Generalized other

The generalized other is a concept introduced by George Herbert Mead into the social sciences, and used especially in the field of symbolic interactionism. It is the general notion that a person has of the common expectations that others have about actions and thoughts within a particular society, and thus serves to clarify their relation to the other as a representative member of a shared social system.[1]

Any time that an actor tries to imagine what is expected of them, they are taking on the perspective of the generalized other.


Mead's concept of the generalised other has been linked to Adam Smith's notion of the impartial spectator[2] – itself rooted in the earlier thinking of Addison and Epictectus.[3]

Adam Smith wrote: "We Conceive ourselves as acting in the presence of a person quite candid and equitable, of one meerly a man in general, an impartial Spectator who considers our conduct with the same indifference with which we regard that of other people".[4]

Role-play and games

Mead began by contrasting the experience of role-play and pretence in early childhood, in which one role simply gives way to a different one without any continuity, with that of the organised game: "in the latter", he stated, "the child must have the attitude of all the others involved in that game".[5] He saw the organised game as vital for the formation of a mature sense of self, which can only be achieved by learning to respond to, and take on board, the others' attitudes toward the (changing) common undertakings they are involved in: i.e. the generalized other.[6]

Mead argued that "in the game we get an organized other, a generalized other, which is found in the nature of the child the case of such a social group as a ball team, the team is the generalized other in so far as it enters – as an organized process or social activity – into the experience of any one of the individual members of it".[7]

By seeing things from an anonymous perspective, that of the other, the child may eventually be able to visualize the intentions and expectations of others, and see him/herself from the point of view of groups of others – the viewpoint of the generalized other.

The attitude of the generalized other is the attitude of the larger community. According to Mead, the generalized other is the vehicle by which we are linked to society.

Multiple generalized others

Arguably, a modern differentiated society contains as many generalized others as there are social groupings:[8] as Mead put it, "every individual member of any given human society, of course, belongs to a large number of such different functional groups".[9] The result is that everybody will articulate aspects of the range of socio-cultural values in their own way, taking on the perspectives of a set of generalized others in a unique synthesis.[10]

With rising levels of socialisation and individuation, more and more people, and more and more aspects of the self come into play in the dialectic of self and generalized other.[11]

Psychoanalytic equivalents

As a concept, the generalised other is roughly equivalent to the idea of the Freudian superego. It has also been compared to Lacan's use of the Name of the Father, as the third party created by the presence of social convention, law, and language in all human interaction.[12] It is also similar to Bakhtin's (Superaddressee) "superaddressee" presumed to receive and understand human communication.

See also


  1. John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (London 1972) p. 169
  2. Lars Udehn, Methodological Individualism (2001) p. 367n
  3. Nicholas Phillipson, Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (2011) p. 107
  4. Quoted in Phillipson, p. 164-5
  5. George H. Mead, Mind, Self, and Society (Chicago 1962) p. 159 and p. 154
  6. Mead, p. 155
  7. Mead, p. 160 and p. 154
  8. F. C. da Silva, G. H. Mead (2007) p. 50
  9. Mead, p. 322
  10. da Silva, p. 50-1
  11. Johannes Voelz, Transcendental Resistance (2010) p. 131
  12. Vincent Crapanzano, Hermes' Dilemma and Hamlet's Desire (1992) p. 88-9

Further reading

  • 1934: Mead, G. H. (C. W. Morris ed.), Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • 1956: Natanson, Maurice, The Social Dynamics of George H. Mead, Public Affairs Press, Washington, D. C.
  • 2008: Ritzer, G.R., Sociological Theory seventh edition. McGraw-Hill Higher Companies, New York.
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