George Herbert Mead is widely recognized as one of the most influential figures of American sociology. His pioneering work in social psychology helped to establish the reputation the Chicago School of Sociology. His teachings also laid the groundwork for the philosophy of pragmatism in the United States.
This paper focuses on Mead's sociological theory, particularly his contributions to social psychology. The first part of the paper summarizes the key points of Mead's social theory, including an evaluation of his work. The next part then examines how Mead's work can be expanded into other areas of sociological inquiry and sees whether his theories continue to have relevance today.
Mead's Sociological Theory
In his book Mind, Self and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, Mead criticizes the then prevailing psychological theories that sought to explain the emergence of consciousness based solely on an individual standpoint. For Mead, a person's consciousness and sense of self can only be understood in terms of his or her social surroundings. This is because human beings are social beings, inextricably linked with the various social structures around them. As Mead observed, "individuals are born into a certain nationality, located at a certain spot geographically, with such and such family relations and...political relations" (cited in Coser 339).
Thus, instead of studying the individual in isolation, which was the current method of studying psychological problems at the time, Mead espoused a "social psychology." While this approach still takes the standpoint of the individual, Mead also stressed that a person's behavior "can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social group of which he is a member" (Mead 6).
Thus, while psychologists of the 1920s remained heavily influenced by the internal approach based on the ideas of Sigmund Freud and behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner, Mead argued that mental phenomena cannot simply be reduced to physiological reflexes and conditioned mechanisms. While much behavior is rooted in "rudimentary biological activity," Mead believes that there is still a reciprocal interaction between people and their environment (Rosenthal 7).
In this light, Mead posited that all consciousness, whether in the mind of a human or an animal, is in part a social act. All living beings react to stimuli from their environment. However, these living beings also "choose" the stimuli to which they react. Thus, in a way, Mead believed that "all living organisms, from cells to humans, are in anticipatory interaction with an environment" (Rosenthal 8).
Mead held that this even this form of social activity showed the rudiments of intelligence, even among animals. What sets humans apart, however, is a person's capacity for introspection. This allows humans to develop a consciousness, one that is based on an individual's interactions with his or her social environment.
This concept of an emergent consciousness is also a significant departure from the Cartesian ego, which presupposes the existence of an insulated human consciousness. Instead, Mead argued that human consciousness is at least a partially biological phenomena, one that humans share with all living beings. However, what sets humans apart is their capacity for an "emergent" consciousness, one that develops based on interactions with the greater social world (Coser 335).
This capacity for an "emergent" consciousness means that unlike animals, people can develop ways of communicating and interacting with one another on symbolic, as well as non-symbolic levels (Coser 335). Because they lack this emergent consciousness, animals can only respond on a non-symbolic level. A zebra that spots a leopard in the grass will immediately run away, a response that involves no introspection.
However, much of human interaction is also characterized by symbolic or self-conscious gestures. This includes not only what people say, but factors like how they talk, the inflections in their voices, how they gesture with their hands and the distances they maintain from one another while conversing. Much of this interaction depends on a mutual understanding of the meanings of the various symbolic gestures people use to communicate with one another.
These interactions have a reciprocal effect on a person's consciousness and sense of self. Mead argued that what a human views as his or her "self" is actually a product of both the biological interaction with the environment and these symbol-laden interactions with other people.
These symbols are taught at an early age. Mead believed that as children, humans learn the meanings of symbols and develop an idea of the "role" they are going to play in society. As children play, they learn rules of behavior towards one another, which helps them learn about the rules of greater social order. This sets the stage where children learn to be conscious of the "generalized other," the attitudes and expectations of the rest of their community. This then leads to maturity, where individuals internalize these social expectations and assume their social roles (Coser 338).
Thus, for Mead, the individual self is actually a reflection and result of the social processes. However, the individual also continually reacts against society. Human beings are thus inextricably woven into their greater social world. However, in reacting, they are also in a position to transform the social environments to which they belong.
Thus, for Mead, the individual "self" is actually a composite, a result of the reciprocal relationship between a person and his or her social environment. The "individual" self is actually developed in relation to the norms and mores prevailing in the person's social environment. The individual's ability to "internalize" the needs and attitudes of the greater society determines in a large part the roles he or she will assume in life.
Through these roles, however, individuals are able to make their contributions to the entire system of social life.
An evaluation of Mead's theories must take into account the time and environment during which he wrote. When Mead joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, the prevailing theories of self and mind were heavily influenced by Freud and Skinnerian behaviorists. These ideas in turn were rooted in a Cartesian philosophy of the mind, one that sees the human ego as an internal phenomena largely isolated from its larger social environment.
One of Mead's greatest contributions was thus to tease out the link between individual and social consciousness. By studying how individuals "internalize" social norms and expectations, Mead was able to highlight the complex ways in which society exerts a powerful controlling behavior on an individual person's psyche and behavior. His ideas on role taking laid the foundations for future sociologists such as Erving Goffman, who studied the social roles people take and the ways which people use to "present" themselves to society.
His understanding of the importance of non-verbal gestures also provided an important springboard for symbolic interaction theorists, who are concerned with the various meanings different people and cultures associate with gestures and other aspects of human interaction. Today, many feminist scholars have also critically appropriated this work to examine the various symbols and meanings attached to gender and the female body.
Whereas previous theorists and philosophers viewed "consciousness" as a human given, Mead rightly recognized that consciousness only develops in relation to the greater social world. His belief that an individual takes on the role of the "generalized other" is an early articulation of what C. Wright Mills would later call the "sociological imagination," a worldview which allows people to "understand(s) the larger historical scene in terms of its meaning of the inner life and the external career of a variety of individuals" (Mills 5).
Because of his emphasis on the role of social agents and socialization on shaping individual behavior, Mead was not able to fully explore the role of individual autonomy in a person's consciousness. After all, despite similar upbringings and social environments, different people still react in various ways to the same stimuli. For example,…