A Middlesex University resource provided by Andrew Roberts - Click for referencing advice
Extracts from

Herbert Blumer

Blumer, H. 1937 "Social Psychology"


To study the central problem of the social development of the individual it is necessary to consider the nature of the equipment with which the human infant begins life. There is some conspicuous difference between the views held by different groups of social psychologists regarding original nature.

One of these views, the doctrine of instincts, was very prominent in social psychology up to a decade ago; today it has very much less support. We shall begin by discussing it.

"See McDougall, William, Social Psychology (John W. Luce & Company, Boston, 1924)."

The view that human behavior can be explained in terms of instincts arose as a consequence of the development of the theory of organic evolution. The theory of organic evolution developed by Charles Darwin and his followers bridged the chasm which previously had been thought to separate human beings from animals. Human beings now came to be regarded as merely a higher type of animal, linked to the rest of the biological kingdom. Once this [148] new view of human beings was formed, it was inevitable that students should seek to explain human behavior by principles that had been found satisfactory in explaining animal behavior. Previously, it had been customary to explain the behavior of animals in terms of instincts, and this type of explanation was felt to be quite successful. It now became the practice of many psychologists to explain the conduct of human beings and the life of human groups by the doctrine of instincts.

The doctrine of instincts may be thought of as a predeterministic view of original nature, since this original nature is used to explain social behavior. The view presupposes that human beings, like other forms of animal life, are born into the world with a biological make-up which pre- determines them to certain kinds of behavior under requisite circumstances. Instincts are regarded as the factors in the original or biological nature that lead to these different kinds of behavior. Thus the seeking of food is ascribed to a hunger instinct, the seeking of a mate to a sex instinct, fighting to a pugnacious instinct, the solicitous care of an infant by its mother to a maternal instinct, and the seeking of companionship and association to a gregarious instinct. Since this view is widely current in the popular thought of today, other illustrations will occur to anyone. Generally, it has been believed by those who hold this view that all significant forms of human conduct were to be explained by an appropriate instinct or combination of instincts. The task was to identify the proper instinct or instincts felt to be responsible for the given kind of human conduct. Instincts were thought to give individuals their basic motives and desires and, consequently, their interests and goals in life. Furthermore, since human [149] institutions, such as the family, religion, education, and recreation, were recognized as being made up of individual actions, they were, in turn, believed to rest on instincts. The actual development of the child into an adult was explained, on one hand, as a maturation of certain of his instincts, and, on the other hand, as the redirection of his instincts into new forms of behavior.

A second way of viewing original nature that is widely current today in social psychology is to regard the human infant as possessing varied, complex, but unsystematized sets of reflexes. These reflexes represent the original ways in which the infant responds to the stimuli in its environment. The reflex is a definite and specific kind of behavior which can be observed and studied in an experimental fashion. Many of these reflexes, such as the grasping reflex, have been identified; the human child has hundreds of them. Many are complicated and some, like chewing and swallowing, fit together in fairly elaborate patterns of behavior. It is generally recognized, however, that there is very little organization between the reflexes possessed by [152] the human infant; hence, it can do practically nothing in the way of complicated behavior, in contrast with older children or with adults. The development of such behavior necessarily means that these original reflexes have to undergo redirection, change, and especially organization into new patterns of conduct. The equipment of reflexes possessed at birth, while very important as the basis for the formation of subsequent behavior in the child, consequently is not viewed as predetermining that formation. It is especially in this respect that this view of original nature differs markedly from that represented by the doctrine of instincts. Other features of this view are (a) that it is not hypothetical but is confined to what is actually observable in the infant, and (b) that its attention is directed toward the small units or segments of the infant's behavior (this, of course, is what the reflex represents), and not toward the general character of the infant's behavior. This view of original nature is identified with what can be termed the stimulus-response approach in social psychology. Later we shall consider how, in accordance with this approach, original nature is viewed as developing into social conduct and into personality.

