Sociology 250

March 10-12, 2003


George Herbert Mead


Adams and Sydie, chapter 13, pp. 319-329.


1. Introduction and life.  In North America, Mead participated in the development of a pragmatic approach to the study of society – at approximately the same time period as when Weber, Durkheim, and Simmel were developing their theoretical perspectives in Europe.  Holton notes that “Mead was able to avoid both the one-sided individualism of economic liberalism, which assumed that self-interest created its own spontaneous order, and the one-sided collectivism of Durkheim, in which the individual became submerged” (Turner, 1st edition, p. 48).  As a result, he “integrated together individualist and collective or supra-individual accounts of social order” (Turner, 1st edition, p. 48).  


Mead is often considered the founder of the symbolic interaction approach; he argues that social interaction creates mind and self, and it is through symbolic forms of communication that the self and community are constructed.  From Mead’s approach, Herbert Blumer and others developed the symbolic interaction perspective.  This is summarized later in Adams and Sydie, pp. 502-505 – sociology as the study of human interaction, the use of symbols and communication in these social interactions, social action resulting from humans considering the meaning things have for them, and humans as being flexible in adjusting to different situations and contexts.  Mead established a form of analysis and a theoretical perspective that led to the symbolic interactionist school of sociology.   Later sociologists in this tradition are Blumer, Erving Goffman, Arlie Hochschild, and Norman Denzin.


George Herbert Mead  (1863-1931) was trained in social psychology and philosophy at Harvard University and later in Germany.  He spent most of his academic career in the philosophy department at the University of Chicago.  University of Chicago students of sociology in the early part of the century studies with Mead and integrated his approach into sociology.  His major work is Mind, Self and Society, a series of his essays put together after Mead's death and originally published in 1934, a work in which he emphasizes how the social world develops various mental states in an individual.  Mead was born into a Congregationalist religious family (a form of Calvinism) and supported progressive causes and social reform, for example he was a supporter of women’s rights. 


2. Influences on Mead.  Mead’s analysis incorporates ideas and approaches from several directions – ideas that were current during the time Mead was writing.  Even though he developed these ideas at the same time as Weber and Durkheim, he combined these in quite a different and unique manner.


a. Protestant, social reform, and democratic tradition.  Mead incorporated ideas from the social reform tradition of United States Protestantism.  He was the son of a clergyman and grew up in the protestant milieu.  Many of the progressive people from this tradition considered it important that they undertake social reforms to help improve society, especially the situation of poor and disadvantaged.  Mead was also a social reformer in that he favoured women getting the vote and supported women in obtaining access to higher education and careers.  Adams and Sydie briefly develop the idea that Mead’s scientific method has some parallels to democracy (pp. 323-4).  That is, each takes all factors into account, determines the best practical course of action, and adjusts to needs that exist (also see section e. on pragmatism). 


b. German idealism.  From his studies in Germany, Mead adopted the idea of social action (Weber) and realizing a self in opposition to others (Hegel).  That is, the individual’s self does not have a predetermined or set form, but is developed as the individual encounters others and difference.  While there are elements of opposition and contradiction in this, humans develop selves in these struggles.  Similarly, society develops through such oppositions.  (Adams and Sydie, p. 321).


c. Darwin and evolution.  For Charles Darwin (1809-1882, The Origin of Species, 1859,  important in developing the theory of natural selection as the means by which plants and animals evolve), organisms adapt and evolve.  The idea of adaptation had an important influence on Mead – he considered humans to have an adaptive ability in social matters.  That is, humans can consciously reflect on social matters and choose appropriate courses of action.  In different contexts and situations, humans can adjust to each other – for Darwin this was more biological and natural, for Mead it was more social and conscious.


d. Wundt and symbols.  In Germany, Mead encountered the ideas of William Wundt, who discussed “signs and symbolic communication” (Adams and Sydie, p. 321).  Mead adopted this approach and argued that gestures, signs, and language are important to human communication.  In contrast to non-human animals, humans have the ability to understand and interpret these symbols, so they become significant symbols.  While these symbols have common understandings associated with them, each individual interprets and uses these in a somewhat different manner.


