Mead, George Herbert

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Mead, George Herbert

Analysis of the “act”

Analysis of the “self”


The work of George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), one of the leading figures in pragmatism, has had a profound impact on the development of American social science. Despite the lavish praise of Dewey and Whitehead, most philosophers tended to neglect him, because his ideas were not readily accessible during his lifetime. He was reluctant to set down in writing views that were still being formed; he published no books, and many of his articles dealt with education, psychology, and sociology. Communicating most effectively in oral dis-course, Mead developed his thoughts in extemporaneous lectures at the University of Chicago, where he taught from 1893 to the time of his death. Although his style was involved and labored and even his admirers acknowledged difficulties in deciphering his sentences, the classes were well-attended; and his influence upon colleagues and students, especially in sociology and social psychology, is readily discernible in their writings. Four posthumous volumes have been pieced together by devoted students from stenographic notes of his lectures, fragmentary manuscripts, and tentative drafts.

Pragmatism represents an attempt to reformu-late conceptions of man and his place in the universe in terms of the revolutionary implications of scientific method and of evolutionary theory. Mead viewed evolution as the process of meeting and solving problems and scientific method as the evolutionary process grown self-conscious. The characteristics of various species develop as organisms come to terms with life conditions, and Mead wanted to account for the emergent properties of man—thinking in abstractions, self-consciousness, and purposive and moral conduct. He contended that these attributes rest on the development of language, a form of social interaction that evolves among human beings as they meet the exigencies of living in groups.

Thus, Mead—s central hypothesis made social psychology basic to his philosophical work. His approach was behavioristic, although not in the narrow sense of John B. Watson: man is to be studied in terms of his deeds, covert as well as overt. Since, however, each person is involved in a succession of joint enterprises with others, his acts can best be regarded as segments of larger transactions. Social psychology is the study of regularities in individual behavior that develop from participating in groups. Mead also stressed the temporal dimension—the extension of individual and group activities over time.

Analysis of the “act”

Society is an ongoing process and consists of social acts. By social act Mead meant a transaction involving two or more persons among whom there is a division of labor. The contributions of various individuals are coordinated to achieve objectives that bring gratifications of some sort to each. Un-like the instinctive cooperation found among social insects, concerted action among human beings is characterized by a high degree of flexibility. The participants build up a social act as they continuously adjust to one another and to the demands of the developing situation. Should there be drastic environmental change, entirely novel patterns may emerge. Such concurrence among separate and independently motivated individuals is made possible by role taking,the ability of each to visualize his own performance from the standpoint of the others. Each person is able to comprehend the entire transaction, locate himself within it, and regulate his own contributions to fit into the larger pattern. Coordination depends, then, on the self-control of each actor. In highly institutionalized transactions, collaboration is facilitated insofar as the participants share a common perspective; each of them takes the role of a generalized other.

The execution of a social act is a communicative process; transactions of all kinds develop in the reciprocating adjustments of the participants. Mutual orientation is built up and maintained in a continuous interchange of gestures. A gesture is any perceptible sound or movement which indicates to a second party the inner experiences or intentions of the first; any act may become a gesture when an observer responds to it in terms of what it represents. Speech, which consists of vocal gestures, is of special importance. Since a speaker is able to hear his own remarks in much the same manner as his audience, the establishment of mutual understanding becomes easier. A gesture that has the same meaning for two or more people is a significant symbol,and language consists of such conventional sounds. Those who are associated in common activities eventually develop a universe of discourse, which facilitates their subsequent collaboration.

