George Herbert Mead: Symbolic Interactionism

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead

Introduction to George Hebert Mead

George Herbert Mead was an American sociologist born in 1863 and died in 1931. He was associated with “symbolic interactionism”. Although the term symbolic interactionism was coined by Herbert Blumer, the concept was propounded by Mead. Mead was not very good at writing. Hence, he never wrote a book himself. However, he published a number of research papers in sociology. The only book published in his name is a collection of his class lectures compiled by his students. The book is titled “Mind self and society.”

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism propounds that society exists because of interaction among the members of the society. These interactions take place with the help of symbols. These symbols may be in the form of language, script, or gestures.

According to symbolic interactionism, man and society, both are twin-born. Man shapes his society and society shapes man (C.H.Cooley). This symbolic interactionism is mainly concerned with how the self of an individual develops. It is also concerned with how the self of an individual becomes his identity.

Development of “Self” and Identity

The most important area of interest in symbolic interactionism has been the development of self and identity. Here ‘self’ refers to the personality of an individual. Personality can be defined as the sum total of psychological and social factors that are reflected in the recurrent pattern of behavior of an individual. Hence, symbolic interactionism believes that the self of an individual develops because of social as well as psychological influences.

This self of an individual gives rise to his identity.

According to G.H.Mead, the self of an individual develops in two different stages-

The Play Stage and the Game Stage

The “Play Stage”

The play stage is the first stage of the development of “self” which is based on imitation. In this stage, a newly born child comes in contact with his near and dear ones. These near and dear ones are termed by Mead as his ‘significant factors’. In this stage, the child is not capable enough to imagine on his own. Hence, he cannot imagine what is being expected from him and how he should act. In this stage, he acts by imitating his significant others. These roles were termed by Mead as “playing at a role

The “Game Stage”

The Game stage is the second stage of the development of “self” which is based on imagination. In this stage, the capacity of the child to imagine starts developing. The child comes in contact with other members of society. These other members of the society are termed by Mead as his “Generalized others“. In this stage, the child is capable enough to imagine what is being expected by generalized others.

Based on this he accordingly selects his role. This was termed by Mead as Role taking.

“I” and “Me”

According to Mead, the self of an individual has two aspects-

The ‘I’ and ‘Me’. They both coexist and develop simultaneously. The ‘I’ is the savage self of an individual who is only interested in the pleasure of the senses. In other words, it is the raw part of the personality that is not based on society. It does what it likes. It is that part of the self which is inherent.

On the other hand, ‘Me’ is that part of the self that is shaped by society. It follows societal norms and values. Hence, it acts according to expectations of the society. The ‘I’ and the ‘Me’ try to influence each other and thus they may be in conflict with each other. Hence, Personality is the combination of both “I” and “Me”.

The Act

According to Mead, the basic unit of social life is the ‘Act’. He defined An ‘Act’ as any meaningful response to a stimulus. This stimulus may be internal or external. Internal stimulus emerges from within whereas external stimulus emerges from outside. For ex- a Feeling of hunger from within is internal whereas the feeling of hunger from Fragrance then it is external. According to Mead, whenever a stimulus emerges, the man gives a calculated response; this calculated response can be termed an ‘Act’. According to Mead, an ‘Act’ is completed in four different stages:

Stages of an ‘Act’
  1. Impulse
  2. Perception
  3. Manipulation
  4. Consummation
  • Mead explained this entire concept with the help of the example of hunger. According to him because of internal or external feelings, the realization of hunger may take place. That first feeling of hunger that inspires or compels one to do something can be termed an ‘Impulse’.
  • Thereafter, the individual evaluates all the available options that can be opted. This evaluation can be termed ‘Perception’.
  • Once it is decided what has to be done, initiatives are taken. For example- either food would be cooked or bought. This can be termed ‘Manipulation’.
  • The process of consuming the food will be termed ‘Consummation’.

If an Act involves more than one individual it will be termed Social Action. Social action is an interaction that is based on symbols.

Criticism of George Herbert Mead

Almost all the sociologists who were associated with symbolic interactionism were American. Thus. Symbolic Interactionism was criticized for being only an American view of sociology.

Symbolic interactionism is also considered to be a non-positivist approach in sociology. Hence the positivists have always criticized it for being non-positivist.

In the development of self and human behavior, Symbolic Interactionism gives extreme importance to psychological factors. Hence, the role of social factors was ignored. Sociology can never derive laws governing human behaviour if psychological factors are given importance.

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