Symbolic Interactionism – George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead

  • 1963-1931
  • Professor at University of Chicago
  • Posthumous book: Mind, Self and Society
  • Influenced Sociology and Communications
  • Mead thought that the true test of any theory is whether it is useful in solving complex social problems.
  • symbolic interactionism – The term described what Mead claimed to be the most human and humanizing activity that people can engage in—talking to each other.
  • The three core principles of this theory are: meaning, language, and thought.

Meaning: The Construction of Social Reality

Humans act toward people or things on the basis of the meanings they assign to those people or things.

E.g. If I’m a child psychiatrist and I see a feral child, that person would become my field of study, perhaps to further my career (exploitation).

    Language: The Source of Meaning

    Meaning arises out of the social interaction that people have with each other.

    • Meaning is not inherent in objects; it’s not pre-existent in a state of nature.
    • Meaning arises out of social interactions; it is negotiated through the use of language—hence the term symbolic interactionism.
      • As human beings, we have the ability to name things. We can designate a specific object (person), identify an action (scream), or refer to an abstract idea (crazy).
      • Occasionally a word sounds like the thing it describes (smack, thud, crash), but usually the names we use have no logical connection with the object at hand.
      • Symbols are arbitrary signs. There’s nothing inherently small, soft, or lovable in the word kitten. It’s only by talking with others—symbolic interaction—that we come to ascribe that meaning and develop a universe of discourse.
    • Symbolic naming is the basis for human society.
    • A symbol is a stimulus that has a learned meaning and a value for people; Symbolic intreractionism is the way we learn to interpret the world.
      • E.g. Father and son in a car crash, boy taken to hospital, doctor sees the boy and says “omg this is my son” – because the doctor is the MOTHER.
    • Interactionists claim that the extent of knowing is dependant on the extent of naming.
      • Although language can be a prison that confines us, we have the potential to push back the walls and bars as we master more words.
        • E.g. College entrance exams, where half the questions center on linguistic aptitude. The construction of this test obviously reflects agreement with the interactionist claim that human intelligence is the ability to symbolically identify much of what we encounter.
    • Example: Fishing language
      • “drifter”
      • “Opener”
      • “Puker”
      • “Fish cop”
      • “My” fish

    Thought: The process of taking the role of another

    • An individual’s interpretation of symbols is modified by his or her own thought processes.
      • Symbolic interactionists describe thinking as inner conversation. Mead called this inner dialogue minding.
        • Minding is the pause that’s reflexive (automatic). It’s the two second delay while we mentally rehearse our next move, test alternatives, anticipate others’ reactions.
        • We naturally talk to ourselves in order to sort out the meaning of a difficult situation.
        • But we need language. Before we can think, we must be able to interact symbolically.
          • Mead believed animals are unable to think reflexively because, with few exceptions, they cannot communicate symbolically.

    Selves are created through Communication

    • Self is an ongoing process combining the “I” and “one”
      • “I” – novel, unpredictable, and unorganized.
      • “Me” – image of self seen through the looking glass of other people’s reactions
      • Generalized other
      • Significant others (a person who has influenced your view about who you are)

    The Self: Reflections in a looking glass

    • Mead said we paint our self-portrait by taking the role of the other—imagining how we look to another person.
    • Interactionists call this the looking-glass self and insist that it’s socially constructed.
    • Symbolic interactionists state the self is a function of language. Without talk there would be no self-concept, so one has to be a member of a community before consciousness of self sets in. The self is always in change, based on new acquaintances of novel conversations with significant others.
    • The self is an ongoing process combining the “I” and the “me.”
    • “I” – novel, unpredictable, and unorganized.
      • The “I” is the spontaneous, driving force that fosters all that is novel, unpredictable, and unorganized in the self.
        • The “I” is forever elusive (difficult to describe).
      • “Me” – image of self seen through the looking glass of other people’s reactions
        • The “me” is viewed as an object—the image of self seen in the looking-glass of other people’s reactions.
        • If the “I” speaks, the “me” hears.” And the “I” of this moment is present in the “me” of the next moment.

    Community: The socializing effect of others’ expectations

    • The “me” is formed by those who surround you.
    • The generalized other shapes how we think and interact within a community.
      • The generalized other is an organized set of information about what the general expectations and attitudes of a social group are. We refer to this whenever we try to behave or try to evaluate our behaviour in a social situation. We take the position of the generalized other and assign meaning to ourselves and our actions.

    To summarize, there is no “me” at birth. The “me” is formed only through continual symbolic interaction—first with family, next with playmates, then in institutions like schools.

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