G.H. Mead: The self is essentially a social structure

As noted in the post Individualism is also a relationship, I have long been curious about whether our common sense understanding of the individual as something fundamentally set apart from the rest of the world provides an accurate sense of our actual existence. Does the sense of being a separate entity cloak a more fundamental form of connectedness among people?

I am, of course, not the only person who has wondered about this question. Phrases like “I am because we are” have become common among those who find the traditional sense of what constitutes an individual unsatisfying. Moreover, the term social science reflects an assumption that to understand individual behavior we have to consider how that behavior is at least partially driven by social context.

Still, what is obvious to social scientists does not seem to be obvious to most of us when we leave our textbooks and laboratories and engage with ourselves and fellow humans in the world of people and things. And there are some areas of academia such as free market economics (as opposed to the newer field of behavioral economics) and rational choice theory within political science that seem to start with an assumption that each individual is fundamentally separate from (and perhaps even in conflict with) all others.

Individualist versus collectivist?

Concepts with clear meanings in the academy also change as they seep into popular discourse, and the popular meanings can take on a life of their own. I’ve lived half of my life in the United States, a place that is strongly associated with a sense of the individual as something that is independent of the rest of the world. I’ve spent the other half of my life in Japan, a place that is often said to exhibit collectivism, which at least in the popular imagination connotes something diametrically opposed to the individualism of the United States. There is clearly something to categories such as individualism and collectivism, and I don’t dispute that cross-cultural psychologists have validated patterns of attitudinal and behavioral differences across cultures.

Over time, though, I’ve become uncomfortable describing Americans as individualist and Japanese as collectivist, especially when these terms are used to explain and predict the attitudes and behaviors of real people with real lives. In many cases, in non-academic contexts, our use of these terms seems to be based more on confirmation bias than observation. Once we have accepted the hypothesis that Americans are individualist and Japanese are collectivist, everything we see seems to confirm the hypothesis in ways that prevent us from seeing the more nuanced realities of being a real person making a life in either place. To make sense of what these real people do in their relationships with other real people, we need to pay attention to the way they tell their own stories. In his 1996 book What Makes Life Worth Living (based on the Japanese concept ikigai), Gordon Mathews uses personal stories about real people in Japan and the United States to show how we can find both differences and commonalities between people facing similar challenges at similar life stages in different cultural environments.

Even after reading Gordon’s book, I still felt like something was missing. To make sense of the stories, I felt like I needed a new framework for interpreting how these stories took shape. What was the process by which these individuals generated stories to explain who they were as individuals making their way in a world full of other people? As it turns out, this was a major topic in philosophy in both Japan and the United States from the first half of the 20th century, and I found a number of thinkers who offered alternative frameworks for considering the question of what it means to be an individual living and working with other individuals in groups.

Philosophers in both countries proposed frameworks that integrate the individual into the greater world rather than separating the individual from the world. In this series of articles, I’ll introduce three who seem particularly noteworthy, George H. Mead, Watsuji Tetsuro and Hamaguchi Eshun. I’ll start by introducing the American philosopher George H. Mead, who was particularly active in the first quarter of the 20th century. In subsequent articles, I’ll introduce the thinking of Watsuji Tetsuro, who was most active in the middle of the 20th century and Hamaguchi Eshun whose most significant contributions come toward the end of the 20th century.

The social self as constructed by George H. Mead

American philosopher George H. Mead was a student of John Dewey and later joined Dewey as a colleague on the faculty at the University of Chicago. He is generally associated with the pragmatist school of American philosophy, and he is seen by many as one of the founders of the field of social psychology.

The social self was at the core of Mead’s thinking. He framed the self as something that emerges in the process of our encounters with other people. He described the self as consisting of two parts: the “I” and the “me.” The “I/me” model serves as a framework that describes the relationship between the individual and society without placing them in opposition to each other. Mead sees the individual self as something that emerges in the context of relationships, but he does not see the individual as subordinate to those relationships. What follows is a high-level introduction to the “I/me” model and an exploration of some of it’s implications for individualism.

Mead used English grammar as a device for describing the formation of a self. In English, a self can be described as an “I” or as a “me.” According to Mead: “It is the characteristic of the self as an object to itself that I want to bring out. This characteristic is represented in the word “self,” which is a reflexive, and indicates that which can be both subject and object.” 

