George Herbert Mead was an important sociologist who spent his career at the University of Chicago in the early 1900s. He is credited with helping to develop the symbolic interaction perspective. This tutorial will focus on Mead's theory of the self.
Mead theorized that the self has two parts: a self-awareness and a self-image. It is interesting to note that Mead's theory of the self is completely social. He doesn't allow room for any kind of biological development of the self or personality.
EXAMPLERecall the case of Genie, the girl who was left alone in a room until she was 13. When she was found at 13, she couldn't really speak or walk. She had no development of the self. Even though her body had aged biologically, her ‘self’ had not developed, because this is something that emerges through social interaction.
In this way, Mead's genius was to see the self as social, not as biological. Your self and your notion of who you are, what you like, what your personality is, etc., becomes constructed through being in the world, through interaction, and through reflection on those interactions, and so on. The self is developed as you age and grow--it’s not something innately biological.
How might social interaction give rise to the self? Social experience--being in the world--allows you to have interactions and exert your forming personality to see how the self that you put out there on display for others is being reacted to. How are others reacting to you right now?
In this manner, your self is mirrored in the reactions of the other, which is called the looking glass self, an idea developed by Charles Horton Cooley.
One by one, in isolation, these interactions won't make you think you're stupid or intelligent, but if these patterns get repeated again and again throughout your lifetime, you develop an image of yourself that is given to you from without, from interaction with others.
Given that a self image is developed in recognizing how others are perceiving you, you're constantly trying to put yourself in the shoes of another, thinking about how they are seeing this particular event, situation or action. Mead called this imitation. With imitation, you’re constantly trying to see the world from another's point of view.
This happens when they've internalized the widespread cultural norms, mores, and expectations of behavior appropriate in that society. At this point, when you're thinking about your behavior, you're thinking about the generalized ‘other,’ and how this generalized ‘other’ sees yourself and your behavior. When you take this final role, then Mead called it the generalized other.
By taking the role of the other, people become self-aware. In doing so, they develop two parts of the self: self-image and self-awareness. In addition, there is what Mead called the "I" part of the self and the "me" part of the self. The "I" part is the part of you that's existing out in the world, acting, being spontaneous, etc. The “I” part is the subject of action. It's what you would commonly think of as yourself.
The "me" part is an object. It's the aggregated combined image of yourself that has been given to you from interacting with society. When society reflects a self-image back on you, this external, conceptual object, is the "me."
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.