George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)


Once again, the 1860 generation. Born 1863
Big influence of American Pragmatists. We won’t spend any time on that – not necessary for understanding Mead or the ideas that derive from him – other than to name a few names (which you should file away under your “people to know something about” list): William James,Charles Sanders Peirce, and John Dewey.

Social Behaviorism

Behaviorism = totally empirical psychology that limits consideration to observable stimuli and responses.
Social behaviorism rejects the “black box” model of the individual and says, in effect, you DO have to look inside and what you see there is people reacting to one another based on the meaning they ascribe to the observed actions of the others. We react, that is, not to what others do, but what we think they meant by what they did.

The I and the Me

Recall Cooley’s Looking Glass Self
I imagine how I appear to you.
I imagine how you react to my appearance
I have an emotional reaction to how you react
I adjust my behavior so as to have a positive emotional reaction in this process.
Key insight of Mead and Cooley: The Self is Social. The self emerges as result of social process.
Consciousness: mind’s paying attention, grasping the ongoing world, involvement, focus.

Reading “Mind” from Mind, Self, and Society

“Mind and the Symbol”

Human difference : “reflective intelligence” – what is reflection? Capacity to consider future as part of one’s “stimulus set.”
Symbol making and usage as key human capacity. “When, on the other hand, we speak of reflective conduct we very definitely refer to the presence of the future in terms of ideas” (358a6).
Symbol as a “this” that can lead to “that.” A trace that can “store” reality in our minds. It allows us to control self in future, others at a distance, and so on. Extends mind beyond it’s body boundaries. Interaction is not limited to physical bumping into one another.


“Meaning arises and lies within the field of the relation between the gesture of a given human organism and the subsequent behavior of this organism as indicated to another human organism by that gesture” 362a3).
“Meaning is thus a development of something objectively thereas a relation between certain phases of the social act; it is not a psychical addition to that act and it is not an “idea” as traditionally conceived.

Reading “Self” from Mind, Self, and Society

“The Self and the Organism”

“One must, of course,…,distinguish between the experience that immediately takes place and our own organization of it into the experience of the self” (369b6).
What are the different ways I can be an object of my own observation and experience? Special characteristic of person: can be an object to itself (370b2).
What is Mead’s example of a behavior where we can see this? Communication. We can ask, “what am I thinking?” or “what do I want to say?”
“Conversation of gestures” – gesture = symbol. Words “point to” meaning intended. I want to express X..I will say Y. But Y will sound harsh. I am not trying to express harsh. So I back off and express X with Y’ instead of Y.

“The Background of the Genesis of the Self”

Self is a social product. Cannot emerge outside the social. How does a self arise?
Thinking about is always via symbols.
Symbol should arouse in self what it arouses in others.
Child plays at roles. Big moment. Recognition that you can declare yourself to be something else. EZ daughter: “ah, you thought I was going to choose something else.” Kids at one stage don’t get games. Emily not having any sense that we were “players” who take turns. Hide and seek as advanced version of “I see you!”
Play vs. game. In the latter, you have to be able to take role of many others. Knowing how to play baseball means recognizing what everyone else will do under various situations and so you can then know what you should do.

“Play, the Game, and the Generalized Other”

“What he does is controlled by his being everyone else on that team, at least insofar as those attitudes affect his own particular response” (376). So, three steps toward becoming a “self”:
Take role of specific others toward oneself
Take role of generalized other toward self and others
Take attitudes of others toward common, shared, stuff in the world.
“It is in the form of the generalized other…that the community exercises control over the conduct of individual members” (376b8)
“The Self and the Subjective”
How does the subjective self supercede mere control? “Reform the order of things.”

“The “I” and the “Me””

“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 himself assumes” (380a3).
I as subject. Me as object.
Oscillations and vacillations of the self. Dancing in the nude … sudden self-consciousness. Being caught up in the moment of passion, being brought back to earth by a look at the clock. Interacting with someone and having them reach over and remove a piece of lint from your jacket or food from your face. Grabbing something with a rubber glove and marveling at the power vs. putting gloved hand in sink of water and feeling the immanence of the hand. Writing for expression and writing worried about how it will make you look (but add further oscillation in writing with an aim to people enjoying what you wrote). Fears about looking foolish, or being wrong. Disclaimers such as “but that’s just a silly idea I guess.” “Like,” “you know?”, and up-talk? Pathologies of the I/me – over-abundance of I in those who are socially tone-deaf – have no idea how they are being heard/seen. Lack of empathy. No sense of how others will react. Email as fostering loss – why? Lack of palpable feedback? Cell phones which don’t have

Reading “Society” from Mind, Self, and Society

Three points. (1) importance of symbols for connection between individual and society; (2) counterpoint to evolutionism; (3) views on democracy and political culture

“Conflict and Integration”

Similar to Durkheim. Wider circles of interdependence. Networks of shared symbolic structures, etc.
“Obstacles and Promises in the Development of the Ideal Society”


  1. According to Mead, what forms the basis for the development of the self?
  2. Can television, and mass media more generally, affect the development of the self? If so, how?
  3. What factors might be missing from Mead’s view of social interaction?
  4. What is Mead’s vision of a “universal society” based on? What obstacles might prevent its realization? How does Mead’s view differ from those expressed by Marx and Weber?
  5. What are some of the implications of DuBois’s discussion of race and Gilman’s discussion on gender for Mead’s theory of “taking the attitude of the other”?

George Herbert Mead.doc

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