The example of dogs attacking other dogs (Adams and Sydie, pp. 321-2) may be confusing in that non-human animals do not attribute meaning and do not interpret actions of others.  Rather, they respond in a more or less automatic manner to stimuli.  When Adams and Sydie note that “shaking a fist” is a significant symbol, another human observing this may react in a more or less automatic manner, but may just as well ignore this symbol, attempt to defuse the situation, or attempt to find other responses than engaging in a physical fight.  It is this flexibility and the delayed and considered response that makes humans different from other animals.


e. Pragmatism.  In the late nineteenth century, William James, John Dewey, and other United States writers developed a philosophical approach that is termed pragmatism.  Rather than being concerned with rationality and truth in an abstract manner, this perspective considered practical and experiential aspects of how we acquire and construct knowledge.  For the pragmatists, there is no eternal or unchanging truth, rather truth is determined by practical results (Adams and Sydie, p. 323).  Since the social world is always changing and since humans encounter different people, situations, and problems, the pragmatic approach is to consider how humans deal with these in a practical manner.   In this approach, people are problem-solvers and develop an ability to deal with these situations and problems, and this is what constitutes human knowledge. 


The pragmatists also consider ethics within this same perspective.  Rather than eternal truths or fixed ideas of right and wrong, pragmatists argue that ethical knowledge is constructed in each society.  Standards of morality and ethical behaviour differ among societies and change as the situation in each society changes.  This is reminiscent of Durkheim, although Mead builds more on the pragmatic approach than does Durkheim.


Mead called his approach social behaviourism – that is, humans deal with and react to stimuli (behaviourism) but also reflect on these before acting and do all this in a social context.  


3. Characteristics of humans.  Mead looked on the “self as an acting organism, not a passive receptacle that simply receives and responds to stimuli” (Wallace and Wolf, p, 197), as Durkheim implied.  People are not merely media that can be put into action by appropriate stimuli, but that “we are thoughtful and reflective creatures whose identities and actions arise as a result of our interactions with others” (Farganis, p. 145).


For Mead, what distinguishes humans from non-human animals is that humans have the ability to delay their reactions to a stimulus.  Intelligence is the ability to mutually adjust actions.  Non-human animals also have intelligence because they often can act together or adjust what they do to the actions of other animals.  Humans differ from non-human animals in that they have a much greater ability to do this.   While humans may do this through involuntary gestures, Mead thought it more important that it is only humans that can adjust actions by using significant or meaningful symbols.  As a result of this greater intelligence, humans can communicate, plan, and work out responses, rather than merely reacting in an instinctive or stimulus-response manner. 


Mead also looked on humans as being able to understand and take on the attitude of others, incorporating this into one’s own attitudes and actions.  He expressed this as the ability of the social actor to be “acting with reference to himself, so that his actions would include himself as an object” (Mead, quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 324).  Further, Mead’s approach was that “human beings are only human when a reflective mind takes the self as an object” (Adams and Sydie, p. 324).  Note that this contrasts with Marx who argued that human essence was in creative work and labour; for Mead it was humans ability to take the self as object.


Mead notes that human actions have three characteristics: (a) humans are able to organize their minds concerning the array of possible responses open to them; (b) humans can consider the likely implications of different actions, and test possible outcomes mentally in their own minds; and (c) since there are a range of stimuli that impinge upon an individual, a human need not react to the immediate stimulus, but may react to one of the lesser stimuli.  This means that humans are able to make choices that are better adapted to the situation and “intelligence is largely a matter of selectivity” (Ritzer, p. 339). 


For Mead, rather than action being defined by:


                                    Stimulus                                     Response


action is more appropriately identified with the following sequence of events:



            Stimulus                                  Interpret and Define                            Response


That is, the stimulus-response pattern is not what characterizes social interaction, but rather what happens between stimulus and response.  Here humans go through a process of interpreting and defining the stimulus before providing a response.  Associated with this is meaning – “the wedding of different attitudes and the use of significant symbols that have the same import for all concerned” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202).  “When individuals share symbolic interpretations, the act is meaningful to them” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202).  For Mead, symbols are important in allowing human interaction to occur, and it is the shared understanding of the significance of symbols that and what they denote that makes for social interaction. 


