In No one is to blame for misbehaviour, I made reference to George Herbert Mead’s ‘I’ and ‘Me’. But what did he mean by them and what are their implications for the practice of management?
Writing in 1931, John Dewey observed, when trying to sum up Mead’s influence on his own life and work:
His mind was deeply original- in my contacts and my judgment the most original mind in philosophy in the America of the last generation… I dislike to think what my own thinking might have been were it not for the seminal ideas which I derived from him. For his ideas were always genuinely original; they started one thinking in directions where it had never occurred to one that it was worth while even to look.
I think the same would be acknowledged by many managers, if they took the time to read Mead’s work. Of all Mead’s contributions, perhaps the most seminal is his thinking about the social nature of the self. More specifically for this paper, his ideas about the ‘I’ and ‘Me,’ which stemmed from his desire to understand ‘life as a process and not a series of static physiochemical situations’. Mead disallowed notions of metaphysics, as explanations for life, instead preferring objective presence in the world. To Mead’s way of thinking, the individual is not an isolated being that injects innate qualities into any given social interaction, rather a person is a unique confluence of what Mead termed the ‘social act’. More effectively put: ‘selves exist only in relation to other selves’ and this social act ‘enters as a determining factor into the individual’s thinking’. So much so, the community ‘other selves’ form, which Mead referred to as ‘the generalized other,’ is the prerequisite for thinking to occur at all. All of this requires an intersubjectivity of the self as formation of the generalized other necessarily precedes development of the self. This requires a bit of unpacking as there is some ambiguity in the literature which needs clarifying, to do so I will examine two key strands of Mead’s thinking: intersubjectivity and temporality.
The first complexity relates to the familiar view of intersubjectivity which asserts it only occurs between independently situated subjects. However, if we take Mead at his word, that the social precedes the individual, this creates a situation in which intersubjectivity also occurs within the self. Mead’s thinking on conversation was no less unique as he viewed it as much more than merely vocal, but included all methods which establish meaning, either interactionally (between separate entities) or transactionally (which can subsume entities into the self). In other words, communication is not so much an expression of what ‘is’ as much as a litmus test for potential responses. When there is harmony between the projected and received understanding of the gesture, it constitutes what Mead referred to as a ‘significant symbol’.
Significant symbols don’t just play an external role in Mead’s thinking, as he conceives of internal interactions between an objective aspect of the self, a ‘me,’ which is an empirically accessible notion of the self as it is accessible via third part data, and a subjective aspect of the self, an ‘I,’ which ‘comes in as a historical figure. What you were a second ago, that is the ‘I’. This makes the ‘I’ the critical agent of self-construction as without its reconstructive power, the self would be nothing more than an uncritical accumulation of socially acquired behaviours.
The self is essentially a social process going on with these two distinguishable phases. If it did not have these two phases there could not be conscious responsibility, and there would be nothing novel in experience.
This is not to view the twin aspects of the self as some variant of schizophrenia, slipping into an ‘I’ or a ‘Me’ persona at whim. Rather, we develop an ability to interpret answers to our conversational gestures, depending on whether we are expressing ourselves or trying to see the situation as our interlocutor does. This allows for both the development of the self and temporary self-adjustment to better fit in with the common collective. Mead demonstrates this theory in practise with an example of buying food, which is an act:
… in which a man excites himself to give by making an offer. An offer is what it is because the presentation is a stimulus to give. One cannot exchange otherwise than by putting one’s self in the attitude of the other party to the bargain… Buying and selling are involved in each other. Something that can be exchanged can exist in the experience of the individual only insofar as he has in his own makeup the tendency to sell when he has also the tendency to buy. And he becomes a self in this experience only insofar as one attitude on his own part call out the corresponding attitude in the social undertaking.
The ability of man to respond to ‘the generalized other’ is a critical faculty, without which, Mead asserted, abstract and complex thinking would be impossible. In other words, we would be as animals, capable of mimicry but unable to demonstrate novelty or creation. Instead, we possess the capacity for sociality, which is a ‘capacity for being several things at once’. Mead is arguing for an event to be social when it has two different settings of locus, for example speaker and responder in a conversation.
Moving to Mead’s notions of temporality, I need to first pause and dispatch the Newtonian understanding of time. According to Sir Isaac, time is a universal property and to understand scientific laws, such as motion, one needs to start from the point of assuming time passes uniformly. That Bertrand Russell was supporting the Newtonian concept some 200 years later is testament to the resilience of the theory at the time Mead was at the height of his powers:
Time is an unimportant and superficial characteristic of reality. Past and future must be acknowledged to be as real as the present, and a certain emancipation from slavery to time is essential to philosophic thought.
