Mead: the socially constructed self

The basic message of Mead’s (1962) work is that we develop a sense of self, an understanding of who we are, by interacting with others (see Box 3.1 for a summary of the four stages in Mead’s model). Socialization refers to the processes by which we learn what it means to be an adult human being within our society. Socialization operates through social institutions such as families, school, work, the media, and generally through social interaction. Children learn to see themselves and what they do in relation to the people around them. The first stage is imita­tion when babies start to learn how to be human by copying the actions of people around them. If someone smiles at them, they smile. As they get older children then begin to recognize the ‘significant other’.They learn to take on the roles of their primary carers (usually parents). Play is very important at this stage as children often learn by acting out what they think their parents do; so parents may have the possibly uncomfortable experience of recognizing themselves when they see their child playing ‘mummies and daddies’. But at this point a child still has a fairly simple understanding of who they are which revolves around those most sig­nificant to them. Gradually they move to a slightly more sophisticated understanding of themselves in relation to others. They begin to be able to take on the role of several others at once in one situation. This means they can think about what other people might do in a certain situation. This ability is crucial in playing games that have rules. To be able to play cards, for example, you have to have some conception about what the

other players might do, and think about what you want to do in relation to them. All sorts of games are an important part of how we learn to do this, according to Mead.

The final stage in developing an adult self is learning to take the role of ‘the generalized other’. This means being able to imagine being many others in many situations. Learning to take on the role of the gen­eralized other means being able to see yourself from the point of view, not just of those close to you or playing a game with you, but from the point of view of others ‘generally’. Rather than just understanding how your mother or your friends might react to what you do in particular situations, you become aware of what might be considered socially acceptable in a whole range of circumstances. Mead suggests that this is the most important stage in becoming a socialized human being. He thinks that from then on people engage throughout their lives in continuous internal conversations with themselves about what they want to do and what ‘other’ people will think. We take into account what is socially acceptable in deciding how to behave. Mead was arguing that who we are and how we behave are socially constructed, but he did not consider how girls and boys might be given different messages about what is acceptable behaviour. It took other sociologists to consider how the self might be gendered.

Box 3.1 Mead’s model of how the self develops through social interaction


Cannot take the role of the other



Can be one other in one situation



Can be many others in one situation

Games (with rules)


Can take the role of the generalized

Understand social