George H. Mead

I highly doubt George Herbert Mead is in any way related to the drink mead but...learning about him and drinking mead for the first time is certainly similar! Both have quite the legacy and are somehow not so much talked about now, but once you get a taste, you want more and more. 

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Table of contents

    Did you know George H. Mead is considered the 'father' of symbolic interactionism? This is quite the contribution to sociology!

    Beyond that, as a shy guy who quietly observed the world around him and didn't think much of his own theories, he ended up creating perhaps one of the greatest contributions to social theory in the 20th century. His legacy is genuinely immense, and his idea of a socially constructed 'self' is something now often taken for granted. If you're intrigued, then below we'll cover:

    • George Herbert Mead's biography

    • George Herbert Mead's contribution to sociology

    • Mead's theory of social behaviourism

    • George Herbert Mead's stages of socialisation

    George Herbert Mead's biography

    George Herbert Mead was an American sociologist born in 1863. A few important takeaways from his personal biography are:

    • From 1894 until his death, he taught at the University of Chicago – he was a key intellect of the Chicago School of Sociology in the early 20th century.

    • His most famous work Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist' (1934) helped establish him as the 'father' of the school of symbolic interactionism.

    • His most famous work is rooted in two main philosophies: social behaviourism and pragmatism.

    Social behaviourism is the measurement of conduct, observable by others, that occurs in a social situation. Pragmatism is a perspective which seeks to understand social conduct considered meaningful by its concrete effects.

    For example, take the gesture of showing someone the 'two fingers up' gesture. Where did your mind take you? Were you being a bit rude? Or, were you signalling peace and love? Either way, understanding what those two fingers signal to others and why that is, is exactly what pragmatism looks to understand.

    Mead believed there were particularly important types of social conduct that should be studied. Important examples of this social conduct, i.e., social behaviourism were:

    • Communication

    • Language

    • Gestures

    • Signals

    • Role-taking

    Role-taking is the process of assuming the perspective of another and responding from that imagined viewpoint.

    George H. Mead, An actor lying down looking depressed in front of a camera, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Role-taking isn't just something actors do!

    George Herbert Mead's contribution to sociology

    Mead's contribution to sociology has been a significant one. His greatest contribution was his work Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist (1934).

    This work and his lectures at the Chicago School would lay the foundations for symbolic interactionism, which Herbert Blumer would later develop in the 1920s.

    Symbolic interactionism is a theory which argues that individual actions and society at large are both built on symbols and their collective interpretation.

    Put simply; symbolic interactionism looks at how "individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world" (Crossman, 2020: online). What we make of objects, events, and behaviours is subjective - what you think and feel about something may be different from someone else.

    • Objects include works of art, music, film and literature.
    • Events include Black Lives Matter protests and the 'Me Too' movement.
    • Behaviours include banter, drinking, and smoking.

    Think about race and gender! These are two social constructs. However, they play a large part in shaping people's thoughts and feelings about others - both good and bad!

    Why is this his great contribution?

    In the early 20th century, symbolic interactionism made a strong counterargument to the beliefs that people were the way they were due to biology. Instead, it highlighted how our thoughts, behaviours, and sense of identity are collectively formed through the interactions we have with others around us.

    It would also later be an effective argument against functionalism, which saw all individual behaviour as practical, rational and purposeful.

    Ask yourself, why do young people still smoke and vape, given its health impacts?

    Yes, it's addictive and some enjoy the taste, but why did you think they first got into it? If you're a smoker yourself, why did you originally smoke? Chances are, it was in a social setting and the legacy of smoking/vaping as 'cool' is still very much with us.

    In symbolic interactionist speech, a cigarette (or vape) was/is a symbol of coolness for those who started smoking.

    Symbolic interactionism as a micro theory

    Another reason is that symbolic interactionism was also one of the first sociological theories that started from the 'micro' level of society (i.e., from the bottom-up).

    Contrast this to a grand macro theory which talks about how our norms, values, and beliefs are shaped by large institutions (i.e., top-down).

    By doing so, it gives more agency to everyone!

    How so? Well, symbolic interactionism argues that our lives, our thoughts, and our beliefs are not determined by where we are or who we are surrounded by. They greatly shape them, but ultimately the power lies within us all to decide whether to accept or dispute what has been laid out before us.

    Let's say that you want to be a teacher, but not just any teacher; you want to adopt a laissez-faire (relaxed) approach to teaching. This approach may be in conflict with the school's more traditional, dictating way of teaching.

    Whilst the school's values and norms may strongly influence your approach to teaching, it is not inevitable that it will - it is up to the teacher whether to internalise and reflect those values or to pursue their own approach.

    Who and what has symbolic interactionism influenced?