Although each deed is a fragment of a larger social act, it is also an episode in the life of an individual. Mead’s basic unit of analysis is the act, which is initiated by some want and is directed toward its satisfaction through the use of suitable elements of the environment. All behavior can be broken down, for purposes of analysis, into a series of acts. Each act has a history; it is constructed as an organism makes a succession of adjustments to conditions (external and internal) that are undergoing constant change. Overt behavior is usually only the final phase of an act; in most cases it is preceded by a number of preparatory adjustments, including various subjective experiences. An act is teleological; it is not a mere sequence of passing events but an organized whole directed toward an end. To study such processes Mead proposed the concepts of impulse, perception, manipulation, and consummation. An impulse is a disturbance, any lack of adjustment between the organism and its milieu-pique over an imagined slight, hunger pangs, or concern over a difficult task to be faced. Consummation is the elimination of the disturbance. In his study of motivation, then, Mead developed an approach resembling some of the more recent tension-reduction models. His scheme was comprehensive, and his concepts made it possible to show the relationship between organic needs, external stimulation, conscious intent, and overt movements.

Between the terminal points of the act lie perception and manipulation; it is through these processes that various features of the environment become involved in the act. An organism is in continuous interaction with its milieu, and activity is redirected in response to a succession of sensory cues. Perception is selective: not everything in the environment is noticed. An object is something that is essential to the completion of the act, and a person is sensitized to whatever will enable him to carry out activity that is already under way. Both perception and manipulation rest upon hypotheses. An object is approached in terms of expectations: a person anticipates what would happen if he were to move forward and touch it. For this reason Mead referred to perception as a “collapsed” or “telescoped” act. What is perceived depends in part upon what is anticipated; these hypotheses are then tested and confirmed in manipulation, the handling of objects as tools.

The hypotheses upon which perception and manipulation rest are derived from the meanings of objects. For pragmatists meaning is primarily a property of behavior and only secondarily a property of the objects themselves. Meanings are stable relationships between an organism and a class of objects, defined in the manner in which the latter are characteristically handled. Physical attributes are important because they set limitations upon what can be done. Most meanings are subject to social control in that the anticipated reactions of other people place additional restrictions on usage. Approaching sacred objects without sufficient deference, for example, elicits outraged protests. Such expectations are incorporated into the organization of the act. Members of each species select out of their environment objects that are essential to their survival and organize responses toward them; the world view of human beings is necessarily anthropomorphic and social. But pragmatism is not solipsistic. Reality is objectified through activity, but the orientations which support such activity are subject to reality testing. Hypotheses that turn out to be unreliable are rejected, and objects are redefined.

Once an act is under way, it generally proceeds to consummation. One of the major contentions of pragmatists is that thinking is a form of behavior that occurs when activity is interrupted. The interference may arise from an external barrier, a dis-ability of the organism, or an absence of necessary objects. When an act is blocked, a number of secondary adjustments take place, including emergency mobilization (emotion) and conscious reflection; and through these processes a delayed act may eventually be completed. Any impulse that is not immediately consummated is transformed into an image,which serves as the basis for reflection. Images are acts that fail to issue in overt behavior, acts that are innervated but not carried out. Each image may be regarded as a plan of action, one possible way of completing the interrupted act. A perplexed individual experiences a succession of images, and reflective thought is an imaginative rehearsal—a comparison and evaluation of alternative routes to consummation. Mentality may be regarded as the ability to anticipate the consequences of projected lines of action and to respond to them prior to commitment to overt action. Thinking, then, is problem-solving activity in which trial and error takes place in the imagination.

Once a person has mastered a language, images and objects may be designated by symbols; alternative plans of action are labeled, and their consequences are examined verbally. Consciousness is inner discourse, sub vocal linguistic communication. While thinking is a private experience, it takes place through significant symbols; it is therefore behavior organized from the standpoint of a generalized other. The use of language transforms the effective environment to which human beings adjust. By using words, one can manipulate meanings outside the contexts in which they have developed and even make up more complex meanings. Foresight and planning are greatly facilitated. With symbols one can isolate certain experiences and hold on to them, pick out other relevant meanings, or emphasize a particular image while rejecting others. Language also makes possible the formulation of complex plans, broad schemes in which diverse and even antagonistic tendencies may be coordinated and a sequence of operations performed. Mind for Mead was internal symbolic communication, and it is this type of cognitive activity that computer engineers are now attempting to reconstruct. Modern decision theory describes regularities in the selection process.

