Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Gergen’s Comments on Mead’s Mind, Self, and Society

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I’m not going to spend too much time on this. I am just finding it interesting to see someone else’s take on Mead’s work—someone more knowledgeable on these subjects than I.

Gergen, K. J. (2009). An Invitation to Social Construction (p. 200). Los Angeles, CA: Sage Publications. Retrieved from

Gergen writes of Mead’s work:

“As Mead proposed, there is no thinking, or indeed any sense of being a self, that is independent of social process” (p. 89).

“Language becomes possible when people share a common set of mental symbols” (p. 89).

The generalized other: “a composite of others’ reactions to me across situations” (p. 89).


Gergen acknowledges Mead’s focus on social roles and human interdependency, yet his presentation of Mead’s body of work is highly condensed. As a result, I find myself having to consider more carefully Gergen’s criticisms of Mead’s work. Here are Gergen’s criticisms:

  1. “In spite of the relational emphasis, symbolic interactionism retains a strong element of individualism” (p. 90).
  2. “Symbolic interactionism leaves us without any way to explain how it is that a person is able to grasp others’ states of mind from gestures” (p. 90).
  3. “Finally, there is a strong flavor of social determinism in symbolic interactionism” (p. 90).

My first observation is that points 1 and 3 are somewhat contradictory: there is a strong element of individualism, yet it is highly socially determinant. This sounds to me like the two aspects are balanced. So, I’m not too sure where to go with these two points.

My second observation is that in my own reading of Mead’s work, I thought he went to great lengths to explain how we learn what others are thinking through a sort of dance of gestures. In fact, as people interact, we might say they empirically experiment with gesture and imitation. They interpret and internalize the feedback they get from actions and observations of actions. Here are some relevant quotes from Mead’s book:

  • In the introduction, Charles Morris writes: “Philosophically the position is here an objective relativism; qualities of the object may yet be relative to a conditioning organism. A certain portion of the world, as experienced, is private; but a portion is social or common . . .” (p. xix).
  • “The individual has, as it were, gotten outside of his limited world by taking the roles of others, being assured through communication empirically grounded and tested that in all these cases the world presents the same appearance. Where this is attained, experience is social, common, shared; it is only against this common world that the individual distinguishes his own private experience” (Morris, intro to Mead, 1934 p. xxix).
  • In Mead’s words: “It is not essential that the individuals should give an identical meaning to the particular stimulus in order that each may properly respond. People get into a crowd and move this way, and that way; they adjust themselves to the people coming toward them, as we say, unconsciously. They move in an intelligent fashion with reference to each other, and perhaps all of them think of something entirely different, but they do find in the gestures in which there is a co-operative activity without any symbol that means the same thing to all” (p. 55).

In this last quote, this seems akin to Gergen’s contention that “meaning is achieved through coordinated action. Thus we may say that we understand each other when we effectively coordinate our actions—drawing from traditions in ways that are mutually satisfactory” (p. 111).

At this point in my reading, I see the foundations of Mead’s work and social constructionism more commensurable than suggested by Gergen.


Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. (C. W. Morris, Ed.) (Vol. 13). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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