George Herbert Mead Research Paper

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Together with Charles Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, George Herbert Mead is considered one of the classic representatives of American pragmatism. He is most famous for his ideas about the specificities of human communication and sociality and about the genesis of the ‘self’ in infantile development. By developing these ideas, Mead became one of the founders of social psychology and—mostly via his influence on the school of symbolic interactionism— one of the most respected figures in contemporary sociology. Compared with that enormous status, other parts of his work like his general approach to action and his ethics are relatively neglected.

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1. Life and Context

Mead was born the son of a Protestant clergyman in Massachusetts (South Hadley, February 27, 1863). He spent the majority of his childhood and youth at Oberlin College, Ohio, where his father was appointed professor and where he himself studied. After four years of bread-and-butter employment and intense intellectual struggle with the Darwinian revolution and Kant’s moral philosophy, Mead entered graduate study at Harvard and continued at the universities of Leipzig and Berlin, Germany, specializing in questions of psychology and philosophy. After teaching at the University of Michigan (1891–94), Mead was brought by John Dewey to the newly founded University of Chicago where he taught until his death on April 26, 1931. Publishing very little, but increasingly influential through his teaching and his life as an activist citizen during the Progressive Era, Mead’s reputation has grown since his death. All his major works were published posthumously, based partly on student notes, partly on unfinished manuscripts from his remaining papers.

2. The Work

In his foundations of social psychology, Mead starts not from the behavior of the individual organism but from a cooperating group of distinctively human organisms, from what he called the ‘social act.’ Groups of humans are subject to conditions that differ fundamentally from those of prehuman stages. For human societies, the problem is how individual behavior not fixed by nature can be differentiated yet also, via mutual expectations, be integrated into group activity. Mead’s anthropological theory of the origins of specifically human communication seeks to uncover the mechanism that makes such differentiation and reintegration possible.

Charles Darwin’s analysis of expressive animal behavior and Wilhelm V. Wundt’s concept of gestures were crucial stimuli for Mead’s own thinking on this matter. He shares with them the idea that a ‘gesture’ is a ‘syncopated act,’ the incipient phase of an action that may be employed for the regulation of social relationships. Such regulation is possible when an animal reacts to another animal’s action during this incipient phase as it would react to the action as a whole. If such a connection is working properly, the early phase of the action can become the ‘sign’ for the whole action and serve to replace it.

For a gesture to have the same meaning for both sides, its originator must be able to trigger in him or herself the reaction that he or she will excite in the partner to communication, so that the other’s reaction is already represented inside him or herself. In other words, it must be possible for the gesture to be perceived by its actual originator. Among humans, this is the case particularly with a type of gestures that can also be most widely varied according to the precise situation: namely, vocal gestures. For Mead, they are a necessary condition for the emergence of selfconsciousness in the history of the species, but not a sufficient condition (otherwise the path of self-consciousness would, for example, have been open to birds as well).

Mead also regarded as crucial, the typically human uncertainty of response, and the hesitancy facilitated by the structure of the nervous system. These entail that the originator’s virtual reaction to their own gesture does not just take place simultaneously with the reaction of their partner, but actually precedes that reaction. Their own virtual reaction is also registered in its incipient phase and can be checked by other reactions, even before it finds expression in behavior. Thus, anticipatory representation of the other’s behavior is possible. Perception of one’s own gestures leads not to the emergence of signs as substitute stimuli, but to the bursting of the whole stimulus-response schema of behavior and to the constitution of ‘significant symbols.’ It thus becomes possible to gear one’s own behavior to the potential reactions of others, and intentionally to associate different actions with one another. Action is here oriented to expectations of behavior. And since, in principle, one’s communicative partners have the same capacity, a binding pattern of reciprocal behavioral expectations becomes the premise of collective action.

This anthropological analysis, which Mead extends into a comparison between human and animal sociality, provides the key concepts of his social psychology. The concept of ‘role’ designates precisely a pattern of behavioral expectation; ‘taking the role of the other’ means to anticipate the other’s behavior, but not to assume the other’s place in an organized social context. This inner representation of the other’s behavior entails that different instances take shape within the individual. The individual makes their own behavior (like their partner’s behavior) the object of their perception. Alongside the dimension of instinctive impulses, there appears an evaluative authority made up of expectations on how the other will react to an expression of those impulses.

