George Herbert Mead: Taking the Role of the Other Research Paper Starter

George Herbert Mead: Taking the Role of the Other

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George Herbert Mead is one of the founding fathers of the sociological theory known as symbolic interactionism. Mead is best known for explaining how the mind and self emerge from social interaction. According to Mead, there can be no self without a prior social group. The process, he argues, requires communication through gestures — or significant symbols — as well as the ability to take the role of the 'other.' Mead also addressed the developmental nature of the ability to take the role of the other, and was interested in how individuals and societies grow and change over time. In addition to his contributions to sociology, Mead was a philosopher as well. His thoughts on mind/body dualism and shared knowledge will also be reviewed.

Keywords Act; Games; Generalized Other; Gesture; Play; Self; Significant Symbols; Symbolic Interactionism; The 'I'; The 'Me'

George Herbert Mead: Taking the Role of the Other


George Herbert Mead, whose work provided the foundation for the sociological theory known as symbolic interactionism, is best known for emphasizing the social over the personal. As Ritzer (2008) explains, "A thinking, self-conscious individual is … logically impossible in Mead's theory without a prior social group. The social group comes first, and it leads to the development of self-conscious mental states" (p. 351). Mead viewed the development of the self as a process, and one that was dependent on taking the role of the 'other,' or as he called it, the generalized other. Although the concept of the generalized other is frequently cited and footnoted, many argue it has been both underutilized and often misunderstood (Holdsworth & Morgan, 2007; Dodds, Lawrence, & Valsiner, 1997).

Some of the misunderstanding surrounding Mead's work is due, in part, to the way in which it was communicated. Whereas most academics share their ideas through publication, Mead relied primarily on his teaching. One of his students noted, "Conversation was his best medium; writing was a poor second" (Smith, 1931, as cited in Ritzer, 2008). Even Mead himself once remarked "I am vastly depressed by my inability to write what I want to" (quoted in Cook, 1993, as cited in Ritzer, 2008). Despite Mead's difficulty writing, a record of his work exists in several forms — posthumously published student notes and public lectures, unpublished and undated works, and published papers. Mind, Self, and Society, a 1934 posthumous compilation of student notes, is arguably Mead's best-known work.

Although many claim that Mead's early work was lost to everyone but his students (Deegan, 2001), a recently discovered manuscript suggests Mead wrote more than many thought. Why the manuscript for his first book was never published remains a mystery, but Deegan (2001) argues that its discovery is important for putting Mead's career in proper perspective. The title of his book was to be "Essays on Psychology," but as Deegan (2001) writes, modern-day psychologists would find this label misleading. The essays demonstrate, she argues, that he was transitioning from psychology to what would later become known as social psychology. The essays, and the date of their intended publication, also demonstrate that he was a founding father of the field of sociology. Deegan (2001) writes, "Mead's 'first book' clearly locates him as a major figure in the classical, founding years of the [sociological] profession" (p. xv).

Mead's influence, and the ideas and people who influenced him, were far-ranging. Part psychologist, philosopher, sociologist, and educator, Mead studied under and with many people. As a graduate student, Mead left Harvard University to study in Germany with Wilhelm Wundt, the founder of experimental psychology. Many of the concepts that formed the bedrock of Mead's theory — play, gesture, consciousness — can be traced to Wundt's influence (Deegan, 2001). Shortly after beginning his teaching career, Mead was invited to the University of Chicago by John Dewey. The core beliefs of philosophical pragmatists — that the mind is not a static thing but a thinking process, reality is not 'out there' but is created by our interactions with the world — greatly shaped Mead and symbolic interactionists more generally (Ritzer, 2008). Finally, Mead is indebted to John Watson and the behaviorist tradition. Like behaviorists, Mead believed in the fundamental relationship between stimulus and response. Unlike behaviorists, however, Mead viewed people as thinking, interpreting subjects (Farganis, 2000).

Whether we think of Mead as an outstanding lecturer, author, sociologist, or social psychologist, his contribution to the humanities is undeniable. More specifically, his work was especially important in helping resolve a persistent tendency to dichotomize the social and the personal. Dodds, Lawrence, and Valsiner (1997) believe Mead's notion of the generalized other and related conceptual work should be more often revisited by contemporary developmental psychologists who seek to understand how the personal and social can exist simultaneously.

Theoretical Work

At its core, much of Mead's work is an attempt to better understand the 'self' — how it should be defined, how it arises, whether it is constituted individually or in interaction with others. In general, Mead defined the self as the ability to be both subject and object (Ritzer, 2008). He traced the origin of the self developmentally, and suggested it could arise only in social interaction, and only as the individual develops the ability to take the role of the other. He wrote, "It is only by taking the role of the others that we have been able to come back to ourselves" (as cited in Ritzer, 2008, p. 360). A fuller understanding of Mead's self, however, requires us to investigate other aspects of his theory, beginning with the act and evolving toward the notion of the generalized other.

The Act

The basic unit of Mead's theory is 'the act.' Mead identified four stages of the act — impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation — and investigated the ways in which the act differed for humans and lower animals (Ritzer, 2008). While the basis of Mead's act is the stimulus-response unit of the behaviorist tradition, Mead believed thinking occurred in between stimulus and response. In other words, humans could choose a response, rather than react mechanically. The act, however, describes one individual's interaction with the environment; because Mead's theory emphasizes the social over the personal, he needed a concept to describe interaction between people as well.

For Mead, communication between two or more beings occurs through the gesture, which can be either conscious or unconscious (Farganis, 2006). He defines gestures specifically as "movements of the first organism which act as specific stimuli calling forth (socially) appropriate responses of the second organism" (as cited in Ritzer, 2008, p. 356). Lower-order animals, and sometimes humans as well, communicate via unconscious gestures, or gestures that elicit automatic, unthinking responses. Screaming in response to being frightened unexpectedly by another person is an unconscious gesture. What differentiates humans from other animals, however, is our ability to think and act intentionally through the use of conscious gestures (Farganis, 2006).

Mead, like others, identified the vocal gesture — and more specifically language — as the most influential conscious gesture in the development of human society and knowledge (Ritzer, 2008). He believed the vocal gesture, as distinct from other conscious gestures such as facial grimaces, had two distinguishing features - the ability for the speaker to hear and understand the gesture in the same way as the listener, and the ability for the speaker to control it (Ritzer, 2008). More specifically, Mead defined language as a particular kind of gesture, a significant symbol, which arouses the same (or similar) response in both speaker and listener. Uttering the word 'car', for example, evokes similar mental images for both people. As Ritzer (2008) explains, "only when we have significant symbols can we truly have communication" (p. 357). Or as Mead might say, it is only through the social act of exchanging significant gestures that meaning arises (Dodds, Lawrence, & Valsiner, 1997).

The Role of the Other

How do the social act and the use of gestures give rise to a sense of self? The second half of Mead's theoretical equation relies on the notion of taking the role of the 'other.' For Mead, the ability to take on the role of the other developed in stages - first the play stage, and then in the game stage.

The Play Stage

In the play stage, children...

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