Mead Essays Social Psychology

Mind Self and Society

Section 1 Social Psychology and Behaviorism

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SOCIAL psychology has, as a rule, dealt with various phases of social experience from the psychological standpoint of individual experience. The point of approach which I wish to suggest is that of dealing with experience from the standpoint of society, at least from the standpoint of communication as essential to the social order. Social psychology, on this view, presupposes an approach to experience from the standpoint of the individual, but undertakes to determine in particular that which belongs to this experience because the individual himself belongs to a social structure, a social order.

No very sharp line can be drawn between social psychology and individual psychology. Social psychology is especially interested in the effect which the social group has in the determination of the experience and conduct of the individual member. If we abandon the conception of a substantive soul endowed with the self of the individual at birth, then we may regard the development of the individual's self, and of his self-consciousness within the field of his experience, as the social psychologist's special interest. There are, then, certain phases of psychology which are interested in studying the relation of the individual organism to the social group to which it belongs, and these phases constitute social psychology as a branch of general psychology. Thus, in the study of the experience and behavior of the individual organism or self in its dependence upon the social group to which it belongs, we find a definition of the field of social psychology.

While minds and selves are essentially social products, products or phenomena of the social side of human experience, the


(2) physiological mechanism underlying experience is far from irrelevant --indeed is indispensable-- to their genesis and existence; for individual experience and behavior is, of course, physiologically basic to social experience and behavior: the processes and mechanisms of the latter (including those which are essential to the origin and existence of minds and selves) are dependent physiologically upon the processes and mechanisms of the former, and upon the social functioning of these. Individual psychology, nevertheless, definitely abstracts certain factors from the situation with which social psychology deals more nearly in its concrete totality. We shall approach this latter field from a behavioristic point of view.

The common psychological standpoint which is represented by behaviorism is found in John B. Watson. The behaviorism which we shall make use of is more adequate than that of which Watson makes use. Behaviorism in this wider sense is simply an approach to the study of the experience of the individual from the point of view of his conduct, particularly, but not exclusively, the conduct as it is observable by others. Historically, behaviorism entered psychology through the door of animal psychology. There it was found to be impossible to use what is termed introspection. One cannot appeal to the animal's introspection, but must study the animal in terms of external conduct. Earlier animal psychology added an inferential reference to consciousness, and even undertook to find the point in conduct at which consciousness appears. This inference had perhaps, varying degrees of probability, but it was one which could not be tested experimentally. It could be then simply dropped as far as science was concerned. It was not necessary for the study of the conduct of the individual animal. Having taken that behavioristic standpoint for the lower animals, it was possible to carry it over to the human animal.

There remained, however, the field of introspection, of experiences which are private and belong to the individual himself-experiences commonly called subjective. What was to be done with these? John B. Watson's attitude was that of the


(3)  Queen in Alice in Wonderland - "Off with their heads!"- there were no such things. There was no imagery, and no consciousness. The field of so-called introspection Watson explained by the use of language symbols.[1] These symbols were not necessarily uttered loudly enough to be heard by others, and often only involved the muscles of the throat without leading to audible speech. That was all there was to thought. One thinks, but one thinks in terms of language. In this way Watson explained the whole field of inner experience in terms of external behavior. Instead of calling such behavior subjective it was regarded as the field of behavior that was accessible only to the individual himself. One could observe his own movements, his own organs of articulation, where other persons could not normally observe them. Certain fields were accessible to the individual alone, but the observation was not different in kind; the difference lay only in the degree of accessibility of others to certain observations. One could be set up in a room by himself and observe something that no one else could observe. What a man observed in the room would be his own experience. Now, in this way something goes on in the throat or the body of the individual which no one else can observe. There are, of course, scientific instruments that can be attached to the throat or the body to reveal the tendency toward movement. There are some movements that are easily observable and others which can be detected only by the individual himself, but there is no qualitative difference in the two cases. It is simply recognized that the apparatus of observation is one that has various degrees of success. That, in brief, is the point of view of Watson's behavioristic psychology. It aims to observe conduct as it takes place, and to utilize that conduct to explain the experience of the individual without bringing in the observation of an inner experience, a consciousness as such.