Mead speaks of an ‘I’ and a ‘me.’ The ‘I’ refers in the traditional philosophical sense to the principle of creativity and spontaneity, but in Mead it also refers biologically to the human instinctual make-up. This duality in Mead’s use of the term is often experienced as contradictory, since ‘instinct,’ ‘impulse,’ or ‘drive’ are associated with a dull natural compulsion. Mead, however, considers that humans are endowed with a constitutional surplus of impulses, which—beyond any question of satisfaction—creates space for itself in fantasy and can be only channeled by normativization. The ‘me’ refers to my idea of how the other sees me or, at a more primal level, to my internalization of what the other expects me to do or be. The ‘me,’ qua precipitation within myself of a reference person, is an evaluative authority for my structuring of spontaneous impulses and a basic element of my developing self-image. If I encounter several persons who are significant references for me, I thus acquire several different ‘me’s,’ which must be synthesized into a unitary self-image for consistent behavior to be possible. If this synthesization is successful, the ‘self’ comes into being: that is, a unitary self-evaluation and action-orientation which allows interaction with more and more communicative partners; and at the same time, a stable personality structure develops which is certain of its needs. Mead’s model, more than Freud’s, is oriented to dialogue between instinctual impulses and social expectations.

Mead’s theory of personality passes into a developmental logic of the formation of the self that is applicable to both species and individual. Central here are the two forms of children’s conduct designated by the terms ‘play’ and ‘game.’ ‘Play’ is interaction with an imagined partner in which the child uses behavioral anticipation to act out both sides; the other’s conduct is directly represented and complemented by the child’s own conduct. The child reaches this stage when it becomes capable of interacting with different individual reference-persons and adopting the other’s perspective—that is, when the reference-person at who the child’s instinctual impulses are mainly directed is no longer the only one who counts. The child then also develops a capacity for group ‘game,’ where anticipation of an individual partner’s behavior is no longer enough and action must be guided by the conduct of all other participants. These others are by no means disjointed parts, but occupy functions within groups. The individual actor must orientate himself or herself to a common goal—which Mead calls the ‘generalized other.’ The behavioral expectations of this generalized other are, for instance, the rules of a game, or, more generally, the norms and values of a group. Orientation to a particular ‘generalized other’ reproduces at a new stage the orientation to a particular concrete other. The problem of orienting to ever broader generalized others becomes the guiding thought in Mead’s ethical theory.

If Mead’s introductory lectures on social psychology published as Mind, Self, and Society (Mead 1934), and the great series of essays that developed his basic ideas for the first time between 1908 and 1912, are taken as his answer to how cooperation and individuation are possible, then the much less well-known collection of Mead’s remaining papers—The Philosophy of the Act (Mead 1938)—represents an even more fundamental starting point. The problem that Mead addresses here is how instrumental action itself is possible. In particular, he considers the essential prerequisite for any purposive handling of things: that is, the constitution of permanent objects. His analysis of the ability for role taking as an important precondition for the constitution of the ‘physical thing’ is a major attempt to combine the development of communicative and instrumental capabilities within a theory of socialization.

In Mead’s model, action is made up of four stages: impulse, perception, manipulation, and (need-satisfying) consummation. The most distinctively human of these is the third, the stage of manipulation, whose interposition and independence express the reduced importance of the instincts in humans and provide the link for the emergence of thought. Hand and speech are for Mead the two roots of the development from ape to human. If impressions of distance initially trigger a response only in movements of the body, the retardation of response due to distance and the autonomy of the sphere of contact experience then make possible a reciprocal relationship between eye and hand: the two cooperate and control each other. Intelligent perception and the constitution of objects take place, in Mead’s view, when distance experience is consciously related to contact experience. But this becomes possible, he further argues, only when the role-taking capability develops to the point where it can be transferred to nonsocial objects.

