Self and Society Sample Essay

Self and Society Sample Essay.



Institution of Affiliation

Self and Society Sample Essay.

George H. Mead and Erving Goffman: Self and Society

Introduction and Thesis

The society of the nineteenth century underwent through great revolutionary changes that transformed the way people interacted with one another and regarded the concept of self. Marked with the upsurge of industrialization, factory employment and technological improvements, relationships between individuals began to shift. There was also the up rise of the mass media, which together with the growing enlightenment of people by education, helped to bridge knowledge gap. To understand the dynamics of this evolving society, psychologists have continuously created theories that explain the changing nature of peoples’ perspective on self and how one relates to their environment. To be able to relate to these changes, an understanding of how sociological theories have helped to shape the idea of self and society is therefore paramount.  This paper will discuss the lives of George Hubert Mead and Erving Goffman and their sociological theories of identity of self and interaction.

Date of Birth, Geographic Location and Background

The birthplace of George Herbert was in South Valley on the 27th day of February in 1863. His family was well up and his father Hiram Mead was an evangelist, working with the South Valley Congregational Church. Elizabeth Storrs Mead, the mother of George Herbert was a tutor in Oberlin College in the years between 1890 and 1900. She also served in several capacities in Mount Holyoke College including acting as the chief executive officer for a year (Cook, 2013). 

In 1879, George H. Mead joined college at Oberlin to study a bachelors’ degree course in arts.  He finished the course four years later, passing with a distinction. George had a specific interest in literature and poetry and together with his supportive friend Henry Northrup; they began to explore the intricacies of supernaturalism. When he finished his graduate school, he got his first job as a teacher, but only taught for a few months. Termination of his job came in as a repercussion of his stern ways of dealing with undisciplined students of his class, whom he would chase home straight away. Mead joined Wisconsin Central Railway Company as a surveyor and worked up to 1887. Throughout the time, he had concentrated onto the teachings of Shakespeare, Macaulay, and Milton, sometimes making his own publications in the local dailies (Natanson, 2012).

George H. Mead grew an interest in philosophy and he joined Harvard University to undertake a master’s degree. He would later follow his friend to Leipzig, where he enrolled into a Ph.D. program to further his studies psychology. He stayed in Leipzig for two years then moved to Berlin, where he expended his understanding of physiological psychology through a project he undertook in the university. He would then get into a romantic relationship with Helen Castle, whom he had met in Leipzig. The two settled for a marriage in Berlin and they returned to America. In the U.S, George became a professor in University of Michigan. Here, he expanded his theory of interactionism and the development of human self, until he died in 1931 (Mead, 2014).

Erving Goffman was a Canadian born sociologist. He was born on the 11th day of June 1922. The parents of Erving were settlers in Canada from Ukraine, with a Jewish origin. Goffman was a dedicated young man and he developed his interest in sociology and human interactions while studying at the University of Toronto. After spending a few years in Toronto, Erving moved to Chicago to further his studies. After four years of graduate studies, Goffman started to work as a teacher in California. After years of dedicated work, Goffman would become a professor

Throughout his career as a sociologist professor, Goffman attained several leadership positions including the head of National Institute of Mental Health. He received awards for International Prize in Communicating in 1976 and The Mead-Cooley award. He is widely known for his contribution in sociology through his theories in which he described human interaction through talk. Goffman derived most of his ideas from observation of everyday relations of humans rather than the conventional dissertation of scientific methods.

Social Context

The period of the twentieth century had major advancements in technology and marked industrial growth. This led to similar transformations of the semiotics of the society. At the same time, the interest in education had grown to the extent that many scholars preferred to go to schools far from their areas of birth. This resulted to an increased global sharing of ideas, especially between the continents of Asia, Europe and America. Technology also increased the access of information, leading to the spread of civilization and increased social awareness. As such, the complexities of human interaction continued to grow in the context of changing mindsets from increased information sharing. Social exchange was therefore became an intricate affair, with sociologists becoming more interested in exploring this topic from a keener perspective.

Characterizing the political atmosphere at the time of George H. Mead was the growing power of the Nazi regime. During this period, the rulers used the media to spread rumors, hate speech against the minority and extend the extreme exploitation of the people (Natanson, 2012). . Adolf Hitler had grown to become a huge propagandist, who used the media to scare away opponents. In fact, Josef Geobbles, a renowned accomplice of Hitler had instigated most of the forms of social inputs, including the radio and print media. The inspiration of the powerful Nazi literature was also something unmatched at that time in Europe. This withstanding, the Germans and other occupants of Europe at large thought and acted according to the voices they heard from the media (Cook, 2013). Important to note is the influence of the Third Reich in creating a new form of social order at this time too. Even after the loss of the First World War, German had maintained the view of genetic dominance, in the context of the influential speeches by her leadership.

