Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview
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George Herbert Mead ( 1863-1931), like Durkheim and a number of other early sociologists, was born to a religious family. He grew up on the campus of Oberlin College, where his father, a Protestant minister, taught preaching. Mead's mother returned to teaching after his father's early death and later became president of Mount Holyoke College. Mead studied at Harvard with William James a few years after Du Bois had finished his studies there. Like Du Bois and W. I. Thomas (and many others), Mead also studied in Germany before beginning his teaching career. In 1891, he taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, where he encountered Charles Horton Cooley and John Dewey. One year later, he joined the philosophy faculty at the new University of Chicago, whose department of sociology was just being organized. Mead had little direct contact with the sociologists, but the social justice teachings of his father influenced his association with Jane Addams's Hull House and with other progressive activists in the city. Mead best-known book, Mind, Self & Society, was compiled from lecture notes for the course in social psychology that he taught until his death in 1931.

"The Self, the I, and the Me" is from the portions of that book in which Mead most precisely develops his version of the social self as a double dialogue--with the social world, externally, and between the "I" and the "Me," internally. Mead's theory of the social self was an important advance over James and Cooley and is considered a classic source for subsequent social theories of the self, both normal and deviant.

The Self, the I, and the Me

George Herbert Mead(ca. 1929)

We can distinguish very definitely between the self and the body. The body can be there and can operate in a very intelligent fashion without there being a self involved in the experience. The self has the characteristic that it is an object to itself, and that characteristic distinguishes it from other objects and from the body. It is perfectly true that the eye can see the foot, but it does not see the body as a whole. We cannot see our backs; we can feel certain portions of them, if we are agile, but we cannot get an experience of our whole body. There are, of course, experiences which are somewhat vague and difficult of location, but the bodily experiences are for us organized about a self. The foot and hand belong to the self. We can see our feet, especially if we look at them from the wrong end of an opera glass, as strange things which we have difficulty in recognizing as our own. The parts of the body are quite distinguishable from the self. We can lose parts of the body without any serious invasion of the self. The mere ability to experience different parts of the body is not different from the experience of a table. The table presents a different feel from what the hand does when one hand feels another, but it is an experience of something with which we come definitely into contact. The body does not experience itself as a whole, in the sense in which the self in some way enters into the experience of the self.

It is the characteristic of the self as an object to itself that I want to bring out. This characteristic is represented in the word "self," which is a reflexive, and indicates that

Excerpt from Charles W. Morris, ed., Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962 [ 1934]), pp. 136-144, 195-196. Copyright 1934 by The University of Chicago. Copyright 1962 by Charles W. Morris.


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Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings
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