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George Herbert Mead – Father of Symbolic interactionism

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead: Despite his reserved nature, this unassuming individual who keenly observed the world without much regard for his own hypotheses ultimately forged one of the most significant contributions to 20th-century social theory. His enduring legacy looms large, and his concept of a socially constructed ‘self’ has become a cornerstone often overlooked in contemporary discussions. If this piques your interest, the following sections will delve into the details.


George Herbert Mead was an American sociologist born in 1863. A few important takeaways from his personal biography are:

  • From 1894 until his death, he taught at the University of Chicago – he was a key intellect of the Chicago School of Sociology in the early 20th century.
  • His most famous work Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist’ (1934) helped establish him as the ‘father’ of the school of symbolic interactionism.
  • His most famous work is rooted in two main philosophies: social behaviourism and pragmatism.

Social Behaviourism is the measurement of conduct, observable by others, that occurs in a social situation. Pragmatism is a perspective which seeks to understand social conduct considered meaningful by its concrete effects.

George Herbert Mead

For example, take the gesture of showing someone the ‘two fingers up’ gesture. Where did your mind take you? Were you being a bit rude? Or, were you signalling peace and love? Either way, understanding what those two fingers signal to others and why that is, is exactly what pragmatism looks to understand.

Mead believed there were particularly important types of social conduct that should be studied. Important examples of this social conduct, i.e., social behaviourism were:

  • Communication
  • Language
  • Gestures
  • Signals
  • Role-taking

Role-taking is the process of assuming the perspective of another and responding from that imagined viewpoint.

George Herbert Mead’s contribution to sociology

Mead left an indelible mark on the field of sociology with a particularly noteworthy contribution: his seminal work, “Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist,” published in 1934. His influential ideas, as presented in this work and expounded upon during his lectures at the Chicago School, served as the bedrock for the emergence of symbolic interactionism. Notably, it was Herbert Blumer who further developed these ideas in the 1920s.

Symbolic interactionism is a theory which argues that individual actions and society at large are both built on symbols and their collective interpretation.

In simpler terms, symbolic interactionism explores how people behave based on their personal interpretations of the meaning they assign to their surroundings. The way we perceive objects, events, and behaviors is inherently subjective, meaning that what something means to you might differ from its significance to someone else.


  • Objects include works of art, music, film and literature.
  • Events include Black Lives Matter protests and the ‘Me Too‘ movement.
  • Behaviours include banter, drinking, and smoking.

Why is this his great contribution?

During the early 20th century, symbolic interactionism emerged as a potent rebuttal to the prevailing notion that people’s attributes were primarily determined by biology. Instead, it underscored the idea that our thoughts, actions, and sense of self are products of the shared interactions we engage in with those in our immediate social milieu. Furthermore, it would go on to mount a compelling challenge to functionalism, a perspective that regarded all individual conduct as pragmatic, logical, and goal-oriented.

Example: Ask yourself, why do young people still smoke and vape, given its health impacts?

Indeed, the allure of smoking or vaping, while partially rooted in its addictive nature and the enjoyment of its taste, often traces back to the initial reasons behind taking up the habit. If you happen to be a smoker, what initially prompted you to start? More often than not, the journey into smoking commenced within a social context, perpetuating the enduring legacy of smoking and vaping being perceived as ‘cool.’ In the language of symbolic interactionism, a cigarette or vape acted as and still acts as a symbol of coolness for those who embarked on their smoking journey.

Symbolic interactionism as a micro theory

Another reason is that symbolic interactionism was also one of the first sociological theories that started from the ‘micro’ level of society (i.e., from the bottom-up).

By doing so, it gives more agency to everyone!

How so? Well, symbolic interactionism argues that our lives, our thoughts, and our beliefs are not determined by where we are or who we are surrounded by. They greatly shape them, but ultimately the power lies within us all to decide whether to accept or dispute what has been laid out before us.

Example: Imagine you aspire to become a teacher, but your vision extends beyond the ordinary; you yearn to embrace a laissez-faire, relaxed teaching approach. This inclination might clash with the school’s conventional, authoritative teaching methods.

While the school’s established values and norms hold considerable sway, it’s important to recognize that these influences need not be binding. The decision to either assimilate and align with these values or forge your own distinctive teaching path ultimately rests with the teacher.

Who and what has symbolic interactionism influenced?

  • Erving Goffman’s work on stigma
  • Howard Becker’s labelling theory
  • Anselm L. Strauss and grounded theory
  • Albert K. Cohen and the role of subcultures in creating a criminal ‘career’
  • Even the Functionalist Talcott Parsons borrowed from symbolic interactionism when he devised the ‘sick-role’ in doctor-patient relationships.

These theorists and their contributions owe a significant debt to the foundational framework of symbolic interactionism laid out by Mead and Herbert Blumer. Moreover, the symbolic interactionist perspective has catalyzed the development of additional theoretical and methodological branches, which remain highly relevant and pertinent in contemporary discourse.

