Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The 'I' and the 'Me'

George Herbert Mead said about symbolic interactionism, so it was a challenge to find one piece by him that was a representative of his work. The piece I chose, “The ‘I’ and the ‘Me’” from Mind, Self, and Society (Mead 1934) is less than six pages long, but it contains concepts and definitions that lay the groundwork for understanding how individuals see themselves and act upon things in their environment. Read The 'I' and the 'Me' and comeback to see if you agree with my assessment of this piece.

If you are confused about what Mead meant, read the analysis below and then reread the passage. Mead said a lot in those six pages. I had to read it three times and do some research before I was really able to understand what he was talking about. Here’s what I am thinking Mead was talking about.

The ‘I’
The ‘I’ is the impulse being that is initiates an act. It is the active part side of an individual’s interchange in a social situation. It enters consciousness only after an action (De Waal 2002). ‘I’ is the spontaneous response by an individual to a social situation (Carreira da Silva 2007). Mead maintained that individuals don’t know

The ‘Me’
Individuals get the ‘me’ when they realize that they are part of the environment and is how we see ourselves reflected in social situations and the environment. The ‘me’ is merely how we see and judge ourselves from a specific perspective. ‘Me’ is a socially structured, conscious being that we build by seeing ourselves through the eyes of other people (Carreira da Silva 2007).Getting to know the ‘me’ is like getting to know another person (De Waal 2002). The unity of self is how well an individual can bring the multiples version of their ‘me’ together into one coherent ‘me’.

‘I’ + ‘Me’ = ‘Self’
By separating ‘I’ and ‘me’, Mead was able to define the individual as an active participant in their environment, rather than merely objects that perform social roles and attitudes. An individual is able to control themselves socially when the ‘me’ overrules the ‘I’ (De Waal 2002). The ‘I’ and ‘me’ are parts of the ‘self’ and each ‘self’ is part of society. Since the ‘I’ is continually affecting society and ‘me’ is continually being shaped by society, that means the ‘self’ is constantly changing and being changed by society (Carreira da Silva 2007). Could this be an example of the micro-marco link that sociologists look for? I am not sure I am convinced.

Mead and Freud
Some have compared Mead’s ‘I’ and ‘me’ to Sigmund Freud’s ‘id and superego, respectively (De Waal 2002) and to be honest, I did have the same thought when I first read this piece. I did not take the time to go back and read Freud’s writing on the id, ego and superego, to see how I personally thought they compared. But I do agree with De Waal’s assessment of the comparison. He points out that Freud’s ‘ego’ is the ‘individual’ in Mead’s view and that while Freud considered the id and superego as alien to an individual, Mead saw the ‘I’ and the ‘me’ as the essence of the individual (De Waal 2002).

If you go to re-read this passage, make sure to pay attention to the final paragraph of the piece, especially the parts I have underlined. When I really focused on understanding the content in this section, what Mead was talking about finally broke through in my head. I have highlighted in purple, what I think is the essence of Mead's explanation of the 'I' and the 'me'.

“Such is the basis for the fact that the ‘I’ does not appear in the same sense in experience as does the ‘me’. The ‘me’ represents a definite organization of the community there in our own attitudes, and calling for a response, but the response that takes place is something that just happens. There is no certainty in regard to it. There is a moral necessity but no mechanical necessity for the act. When it does take place then we find what has been done, The above accounting gives us, I think, the relative position of ‘I’ and ‘me’ in the situation, and the grounds for the separation of the two in behavior. The two are separated in the process but they belong together in the sense of being parts of a whole. They are separated and yet they belong together. The separation of the ‘I’ and ‘me’ is not fictitious. They are not identical, for as I have said, the ‘I’ is something that is never entirely calculable. The ‘me’ does call for a sort of an ‘I’ in so far as we meet the obligations that are given in conduct itself, but the ‘I’ is always different from what the situation itself calls for. So there is always that distinction, if you lie, between the
‘I’ and the ‘me.’ The ‘I’ both calls out the ‘me’ and responds to it. Taken together they constitute a personality as it appears in social experience. The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases. If it did not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience” (Mead 1934:

Carreira da Silva, Filipe. 2007. G.H. Mead: A Critical Introduction. Polity Press, Cambridge, England

De Waal, Cornelis. 2002. On Mead. Wadsworth/Thomson Learning. Inc. Belmont, California

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self & Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago, Illinois.

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