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The generalized other is a concept developed by George Herbert Mead to describe how the human personality develops by incorporating the perspectives of other persons and the community in which one interacts. The generalized others become parts of the self that reflect the standards and rules of the various communities in which one plays a role, as well as an understanding of the goals associated with given situations. The generalized other is developed through the child’s engagement in what Mead terms the play and game stages of development. The generalized other is only possible because of the human capacity for language which allows for an internal dialogue of self-reflection, the ability to inhibit responses and to be controlled by the standards of the culture.
In the play stage the child engages in taking the role of particular others. For Mead children do not imitate others but begin to recognize how their actions produce particular responses in others. This ability depends on the idea that the identical response is provoked in the self as will be provoked in the other. This ability allows the child to anticipate others’ responses and to gear activity to achieve goals in interaction.
The game stage, where the child engages in more complicated interactions with multiple others playing different roles, introduces not just complexity, but also an engagement with the abstract character of differentiating statuses, such as pitcher, catcher, and outfielder in the game of baseball, and the different roles, rules, and goals arising within that context. For Mead the vivid experience of playing the game requires the child to adopt complex perspectives into the self. The child will repeat this experience with a variety of games and interactional contexts where multiple statuses and perspectives must be engaged. This introduces an organization into the self where situations and contexts become predictable and one has learned the rules and the goals for multiple interactions.
As these experiences broaden, the child eventually incorporates the communal goals and meanings of their social environment as the generalized other introduces abstract ideas made possible through language use. By adopting these understandings of rules and goals, one allows oneself to be controlled by communal meanings of the various communities and the wider social groups to which one belongs. Ultimately, the widest social group is that constructed by the use of communal language and the adoption of rules of logic as governing one’s thinking.
- Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Behaviorist. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.