George Herbert Mead's I & Me Research Paper Starter

George Herbert Mead's I & Me

This article provides a brief glimpse into the historical and academic background George Herbert Mead. It includes an overview of George Mead's sociological philosophies, including ways Mead defined the sociological tenets of "I" and "Me," with accompanying examples of Mead's views and additional insights. Also presented are ways George Mead's social philosophies impacts current sociological thought through various applications. Further examples will be provided into Mead's social and functional Theory of Mind, which will be offered and presented through Mead's account of human origins. A conclusion is offered that describes the impact of Mead's theories and current societal practices through the sociological lens.



Socialization > George Mead's "I" & "Me"


Background of George H. Mead

George Herbert Mead was a philosopher who has entered the realm of "classical sociological thinkers" (Alexander, 1989, p. 37-39; Athens, 2007a; Joas, 1997, xi; Rhea, 1981, xiv-xi; Strauss, 1984, p. 1441-1443). According to John Dewey (1931), Mead was the "chief force in this country of turning psychology away from mere introspection and aligning it with biological and social facts and conceptions" (p. 311-312). Aside from Dewey's famed comment, Athens (2007b) wrote, "He is not only regarded as a classic figure in sociology, but also as the progenitor of 'symbolic interactionsim,' a major sociological perspective that is now taught in almost every introductory sociology course" (p. 137). Professionally, Mead was a professor who served on the faculty at the University of Michigan. After this appointment, Mead subsequently served as a member of the University of Chicago's Department of Philosophy for 20 years.

Mead was directly involved with the social survey movement and the survey's role in producing improved outcomes for students in academic settings, especially in undergraduate teaching (Cook, 2007). Dedicated to the university, Mead (1915) wrote that the university is the "community organized to find out what culture is as well as to give it; to determine what is proper professional training as well as to inculcate it; to find out what is right and…wrong as well as to teach" (p. 351). Mead further described the university's role is "to state and formulate research problems… and solve them; in general, to fix from moment to moment the changing meaning of life and the fitting tools for appropriating it; to be continually redefining education as well as administering it" (p. 351, 357-358).

Mead (1934) also recognized that institutions are the building blocks upon which society is constructed and understood that dominations affect the polity (pp. 277, 310-316; Athens, 2007, p. 138). The six basic institutions that Mead identified as comprising society, included:

* Language;

* The family;

* The economy;

* Religion;

* The polity; and

* Science.

Mead indicated that all institutions are rooted in social action and social acts include any activity that require the efforts of two or more persons to be completed (Mead, 1932, pp. 180-182; 1934, pp. 8-11). However, he also believed that the hope and salvation of human society did not rest on these tenets, but rather on science, because Mead viewed science as having the ability to provide much needed improvements in the operation of all of the other institutions (1923, pp. 264-266; 360-364).

Darwinian Influence

Central to Mead's work was a Neo-Darwinistic perspective on self and the operation of self within social environments. G. H. Mead "made the most ambitious and comprehensive attempt of the pragmatists to set forth a [Darwinian] theory of mind and behavior" (Thayer, 1973; Mead, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1956, 1964; Joas, 1985). Mead held the view that the social construct of human beings paralleled Darwin's view of human origins; however, Mead's social psychological story of human origins emphasized the emergence of the self-consciousness as a product of "social and physical evolution with particular emphasis on social factors and the 'social genesis' of the mind." For improved understanding, Table 1 offers a perspective parallelism between Darwin's and Mead's overview of human evolution and development.

Evolution of Communication

According to Mead, in the final stages of the account of human evolution, humans develop "self consciousness" and "individual mind." This increased evolutionary development of consciousness allowed humans further "refinement, elaboration, and objectification," enabling humans to not only take common attitudes, but "taking the same attitudes towards oneself that the community takes" (Burke, 2005, p. 571). The starting point of Mead's analysis began with the social experience and a conversation of gestures. At this level, an organism's action acts as a catalyst for another organism to respond, which in turn becomes a catalyst for the adjustment of the first organism's action.

The evolutionary breakthrough allowing the development of "individuality" enables humans to communicate and coordinate activities in the roles of "I" and "me" (Mead, 1956,1964). Tomesello (1995, 1999) reported that these evolutionary processes invite individuals in a species to engage in new activities while providing the stabilizing capacity to engage in these new activities, which could arguably improve human interaction in society. These evolved abilities in combination with Mead's interest in perspective taking and societal emphasis ultimately supported Mead in his research regarding the "I" and "me" as phases of human evolution, which was only possible when humans passed from the conversation of the gestures to the internalization of the other (Geniusas, 2006, p. 247).

Table 1. Darwin/Mead Origin

Approximation of Years Darwin's Origin of Species Mead's Social Psychological Origins 3.5 million years ago Australopethicans appear -- exhibiting habitual bipedal locomotion and regular tool use. Life forms are driven to survive (at least) and flourish (at best) under changing and life threatening conditions. 2.1 million years ago Homo genus appears -- are able to "manufacture" tools. The evolution of sentience and sociality in group life forms permits reactions to excitations in favor of the playing out of complex, organized habits. 1.5 million years ago Homo erectus appears with upright posture. Homo erectus is able to control fire and migrate extensively throughout Africa, Europe, and Asia. Complex life forms are able to participate in shared activities and mutual cooperation -- giving rise to communication through signs, signaling, and gestures. 500,000 years ago Archaic Homo Sapiens (Homo heidelbergensis) show dramatic increase in brain size and cognitive advances. Taking attitudes of others -- this interaction allows perspective-taking and perspective switching. 130,000 years ago Anatomically modern Homo sapiens appear in Africa with modern brain size Taking attitudes of group -- provides conditions for reflexive social stimulation and response. 50,000 years ago Behaviorally modern Homo sapiens evolve possessing technologically and cultural innovation. Draw on Organized Attitudes through the use of significant symbols 11,000 years ago Humans change from hunter-gatherers to agricultural foragers, exhibiting ethnic differences. Reflexive Discourse emerges allowing humans to anticipate responses of others. Adapted from Burke T. (2005). The role of abstract reference in Mead's account of human origins, Transactions of the Charles S. Pierce Society, XLI(3), 568-571.


The I & The Me

Mead's interest in human consciousness and the private and personal aspects of consciousness led him to study the biological nature of an organism and the social nature of self, thereby equipping him with the resources to account for the "development of mind and self-consciousness" (Geniusas, 2006, p. 243). "I" and "me" can best be identified as "phases of the self," which was Mead's attempt at narrowing his philosophies to the discipline of psychology (Cook, 2007, p. 170). "The two are separated in the process, but they belong together in the sense of being parts of a whole" (Mead, 1962, p. 178).

Internalization & the Object Self

The internalization process can best be recognized as "me" or the "self we are aware of" and the way in which humans internalize an organized set of attitudes of others. In contrast, the "I" of the self is the response to the attitudes that the organism offers. For further clarity, the "I" phase is the side of freedom of initiative, while the "me" phase refers to "attitudes, roles, meanings, pressure, and values of others which are organized into one's self through the agency of role-taking" (Geniusas, 2006, p. 247). The "I" phase refers to the part of the self that can be identified...

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