The Social Psychology of George Mead

Ellsworth Faris



Mead considers that the data for solving the problems of social psychology were to be found in the conduct and experience of men rather than in the behavior of lower animals or in the facts of physiology. The ongoing social process was his starting-point, and man was assumed to be a part of nature, entirely and without residue. In the analysis of conscious reflective action he found use for all the psychological concepts. The social nature of man was assumed, and the self is shown to have its origin in communication which leads in man to self-stimulation and self-response and the taking of the role of the other. Personality is a role in a social situation. Every self is in a social context. Auditory gestures are of first importance in self-stimulation; and when one becomes his own object, he achieves selfhood. The conception of the self is therefore dependent on the defining responses of others, which responses are abstracted into a "generalized other." Significant symbols, used with a consciousness of their meaning, occur only in man. Besides numerous original concepts which Mead proposed, he also gave new definition to many already familiar notions, such as imagination, perception, and attention, by relating them to action, either as phases of the act or determined by it. In his doctrine of "the I and the me," he found for himself an escape from a mechanistic view of human nature and a fresh defense of responsibility and freedom.

George Mead developed his views on social psychology in a course of oral lectures, delivered without notes in a conversational tone. He always spoke while seated, and to some of us seemed to be more concerned with the development of his thought than with the response of his audience. He would sometimes go over again as much as half of what he had said the day before, so that his presentation resembled a sort of spiral advance. The reaction he received was not uniform. Some students failed to get the key and found the presentation unsatisfying, while others became enthusiastic disciples and considered that he had given them what they had long and vainly sought elsewhere. It was owing to this favorable response to his teaching that more than one set of stenographic notes of his lectures was transcribed, enabling his colleagues to publish posthumously a volume [2] which is valued all the more by his former students because it records, even in an imperfect way, what would else have been forever lost.

That a course in psychology should be offered in the department

( 392) of philosophy is explained by the fact that the departments of philosophy and psychology were not separated when Mead first came to Chicago, and his course was first announced as one of the offerings of the department in psychology. When the two departments were made independent, his course was retained; and it continued to develop for nearly forty years, changing in content and emphasis with the appearance of new problems. He wrote very little, partly because he did not find writing easy, but chiefly, I think, because he realized the difficult nature of the problems, whose solutions were so confidently announced by men of lesser gifts.

The relation of Mead to sociology was, throughout his career, very close. The title of his course, as first given, was "Comparative Psychology," not a discussion of animal behavior but, as the printed announcements show, a consideration of the significance of language, custom, myth, and other collective phenomena in the development of society and community life and their relation to the rise of personality and the self. In the middle nineties of the last century, when he first began his teaching at Chicago, many of the significant books that we now possess had not been written, and he relied on the works of Wundt and the German folk psychologists, on Comte and Spencer and the writings of the first American sociologists, and on those men interested in philology. After Cooley had begun to publish, Mead took his work very seriously and quoted and discussed him to the last.

There was also a personal relation with the work of sociology at Chicago which it is fitting to mention and which should be better known that it ever will be, for it will account for the omission of some of the important contributions of Mead from the published fragments of his lectures which were assembled from the notes of students and brought out after his death. The writer of this paper obtained a degree in psychology with a "minor" in philosophy, writing a thesis under the direction of Mead. After teaching psychology for some years at Iowa, I came back to Chicago and was asked by Mead to give an introductory course in social psychology. There were two reasons for the decision to have me do this: Mead's course had become so rich in material that it was impossible to present it all in a single quarter and the second reason was that it was

( 393) hoped that a preliminary course by an understudy would prepare students to profit more adequately from their contact with the master. The effect of this arrangement was to eliminate from consideration by Mead some of the basic and original results of his thinking, it being assumed that the student had been given these in my own course. All advanced students in sociology were sent into Mead's course; and it is worth recording that, when Mead was stricken in the early part of his last quarter of teaching, the philosophy department approached us to find someone to carry on the course, a task which Professor Blumer of the department of sociology performed to the satisfaction of us all. At present the course on social psychology does not appear in the offerings of the philosophy department, and in the University of Chicago it is the sociologists who are trying to carry on the tradition of Mead.

