A documentary that explores what happens when there is no longer a “backstage” for our identities. To learn more, click here.
Mead and Simmel argued that we could only develop a sense of self through the collective work of social interaction. This film about Genie, a girl who spent her first 13 years of life without social interaction with others, provides a fascinating, disturbing, and controversial look into the importance of the social for the development of the individual. You can find an overview of the program here and watch clips here.
A lively documentary detailing a drag queen subculture in 1980s New York. The performers’ bending and parodying of gender norms served as inspiration for Judith Butler’s theories of gender identity. For more on the film, go here.
George Herbert Mead was heavily influenced by pragmatism, a distinctly American brand of philosophy that emerged after the horrors of the Civil War. In this NPR segment, author Louis Menand discusses his book on the cultural and historical origins of pragmatist philosophy.
A four-part documentary on how the theories of the self developed by Sigmund Freud shaped how twentieth-century Western governments and corporations understood and attempted to control and influence people. Go here for more information from the BBC on the series and here for a full-length clip.
Check out this New Yorker article about online dating for a closer look at how we stylize our identities in the hopes of finding intimacy through the Internet. And, listen to NPR’s interview with Nick Paumgarten, author of the article.
George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) was born in South Hadley, Massachusetts to a successfully middle-class and intellectual family. His father, Hiram, was a pastor and a chair of theology at Oberlin College and his mother, Elizabeth, served as president of Mount Holyoke College for several years. Mead himself enrolled in Oberlin College in 1879 and received his bachelor’s degree in 1883. After graduating, Mead briefly taught grade school and worked as a surveyor for a railroad company before enrolling at Harvard in 1887 to continue his education. At Harvard, Mead studied philosophy and psychology with the renowned pragmatist philosopher, William James, who would greatly influence Mead’s thought. After receiving a second bachelor’s degree from Harvard, Mead went to Germany to study psychology under the famous psychologist Wilhelm Wundt, who also greatly influenced Mead’s later ideas about symbolic gestures, society, and the self.
Mead never completed his Ph.D. studies, but was still hired at the University of Michigan in 1891. That same year he married Helen Castle. At Michigan, the prominent sociologist Charles Cooley and philosopher John Dewey were two great scholars who would also greatly affect Mead’s thinking. In 1894, Mead left Michigan for the University of Chicago, where he stayed for over 30 years until his death.
Unlike the many other theorists profiled in Social Theory Re-Wired, Mead never wrote a book. His most widely read publication, Mind, Self, and Society, is actually a collection of his lectures that his students put together after his death. Mead did, however, have a prolific career, writing over 100 articles, book reviews, and essays.
Throughout his career, Mead was most concerned with theorizing how the mind and the self arise out of social interaction and experience. He was a strong critic of psychological behaviorism, a highly individualistic understanding of human behavior prominent at the time, and advocated a social behaviorism that took human responses to social objects like gestures, language, and other symbolic phenomena as hugely important to understanding human thought and action in the world.
Mead died in 1931 at the age of 68. One of the most prominent social philosophers of his own time, Mead remains a foundational theorist of social psychology, action, and the sociology of the self.
Many of us today live in a culture that encourages us to think of our selves as essentially and uniquely individual, cut off from or even opposed to the larger societies in which we live. When we hear people say things like, “I don’t care what other people think about me,” we get a glimpse into common (mis)conceptions of what it means to be a self. But Mead’s theory of the self convincingly shows us that this way of thinking is wrongheaded. What others think of us, the perspectives of others we gain from being a part of the conversation of gestures, are absolutely necessary for us to even have a sense of self. We think of ourselves as individuals, to be sure, but we are only able to do so by virtue of being a part of a larger social community. Arguably no other social theorist argues this point more brilliantly and systematically than George Herbert Mead.
For Mead, the gesture is perhaps the most important entryway into understanding social interaction and communication. A gesture, according to Mead, is an act by an organism that calls out a response in another organism. All living organisms inhabit, he argues, a conversation of gestures, calling out meaningful responses to and from one another. Mead uses the example of a dogfight to exemplify what he means by the conversation of gestures. The act of a dog snarling at another dog calls out for a response from the other dog to, for example, snarl back or retreat. The response from the second dog, in turn, calls out a further response from the first dog, and so on and so forth.
