George Herbert Mead: The "I" and the "Me"
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.