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Mead’s Self From Social Experience


Many persons during the course of their lives ask “who an I?” This question is usually prompted by the behaviour they realise exhibit and how others react to them. This soul searching, however, is made difficult by the fact that there is no clear understanding of the self. This is not a problem encountered only by the regular man, but psychologists—scientists of behaviour—are also unclear of what the self is. Some psychologists equate the self with the ego, id, self-concept and even personality, but as Osborne (1996), states using these terms interchangeably with self only continues a confusion that already exists.


The mystery surrounding the self is one consequence of the early twentieth century desire to brand psychology a science. Before that period William James’ study of the self described the entity as a product of the mind’s inner workings, in other words not something that can necessarily be observed. Nonetheless, with the turn of the century came new ideals about psychology. Behaviourists rallied for the scientific status of Psychology. They believed Psychology must be given the same prestige as was given to the medical sciences and called for a more scientific methodology in the discipline. As a result, concepts such as the unconscious, its effect on behaviour and mental processes were deemed irrelevant even taboo. Nevertheless, with the proven impracticality of restricting the study of self only to observable behaviour, the psychological aspect of the entities study began to recover from its near disregard (Burns, 1979; Hamachek, 1978).


Despite the problems that accompany trying to truly understand what exactly the self is, some have posed definitions which they believe effectively define this unclear entity. Osborne describes it as “the integration of self-concept, self-esteem and self presentation strategies that influence the manner in which the individual thinks about, perceives and responds to his / her social world” (as cited in Osborne, 1996, p. 3). Hamachek (1978), on the other hand simply phrases it as “what we know about ourselves” (p. 6).


          Secondly only to the question of what exactly is the self, is the question of how is it formed. William James in 1890 began the in depth investigation that today characterizes the self in psychology. James wrote of a global self and the distinction that lies in it. He labeled one part of the self the subjective I, which actively experiences and the other part the objective me, which social influence  (through experience) pushes on. Even though there is a conceptual distinction, he noted the two aspects of the self were less practically separated since they are at the same time part of the experiencing process. James believed the whole self developed from a combination of the four components of the me-self: the spiritual, social, material and bodily selves. He viewed the spiritual self as the supreme entity since it encompassed how we feel, our intellect and all other internal processes. The social self is whom we choose to associate with; usually persons who we care about and opinions we value. The material and bodily selves are very much intertwined; both deal with how we portray ourselves physically in order to garner favourable reaction from others. Together they construct a total concept of who we are (Burns, 1979).


Charles Cooley recognized that the social environment significantly influences how one sees him or herself. Cooley states that our identities develop only when we can view ourselves as other view us, including the judgements and perceptions they might have of us. Furthermore, identities are continually strengthened when the cues produced from interaction are used to construct our self-idea (Schellenberg, 1992). This reciprocity is the basis of Cooley’s “looking-glass self” theory (as cited in Hamachek, 1978, p. 55). A theory which shows how the self comes forth from interpersonal communication.


George Mead used the work of James and Cooley before him to develop a comprehensive theory on how the self is a creation of society via social interaction. He states that individual organisms gain a sense of self through social interaction. Hamachek (1978), defined this interaction as “the medium of exchange through which we hone our perceptions of the outside world, develop our interpersonal skills, extend intelligence, and acquire attitudes about ourselves” (p. 18). As a cornerstone of the theory, Mead explained that interaction takes place in terms of symbols and meanings. Symbols define the manner in which a particular object is portrayed and in doing so determine the meanings people will appoint. They symbols are everywhere and dictate not only how people will interact with each other but also how they will interact with, and react to the wider society (Haralambos & Holborn, 1995).


While he does recognize that the capacity to develop self is innate, he states self is not a product of biological or logical processes but one of social experience. In other words he argued that the individual’s self is exclusively an outcome of social interaction. The social activities the individual experiences, enables him to create his own reality in which he is free to interpret meanings of objects, activities and situations. The individual organism uses this fluid reality to help in his self definition, stepping outside of himself he is able to react to himself as an object. This “experiential transaction,” whereby he adopts the perceived attitudes of others towards himself and views himself from their perspective, resulting in a reflexive objectification, creates a prime situation for the subjective process of human interaction within the structure of society, out of which the self emerges.


