Biography and Works of George Herbert Mead

American Sociologist and Pragmatist

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

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was an American sociologist best known as a founder of American pragmatism, a pioneer of symbolic interaction theory, and as one of the founders of social psychology.

Early Life, Education, and Career

George Herbert Mead was born on February 27, 1863, in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His father, Hiram Mead, was a minister and pastor in a local church when mead was a young child, but in 1870  moved the family to Oberlin, Ohio to become a professor at Oberlin Theological Seminary. Mead's mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings Mead also worked as an academic, first teaching at Oberlin College, and later, serving as president of Mount Holyoke College back in their hometown of South Hadley.

Mead enrolled in Oberlin College in 1879, where he pursued a Bachelor of Arts focused on history and literature, which he completed in 1883. After a brief stint as a school teacher, Mead worked as a surveyor for the Wisconsin Central Rail Road Company for four three and a half years. Following that, Mead enrolled in Harvard University in 1887 and completed a Master of Arts in philosophy in 1888. During his time at Harvard Mead also studied psychology, which would prove influential in his later work as a sociologist.

After completing his degree Mead joined his close friend Henry Castle and his sister Helen in Leipzig, Germany, where he then enrolled in a Ph.D. program for philosophy and physiological psychology at the University of Leipzig. He transferred to the University of Berlin in 1889, where he added a focus on economic theory to his studies. In 1891 Mead was offered a teaching position in philosophy and psychology at the University of Michigan. He paused his doctoral studies to accept this post, and never actually completed his Ph.D. Prior to taking this post, Mead and Helen Castle were married in Berlin.

At 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 as 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 taught at the University of Chicago until his death on April 26, 1931.

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 conception a person holds of themselves in their mind emerges from social interaction with others. This is, in effect, a theory and argument against biological determinism because it holds that the self is not initially there at birth nor necessarily at the beginning of a social interaction, but is constructed and reconstructed in the process of social experience and activity.​

The self, according to Mead, is made 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. The individual defines his or her own behavior with reference to the generalized attitude of the social group(s) they occupy. When the individual can view himself or herself 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.

Within Mead's theory, there are three activities through which the self is developed: language, play, and game. Language allows individuals to take on the “role of the other” and allows people to respond to his or her own gestures in terms of the symbolized attitudes of others. During play, individuals take on the roles of other people and pretend to be those other people in order to express the expectations of significant others. This process of role-playing is key to the generation of self-consciousness and to the general development of the self. In the game, the individual is required to internalize the roles of all others who are involved with him or her in the game and must comprehend the rules of the game.

Mead's work in this area spurred the development of symbolic interaction theory, now a major framework within sociology.

Major Publications

  • Mind, Self, and Society (1934)
  • The Philosophy of the Act (1938)
  • The Philosophy of the Present (1932)