The Genesis of the Self

Among Mead's most notable achievements is his account of the genesis ofconsciousness and of the self through the gradually developing ability in child-hood to take the role of the other and to visualize his own performance fromthe point of view of others. In this view, human communication becomes pos-sible only when "the symbol [arouses] in one's self what it arouses in theother individual." Very young children do not yet have the ability to usesignificant symbols; therefore, when they are at play, their behavior in manyways is similar to that of puppies playing with each other. As children growolder, however, they gradually learn to take the role of others through play."A child plays at being a mother, at being a teacher, at being a policeman; thatis, it is taking different roles." The growing child who playfully assumesthese roles thereby cultivates in himself the ability to put himself in the placeof others who are significant to him. As he matures, he will not only be ableto take these roles by acting them out; but he will conceive of them by assum-ing them in his imagination. A crucial landmark in the child's social develop-ment is made when, in showing a picture to someone facing him, he will turnthe picture away from himself rather than, as he did up to then, hold it to-ward himself in the belief that his partner can see only what he himself sees.

Child play at the level of simple role-taking is the first stage in the gradualtransformation from simple conversations of gestures--a child's running awaywhen chased--to the mature ability to use significant symbols in interactionwith many others. Although he has learned to put himself, in imagination, inthe position of his partner, the child still does not relate in his mind the rolesthat several others play with one another outside himself. Thus, he can under-stand the relation of mother or father with himself, but he cannot understandthat his own mother is not his father's mother also. This breakthrough in hisconceptualization comes with his ability to play complex organized games,when he will have in his mind all the roles of other players and make assess-ments about their potential responses to one another. Such games must bedistinguished from simple games such as hide-and-seek, which involve onlytwo types of role partners, or playing jacks, in which the actors do not modifyeach other's play and hence do not have to anticipate the response of the otherpartner. In hide-and-seek, "everyone, with the exception of the one who ishiding, is a person who is hunting. A child does not require more than theperson who is hunted and the one who is hunting." But in a game in whicha number of individuals playing different roles are involved, in baseball forexample, "the child taking one role must be ready to take the role of everyoneelse." This differs not only from the two-role game, but also from what Meadcalls "play," from those so-called games that do not involve mutual role-taking,such as jacks.

The fundamental difference between the [complex] game and the play isthat in the former the child must have the attitude of all the others involvedin that game. The attitudes of the other players which the participant assumesorganize into a sort of unit, and it is that organization which controls theresponse of the individual. . . . Each one of his own acts is determined byhis assumption of the acts of the others who are playing the game. What hedoes is controlled by his being everyone else on that team, at least in so faras those attitudes affect his own particular response. We get then an "other"which is an organization of the attitudes of those involved in the sameprocess.

The difference between play and games resides in the number of partici-pants and in the existence or absence of rules. Play undertaken by one childhas no rules. Games have rules but differ as to the number of players. Twoperson games require only simple role-taking; multiple person games requiretaking the role of the "generalized other," that is, each player's having anidea of the behavior of every other player toward each other and toward him-self. With the help of the rules that govern the game, the child develops theability to take the place of all the other players and to determine their re-sponses. These "rules are the set of responses which a particular attitude callsout.'' The final stage in the maturation process of the child, Mead argues,occurs when the individual takes the role of the "generalized other"--the atti-tude of the whole community.

The fully mature individual, according to Mead, does not merely take intoaccount the attitudes of other individuals, of "significant others," toward him-self and toward one another; he must also "take their attitudes toward thevarious phases or aspects of the common social activity . . . in which, as mem-bers of an organized society or social group, they are all engaged. AsNatanson puts it, "[rules of the game] . . . mark the transition from simplerole-taking to participation in roles of a special, standardized order. Throughrules the child is introduced to societal compulsion and the abrasive textureof a more nearly adult reality." "Only insofar as he takes the attitudes of theorganized social group to which he belongs towards the organized, cooperativesocial activity or set of such activities in which that group as such is engaged,does he develop a complete self." Hence, the mature self arises when a "gen-eralized other" is internalized so that "the community exercises control overthe conduct of its individual members."

Thus, in the Meadian view of the emergence of role-taking capacities, theself that arises gradually through a progressive widening of the scope ofhuman involvement must never be conceived as a mere body. It is rather asocial entity emerging in a social process of development from simple con-versations of gestures to the process of identification with the "generalizedother." "The conscious self," Dewey comments on Mead's conception, "was tohim the world of nature first taken up into social relations and then dissolvedto form a new self which then went forth to recreate the world of nature andsocial institutions."

The essence of the self, according to Mead, is its reflexivity. The individualself is individual only because of its relation to others. Through the individual'sability to take in his imagination the attitudes of others, his self becomes anobject of his own reflection. The self as both subject and object is the essenceof being social. The peculiar individuality of each self is a result of the peculiarcombination, never the same for two people, of the attitude of others that formthe generalized other. Hence, although individuality is rooted in sociality,each person makes an individual contribution to the social process.

From Coser, 1977:335-338.

Forward to "The 'I' and the 'Me' "
Back to "The Self in Society"
Back to the Index