4.6 George Herbert Mead

Sociological Thinkers: Mead - Self and identity.

Table of contents

Mead was a social psychologist, who was often called a social behaviourist as he emphasised that society controls/shapes individual behaviour. Emphasised that society is prior to individual and society gives rise to the mind. Mead said that the stimuli was only an opportunity, human behaviour was controlled by choices, likes/dislikes. He said that while society was also a product of social interactions it still had priority.

Social Act

It is the most primitive unit of social life. It is made up of:

  • Impulse. The immediate sensory stimulation. The smell of the steak.
  • Perception. Mental image of things. It looks juicy and delicious.
  • Manipulation. What is to be done and prepares action. Betray Morpheus.
  • Consummation. The cathartic moment. Reinserted into the matrix. The parts may not follows the sequence or may even happen simultaneously but these are the stages.

A social act is an analytically identifiable unit. It doesn’t exist in reality as each social act acts as a stimulus for the next, thus forming a chain of interactions. Social life, according to Mead, is made up of these interactions.

Mead says that every interaction is a conversation of significant symbols. These significant symbols arouse similar reactions from all as their meaning is commonly shared. Thus, all human interaction is symbolic interaction.

Significant symbols facilitate interaction and give rise to thought and mind. Mead differentiates the brain (biological) from the mind (social). Mind involves symbolic interaction with self. Thus, mind is only possible if we have selfhood (awareness of the self). Self-development is directly proportional to mind development.

Self: a recursive ability to treat oneself as the object. Ex. I am energetic.Self-hood and self-identity develop because of this objectivity.

Development of Self

As we grow we develop an ability to take roles of others and look at things as they would. There are two stages of role taking:

  • Play stage. Learn by imitation of particular others. Children can't think in abstraction so they learn to take the roles of others by imitation. Ex. the game of house, one child imitates the mother, and another imitates the father.
  • Game stage. Gain the ability to think in abstract. Place themselves in roles and arrive at what is expected of them. Ex. 4 log kya kahenge. Ability to think about expected roles and behaviours based on the perception of the generalised other, or society.

These stages guide behaviour and shape personality. Two personality types result:

  • ME the conformist self.
  • I the savage self.

Savage self is responsible for all the novelty/creativity/spontaneity in our behaviour.

Reformers have a dominant I while conservatives have dominant ME. Mead says that society can never control all its members, I-type people are always there.

Mead says that social evolution is a process whereby society based on a ME dominant personalities changes to a society with I dominant personalities. This is how society and individual are related.


  • His theory was appreciated because it highlighted the subjective dimension of social interaction. Still it is limited as it is only able to cover micro-sociological interactions.
  • Typical American approach; highlight individual initiative and freedom.
  • Ignores structure and how it shapes human behaviour.
  • Unable to account for when I dominant personality becomes a deviant.

Symbolic Interactionism

This approach is based on 3 ideas in Mead’s writing.

  • Humans act on the basis of meaning that they attach to objects and events rather than just mechanically reacting to stimuli. These meanings are attached in terms of significant symbols such as language or gestures.
  • Meanings arise from the process of interaction and in the course of interaction, these meanings are modified/created rather than being fixed at the outset.
  • These meanings are the result of interpretive procedures employed by the actor. By taking role of others, actor interprets meaning of others in society. (I modifies to suit self, ME provides societal expectations.)
  • Interpretative procedure are developed through role taking.
  • Role taking leads to development of the self and the mind.
  • Children first learn by taking roles in the play stage.
  • Later gain the ability to think in abstract at the game stage.


  • William Skidmore says the symbolic interactionism fails to explain why people consistently behave in a given way in particular situations instead of displaying a spread of choices among the wide variety of options available. In effect, it fails to explain behavioural biases.
  • Marxists point out the failure of interactionist to explain the source of meaning to which such great importance is attached. They say that the meanings are formed as a result of false class consciousness.
  • Functionalist critique: SI does not take into account social structures that also play a role in shaping human behaviour. Focus on small scale one to one interactions not taking into account the historical or social settings.

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