There is a third important view of original nature, in present-day social psychology... According to this view the human infant comes into the world with an unformed, unorganized, and amorphous nature. This is shown by its pronounced helplessness, by its inability to carry out concerted actions, and by its thorough dependence on older human beings for the satisfaction of its needs and, so, for survival. Its general behavior is random and unorganized. It is felt that this [p.153] signifies a similar vague and unorganized state of the child's impulses and feelings. The infant is recognized to be very active, and consequently, to have impulses (such as the thirst impulse) which occasion it distress and consequently stir it into activity. These impulses, however, are regarded as being plastic and unchannelized, that is, as not being directed toward any specific goal. The infant has no idea or image of "what it wants," but merely experiences discomfort and distress under the influence of an impulse. This impulse gains expression in its emotional behavior and random activity. According to this view, the development of the infant into childhood and adulthood is fundamentally a matter of forming organized or concerted activity in place of its previous random activity, and of channelizing its impulses and giving them goals or objectives. This view, then, like the previous one, recognizes original nature to be important, but not determinative of its subsequent development. It emphasizes the active nature of the child, the plasticity of this nature, and the importance of the unformed impulse. It is substantially the view taken by the group of social psychologists who may be conveniently labeled "symbolic interactionists."

Of these three views of the original nature of human beings, the last two are those most frequently held in present-day social psychology. The last two views are not in conflict with each other, but they emphasize different attributes of the infant's behavior and nature. However, as we shall see, each gives rise to a different way of treating and interpreting the main problems of social psychology. A knowledge off original nature is merely a prerequisite to the more important concerns of social psychology. One must have such knowledge in order to consider intelligently [p.154] the problem of how the human infant is influenced and affected by the groups, such as its family, in which it grows up.


... the symbolic interactionists ... recognize that the life of human groups presents itself in the form of a body of customs, traditions, institutions, and so on, but they do not regard these forms of culture as consisting merely of so many different individual ways of acting. Instead, they believe that these forms of culture consist of common symbols, which are mutually shared and possessed by the members of the groups. Individual ways of acting are alike because these individuals are guiding their behavior by a symbol which they share in common. Thus, individuals wear clothing, in accordance with the custom of their group, because each of them shares the common understanding that he is supposed to wear clothing. In the same way, any custom, [p. 159] folkway, or way of acting common to a group of individuals is traceable back to their possession of a common symbol or understanding.


The most illuminating treatment of the self has been given by George H. Mead.

In referring to a human being as having a self, Mead simply means that such a person may act socially toward himself, just as he may act socially toward others. An individual may praise, blame, criticize, or encourage himself; he may become disgusted with himself, and may seek to punish himself, just as he might be able to act in any one of these ways toward someone else. What this means is that a human being may become the object of his own actions. How does an individual become an object to himself? And what is the significance of his having a self? These are the two questions we wish to consider. Their answers will cast much light upon the nature and formation of personality.

[p. 181]

The growth of the self in the child, Mead points out, passes through three stages. The first stage, appearing usually during the second year of the child's life, is marked by meaningless imitative acts. The small child who has seen its parents read newspapers may hold a newspaper before it and move its head from side to side. It does not get the meaning of this act; the newspaper may be upside down, and besides, the child cannot read anyway. However, this otherwise useless imitative behavior is significant- it implies that the child is beginning to take the roles of those around it, that is, to put itself in the position of others and to act like them.

In the second stage-the play stage, which appears later in childhood-this role-taking becomes very evident, and, furthermore, it becomes meaningful. We are familiar with the behavior of children as they engage in play- acting-"playing mother," "playing nurse," "playing teacher," "playing janitor," and so forth. Here the child puts itself in the role of the given person and acts in accordance with the part. What is of central importance to such play-acting is that it places the child in the position where it is able to act back toward itself. Thus, in "playing mother" the child can act toward itself in ways in which its mother is accustomed to act toward it. The child may talk to itself as the mother does, addressing itself by its proper name and making commands to itself. It is apparently in this play stage that the child first begins to form a self, that is, to direct social activity toward itself; and it is important to note that it does so by taking the parts or roles of other people. This latter point has great significance, because it means that the particular ways in which it does act toward itself are set by the customary actions of those whose roles the child takes. A more vivid way of stating [p. 182] the point is to say that the child views itself in terms of the way in which it is viewed by those whose roles it takes; its conception of itself is formed out of the way in which it is regarded by others. We shall have occasion to stress this point again shortly.