Mead argues that humans similarly live in a conversation of gestures, but that our conversation also includes significant symbols. Significant symbols, he states, are gestures that arouse in us the same feelings that they are meant to arouse in those they are directed at. With significant symbols, Mead argues, we take the perspective of others toward the symbol as our own, like when we learn to feel patriotism when looking at the national flag or when we take the perspective of both buyer and seller into account when bargaining over the price of a commodity. Once internalized, significant symbols are also what allow thinking—a silent conversation with ourselves in which we think over and through multiple perspectives to address a problem or issue.
For Mead, what we call our sense of self stems from the human ability to be self-conscious, to take ourselves as objects of experience. A sense of self, he argues, only arises as we begin taking the perspectives of others toward ourselves, internalizing them as our own perspective and viewpoint on “who I am.” The self, then, is an emergent product of social experience. Only by being able to take others’ perspectives can we gain a viewpoint from outside of our own egos from which to think about and evaluate our personal identities.
“We divide ourselves up in all sorts of different selves with reference to our acquaintances. We discuss politics with one and religion with another. There are all sorts of different selves answering to all sorts of different social reactions. It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self; it is not there as a self apart from this type of experience. A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal, as I have just pointed out”
Central to Mead’s theory of the self are the concepts of the “I” and the “Me.” While it’s tempting to think of the “I” and the “Me” as two separate parts of the self, in Mead’s thinking, it’s more accurate to see the “I” and the “Me” as a dynamic relationship that actually forms what we call the self. The self, in other words, is the relationship between the “I” and “Me.” The “Me” is the internalization of others’ perspectives on ourselves—the perspective we get of ourselves from how others treat us (as a man, for example, or an “at-risk youth”). The “I,” then, is the part of us that responds to these internalized attitudes—how, for example, we act based on others’ perspectives of us as a man or a troubled youth. The perspectives of the “I” and the “Me” may sometimes fuse, Mead argues, but often the “I” acts creatively in response to the “Me,” conforming to the “Me,” to be sure, but rarely in a total way.
As mentioned above, while never writing a book, Mead was still a prolific writer. The “Mead Project” is a great online web resource to find a large amount of Mead’s writings. Check it out at:
Mead’s ideas came to inspire an entirely new perspective on self and society called “symbolic interactionism.” You can learn more about how symbolic interactionists study social life by going online or to your library and checking out this journal:
or by reading sociologist Herbert Blumer’s foundational book on symbolic interactionism:
Hans Joas is one of the leading social theorists in the world today and has been greatly influenced by pragmatist thinkers like William James, John Dewey, and, of course, George Herbert Mead. If you want a deeper appreciation of Mead’s work and its relevance for social theory today, check out Joas’s book G. H. Mead: A Contemporary Re-examination of His Thought:
Michel Foucault (1926–1984) was born in Poiters, France. The son of a prestigious surgeon, Foucault did not excel in school until enrolling in college, eventually earning admittance to one of France’s most prestigious universities, the École Normale Supérieure. There, Foucault earned degrees in both psychology and philosophy, but his academic success was not easily gained. Foucault suffered from horrible bouts of depression while enrolled at the École Normale, and he also failed his agrégation (a competitive exam for placement in the public education system) the first time around in 1950. Later, in 1958, while serving as a French delegate in Sweden, Foucault submitted his doctoral thesis at the University of Uppsala and had it rejected.
As noted above, Foucault has served as theoretical inspiration across a multitude of disciplines, so much so that the term “Foucauldian” is often applied to analyses that utilize his theoretical approach. Outside of academia, Foucault’s work is of interest to anyone looking to better understand and appreciate the subtle ways that power works in social life, particularly with regard to how seemingly mundane practices and ideas structure our personal experiences and senses of self. After reading Foucault, it’s hard to think about your society or yourself in quite the same way.
Despite these early obstacles, Foucault eventually became one of France’s most notable intellectuals. His thesis on the history of the concept of “madness” (eventually accepted in France in 1961) was immediately well received, and Foucault continued to write influential books on some of the West’s most powerful social institutions, such as medicine, prisons, and religion, as well as groundbreaking works on more abstract theoretical issues of power, knowledge, sexuality, and selfhood. While the objects of Foucault’s studies seem to range widely, they all tend to focus on how knowledge of human beings is inextricably connected to power over them. For Foucault, the many modern concepts and practices that attempt to uncover “the truth” about human beings (either psychologically, sexually, or spiritually) actually create the very types of people they purport to discover.
