Socialized Self: George Herbert Mead's Self, Mind and Society

(George Herbert Mead)
George Herbert Mead was a social philosopher who discussed the connection between the self, the mind, and society. He believed that society has an effect on the self and mind, and the self and the mind have an effect on society. Mead is considered to be the father of symbolic interaction.

The "Self":

Mead believed that the "self" is an entity that helps individuals grow and develop to be socially productive citizens.

According to Mead, the "self" only exists in humans and not animals because it has to be developed through social activity and social relationships; the "self" cannot cultivate without social interaction. It also doesn't exist in infants because babies don't participate in social activities and don't have social relationships. Mead also said that if a person's "self" has already been developed, they will continue to have it even if they end all social contact.

Story short, the "self" is a social process.

As our selves develop more and more, we begin to be able to examine our own thoughts and behaviors as we would if we were examining other's actions. And to reach this, Mead says that we have to have the ability to unconsciously put ourselves in other people's shoes and act as they would act.

"It is by means of reflexivness -- the turning-back of the experience of the individual upon himself -- that the whole social process is thus brought into the experience of the individuals involved in it; it is by such means, which enable the individual to take the attitude of the other toward himself, that the individual is able consciously to adjust himself to that process, and to modify the resultant process in any given social act in terms of his adjustment to it." (Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist)

Mead also says that we cannot directly experience our "selves." We can only do so indirectly. He says that we achieve this by putting ourselves in the position of others, and then viewing our own actions from that standpoint. This standpoint can be from a particular individual or from the standpoint of the whole community.

"It is only by taking the roles of others that we have been able to come back to ourselves." (Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist)

Child Development:

Mead believed that there are two stages to the development of the self in children, the play stage and the game stage.

Play Stage - In this stage, children take on the roles of others as well as the attitudes of particular individuals. However, this "self" is limited because children are only able to take on roles of others; they cannot yet view their own "selves."

Mead gives the example of American children playing "Indian."

"This means that the child has a certain set of stimuli which call out in itself the responses they would call out in others, and which answer to an Indian." (Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist)

Game Stage - This is a very important stage for the development of the self because it makes the individual take on the roles of everyone. By doing this, it teaches the individual to function in an organized group and to determine what their role, or contribution to the group, will be as they are given this time to figure out what role suits them best. As well, organization and personality emerge while at this stage.

"I" and "Me":

Mead also talks about the "I" and the "Me". This concept was discussed in an earlier post, which can be read here.

Generalized Other:

The Generalized Other is the attitude of the entire community. This is important to the self because it makes the individual view him/herself through the eyes of the social group and not just through the discrete individual. This allows for abstract thinking and objectivity.

In regards to the development of the community, if a person is able to view through the lens of the generalized other, then they will be an organized and efficient member of society, as well as able to direct their activities to help the community better.

"Only in so far as he takes the attitudes 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." (Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist)

Mead also discussed the concern that this may lead to all individuals conforming and being the same. He says that conformity will not happen because all selves have unique biographies, even if the structure of the self is the same for everyone. Also, he says that the generalized other exists in many sizes because there are many groups in society, not just one big group.


Mead saw that society was a very crucial component of the mind. He believed that individuals carry society around with them in their minds, and this regulates how they behave. The regulation, or habits and common responses of society, are learned through education.

"The whole community acts toward the individual under certain circumstances in an identical way... there is an identical response on the part of the whole community under these conditions. We call that the formation of the institution." (Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist)

RELATED: Sociologist's Tools

Mead's concepts of self, mind, and society may seem like it overlaps, and it absolutely does because he sees all of these proponents as interconnecting. Society affects the mind, which affects the self, which turns around and affects society. Do you agree with Mead? What about my interpretation of his work? Share your thoughts below.

P.S. Do you want to learn more about sociology? Check out my book,  SOCI 001: The Armchair Sociologist’s Guide to Sociology, on Amazon. It's a clear and concise guide with descriptive examples to help you better understand this social science. Click here to learn more about it.


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