The work of Mead in social psychology can be better understood if the point of view from which he approached the problems is first known. As I understand him, he found the knowledge of the lower animals informing and valuable but was convinced that the development of man was made possible by the possession of forms of actions and powers which are denied to any other animal but man, and that the key to the problem cannot be found by any possible knowledge of rats or dogs or monkeys. He was informed on all the significant developments of physiology and yet was convinced that knowledge of the human self was not possible by studying neurones, glands, or cortical paths. Social psychology has a field of its own, must isolate its own phenomena and its own problems, develop its own concepts and methods, and test its conclusions with rigorous vigilance. Observation of the acts of men and careful analysis of the conscious experience of one's self and others was to him the chief reliance. But he also made large use of, and considered of the highest importance, those collective phenomena which are not only never intended by any individual but which are unknown to those who participate in the experiences, such phenomena as the semantic changes in language, the unmarked alterations in dialect, and the rise and growth of similar but more important changes which are unintended and unwitting.

He was convinced that the ongoing social process—the activities

(394) of those who hunger and seek food, who love and beget and bear children, who nurture and rear families, and who struggle against the obstacles that oppose them—this ongoing social process was as far, back as it was necessary or profitable to go for a starting-point in social psychology. For the necessities of life are enough to explain that human beings must act, and it is in these actions and their complications that all the human attributes emerge.

Mead was unwilling to separate man from nature. Accepting, on the authority of the biologists, the view that the body of man, his anatomical equipment, was derived from lower forms of animal life, he attempted to show that man was a product of nature, wholly and without reservation, entirely and without residue. That man is higher, is assumed; but he became higher as a result of the actions that he performed and the experiences through which he passed. No miracle is required to account for the soul of man. That, too, is a product of nature. This view will at once be rejected by some of the heirs to the views of the past, but it takes none of the dignity from man. Indeed, it can well be contended that the contemplation of the noblest men of our race lends an unexpected dignity and value to the humbler forms and process, revealing their potentialities.

In the long development of his thought new insights appeared; and from time to time Mead brought forth new concepts, which, in their connotation and implications, form no small part of his contribution to us. Mention may be made of "the conversation of gestures"; "self-stimulation" and its correlate, "self-response"; "role-taking"; "generalized other"; "significant symbol"; "auditory gesture"; "incomplete act"; "the I and the me"; "social object"; "redintegration." In addition there was a redefinition and reformulation of other concepts which were already in the heritage, such as: "imagery," which is considered as arising within the act and as having both motor and social aspects; "perception," which appears as a telescoped act and not as a passive reception of stimuli; "attention," which is determined by the direction of the ongoing act; "the self," which is defined as a subject which is its own object.

To set forth these concepts with the problems which occasioned them would be to give a fairly satisfactory brief account of the

( 395) character of Mead's teaching. But even to do this would require more time than is in this hour available.

Attempt will here be made, instead, to set forth in outline some of the outstanding contributions, not as they necessarily should be formulated but as they appear to the writer of this paper. What follows is, then, light that comes from Mead, refracted by passing through the lens of my own mind.

The central inquiry is the manner in which the manifold human attributes and experiences have come into being. The answer seems to lie in an adequate understanding of "the act"; for action and motion he assumed as a basic datum. The earliest of these acts appear as inherited mechanisms, movements set off by trigger-like incitements. The vomiting of an overfed infant is entirely analogous to the twitching of the leg of a dissected frog. In these acts there is no problem for psychology, social or unsocial; and the same is true of the extreme development of well-learned habits, when, through many repetitions the movements become machine-like, and we speak in an accurate metaphor of "absent-mindedness," for the mind is not there.

Leaving out, then, inherited mechanisms, on the one hand, and acquired mechanisms, on the other, we have remaining the whole realm of conscious experience which turns out to involve those actions which encounter obstacles, which may be designated as "inhibited acts," "reflective acts," and which are always "delayed acts," for the conduct cannot immediately go on. A complete analysis and an adequate understanding of the delayed act would and does require every concept that psychology has ever used. All those terms which Mead employs are to be found in his describing and accounting for the various phases and aspects of such acts.

It is not forgotten that the lower animals also encounter obstacles and inhibitions. Monkeys solve problems, and even rats find solutions to their difficulties. They do it, moreover, much as human beings do under certain circumstances, as when, by trial and error, a boy learns to ride a bicycle, with a negligible use of reason and reflection. But it is not in the learning of strictly motor skills that the uniquely human qualities appear.

