Along with Max Weber, the American social behaviourist George Herbert Mead is credited as laying the foundations for a general approach to sociology called Interactionism. Symbolic Interactionism focuses on micro-level interaction and the way in which meanings are constructed and transmitted across the members of society. G. H. Mead argued that the individual’s self is a social self, produced in the process of interaction rather than being biologically given. Mead’s theory traces the emergence and development of the self through a series of stages in childhood and his ideas on the social-self underpins much interactionist research.


In Mead’s view, human thought, experience and conduct are essentially social. They owe their nature to the fact that human beings interact in terms of symbols, the most important of which are contained in language. A symbol does not simply stand for an object or event: it defines them in a particular way and indicates a response to them. Without symbols there would be no human interaction and no human society. Symbolic interactionism is necessary since man has no instincts to direct his behaviour. He is not genetically programmed to react automatically to particular stimuli. In order to survive he must therefore construct and live within a world of meaning. Thus, symbols provide the means whereby man can interact meaningfully with his natural; and social environment.

Social life can be only proceeded if the meanings of symbols are largely shared by members of society. If this were not the case meaningful communication would be impossible. In order for interaction to proceed each person involved must interpret the meanings and intentions of others. This is made possible by the existence of common symbols, but actually accomplished by means of a process which mead terms role taking’. The process of role taking involves the individual taking on the role of another by imaginatively placing himself in the position of the person with whom he is interacting. On the basis of this interpretation he will make his response to the action of the other.


Mead argues that through the process of role taking the individual develops a concept of ‘self’. By placing himself in the position of others he is able to look back upon himself. Mead claims that the idea of a self can only develop if the individual can get outside (experimentally) in such a way as to become an object to himself. To do this he must observe himself from the standpoint of others. Therefore the origin and development of a concept of self lies in the ability to take the role of another.

The notion of self is not inborn, it is learned during childhood. Mead sees two main stages in its development;

  1. PLAY STAGE:  It involves the child playing roles which are not his own. For example, the child may play at being mother or father, a doctor or a nurse. In doing so he becomes aware that there is a difference between himself and the role that he is playing. Thus, the idea of a self is developed as the child takes the role of a make-believe other.
  2. GAME STAGE: In playing a game, the child comes to see himself from the perspective of various other participants. In order to play a game, the child must become aware of his relationship to the other players. He must place himself in their roles in order to appreciate his particular role in the game. In doing so he sees himself in terms of the collective viewpoint of the other players. In Mead’s terminology he sees himself from the perspective of the generalized other.

Generalized Others

The game stage yields one of Mead’s best known concepts, the Generalized Other. The generalized other is the attitude of the entire community. The ability to take the role of the generalized other is essential to the self: “only in so far as he takes the attitude of the organized social group to which he belongs toward the organized, co-operative social activity or set of such activities in which that group is engaged, does he develop a complete self”.

In other words, to have a self, one must be a member of a community and be directed by the attitudes common to the community. While play requires only pieces of selves, the game requires a coherent self.   Not only is taking the role of the generalized other essential to the self, it also is crucial for the development of organized group activities. A group requires that individuals direct their activities in accord with the attitudes of the generalized other. The generalized other also represents Mead’s familiar propensity to give priority to the social, because it is through the generalized other that the group influences the behaviour of individuals.


Mead also looks at the self from a pragmatic point of view. At the individual level, the self allows the individual to be a more efficient member of the larger society. Because of the self, people are more likely to do what is expected of them in a given situation. Because people often try to live up to group expectations, they are more likely to avoid the inefficiencies that come from failing to do what the group expects. Furthermore, the self allows for greater coordination in society as a whole. Because individuals can be counted on to do what is expected of them, the group can operate more effectively

The preceding, as well as the overall discussion of the self, might lead us to believe that Mead’s actors are little more than conformists and that there is little individuality, since everyone is busy conforming to the expectations of the generalized other. But Mead is clear that each self is different from all the others. Selves share a common structure, but each self receives unique biographical articulation. In addition, it is clear that there is not simply one grand generalized other but that there are many generalized others in society, because there are many groups in society. People therefore have multiple generalized others and, as a result, multiple selves. Each person’s unique set of selves makes him or her different from everyone else. Furthermore, people need not accept the community as it is; they can reform things and seek to make them better. We are able to change the community because of our capacity to think.

I & ME:

Mead identifies two aspects, or phases, of the self, which he labels the “I” and the “me”. As Mead puts it, “The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases”. It is important to bear in mind that the “I” and the “me” are processes within the larger process of the self; they are not “things.”

The “I” is the immediate response of an individual to others. It is the incalculable, unpredictable, and creative aspect of the self. People do not know in advance what the action of the “I” will be. We are never totally aware of the “I,” and through it we surprise ourselves with our actions. We know the “I” only after the act has been carried out. Thus, we know the “I” only in our memories. Mead lays great stress on the “I” for four reasons;

  • First, it is a key source of novelty in the social process.
  • Second, Mead believes that it is in the “I” that our most important values are located.
  • Third, the “I” constitutes something that we all seek—the realization of the self.
  • Fourth, it is the “I” that permits us to develop a “definite personality.”

The “I” gives Mead’s theoretical system some much-needed dynamism and creativity. Without it, Mead’s actors would be totally dominated by external and internal controls. With it, Mead is able to deal with the changes brought about not only by the great figures in history (like Gandhi or Einstein), but also by individuals on a day-to-day basis. It is the “I” that makes these changes possible.

Since every personality is a mix of “I” and “me,” the great historical figures are seen as having a larger proportion of “I” than most others have. But in day-to-day situations, anyone’s “I” may assert itself and lead to change in the social situation. Uniqueness is also brought into Mead’s system through the biographical articulation of each individual’s “I” and “me.” That is, the specific exigencies of each person’s life give him or her a unique mix of “I” and “me.”

The “I” reacts against the “me,” which is the “organized set of attitudes of others which one him-self assumes”. In other words, the “me” is the adoption of the generalized other. In contrast to the “I,” people are conscious of the “me”; the “me” involves conscious responsibility. As Mead says, “The ‘me’ is a conventional, habitual individual”. Conformists are dominated by the “me,” although everyone—whatever his or her degree of conformity—has, and must have, a substantial “me.” It is through the “me” that society dominates the individual. Indeed, Mead defines the idea of social control as the dominance of the expression of the “me” over the expression of the “I”.

Mead also looks at the “I” and the “me” in pragmatic terms. The “me” allows the individual to live comfortably in the social world, while the “I” makes change in society possible. Society gets enough conformity to allow it to function, and it gets a steady infusion of new developments to prevent it from stagnating. The “I” and the “me” are thus part of the whole social process and allow both individuals and society to function more effectively.


Mead’s view of human interaction sees man as both actively creating the social environment and being shaped by it. The individual initiates and directs his own action while at the same time being influenced by the attitudes and expectations of others in the form of the generalized others. The individual and society are regarded as inseparable for the individual can only become human in a social context. In this context he develops a sense of self which is a prerequisite for thought. He learns to take roles of others which is essential both for the development of self and for the cooperative action. Without communication in terms of symbols whose meanings are shared, these processes would not be possible. Man therefore lives in a world of symbols which give meaning and significance to life and provide the basis for human interaction.


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