The Self in Society

Social psychology for Mead is the discipline that "studies the activity orbehavior of the individual as it lies within the social process. The behavior ofan individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the wholesocial group of which he is a member, since his individual acts are involved inlarger, social acts which go beyond himself and which implicate the othermembers of that group." While earlier social psychology had dealt with socialexperience from the individual psychological standpoint, Mead suggested thatindividual experience be dealt with "from the standpoint of society, at leastfrom the standpoint of communication as essential to the social order." Hissocial psychology presupposed "an approach to experience from the standpointof the individual," and was therefore at variance with Watsonian behaviorism,but it undertook "to determine in particular that which belongs to this ex-perience because the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a socialorder."

Mead argued that there can be no self apart from society, no consciousnessof self and no communication. In its turn, society must be understood as astructure that emerges through an ongoing process of communicative socialacts, through transactions between persons who are mutually oriented towardeach other.

Mead saw in gesture the key mechanism through which social acts areeffected. But he sharply separates nonsignificant (unself-conscious) gestures, asfound on the animal level, from the significant (self-conscious) gestures thatcharacterize most human intercourse. On the animal level, gesture involvesan immediate response to a stimulus. The growling advance of dog A is astimulus to dog B to react by attack or withdrawal, as the case may be. Incontrast, at the human level of communication, significant gestures come intoplay. These rest upon "an arousal in the individual himself of the responsewhich he is calling out in the other individual, a taking of the role of theother, a tendency to act as the other person acts." Significant gestures arebased on linguistic symbols carrying a content that is more or less the samefor different individuals and hence meaning the same thing to them all. Ani-mals do not put themselves in the position of others predicting, in effect "Hewill act in such a way and I will act in this way." They can not be said to"think." Human thought arises when there are "symbols, vocal gestures gen-erally, which arouse in the individual himself the response which he is callingout in the other, and such that from the point of view of that response he isable to direct his later conduct." Significant gestures involving the use ofsymbols always presuppose the ability of each participant in a communicativeprocess to visualize his own performance from the standpoint of the others, totake the role of the others. In nonsymbolic interaction human beings, likeanimals, respond directly to one another. In symbolic interaction, where theyuse significant gestures, they interpret each other's attitudes and act on thebasis of the meaning yielded by such interpretations. As Blumer puts it, "Sym-bolic interaction involves interpretation, or ascertaining the meaning of theactions or remarks of the other person, and definition, or conveying indica-tions to another person as to how he is to act.'' Human communicativeprocesses involve the constant self-conscious adjustment of actors to the conductof others, a repeated fitting together of lines of action through definitions andredefinitions, interpretations and reinterpretations.

Following William James, Mead argues that consciousness must be under-stood as a thought-stream arising in the dynamic relationship between a personand his environment, more particularly his social environment. " 'Mentalphenomena,' " he reasoned, cannot be reduced "to conditioned reflexes andsimilar physiological mechanisms,'' as the behaviorists would have it, butneither can they be understood in terms of the insulated conception of theCartesian ego. Experience is not first individual and then social. Each indi-vidual is continually involved in a succession of joint enterprises with others,which form and shape his mind. Consciousness is not a given; it is emergent.

From Coser, 1977:334-335.


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