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Summary Article: Mead, George Herbert
from Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology: An Encyclopedia

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was an American philosopher and social scientist. He is considered among the most innovative thinkers in the philosophy of pragmatism and is best known as a founder of the discipline of social psychology, in particular symbolic interactionism. Among his most notable contributions include establishing the social and symbolic basis of mind and self, the relationship between language and culture, language use in social interaction as the means by which reality is constructed, and a metaphysics of emergence and temporality.

Mead was born on February 27, 1863, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. In 1870, the Mead family moved to Oberlin, Ohio, where his father, a Congregational minister, joined the faculty of the Oberlin Theological Seminary. His mother was on the faculty of Oberlin College and later served as president of Mount Holyoke College. Mead attended Oberlin College (1879-1883), earning a BA degree. At Oberlin, he was exposed to progressive ideas and was greatly influenced by those of Charles Darwin. During this time, he became a committed naturalist and a nonbeliever. After graduation, Mead tried teaching school; then, for 3 years, he worked on a surveying crew for the Wisconsin Central Railroad Company. In 1887, he entered graduate school at Harvard, where he studied psychology and philosophy.

After Harvard, Mead traveled to Germany (1888-1891) to continue his studies with Wilhelm Dilthey and in the psychology laboratory of Wilhelm Wundt. In 1891, Mead married Helen Castle, the sister of his friend Henry Castle, and joined the faculty of Philosophy and Psychology at the University of Michigan. A son, Henry, was born in 1892. In 1894, Mead joined John Dewey at the University of Chicago. At Chicago, Mead flourished as a teacher and a scholar. In addition to his academic career, he was involved in numerous progressive causes. He was a member of the civic-minded City Club of Chicago, he participated in educational reform initiatives, he supported women's suffrage, and he worked with Jane Addams in the Settlement Movement and Hull House. He stayed in Chicago until his death on April 26, 1931.


Pragmatism is a philosophical school of thought founded in the United States around 1870. The central themes of pragmatism are consistent with science as a problem-solving method: with the study of phenomena as they occur in nature, and with the emergent, processual, and consequential qualities of the world. For pragmatists, ideas should be based on observation and put to an empirical test and judged by their usefulness, by their practical consequences. The process of finding ideas that work was called intelligent practice.

Four principles form the basis of pragmatism: (1) reality is based on language and is socially constructed; (2) people define and act toward social and cultural objects according to their meaning and practicality; (3) because of language use and symbolic behavior that is largely molded in human social environments, humans are fundamentally different from all other species; and, finally, (4) any understanding of human individual and social behavior, and social worlds must be based on observations of situated human behavior.

Mind, Language, and Reality

Mead understood that group life preceded the human mind and that language, mind, and self emerged together in the context of the social processes inherent in group life and cannot be understood apart from those processes. Mead defined mind, or mental processes, as thought—as internal conversations with oneself. In his treatment, mind evolved when vocal gestures (primitive language) gained significance, when those gestures called out in self a response that was functionally identical to the response called out in the other. Vocal gestures became symbolic and shared.

Mead, along with Franz Boas, Edward Sapir, and Benjamin Lee Whorf, were instrumental in identifying the relationship between language and culture and between language, thought, and constructed reality. Like the anthropological linguists, Mead characterized language as a set of significant symbols and rules of usage that are shared by members of a speech community. As people in the community named and defined objects in their world, language developed, and reality became socially constructed, shared, and symbolic. Accordingly, perception and thought both were made possible and constrained by the structure of one's native language.

Regarding thought, experience, and mental activity, Mead noted that they only happen in the ongoing present. Past experiences, or memory, can only exist as experience in the present. Past experience isn't experienced as it was originally, but rather, it is reconstructed or re-membered in relation to the circumstances constituting a person's present situation. In Mead's view, reality is continually being reconstructed as a way of making sense of the present. As with the past, Mead characterized the future as existing only in the present as a projected outcome or a previsioned consequence of purposive action. From Mead's perspective, the past is not objective facticity and cannot determine human conduct. Instead, human behavior in the present is guided in part by a reconstructed past and conditioned by a projected future.

Mead observed a reflexive quality in mental activity, the ability to adjust one's behavior in anticipation of the incipient behavior of others. Through observation, a person takes the attitude of the other and prepares his or her own options for action that coordinates with, circumvents, or resists the oncoming actions of the other person in the situation. A teacher seeing an angry parent approaching adjusts how he or she will meet the parent. Similarly, by turning back experience on oneself, one can identify the attitude of others and adjust one's own behavior to affect how one is seen and defined by them.

For Mead, human behavior is not caused. Nor is it released or propelled by stimuli or by social forces. Human behavior is organized and directed toward practical consequences in the form of individual and social acts. A hungry person has several options to solve his problem. He can look for a café or a convenience store, go home to raid his refrigerator, or ignore the hunger. Once a course of action is selected, the person can proceed with the social act. The hunger does not determine the course of action taken. Mind works as the process of initiating purposive behavior.