4. Mind, self, and society


Mead’s best known work is Mind, Self and Society.  This was published after his death but constructed from his many lectures and papers.  Each of the three aspects are connected to and established in interaction with the other two.


a.  Mind.   While the mind must involve the human brain and its associated physiological operations, Mead also considered mind as involving the processes of responding to stimuli and contemplating action, with these being almost more important than the physiological processes of the brain, the structure of knowledge, or the contents of individual knowledge.  The mind is social, rather than being purely a characteristic of the brain or the individual.  That is, the mind develops as a result of social interaction, the mind is part of social processes, and since the latter precede the mind, society is prior to the mind and self for Mead.  For Mead, the “mind arises through communication  … and not communication through mind” (quoted in Adams and Sydie, p. 322).


Ritzer notes that the mind “has the ability to respond to the overall community and put forth an organized response.”  That is, the individual takes on the attitude of others and it is the interplay of significant symbols and producing an organized, cooperative response involving others that constitutes the mind.  This is not just a particular response, but one that can have meaning for the community as a whole, with symbols playing a major role.  Further, the mind “involves thought processes oriented toward problem solving.”  This shows the influence of the pragmatic approach.


b. Self.  The self is the central social feature in the symbolic interaction approach.  Instead of being passive and being influenced by values or structures, Mead considers the self as a process that is active and creative – taking on the role of others, addressing the self by considering these roles, and then responding.  This is a reflexive process, whereby an individual can take himself or herself to be both subject and object.  This means that “the individual is an object to himself, and, so far as I can see, the individual is not a self in the reflexive sense unless he is an object to himself” (Mead, quoted in Farganis, p. 148). 


Mead distinguished the “I” from the “me” (Adams and Sydie, p. 325).  When an individual is involved in a situation and acts, this action occurs in an environment.  Physical things or stimulae exist in the environment, prior to action, and people encounter these.  By considering these things and acting in response to them, following self-reflection and interpretation, these things become objects.  In doing this, individuals are active and creative. Those things of which the individual is conscious are those that the individual takes note of and indicates to the self.  This has two consequences.  (i)  By being conscious of certain things, the individual makes these things into objects, and these are more than stimuli.  The individual "constructs his objects on the basis of his on-going activity."  These objects then become meaningful for the individual and "This is what is meant by interpretation or acting on the basis of symbols" (Blumer in Wells, p. 92).  (ii)  This also means that acts are "constructed or built up instead of being a mere release."  The act is considered, in the context of the surroundings including the possible responses of others, and the overall consequences that are anticipated by the actor. Action is thus conscious and is not just a reaction to a stimulus. 


“I” is the impulsive and spontaneous, unorganized, creative, and imaginative  response of the individual (Adams and Sydie, p. 325), whereas the me is the organized self that is learned in interaction with others and which guides the behaviour of the socialized person.  The I allows for spontaneity, innovation, and individuality, and the me is that part of the self which involves the attitude of others.  The self involves both the I and the me, with social actions resulting from the dialogue or conversation between the two.


Self-interaction is how the individual takes things into account and organizes himself or herself for action.  As the social environment changes, or as individuals encounter new or altered experiences, they experiment and interact with themselves in order to find an appropriate response.  This involves taking on (i) the role of the other, (ii) considering how others will respond, (iii) having a conversation with oneself, and (iv) forming a means of response which takes all these considerations into account.  This may sometimes be quick and not entirely conscious, as in fairly routine situations such as buying food at the cafeteria.  At other times, it may involve a long period of conscious role-playing, for example in preparing for a job interview.  In either case though, some self-interaction does take place, in that each action is unique and is a result of the individual using the information from previous experiences and what the individual understands about the environment and situation, in order to act appropriately in the future.


Humans are distinctive in having the ability to be able to have a conversation with themselves, to imagine themselves in the position of other people, to consider what the other person imagines, and contemplates what the reaction of the other person is likely to be.  This is evident in communication with the other person, where the individual carries on a conversation with himself or herself (although this is covert and in the mind, and is not stated for others to hear) at the same time as the conversation with the other person is carried on.