Before there is “I” there is “me.”

While a fully-formed adult might assume that the “I” is the initiator or center of the self, Mead argues that our awareness of ourselves as a “me” precedes our awareness of ourselves as an “I.” We first become aware of our “selves” when we notice our “selves” as something that can be observed in the same way that we can observe another person. Mead explains as follows: “The self, as that which can be an object to itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience.”

The focus here is on the verb ‘arise’; selves arise, they don’t just exist. The self is socially constructed, that is, it emerges through interaction with an exterior world of people and things. Since the self is socially constructed, the part or aspect of the self that emerges in any given context depends on the external situation and people involved. 

As Mead put it:

“We carry on a whole series of relationships to different people. We are one thing to one man and another thing to another. There are parts of the self which exist only for the self in relationship to itself. We divide ourselves up in all sorts of different selves with reference to our acquaintances.”

Walt Whitman is famous for saying, ‘I am multitudes.’ Mead provided an explanation for Whitman’s inner diversity. Mead suggests that it is only natural that each of us contains multitudes. Our encounters with the diverse multitudes of people in our lives triggers and requires that we generate inner multitudes to cope and thrive in relations to a diverse set of relationships.

We become selves as we notice others.

In Mead’s thinking, we only become aware of our “selves” in the context of our relationships with others. “What we have here is a situation in which there can be many selves, and it is dependent upon the set of social reactions that is involved as to which self we are going to be.” In each of those relationships, we consider ourselves as an object or “me” and that “me” is constructed in comparison to and in relation to other people we encounter in the world.  

In this sense, the self is fluid rather than fixed; the self’s definition only becomes clear when the we are put into a specific context that leads us to construct a “self” in relation to other people. “Self-consciousness, on the other hand, is definitely organized about the social individual, and that, as we have seen, is not simply because one is in a social group and affected by others and affects them, but because (and this is the point I have been emphasizing) his own experience as a self is one which he takes over from his action upon others.  He becomes a self in so far as he can take the attitude of another and act toward himself as others act.”

To personalize this with an illustration, when I started primary school, I began to identify my “self” as a student, but this didn’t happen in a vacuum. It was possible for me to identify myself as a student because I was in the presence of teachers and other students in the context of a school. As I compared and contrasted myself with these other people, I found that in this context I was more similar to the other students than to the teachers, thus I constructed a student “me.” 

Similarly, when I took up tennis, I came to identify my “self” as a tennis player. I created an identity based on my observations and interactions with others who modelled the characteristics defining what a tennis player is. This informed my sense of who I was in this context and enabled me to form an identity that stays with me to this day when I talk about or play tennis. Without exposure to other tennis players, there would have been no way for me to conceive of a “me” identified as a tennis player. The “me” is my socially-constructed self and it is this self that enables me to have an identity. Without those contexts, awareness of a self would not arise.

As our sense of  ourselves as a “me” emerges, we start to develop awareness of ourselves as “I,” a subject with the ability to make choices and initiate action.

In tandem with the “me” which is constructed based on our relationships with external people and objects, Mead noted that we also experience an internally-emergent “I.” Just as the “I” in a sentence is gramatically distinct from “me,” the “I” part of the self is also distinct from the “me” part of the self. The “I” is the part of the self that emerges in our actions in the world in real time. As we meet different people and encounter different situations, an array of situational “me’s” take shape within us. As this collection of past “me’s” expands, a narrative explaining how those “me’s” fit together takes shape. The “I” represents our sense of agency and choice as we bring different “me’s” to the front to adapt to different situations and people.

It is not entirely clear whether we consciously choose those “me’s” or not, but we certainly experience it as a choice in the backward looking narratives that come to mind as we explain who we are. As my life proceeds, “I” continue to take action based on my understanding of the tennis player “me,” the student “me,” or another “me” I have constructed through my relationships and experiences. Looking back at the experience of these “me’s” in aggregate enables me to maintain a sense of myself as an independent entity with a coherent life story and identity.

