Mead’s Conception of the Social Act: A Radical Interactionist’s Critique
Studies in Symbolic Interaction, vol.41:25-51, October 2013
Lonnie Athens, D.Crim
Criminal Justice Program
Because, for George Herbert Mead, the “social act” is the basic unit of analysis for understanding human social existence, and thereby, his entire body of thought, it demands much more critical attention than it thus far has received from sociologists. Here, his notion of the social act will be critically examined – in terms of his definition of social action, the underlying organizing principle he uses to explain it, the different fundamental forms of social action he identifies, and the basic operating elements that he contends comprise these forms – for the purpose of developing a better conception of social action than he provided. Mead sees social action as organized on the basis of “sociality,” expressing itself in two fundamental forms – “cooperative” and “conflictive.” He also views the cooperative form as comprised of five basic elements – attitudes, roles, significant symbols, attitudinal assumption, and common social objects – while the conflictive form is comprised of only the first four elements. After a critical examination of Mead’s social act is completed, an alternative and improved conception of social action, with domination as its organizing principle, is proffered. More importantly, it is argued that this new notion of social action, termed the “collective act,” provides the grounds for the development of a novel interactionist perspective, dubbed here “radical interactionism,” which is based on the principle of domination rather sociality. Thus, this new interactionist perspective, is dramatically different from the traditional interactionist perspective Mead and Blumer developed.