In the play state, strictly speaking, the child forms a number of separate and discrete objects of itself, depending on the different roles from which it acts towards itself. This is shown in the fickleness and inconsistency with which we are familiar in the case of small children, as contrasted with the consistency of adults. This sets the problem of how a unified self is established -a self which remains more or less constant from one situation to another. Mead explains that the development of a unified self, a conception of oneself that remains the same, is a result of experience such as is had iii participating in games. In the game situation, the participant has to take the roles of a number of people simultaneously. We may illustrate this with the game of baseball. On a given play, a player expects each of the other members on the team to carry out a given action. In adjusting himself he anticipates what each is going to do. In this sense he takes a number of roles in his imagination at the same time.

Mead points out further that this role-taking ability, as it is developed in the game situation, permits the individual to take the role of the group, that is, what is common to a number of different individuals. He speaks of this as taking the role of the "generalized other." One may then act toward oneself from the position of the "generalized other," and consequently guide one's actions in terms of the expectations of this generalized other. One does this, for example, when he governs his conduct by some moral conception or maxim. He is really talking to himself and [183] acting toward himself from the standpoint of the generalized other, which can be thought of as representing the group. A young man may seek to act in all situations like a gentleman; accordingly, he governs his conduct from the standpoint of this role, reminding himself, urging himself, cautioning himself, as the case may be, in accordance with the demands and expectations of this role. It should be clear that in taking a generalized role, the individual is able to stabilize his conduct, that is to say, keep it essentially consistent from situation to situation. Correspondingly, in response to such a generalized role, the individual is able to integrate his attitudes or to develop an organized self.

It has been indicated that the individual derives his conception of himself largely from the way in which he is conceived by others. This point shows, especially, how closely our personalities are formed by the kind of positions which we occupy in our various groups. Toward each social position (teacher, dean, graduate student, minister, mother, doctor, and so forth) people have certain common attitudes; they expect a certain kind of conduct and behavior from people in these status-positions. Consequently, one who occupies such a position is aware of these expectations and is cognizant of the way in which he is viewed by people because he does have such a, status. To maintain this position his conduct must conform to these ,expectations, and it is inevitable that he views himself largely in accord with the public attitude toward his role. In this way his conception of himself reflects the attitudes of others and the social organization that is sustained by these attitudes.

What is implied by this treatment is that the individual undergoes a change in personality as he develops a new [184] conception of himself. Viewing himself differently, he places new expectations on his conduct and guides this conduct by these new rules or demands. To have a new conception of oneself means, in accordance with Mead's view, that the individual has a new generalized other, which, in turn, is to be recognized as representing a common or abstract group role. Tracing backward this relationship, one may say that an individual changes his personality by getting a new social position; in this new status, he becomes cognizant of the new way in which he is viewed by society; a generalized other is formed corresponding to these views and expectations held by the group; the presence of this generalized other means that he has a new conception of himself, and his conduct and tendencies to action are organized in accordance with this conception of himself.

From what has been said, one can see the intimate way in which the personalities of people are connected with the nature of social life in their respective groups. Whether personality be viewed in the formal way proposed by the stimulus-response adherents, or in the more subtle manner suggested by the symbolic interactionists, it shows clearly the impression of group life. Since it represents patterns of action which have developed under the influence, guidance, and pressure of one's associates, it can be recognized as being genuinely social.

ABC Referencing includes general advice on referencing internet sources as well as printed sources.
Do you understand key words and numbers?

Citation suggestion


Study links outside this site
Picture introduction to this site
Andrew Roberts' web Study Guide
Top of Page Take a Break - Read a Poem
Click coloured words to go where you want

Andrew Roberts likes to hear from users:
To contact him, please use the Communication Form

home page for social
science home page to Andrew Roberts'
web site the ABC Study Guide home page