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George H. Mead

George Herbert Mead was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts in February 27, 1863. Mead’s father, Hiram Mead, was a minister of a Congregational church. Both of George’s parents were well educated. His father also taught at the Theological Seminary at Oberlin, Ohio, and his mother also taught at the Oberlin College. It was at Oberlin College during Mead’s undergraduate work that he first showed interest in philosophy and religion. Possibly in response to Mead’s religious upbringing, he became critical of the religious beliefs, specifically in regards to the idea of the correlation between human existence and to the idea and reality of the supernatural. After stays in careers such as survey engineer and grade school teacher he moved to Leipzig, Germany to study psychology. Mead was interested specifically in the work of Wilhelm Wundt and his theory of the central nervous system. Wundt’s idea was that the central nervous system “held possible keys for understanding the mind and resolving important philosophical problems.” It was from Wundt that Mead gained an understanding how the gesture is involved in social interaction. During this time when Mead was studying in Germany, Charles Darwin was changing the scientific world with his theory of evolution. Mead was influenced heavily by evolution theory and incorporated much Darwins theory into his own developing theory.
During this time Mead developed what Baldwin calls a “quiet rebellion” against the idea that man’s origin or dependence was a theological one. “Mead moved toward a purely, scientific, naturalistic, worldview devoid of nonempirical and supernatural concepts. Mead then married, cut short his Ph.D training to teach philosophy at the University of Michigan. Later Mead would become an assistant professor at the University of Chicago. Mead expounded on Wundt’s idea of gesture and incorporated his own additions such as role taking, mind and self. Here he became a part of what is known as the “Chicago school of pragmatism.” Members of this “school” included John Dewey, Angel, Moore, and Ames. While at Chicago he continued to develop his theory of symbolic interaction, the mind, self and society. Mead sought to incorporate his theory into the totality of science, using it to explain such ideas as improving education and international relations. “Mead was constructing an empirically grounded theory that integrated the central theories of physics, biology, psychology, and sociology, dealt with ethics, aesthetics and the philosophy of science and resolved the problems of metaphysics and epistemology.” Before Mead died in April 26, 1931, he had wrote over thirty journal articles, many book reviews, and abstracts. Mead never published a book though. So after he died many of his notes, class notes from students and class materials were gathered together and published in a collection of papers called “Mind, Self, and Society” (Baldwin, 1986: 7-12).
A pragmatist in the truest sense of the word Mead sought to use a scientific method to explain and interpret intellectual inquiry such as psychology, sociology, and philosophy (Baldwin, 1986:14). Mead was a naturalist. His premise for life was that nothing is of ‘supernatural’ origin or by supreme metaphysical consequence (Miller, 1973: 3). One of the theories George H. Mead is known for later in sociology became the Theory of Symbolic Interactionism. Mead described that man was a social creature. That everything to man including sounds, gestures, words, and letters were symbols. Man used these symbols to operate in society. According to Mead objects are given meaning based on the socially constructed definition arising out of contact with objects. Symbolization is the process by which objects exist based on the “context of social relationships wherein symbolization occurs.” Meaning exists totally within the social situation. For Mead, meaning is given to symbols or gestures and this is key in the creation of the social creature. Two key points made by Mead in regards to meaning are; 1) “that the social process, through the communication which it makes possible among the individuals implicated in it, is responsible for the appearance of a whole set of new objects in nature, which exist in relation to it, objects, namely, of ‘common sense’; and 2) that the gesture of one organism and the adjustive response of the an other organism to that gesture within any given social act bring out the relationship that exists between the gesture as the beginning of the given act and the completion or resultant of the given act, to which the gesture refers ” (Morris, 1934: 79). In other words the entire definition of meaning is created, harbored, and completed within the social act, or “the basis of meaning is thus objectively there in social conduct…” This concept is according to Mead, fundamental in the social process. You have one gesture or symbol initiated by one “organism,” then the adjustive response of the second “organism” is the interpretation of the initial act that gives meaning. In other words meaning is given to a specific act or gesture based not on the initial individual’s ascribed meaning, but meaning is subjugated in response of the second individual (Morris, 1934: 146). Communication according to Mead is important because “it provides a form of behavior in which the organism or individual may become an object to himself.” Mead is not referring to communication such as the sounds of animals, but communication “in the sense of significant symbols.” Significant symbols are different in that they have ascribed to them specific meaning in a social situation. For example, if an organism were to scratch their tooth repeatedly, only those involved within that social situation might be able to interpret that gesture and subsequently be able to respond. This is the essence of the significant symbol. It has meaning. One can respond to it. (Miller, 1973:17).
The mind is a social phenomenon according to Mead. In and during the social contact the mind recognizes symbols translates those symbols, and acts or adjusts to symbols based on the previous knowledge of meaning. This adjustment to meaning is what gives humans the ability to make decisions. Unlike animals of a lower species, humans are distinct in that they have freedom to respond in a creative manner. If you bark at a dog, the dog will bark back. If you bark at a human, the human may or may not bark back. It all depends on the humans decision to the symbol (Miller, 1973: 3-4).
