George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts to a successfully middle-class and intellectual family. His father, Hiram, was a pastor and a chair of theology at Oberlin College and his mother, Elizabeth, served as president of Mount Holyoke College for several years. Mead himself enrolled in Oberlin College in 1879 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1883. After graduating, Mead briefly taught grade school and worked as a surveyor for a railroad company before enrolling at Harvard in 1887 to continue his education. At Harvard, Mead studied philosophy and psychology with the renowned pragmatist philosopher, William James, who would greatly influence Mead’s thought. After receiving a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard, Mead went to Germany to study psychology under the famous psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who also greatly influenced Mead’s later ideas about symbolic gestures, society, and the self.
Mead never completed his Ph.D. studies, but was still hired at the University of Michigan in 1891. That same year he married Helen Castle. At Michigan, the prominent sociologist Charles Cooley and philosopher John Dewey were two great scholars who would also greatly affect Mead’s thinking. In 1894, Mead left Michigan for the University of Chicago, where he stayed for over 30 years until his death.
Unlike the many other theorists profiled in Social Theory Re-Wired, Mead never wrote a book. His most widely read publication, Mind, Self, and Society, is actually a collection of his lectures that his students put together after his death. Mead did, however, have a prolific career, writing over 100 articles, book reviews, and essays.
Throughout his career, Mead was most concerned with theorizing how the mind and the self arise out of social interaction and experience. He was a strong critic of psychological behaviorism, a highly individualistic understanding of human behavior prominent at the time, and advocated a social behaviorism that took human responses to social objects like gestures, language, and other symbolic phenomena as hugely important to understanding human thought and action in the world.
Mead died in 1931 at the age of 68. One of the most prominent social philosophers of his own time, Mead remains a foundational theorist of social psychology, action, and the sociology of the self.
Many of us today live in a culture that encourages us to think of our selves as essentially and uniquely individual, cut off from or even opposed to the larger societies in which we live. When we hear people say things like, “I don’t care what other people think about me,” we get a glimpse into common (mis)conceptions of what it means to be a self. But Mead’s theory of the self convincingly shows us that this way of thinking is wrongheaded. What others think of us, the perspectives of others we gain from being a part of the conversation of gestures, are absolutely necessary for us to even have a sense of self. We think of ourselves as individuals, to be sure, but we are only able to do so by virtue of being a part of a larger social community. Arguably no other social theorist argues this point more brilliantly and systematically than George Herbert Mead.
For Mead, the gesture is perhaps the most important entryway into understanding social interaction and communication. A gesture, according to Mead, is an act by an organism that calls out a response in another organism. All living organisms inhabit, he argues, a conversation of gestures, calling out meaningful responses to and from one another. Mead uses the example of a dogfight to exemplify what he means by the conversation of gestures. The act of a dog snarling at another dog calls out for a response from the other dog to, for example, snarl back or retreat. The response from the second dog, in turn, calls out a further response from the first dog, and so on and so forth.
Mead argues that humans similarly live in a conversation of gestures, but that our conversation also includes significant symbols. Significant symbols, he states, are gestures that arouse in us the same feelings that they are meant to arouse in those they are directed at. With significant symbols, Mead argues, we take the perspective of others toward the symbol as our own, like when we learn to feel patriotism when looking at the national flag or when we take the perspective of both buyer and seller into account when bargaining over the price of a commodity. Once internalized, significant symbols are also what allow thinking—a silent conversation with ourselves in which we think over and through multiple perspectives to address a problem or issue.
For Mead, what we call our sense of self stems from the human ability to be self-conscious, to take ourselves as objects of experience. A sense of self, he argues, only arises as we begin taking the perspectives of others toward ourselves, internalizing them as our own perspective and viewpoint on “who I am.” The self, then, is an emergent product of social experience. Only by being able to take others’ perspectives can we gain a viewpoint from outside of our own egos from which to think about and evaluate our personal identities.
“We divide ourselves up in all sorts of different selves with reference to our acquaintances. We discuss politics with one and religion with another. There are all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions. It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self; it is not there as a self apart from this type of experience. A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal, as I have just pointed out”
Central to Mead’s theory of the self are the concepts of the “I” and the “Me.” While it’s tempting to think of the “I” and the “Me” as two separate parts of the self, in Mead’s thinking, it’s more accurate to see the “I” and the “Me” as a dynamic relationship that actually forms what we call the self. The self, in other words, is the relationship between the “I” and “Me.” The “Me” is the internalization of others’ perspectives on ourselves—the perspective we get of ourselves from how others treat us (as a man, for example, or an “at-risk youth”). The “I,” then, is the part of us that responds to these internalized attitudes—how, for example, we act based on others’ perspectives of us as a man or a troubled youth. The perspectives of the “I” and the “Me” may sometimes fuse, Mead argues, but often the “I” acts creatively in response to the “Me,” conforming to the “Me,” to be sure, but rarely in a total way.
As mentioned above, while never writing a book, Mead was still a prolific writer. The “Mead Project” is a great online web resource to find a large amount of Mead’s writings. Check it out at:
Mead’s ideas came to inspire an entirely new perspective on self and society called “symbolic interactionism.” You can learn more about how symbolic interactionists study social life by going online or to your library and checking out this journal:
or by reading sociologist Herbert Blumer’s foundational book on symbolic interactionism:
Hans Joas is one of the leading social theorists in the world today and has been greatly influenced by pragmatist thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and, of course, George Herbert Mead. If you want a deeper appreciation of Mead’s work and its relevance for social theory today, check out Joas’s book G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought: