Mead and Symbolic Interactionism: Lecture 4 Social Thought 2

This lecture focuses upon the work of G.H. Mead (1863-1931), especially the ideas developed in his Mind, Self and Society (1967).  In contrast to the minimal conception of the agent offered by RAT, Mead offers a rich account of agency which is very sensitive to questions of, social interaction and the role of meaning and purpose in the mediation of action.

We have examined the RAT critique of functionalism; we have also looked at some of the problems of the RAT approach:

Mead has studied psychology under Cooley and Dewey and was firmly committed to the pragmatist philosophy.

The Pragmatist model is one in which the meaning of the world depends upon its selection and interpretation by human beings, emphasised the informal and negotiated aspect of social roles and social interaction in general.

It shared similarities with the philosophy of interpretivism

Interpretive approaches are interested in knowledge of what it is like to be a social actor of a particular kind. They are interested in how people understand, interpret and negotiate their own social situation, how they make sense of their world. Another way of expressing this would be to say that interpretivists are more interested in understanding (from the inside) than in explaining (from the outside)

Symbolic Interactionism, according to Iain Craib, can be conceptualised as “society as conversation”. Craib says when we think of symbolic interactionism:

“the analogy of the conversation is most appropriate: the social world shows the same qualities of flow, development, creativity and change we would experience in a conversation around a dinning table or in a bar… The world is made up of conversations, internal and external.” (1988: 72)

According to Craib the most economical formulation of interactionist assumptions comes from Blumer, who sets out the three central assumptions of such an approach:

  1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.
  2. These meanings are the product of social interaction in human society
  3. These meanings are modified and handled through an interpretive process that is used be each individual in dealing with the signs of each encounter.

Taken from Craib (1988: 73)

What did the behaviourists argue?

Against this, Mead argued:

In order to understand and get a grasp for the central arguments of Mead’s work we will look at his work on

Mead and the self

Some writers have argued that our self-awareness, knowledge and esteem comes from ‘within’ (Descartes). Mead belongs to a long line of writers who dispute this, however. Human consciousness is focused ‘outwards’, he argues. It is composed of what we perceive ‘in the world’

Our capacity for role taking is also important in terms developing a reflexive self-dialogue. When we dialogue with ourselves, Mead claims, we take up the roles of the significant others in our life.

Mead saw the self as a (reflexive) process rather than a structure

According to John Scott (1997) the self is formed through the process of socialisation. The self reflects the structure of the generalized attitudes of the members of the society and it comprises what Cooley called the ‘looking glass self’. This means that the self reflects and internalises the views and attitudes that others hold about the individual. On this Mead says:

“The individual possesses a self only in relation to the selves of other members of his social group; and the structure of his self expresses or reflects a general behaviour pattern of his social group to which he belongs.” (cited in Scott 1997: 106)

The ‘I’ and the ‘me’

Mead also distinguishes between phases of the self. He makes distinct the ‘I’, the individual ego, from the ‘me’ which is socially constructed as a result of ongoing social interaction with others, and others expectations of ‘me’.

Thus the ‘me’ refers to the part of the ‘self’ which is produced and reproduced, shaped and constituted through interaction with others in social settings.

The me is then, the (multiple) way(s) in which others see me. These reflections allow us to see ourselves as other do.

The second phase of the self is the ‘I’. The ‘I’ is the part that looks at myself as in ‘I’ am thinking about myself’ Mead sees the I as a source of identity, originality creativity and spontaneity.

Mead identified two forms of interaction: symbolic and non-symbolic.
In non-symbolic interaction humans respond directly to one another’s gestures or actions
In symbolic interaction human beings interpret each others gestures or actions on the basis of the meaning yielded by the interpretation.

An unwitting response to the tone of another’s voice would be a non-symbolic interaction.

Interpreting a raised voice and the shaking of a fist as signifying frustration or anger and acting accordingly would be an example of symbolic interaction. 
It was symbolic interaction that Mead was concerned with. For Blumer

“Symbolic interaction involves interpretation or ascertaining the meaning ofthe actions or remarks of the other person, and definition or conveying indications to the other person as to how he is to act.” (1986: 66)

The participants involved in symbolic interaction have to build up their respective lines of conduct by constant interpretation of each others lines of action.
Action then is seen as an interpretive process

Language and objects as signifiers and symbols
Mead’s starting point is the discussion of the crucial features that separates human beings from others animals. Like many other thinkers he settles on language and ‘significant symbols’, (which refers to shared meaning between individuals) as ways of differentiating human interaction from that assigned to animals.

While animals do have the capacity to communicate with one another, they cannot do so on a symbolic level.

Because human interactions involve symbols (language, objects, signifiers, gestures) interaction is much more complex.

We not only respond to others but, because we can perceive our own communications, we actually respond to ourselves. Again reference here is made to both the internal and external conversations

Through language we think about how to act. We do not just respond to events going around us – at least not all the time. We formulate plans, weigh up alternatives.

As infants, he argues, we learn to ‘divert’ our actions and thoughts into words; we learn to substitute immediate responses with linguistic formulations. And we learn to formulate our definitions of situations in linguistic terms.

This brings our actions under conscious control; not least because we can debate and discuss possibilities for action.

Objects or the concept of object is another central pillar in Mead’s scheme of analysis according to Blumer.

Human beings are, of course, living in a word or environment of objects and their activities formed around objects.

In short objects consist of whatever people indicate or refer to: they have a symbolic meaning. For example, the nature of objects is constituted by the meaning it has for the person or persons for whom it is an object.

All objects to Mead are social products in that they are formed and transformed by the defining processes that take place in social interaction. The meaning of objects and their uses can change over time.

Joint action
Blumer, on the basis of the important language, communication, shared symbolic interaction, relations with objects and their meaning to us, has argued that we might think of Mead’s concept of social action as joint action.  This illustrates that collective action is always ‘constitute by the fitting together of lines of behaviour of the separate participants’ (Blumer 1987: 70)

Weddings, family dinners, debates, a game of football, and the symbols used in these types of group interaction can all be conceptualised in this way.

Joint action is comprised of an articulation of the acts of the participants. It is through language and the meaning we give to the objects that we orient ourselves to, are central in us negotiating and interpreting the actions and thoughts and meanings of others in joint acts.

Summary: Mead Compared With Functionalism and RAT