A thing is perceived as a thing only when we attribute to it an ‘inside’ that exerts pressure on us as soon as we touch it. Mead calls this, ‘taking the role of the thing.’ If I also succeed in doing this by anticipation, I will be able to deal with things in a controlled manner and accumulate experiences of manipulative action. Combined with the cooperation of eye and hand, this means that the body’s distance senses can and actually do trigger the experience of resistance proper to manipulation. The distant object is then perceived as an anticipated ‘contact value’; the thing looks heavy, hard or hot. Only interactive experience allows what stands before me to appear as active (as ‘pressing’). If this is correct, social experience is the premise upon which sense perception can be synthesized into ‘things.’ Mead thereby also explains why at first—that is, in the consciousness of the infant or of primitive cultures—all things are perceived as living partners in a schema of interaction, and why it is only later that social objects are differentiated from physical objects. The constitution of permanent objects is, in turn, the precondition for the separation of the organism from other objects and its self-reflective development as a unitary body. Self-identity is thus formed in the same process whereby ‘things’ take shape for actors. Mead is thus trying to grasp the social constitution of things without falling prey to a linguistically restricted concept of meaning. Mead develops a slightly different formulation of the same ideas in those of his works that connect up with philosophical discussions of relativity theory and which make central use of the concept of ‘perspective.’ Mead’s ethics and moral psychology are as much grounded upon his theory of action and his social psychology as they set an axiological framework for these scientific parts of his work. Mead’s approach to ethics develops from a critique of both the utilitarian and Kantian positions. He does not regard as satisfactory an orientation simply to the results of action or simply to the intentions of the actor; he wants to overcome both the utilitarian lack of interest in motives and the Kantian failure to deal adequately with the goals and objective results of action. He criticizes the psychological basis common to both ethical theories. Mead argues that the separation between motive and object of the will is a consequence of the empiricist concept of experience, and that beneath the surface this also characterizes Kant’s concept of inclination. For Mead, the value of an object is associated with the consummatory stage of the action, so that value is experienced as obligation or desire. According to him the relation expressed in the concept of value cannot be limited either to subjective evaluation or to an objective quality of value; it results from a relationship between subject and object which should not, however, be understood as a relationship of knowledge. The value relation is thus an objectively existing relation between subject and object, but it differs structurally from the perception of primary or secondary qualities. This difference is not due to a higher degree of subjective arbitrariness, but to the reference of values to the phase of need satisfaction rather than the phase of manipulation or perception. The claim to objectivity on the part of scientific knowledge bound up with perception or manipulation is, therefore, a matter of course also as far as moral action is concerned. This does not mean that Mead reduces ethics to one more science among others. For science, in his analysis, investigates the relations of ends and means, whereas ethics investigates the relationship among ends themselves.

Epigrammatically, one might say that for Mead the moral situation is a personality crisis. It confronts the personality with a conflict between various of its own values, or between its own values and those of direct partners or the generalized other, or between its own values and impulses. This crisis can be overcome only by one’s own creative, and hence ever risky, actions. Mead’s ethics, then, seeks not to prescribe rules of conduct but to elucidate the situation in which ‘moral discoveries’ are necessary. Expectations and impulses must be restructured, so that it becomes possible to rebuild an integral identity and to outline a moral strategy appropriate to the situation. If this is done successfully, the self is raised to a higher stage, since regard for further interests has now been incorporated into conduct.

Mead attempts to describe stages of self-formation as stages of moral development and, at the same time, as stages in the development of society toward freedom from domination. Orientation to a concrete other is followed by orientation to organized others within a group. Beyond this stage and beyond conflicts between different generalized others, there is an orientation to ever more comprehensive social units, and finally to a universalist perspective with an ideal of full development of the human species. We attain this universalist perspective by attempting to understand all values that appear before us—not relativistically in a nonjudgmental juxtaposition, but by assessing them in the light of a universalist community based upon communication and cooperation. Comprehensive communication with partners in the moral situation, and rational conduct oriented to achievement of the ideal community, are thus two rules to be applied in solving the crisis. This perspective lifts us outside any concrete community or society and leads to ruthless questioning of the legitimacy of all prevailing standards. In each moral decision is a reference to a better society.

