Sociological Theory
Department of Sociology and Anthropology

George Herbert Mead

From George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1934.

Mind, Self, and Society

Social Attitudes and the Physical World

The self is not so much a substance as a process in which the conversation of gestures has been internalized within an organic form. This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part. The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes then the mind of the individual. It still includes the attitudes of others, but now highly organized, so that they become what we call social attitudes rather than roles of separate individuals. This process of relating one's own organism to the others in the interactions that are going on, in so far as it is imported into the conduct of the individual with the conversation of the "I" and the "me," constitutes the self. [1] The value of this importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual lies in the superior co-ordination gained for society as a whole, and in the increased efficiency of the individual as a member of the group. It is the difference between the process which can take place in a group of rats or ants or bees, and that which can take place in a human community. The social process with its various implications is actually taken up into the experience of the individual so that that which is going on takes place more effectively, because in a certain sense it has been rehearsed in the individual. He not only plays his part better under those conditions but he also reacts back on the organization of which he is a part.

The very nature of this conversation of gestures requires that the attitude of the other is changed through the attitude of the individual to the other's stimulus. In the conversation of gestures of the lower forms the play back and forth is noticeable, since the individual not only adjusts himself to the attitude of others, but also changes the attitudes of the others. The reaction of the individual in this conversation of gestures is one that in some degree is continually modifying the social process itself. It is this modification of the process which is of greatest interest in the experience of the individual. He takes the attitude of the other toward his own stimulus, and in taking that he finds it modified in that his response becomes a different one, and leads in turn to further changes

Fundamental attitudes are presumably those that are only changed gradually, and no one individual can reorganize the whole society; but one is continually affecting society by his own attitude because he does bring up the attitude of the group toward himself, responds to it, and through that response changes the attitude of the group. This is, of course, what we are constantly doing in our imagination, in our thought; we are utilizing our own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which we are a part; we are exerting ourselves, bringing forward our own opinion, criticizing the attitudes of others, and approving or disapproving. But we can do that only in so far as we can call out in ourselves the response of the community; we only have ideas in so far as we are able to take the attitude of the community and then respond to it.

Mind as the Individual Importation of the Social Process

I have been presenting the self and the mind in terms of a social process, as the importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual organism, so that the individual organism takes these organized attitudes of the others called out by its own attitude, in the form of its gestures, and in reacting to that response calls out other organized attitudes in the others in the community to which the individual belongs. This process can be characterized in a certain sense in terms of the "I" and the "me," the "me" being that group of organized attitudes to which the individual responds as an "I."

What I want particularly to emphasize is the temporal and logical pre-existence of the social process to the self-conscious individual that arises in it. [2] The conversation of gestures is a part of the social process which is going on. It is not something that the individual alone makes possible. What the development of language, especially the significant symbol, has rendered possible is just the taking over of this external social situation into the conduct of the individual himself. There follows from this the enormous development which belongs to human society, the possibility of the prevision of what is going to take place in the response of other individuals, and a preliminary adjustment to this by the individual. These, in turn, produce a different social situation which is again reflected in what I have termed the "me," so that the individual himself takes a different attitude.

Consider a politician or a statesman putting through some project in which he has the attitude of the community in himself. He knows how the community reacts to this proposal. He reacts to this expression of the community in his own experience--he feels with it. He has a set of organized attitudes which are those of the community. His own contribution, the "I" in this case, is a project of reorganization, a project which he brings forward to the community as it is reflected in himself. He himself changes, of course, in so far as he brings this project forward and makes it a political issue. There has now arisen a new social situation as a result of the project which he is presenting. The whole procedure takes place in his own experience as well as in the general experience of the community. He is successful to the degree that the final "me" reflects the attitude of all in the community. What I am pointing out is that what occurs takes place not simply in his own mind, but rather that his mind is the expression in his own conduct of this social situation, this great co-operative community process which is going on.

