George Herbert Mead and Talcott Parsons

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George Herbert Mead was a famous American philosopher, born in 1863. He contributed significantly to the field of social sociology and philosophy and is considered one of the founders of social psychology. His ideas about the mind and self led to the creation of the symbolic interactionist school of sociology (Desilva, 2006).

Talcott Edgar Frederick Parsons, born in 1902, was a renowned American sociologist and his work in the 1950s and 60s had significant influence in the country. His work “Structure of Social Action” provided an overview of the great sociologists and philosophers of times before him, such as Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto and Emile Durkheim and was an effort to unite their theories into a single “action theory.” Later in his life, he became involved in a vast variety of fields ranging from anthropology to medical sociology, to race relations and eventually economics and education (McKinney, 1954).

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Theories of Mead and Parsons:

The central theme in Mead’s social philosophy is that of amelioration through understanding. There are various examples of people who are earnest about the intellectual enterprise and there is no dearth of people who wish for a better world than now is and who are willing to work for it. But what sets George Herbert Mead apart from these people is that he believed in both these, believed in one because of the other, and in the other through the one. The ameliorative motif is what is most characteristic of his profound pragmatic bias.

From Mead’s perspective, the occurrence and sequence of overt social behaviors can only be explained if their histories are traced back to the hidden behaviors of the organisms. Mead believed that these covert physiological processes have such powerful implications for the social act and hence, social psychology and physiological psychology can not be separated from each other, and are in fact complements of each other. A number of researchers have investigated the Meadian technique of taking the physiological attitude of the other while engaging in different mental activities in different settings. Many experiments have proved Mead’s claim that linguistic activities engage covert oral responses. As a result, researchers have shown that the covert behaviors Mead postulated do, in fact, occur, but they have not fully grasped their importance in the field of sociology (Troyer, 1946).

Mead was actually an early pioneer in this field because he introduced and laid down its basic theoretical and philosophical values but did not possess the sophisticated instrumentation needed to pursue it in depth as a scientific research program. Even so, his social behaviorism provides the core theoretical linkages between physiological psychology and social psychology necessary to get such a research program started.

Mead was very sure that nature – or the extra-human world – is objectively there regardless of our experience of it. He was not an idealist, rather was a pragmatist in philosophy. However, he did believed that all objects are defined as such in and through human experience. Objective nature therefore comes to own certain qualities because of its relationship to human experiencing or mind which it would not have otherwise, if this relationship did not exist. He postulated that these characteristics determine what these objects mean to us, and to all intents and purposes, give definition and functional meaning to the objects themselves. An object is always in this sense a “construct,” a consequence, the kind of response which will follow after a certain type of activity. “A blackboard, for example, is what it is for us, has certain properties associated with writing in black and white, because that is the way it responds to our activity. As a symbol, an object, it stands for certain consequences in activity. Certain qualities are there, but as parts of an act, and not of some independently existing essence or extension. From this standpoint, an object may be defined as a “collapsed act”; the sign of what would happen if the act were carried to completion” (Troyer, 1946).

Mead declared: “…The earliest objects are social objects, and all objects are social objects. Later experience differentiates the social from the physical objects, but the mechanism of the experience of things over against self as an object is the social mechanism. The identification of the individual with physical objects which appear in the effective occupation of space is a derivative of this” (Troyer, 1946).

Hence, Mead’s theories such as Mead writes in Mind, Self and Society and his contrast between the “I” and the “me” all reflected how he saw the human mind: as something that can arise solely through social experience. An object attained a meaningful reality to a human being simply by virtue of his ability to make indications, either imaginatively to himself, or directly to others. All objects, all symbols with semantic reference stand for telescoped acts. “By means of the conversation of attitudes and the use of significant symbols – essentially a social process – the world (both social and physical) of each individual comes into being. Viewed, indeed, as consisting of objects and their relationships, the world is an out-and-out social world, as self and mind are also social, that is, emergent within the human social process of activity itself” (Troyer, 1946).

Parson’s contributions to the discipline of sociology are significant. He is responsible for imparting to the sociological world unique interpretations of the society as he saw it; but, the most important and interesting contribution he made was his theory of the social system. However, because his theories were many and voluminous, he is often critiqued as being verbose, making it difficult, at times, for the reader to understand his true meaning..

Parsons worked at a time when the concepts of systems theory and cybernetics were prime components of social and behavioral science. He used systems thinking and premised that the systems talked about in these sciences were “open”, which means that they existed in an environment which comprised of other systems as well. He postulated that the “action system” which consists of interlinked human behaviors, was the largest system in these fields and was contained in a physical-organic environment (Blumer, 1975).

He employed a certain sociological paradigm to analyze this system as well as the subsystems contained it, called the AGIL scheme. If a system is to acquire and maintain balance with respect to its external environment, it must to an extent Adapt to that environment, achieve its Goals, Integrate its constituent parts, and ensure that it maintains its Latency pattern, which is a cultural framework. These together comprise the system’s “functional imperatives.”

