The "I" and the "Me"

Mead tried to clarify his views of the social foundation of the self and hisconcomitant belief that "the self does not consist simply in the bare organiza-tion of social attitudes," by introducing the distinction between the "I" andthe "me." Both "I" and "me" necessarily relate to social experience. But the"I" is "the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others; the "me" isthe organized set of attitudes of others which one assumes. The attitudes ofthe others constitute the organized 'me,' and then one reacts toward that asan 'I'." As a "me" the person is aware of himself as an object. He reacts orresponds to himself in terms of the attitudes others have toward him. His self-appraisal is the result of what he assumes to be the appraisal by others. The"me" is the self as conceived and apprehended in terms of the point of viewof significant others and of the community at large. It reflects the laws andthe mores, the organized codes and expectations of the community. The "I,"in contradistinction, is "the answer which the individual makes to the attitudewhich others take toward him when he assumes an attitude toward them . . .it gives the sense of freedom, of initiative." What appears in consciousness isalways the self as an object, as a "me," but the "me" is not conceivable withoutan "I" as a unique subject for which the "me" can be an object. The "I" andthe "me" are not identical, for the "I" "is something that is never entirelycalculable . . . it is always something different from what the situation itselfcalls for."

"We are," Mead writes, "individuals born into a certain nationality,located at a certain spot geographically, with such and such family relations,and such and such political relations. All of these represent a certain situationwhich constitutes the 'me'; but this necessarily involves a continued action ofthe organism toward the 'me.' Men are born into social structures they didnot create, they live in an institutional and social order they never made, andthey are constrained by the limitations of languages, codes, customs. and laws.All of these enter into the "me" as constituent elements, yet the "I" always re-acts to preformed situations in a unique manner, "just as every monad in theLeibnizian universe mirrors that universe from a different point of view, andthus mirrors a different aspect or perspective of that universe." To Mead,mind is "the individual importation of the social process," but, at the sametime, "the individual . . . is continually reacting back against . . . society.''The self as a whole, as it appears in social experience, is a compound of thestabilized reflections of the generalized other in the "me" and the incalculablespontaneity of the "I." This is why the self as a whole is an open self. "If itdid not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, andthere would be nothing novel in experience." Mead valued personal auton-omy, but he saw it emerging from feedback rather than from attempts at in-sulation from others. Human actors are inevitably enmeshed in a socialworld, but the mature self transforms this world even as it responds to it.

Mead was somewhat ambiguous in his definition of social acts. Sometimeshe makes it appear as if these acts necessarily involve cooperation between theactors. Elsewhere he talks about social acts when referring to competitive andconflictful interaction. At one point he says specifically: "I wish . . . to re-strict the social act to the class of acts which involve the cooperation of morethan one individual." But in other places he speaks, for example, of fightsamong animals as social acts. It would seem, on balance, that what he had inmind was not that social acts are restricted to cooperation but only that socialaction is always based on "an object of common interest to all the individualsinvolved." In this formulation, conflict and competition, as well as coopera-tive behavior, may equally be seen as social action as long as they all involvea mutual orientation of actors to one another. It is only in this way that Mead'sinterpretation of the nature of social acts can be articulated with his oftenrepeated insistence on the crucial functions of social conflicts. To Mead, justas to Simmel, conflict and cooperation are correlative to each other and nosociety can exist without both.

A highly developed and organized human society is one in which theindividual members are interrelated in a multiplicity of different intricate andcomplicated ways whereby they all share a number of common interests . . .and yet, on the other hand, are more or less in conflict relative to numerousother interests which they possess only individually, or else share with oneanother only in small and limited groups.

From Coser, 1977:338-339.


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