Analysis of the “self”

Mead is best known for his theory of the self. The self is not one’s body but a perceptual object. Since most acts are components of larger trans- actions, the actors are interdependent; the impulses of one cannot be consummated without the cooperation of his associates. Each participant therefore becomes concerned over the possible reactions of the others to himself, for he cannot afford to do anything that will jeopardize their support. Each person forms an object of himself through role taking, by reviewing his intended conduct from the standpoint of those with whom he is involved in a common venture. Mead’s discussion was rendered unnecessarily difficult by his use of the term “self” to designate three different referents: (1) the perceptual object formed of oneself in a particular historical context, (2) the process of self-control, and (3) one’s personality.

Voluntary conduct is constructed in a sequence of adjustments in which a person responds to him-self as well as to the rest of his perceptual field. To study this process Mead proposed the concepts of the I and the Me; these terms refer not to agents but to phases of activity. The “Me” is the object one forms of oneself from a conventional standpoint, and the “I” is the reaction of the unique individual to the historical situation as he perceives it. Typical inclinations to react differ from person to person; in fact, the succession of “I” is constitutes the basis of individuality. In speaking of behavior as being built up in the interaction of the “I” and the “Me,” Mead was stressing the seriated character of human conduct. If an impulse (I) is not immediately carried out, it is transformed into an image (Me), which in turn elicits another reaction (I). For example, if a man believes that his wife is disparaging his efforts (Me), he may want to beat her (I). As he refrains from striking, he imagines himself administering the beating (Me). Since he views himself from the standpoint of a group in which wife beaters are condemned, he reacts with disgust (I), and this inhibits one route to consummation. Frustrated and hurt (Me), he reacts with determination to demonstrate his competence through a superlative performance (I). Thus, an individual’s line of conduct is constructed as he adjusts to a succession of organic states, perceptual objects, images, and anticipated reactions of other people. Self-control is part of the ongoing social current; each person adjusts in advance to the situation in which he is involved and thereby facilitates cooperation. In this process self-consciousness provides the basis for corrective measures. For Mead, as for Norbert Wiener, autonomy depends upon feedback; without it one becomes a creature of impulse or is subject to drift or external control. A crucial feature of feedback in self-control is that the object is formed from a standpoint shared with other people. The fact that all participants control themselves from the same perspective (generalized other) makes concerted action possible.

A human being is not born with a mind and self-discipline; these capacities develop gradually as the child comes to terms with the demands of group life. The meanings of objects and gestures are products of experience; appropriate ways of handling things and of speaking are shaped largely by the consistent responses of elders, who provide instructions, serve as models, and reinforce the accepted modes of conduct. Mead emphasized two especially important contexts for socialization. In play young children assume specific roles and imitate individuals they know—mother, postman, salesclerk. In so doing they begin to appreciate the perspectives of others. By repeating such role taking the child is able to build up an orientation toward himself as an object of a certain sort. But effective self-control develops only in the game—or in any other enterprise that requires teamwork. In games the responses of others are organized, and activity proceeds according to rules. The contributions expected of each player are standardized into impersonal roles. Furthermore, successful participation requires the ability to assume multiple positions vis-a-vis oneself: one must be ready to take the role of any other player. Through repeated participation in such transactions, the child learns to adopt a point of view that is shared by all other participants (generalized other), a perspective that transcends that of particular individuals.

Although Mead saw human beings as inextricably involved in groups, he stressed the importance of individuality. Each person, although a product of society, retains his distinctiveness, for he incorporates the generalized other from a unique standpoint. As one develops the capacity for conscious communication, one achieves greater independence from others and greater discreteness as an individual. For each person self-realization is attained through the consummation of a distinct set of impulses; what brings fufillment to one individual will not necessarily satisfy another. Furthermore, each person has a unique impact upon his community. Even when he is complying with conventional norms, he does so in his own style. The contributions of a genius are often striking and extensive and therefore more readily discernible, but everywhere allowances have to be made for the idiosyncrasies of the less talented. Thus, through self-assertion, each individual alters some-what the social pattern in which he participates.