For men have ideas with meanings; they communicate with their

( 396) fellows by means of seemingly arbitrary articulate sounds, unintelligible to those who have not lived in a group long enough to learn the language; men sit in silence and make plans of action which can then be acted on; they reflect on their past conduct, experience regret and remorse, and build up ideals which force them to do painful duties and enable them to resist alluring invitations to do things which would dishonor their better selves. "The moral law within the breast" filled Kant, as it fills us, with admiration and even awe. Can these things be accounted for as products of experience, growing up within the acts of men, or must appeal be had to some outside influence, some nonhuman spirit, or some transcendental metaphysical essence? Mead was convinced that all that is noble in us, as well as the ignoble, appeared as the emergence within the actions of men of what we know as distinctly human.

One problem is to account for the social character of groups and institutions; and every student of thought knows the strenuous efforts of seventeenth-century scholarship to account for the persistent propensity to gather into groups, political or otherwise. In a day when joint-stock companies were not unknown, they imagined that originally men made contracts and dickered, surrendering their primordial isolation for the disappointing benefits of association. But Mead took associated life as a second datum. It was perhaps unnecessary to go beyond the long period of human infancy to get a foundation for it, for sterility, however free from complications, is hardly hereditary. And so the earliest acts of man are unescapably social acts, however rigorously one cares to define them.

When a mother holds out her hands to her babe and the babe responds, arc not both of them engaged in social conduct? For this is true of the social: it is always multiple. More than one player is needed to play a game of bridge; and it is because men have learned to play together, that the aged can play solitaire, imagining an opponent. Human conduct is, then, originally and essentially social, and the mind of a child seems molded in a social pattern. For the social object may be accurately defined as an object which responds; and in the world of the child there are, at first, no other objects. This makes it possible to understand the tendency of children to talk to any object that interests them, and makes clear the doctrine, de-

(397) -veloped in full by Mead, that the physical object which does not respond is an abstraction that requires to be learned.

There is, then, no problem of how man learns to be social or how he develops into a social being. It is rather isolation and divergent individualism that become the problem.

But social and motor activities also characterize many species of the animal kingdom, and it is necessary to proceed to the inquiry as to where the differentia is to be found. This is the occasion for the bringing—in of the concept of gesture; for the beginning of the act can indicate to another what the rest of the act may be, and this beginning is called a gesture. And gestures have meaning if the rest of the act is indicated by this incipient part. The meaning of a gesture may be roughly said to be the rest of the act that is to be expected from experience with its beginning. And yet even this much is allowed to the animals below man. A dog fight may be preceded by many gestures, each of the combatants replying with an answering gesture and thus preventing the act so begun from going on to its conclusion. Mead liked to use the illustration of a dog fight that never became bloody because each of the dogs was able to answer the threatening gesture with another gesture; and so, back and forth, the threat and answer would go on, till the fight would never really take place. This he called "the conversation of gestures," which is seen when two boxers contend, or two fencers, or even two armies in their maneuvers. But the mere conversation of gestures, being possible to lower forms, cannot give us the key to the uniqueness of human conduct and experience.

There is one class of gestures which has an important double effect, the auditory gestures, the vocalizations, which stimulate the ' one who makes them while stimulating also the one to whom they are made. In speech we stimulate ourselves while we stimulate others. The eyes do not see how we look but the ears do hear how we speak. It is held that, chiefly by this means, man comes to learn 'how to respond to his own stimulation. Here we begin to leave the animals; for, while among certain of the birds, there is an analogous taking-over of the notes of other birds, and while parrots can repeat the words of human speech, yet the limit is soon reached in all the animals but man, and it is entirely absent from most of them.


Confining ourselves, therefore, to the account of human conduct the vocal gesture may be examined in more detail. Speech results from the organization of spontaneous and instinctive vocalizations of infants whose sounds are without intent or meaning. Now the meaning of another's gesture is obtained by observing and remembering what the other is about to do. The meaning of the other's . gesture is given to us by the other. But the meaning of our own gestures is not given to us by ourselves but is also a social contribution. A gesture, vocal or otherwise, which I employ in social intercourse is, in origin, without meaning. It is analogous to blushing or sneezing. But in communication it is the response of the other that gives' me the meaning of my own action. There is nothing so unreservedly social as the acquisition of meaning; for it is in communication that, meaning arises.

Careful observers of infants agree that the cry of a child at about the sixth or seventh month begins to take on a definitely imperative quality, unlike the cry of hunger or pain. The cry has become a means of communication and is employed with what we may call a "conscious intent." We may endeavor to construct an account of the process by which this comes about. The early cries summon the mother, and we may regard the crying and the coming as the two halves of a co-operative social act; but we may assume that the child no more means to cry than the hen means to cluck or the dog to yawn. We may call it an inherited activity, for it is present from the moment of birth. But when crying and the coming of mother are established, and a certain maturity is reached, the cry in the absence of the mother, or in her failure to appear, may be assumed to strike an obstacle which is overcome in a characteristically human manner. For the act, which is not completed overtly, tends to complete itself on another "level," so to speak; and the image of the mother will appear and become the meaning of the cry, which, henceforth, can be used with deliberation and purpose—it is said to be employed by girl babies, at intervals, to an advanced age.