Mead sees the “I” as representing our fundamental agency. He even sees the spontaneous and unpredictable nature of some of our actions as evidence that within each of us there is an “I” that learns through the emergence of various “me’s”, but which is not entirely constrained by them. The “I” does in some sense have the freedom to choose among and perhaps even to take action that is not consistent with any particular “me.” In fact, this is one part of the process by which we develop or shape this collection of “me’s.” Nonetheless, without a series of past “me” experiences (a.k.a. memories) to reflect on, there would be no material to use in the construction of a self that chooses what to do in the emerging present. Unlike most philosophers before him, Mead doesn’t identify the “self” primarily with the “I” or the subject that initiates action in the world. He doesn’t start with the assumption that a self is a discreet internally-generated thing that exists fundamentally in a separate state from other people and things. Rather, the subject “I” only takes shape as one becomes aware of the object “me” through a series of comparisons and relationships with other people (they’s and you’s):

“The essence of the self, as we have said, is cognitive: it let’s in the internalized conversation of gestures which constitutes thinking, or in terms of which thought or reflection proceeds. And hence the origin and foundations of the self, like those of thinking, are social.”

Whether communicating with others or communicating internally, cognition may be seen as communication. Communication occurs when there are two or more parties present.  Mead claims that our internal communication takes shape among the various “me’s” that emerge and in some sense communicate with each other based on what we have learned through our interactions with people and things in the exterior world. As we encounter more people in more situations, we build an internal library of “they’s” and “you’s” who serve as role models that help us to define different “me’s” that emerge in different situations.

To Mead, the self emerges in the interplay of an externally-connected “me” and an internally-emergent “I.” That means that the idea of a self that exists independently of other people is inconsistent with the process by which the self comes into being.  Without the “me’s” the “I” would have nothing to refer to as a model for what to be and do. From this perspective, the idea of an internally-constructed “I” that exists independently of other people and the outside world doesn’t make much sense.

So what does Mead’s thought imply about how we should understand our existence as individuals?

First, it is clear that Mead’s concept of the self is based on connection with the outside world rather than separation from it. Second, it is clear that Mead sees the self as contextual rather than fixed. Even the “I” which comes to hold a relatively fixed understanding of itself is actually constantly evolving and changing as it encounters new people and situations that enable it to notice new “they’s” and “you’s” that can be used in the generation of new “me’s.”  

Perhaps somewhat paradoxically, Mead did not say that there is no internally-constructed aspect of the self or that the internally-constucted self has no agency. He positions the “I” as an agent that is capable of choosing how to present itself based on a menu of “me’s” it has built up from previous experience. Somewhat counter-intuitively, he considers our ability to take spontaneous or unpredictable actions (which he attributes to the “I”) to reflect the agency of the individual. In this sense, the self does seem to have some sort of essence that is not entirely dependent upon or determined by the outside world. Nonetheless, that essence could never develop into an identity in the absence of contact with the outside world. 

The self is in fact constantly being constructed and reconstructed as the “I” emerges to take action in the world based on what it has learned in the process of constructing various “me’s” up to that point. In this respect, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about the self without making reference to the other things and people that we compare ourselves to as a “me.”

Mead’s formulation of the self as existing in the space between the “I” and the “me” as a sort of ongoing conversation among the “me’s” resonates with some 21st century neuroscience theories of consciousness. When Mead was writing, many still assumed that within each individual brain there was something known as a humanculous – a sort of a core self. Neuroscience has never confirmed the existence of the humanculous. Perhaps the concept was developed as a device to explain how we satisfy the basic human need for a stable sense of identity and agency around which to organize our memories of the ongoing flow of consciousness and experience that constitutes the substance of our lives. Belief in something like a humanculous affords us the experience of identity and agency as the drivers of our actions.

Recently, alternative theories have emerged to explain how our consciousness functions and provides us with a sense of a stable identity over time and across relationships. Some theorize that consciousness emerges in a conversation among various parts of the brain. This theory posits that as we engage with our environment on an ongoing basis through our five senses, we are constantly picking up data that alerts us to what deserves our focus at that moment.