Self, Society, and the Social Act

In Mead's view, the self arises within the context of social interaction in significant social relationships. Having a self involves how a person identifies self and acts in social situations. Self is largely a process that develops within dominant social relationships and is related to the language used in those relationships. That is, we come to know ourselves from the actions and responses of others, particularly significant others. We are not, however, totally determined by the definitions and actions of others. Mead insisted that humans are more than the product of their social environment; they are an active part of the social groups that define them. Our own actions affect how others define us. Inherent in the process of viewing ourselves from the perspective of others is the potential for changing self by changing how others view us. A child who perceives that others view her as lacking in intelligence can begin to take her studies seriously and improve her vocabulary and academic performance. Others may note this and redefine the child.

The nature of the social relationships in which a person's self develops forms a significant dimension of self. In this sense, self cannot exist without other/s. A person can organize and regulate his own activity, or it can be done by others. The demands and expectations of others are routinely taken into account in organizing our behavior. Mead's inclusion of the significant role of social relationships in the development of self has been adopted by postmodern anthropologists, who focus on how dominant groups not only oppress but also repress the full, healthy development of self. Not only does a subordinate learn to anticipate the expectations of her supervisor, but also a child born into a highly paternalistic society, including a strict paternalistic family structure, will have a different self as compared with a child who develops in a society that is characterized by egalitarian social forms. For Mead, the form of the social relationships in which a person is involved is a significant dimension of self.

For Mead, a person has a self when he can act toward himself as a social or cultural object, as others act toward him. Social objects have names, definitions, and understandings on how to act toward them. We learn the social objects that constitute our worlds through our involvement in social group life. A pencil is a social object, as is a church. Friday is a social object. We name social objects and act toward them in terms of how we define them. Similarly, people can be social objects. We define and act toward college professors differently than we define and act toward a thief. We become a social object to ourselves when we make indications to self and direct our behavior with regard to the definition of our role in a social situation. When college professors prepare their next lecture, they are acting toward self as a social object.

Significant or meaningful interaction for Mead is constituted in a triadic process involving the initiating vocal gesture, the response of another, and the result of or consequence of the interaction. Thus, the meaning of an utterance is not contained in the words spoken or in the intent of the speaker. When a young woman smiles and says “Hi” to a young man who does not return the smile, it has an entirely different meaning as when the warm greeting is returned by the young man, who then stops to talk to the young lady and asks for her telephone number. The meaning of a smile does not lie in the utterance. It is contingent on the response of the other and any consequence thereof.

Mead describes the development of self as occurring in three distinct stages of increasing complexity in language use: (1) thought processes, (2) role-taking ability, and (3) organizing one's own behavior. These stages encompass early learning, play, and games. In the game stage, the child begins to engage in reciprocal interaction by taking the role of the other in social situations.

As children learn more complex games, they come to understand an organized set of roles as it relates to their own behavior. They abide by rules, act strategically, and act with others in an organized fashion, including a division of labor, toward a common future state. For example, in a baseball game, a player understands the organized set of roles that constitute his team in the game and can anticipate their behavior in a given situation. The kinds of games played by boys and girls in a society prepare them for their involvements as adults. For example, boys who play football are preparing for their involvement in corporate worlds. They are learning hierarchically organized, competitive, coordinated action involving a division of labor and a leader who defines and initiates a sequence of social acts that lead to a specific outcome.

An implied final stage in Mead's development of self is the “generalized other.” It refers to the perspective that is common to the group or community to which a person belongs. That is, the person sees self from the generalized standpoint of the larger community. A person defined as a nice guy by his community, besides seeing himself as a nice guy, is morally obliged to act like a nice guy throughout the day or risk being held accountable for untoward behavior. For Mead, the generalized other accounts for consistent behavior across situations involving different actors.

In Mead's view, all group life is based on the cooperative (coordinated) behavior of its members. Coordinated social behavior or social acts begin with an impulse and end with an achieved objective that releases the impulse. For Mead, the social act is the basic unit of analysis in the study of human social behavior. A social act may involve the participation of two or more people and can range from the simple (two people in conversation) to the complex (a government agency investigating corruption). Short-term social acts can be embedded in long-term social acts. For example, a group project is part of the social act of getting a college education.

Social acts are both observable and understandable to social scientists and competent members of society who engage in them daily. Mead's idea was to develop a way to understand the methods that people employ both to construct social acts and to make sense of it all. In their vast variety and number, social acts constitute what we think of as culture and society. It is in social acts that social and cultural objects are defined and acted on. It is through social acts that people construct, maintain, and modify reality.

See also Alliance-Descent Debate; Darwin, Charles; Durkheim, Émile; Frazer, James G.; Maine, Henry James; Morgan, Lewis Henry; Religion; Sacrifice; Smith, William Robertson; Tylor, Edward Burnett

Further Readings
  • Carroll, J. B. (Ed.). (1956). Language, thought, and reality: Selected writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Technology Press of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge.
  • Geertz, C. (1973). The interpretation of cultures. Basic Books New York, NY.
  • Mead, G. H. (1932). The philosophy of the present. University of Chicago Press Chicago, IL.
  • Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self, and society. University of Chicago Press Chicago, IL.
  • Mead, G. H. (1938). The philosophy of the act. University of Chicago Press Chicago, IL.
  • Miller, D. (1973). George Herbert Mead: Self, language, and the world. University of Texas Press Austin.
  • Sapir, E. (1985). Selected writings of Edward Sapir in language, culture, and personality. University of California Press Berkeley.
  • Dan E. Miller
    © 2013 SAGE Publications, Inc

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