Mead, George Herbert (1863-1931)

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Whether they know it or not, nearly every communication scholar today works with ideas that George Herbert Mead helped to develop. It was Mead who urged scholars to think of communication as a collaborative interaction rather than a sequence of thoughts, coded, sent, and received. It was Mead who described the sense of self as social rather than individual, public rather than private, and emergent rather than permanent. And it was Mead who put these new theories of self and communication to work, in the service of social and educational reform.

The American philosopher John Dewey once described Mead as "a seminal mind of the very first order." Yet Mead's contributions went unappreciated for many years after his death in 1931. By that time, philosophy had become absorbed in narrower questions of language and truth, and social psychology had embraced quantitative modes of behaviorist research. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, in sociology, social psychology, and philosophy as well as communication, Mead's work had again gathered appreciative readers. Historians of social science have come to identify him as a key figure in the development of the "Chicago School of Thought." Sociologists view him as the seminal theorist for symbolic interactionism. Pragmatist philosophers study him as an early proponent of their views, a figure of equal importance with Dewey, William James, and Charles Peirce. Phenomenological philosophers praise his interest in human consciousness. Cultural studies scholars appreciate his model of a plural, emergent, dialogical self.

This belated attention is all the more striking given how sporadic and scattered Mead's writings were. The bibliography created by the Mead Project (at the Department of Sociology at Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada) lists 116 items, many of them book reviews, editorials, and magazine pieces. Mead himself never published a book. The well-known book-length collections of Mead's work— The Philosophy of the Present (1932), Mind, Self and Society (1934), Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936), and The Philosophy of the Act (1938)—were all assembled from lectures, unpublished manuscripts, and the class notes of former students after his death.

Like many American social scientists of his generation, Mead had a religious upbringing. He was born in 1863 in South Hadley, Massachusetts, but spent most of his childhood in Oberlin, Ohio. His father was a Congregationalist minister who taught at Oberlin Theological Seminary from 1869 until his death in 1881. Mead's mother was an English instructor who taught at Oberlin College and at Abbot Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and later became president of Mt. Holyoke College. Mead earned his bachelor's degree at Oberlin in 1883. After graduation, he worked briefly as a schoolteacher and then spent three years as a railroad surveyor. In the autumn of 1887, Mead resumed his studies, this time at Harvard University, where he met the philosophers Josiah Royce and William James. A year later, he traveled to Germany for graduate studies, first at Leipzig and then at Berlin, where his teachers would include the physiological psychologist Wilhelm Wundt and the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey. Mead never wrote a dissertation and thus did not finish his doctorate. In 1891, he took his first university teaching position at the University of Michigan, where he met John Dewey. In 1894, when Dewey was invited to be chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Chicago, Mead went with him. Mead remained a professor in Chicago's Department of Philosophy until his death in 1931.

Mead resembled many American intellectuals of his generation in rejecting the idea of a fixed moral order that underlies all human experience. Theologians and philosophers had typically believed that proper human behavior could be deduced from metaphysical or natural principles. Theologians had imagined a world governed by a God-given moral code; philosophers, a world governed by an underlying rational order. But Mead thought that evolutionary biology and the practical success of the scientific method had discredited such formalist beliefs. Evolution revealed a natural world that was constantly changing and adapting. And neither philosophical nor religious dogma seemed able to solve the vexing problems confronting a rapidly industrializing, multicultural, urban society. It was science, not metaphysics, that had provided clean water, vocational education, and vaccination.

Absent any guarantees of truth, Mead thought that humans should apply the experimental methods of science to the study of society. This insistence on studying the world as it presents itself in everyday experience led Mead and others to a philosophical approach that has variously been called pragmatist, instrumentalist, or functionalist. For later generations of communication scholars, this approach would prove invaluable. By the end of the twentieth century, communication would emerge, par excellence, as the study of the specific forms and practices by which humans connect, coordinate, and imagine their relations.

Mead insisted that any analysis of human behavior should start with action rather than thought. For Mead, thinking was a biological process by which humans orient themselves to the world. Though Mead was an early proponent of what was later termed the "social construction of reality," he also was interested in prelinguistic forms of interaction. He argued that, well before they acquire language, humans participate in a "conversation of gesture" that provides their first model of interaction. This description of thought as a social, public act led, in turn, to a radically new way of talking about the self. Philosophy and religion had typically treated the self as an irreducible inner essence—as a soul or mind or power of reason. Mead argued that people should treat the individual self as one outcome of social interaction. Instead of a single, unified self, he proposed a self that contained both subjective and objective aspects, which he called an "I" and a "Me." People are an "I" when they are acting in the present moment; they are a "Me" in retrospect, as they consider the public self that they have performed for others. In short, people become who they are by imagining how others have seen them.

Mead, like Dewey, believed that all these theories would find their richest expression in a democratic society. Pragmatist philosophy encouraged democracy by promoting dialogue and experimentation, and refusing appeals to custom or authority. But the actual experiences of American democracy also shaped pragmatist philosophy. It was in the high school, the settlement house, and the union hall, as much as in the German graduate school, that Mead discerned the arts of human communication.

See also:Dewey, John; Peirce, Charles Sanders;Society and the Media.


Cook, Gary A. (1993). George Herbert Mead: The Making of a Social Pragmatist. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Dunn, Robert G. (1998). "Self, Identity, and Difference: Mead and the Poststructuralists." Sociological Quarterly 38:687-705.

Farr, Robert M. (1996). "George Herbert Mead: Philosopher and Social Psychologist." In The Roots of Modern Social Psychology, 1872-1954. Oxford, Eng.: Blackwell.

Joas, Hans. (1985). George Herbert Mead: A Contemporary Reexamination of His Thought. Cambridge, Eng.: Polity Press.

Mead, George Herbert. (1932). The Philosophy of the Present, ed. Arthur E. Murphy. LaSalle, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Mead, George Herbert. (1934). Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George Herbert. (1936). Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century, ed. Merritt H. Moore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, George Herbert. (1938). The Philosophy of the Act, ed. Charles W. Morris et al. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead Project. (1999). "George's Page." <>.

Reck, Andrew J., ed. (1964). George Herbert Mead: Selected Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Rucker, Darnell. (1969). The Chicago Pragmatists. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Strauss, Anselm. (1956). The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John J. Pauly