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George Herbert Mead- The I and the Me

Video transcript

- Sociologists, Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead both thought that other people could play a significant role in how we view ourselves. However, they differed in how they thought this might happen. Whereas Cooley thought that everyone that a person interacts with during their entire lifespan could influence our self-identity in some way or another, Mead thought that the process was somewhat more restricted. He thought that only certain people could influence our perception of self and only during certain periods of life. He also thought that the way that others influence us changes across the lifespan. For example, Mead believed that infants and other very young children, were not actually influenced by others in any way. Instead he believed that young children see themselves as being the focus of their own world and, consequently, they don't really care about what other people think of them. At the same time, they also lack the ability to even take the perspective of another person. For those of you who are familiar with psychology and with developmental psychology, you might realize that this is very similar to Piaget's concept of egocentrism. But Mead also believed that as we grow up our beliefs about how other people perceive us start to become more important. Mead thought that this happened through three distinct stages: the preparatory stage, the play stage and the game stage. During the preparatory stage, children interact with others through imitation. They might play with pots and pans when a person is cooking, or use a broom or a toy vacuum when their parents are trying to clean, which, of course, usually winds up making more of a mess, but these aren't really true interactions. As these children grow older they start to focus more on communication with others as opposed to simple imitation of them. They get practice using symbols, things like gestures and words and other forms of communication that they will later have to master as they grow up. During the play stage, children become more aware of the importance of social relationships. Mead believed that this was reflected in children's tendency to pretend play as other people. They play as mommies or daddies or doctors of firefighters, etcetera. And, whereas before they were really incapable of taking on the perspectives of others, now they're really focused on them. Now they're really focused on role-taking or mentally assuming the perspectives of another person and acting based on their perceived point of view. Even though this might seem like imitation, the kind we saw in the preparatory stage, this actually goes way beyond it, because the children are able to respond. They're not simply capable of mimicking social interactions, they're capable of creating them. During the last stage, the game stage, children's understanding of social interactions become even more developed. During the play stage children become able to consider the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of the individuals who are closest to them. During the game stage they start to understand the attitudes, beliefs and behaviors of what Mead referred to as the "generalized other," or society as a whole. With this comes a whole new understanding of society. For example, children start to realize that people not only perform in ways based on what they, personally believe, but also based on what society more broadly expects of them. They also start to understand that someone can take multiple roles, that people aren't simply moms or doctors of teachers, that they can be multiple things at once. This is something that I actually recall from when I was a kid. I remember that as a really young child I really believed that all my teachers did was teach. I thought that that was really the sum total of their existence. I actually remember it being really confusing when I saw them in a supermarket or learned that they had children of their own. As all of this is happening, as children start to acknowledge the generalized other and they start to realize that people have multiple rolls, they also start to understand that other people must have opinions about them and that those perceptions are influenced by how they act and what they say. In response, they themselves begin to be influenced by these perceptions and they start to be concerned about the reactions of others to what they do. But they don't really care about the perceptions of everyone they come across. They're mainly focused on the perceptions of the significant others in their life. By that I don't mean a girlfriend or a boyfriend, at least not exclusively, but by all the people who have important relationships to that individual, parents, teachers, close peers. Mead believed that this understanding lead to the development of the "I" and the "me," where the "me" is our social self and the "I" is our response to the "me." The "me" is how we believe the generalized other sees us. It is what we learn through interactions with others. The "I" thinks about what those things mean. As an example, the "me" might understand that people in the US typically go from high school directly to college, but the "I" might wonder if that is best, if maybe it would be best if some people traveled first or if they maybe worked for a few years. I actually always found these terms to be somewhat confusing. The way that I think about it is to think about the "me" as society's view and then the "I" is the individual indentity stepping in, or our personal responses to what society thinks. Even though we have these two parts and they might seem like they're conflicting, Mead would say that who we are, our actual self, is the balance of both the "I" and the "me."