The perception of being superior to other races and an insurmountable dominance by the German people could have led to the massacre of the Jews. Without say, all this came from the exchange that the media offered to the German people. The consequence of the believe in the fallacy that the media offered what was right created social chaos, with an upsurge of religious and cultural disenfranchisement. All these factors created an indifferent perception of self, especially in the European population, with some cultures regarding themselves as superior and more deserving than others did. What followed was decades of oppression, with resultant dynamic shifts in the way people interacted with one another (Joas & Huebner, 2016).

Problem or Issue for Each Theorist

The ideologies of Goffman and Meads came in a period where technology was a major influence in the way people interacted. The semiotic countenance of technologies of that time enabled these two theorists express their differences on their views of interactionism. Mead experienced the start of the revolution in technology, grew to see the effects of its effects in the society. The issues that Meads to address surrounded the Confucianism that existed as the individuals tried to attain identity of the self in a changing society. Goffman on the other hand, was born on a later age to grow in a society that was more advanced in terms of civilization, human relationships and social controls (Smith, 2013). Goffman tries to resolve the issues of social relations in a dramaturgical approach, in the context of increased social awareness brought about by the media. The two theories therefore fit with the prevailing circumstances in the lives of the writers. Important to note is that the two theorists developed their ideas in the verge of a rising civilization.

Mead lived in the wake of the twentieth century, in the advent of many forms of communication. There was an increase in the number of media houses, literature books, and theatrical works. One of these powerful communication tools that emerged at this time was film. This offered a more real interaction with fictional characters, and political leaders existing in regions far away from the viewer. Through this, the creators of the film could influence the thought process of the viewer, their emotional appeals and induce ecstasy among the masses. The effects of this were even far reaching in the political arena, with communication media becoming a key influence on the way people related with one another. The use of this media, especially to influence the masses increased in use in the period of the Nazi rule.

Perspectives and Comparison of the Theorists

Mead proposes the theory of self in his book Mind, Self and Society, that he wrote in 1934. According to Mead, the perception of self comes from the interaction of an individual with their environment. In this proposition, the regard for self comes from the interactions that people have with others. As such, Mea tries to defy the concept of biological inheritance of traits that regard behavior, the concept of self and self-esteem (Kim, 2012) Using this view, Mead explains that the perception of self is absent at birth or at the first instance of an interaction with others. However, as one grows to learn the interests of others, how they regard him and the value he or she holds to them, they gain a new perception of self (Sedikides & Brewer, 2015). One is able to construct and at the same time take apart this self-perception according to how they view themselves in certain circumstances.

In simple terms, Mead classifies self as constitution of “I” and “me”. In this categorization, “me” stands for socially aware component that depicts the expectations of those surrounding an individual. When one interacts with others, he or she develops the attitudes and perceptions of the group they belong. For instance, one starts identifying with the social class of the people they interact with on a day-to-day basis. This derived identity and behaviors that result from relationships with others creates a self-consciousness, and acts as a major control of social interactions (Sedikides & Brewer, 2015). The drive to maintain this good relationship with others and act according to their expectations creates a way in for the society to instigate social controls. According to Mead, “I” represents the individuality of human nature. The “I” is the owner, initiator and controller of the individual’s actions. Put in other words, Meads depicts the “I” as the subjective form of human identity while the “me” represents the subjective for of self.

Meads recognizes that self-development occurs through the art of communications through language as well as exchange in play and gaming. These components enable an individual to act in role-play, in a manner that represents the ideas and views of others. Such symbolism enables the individual to create a sense of self-awareness, and serves to create a better understanding of others (Sedikides & Brewer, 2015).

Although the ideas of Meads are similar to the propositions that Goffman offers about identity, although the latter uses a dramaturgical approach to express his view of the interaction between the people with their environment, and the concept of identity (Goffman, 2016). Goffman views interaction from the perspective of a dramatized performance in which the actor has to shape their actions according to the demands of the audience and merge this with the setting. This, as Goffman indicates, yields impressions from the outside world, which could be the anticipated results by the audience. The performance of in life exists even without the conscious control of the mind, regardless of whether the individual is keen to notice the events (Winkin & Leeds-Hurwitz, 2013).