Foucault was also well known in France for his political activism. Foucault took a number of leftist (and sometimes unpopular) political stands, like supporting prisoners’ rights in France and protesting the Vietnam and Algerian wars.
Foucault died in 1984 from an AIDS-related illness. Today he remains one of the most influential and widely read social theorists in recent history. Foucault’s work has been groundbreaking not only for sociology, but also for anthropology, cultural studies, psychology, gender studies, gay and lesbian studies, philosophy, and literary criticism.
Foucault was interested in the phenomenon of discourse throughout his career, primarily in how discourses define the reality of the social world and the people, ideas, and things that inhabit it. For Foucault, a discourse is an institutionalized way of speaking or writing about reality that defines what can be intelligibly thought and said about the world and what cannot. For example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault argued that a new discourse of "sexuality" had fundamentally changed the way we think about desire, pleasure, and our innermost selves. In Foucault’s argument, discourses about sexuality did not discover some pre-existing, core truth about human identity, but rather created it through particular practices of power/knowledge (see next entry).
For Foucault, power and knowledge are not seen as independent entities but are inextricably related—knowledge is always an exercise of power and power always a function of knowledge. Perhaps his most famous example of a practice of power/knowledge is that of the confession, as outlined in History of Sexuality. Once solely a practice of the Christian Church, Foucault argues that it became diffused into secular culture (and especially psychology) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Through the confession (a form of power) people were incited to “tell the truth” (produce knowledge) about their sexual desires, emotions, and dispositions. Through these confessions, the idea of a sexual identity at the core of the self came into existence (again, a form of knowledge), an identity that had to be monitored, cultivated, and often controlled (again, back to power). It is important to note that Foucault understood power/knowledge as productive as well as constraining. Power/knowledge not only limits what we can do, but also opens up new ways of acting and thinking about ourselves.
Foucault argues that discipline is a mechanism of power that regulates the thought and behavior of social actors through subtle means. In contrast to the brute, sovereign force exercised by monarchs or lords, discipline works by organizing space (e.g. the way a prison or classroom is built), time (e.g. the set times you are expected to be at work each day), and everyday activities. Surveillance is also an integral part of disciplinary practices. In Discipline and Punish, Foucault argues that modern society is a “disciplinary society,” meaning that power in our time is largely exercised through disciplinary means in a variety of institutions (prisons, schools, hospitals, militaries, etc.).
In his later work, Foucault coined the now influential concept of governmentality. According to Foucault, governmentality is the “art of governing,” not simply at the level of state politics, as we generally think of it, but the governing of a wide array of objects and persons such as entire populations at the most abstract level and one’s own desires and thoughts at a more micro level. Foucault was especially interested in how, in contemporary times, the governing of conduct was increasingly focused on the management of populations. Unlike disciplinary power aimed at the training of individual bodies, the management of populations relied on biopower, understood as the policies and procedures that manage births, deaths, reproduction, and health and illness within the larger social body.
Reading Foucault is always fascinating, but rarely easy. Foucault’s work covers a wide range of institutions, historical periods, and themes, and his theories contain several difficult concepts. Luckily, there are some good introductory texts to help you make your way through. See, for example,
Sara Mills’ Michel Foucault, part of the Routledge Critical Thinkers series:
and Gary Gutting’s blessedly brief Foucault: A Very Short Introduction:
To hear Foucault explain his argument in Discipline and Punish in his own words, check out the clips below:
Zygmunt Bauman (1927–) was born to a Jewish–Polish family in Poznan, Poland. Bauman experienced dislocation early in life, as his family was forced to flee to the Soviet Union when Nazi forces invaded Poland in 1939. There, Bauman became a communist and a member of the Polish First Army. He had a successful military career, being awarded the Military Cross of Valour in 1945 for his bravery in battles against German forces in World War II and eventually rising to the rank of major. In 1953, however, Bauman was dishonorably discharged from the military after his father made an inquiry to the Israeli Embassy in Poland about emigrating from the USSR to Israel (an idea that the Soviet government strongly opposed for political reasons).