As a social philosopher Mead had a deep bias toward amelioration through understanding. The son of a Congregationalist minister in Ohio, he may have been influenced by the climate of opinion of his community, a station of the Underground Rail-road and locale of the first college to admit women. He believed that progress takes place through the constant meeting and solving of problems. Social institutions, like everything else in nature, are continually evolving, but men can direct this process through intelligent action. Scientific method provides the most efficient way of solving problems and should be used to facilitate human adaptation. The ideal society is one in which there is maximum participation by all members, one in which each person understands all the others and still retains his individuality. This ideal, while imperfectly realized, is constantly being approximated. Mead believed that history is on the side of progress and that eventually a brotherhood of man will emerge.

Since pragmatism is an application of scientific method to philosophical problems, it is not surprising that Mead’s position is so much like the developing outlook of the natural and social sciences. Mead was a thinker who was ahead of his time. His views on matter, space, time, and relativity are similar to those of modern theoretical physics; and his discussion of meaning resembles P. W. Bridgman’s work on operational definitions. Many of the ideas Mead developed at the turn of the century are now widely accepted in social psychology : the selective and seriated character of perception, cognition through linguistic symbols, role enactment, decision processes, autonomy through feedback, personal identity, reference groups, and socialization through participation. Because of the congruence of Mead’s views with current trends, it seems likely that increasing attention will be directed to his work. Many implications of his position still remain to be explored.

Tamotsu Shibutani

[For the historical context of Mead’s work, seeInter-action, article on Social Interaction; Sociology, article on The Development Of Sociological Thought; and the biographies ofDarwin; Dewey; Hegel; James; Marx; Park; Peirce; Smith, Adam; Sullivan; Thomas. For discussion of the subsequent development of Mead’s ideas, seeCommunication; DeviantBehavior; Knowledge, SociologyOf; Role, article on Sociological Aspects; Self Concept; Semantics And Semiotics; Systems Analysis, article on Social Systems; and the biographies ofAngell; Becker; Burgess; Cooley; Follett; Merriam; Meyer; Waller.]


(1932) 1959 The Philosophy of the Present. La Salle, 111.: Open Court.

1934 Mind, Self and Society From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Edited by Charles W. Morris. Univ. of Chicago Press. → Contains a complete bibliography. 1936 Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Univ. of Chicago Press.

1938 The Philosophy of the Act. Univ. of Chicago Press. Selected Writings. Edited with an introduction by Andrew J. Reck. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964.


Blumer, Herbert 1966 Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead. American Journal of Sociology 71:534-544, 547-548.

Clayton, Alfred S. 1943 Emergent Mind and Education: A Study of George H. Mead’s Bio-social Behaviorism From an Educational Point of View. New York: Columbia Univ., Teachers College.

Kolb, William L. 1944 A Critical Evaluation of Mead’s “I” and “Me” Concepts. Social Forces 22:291-296.

Lacuna, Grace A. DE 1946 Communication, the Act, and the Object, With Reference to Mead. Journal of Philosophy 43:225-238.

Lee, Grace C. 1945 George Herbert Mead: Philosopher of the Social Individual. New York: King’s Crown Press.

Natanson, Maurice 1956 The Social Dynamics ofGeorge H. Mead. Washington: Public Affairs Press. → Contains an extensive list of secondary sources.

Strong, Samuel M. 1939 A Note on George H. Mead’s The Philosophy of the Act. American Journal of Sociology 45:71-76.

George Herbert Mead

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George Herbert Mead

The American philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) offered a naturalistic account of the origin of the self and explained language, conception, perception, and thinking in terms of social behavior.

George Herbert Mead was born on Feb. 27, 1863, in South Hadley, Mass. He graduated from Oberlin College in 1883 and attended Harvard University in 1887 and 1888. While studying in Leipzig and Berlin (1888-1891), he was influenced by the physiological psychologist Wilhelm Wundt. Mead taught at the University of Michigan (1891-1893) and the University of Chicago (1894-1931). He died in Chicago on April 26, 1931.