Just like Meads, Goffman employs day-to-day examples to add more meaning to his assertions. He likens the description of a performance with the act of a medical provider, offering placebo to control a patients’ symptoms.  In this example, Goffman shows how an individual is able to fit himself or herself into the state of well-being despite the fact that what they received may not be an actual treatment. Goffman identifies that social identity is similar to the setting of a “front” which acts as the guiding point of the individual motives, and constantly stays in check by the people around the actor. The people that one relates with will thus use their interpretation of the “front” as a template upon which every other action is comparable. In order to maintain a constant perception of one’s mannerisms by others, the person has the obligation of projecting the most compelling aspects of their “front” that match with the societal expectations. This enables one to develop the characteristics that distinguish them from the rest, hence assuming a social role and a sense of self (Smith, 2013). 

A huge strength of Goffman’s theory is that it describes how the individuals have to dramatize their character in order to present the best version of self to the audience, which in this case is the society. Assumption of the roles has to remain commensurate with effective communication skills, through symbolism, gestures and language in order to show this version of self. Therefore, the actor in this case has to balance the desires of the society with the individual search for approval (Smith, 2013).

One of the weaknesses of Goffman is that he focused too heavily on the discourse. This made most of his ideas come from the concrete conversations between the subjects he studied rather than from an experimental point of view on human interactions (Winkin & Leeds-Hurwitz, 2013). Despite this, Goffman’s theory also uses many symbols to expound on his explanations, which creates a way of relating it with the day-to-day occurrences. Both Goffman and Mead appreciate the role that the environment plays in shaping perceptions of self. The two also recognize the continued nature of human beings to seek approval of their interpretations and behavior from the society.

Evaluation Criteria and Evaluation

To evaluate the effectiveness of Goffman’s theory, one has to consider its applicability to the daily human interactions. More often than not, humans adjust their behaviors in order to assume a fit into the demands of their circumstances. This makes the Dramaturgical approach that Goffman employs a strong basis of explain alter egos, and identity differences that occur from situation to situation. To evaluate the essence in Meads theory, however, one needs a critical analysis of the environmental contributors to the development of “self”.  Mead’s proposition contains many abstractions that could negatively affect the practicality of his approach. Nevertheless, Mead’s investigation of how communication, language and exposures mold the concept of self, highlight some of the influences relatable to the present day society. 


To conclude, the application of the ideologies of both Goffman and Mead extends into the society of today, in which the awareness of the self exists more than ever before. Although there has been huge changes in the social structures across the globe when compared to the times of Mead and Goffman, the drivers of the society remain similar, implying a great significance of the propositions by Mead and Goffman. It is crucial to consider that these two theorists lived in an era of industrial revolution, up rise of civilization in the context of geopolitical instabilities. While Mead wrote at a time of diminished self-awareness, Goffman came in to reinstate some of his ideas in the role of the society in shaping up individual identities. One has to keep in mind that the theories of self and identity have evolved throughout the periods with the changing patterns of technology and communication channels. Therefore, recognition of the possibility of creation and adoption of new theories in the advent of the information technology in today’s world is therefore paramount.


Cook, G. A. (2013). Resolving two key problems in Mead’s mind, self, and society. George Herbert Mead in the twenty-first century, 95-106

Goffman, E. (2016). Erving Goffman. Fifty Key Sociologists: The Contemporary Theorists, 113.

Joas, H., & Huebner, D. R. (2016). The Timeliness of George Herbert Mead. University of Chicago Press.

Kim, K. K. (2012). Order and Agency in Modernity: Talcott Parsons, Erving Goffman, and Harold Garfinkel. SUNY Press.

Manning, P. (2013). Erving Goffman and modern sociology. John Wiley & Sons

Mead, G. H. (2014). George Herbert Mead. Information Theory, 224

Natanson, M. A. (2012). The social dynamics of George H. Mead. Springer Science & Business Media.

Smith, G. (2013). The dramaturgical legacy of Erving Goffman. The Drama of Social Life: A Dramaturgical Handbook, 57-72

Sedikides, C., & Brewer, M. B. (Eds.). (2015). Individual self, relational self, collective self. Psychology Press.

Winkin, Y., & Leeds-Hurwitz, W. (2013). Erving Goffman: A critical introduction to media and communication theory


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