I want to avoid the implication that the individual is taking something that is objective and making it subjective. There is an actual process of living together on the part of all members of the community which takes place by means of gestures. The gestures are certain stages in the co-operative activities which mediate the whole process. Now, all that has taken place in the appearance of the mind is that this process has been in some degree taken over into the conduct of the particular individual. There is a certain symbol, such as the policeman uses when he directs traffic. That is something that is out there. It does not become subjective when the engineer, who is engaged by the city to examine its traffic regulations, takes the same attitude the policeman takes with reference to traffic, and takes the attitude also of the drivers of machines. We do imply that he has the driver's organization; he knows that stopping means slowing down, putting on the brakes. There is a definite set of parts of his organism so trained that under certain circumstances he brings the machine to a stop. The raising of the policeman's hand is the gesture which calls out the various acts by means of which the machine is checked. Those various acts are in the expert's own organization; he can take the attitude of both the policeman and the driver. Only in this sense has the social process been made "subjective." If the expert just did it as a child does, it would be play; but if it is done for the actual regulation of traffic, then there is the operation of what we term mind. Mind is nothing but the importation of this external process into the conduct of the individual so as to meet the problems that arise.

This peculiar organization arises out of a social process that is logically its antecedent. A community within which the organism acts in such a co-operative fashion that the action of one is the stimulus to the other to respond, and so on, is the antecedent of the peculiar type of organization we term a mind, or a self. Take the simple family relation, where there is the male and the female and the child which has to be cared for. Here is a process which can only go on through interactions within this group. It cannot be said that the individuals come first and the community later, for the individuals arise in the very process itself, just as much as the human body or any multi-cellular form is one in which differentiated cells arise. There has to be a life-process going on in order to have the differentiated cells; in the same way there has to be a social process going on in order that there may be individuals. It is just as true in society as it is in the physiological situation that there could not be the individual if there was not the process of which he is a part. Given such a social process, there is the possibility of human intelligence when this social process, in terms of the conversation of gestures, is taken over into the conduct of the individual--and then there arises, of course, a different type of individual in terms of the responses now possible. There might conceivably be an individual who simply plays as the child does, without getting into a social game; but the human individual is possible because there is a social process in which it can function responsibly. The attitudes are parts of the social reaction; the cries would not maintain themselves as vocal gestures unless they did call out certain responses in the others; the attitude itself could only exist as such in this interplay of gestures.

The mind is simply the interplay of such gestures in the form of significant symbols. We must remember that the gesture is there only in its relationship to the response, to the attitude. One would not have words unless there were such responses. Language would never have arisen as a set of bare arbitrary terms which were attached to certain stimuli. Words have arisen out of a social interrelationship. One of Gulliver's tales was of a community in which a machine was created into which the letters of the alphabet could be mechanically fed in an endless number of combinations, and then the members of the community gathered around to see how the letters arranged after each rotation, on the theory that they might come in the form of an Iliad or one of Shakespeare's plays, or some other great work. The assumption back of this would be that symbols are entirely independent of what we term their meaning. The assumption is baseless: there cannot be symbols unless there are responses. There would not be a call for assistance if

there was not a tendency to respond to the cry of distress. It is such significant symbols, in the sense of a sub-set of social stimuli initiating a co-operative response, that do in a certain sense constitute our mind, provided that not only the symbol but also the responses are in our own nature. What the human being has succeeded in doing is in organizing the response to a certain symbol which is a part of the social act, so that he takes the attitude of the other person who co-operates with him. It is that which gives him a mind.

The sentinel of a herd is that member of the herd which is more sensitive to odor or sound than the others. At the approach of danger, he starts to run earlier than the others, who then follow along, in virtue of a herding tendency to run together. There is a social stimulus, a gesture, if you like, to which the other forms respond. The first form gets the odor earlier and starts to run, and its starting to run is a stimulus to the others to run also. It is all external; there is no mental process involved. The sentinel does not regard itself as the individual who is to give a signal; it just runs at a certain moment and so starts the others to run. But with a mind, the animal that gives the signal also takes the attitude of the others who respond to it. He knows what his signal means. A man who calls "fire" would be able to call out in himself the reaction he calls out in the other. In so far as the man can take the attitude of the other--his attitude of response to fire, his sense of terror--that response to his own cry is something that makes of his conduct a mental affair, as over against the conduct of the others. [3] But the only thing that has happened here is that what takes place externally in the herd has been imported into the conduct of the man. There is the same signal and the same tendency to respond, but the man not only can give the signal but also can arouse in himself the attitude of the terrified escape, and through calling that out he can come back upon his own tendency to call out and can check it. He can react upon himself in taking the organized attitude of the whole group in trying to escape from danger. There is nothing more subjective about it than that the response to his own stimulus can be found in his own conduct, and that he can utilize the conversation of gestures that takes place to determine his own conduct. If he can so act, he can set up a rational control, and thus make possible a far more highly organized society than otherwise. The process is one which does not utilize a man endowed with a consciousness where there was no consciousness before, but rather an individual who takes over the whole social process into his own conduct. That ability, of course, is dependent first of all on the symbol being one to which he can respond; and so far as we know, the vocal gesture has been the condition for the development of that type of symbol. Whether it can develop without the vocal gesture I cannot tell.