    • Erving Goffman's work on stigma

    • Howard Becker's labelling theory

    • Anselm L. Strauss and grounded theory

    • Albert K. Cohen and the role of subcultures in creating a criminal 'career'

    • Even the Functionalist Talcott Parsons borrowed from symbolic interactionism when he devised the 'sick-role' in doctor-patient relationships

    These theorists and their works are heavily indebted to the symbolic interactionist framework of which Mead and Herbert Blumer set the foundations. Not only this, but the symbolic interactionist approach has spurred on further theoretical and methodological branches, which are highly topical today.

    These include phenomenology, ethnomethodology, role theories, identity theories, emotion theories, sociolinguistics, dramaturgical analysis and conversation analysis.

    It's hard to over-stress the importance of Mead's work. And now you've got a taste of the hugely influential legacy left behind, let's deep-dive into his thinking...

    Mead's theory of social behaviourism

    Social behaviourism is often the term applied to all of George Herbert Mead's theories. For Mead, social behaviourism was, in part, his attempt to combat the underlying assumptions within behaviourism (a framework found more so in psychology). In particular, Mead challenged behaviourism's dismissal of subjective experience to explain human behaviour.

    Behaviourism argued that the underlying reasons why people do the things they do were not relevant. There is no account for the effect of a person's goals, thoughts, past-lived events, etc. to understand their current and future behaviours and actions in behaviourism.

    How is Mead's social behaviourism different?

    Instead, Mead "was interested in the role of communication in explaining social acts" (Scott and Marshall, 1998, pg. 608). For Mead, what makes humans distinct from animals is our ability to put ourselves in other people's shoes. We imagine how other people are likely to respond to what we say or do in social situations.

    The consideration of others in turn shapes our behaviours - hence the term social behaviourism!

    With this in mind, Mead and his theory of social behaviourism focused on our ability as humans to construct meaning when we communicate. The ways in which we do this he termed 'the definition of the situation'.

    Understanding 'the definition of the situation'

    For Mead, humans, as meaning-making creatures, do so through interacting with others. Specifically, he talks about 4 ways we create meaning through interaction. These are:

    1. Language - e.g. English, French, Spanish, etc.

    2. Gestures - i.e. body language - a thumbs up, a salute, waving arms around when talking, etc.

    3. Communication - e.g. verbal and non-verbal cues, listening and speaking.

    4. Role-taking - e.g. pretending to be others like a doctor, a nurse, an astronaut etc.

    Through a combination and interpretation of all 4, 'the definition of the situation' is set in any social environment.

    George H. Mead, A Japanese Underground Train Carriage, StudySmarterFig. 2 - What do you think the 'definition of this situation' might be here?

    George Herbert Mead and the stages of socialisation

    Mead's work contributed heavily to the analysis of socialisation.

    Socialisation is the process whereby people learn to conform to the social norms and values of society.

    For Mead and symbolic interactionism, socialisation occurs throughout our lives. Importantly, socialisation is not just a one-way process, i.e. we don't simply consume and internalise societal norms and values.

    Rather, for Mead, socialisation occurs throughout our lives as throughout our lives we have the capability to accept, or reject, new and changing social norms and values. In short, socialisation is tied-up with more general social change.

    Values and norms around gender and sexuality have never felt more at the forefront. Just look at our focus on pronouns - she/her or they/them etc, transgender rights or questions around what it means to be a 'man' or a 'woman'. Likewise, think of the reactions that surround people with particular views on these matters!

    Although socialisation occurs throughout the life course, there has historically been a focus on childhood as the most instrumental stage. Mead was no different.

    Stages of socialisation in childhood

    For Mead, socialisation in childhood occurred through 3 stages. These are:

    1. The imitation stage
    2. The play stage
    3. The game stage

    Let's look a bit closer at each.

    The imitation stage

    • This stage occurs in children aged 0-3 years.

    • They imitate what they see in others.

    Mimicking the gestures and words of others, e.g. saying 'dada' or 'mama', or repeating a phrase their parents often say.

    The play stage

    • This stage occurs in children aged 3-5 years.

    • Children pretend to be others through role-playing/role-taking (defined above!)

    • It is through the process of role-taking that we start to learn social cues.

    Pretending to be a firefighter, or a doctor, or an astronaut, or their favourite movie character is a common example of role-taking at this stage.

    The game stage

    • This stage occurs in children aged 5-9 years.

    • Children start to understand complex relationships. They start to understand they're only one part of a bigger picture.

    • The activities at this stage involve organised games, for example playing sports

    • The child gains an understanding of the rules of the game to be successful in the activity.

    • The child also starts to understand the expectations of them in a given situation. In other words, they start to think about what other people may be thinking. Mead calls this the 'generalised other'.

    It is in the game stage that we internalise the 'generalised other'.

    The 'generalised other' refers to the viewpoint of the social group at large.

    You're 2-0 down in a game of football. You look towards your captain and your coaches to understand what you must do to try to get back into the game. You take on their advice. This process of looking toward others is an example of internalising the 'generalised other'.

