Biography of Sociologist George Herbert Mead

A Pioneer of Symbolic Interaction Theory

American sociologist and pragmatist George Herbert Mead.
George Herbert Mead.

When fields such as psychology and sociology were still new, George Herbert Mead became a leading pragmatist and pioneer of symbolic interactionism, a theory that explores the relationships between people in societies. More than a century after his death, Mead is widely considered to be one of the founders of social psychology, the study of how social environments influence individuals. Having taught at the University of Chicago for much of his career, he is also associated with what is now known as the Chicago school of sociology.

Early Years and Education

George Herbert Mead was born on Feb. 27, 1863, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His father, Hiram Mead, was a pastor of a local church but moved the family to Oberlin, Ohio to become a professor at Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1870. His mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings Mead, also worked as an academic; she taught at Oberlin College and would go on to serve as president of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley.

In 1879, George Herbert Mead enrolled in Oberlin College, where he pursued a bachelor's degree focusing on history and literature, which he completed four years later. After a brief stint as a school teacher, Mead worked as a surveyor for the Wisconsin Central Rail Road Company for a few years. Following that, he enrolled in Harvard University, where he studied psychology and philosophy, but he left in 1888 without a graduate degree.

After Harvard, Mead joined his close friend Henry Castle, along with his sister Helen Kingsbury Castle, in Leipzig, Germany, where he enrolled in a Ph.D. program for philosophy and physiological psychology at the University of Leipzig. In 1889, Mead transferred to the University of Berlin, where he began to study economic theory. The University of Michigan offered Mead a teaching position in philosophy and psychology two years later, and he stopped his doctoral studies to accept this post, never actually completing his Ph.D. Prior to taking on his new role, Mead married Helen Castle in Berlin.

Career

At the University of Michigan, Mead met sociologist Charles Horton Cooley, philosopher John Dewey, and psychologist Alfred Lloyd, all of whom influenced the development of his thought and written work. Dewey accepted an appointment as the chair of philosophy at the University of Chicago in 1894 and arranged for Mead to be appointed assistant professor in the department of philosophy. Together, with James Hayden Tufts, the three formed the nexus of American pragmatism, referred to as the "Chicago Pragmatists."

Mead's Theory of the Self

Among sociologists, Mead is most well known for his theory of the self, which he presented in his well regarded and much-taught book "Mind, Self and Society" (1934) (published posthumously and edited by Charles W. Morris). Mead's theory of the self maintains that the idea people have of themselves stems from social interaction with others. This theory opposes biological determinism because it holds that the self does not exist at birth and may not be present at the beginning of a social interaction, but it is constructed and reconstructed in the process of social experience and activity.​

The self, according to Mead, is made up of two components: the “I” and the “me.” The “me” represents the expectations and attitudes of others (the "generalized other") organized into a social self. Individuals define their behavior in reference to the generalized attitude of the social group(s) they occupy. When people can view themselves from the standpoint of the generalized other, self-consciousness in the full sense of the term is attained. From this standpoint, the generalized other (internalized in the “me”) is the major instrument of social control, for it is the mechanism by which the community exercises control over the conduct of its individual members.

The “I” is the response to the “me,” or the person’s individuality. It is the essence of agency in human action. So, in effect, the "me" is the self as object, while the "I" is the self as subject.

According to Mead's theory, the self is developed through three activities: language, play, and game. Language allows people to take on the “role of the other” and respond to their own behaviors through the symbolized attitudes of others. During play, individuals take on the roles of different people and pretend to be them to express their expectations. This process of role-playing is key to the generation of self-consciousness and to the general development of the self. People must comprehend the rules of the game and internalize the roles of everyone else involved.

Mead's work in this area spurred the development of symbolic interaction theory, now a major framework within sociology. In addition to "Mind, Self, and Society," his major works include 1932's "The Philosophy of the Present" and 1938's "The Philosophy of the Act." He taught at the University of Chicago until his death on April 26, 1931.