Practice Question – Critically analyse the contribution of G H Mead to Symbolic Interactionism. (UPSC 2013)

Approach Introduction. Briefly explain notion of self, Define Symbolic Interactionism, Write about Symbolic interactionism given by Mead. Conclusion.



George Herbert Mead was a major American thinker and philosopher. He taught philosophy and social psychology at the University of Michigan, and never published anything in his lifetime. His book, Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviorist was compiled and published posthumously by his students in 1934. This book laid the foundations of the school of symbolic interactionism. His theory about the development of self and of consciousness is the bedrock on which other theories were built. The basic premises of his theory are that the self emerges, not by itself but through interaction with others.



We learn to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Or, how we perceive who we are is largely influenced by what feedback we get about ourselves from those around us. Social communication thus comprises of making gestures to others that we first understand ourselves and then communicate through commonly understood symbols to others. In other words, a gesture, in the form of language or otherwise must be similarly understood by both the person making it and the person receiving it; and this shared understanding is its meaning. We thus live in a world of shared meanings. Our understanding of our own self, will also be conditioned by the response and communications about one’s self as received from others.

The most consistent of these gestures are the symbols of significance that are made significant by the important role they play in the society to which a person belongs. Significant symbols are both often repeated and universally understood. The community of actors also communicates with each other to form shared complexes of meaning. Thus a group of individuals who participate in the same society take on the combined attitudes of the others towards himself or herself and the community thus become for the person, what Mead has referred to as ‘Generalized others’.

The interaction of self and society is never completely one sided or static. If this were so then society would comprise of robots and not humans. Thus Mead brings on the difference between ‘I’ and ‘Me’. ‘I’ is the ego, the self that is consciously self, the one we perceive as being our self as an individual. ‘Me’ is the self that is reflected by society. In our actions if we act as ‘Me’ then we are doing what society expects from us. But at one instance of time, we can also act as ‘I’. There is an ongoing conversation between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’, when we negotiate what it is we want to do and how we do it.



The name was coined by Herbert Blumer of the Chicago school, following the lead given by Mead. 

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological theory that develops from practical considerations and alludes to people’s particular utilization of dialect to make images and normal implications, for deduction and correspondence with others. In other words, it is a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shape individual behaviors. It is a framework that helps understand how society is preserved and created through repeated interactions between individuals. The interpretation process that occurs between interactions helps create and recreate meaning. It is the shared understanding and interpretations of meaning that affect the interaction between individuals. Individuals act on the premise of a shared understanding of meaning within their social context. Thus, interaction and behavior is framed through the shared meaning that objects and concepts have attached to them. From this view, people live in both natural and symbolic environments.

  • Individual actions take place in response to the meanings that gestures or
    objects have for them.
  • All interactions take place within already defined and categorized social
  • These meanings emerge from the continued interactions that persons in a
    society have with each other and with society at large.
  • Meanings are not static, and new meanings may be imparted and old ones
    discarded as a part of social interaction with others.



One of the most important sociological approaches to the self was developed by American sociologist George Herbert Mead. Mead conceptualizes the mind as the individual importation of the social process. This process is characterized by Mead as the “I” and the “me. ” The “me” is the social self and the “I” is the response to the “me. ” The “I” is the individual’s impulses. The “I” is self as subject; the “me” is self as object. For Mead, existence in a community comes before individual consciousness. First one must participate in the different social positions within society and only subsequently can one use that experience to take the perspective of others and thus become self-conscious. Primary Socialization occurs when a child learns the attitudes, values, and actions appropriate to individuals as members of a particular culture. Secondary socialization refers to the process of learning the appropriate behavior as a member of a smaller group within the larger society. Group socialization is the theory that an individual’s peer groups, rather than parental figures, influences his or her personality and behavior in adulthood. Organizational socialization is the process whereby an employee learns the knowledge and skills necessary to assume his or her organizational role. In the social sciences, institutions are the structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity. Institutions include the family, religion, peer group, economic systems, legal systems, penal systems, language and the media.



Although the self is a product of socio-symbolic interaction it is not merely a passive reflection of the generalized other. The individual’s response to the social world is active; he decides what he will do in the light of the attitude of others but his conduct is not mechanically determined by such attitudinal structures. There are two phases of the self- that phase which reflects the attitude of the generalized other and that phase which responds to the attitude of the generalized other. Here Mead distinguishes between the ‘me’ and ‘I’. The ‘me’ is the social self and the ‘I’ is the response to me. 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 assumes. Mead defines the ‘me’ as a conventional habitual individual and the ‘I’ as the novel reply of the individual to the generalized other. There is a dialectical relationship between society and the individual and this dialectic is enacted on the intra-psychic level in terms of the polarity of the ‘me’ and the ‘I’.

The action of the ‘I’ is revealed only in the action itself; specific prediction of the action of ‘I’ is not possible. The individual is determined to respond but the specific character of the response is not fully determined. The individual’s response are conditioned but not determined by the situation in which he acts. Human freedom is conditioned freedom. Thus the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ exist in dynamic relation to one another. For Mead both aspects of the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ are essential to the self in its full expression. Both community and individual autonomy are necessary to identity. The ‘I’ is process breaking through structure. The ‘me’ is a necessary symbolic structure which renders the action of the ‘I’ possible and without this structure of things; the life of the self would become impossible.



Sociological theories of the self attempt to explain how social processes such as socialization influence the development of the self. One of the most important sociological approaches to the self was developed by American sociologist George Herbert Mead. Mead conceptualizes the mind as the individual importation of the social process. Mead presented the self and the mind in terms of a social process. As gestures are taken in by the individual organism, the individual organism also takes in the collective attitudes of others, in the form of gestures, and reacts accordingly with other organized attitudes.



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