Practice Question: Using Mead’s theory of symbolic interactionism, discuss the stages in the formation of gender identity. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2014)

Approach: Introduction; State Mead’s theory, Define gender identity and elaborate on stages in formation of gender identity, Discuss evolution of gender identity in the context of symbolic interactionism; Conclusion.



The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a major framework of the sociological theory. This perspective relies on the symbolic meaning that people develop and build upon in the process of social interaction. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber’s assertion that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American philosopher George Herbert Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s.

Symbolic Interactionism with its roots in Behavioural Psychology of the late nineteenth century ushered in a micro perspective in contrast. Instead of viewing individuals as constrained and moulded by society and its norms, it preferred to examine how individual behaviour creates relationships and to view the individual and society relationship in reciprocal
fashion. Individuals were importantly seen as both subjects and agents and not merely as objects.



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 Behaviourist was compiled and published posthumously by his students in 1934. This book laid the foundations of the school of symbolic interactionism.

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 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’. Thus even when a person is by herself, she will behave as if others were present and the behaviour will be conditioned by the universal presupposed presence of the generalised others. Like if we are sitting alone in a
park or walking on the road, we will still behave according to how we are supposed to behave in response to the combined expectation of the society at large. Thus when we are addressing a person whom we even do not know, our expectations will be shaped according to this generalised other, one that is reflected within ourselves, that is in accordance with what we expect ourselves to do. In other words, most of the time, we expect others to do what we would do under that same or similar conditions.



1) Individual actions take place in response to the meanings that gestures or objects have for them. For example, if the sign of red means danger in any particular setting, then individuals will act accordingly.
2) All interactions take place within already defined and categorized social contexts. In other words, all social situations are already provided with meaning in terms of a shared classification that is well understood by all who share that common social setting. Like if something is sacred in a society, then all members would be already aware of it and will act accordingly.
3) These meanings emerge from the continued interactions that persons in a society have with each other and with society at large. For example a child may learn that the temple is sacred from his parents, but this particular meaning will be confirmed for him by other members of the society so that  later it will become a part of the generalised system of meanings that he or she holds.
4) Meanings are not static, and new meanings may be imparted and old ones discarded as a part of social interaction with others. Like if a new object emerges that is considered sacred by some, then over time the meaning can be accepted or even rejected by more members, and a change can occur or be nipped in the bud, depending upon the circumstances.


‘I’ AND ‘ME’

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. At times we comply, at times we manipulate and at times we rebel. When the rebellion takes the collective form of the generalised others, then society transforms itself and a different kind of conversation ensues.



Critics of this theory claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social interpretation. In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the more significant issues of society by focusing too closely on the “trees” rather than the “forest.” The perspective also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual interactions. In the case of smoking, the functionalist perspective might miss the powerful role that the institution of mass media plays in shaping perceptions of smoking through advertising, and by portraying smoking in film and television. In the cases of race and gender, this perspective would not account for social forces like systemic racism or gender discrimination, which strongly influence what we believe race and gender mean.



It is a theory that originated in early twentieth century but holds forte even today and has given rise to significant research both theoretical and applied. It basically connects individual to society at both the micro level of interpersonal interaction and through the use of role playing and norms providing legitimacy to social statuses, to the larger social structure. It also links the psychological self to the social self, indicating how concepts about one’s own self are conditioned by how others perceive you and what expectations they have about you. Since all communications in human society are through symbols, including language, the theory got its name as symbolic interactions.




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