To capture this notion of time, Henri Bergson employed the metaphor of cinema film in which reality is understood as a series of fixed frame images. While Mead agreed the present can be likened to a ‘knife-edge,’ he rejected Bergson’s metaphysical infatuation with élan vital, which posits time as a force of nature which is independent of human intelligence:
When he [Bergson] looks for an instance of what he calls pure ‘duration,’ as distinct from mere motion in a fixed space, he goes to the inner experience of the individual. If we look inside ourselves, we find a process going on in which there is interpenetration of what takes place at one moment and what takes place at another moment. You cannot cut off your ideas, feelings, sensations, and fix them at a certain point and say that one belongs to this point and another to another point. Your feeling is something that pervades a whole experience.
Mead argued for the irreversibility of duration for ‘where everything is conceivably reversible nothing can assume a new form’. This made central to Mead’s thinking the notion of viewing time as continuity and change rather than the mere elapse of individual moments, in which the defining characteristic of the present is that it is constantly emerging: ‘from every new rise the landscape that stretches behind us becomes a different landscape’. Carried into notions of the future, Mead’s thinking postulates new ‘pasts’ which open up because of changes in the present, which in turn open up new possibilities for the future, allowing for a continuous interplay between pasts and futures. While other process thinkers, notably Whitehead and Heidegger, have observed the interplay between past, present and future, Mead made a unique contribution in the way in which he linked present events to a past and future continuity during their emergence in time.
A present then, as contrasted with the abstraction of mere passage, is not a piece cut out anywhere from the temporal dimension of uniformly passing reality. Its chief reference is to the emergent event, that is, to the occurrence of something which is more than the processes that have led up to it and which by its change, continuance, or disappearance, adds to later passages a content they would not otherwise have possessed.
Another key divergence Mead took, from the Newtonian concept of time, was in how he engaged with simultaneity. Mead was greatly influenced by Einstein’s work and the way in which theories of relativity appreciate time cannot be held distinct from agents and their situation. Mead was enlivened by the way in which the simultaneity of multiple temporalities gives the actor a multitude of choices due to their multifaceted perspective. For Mead, creative potential is unleashed whenever two or more temporalities coincide, for which he coined the term ‘sociality’ for the past-to-future passage which occurs in an event.
The social character of the universe we find in the situation in which the novel event is in both the old order and the new which its advent heralds. Sociality is the capacity of being several things at once.
The Practice of Management
But how to place Mead’s notions of ‘I’ and ‘Me’ into an organisational setting and make useful his thinking on temporality and intersubjectivity? Although Mead was writing for an early twentieth century audience, which generally accepted vitalistic concepts, he is important among his peers in countering such mystical claims. Instead of accepting people were motivated by subjective states, which could be neither proven nor falsified, he chose to focus on only that which could be measured or demonstrated objectively. Mead was also unique in that he didn’t take his thinking to extremes and succumb to the ‘scientism’ of thinkers to come later in the century, which viewed people and human interaction in a purely mechanistic way. Instead, Mead sought a middle path which advocated the need for independently observable and verifiable sense data, to counter prevailing explanations of behaviour in terms of unconscious traits or hidden elements, while stopping short of viewing the world as a gigantic machine.
Mead’s concept of temporality is of importance to managers as it allows a deeper understanding of how to engage with the complexities of perpetually unfolding events and how those events inextricably shape our understanding of the past and choices in the future. In the parlance of a board meeting: be careful with the decisions you make today based on the ‘economic argument’ as they will shape your understanding of past organisational successes and failures, which will in turn affect your future choices.
I have argued the importance of Mead’s much neglected work as the wealth of thinking which abounds in his material provides a better way of informing our understanding of organisational practices. Through Mead’s work managers now have access to notions of the ‘generalized other,’ the constructed ‘me’ and the performative ‘I’. The notion that the ‘significant symbols,’ found in the harmony between the projected and received understanding of the gesture which transports meaning between employee and manager, are not fixed, but are subject to continual recreation allowing infinite flexibility when assessing project planning. And ‘sociality,’ arguably one of Mead’s most important contributions, as it connects intersubjectivity (‘I’ and ‘Me’) with the temporal aspects of Mead’s thinking and can help managers better understand that practices within their organisations are more than stayed routines or simply habitual processes. Rather, each discrete action is both a solution to an old problem and the creation of a new future, but only for the attentive observer. For that observer Mead provides reliable tools which, by emphasising empirically accessible and objectively measurable elements of daily actions, sublimate the all too popular, and purely subjective, personal elements which pervade organisational governance and which are many a manager, and organisations, undoing.