Symbolic Interactionism

Self identity is an active process through which ‘I’ reflect on how i think others see me and adapt my social self accordingly.

Last Updated on March 17, 2023 by Karl Thompson

George Herbert Mead (1863 – 1931) believed that human experience, thought and action were inherently social because humans interact on the basis of symbols, the most important of which was language.

He saw the self as something active and dynamic which emerged through social action and interaction and was thus critical of structuralist theories such as Functionalism and Marxism which saw the self as something passive and determined by simply soaking up norms and values.

Mead emphasised the centrality of language as a shared system of symbols and signs which allows for the development of selfhood and social interaction.

Three key ideas of Mead’s social psychological theory of self are:

  1. Individuals acquire language (symbolic meaning) through their attachment and interaction within social groups
  2. Language (symbols) is the primary medium through which the concept of selfhood emerges
  3. Individual selfhood is realised through social interaction which is mediated through language (symbols) and develops throughout the life course.

Mead was a philosopher and social psychologist whose most important work was Mind, Self and Society published posthumously from his ‘student notes’ in 1967.

The social self

The central idea of Mead’s work is that the individual self is inherently social. He didn’t see the self as something innate or fixed, but thought that it emerged through action and interaction with others.

He went as far as to say that the self could not be introspected because it only existed in interaction, outside of interaction the self ceases to exist.

It is only through language that we develop a sense of self and become self aware through an ongoing process of self-monitoring and reflection.

When the individual engages in such processes they are actively considering possible courses of action, possible ways of being in the world and actively excluding others, they are engaged in the process of ‘making themselves’ which is dependent on social interactions.

Language: the basis for human interaction

Mead emphasises the importance of language throughout his work.

Language comprises a system of symbols and signs that enable human beings to generated and signify meanings.

It is language which makes culture possible and separates humans from animals. Animals can make gestures related to objects and events in their immediate context, but their communication is always limited to those contexts.

Language allows human beings to refer to people and events that are divorced from the contexts in which they first occurred. Thus it is through language that the temporal and spatial dimensions of human existence are opened up and we are no longer trapped in the immediacy of. the present.

Language is also the basis of dialogue which is beyond mere one off exchanges between individuals, it allows for complex systems of classification and rational arguments to occur, both of which are again abstract in the sense that they are not dependent on immediate context.

The I and the Me

Language also allows for dialogue with one’s self and it is through language that one’s self-concept is developed.

For Mead, language does not only describe the world, it makes makes objectification possible, it enables us to objectify or ‘create’ the self.

Mead’s theory of language and the self rests on his distinction between the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’.

  • The ‘I’ is reality as we experience it from the inside and the source from which all consciously directed action springs. The I is the idiosyncratic and created aspect of the individual.
  • The ‘me’ is the object of self-awareness, one’s own physical body perceived by others. The Me represents the social component born out of the internationalisation of social roles, norms and values

The Me does not act as a constraining force on the I but is both enabling and regulating because it allows the individual to review and adapt their actions in light of the perceived reactions of others.

The self is thus a process, not fixed or static.

The generalised other

The generalised other refers to the complex of social attitudes, norms, regulations and ways of seeing the world internalised by an individual. It is the link between the individual and the social groups to which one belongs.

The notion of the generalised other is crucial to Mead’s theory of self-development.It explains how individuals learn to regulate and monitor their own conduct by assuming the perspective of a generalised and impersonal other.

it is only through thinking of how others see ‘me’ that the ‘I’ can realise its own autonomy.

In short we need this social interaction to be able to be conscious of ourselves and develop ourselves, without interaction the individual self does not exist!

The development of the self

Mead also theorised about how individuals come to develop a sense of self through different stages of childhood. He distinguished between the play stage and the game stage.

The play stage

Children first start to develop a sense of self by playing roles that are not their own, such as playing doctors, spacemen, or superheroes for example.

In doing so they become aware that there is a difference between themselves and the role they are playing, hence the idea of the objectified ‘Me’ starts to become apparent as different to the ‘I’.

The game stage

Mead provides the example of game playing as a situation in which children learn to see the world (or the game) from the general situation of all other players and the different view points of particular players.

A fundamental part of a game is knowing other people’s roles. Take as an example the game of football, where there are several different roles: attacking players, defensive players, the goalkeeper and the referee, to name a few, and to be able. to play football any individual needs an idea of the role of each of these, and this is already a complex process that involves thinking how other people will be seeing, and playing the game.

An individual also needs a concept of the generalised other to play a game of football – or an overall picture of the field of play and how all the parts work together in general.

Later on in life

The ability to empathise with and see oneself through the eyes of the ‘generalised other’ is essential to successful interpersonal communication because the reactions of others are tied to and shape the parameters of social situations. It is ultimately what makes co-operative action at the social level possible.

Role taking

An important aspect of the development of self identity is role-taking. People interact on the basis of taking on the role of the other: for example if someone is waving at you across the street, you think that they want to attract your attention, and this ‘taking on their position’ is crucial to the basis of your interaction with them. (Of course you may use other signs, stereotypes)

There are also range of professional roles associated with various jobs such as teaches and doctors, which have expected patterns of behaviour associated with them, and in order to take on one of these roles any individual will have to conform to these.

Culture, social roles and institutions

Mead recognised that social institutions existed, but only in so far as there were social roles attached to them.

For example, the nuclear family exists as long men and women accept the concept of mother and father, the school exists as long as teachers and pupils accept their relative roles to each others.

He did not believe that social roles determined the individual because…

  1. Many cultural expectations were not specific. Clothes
  2. Individuals have a choice over what roles they enter
  3. Some roles encourage diversity
  4. Society does not have an all embracing culture
  5. Many cultural meanings suggest possibilies rather than requirments
  6. At times it may not be possible to fulfil cultural expectations of social roles, innovation may be required.

Social Order

Despite the fact that Mead didn’t believe institutions existed in any modernist solid sense of the word, he still recognised that there was a sense of social order and stability, but these were only actively accomplished through interactions, which are dynamic.

It follows that social order is dependent on the actions and interactions of individuals and thus is fluid, and liable to change at a moment’s notice.


Mead offers us a social psychological account of human interaction which is relevant to social theory because it challenges the modernist, static theories of Functionalism and Marxism which view individuals as passive and lacking agency.

However, Mead’s symbolic interactionism may be too focused on the micro small scale, just interactions, there is no consideration of history and power structures.


This material is mainly relevant to the Theory and Methods module taught as part of the AQA’s A-level sociology second year.

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Sources/ find out more

Inglis, D (2012) An Invitation to Social Theory, Polity.

Wikipedia entry: George Herbert Mead.

Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.

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