbols. Hence, the mind is precessually formed through interactions with others and self-conversation. Symbols, considered significant only when shared with others, dominate the process. For human beings, the most vital and distinctive symbolic communication is language bound. Or in Mead's words, "out of language emerges the field of mind" (1934:133).

The conception of mind as process rather than product means that consciousness is not a simple captive of external forces. Rather, it is an active and creative force constantly changing and growing. The mind is not a box into which information and experience are indiscriminately poured. Nor does its nature simply reflect an imitation of the behavior of others or fixed responses (whether learned or instinctual) to external bounds. The process rather is one of sifting selectively through an ongoing barrage of signals and forming "definitions of the situation."

The  second component in Mead's trilogy is termed self. The self also "arises in social experience," can be thought of as "an object to itself," and possesses a "social structure" (Mead 1934:140). This suggests that individuals can conceive of their own being and convert that identity into a form of consciousness. So conceived, the self can be the recipient of both definition and emotion. Symbolic communication is of course crucial to the development of answers to the question Who am I? In consistent fashion, Mead argued that the self is best thought of as a process, and he traced its genesis developmentally. 

The development of the self is dependent on learning to take the role of the other. In turn, role taking requires that we imagine how our behavior will be defined from the standpoint of others. For Mead, role taking occurs throughout the developmental process by which the self is constructed and refined. And this process consists of three distinctive phases. From a period of imitation without meaning for infants, through the play-acting world of children, and finally to the phase of the generalized other, the self expands, changes, becomes. 

For the very young, role playing is simply a matter of doing what others do. In time, however, the child begins to play "pretend" roles such as parent, sibling, even the imaginary friend, In this course of switching identities and imaginary conversations, the self through play becomes both separate and defined. The child is learning to see a unique self from the various perspectives of other role players. 

When at a later point, egocentric play gives way to the rules and "teamwork" of games, the individual learns that the behaviors of other players are somewhat fixed, impersonal, and predictable. In playing the multiple and interlocking roles of the game, and other organized endeavors, self-control emerges. Through such play, one develops and internalizes a group of perspective on the self that Mead termed the "generalized other." To the extent that this collective frame of reference matures, the player becomes a social being who will demonstrate some consistency in future behavior (1934:150-163). Thus, the "inner voice" of the generalize other continues to whisper the complex requirements of being "human." 

In the lifelong context of interdependent action, two dimensions of the self emerge, are formed and reformed. In one, the individual develops an identify in response to the attitudes of others. Such a response emanates from the solitary individual's definition of the situation. In the other, one assumes the "organized set of attitudes of others" (1934:175). This component of the self provides the rules for the actual response. For these dimensions, Mead employed the concepts "I" and "Me," respectively. It is the latter that comes with the internalization of the generalized other. 

Society in Mead's system is little more than an extension of his "organized self." More precisely, the self through interaction takes on "generalized social attitudes" toward a wider environment. Such references are beyond the immediate spheres of personal relationships, intimate groups, or communities. For Mead, the institution of society consist of "common responses" rooted in such attitudes by which "the modern civilized human individual is and feels himself to be a member not only of a certain local community or state or nation, but also of an entire given race or even civilization as a "whole" (1934:273). 

In Mead's theory, both self and the society that is derived therefrom are divided. The free, active, and unique self is tempered by an externally imposed synthesis of the wishes, rules, and roles of others. Ultimately, however, his ideal society evolves--an interacting order in which the individual "I" fuses with the social "Me." In this context, the latter does not exist merely to control the former. Rather, the new self will extend to a new order. In it, the understanding of all others will enhance the uniqueness of the solitary member (1934:273-281).


Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George Herbert. 1964. Selected Writings. Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Mead, George Herbert. 1982. The Individual and the Social Self. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.    Sociological Theorists Page    Dr. Ron's Home Page

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