Mead’s theory of Social Behaviourism

George Herbert Mead’s comprehensive body of theories is often collectively referred to as “social behaviorism.” Mead’s concept of social behaviorism was, in essence, his endeavor to confront the foundational principles of behaviorism, a framework primarily rooted in psychology. Notably, Mead challenged behaviorism’s outright disregard for subjective experiences as explanatory factors for human behavior.

In the realm of behaviorism, the underlying motivations behind individuals’ actions were deemed irrelevant. This perspective failed to consider the significance of a person’s objectives, thoughts, past experiences, and other contextual factors in comprehending their present and future behaviors and actions.

How is Mead’s Social Behaviourism different?

Instead, Mead’s primary interest revolved around the pivotal role of communication in elucidating social actions, as highlighted by Scott and Marshall in 1998 (pg. 608). To Mead, what truly sets humans apart from animals is our capacity to adopt another person’s perspective, envisioning how they might react to our words and actions within social contexts.

This consideration for others significantly shapes our behaviors, thereby giving rise to the concept of social behaviorism. Keeping this perspective in mind, Mead’s theory of social behaviorism delved deeply into our unique human ability to construct meaning through communication. He referred to the ways in which we achieve this as ‘the definition of the situation.’

Understanding ‘the definition of the situation’

For Mead, humans, as meaning-making creatures, do so through interacting with others. Specifically, he talks about 4 ways we create meaning through interaction. These are:

  1. Language – e.g. English, French, Spanish, etc.
  2. Gestures – i.e. body language – a thumbs up, a salute, waving arms around when talking, etc.
  3. Communication – e.g. verbal and non-verbal cues, listening and speaking.
  4. Role-taking – e.g. pretending to be others like a doctor, a nurse, an astronaut etc.

Through a combination and interpretation of all 4, ‘the definition of the situation’ is set in any social environment.

George Herbert Mead and the stages of Socialisation

Mead’s work contributed heavily to the analysis of Socialisation.

Socialisation is the process whereby people learn to conform to the social norms and values of society.

In the perspective of Mead and symbolic interactionism, the process of socialization is ongoing and lifelong. Crucially, it’s not a unidirectional journey where we merely absorb and internalize societal norms and values.

According to Mead, socialization persists throughout our lives because we retain the ability to either embrace or decline new and evolving social norms and values. In essence, socialization is intricately intertwined with broader processes of social change.

Example: Values and norms around gender and sexuality have never felt more at the forefront. Just look at our focus on pronouns – she/her or they/them etc, transgender rights or questions around what it means to be a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. Likewise, think of the reactions that surround people with particular views on these matters!

While socialization indeed extends throughout the entirety of one’s life, historical emphasis has predominantly centered on childhood as the pivotal stage of development. George Herbert Mead was no exception in this regard.

Stages of socialisation in childhood

For Mead, Socialisation in childhood occurred through 3 stages. These are:

  1. The imitation stage
  2. The play stage
  3. The game stage

Let’s look a bit closer at each.

The imitation stage

  • This stage occurs in children aged 0-3 years.
  • They imitate what they see in others.

Example: Mimicking the gestures and words of others, e.g. saying ‘dada‘ or ‘mama‘, or repeating a phrase their parents often say.

The play stage

  • This stage occurs in children aged 3-5 years.
  • Children pretend to be others through role-playing/role-taking (defined above!)
  • It is through the process of role-taking that we start to learn social cues.

Example: Pretending to be a firefighter, or a doctor, or an astronaut, or their favourite movie character is a common example of role-taking at this stage.

The game stage

  • This stage occurs in children aged 5-9 years.
  • Children start to understand complex relationships. They start to understand they’re only one part of a bigger picture.
  • The activities at this stage involve organised games, for example playing sports
  • The child gains an understanding of the rules of the game to be successful in the activity.
  • The child also starts to understand the expectations of them in a given situation. In other words, they start to think about what other people may be thinking. Mead calls this the ‘generalised other’.

It is in the game stage that we internalise the ‘generalised other‘.

The “I” and the “Me”

George H. Mead introduced the concept of “I” and “Me” to encapsulate the social development of our self-identity. These two facets, as delineated by the aforementioned stages, represent distinct aspects of our self-perception. Our sense of “Me” essentially mirrors the attitudes, expectations, and behaviors that have been molded through our interactions with others. In contrast, our sense of “I” represents the introspective dimension of our self – the part that can contemplate our past experiences and make self-aware choices, as noted by Thorpe et al. in 2015.

It’s worth noting that our “I” is built upon the foundation of our “Me,” serving as the individualistic aspect that sets us apart from others. Conversely, our “Me” reflects the influence of those in close proximity to us and the patterns we have adopted over time.

Read Also: Robert K. Merton: Sociological Thinkers

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