Mead 2: On Society and Social Institutions

Last week, I ended by uniting George Herbert Mead’s views with those of C. S. Peirce and Josiah Royce via the notion of dialogue. Human beings exist in constant dialogue internally and between themselves, others, and the culture in which they live. This “triadic dialogue,” first suggested by C. S. Peirce and expanded by Josiah Royce, is not unique to Mead. It is, however, foundational to the kind of abductive, scientific view of how society might function.

Such a view undermines any political philosophy based on power. Dialogue is essentially a rational process, not a process of the will. It is essentially anti-Nietzschean. Dialogue presumes human beings can make sensible changes as they interact within a social context. This aspect of the pragmaticists’ thought gives hope that our society can overcome its fascination with power and will to power and move towards a more harmonious and equitable future.

One of my readers kindly asked me to bring the discussion forward with a discussion of Mead’s approach to political life, which I will try to do. Before launching off into the attempt, I think a reminder is essential: This blog tries to be sympathetic to every writer whose views are examined but also to recognize their place in the history of ideas and not require writers’ (or political actors’) views or actions which their position in history renders impossible. Mead writes in the early 20th Century, in an America that no longer exists. He also wrote before the famous failures and crimes of communism and the failure of the post-World War II socialist economies of Europe, which were required to open themselves to more competition to overcome stagnation and a loss of competitiveness. He also writes before the fragmentation of American society so evident in recent years. His social location is academic America in the early 20thCentury.

Selves and Society

For Mead, society and social institutions emerge in a dynamic relational process by which humans (“I’s”) constantly dialogue with and adapt to their surrounding culture. The initial culture for most human beings is a family consisting of parents, grandparents, and others who first influence the emergence of the child. Every child develops a self-image as it learns to adapt to the culture and perceptions of those who raise it. There is a constant internal dialogue between the emerging self (“I”) and the socially endorsed view that an individual has of themselves (“Me”).

This dialogue between self and society continues throughout life as humans adapt to their ever-changing environment. In a complex society such as ours, individuals are faced with the challenging task of navigating the social expectations and customs of an ever-more-complex hierarchy of institutions, familial, economic, educational, political, and other, each of which influences and is influenced by the other. This intricate web of societal interactions and influences provides a rich, stimulating environment for intellectual exploration and understanding.

Emergent Universality

Mead notes that human social institutions are of various sizes. He notes that Americans, with their native love of size and success, have long given institutional priority to larger institutions. [1] This love of the large and our intuitive belief that size and universality are both critical and positive can fail to understand that the large and universal can undermine the smaller foundations upon which they rest.

Mead believes that Rousseau’s notion of “The Will of the People” implies the gradual emergence of a “Universal Will of the People” and institutions that reflect that universal will. In his day, the League of Nations represented an attempt to create an organization in which a universal will could be institutionalized. [2] The failure of the League of Nations and the development of the United Nations after World War II can be seen as another attempt to institutionalize this universal will. Perhaps more importantly, creating a host of international administrative agencies, courts, service organizations, NGOs, and the like reflects the same impulse. [3]

Since Darwin’s time, all philosophy has been influenced by and must account for evolution. Mead represents one attempt to do so in the area of social psychology. Lurking behind his notion of emergent universality is the idea that human social organization is “going somewhere” in an evolutionary process. Mead understands that the evolution of human societies is not the same or subject to the same forces as natural evolution. The evolution of human societies involves the activities of reflexive human beings and the choices they make.

Religious and Economic Universality

Mead believes that human history reveals two universalizing processes reflecting this tendency. First, there is the emergence of “Religious and Economic Universality,” a phrase that refers to the impulse to achieve a universal or all-encompassing order in religious and economic contexts. I think that this particular analysis is flawed. From the beginning of human civilization, there has been what I would call a tendency to seek political universality as kingdoms and empires sought to expand their boundaries. Examples are the movements from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Medo-Persian, Greek, and Roman empires in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas in the ancient world.

Similarly, there has been an impulse to expand economic influence and trade throughout history. Marco Polo’s story is one of hundreds of stories of ancient trade explorers. Throughout history, wherever a political subdivision has been created, a kind of economic universality emerges within that empire—and beyond as that empire seeks to expand its economic life.

