The two most significant intellectual roots of Mead’s work in particular and of symbolic interactionism in general are the philosophy of pragmatism and psychological behaviorism. His ideas are contained in Mind, Self and Society 1934 a work compiled from notes of Herbert Blumer. His major theoretical work in the field of symbolic interactionism is his idea of Self. In Mead’s view traditional social psychology began with the psychology of the individual in an effort to explain social experience; in contrast Mead always gave priority to the social world in understanding a social experience. Thinking, self-conscious individual is logically impossible in Mead’s theory without a prior social group; the social group comes first and it leads to the development of self-conscious mental states. To explain his view point Mead took help of various concepts like gesture, symbols, mind and self.
A significant symbol is a kind of gesture that only humans can make. Gestures become significant symbols when they arouse in the individual who is making them, the same kind of response they are supposed to elicit from those to whom the gestures are addressed. Physical gestures can also be significant symbols but they are not ideally suited to be significant symbols because people cannot easily see or hear their own physical gestures. It is the vocal utterances made by us that are most likely to become significant symbols although not all vocalizations are symbols.
The gesture is the basic mechanism in the social act and in the social process. What distinguishes humans is their ability to employ significant gestures or those that require thought on the part of the actor before a reaction. The vocal gesture is particularly important in the development of significant gestures. It is the development of vocal gestures in the form of a language that is the most important factor in making possible the distinctive development of human life.
In a conversation of gestures ,only the gestures are communicated and not the meanings.With language the gestures and their meanings both are communicated. Another effect of language is that it stimulates the person speaking as it does to others by eliciting the same response. A significant symbol works better in the social world than a non-significant gesture as the former has better potential of making an effective communication. In Mead’s theory, significant symbols perform another crucial function as they make the mind, mental processes possible. It is only through significant symbols especially language that human thinking is possible. Use of language has made it possible that we can think beyond the limited. Mead defines thinking as simply an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself, by means of such gestures or it is a conversation between I and Me. Thinking involves talking to oneself and it is possible only when there is a language or significant symbols to facilitate that. Significant symbols perform another crucial function – they make the mind, mental processes and so on possible. It is only through significant symbols especially language that human thinking is possible. Use of language has made it possible that we can think beyond the limited. Mead defines thinking as simply an internalized or implicit conversation of the individual with himself by means of such gestures or it is a conversation between I and Me. Thinking involves talking to oneself and it is possible only when there is a language or significant symbols to facilitate that. Significant symbols like language also make possible symbolic interaction. Mead sees mind as a process. It is as an inner conversation with one’s self. It arises and develops within the social process and is an integral part of that process. The social process precedes the mind. Mind can be distinguished from other concepts like consciousness by its ability to respond to the overall community and put forth an organized response. Mind involves thought processes, oriented towards problem solving.