The self from society is further understood when the concepts of language, play and games are taken into account. Mead stated it is through language, the most significant symbol, that the individual is able to take on the attitudes of others toward himself. It enables him to respond to himself as others would, an exercise which can be clearly seen in the play and game stages of self development. In play the individual becomes aware of himself via one significant other at a time. In this role-playing exercise he imitates the gestures, tones, behaviour and other aspects of the significant other in order to react to himself as that person would. At the game stage, during role-taking, the child balances many persons in the game as well as the rules governing their roles. Here he creates a “generalized other,”—a miniature representation of society. When the child reacts to himself from the point of view of the generalized other he has achieved true selfhood, for now he understands how society sees him and by extension how he sees himself. (Cronk, 2000)


From Mead’s theory so far it would seem that people are blanks that only absorb and reflect society. However, Mead was careful to show the two divisions of the self: the me, and the I. This division was inspired by James’ work, but Mead’s take on the two parts seems to be more definitive. The me is the passive self that society impinges on and so it becomes the assumed attitudes of others characterized by societal conventions. The I¸ on the other hand, is the active self which, enters into social relations with other selves and responds to the conventions of the me. While the I sometimes direct the individual to conform, it’s initiative can also direct them not to. Because there can be no I without a me and vice verse they work together to form a fully functioning self (O’Donnell, 1992).


As convincing as Mead’s theory seems it does have opposition. Sigmund Freud believed the ego (which he used to mean self) only emerges to balance the struggle between the instinctual id and the repressive superego. In essence,  Freud’s self has nothing to do with social interaction and is purely a biological creation. Carl Jung, a Freudian, did not believe as Freud did that the self was the ego but that the ego was only the conscious portion of self. Jung contended that after years of inequality between the conscious ego and the unconscious levels of cognition, the self emerges only when a balance is forged between these two states of consciousness (Burns, 1979). Sullivan while conceding that the self is influenced by interpersonal experience, his interpersonal relationships is limited only to the mother figure and very much devoid of any wider social experience (Burns, 1979; Guntrip, 1961).


Nevertheless, Neo-Freudians have come to accept that that the self cannot emerge solely from instinctive biological processes or isolated interaction, but that the wider society does indeed play a far greater role in who we become. Case in point; Alfred Adler states that as children we are made to feel inferior when the older persons we interact with persistently tell us what to do. Later, this inferiority takes on a social aspect as when the individual compares himself to others he feels second-rate. This second classing prompts him to strive superiority. Adler argued that this quest for social superiority is the

element that creates our sense of self (Santrock, 2000; Burns, 1979),


A true grasp of how important Mead’s theory is can only be achieved when one examines instances in which children have been deprived of social experience. Such is the Case of Anna, a little girl who was locked away for years by her grand father. Her solitary incarceration rendered the muscles in her legs inactive and her reactive capacities to light and sound were deadened She could expressed no emotion except a temper when restrained and had no control over her bodily functions. However when she was rescued and placed in constant interaction, despite some setbacks, she made striking improvements. She was able to exhibit limit self-care and speak what limited communicative skills she could develop.  Even though she improved, she had gone too long without social interaction and died soon after her discovery (Hamachek, 1978).


If self is product of instinctual and biological process as Freud theorized, then Anna’s personality would have developed regardless of how much social activity and experience she had been deprived of. Her ordeal and others like it seem to prove true Mead’s theory and in doing so helps to its credibility.


Burns, R. B. (1979). The self concept in theory, measurement, development and

dehaviour . New York: Longman.

Cronk, G  (2000). George Herbert Mead. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  (24 Oct. 2001)

Guntrip, H .S. (1961). Personality structure and human interaction. New York:

International University Press.

Hamacheck, D. E. (1978). Encounters with the self. United States of

America: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Haralambos, M., Holborn, M. (1995). Sociology: Themes and perspective.

London: Collins Educational.

O’Donnell, M. (1992). A new introduction to sociology. London: Thomas Nelson

Osborne, R. E. (1996). Self: An eclectic approach. Needham Heights,

Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon.

Santrock, J. W. (2000). Psychology. United States of America: Mcgraw-Hill.

Schellenberg, J. A. (1992). An invitation to social psychology. Boston:

Allyn and Bacon.