Course:SOCI 1110/Emile Durkheim

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Overview of His Life and Career

     George Herbert Mead was born on February 27, 1863 in South Hadley Massachusetts. He came from a family of intelligent, hard working people. His father, Hiram Mead was a minister and a professor of homiletics. His mother, Elizabeth Storrs Billings Mead was a professor and president at Mt. Holyoke College. He had one older sister named Alice. Mead was raised in a very traditional Congregationalist home environment. In 1870, the Mead family moved from Massachusetts to Oberlin, Ohio. In Oberlin, Mead got his start at his many future educational and professional successes. He died on April 26, 1931 at the age of 68 due to heart failure in Chicago, Illinois. 

From 1879-1883 Mead attended the Congregationalist Oberlin College, graduating with a Bachelors in 1883. Henry Northrup Castle, a longtime friend and eventually brother in law of Mead’s, who he had met at Oberlin, persuaded Mead to apply to Harvard College in 1887 where he studied psychology and philosophy. He graduated from Harvard in 1888 with another Bachelors. After graduating from Harvard, Mead went to Europe, specifically Leipzig, Germany to meet up with Henry and his sister Helen Kingsbury Castle. He studied short term at the University of Leipzig from 1888-1889, where he became extremely interested in Darwinism and the Darwinian Revolution, which influenced him to think of human development in naturalistic terms. During his stay in Europe, he ended up in Berlin, attending the University of Berlin in the spring of 1889, working on his Ph.D. While in Berlin, Mead and Helen began a romance and eventually married on October 1, 1891. They had one child together. Unfortunately, Mead never completed his Ph.D., in the year of 1891 he was offered an instructorship position at the University of Michigan to teach psychology and philosophy. He and his new family moved back to the states for that job offer. He taught at the University of Michigan from 1891-1894 where he was then secured an assistant professorship by a close friend and colleague John Dewey, at the New University of Chicago, who he had met while working at the University of Michigan and who chaired the philosophy department. Mead was an assistant philosophy professor from 1894-1902 then became an associate professor from 1902-1907. He then got a full professorship at the University of Chicago from 1907 until he died in 1931. During the course of that time, Mead, Dewey and numerous other colleagues became known as the Chicago School of Pragmatism, for the huge influence that they had in forming a new way of thinking and the influence they made in the field of the Symbolic Interaction theory. He had an appointment to meet and talk with superiors about a professorship at Columbia University beginning in the fall of 1931, but he passed away in the spring beforehand.

After graduating from Oberlin, Mead worked short term (four months to be exact) as a grade school teacher. He was fired for his teaching methods being too harsh on the children. From 1883-1887 he worked as a surveyor for the Wisconsin Central Rail Road Company. While attending Harvard he was a private tutor to a man named William James’ children. He had met James during his studies there and looked up to him for his ideals and methods. Another man that Mead looked up to and appreciated his views on romanticism and idealism was Josiah Royce from Harvard. During his stay at the University of Leipzig, Mead studied and was influenced by Wilhelm Wundt and G Stanley Hall. Hall made a recommendation on behalf of Mead and suggested that he transfer to the University of Berlin to continue his studies. In 1889 Mead made the school change and studied economic theory and physiological psychology. At the University of Michigan he became influenced by social psychologist Charles Horton Cooley and psychologist Alfred Lloyd. Colleagues and friends, Dewey and Alfred North Whitehead considered Mead to be a thinker of the highest order.

Mead was a passionate person when it came to what he believed in. He is known to have marched with suffragists, actively supported strikers, he was the treasurer at the University of Chicago’s settlement board, he also chaired the City Club Committee on public education and was the vice president of the Immigrants Protective League. No books were ever published by Mead himself. However, he did co-edit a volume on vocationalism and is the author of many scholarly and civic minded articles. After his death, a group of his students got together and went through all of his unpublished manuscripts and notes from lectures and published them into 5 novels and one lecture book with Mead’s name on them. Mead’s Carus Lectures was a book on all his notes from his teachings that came out in 1930. The other novels that were published are: The Philosophy of the Present from 1932, Mind, Self and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviourist from 1934, Movements of Thought in the Nineteenth Century from 1936, The Philosophy of the Act from 1938 and The Individual and the Social Self from 1982.

Mead’s views were that of a naturalist. He was a philosopher and lectured about: ethics, politics, metaphysics, epistemology and the history of philosophy. His main studies were regarding social behaviourism and the philosophy of pragmatism. Mead is to this day, a highly respected sociologist and philosopher and is one of the founding fathers of symbolic interactionism and influenced today’s social scientists and philosophers. His views about animal versus human gestures and behaviours helped give rise to the school of symbolic interaction. Mead’s work did not fit within the borders of conventional practice, but he shaped the way sociologists and psychologists think.

Historical World Events during His Lifetime


  • Lincoln is assassinated
  • End of the Civil war in the US


  • Slavery is abolished in the US


  • Canadian Confederation


  • Suez Canal opens - reduces travel time for trade between Europe and Asia


  • Civil Rights Act is passed in the US


  • Alexander Graham Bell invents the telephone


  • US supreme court rules that “separate but equal” public facilities for whites and blacks are legal


  • World population is 1.7 billion, up from 1 billion in 1800
  • Theodore Roosevelt is elected President of the US


  • Albert Einstein submits his paper that will develop his argument for E=mc2


  • New Zealand and Newfoundland join the British Commonwealth


  • The Titanic sinks


  • World War I begins


  • World War I ends


  • The Treaty of Versailles is signed


  • The Stock Market crashes
  • The Great Depression begins


  • The worst of the Great Depression - almost 25% are unemployed in the US

Theory of I and Me

Mead’s largest contribution to the socological world was his theory of “I” and “Me”. This theory encompasses the development of our social self (“Me”) and how we personally and individually react (“I”) to our social selves. When we are children we don't have the capability or wherewithal to understand how others around us are influencing “Me.” As we grow up we begin to understand the social influences around us and ultimately develop both “Me” and “I.” When we are only engaged in the “me” we are not engaging ourselves “at a non-reflective level” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy uses the example of baseball to describe this theory. Their outline of this example is as follows:

" "If I am playing second base, I may reflect on my position as a second baseman, but to do so I have to be able to think of “myself” in relationship to the whole game, namely, the other actors and the rules of the game. We might refer to this cognitive object as my (second baseman) baseball self or “Me.”... One may have a self, a “Me,” that corresponds to a particular position that one plays, which is nested within the game as an organized totality. This self, however, doesn't tell us how any particular play may be made. When a ball is grounded to a second baseman, how he or she reacts is not predetermined. He reacts, and how he reacts is always to some degree different from how he has reacted in the past. These reactions or actions of the individual, whether in response to others or self-initiated, fall within the “sphere” of the “I.” Every response that the “I” makes is somewhat novel. Its responses may differ only in small ways from previous responses, making them functionally equivalent, but they will never be exactly the same. No catch in a ball game is ever identical to a previous catch. Mead declares that, “The ‘I’ gives the sense of freedom, of initiative. " 1

Mead was also a driving force in Symbolic Interactionism. Symbolic Interactionism “focuses on interaction in micro level social settings and emphasizes that an adequate explanation of social behaviour requires understanding the subjective meanings people attach to their social circumstances. ” (textbook*)

Mead's Theories in Relation to the World Around Him

One of the major world events during Mead's lifetime was the Civil Rights Act. This may have contributed to the development of his theory regarding the development of "I" and "Me". This movement could be seen in relation to the development of "Me" and engaging yourself in the world around you, relating yourself to the actions and rights of others