Mead as a Pathsetter

Mead's work abounds in suggestive leads for the sociology of knowledge.He prepared the ground for consideration of the concrete sociological linksbetween social and thought processes, to the extent that he stressed, alongwith his pragmatist co-thinkers, the organic process by which every act ofthought is linked to human conduct and to interactive relationships, thus re-jecting the radical distinction between thinking and acting that had informedmost classical philosophy. When Mead advanced the idea that consciousness isan inner discourse carried on by public means--that is, a private experiencemade possible by the use of significant social symbols and hence organizedfrom the standpoint of the "generalized other"--he paved the way for detailedinvestigations linking styles of thought to social structures. Mead providedvaluable indications for future inquiries linking individual modes of discourseto the "universe of discourse" of total epochs or of special strata or groupingswithin a particular society. Insofar as he stressed that thought is in its verynature bound to the social situation in which it arises, he set the stage forefforts to ascertain the relations between a thinker and his audience.

As in the sociology of knowledge, Mead also provided rich leads for futuredisciplined inquiry in other spheres of sociological inquiry though onlythrough hypotheses and illustrations. His notion of role-taking, that is, of tak-ing the attitudes of others toward oneself, is not to be confused with whatmodern sociologists call role performance, or living up to the expectations en-tailed by a specific position. However, it is hardly a subject of dispute thatmodern role theory from Linton and Parsons to Newcomb and Merton hasbeen enriched by freely borrowing from Mead. Although reference-grouptheory has gone beyond Mead in considering not only those groups to whicha person belongs but also groups to which he aspires or which he takes as apoint of reference while not aspiring to be a member, it owes a good deal toMead's insistence that individuals always be considered under the angle oftheir relations to groups of significant others.

More generally, Mead's work has led to the final demise, at least withinsociology, of what Simmel once called the "fallacy of separateness," whichconsiders actors without reference to the interactions in which they are vari-ously engaged. For Mead, no monads without windows ever exist in the socialworld; there is never an I without a Thou, to use Martin Buber's terminology.An ego is inconceivable without an alter, and the self is best visualized as avivid nodal point in a field of social interaction. This perspective on humanaction has by now become an essential characteristic of all thinking that wishesto be called sociological. Although Mead was by no means alone in havingprepared it, he surely was one of its major sources.

Little need be said in regard to Mead's contributions to the methodologyof the social sciences since the essential points have already been made in theprevious chapter on Cooley. Mead must be credited alongside Cooley and otherpragmatists with having been instrumental in stressing the need for alwaysconsidering situations from the point of view of the actor. For him, just as forWeber, when the sociologist refers to meaning, it is to the subjective meaningactors impute to their actions.

While Cooley's theories veered perilously close to a subjectivist and solipsis-tic view of society, Mead remained steadfast in his social objectivism. Theworld of organized social relationships was to him as solidly given in inter-subjective evidence as the physical world. He did not attempt to reconstructthe world through introspection in the manner of Cooley. He took as funda-mental datum that an "objective life of society" exists, which it behooves thescientist to study. To Mead society is not a mental phenomenon but belongsto an "objective phase of experience." The extent to which the differences be-tween these two otherwise closely related thinkers can be accounted for bytheir differing life situations and existential conditions will become clear laterin this chapter.

From Coser, 1977:339-341.


Back to "The 'I' and the 'Me' "
Back to the Index