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:
- It has problems accounting for the collective character of social life.
- It offers a very minimal and somewhat grim picture of the human agent – which may sometimes be useful for purposes of prediction but hardly captures the richness of human action and social life.
- Focus on Instrumental action but does not give us an account of effective action
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:
- Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.
- These meanings are the product of social interaction in human society
- 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?
- They argued that a scientific approach to human life must focus upon behaviour, rather than thought, as behaviour is observable and measurable.
- They argued that behaviour can be explained by reference to physical causes in the environment, just like anything else.
- The most extreme versions, which Mead was tackling, believed that all behaviour could be explained in terms of reflexes, albeit conditioned reflexes, of stimulus and response.
Against this, Mead argued:
- That we can study thought, by way of language.
- That thought and reflection on thought are important determinants of human action.
- That action is not caused by physical stimuli in the environment but rather responds in a purposive way to meaningful situations and meaningful interaction.
- Individuals play an active role in defining the situations they find themselves in. We interpret our environment, actively. And the way we act depends upon the definition or interpretation we arrive at.
In order to understand and get a grasp for the central arguments of Mead’s work we will look at his work on
- the self
- language and objects as symbols and signifiers
- social interaction or as Blumer calls it ‘symbolic interaction’
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.
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
- In contrast to the functionalists Mead does not seek to explain the ‘parts’ of society by reference to the requirements of the whole.
- On the other hand, in contrast to the RATs, he does not try to break society down into the individuals who compose it, self-interested or otherwise.
- His focus, by contrast, is upon relationships and interactions. The way in which each individual acts depends upon the way in which those around them act. They ‘reply’ and ‘respond’ to the actions of others, and this, in turn, gives rise to patterns of action and interaction which are strictly irreducible to individuals.
- These patterns can become relatively durable, for Mead, both through the logic of interaction and as they sediment in the form of habits and customs.
- Mead also differs from the RATs in the respect that he believes that the human agent is formed through society. Specifically, it is only as we acquire language (a social-cultural structure) and a self (through the internalisation of the attitude of others) that we have the capacity to act in characteristically human and social ways.
- The acquisition of self, however, through the internalisation of the attitudes of others and the capacity to adopt the ‘attitude of the other’, also transforms the agent into a moral agent – an agent capable of viewing others as ‘ends’ in their own right and of seeing their point of view.
- This also means that society is a moral order.
- Both of these latter points, again, contrast with RAT.
- In contrast with functionalism, Mead does recognise and focus upon the potential for conflict within society. Human beings have needs and interests which may conflict.
- He also recognises that these conflicts are sometimes resolved by way of violence (e.g. wars).
- But, he stresses the possibility that human beings are able to discuss and debate their differences, to come to see one another’s points of view, and thereby to devise new norms which they can agree to live by.
- He is not so naïve as to believe that such perfect mechanisms of conflict resolution very emerge in pure form. Powerful agents have stronger voices in negotiation and are able to enforce their own norms and interpretations.
- The point of sociology, for Mead, is to study these various forms of interaction.