The notion of "gesture," which Mead took from Wundt, is basic to Mead's behavioristic psychology and to all of his philosophic thinking. If the behavior of one animal evokes a response in another that is useful in completing a more inclusive act, it is called a gesture, and the behavior of the participants of the act is social.

In Mind, Self and Society, Mead shows that human beings are distinguished from all other animals in that an individual can by his gestures (words, that is, language gestures) evoke in himself the same response that he evokes in another and can respond to his own behavior (words) as do other members of the community. This means that the human individual can look at his own behavior from the point of view of the other; or he can take the role of the other and, thus, be an object to himself. When the child can view its own behavior from the perspective of another, it is a self, or it has a self. Selves emerge in children out of social behavior with other members of the group who, with the child, are participants in social action. The meaning of a gesture is the response it evokes; a language gesture has the same meaning to the speaker as it does to the one to whom it is addressed. When a gesture (or significant symbol) has common meaning, it is universal in that the response it evokes is the same for each member of the community. One perceives an object, such as a tree, only in relation to behavior or to responses evoked by what is seen, heard, or smelled. The lumberman "sees" the tree in terms of lumber, and his responses are organized accordingly.

It is only because of symbols having common meaning that men can think or reason. Thinking is a conversation of the self, the individual, with the other, or with what Mead calls the generalized other. Individuals have minds, therefore, because they can take the attitude of others (take the role of, or enter into the perspective of, others) and can thus anticipate the response that others will make to their gestures. The individual member of society, through thinking, can propose new ways of acting which are shareable and testable by other members of the community.

The physiological basis for thinking and for basic distinctions between man and lower animals is the hand. Not only can men move physical objects from place to place, but they can also dissect objects and reassemble them in various ways. Thinking has to do with the manipulatory phase of social action.

In Mead's last work, The Philosophy of the Present, he shows that the same basic principle used in creative, or reflective, thinking, resulting in acts of adjustment between the individual and its environment, applies also to every kind of adjustment in the process of evolution. The adjustments that new planets make to the system from which they emerged (and vice versa), as well as adjustments made by lower animals to their respective environments (and the environments to them), take place in accordance with the same principle applied in reflective thinking. This is the principle of sociality, and it requires that the newly arisen entity, the emergent, be in two or more different systems at once, even as reflective thinking requires that the individual be in both his own perspective and in the perspective of the other.

Through the principle of sociality Mead not only accounts for the process of adjustment, and thus strengthens his position as a process philosopher, but he also develops a system of philosophy based on the act of adjustment as a unit of existence. His system explains how emergence, novelty, creativity, thinking, communication, and continuous adjustment are interrelated and why each is a phase of the natural process of adjustment.

Further Reading

A selection of Mead's writings is in George Herbert Mead: Essays on His Social Philosophy, edited with an introduction by John W. Petras (1969). An exposition of Mead's philosophy is Maurice Natanson, The Social Dynamics of George H. Mead (1956), and Horace S. Thayer, Meaning and Action (1968). Mead is also discussed in Charles Morris, The Pragmatic Movement in American Philosophy (1970).

Additional Sources

Cook, Gary A., George Herbert Mead: the making of a social pragmatist, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. □

Mead, George Herbert

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Mead, George Herbert 1863-1931


George Herbert Mead was one of the core founders of pragmatism, a distinctively American philosophy. Mead was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago (18941931), but he had a powerful influence on both philosophy and sociology. He is also recognized as one of the originators of symbolic interactionism, an important discipline within sociology. In this regard, he is famous for showing the relationships between mind, self, and society: Our minds and selves are gifts we receive from society, though we can augment and alter mind, self, and society in countless ways (Mead 1934).