Mead’s “I/me” model serves as a useful metaphor for how consciousness leads to the experience of identity while simultaneously allowing for ongoing evolution and transformation. We can use Mead’s “I/me” model as a model for making sense of how our consciousness of ourselves as selves emerges in the absence of a core humanculous. While Mead’s concept of the social self allows for change and growth, it does not entail chaos or fundamental instability. Noticing the “I/me” dynamic may lead to the development of a “me” that can guide the conversation among the other “me’s”. If we complement our experiences of action and reaction in the outer world with periodic reflection on what is going on in our inner worlds, the “I/me” model can serve as a model for self-discovery, self-development and self-definition. these processes can be conceptualized as the machinery of self-creation.

The “I/me” model allows for a more adaptive and embedded understanding of how we become who we are and how we can become who we want to be

It is clear that Mead did not unconditionally accept the traditional (and common sensical) western understanding of the self or individual as something that is fundamentally separate from and set apart from the rest of the world. For Mead, who we become at any given time is largely determined by who we are with now and who we have been with up to this point in our lives, so the individual is fundamentally a social construct. One can find echos of Mead’s thinking throughout modern social science. Indeed, some suggest that evidence of the socially-constructed self can be found in the deepest depths of the inner world of the individual. As Eviatar Zerubavel puts it in Social Mindscapes:

“The problem with cognitive science is that, except for work produced by cultural psychologists, cognitive anthropologists, and lately some developmental and social psychologists, it has thus far largely ignored the social dimension of cognition. A truly comprehensive science of the mind must also include a sociology of thinking that, by focusing specifically on the sociomental, would complement the efforts of psychology, linguistics, the neurosciences, and artificial intelligence to provide a complete picture of how we think.” As Zerubavel points out, giving more attention to the social aspects of inner experience could provide us with perspectives that are essential to understanding how we learn about the world, including how we learn how we fit as individuals within that world. Popular discourse notwithstanding, in the American social sciences, the social self seems to be playing an increasingly significant role in our understanding of the nature of individual existence.

Up Next: the emergence of the social self in Japanese thinking

But what about Japan? In popular and even in academic discourse Japan has frequently been described as a place where the the individual is deeply embedded in social context. Some philosophers and social scientists have argued that the Japanese self is fundamentally social rather than individual. A few have even suggested that Japanese selves are either under-developed or fundamentally different from western selves. The collectivist characterization of Japanese society has a long history and deep roots.

George H. Mead was not the only early 20th century philosopher who questioned the traditional western conception of the self as “one person set apart.” In Japan, a philosopher named Watsuji Tetsuro developed his own version of the “social self.” In my next post, I’ll introduce a few elements of Watsuji’s thought, giving particular focus to his use of the Japanese word ningen (literally translated as “person between”) as an illustration of how he saw the self as something fundamentally embedded in social and ecological context.


For more information on George Mead, see:

Mead, George Herbert. 1934. Mind, Self, and Society.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press. (Direct quotations of Mead used in this article come from this book. Although the book is attributed to Mead, it was actually compiled by his students based on their notes from his lectures.)

Also see:

Steve Odin, 1996. The Social Self in Zen and American Pragmatism.  Albany:  State University of New York Press


For more on the neuroscience and philosophy of consciousness, see:


Landesman, Charles. 1967.   “Consciousness.” In The Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Volume 2. Paul Edwards ed. New York:  The Macmillan Company & The Free Press.

For a more recent exploration of how the self is constructed based on social context, see:

Eviatar Zerubavel, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology (1997), (excerpt below)

For a recent examination of American individualism from the perspective of cross-cultural psychologists, see:

Freakonomics Radio, episode 469, “The U.S. Is Just Different — So Let’s Stop Pretending We’re Not (Ep. 469)” and episode 470, “The Pros and Cons of America’s (Extreme) Individualism (Ep. 470)” @ freakonomics.com.

For an approach to cross-cultural relationships that integrates both general patterns and individual agency, see:

Indrei Ratio, “Thinking Internationally: A Comparison of How International Executives Learn“, International Studies of Management & Organization., Vol. XIII, N0o. 1-2, pp. 139-150, M. E. Sharpe, Inc., 1983

For cross-cultural research that uses the presentation of more detailed stories of real people’s lives to draw comparisons and contrasts between American and Japanese culture, see:

Gordon Mathews, What Makes Life Worth Living, (1996) Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press

© Dana Cogan, 2021, all rights reserved.

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