There was another attack on consciousness, that of William James in his 1904 article entitled, "Does 'Consciousness' Ex-


(4) ist?"[2] James pointed out that if a person is in a room the objects of the interior can be looked at from two standpoints. The furniture, for instance, may be considered from the standpoint of the person who bought it and used it, from the point of view of its color values which attach to it in the minds of the persons who observe them, its aesthetic value, its economic value, its traditional value. All of these we can speak of in terms of psychology; they will be put into relationship with the experience of the individual. One man puts one value upon it and another gives it another value. But the same objects can be regarded as physical parts of a physical room. What James insisted upon was that the two cases differ only in an arrangement of certain contents in different series. The furniture, the walls, the house itself, belong to one historical series. We speak of the house as having been built, of the furniture as having been made. We put the house and furniture into another series when one comes in and assesses these objects from the point of view of his own experience. He is talking about the same chair, but the chair is for him now a matter of certain contours, certain colors, taken from his own experience. It involves the experience of the individual. Now one can take a cross-section of both of these two orders so that at a certain point there is a meeting of the two series. The statement in terms of consciousness simply means the recognition that the room lies not only in the historical series but also in the experience of the individual. There has been of late in philosophy a growing recognition of the importance of James's insistence that a great deal has been placed in consciousness that must be returned to the so-called objective world.[3]

Psychology itself cannot very well be made a study of the field of consciousness alone; it is necessarily a study of a more extensive field. It is, however, that science which does make use


(5) of introspection, in the sense that it looks within the experience of the individual for phenomena not dealt with in any other sciences —phenomena to which only the individual himself has experiential access. That which belongs (experientially) to the individual qua individual, and is accessible to him alone, is certainly included within the field of psychology, whatever else is or is not thus included. This is our best clue in attempting to isolate the field of psychology. The psychological datum is best defined, therefore, in terms of accessibility. That which is accessible, in the experience of the individual, only to the individual himself, is peculiarly psychological.

I want to point out, however, that even when we come to the discussion of such "inner" experience, we can approach it from the point of view of the behaviorist, provided that we do not too narrowly conceive this point of view. What one must insist upon is that objectively observable behavior finds expression within the individual, not in the sense of being in another world, a subjective world, but in the sense of being within his organism. Something of this behavior appears in what we may term "attitudes," the beginnings of acts. Now, if we come back to such attitudes we find them giving rise to all sorts of responses. The telescope in the hands of a novice is not a telescope in the sense that it is to those on top of Mount Wilson. If we want to trace the responses of the astronomer, we have to go back into his central nervous system, back to a whole series of neurons; and we find something there that answers to the exact way in which the astronomer approaches the instrument under certain conditions. That is the beginning of the act; it is a part of the act. The external act which we do observe is a part of the process which has started within; the values[4] which we say the instrument has are values through the relationship of the object to the person who has that sort of attitude. If a person did not have that particular nervous system, the instrument would be of no value. It would not be a telescope.


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In both versions of behaviorism certain characteristics which things have and certain experiences which individuals have can be stated as occurrences inside of an act.[5] But part of the act lies within the organism and only comes to expression later; it is that side of behavior which I think Watson has passed over. There is a field within the act itself which is not external, but which belongs to the act, and there are characteristics of that inner organic conduct which do reveal themselves in our own attitudes, especially those connected with speech. Now, if our behavioristic point of view takes these attitudes into account we find that it can very well cover the field of psychology. In any case, this approach is one of particular importance because it is able to deal with the field of communication in a way which neither Watson nor the introspectionist can do. We want to approach language not from the standpoint of inner meanings to be expressed, but in its larger context of cooperation in the group taking place by means of signals and gestures.[6] Meaning appears within that process. Our behaviorism is a social behaviorism.

Social psychology studies the activity or behavior of the individual as it lies within the social process; the behavior of an individual can be understood only in terms of the behavior of the whole social group of which he is a member, since his indi


(7) -vidual acts are involved in larger, social acts which go beyond himself and which implicate the other members of that group.

We are not, in social psychology, building up the behavior of the social group in terms of the behavior of the separate individuals composing it; rather, we are starting out with a Oven social whole of complex group activity, into which we analyze (as elements) the behavior of each of the separate individuals composing it. We attempt, that is, to explain the conduct of the individual in terms of the organized conduct of the social group, rather than to account for the organized conduct of the social group in terms of the conduct of the separate individuals belonging to it. For social psychology, the whole (society) is prior to the part (the individual), not the part to the whole; and the part is explained in terms of the whole, not the whole in terms of the part or parts. The social act7 is not explained by building it up out of stimulus plus response; it must be taken as a dynamic whole-as something going on-no part of which can be considered or understood by itself-a complex organic process implied by each individual stimulus and response involved in it.

In social psychology we get at the social process from the inside as well as from the outside. Social psychology is behavioristic in the sense of starting off with an observable activity-the dynamic, on-going social process, and the social acts which are its component elements-to be studied and analyzed scientifically. But it is not behavioristic in the sense of ignoring the inner experience of the individual-the inner phase of that process or activity. On the contrary, it is particularly concerned


(8) with the rise of such experience within the process as a whole. It simply works from the outside to the inside instead of from the inside to the outside, so to speak, in its endeavor to determine how such experience does arise within the process. The act, then, and not the tract, is the fundamental datum in both social and individual psychology when behavioristically conceived, and it has both an inner and an outer phase, an internal and an external aspect.