Mead and the other pragmatists argued that the scientific method is the most powerful tool humans have ever discovered for analyzing knowledge, and they applied empirical methods to all knowledgeincluding science, philosophy, government, religion, ideologies, and everyday life. Mead argued that we should treat all ideas as hypotheses that are open to analysis in terms of the consequences associated with using them. It is true that many religious people and ideologues are not used to thinking that their favorite ideas are hypotheses that can be tested by examining how well they work, but pragmatists treat all knowledge as tentative and open to investigation.

Any ideas that work well when we act on them are tentatively supported as useful and valid. On the other hand, ideas that lead to failures are identified as problematic. This is most obvious in the realm of science. A medical procedure that prolongs life without problematic reactions is seen as valuable, but a procedure with adverse side effects alerts researchers to either abandon the technique or rework it until the problems are overcome. Pragmatists treat all ideas in a similar manner. For example, many American professors defended Marxism and communism during the mid-1900s, and pragmatists are not surprised that some abandoned these theories after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Communist nations of Eastern Europe. Even if an idea was once popular, pragmatists emphasize that a series of failures often leads people to abandon or revise prior views: Countless positive claims about an idea are not as powerful as a succession of failings.

No theory can ever be proven so conclusively as to be completely above question and possible future revision. Pragmatists argue that tentative and flexible truths are in fact more useful than the dogmas or static truths that ideologues defend. Our physical, biological, and social worlds are in constant change; hence, it is wise to approach all knowledge as likely to need modification as we attempt to track our ever changing and evolving world.

Pragmatism has had major influences on philosophy, sociology, science, and many other domains of thought. Meads version of pragmatism is highly nuanced because, as the youngest of the pragmatists, he benefited from the best ideas of his predecessors.

SEE ALSO Philosophy; Philosophy, Political; Pragmatism; Science; Society; Sociology


Mead, George Herbert. 1932. Philosophy of the Present, ed. Arthur E. Murphy. Chicago and London: Open Court.

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self and Society, ed. Charles W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

John D. Baldwin

Mead, George Herbert

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Mead, George Herbert (1863–1931) A leading American pragmatist, philosopher of the Chicago School, and one of the founders of the sociological tradition that came to be known as symbolic interactionism after his death. His thought is often classified as social behaviourism.

Mead's contribution is most frequently seen as centring upon the development of a theory of Mind, Self and Society, the title of his posthumously published book (in 1934). In this work, he laid the foundations for a sociological social psychology, emphasizing the following: an analysis of experience located firmly within society; the importance of language, symbols, and communication in human group life; the ways in which our words and gestures bring forth responses in others through a process of role-taking; the reflective and reflexive nature of the self; and the centrality of the ‘act’.

But Mead's work went well beyond this. Indeed, as John Baldwin has argued in his book George Herbert Mead (1986), Mead provided a much wider ‘unifying theory’ for sociology, which anticipated, at one level, developments in sociobiology, and at another, broad historical transformations. Uniting all this was his unswerving commitment to the role of science in human affairs. ‘The scientific method’, he wrote, ‘is the method of social progress.’

Mead fostered a position sometimes designated ‘objective relativism’: he often refers to the ‘objective reality of perspectives’. There are many accounts of reality possible, depending upon whose standpoint is taken. History, for example, is always an account of the past from some person's present. A theory of the social construction of time was another major aspect of Mead's work.

When Mead died he had not published a unified statement of his ideas. His four posthumous books are edited versions of his lecture notes and of notes recorded by his students. This gives much of his written work an unsatisfyingly incomplete and piecemeal character. Despite this, his influence on modern sociology has been enormous. For a selection of his writings see Anselm Straussa ( ed.) , George Herbert Mead on Social Psychology (1964); and for a valuable bibliography, see Richard Lowry , ‘George Herbert Mead: A Bibliography of the Secondary Literature’ in Studies in Symbolic Interaction, 1986

Mead, George Herbert

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Mead, George Herbert (1863–1931) US philosopher and social psychologist. A founder of pragmatism, influenced by John Dewey, Mead studied the mind, the self, and society. His studies of the behaviour of individuals and small groups led to the sociological theories of symbolic interactionism.

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George Herbert Mead