Through communication of symbols in a social act the creation of the self is born. Mead describes a two intervals in the development of the self. The first is the “the individual’s self is constituted simply by an organization of the particular attitudes of other individuals toward himself and particular attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward on another in the specific social acts in which he participates with them. But at the second stage in the full development of the individual’s self that self is constituted not only by an organization of these particular individual attitudes but also by an organization of the social attitudes of the generalized other or the social group as a whole to which he belongs” (Morris, 1934: 158). Basically what Mead is saying, even though there’s nothing basic with George, is that you have an individual with a set of attitudes, plus the set of attitudes that he has about himself which are constructed in the social process. This pluralism of the self is called the “I” and the “Me.”
The individual is constituted of both an “I” and a “Me.” This is not referring to someone having a split personality, but that there is a conversation or process that goes on socially in an individual that makes up who he is. The “I” and the “Me” are necessary. The “I” is the part of the self that creates. The “Me” is necessary for control over the “I.” And without the “I” there would be no new acts for the individual to do. The “I” is how a person sees himself or herself, but the “Me” is how an individual actively sees him or herself through the eyes of society. In other words, “the “I” is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the “Me” is the organized set of attitudes of others which one himself assumes.” Mead says that the collective and organized attitudes of “others” are what constitute the “Me” (Morris, 1934: 175). To illustrate; when a person thinks to himself or herself the question, “what should ‘I’ do?” Then the individual thinks, “what will they think about me?” The self has just been exercised. As soon as the self hears him or herself talking the “I” has become the “Me.” “The “I” of this moment is present in the “Me” of the next moment”(Morris, 1934: 174).
The development of the self can be seen clearly in the life of a child. When a child is born he or she is immediately bombarded with symbols. The doctor is there, the mother, and nurses and so on. But these mean nothing to the newborn. Only that the symbols are there but no meaning can be made about them. The principle socialization actors are the parents of a child. As the months go on and the child becomes familiar with his or her surroundings, symbols begin to have meaning. Baldwin illustrates that when a child cries, and the parents come to his or her aid, a connection or correlation begins to be made by repetition between the gesture by the child and the reaction by the parents. This is called “gesture-response-consequence” or “G-R-C.” That is Baldwin is describing “the triadic relationship between the infant’s inborn gesture, the parental response to it, and the consequences of this interaction.” Similar the triadic relation of meaning from Mead, only here Baldwin is describing it in the specific sense of an infant. Over time the child will become familiar with the repeated responses of the parents to his or her cry. What is not addressed though is the changing of response by the second organism or parents in this case. If the parent suddenly stops coming to the “aid” of the child when he or she cries, what effect does this have on the child? Does the child ‘drop’ the association between cry and aid? Based on what I have read, I would say that the child would readjust meaning with a response. For example, if a child learns early that the cry will bring a response of picking up and holding the child by the parent, then suddenly the parent were to cease this type of response to be held, I believe the child would unlearn the cry equals holding G-R-C. This is important to note that when raising children, every symbol is important. A child never does not see a symbol. In other words any symbol that he or she sees or comes into contact with is not not seen. An adjustment one way or the other is made on the part of the infant. If you make a funny face to a child, he or she will try to make meaning out of that symbol. If you stand on you head in front of the child, the same process goes on. Meaning is devoid in the child till association is made between act and response (Baldwin 89-19). The implications for this are significant in that the socialization process of a child can be scrutinized and redeveloped to improve the socialization of children. Different techniques can be applied to figure out what works and what does not. To think of a child as having the competency to make decisions in the socialization process is just ludicrous and anti-Mead. The child is not yet aware of it self and what it needs without first recognizing that it has a self (Baldwin, 1986: 90-91).
As the infant becomes aware that he or she has mother and father the child begins to become social. But to repeat a child must first develop a sense of symbol and response before a self can be developed. Also before a child can develop a self, he or she has to have a grasp on the object of the “other.” Object manipulation is key for a child to understand meaning. Baldwin uses the example of when a child sees his father using a spade to dig, the spade becomes associated with the digging. When a child sees someone using a ball to bounce and throw, the child associates throwing and bouncing with a ball. This might go towards understanding why a child throws his or her toys, even the ones that were not made for bouncing or throwing. Is a toy horse made for throwing or bouncing? No. But give it to a child and the child will throw it. The child has not yet made the connection between the manipulation of the horse, the object, and that horses were not made for bouncing, the meaning. It would be necessary for another to relate meaning to what the activities of a horse are (Baldwin, 1986: 92).
As a child learns language he or she acquires meanings that he or she uses. “They gain access to socially meaningful significant symbols that allow them to communicate ever more effectively with others and carry on inner conversation experiences as mind” (Baldwin, 1986: 93). This is the difference between the significant symbol and the plain symbol. The significant symbol is understood internally that the child has understood, to use the earlier example, that when an other says that horses are not made for bouncing, that the child understands the command and quits bouncing the ball. The words or vocal gestures have meaning, and the child understands both vocal gesture and the meaning that accompanies it.
Baldwin, John D.George Herbert Mead; A Unifying Theory for Sociology. California: Sage. 1986
Morris, Charles W. ed. Mind, Self, & Society. Chicago: Chicago Press. 1934
Miller, David L. George Herbert Mead; Self, Language, and the World. Chicago: Chicago Press. 1973…