The Concept of "Other" in Sociology

Significant Other and Generalized Other

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In classical sociology, "other" is a concept in the study of social life through which we define relationships. We encounter two distinct types of others in relation to ourselves.

Significant Other

A “significant other” is someone about whom we have some degree of specific knowledge and thus we pay attention to what we perceive to be his or her personal thoughts, feelings or expectations. In this case, significant does not mean that the person is important, and it doesn't refer to the common parlance of a romantic relationship. Archie O. Haller, Edward L. Fink, and Joseph Woelfel of the University of Wisconsin performed the first scientific research and measurements of the influence of significant others on individuals.

Haller, Fink, and Woelfel surveyed 100 adolescents in Wisconsin and measured their educational and occupational aspirations while also identifying the group of other individuals who interacted with the students and were mentors for them. Then they measured the impact of the significant others and their expectations for the teens' educational possibilities. The results found that the expectations of the significant had the single most powerful influence on the students' own aspirations.

Generalized Other

The second type of other is the “generalized other,” which we experience primarily as an abstract social status and the role that goes with it. It was developed by George Herbert Mead as a core concept in his discussion of the social genesis of the self. According to Mead, the self lives in an individual's ability to account for himself as a social being. This also requires a person to account for the role of the other as well as how his or her actions could affect a group.

The generalized other represents the collection of roles and attitudes that people use as a reference to figure out how to behave in any particular situation. According to Mead:

"Selves develop in social contexts as people learn to take the roles of their consociates such that they can with a fair degree of accuracy predict how one set of actions is likely to generate fairly predictable responses. People develop these capacities in the process of interacting with one another, sharing meaningful symbols, and developing and using language to create, refine, and assign meanings to social objects (including themselves)."

For people to engage in complex and intricate social processes, they have to develop a sense of expectations--the rules, roles, norms, and understanding that make responses predictable and understandable. When you learn these rules as distinct from others, the aggregate comprises a generalized other.

Examples of the Other

A "significant other": We might know that the corner grocery store clerk likes children or does not like it when people ask to use the restroom. As an “other,” this person is significant in that we pay attention not only to what grocers are generally like, but also what we know about this particular grocer.

A "generalized other": When we enter a grocery store without any knowledge of the grocer, our expectations are based only on knowledge of grocers and customers in general and what is usually supposed to take place when they interact. Thus when we interact with this grocer, our only basis for knowledge is the generalized other.