George Herbert Mead 1863-1931

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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.


(Perdue 1986:236-239)

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