We Are More Than A Socialization Product


Genesis of the Self

Commentary Continued

Mead informs us that a fully developed self must pass through three stages.

Meaning is not required for behavior during the preparatory stage when an infant

begins to imitate the behavior of other people. The imitatative act is simply mimicking another person’s behavior. Meaning becomes a very important part of behavior in Mead’s play stage of self development for it is at this level where the child intentionally takes on the role — mother, teacher, cowboy, etc. — of some significant other. The third stage of self-development or game stage is the “completing” stage of self. This is the stage of self-development when one becomes aware of many of societies socially defined roles. Meltzer informs us:

“This sort of situation is exemplified by the game of baseball–to use Mead’s own illustration: Each player must visualize the intentions and expectations of several other players. In such situations the child must take the roles of groups of individuals as over against particular roles. The child becomes enabled to do this by abstracting a ‘composite’ role out of the concrete roles of particular persons. In the course of his association with others, then, he builds up a generalized other, a generalized role or standpoint from which he views himself and his behavior. This generalized other represents, then, the set of standpoints which are common to the group.” (Meltzer l959, p. 16.)

As far as the socialization process is concerned (and we are all a product of that process), Mead’s stages of self development represent a comprehensive analysis of how we grow into the person we have a chance to become. And, it follows from this analysis that if we are to endure in this crazy world where “one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor”, we must continue to shuffle (mentally, if not physically) from one social role to another. Role taking, at the very least, expands our sense of sympathetic introspection as it provides us with the skills that become very important in the conflict resolution process. But, I would argue, in the genesis of self, there is more going on then Mead’s description of role taking. We are most definitely a product of the socialization process but we are also more than this process and Mead himself acknowledges “this in addition to” aspect of ourselves when he introduces the concept of the “generalized other.”

The capacity to generalize is a uniquely human characteristic. It is this aspect of thought that allows a person to mentally jump from the general to the specific and from many specifics to the general. It is, as Mead points out in his description of self, that which allows a person to conduct his/her behavior in a logically consistent, organized, and non-contradictory manner. “He can view himself from a consistent standpoint. This means, then, that the individual can transcend the local and present expectations and definitions with which he comes in contact.“ (Meltzer, 1959) The socialization process is always going on, but the capacity to insure consistency and non-contradiction in one’s behavior is what the individual contributes to this process.

This idea becomes clearer in the following example of an inconsistent response to a particular behavior. In one of the residence halls where I worked, in my capacity as janitor, I remember walking into a storeroom to pick up some tools. My friend and co-worker, who was with me at the time, had many nice things to say about the students as we approached the storeroom. In fact, in our conversation I recall my friend saying that he had never had anything stolen by a student. Upon reaching the storeroom and not finding any of the tools, my friend replied, “Those damn students are always stealing my tools.” My friend, before we discovered the missing tools, was accurately responding to the socialization process that revealed the students to be trustworthy and honest but upon arriving at the storeroom and discovering the missing tools, he found himself participating in the socialization process that revealed some people to be dishonest and unreliable. On both occasions the socialization process was doing its job, that is, teaching the lessons of social life, and, on both occasions my friend was, by first taking the role of the honest student and then the dishonest student, exemplifying Mead’s socialization theory (specifically the play stage), but when it came to applying Mead’s concept of the generalized other to this particular situation my friend failed miserably. Before we found the tools missing the students never stole anything and after we discovered the missing tools the students were always stealing tools. The bottom line here is that if a person is to demonstrate consistency in their thinking and behavior they must first question the reliability of their generalizations, and if this questioning turns up an inconsistency or worse, a contradiction,

then that person becomes free to change his/her thinking or behavior. We, as individuals, bring to Mead’s socialization process the “logical light” that allows us to see through the expediency or convenience of the social role we happen to find ourselves in at any given time.

To sum up, my description of self and Mead’s description of self are not in conflict with one another. In fact, they are speaking the same language at times. For instance, in the following Meltzer’ quote there is no difference in meaning between Mead’s concept of self and my own self-concept:

“Because a person has this mental ability to communicate with themselves they may imagine the implications of possible activities. If the imagined results of possible activities are negative a person may refuse to overtly act out these activities. This mental activity results in a person actively engaging his/her environment in a controlled, organized fashion. A person, in this light, is not simply a billiard ball getting knocked around by other billiard balls. A person has the ability to see the billiard ball coming, erect an inclined plane, calculate the balls mass, direction, and speed, and, at the appropriate location place the nut that will eventually get cracked by the force of the falling ball.” (1959, p.21)


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