These general remarks have had to do with our point of approach. It is behavioristic, but unlike Watsonian behaviorism it recognizes the parts of the act which do not come to external observation, and it emphasizes the act of the human individual in its natural social situation.

Notes

  1. [Especially in Behavior, an Introduction to Comparative Psychology, chap. X; Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist, chap. ix; Behaviorism, chaps. x, xi.]
  2. [Published in the Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Method. Reprinted in Essays in Radical Empiricism.]
  3. Modern philosophical realism has helped to free psychology from a concern with a philosophy of mental states (1924).
  4. Value: the future character of the object in so far as it determines your action to it (1924).
  5. An act is an impulse that maintains the life-process by the selection of certain sorts of stimuli it needs. Thus, the organism creates its environment. The stimulus is the occasion for the expression of the impulse.
    Stimuli are means, tendency is the real thing. Intelligence is the selection of stimuli that will set free and maintain life and aid in rebuilding it (1927).
    The purpose need not be "in view," but the statement of the act includes the goal to which the act moves. This is a natural teleology, in harmony with a mechanical statement (1925).
  6. The study of the process of language or speech-its origins and development-is a branch of social psychology, because it can be understood only in terms of the social processes of behavior within a group of interacting organisms; because it is one of the activities of such a group. The philologist, however, has often taken the view of the prisoner in a cell. The prisoner knows that others are in a like position and he wants to get in communication with them. So he sets about some method of communication, some arbitrary affair, perhaps, such as tapping on the wall. Now, each of us, on this view, is shut up in his own cell of consciousness, and knowing that there are other people so shut up, develops ways to set up communication with them.
  7. "A social act may be defined as one in which the occasion or stimulus which sets free an impulse is found in the character or conduct of a living form that belongs to the proper environment of the living form whose impulse it is. I wish, however, to restrict the social act to the claw of acts which involve the cooperation of more than one individual, and whose object as defined by the act, in the sense of Bergson, is a social object. I mean by a social object one that answers to all the parts of the complex act, though these parts are found in the conduct of different individuals. The objective of the acts is then found in the life-process of the group, not in those of the separate individuals alone." [From "The Genesis of the Self and Social Control," International Journal ofEthics, XXXV (1925), 263-64.

Biography

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts to a successfully middle-class and intellectual family. His father, Hiram, was a pastor and a chair of theology at Oberlin College and his mother, Elizabeth, served as president of Mount Holyoke College for several years. Mead himself enrolled in Oberlin College in 1879 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1883. After graduating, Mead briefly taught grade school and worked as a surveyor for a railroad company before enrolling at Harvard in 1887 to continue his education. At Harvard, Mead studied philosophy and psychology with the renowned pragmatist philosopher, William James, who would greatly influence Mead’s thought. After receiving a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard, Mead went to Germany to study psychology under the famous psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who also greatly influenced Mead’s later ideas about symbolic gestures, society, and the self.

Mead never completed his Ph.D. studies, but was still hired at the University of Michigan in 1891. That same year he married Helen Castle. At Michigan, the prominent sociologist Charles Cooley and philosopher John Dewey were two great scholars who would also greatly affect Mead’s thinking. In 1894, Mead left Michigan for the University of Chicago, where he stayed for over 30 years until his death.

Unlike the many other theorists profiled in Social Theory Re-Wired, Mead never wrote a book. His most widely read publication, Mind, Self, and Society, is actually a collection of his lectures that his students put together after his death. Mead did, however, have a prolific career, writing over 100 articles, book reviews, and essays.

Throughout his career, Mead was most concerned with theorizing how the mind and the self arise out of social interaction and experience. He was a strong critic of psychological behaviorism, a highly individualistic understanding of human behavior prominent at the time, and advocated a social behaviorism that took human responses to social objects like gestures, language, and other symbolic phenomena as hugely important to understanding human thought and action in the world.

Mead died in 1931 at the age of 68. One of the most prominent social philosophers of his own time, Mead remains a foundational theorist of social psychology, action, and the sociology of the self.

How Mead Matters Today

Many of us today live in a culture that encourages us to think of our selves as essentially and uniquely individual, cut off from or even opposed to the larger societies in which we live. When we hear people say things like, “I don’t care what other people think about me,” we get a glimpse into common (mis)conceptions of what it means to be a self. But Mead’s theory of the self convincingly shows us that this way of thinking is wrongheaded. What others think of us, the perspectives of others we gain from being a part of the conversation of gestures, are absolutely necessary for us to even have a sense of self. We think of ourselves as individuals, to be sure, but we are only able to do so by virtue of being a part of a larger social community. Arguably no other social theorist argues this point more brilliantly and systematically than George Herbert Mead.

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