Here Mead felt that we reach a level which only man has been able to attain.; Symbols and gestures he shares with other animals; but symbols used with conscious intent, "significant symbols," are

( 399) the result of the ability to fill out an incomplete act on the level of the imagination.

But the point is carried a step farther. The stimulation of another by a vocal gesture is also the stimulation of one's self and results in arousing in one's self the same attitude that one intends to arouse in the other. To ask another to bring a chair is to put yourself in the attitude of getting the chair; and, if he hesitates, you sometimes find yourself actually moving to bring the chair. While trying to tell another person how to knot a necktie, it is at times difficult to keep your hands to yourself, so near the threshold is the tendency to do what you are directing him to do.

The importance of this principle was regarded by Mead as being very great. It is hard to find in his own published writings in which he discussed concrete social problems, such as crime or philanthropy, any subject in which this principle was left out. The arousal of the same attitude in the speaker as is intended for the hearer makes it possible to present one's self to one's self, and to pass on to taking the attitude toward that self that others have taken. Self-reproach becomes possible as well as self-pity, and many of the higher types of conduct in the spheres of the moral and the social life of man receive their interpretation by this principle.

From this point he goes on to the development of a theory of the origin and nature of the self. Merely to state the problem in this form is to make a sharp break with the past, for historians of psychology all recall that, in former times, the rise of the self was not a problem, but a datum. Even in Wundt, the self was there, given, and no inquiry was considered fruitful or even necessary as to how it came into being. Kant had to appeal to the transcendental; and the doctors of the Middle Ages found their problems largely in working out the conflict between the divine and immortal part of us and the low, earthy, emotional, and fleshly nature—ever at war with the higher and, fortunately, yoked in unequal partnership for a brief span only.

But Mead was convinced that everything had an origin; and his effort was to discover this origin, including the origin of the self, within experience, within the act. The self he considered to be as truly an object as any other object and to arise in the same effort

( 400) ,to reconstruct a disordered experience so as to enable conduct to proceed. It may be contended that it is in what we may call the "retrospective act," though I do not recall that Mead used just this term, that the conception of the self appears to the subject in clearest outline. Consider a highly emotional experience, one in which hot words were uttered and strong feelings aroused. It will need no argument to convince you that such an experience will recur and that, in retrospect, the scene will be lived over again. Some of these keep coming back to mind over and over. What takes place is not confined to the immaterial part of a transcendental being. Our muscles stiffen as we recall an insult, the words of the other come back, not only to the mind, but also to the mouth. We think of what we said and what was replied to that. We think of our answer and of the next response. We even think of a better and sharper retort that we could now make and which we really should have made at the time. The whole dispute is re-enacted by one man who takes the two roles alternately.

This Mead regarded as typical and normal in human experience. We do thus stimulate ourselves and answer our own stimulation; and in so doing, we come to take toward ourselves the attitude that another has taken toward us. We become conscious of ourselves when we are aware of acting like another. The self is built up in imagination and is made possible by the fact of communication, leading to communication and communion with one's self and all that this means and makes possible. Thus the self is one result of a delayed act which moves on to consummation when the imagination constructs an object that releases us, resolves the tension, and allows us to proceed and recover our equilibrium.

This line of reasoning leads to the doctrine of the self as a role, a part played in the human drama, and forces the conclusion that the self is multiple. And experience seems to give ample reason to accept this conclusion. It is common knowledge that a man may be progressive in politics and conservative in religion; one will be a hard and merciless bargainer and at the same time a kindly and generous father to his children. The pleasant-voiced clerk in the office may be harsh and difficult at home. Personality is relative to group

( 401) relations, and James has written that we have as many selves as there are people we know.