Development of the Self.  Mead spends considerable time discussing the development of the child, because this is how the self is created.  The first stage of development of the self involves imitative acts on the part of the child.  This is the pre-play stage, around age two, where the child does not have the ability to take on the role of others, but merely imitates the actions of others.  A play stage follows, where the child can act out the parts of others but cannot yet relate to the role of others.  That is, the child repeats what others say, and takes on several roles, one at a time.  Later, the child is able to act with others and anticipate the actions of others.  This is the game stage, where the child can take on the role of all the others involved in the game or situation.  In doing this, the child learns the organized attitudes of the whole community, and is able to act in common with others.  The final stage in socialization is the internalization of the generalized other, whereby people can put themselves in the position of the other person, imagine how others will react, and from that contemplate various courses of action.  Once this ability is developed, the individual has a self which is individual, yet could not have developed apart from the community.  That is, “one has to be a member of a community to be a self” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 202).


Simple and then more complex situations and games are one way the child develops a self, and these situations illustrate the nature of more general social processes – interacting with family and friends and taking part in social relationships.  Other than games, the development of the individual's ability to communicate using language and other symbols also play an important role in this.  In the use of different forms of language, the child learns what others think and how others might respond.   Games and learning a language are both social – they could not occur in the isolated individual.


c.  Society.   The third major part of Mead's approach is society.  The ongoing symbols and social processes that exist are logically and historically prior to the development of the mind and self.  Institutions that give the common responses of society and the regular habits of the community are the context within which the mind and self are created.  Socialization and education are the means by which individuals internalize these common habits. Mead does not see these as coercive or oppressive, and feels that individual creativity can exist within this.  Social institutions can be viewed as constraining on individuals but these same institutions can also be viewed as enabling people to become creative individuals (Ritzer, p. 347).   Mead did not develop a macro view of society and social institutions as a whole, but his approach might be combined with some of the more structural approaches to provide a more integrated view of the macro and micro approaches.  Note that the classical sociologists have a similar conception of society to that of Mead, but they do not have a theory of the self, and they do not emphasize interaction.


d. Symbolic Meaning.  For Mead, significant symbols are those “which will call out in another that which it calls out in the thinker” (Mead in Farganis, p. 150).  Symbols of this sort are universal (rather than particular) and are involved in the process of thinking – “an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself" (Mead in Ritzer, p. 338) using gestures or symbols.  Language is a set of vocal gestures which are significant symbols carrying social meaning.  Thinking is implicit conversation, or covert behaviour – that is, it “is not a mentalistic definition of thinking; it is decidedly behavioristic” (Ritzer, p. 338).


While Weber considered meaning to be essential to defining what is social, he did not provide a very clear idea of how he defined meaning or what aspects of meaning were important.  In contrast, Mead makes meaning an essential part of definition and development of self.  “Meaning as such, i.e., the object of thought, arises in experience through the individual stimulating himself to take the attitude of the other in his reactions toward the object” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 201).  That is, meaning develops through experiences, as different individuals develop a common understanding of social situations and symbols.  When symbolic interpretation is shared, people see things in the same light, and acts are meaningful to actors.  As a result of this common understanding, the gesture or symbol arouses the same attitude in the individuals, and this is sufficient to trigger a reaction. 


A symbol is “the stimulus whose response is given in advance” (Wallace and Wolf, p. 204).  This could be a set of words, a gesture, a look, or a more fixed, material symbol such as a flag, crest, or money.  When actors in a situation have developed a common understanding of symbols, it is significant for them and has meaning, in that they understand how the symbol will be interpreted by others and what the response is likely to be.  This understanding is developed from previous experiences where the likely responses of others to the symbols has been observed or understood.  As a result, the symbols have meaning for the individuals, and these allow individuals to interact with each other. 




Farganis, J., Readings in Social Theory: the Classic Tradition to Post-Modernism, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1993.

Knapp, P., One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory, Harper-Collins, New York, 1994).

Turner, H. H., The Structure of Sociological Theory, Wadsworth, Belmont, California, 1991, fifth edition.


Last edited March 17, 2003