The moral value of a given society is shown in the degree to which it involves rational procedures for the reaching of agreement and an openness of all institutions to communicative change. Mead uses the term ‘democracy’ for such a society; democracy is for him ‘institutionalized revolution.’ Individuals do not acquire their identity within it through identification with the group or society as such, in its struggle against internal or external enemies. Mead investigated the power-stabilizing and socially integrative functions of punitive justice, and looked at patriotism as an ethical and psychological problem. He recognized that both are functionally necessary in a society, which, because not everyone can publicly express their needs, requires an artificial unity. For Mead, the generation of a universalist perspective is by no means just a moral demand; he is aware that it is achievable only when all humans share a real context in which to act—something that can come about by means of the world market.

3. Mead’s Influence in Social Theory

During Mead’s lifetime, his influence was almost entirely limited to his students and a few colleagues in Chicago, and to his friend, the leading pragmatist philosopher John Dewey. The paths of influence there joining pragmatist philosophy, functionalist psychology, institutionalist economics, empirical sociology, and progressive social reformism can hardly be disentangled from one another. In the history of philosophy, Mead’s main service is to have developed a pragmatist analysis of social interaction and individual self-reflection. This same achievement enabled him, in the age of classical sociological theory, to clear a way for it to escape fruitless oppositions such as that between individualism and collectivism. Mead’s grasp of the unity of individuation and socialization defines his place in the history of sociology.

After Mead’s death, the school of ‘symbolic interactionism’ played a decisive role in assuring his influence in sociology. Herbert Blumer, a former student of Mead’s, became the founder and key organizer in the USA of a rich sociological research tradition which turned against the dominance of behaviorist psychology, quantitative methods of empirical social research, and social theories that abstracted from the action of members of society. This school, by contrast, emphasized the openness of social structures, the creativity of social actors, and the need for interpretation of the data of social science. Mead came to be seen as the school’s progenitor and classical reference, although his work was consulted only fragmentarily. In the dominant postwar theory of Talcott Parsons it remained marginal; Mead’s ideas were mentioned, alongside the works of Durkheim, Freud, and Cooley, as important for the understanding of the internalization of norms.

An important strand of the reception of his work can be found in Germany. Jurgen Habermas, in his Theory of Communicati e Action, identified Mead as one of the crucial inspirers of the paradigm shift ‘from purposive to communicative action.’ By this time at the latest, Mead was not just considered the originator of one sociological approach among many but as a classical theorist of the whole discipline. The pragmatist renaissance that is working itself out in philosophy and public life has focused attention more on Dewey than on Mead. One can also try to sound the potential of Mead’s work and American pragmatism in general for a revision of sociological action theory, the theory of norms and values, and macrosociological theory. The innovative potential of Mead’s pragmatic social theory is evident far beyond the narrow field of qualitative microsociological research, for which symbolic interactionism has primarily laid claim to his legacy.


  1. Cook G A 1993 George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL
  2. Habermas J 1984 1987 Theory of Communicati e Action. Beacon Press, Boston, 2 Vols
  3. Hamilton P (ed.) 1992 G H Mead. Critical Assessments. Routledge London New York, 4 Vols
  4. Joas H 1985 G H Mead. A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought, (translated by Raymond Meyer), 2nd edn. 1997. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
  5. Mead G H 1932 In: Murphy A E (ed.) The Philosophy of the Present. Open Court, Chicago, London
  6. Mead G H 1934 In: Morris C W (ed.) Mind, Self, and Society. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
  7. Mead G H 1936 In: Moore M H (ed.) Mo ements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
  8. Mead G H 1938 In: Morris C W, Brewster J M, Dunham A M, Miller D L (eds.) The Philosophy of the Act. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL
  9. Mead G H 1964 In: Reck A J (ed.) Selected Writings. BobbsMerrill, Indianapolis, IN
  10. Miller D L 1973 G H Mead: Self, Language, and the World. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX
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