And yet it seems hardly accurate to portray our associates as being so completely versatile; and Mead concluded that life was, in fact, simpler than the words of James would lead one to expect. ,His concept of the "generalized other" was his answer to the question here. It is especially to be noticed when we are considering our own conduct and passing judgment on it. There are times when the attitude of a particular friend is the determining and focal consideration, but more often it is an impersonal "they" to whom we refer our accusations and our defense. Just as oaks, elms, and maples are classified as trees, so Mr. A., Mr. B., and Mr. C., among our acquaintances, are combined into this generalized other, whose attitude we take in our moments of self-examination. The self is, then, a subject which is its own object; but the object is the gift of others, and the self could not arise unless social experience had defined our attitudes. It is hardly necessary to remind ourselves that, in the modern world, there are books as well as people, and actors as well as friends, and that much of our social experience is gained in other than oral discourse with our acquaintances. But the process is the same, and the vicarious experience which comes to us in our contact with poetry and the drama is not only similar in kind—it is only possible because we have built up a self in the primary group relations of earlier life.

To some of us this account of the development of the self inside the acts of men is the most valuable of his contributions. That gestures have their meanings given in social response, that certain gestures act as stimulations to the self and are responded to by the one who utters them, that communication with others makes possible inner reflection, and that one can thus become his own object and thus achieve a self—this doctrine not only seems to answer questions that our fathers asked in vain but seems to offer most attractive possibilities of application, for if we know how the self does arise, we are in a position to arrange conditions so as to aid in forming the sort of selves that we desire. It has corollaries for child-training, and indeed i for every form of social control.

In addition to working out this theory of the self, and as neces-

( 402) -sary to some aspects of the development, there were many other concepts which it was necessary to redefine and reinterpret. Mention may be made briefly of four of these, though it would be congenial to list a larger number.

Imagination has long presented exceptional difficulties to psychological theory—difficulties so great that some, like John Watson, actually discarded the notion of images as unworkable and unnecessary. But Mead brought images within the act, considered them as aspects of the act, wherein the incomplete is incipiently completed. Imagination is not only part of an act: it is, itself, action. The images of a building that is projected form an integral part of its erection; the imagined tour is one phase of the excursion; the imaginations of plotters form a part of the insurrection. Imagination is not, therefore, an epiphenomenon: imagination is a phase of events, moving from potentialities to actualities.

Perception, the pons assinorum of the ancient Greeks, who taught that copies of the object were thrown off so that the square tower in the distance had its corners worn off by the friction of its passage and therefore looked round—this also is brought into relation with action and incorporated into the class of movements. The perception of a physical object is presented as a telescoped act. To some persons the visual perception of a large cucumber pickle gives an actual gustatory experience; and the doctrine that the perception of an object is the very rapid experience of what would take place should one move forward and touch the thing, which is what we mean when we say that marble looks cold, brings this concept into the theory in an integrating manner.

Attention is also presented as relative to the act in progress and limited and determined by it. I need not remind you of how much the earlier theories of attention left unexplained.

Redintegration, an old term which Mead used with a different meaning, serves to take care of all the facts which are comprised by the behavioristic concept of conditioned reflex. The unfinished pushes toward completion, and the incomplete always seeks to be made whole. The older laws of association formed one attempt to take care of these facts, but the postulate of the tendency to redintegration appears as a more adequate solution.

( 403)

In Mead's analysis of the act he confined his attention to the delay and interruption and the phenomena attendant on the process of finding a way to consummation, with its resultant satisfaction or dissatisfaction. He does not seem to have devoted much attention to those important acts which never succeed, and the tracing-out and analyzing of instances of frustration did not interest him. But his system and method can be applied with excellent results to these things also and will receive increasing attention from scholars.

This discussion cannot be brought to a close without, at least, a mention of Mead's escape from the mechanistic consequences of a scientific formulation of the development of the self. The mechanical statement is held to be appropriate and adequate for physics, but in biological phenomena there is a new emergence. It is under the head of "the I and the me" that Mead has discussed this phase of his problem. On analysis, the self is found to have both the nominative y and the accusative forms and aspects. The I can be recalled in memory, but it is a me when it is recalled. The me feels the blow, but it is the I that strikes. To set forth the doctrine—none too clear in Mead's own statement—is not possible here; but it does appeal to the followers of Mead as a keen insight, preserving what some have lost: the responsibility and spontaneity which is also a part of human experience.

Other gifted men in the past have had wide influence though they wrote little with their own pens. In such cases, schools of thought, widely variant, have sometimes appealed to the same man in support of contradictory views. I have endeavored to set down in this inadequate form some of the things Mead means to me. Whatever interpretation is given to his work, all who knew him will agree with Dewey's statement that in Mead we have a seminal mind of the first order.


  1. Paper read before the Midwest Sociological Society, Des Moines, April 16, 1937.
  2. Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934). Reviewed in this Journal, XLI, 809-813.

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