Mead also examines the expansion of religious groups with a universalizing tendency as they claim or desire universal scope. Mead uses Islam as an example of a religion that uses all available social means, political, legal, cultural, and military, to achieve a universal Islamic society. [4] In reality, many religious groups, Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, Islamic, and others have expanded their reach, often following the path of armies or economic expansion. How Islam finds its way to Indonesia is a story of a religion following ancient trade routes. Similarly, European and American missionaries followed European nations’ economic and political expansion. However, I believe this is a secondary phenomenon in most cases.

In any case, human history provides many examples of groups seeking to dominate other groups and universalize their particular social beliefs, forms, and organization. As communities come into conflict with one another, there is a constant impulse to seek domination. [5]

Self and Society

Underlying society’s constant turmoil and change is the continual interplay between the self and culture—and, in the case of most individuals in a complex society, between selves and the innumerable societies in which they participate. In the Western World of Mead’s day and the international community of our day, there is a constant interplay and adjustment of individuals and groups to one another. Often, this is expressed in terms of military activities. One thinks of the current struggles in Gaza and the Ukraine as examples.

Just as human beings seek to assert their egos in private life, in the life of nations, governments struggle for superiority and domination. With domination comes a degree of affluence and other kinds of social superiority. This, in turn, provokes additional conflict. Nevertheless, in the struggles of various societies for dominance and security, there is the potential for rational and non-violent accommodation and negation. [6]

Conflict and Integration

The process of social interaction and the drive for greater and greater social organization results in conflict in and among all human societies. Anyone who has been married understands that even the smallest family unit cannot avoid periodic conflict. In analyzing the role of conflict in human societies, Mead makes a distinction between two different social situations that impact the degree and dangers of conflict:

  1. Conflict within and among groups with some degree of commonality
  2. Conflict within groups where there is either. There is no degree of commonality or even outright hostility.

The first situation occurs where some degree of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness exists. In such situations, conflict arises within an underlying degree of shared values and cooperation. In the second situation, the factors that tend to moderate and make rational accommodation possible are either absent or weak. Instead, there is a degree of hostility, distrust, a lack of common life, social solidarity, and friendship. [7]

This distinction illuminates the difficulty the United States is having at the current time. Since the Second World War, and especially since the late 1960s, there has been a decline in common life, social solidarity, and friendliness among social groups. There are many reasons for this. Two that come to mind are the increasing lack of shared religious and moral values and the increasing concentration of wealth and power in society. The lack of shared spiritual and ethical standards and economic disparity make it difficult to feel that social and political life is fair or just. At the same time, a historically unique degree of conflict among classes, races, religions, and other groups has emerged in America. This situation points to a need to rebuild the common life of the nation in such a way as to increase the fragile bonds of common life, social solidarity, and friendliness.

Mead recognizes an inevitable degree of hostile behavior in any society, including the modern nation-state. A society’s legal system usually moderates this inevitable degree of latent and actual conflict. [8] The ability of any legal system to curb conflict is dependent upon (i) an underlying degree of lawful cooperative behavior in situations where there is or might be conflict, (ii) a degree and extent of conflict that existing institutions can handle, and (iii) a degree of trust in the fairness of existing institutions. I believe here, too, we see room for improvement and a warning concerning our current tendency to tolerate certain forms of unlawful behavior, an increasing level of social conflict, and the erosion of trust in the fundamental fairness of the legal system.


I am going to extend this series to one more blog next week. Mead is the least appreciated of the pre-World War II pragmatists. His views are important because he further develops Peirce’s communitarian foundation of pragmatism, which Royce extended. He deepens Royce’s analysis of the nature of human communities and provides deep insight into the interplay between individuals and social groups.

Copyright 2024, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] George Herbert Mead, On Social Psychology rev. ed. (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1964), 255.

[2] Id, at 262-262.

[3] The failure of the League of Nations and the various corruptions of the United Nations and other international agencies reflect a continuing inability to find workable forms for institutionalizing this universalizing impulse, or perhaps it reflects the fact that no such “universal human institutions” of a governmental type are feasible at this time in history.

[4] On Social Psychology, at 256-257.

[5] Id, at 259.

[6] Id, at 259.

[7] Id, at 264-265.

[8] Id, at 265.