Hence, when this AGIL Paradigm was employed to analyze the societal action system, it resulted in four subsystems, which were related to each other and influenced each other in a multitude of ways. These were the behavioral systems of member parties, the personalities of these members, the society as a subsystem of social organization and the cultural structure of that society. Society can therefore be considered a complex system comprising of interlinked functional subsystems which are, the economy, the polity, the societal community and the fiduciary system (Blumer, 1975).

Similarities between Mead and Parsons

Both men argue that an external world is objectively “there,” independent of our experiencing of it. Mead assert that external objects are “there,” not dependent on the experiencing individual, and that leads to research being a process through which one discovers. Nevertheless, objects hold characteristics because of the experiencing of them that they otherwise would not possess: their “meanings.” The difference between physical objects and the experiencing of them originates from the fact that the latter comprises of and is related to meanings: only that which is experienced can have meaning. Mead believed that the physical object is an abstraction made from individuals’ social response to nature. “The physical object is one to which there is no social response to call out again the response of the experiencing individual. As an object incapable of carrying on social interaction, it is physical despite its social derivation” (McKinney, 1954).

When this view is considered, it establishes a dichotomy because of the differences drawn between objects. Hence, it can be said that there is a distinction between a science of physical objects and a science of socially responding objects. While Meads classified these into two categories, Parsons does the same into three categories. Parsons’ classification is: “social,” “physical,” and “cultural” objects. McKinney (1954) defines these as “a social object is an actor or a collectivity of actors who are capable of “responding to” or “interacting” with an actor treated as point of reference. A physical object is an empirical entity that functions only as means or conditions for action, in that it cannot interact with the actor. Cultural objects are conceived of as such symbolic elements as ideas, beliefs, expressive symbols, and values”.

Parsons has simply divided Mead’s “social” category into a further “abstraction”. He has taken elements out of social action, categorizing them under “culture” instead. As is clear, elements like beliefs and symbols emanate from social behavior, and, as a result, they can only be inferred. When he treats them as objects of orientation, Parsons is “abstracting them out of social action, using a given actor as point of reference”. Mead did not treat elements differently whether they were objects of orientation or a component of the orientation itself. Parsons took the same elements and simply, to make his system more convenient, classified them as “cultural” objects because of the role played in a given situation (Blumer, 1975).

Differences between Mead and Parsons

There are ways in which Mead and Parsons differ both in concept and methodology. Mead’s conception of motivation is different from that of Parsons. The difference is rooted in the possession of a self by the human being. Because the human being is able to see himself and address himself, he often has to interact with himself, consequently, he has to do both, handle both himself and what he indicates to himself. Therefore, the nature of motivation changes from being a “mover of the processes of personality” into “something that is seen and that has to be handled—defined, curbed, sustained, abetted, abolished or transformed”. Instead of the former, motivation now is affected by the process of self-interaction and is determined by how it is affected in that process of self-interaction. The act assumes more importance than the motive (Blumer, 1975).

Mead also had a different belief about the human act than Parsons. It can not be denied that “both saw the act as arising from a state of disequilibrium and seeking to reestablish a state of equilibrium. But this is only one aspect of Mead’s scheme. Of far greater importance is that the human act is formed through self-interaction, in the course of which the actor may note and assess any feature of the act in process, or any feature of the situation, or any feature of his involvement in the act” (Blumer, 1975). Hence, Mead believed that the act comes into being as a result of this process of self-interaction, regardless of whether the construction is done intelligently or negligently. Self-interaction enables the actor to handle what he sees and to handle himself with regard to what he sees. Hence Mead’s contention that the human act is built though a process of self-interaction differs from Parsons’ view of the act.

The two differ in their approach as well. Parsons’ followed a deductive approach which started with a codification of existing knowledge in an area and then on the basis of this knowledge, formulates a theoretical model which includes relation between variables. After constructing deductive hypotheses from the model, then these are applied to a relevant empirical area to give theoretical explanation to that area. “Indeed, the basic idea that human society exists as a “system” is not a product of extensive inductive study of human group life but, instead, is a theoretical postulate which is to serve as a point of departure” (Blumer, 1975).

The scientific approach of symbolic interactionism, Mead’s field in sociology, is quite different. The starting point is a problem or a question which has been raised with regard to the empirical world and then rigorous and flexible examination of that area is incurred so that in incremental improvements, this problem is clarified. Hence, relationships between variables, hypotheses, and consequently, theories are then derived from constant observation of that world and are not formed in an a priori fashion through deductive reasoning from a pre-ordained set of theoretical premises (Blumer, 1975).


  1. Blumer, H. (1975). Exchange on Turner, “Parsons as a Symbolic Interactionist.” Sociological Inquiry, 45(1), 59-68.
  2. Desilva, F. C. (2006). G. H. Mead in the history of sociological ideas. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 42(1), 19–39.
  3. McKinney, J. (1954). Methodological Convergence of Mead, Lundberg, and Parsons. The American Journal of Sociology, 59(6), 565-574.
  4. Troyer, W. L. (1946). Mead’s Social and Functional Theory of Mind. American Sociological Review, 11(2), 198-202.

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George Herbert Mead and Talcott Parsons. (2016, Sep 27). Retrieved from

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