I want to be sure that we see that the content put into the mind is only a development and product of social interaction. It is a development which is of enormous importance, and which leads to complexities and complications of society which go almost beyond our power to trace, but originally it is nothing but the taking over of the attitude of the other. To the extent that the animal can take the attitude of the other and utilize that attitude for the control of his own conduct, we have what is termed mind; and that is the only apparatus involved in the appearance of the mind.

I know of no way in which intelligence or mind could arise or could have arisen, other than through the internalization by the individual of social processes of experience and behavior, that is, through this internalization of the conversation of significant gestures, as made possible by the individual's taking the attitudes of other individuals toward himself and toward what is being thought about. And if mind or thought has arisen in this way, then there neither can be nor could have been any mind or thought without language; and the early stages of the development of language must have been prior to the development of mind or thought.


1. According to this view, conscious communication develops out of unconscious communication within the social process, conversation in terms of significant gestures out of conversation in terms of non-significant gestures; and the development in such fashion of conscious communication is coincident with the development of minds and selves within the social process.

2. The relation of mind and body is that lying between the organization of the self in its behavior as a member of a rational community and the bodily organism as a physical thing.

The rational attitude which characterizes the human being is then the relationship of the whole process in which the individual is engaged to himself as reflected in his assumption of the organized roles of the others in stimulating himself to his response. This self as distinguished from the others lies within the field of communication, and they lie also within this field. What may be indicated to others or one's self and does not respond to such gestures of indication is, in the field of perception, what we call a physical thing. The human body is, especially in its analysis, regarded as a physical thing.

The line of demarcation between the self and the body is found, then, first of all in the social organization of the act within which the self arises, in its contrast with the activity of the physiological organism (MS).

The legitimate basis of distinction between mind and body is be tween the social patterns and the patterns of the organism itself. Education must bring the two closely together. We have, as yet, no comprehending category. This does not mean to say that there is anything logically against it; it is merely a lack of our apparatus or knowledge (1927) .

3. Language as made up of significant symbols is what we mean by mind. The content of our minds is (1) inner conversation, the importation of conversation from the social group to the individual (2) . . . . imagery. Imagery should be regarded in relation to the behavior in which it functions (1931).

Imagery plays just the part in the act that hunger does in the food process (1912).

Bibliographical Notes

1. Mead's major articles can be found in: Andrew J. Reck (ed.), Selected Writings: George Herbert Mead (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1964).

2. The volumes were: The Philosophy of the Present (1932); Mind, Self, and Society (1934); Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1936); and The Philosophy of the Act (1938). An excellent brief introduction to Mead's social psychology can be found in an edited abridgement of his works: Anselm Strauss (ed.), The Social Psychology of George Herbert Mead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956). The major critical work dealing with Mead's position is: Maurice Natanson, The Social Dynamics of George H. Mead (Washington, D.C. Public Affairs Press, 1956) .

3. Several varieties of Symbolic Interactionism exist today; cf., Manford Kuhn, "Major Trends in Symbolic Interaction Theory," Sociological Quarterly, 5 (1964), 61-84; and Bernard Meltzer and John W. Petras, "The Chicago and Iowa Schools of Symbolic Interactionism," in T. Shibutani (ed.), Human Nature and Collective Behavior: Papers in Honor of Herbert Blumer (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970). The best known variety of symbolic interactionism today is represented by the position of Mead's student Herbert Blumer; cf., Herbert Blumer, "Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead," American Journal of Sociology, 71 (1966), 534-544; and Herbert Blumer, Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1969). For a variety of studies done by members of this school, see: Arnold Rose (ed.), Human Behavior and Social Processes (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962); J. G. Manis and B. N. Meltzer (eds.), Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1967); and Gregory P. Stone (ed.), Social Psychology through Symbolic Interaction (Waltham, Mass.: Ginn-Blaisdell, 1970). Numerous modern theoretical approaches also owe a great debt to the work of Mead, for example, Walter Coutu, Emergent Human Nature: A New Social Psychology (New York: Knopf, 1949) .

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