George Herbert Mead was a ground-breaking sociologist that coined the phrase “self” and the theory behind it in the early 1900’s. The self can simply be defined as, “the part of an individual’s personality composed of self-awareness and self-image.” Mead’s primary approach to social behaviorism centered around the idea that one’s self is purely a product of social interaction with others. Sociologists today find Mead’s work important as the self is needed for survival of society and culture. Comparatively, Mead shared some intellectual sociological similarities with Erik H. Erikson. Particularly with Erikson’s broader view of socialization: his eight stages of development.
Mead understood the self to thrive as long as four major components that revolved around social cooperation fell into place. The first belief he transmitted was that the self was not present in a person at birth. It must be developed over time through social reciprocity with other individuals. Mead then believed that social experience is the product symbol exchanges. In other words, human beings can find meaning not only through language and words but also within the use of actions and such other symbolic representations.
His next conceptualization assumed that in order to fully understand one’s intentions we must take the role of the other. What Mead plainly meant by this was that anticipation of how another human being will react can often be attained when we imagine ourselves in another person’s shoes. His final inference about the self is by taking on the role of another we then become self-aware. This idea spilt the concept of self into two parts, the I and the me. The I part is used to describe the self in action, the subjective aspect of self. The me part outlines the self as we imagine others to see us.
Mead then theorized that the development of these four components could be achieved in four basic stages. In developing the self, we must learn to take the role of another. Infants lack the social experience to do this so they achieve responses through imitation, or the mockery of actions. Children learn to use symbols and language to evolve the self through play. Play involves the assumption of a singular role in a singular situation. This role is typically modeled on significant others, such as parents, those most important to a child in their life. The child gradually learns to accept the roles of several other people at once in a singular situation as opposed to just one at a time. Mead called this evolution engaging in games. Therefore, if play refers to a game of catch, then exhibition in games would be the sport of baseball. The final stage of development occurs when one is able to recognize the roles of many others in many situations. Mead referred to this as the generalized other.
The existence of self depends upon the existence of society and culture in a very key way. The primary reason self is so important perhaps revolves around communication for survival. In order for the world to be able to support society and culture in any facet people must communicate. Mead described this as transmission through the use of words, hand and facial gestures and a general sense of self composure. Without total and proper development of the self, communication would be extremely difficult. If everyone in the world suffered deficient or no personal growth people would struggle to find ways both as a culture and as a society to flourish within inter-group communication.
Erik H. Erikson explained socialization with the theory that people face challenges throughout the life course that develop and shape personality indefinitely. He mapped out these potential challenges within eight generalized stages. These stages stretch to include infancy, toddlerhood, preschool, preadolescence, adolescence, young adulthood, middle adulthood, and old age. Though Erikson presented a much broader and different view of socialization than Mead, their works remain similar because they share one familiar aspect, the self. Erikson never used the phrase “the self” within these eight stages of development, however, he explains that in many of these stages communication with family members, peers and society in general helps to play crucial roles in the proper development of one’s personality.
George Herbert Mead was indeed a brilliant sociologist and theorist. By studying the concept of the self, Mead relayed the idea that social experience or lack thereof could create or destroy a human being thereby affecting society and culture as we know it. He concluded that the self continues to change and evolve as we encounter social experiences. Throughout this evolution, we remain creative individuals. It is in the shadow of this creativity that we, indeed, play a very distinctive role in our own socialization process.