After being discharged, Bauman completed an M.A. degree and later became a lecturer at the University of Warsaw from 1954 to 1968. During much of his early career, Bauman was a committed Marxist, but later changed his perspective as he became more critical of the communist government of Poland. As anti-Semitism grew among many in the government, Bauman decided to officially renounce his membership in Poland’s ruling Communist Party. That same year, an anti-Semitic political campaign succeeded in pushing most of the Jewish–Polish population out of the country, including Bauman. In exile for the second time in his life, Bauman first relocated to Israel to teach at Tel-Aviv University and then to England to become chair of sociology at the University of Leeds.
Bauman wrote several well-received books and articles during his career, including what is perhaps his most famous work, Modernity and the Holocaust, a disturbing analysis of how modern forms of bureaucracy and rationalization helped make the mass extermination of Jewish people possible. But, surprisingly, he has written the majority of his most influential work after retiring from the University of Leeds in 1990. Since then, Bauman has been incredibly prolific, writing on modernity and postmodernity, ethics, identity, globalization and many more of social theory’s most important themes. Today, Bauman is recognized by many as one of the world’s greatest living social theorists.
While Bauman was never affiliated with the Frankfurt School, he is still considered one of the leading intellectuals in the tradition of Critical Theory (he was even awarded the Theodor Adorno Award by the city of Frankfurt in 1998). Bauman’s wide-ranging work touches on both classical sociological themes like rationalization and modernity and extends social theory to address the most contemporary of social issues. In doing so, he confronts us with both the problems and possibilities of living in what many believe to be a new stage of social life. Bauman is required reading not only for those interested in cutting-edge social theory, but for anyone concerned with how contemporary society affects our abilities to be ethical and to live deeply meaningful lives.
Bauman’s personal experience with anti-Semitism and his later research on the Holocaust led him to question whether modern forms of social organization and rationality, often championed as signs of human progress, actually undercut moral obligation and responsibility. In Modernity and the Holocaust, for example, Bauman provocatively argues that the Holocaust, far from being a barbaric counter-example to modern morality, was actually in line with many modern principles of rationality that are seen as morally superior in most other circumstances. Modern principles such as instrumental rationality, rule-following, the ordering and categorization of all of social life, and a complex division of labor all played a role in making the mass extermination of Jews possible. In his later writings, Bauman explores the possibilities for ethics in a more “postmodern” social world.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Bauman was known as a key theorist of postmodernity. While many theorists of the postmodern condition argued that it signified a radical break with modern society, Bauman contended that modernity had always been characterized by an ambivalent, “dual” nature. On the one hand, Bauman saw modern society as being largely characterized by a need for order—a need to domesticate, categorize, and rationalize the world so it would be controllable, predictable, and understandable. It is this ordering, rationalizing tendency that Max Weber saw as the characteristic force of modernization. But, on the other hand, modernity was also always characterized by radical change, by a constant overthrowing of tradition and traditional forms of economy, culture, and relationship—“all that is solid melts into air,” as Marx characterized this aspect of modern society. For Bauman, postmodernity is the result of modernity’s failure to rationalize the world and the amplification of its capacity for constant change.
In later years, Bauman felt that the term “postmodern” was problematic and started using the term liquid modernity to better describe the condition of constant mobility and change he sees in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society. Instead of referring to modernity and postmodernity, Bauman writes of a transition from solid modernity to a more liquid form of social life.
For Bauman, the consequences of this move to a liquid modernity can most easily be seen in contemporary approaches to self-identity. In liquid modernity, constructing a durable identity that coheres over time and space becomes increasingly impossible, according to Bauman. We have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences.
The University of Leeds has established the Bauman Institute, an organization dedicated to addressing social problems and the themes that characterize Bauman’s thought. Check it out at:
For a more in-depth profile of Zygmunt Bauman, see the following article from the Guardian:
Want to know more about Bauman’s thoughts on liquid modernity? Click below to see an extended interview with him done for “The Trouble with Being Human These Days,” a new documentary about the life and thought of Zygmunt Bauman:
Bauman’s work on the Holocaust was largely inspired by the experiences of his late wife, Janina, who was forced to live in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II. Read part of her story here, at the Second World War Experience Centre:
Janina was also an accomplished writer, writing a number of books on her experience in the Warsaw Ghetto, including Winter in the Morning:
From p. 424 in Social Theory Re-Wired