    George H. Mead, young boy gives a thumbs up whilst in a costume playing with other young children, StudySmarter Fig. 3 - According to Mead, the development of 'self' occurs through three stages: imitation, the play stage and the game stage.

    The "I" and the "Me"

    George H. Mead used the concept of "I" and "Me" to summarise how our sense of self is socially developed. The three stages mentioned above is the process by which our sense of "Me" and our sense of "I" develops. So what are these, and how are they different?For Mead, our sense of "Me" and our sense of "I" are both a part of how we view ourselves. They are two complementary but separate parts of our sense of self.Our sense of "Me" is a reflection of our attitudes, expectations, and behaviours that have been shaped by interactions with others, whilst our sense of "I" is that part of us which can reflect on our past experiences and make self-conscious decisions (Thorpe et. al, 2015).

    Our "I" builds on our "Me" - it is what makes us an individual, different from others, whilst our "Me" is a reflection of those closest to us and the habits we have formed over time.

    Let's look at siblings to understand the difference between the "me" and the "I". Siblings, particularly those close in age, can come across to others as being very similar, but also different - maybe you've got a sibling yourself that you think about!

    Two siblings close in age will have been socialised in very similar ways as their interactions with others (e.g. mum, dad, grandma, uncle etc.) in childhood are incredibly similar - this would be the "me".

    Yet, the experiences they have and the people they meet, for example at school, may be very different. Their actions may have very different responses (e.g. one was bullied whilst the other was not) and from this, they may reflect on their past behaviours differently - this would be the "I".One sibling may decide to become a doctor and the other decide to study sociology. Why? Well, chance encounters and different experiences will have changed how they reflect on what it is they would like to do or learn when they get older.

    George Herbert Mead: facts

    A few worthy facts worth mentioning…

    • His father was a Church minister.
    • After graduating, Mead worked as a teacher and as a railroad surveyor for a few years! It was only after this he went back into academia, attending Harvard University in 1887.
    • His first academic position was at the University of Michigan. There he met Charles H. Cooley and John Dewey, who became two of the strongest influences on Mead's theories and thoughts.

    • From 1894 until his death, he taught at the University of Chicago.

    • He was a key intellect of the 'Chicago school' of sociology in the early 20th century.

    • His most famous work – 'Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist' – helped establish him as the 'father' of the school of symbolic interactionism.

    • Most of Mead's work came out after his death. He was an anxious academic who doubted his own arguments.

    • His student, Herbert Blumer, helped solidify symbolic interactionism as a theoretical approach and Mead as the architect behind his ideas.

    If there's anything to take away from these facts about George H. Mead, it's that firstly, there's no rush to pursuing academia, and secondly, if you're also someone who looks at the world and wonders why we are the way we are, you shouldn't doubt yourself! Who knows, maybe your ideas might help empower a generation and leave a lasting legacy even a century later. Be brave and courageous in your sociological and other endeavours!

    George H. Mead - Key takeaways

    • George Herbert Mead was a key intellect of the 'Chicago school' of sociology. His most famous work helped establish him as the 'father' of the school of symbolic interactionism.
    • Symbolic interactionism is a theory which argues that individual actions and society at large are both built on symbols and their collective interpretation.
    • Symbolic interactionism was one of the first sociological theories that started from the 'micro' level of society, (i.e., from the bottom-up). It influenced the works of Erving Goffman, Howard Becker and Anselm L. Strauss.
    • Mead and his theory of social behaviourism was focused around our ability as humans to construct meaning when we communicate. The ways in which we do this he termed as 'the definition of the situation'.
    • For Mead and symbolic interactionism, socialisation occurs throughout the life course. Yet, there has historically been a focus on childhood as the most instrumental stage. Mead was no different. He states that socialisation in childhood occurs through 3 stages.


    1. Crossman, A. (2020). What is Symbolic Interactionism?.
    2. Scott, J and Marshall, G. (2009). A Dictionary of Sociology. (3rd edition). Oxford University Press
    Frequently Asked Questions about George H. Mead

    What is George H. Mead's theory?

    Mead's theory is called symbolic interactionism.

    What are the 3 core principles to Mead's theory?

    1. Meaning
    2. Language
    3. Thought

    What are Mead's four stages of socialisation?

    1. Imitation stage 
    2. Play stage 
    3. Game stage

    Why is George H. Mead important?

    George H. Mead is important as he introduced a new theoretical framework – symbolic interactionism – with which to make sense of people, both individually and within groups. Mead's Symbolic Interactionism is still used throughout the social sciences, particularly within psychology and sociology. 

    What is George H. Mead best known for?

    His theory of symbolic interactionism.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Mead's most famous work 'Mind, Self, and Society: From the standpoint of a Social Behaviourist' helped establish him as the 'father' of the school of ______.

    Mead's most famous work is rooted in 2 main philosophies: (1) social behaviourism and (2) ____.

    Mead, social behaviourism was, in part, his attempt to combat the underlying assumptions within _____.


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