Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge

Becoming Mead: The Social Process of Academic Knowledge

by Daniel R. Huebner


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ISBN-13: 9780226171401
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 10/09/2014
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Daniel R. Huebner is assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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Becoming Mead

The Social Process of Academic Knowledge

By Daniel R. Huebner

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-17154-8


Public Participation

As with other high-profile social theorists and philosophers—the so-called founders of modern academic discourses—a critical literature has developed around George Herbert Mead. The Mead critical literature has developed especially in the last quarter century, fittingly late for someone who has been gaining recognition and becoming increasingly a part of institutionalized academic discourse over a long course. The literature is "critical" in the sense that it takes as its object the dominant, received notions about Mead. Of course, this implies that one can identify a set of definite ideas by which Mead is primarily known, ideas that belie the particular contexts of their production and use, and against which such a critical literature would be motivated to develop. Tracing the production of these dominant ideas is a project of later chapters of the study, but it is worth emphasizing here that such a view of Mead as a conceptual resource for the social sciences—as a brand name for a distinctive set of general propositions and concepts about social life—has invited a particular kind of criticism. The critical works have, by many paths, sought to rediscover evidence of the actual social activities of the historical George Mead as a way of understanding his ideas.

For the purposes of this chapter, I point out only a few of the outstanding features of the broader literature and only address individual pieces separately when relevant to particular claims made. In recent synthetic summaries of Mead's contribution to the sociological canon it has become fairly standard to point out that the process of his canonization was highly problematic (e.g., Shalin 2011a; Silva 2006, 2007). A special focus of many works has been reclaiming or reassessing Mead's local social-reform efforts, including his work supporting and promoting the social settlement houses, publicly mediating labor disputes, advocating for universal public education and vocational training, advancing women's suffrage, and ensuring the rights of immigrants and racial minorities, among other concerns (Barry 1968; Diner 1972; Deegan and Burger 1978; Joas 1997 [1985], chap. 2; Shalin 1988, 2011b; Cook 1993, chap. 7). These critical works almost invariably point out the importance of the local social institutions in Mead's longtime home city of Chicago, a center of rapid growth and change, and especially the unique congeries of reformers and intellectuals at the new University of Chicago (esp. Rucker 1969; Diner 1972; Deegan 1988; Campbell 1992; Feffer 1993). There has also been an expanding recent literature that reexamines Mead's writings in light of the social transformational events of his lifetime, especially World War I (e.g., Joas 2003; Silva 2008; Deegan 2008). Just so, this literature as a whole locates Mead in historical time and place, and in connection with his actual social relations.

It is easy to view this literature largely as intellectual biography, and so of note primarily to those with a pre-existing interest in Mead as an individual, or in some aspect of the time and place of his thought. Indeed, several of the works are self-identified as recording Mead's intellectual biography, or the biographies of the institutions or other people connected with Mead. Even at their most targeted, however, these works are not written only for the amusement of a few initiates. They contain various claims, sometimes implicit but often quite prominent, that we gain something beyond the facts themselves through such work. By knowing about the time and place of Mead's works we gain in some way a better understanding of the concepts or ideas attributed to him (indeed, this goes almost without saying, in as much as such literature is oriented toward correcting or amending the received view of Mead). Dmitri N. Shalin in particular has recently identified this contrast as one between a (false) initial understanding that is overcome by discovering a further knowledge of Mead as an intentioned actor:

The image of Mead many sociology students form in the years of their apprenticeship is that of an armchair philosopher, dispassionately discoursing on the nature of mind, self, and society and largely removed from the practical concerns of the day. It is usually later that they learn that Mead was at the forefront of the contemporary movement for social reform and at some point seriously contemplated a career as professional reformer. (Shalin 2011b, 37)

Throughout the study, I use the critical insights of the existing literature to push even further. Especially in light of recent calls to utilize the history of the social sciences and humanities as evidence in a renewed sociology of knowledge (e.g., Camic, Gross, and Lamont 2011), I think one can treat the growing body of literature on Mead as very productive in posing broader critical questions for knowledge in modern academic disciplines. Put simply, the way evidence has been presented and claims mobilized with regard to Mead open much broader fields of examination about what constitutes evidence and what such claims presuppose.

In this chapter, I take up two sets of such analyses. First, in reaction to the dominant understandings of Mead, much of the critical literature has brought new sources of evidence, or alternative readings of existing evidence, to bear in order to reassess Mead. In this way, there is already a movement that implicitly brings into question the authority of particular forms of documentation—that is, what should count as an authentic source of evidence and how? By relying on evidence drawn from letters, manuscripts, notes, reports, and so on, "publication" becomes a problematic category. Second, by emphasizing context this literature raises questions about how ideas are dependent on definite times, places, and persons, especially for their genesis. I think this calls into question what constitutes "context" more fundamentally than it does "ideas," because the former bears the explanatory burden. In the following sections, I take these problems together as invitations to return to the case of Mead for further insights, and in the chapter's conclusion I begin to work out some of the ways such analysis takes us far beyond Mead, himself, and into the features of knowledge production.


The emphasis on Mead's actual participation in social life among newer critical works is instructive in redirecting inquiry with regard to his publications. At its most basic, the question becomes one of how we are to understand the connection between Mead's life (especially his activism) and his scholarship. In this endeavor, as the analysis serves to demonstrate, a productive starting point is the acknowledgment of Mead as a public speaker. My research, which is surely not exhaustive on this point, has documented nearly 200 public speeches given by Mead over the course of his professional life. In many cases the evidence I am able to gather only lists the fact that Mead gave such a speech or gives some indication of the general topic. But for nearly half of these talks there is some additional information, either from summaries in newspaper articles or other periodicals, or because the talks can be plausibly matched to known works or manuscripts of Mead that still exist.

It becomes clear in working through these materials that Mead was almost assuredly known in his own lifetime more widely for his public reform efforts than for his contributions to professional philosophy or social thought. An announcement for an address he was to give at the University of Kansas in 1911, for example, noted, "Mr. Mead is an excellent talker and comes with a national reputation as a speaker" (quoted in Mead 2000, 47). While this "national reputation" was likely an exaggeration of Mead's renown, it stresses the kind of perceptions of him at the time. Mead's immediate audiences for his talks on social settlements, vocational education, and labor strikes often numbered in the hundreds and, on at least a few occasions, well into the thousands. In comparison, the participants in professional meetings who heard him give papers and the audiences of students who heard him lecture were typically much smaller. Indeed, one might note that despite teaching for thirty-six years at the University of Chicago almost without break in over 200 classes, Mead had lectured to a total of only about 3,000 students (due in part to the small size of many classes and the large number of repeat students), a topic discussed further in chapter 4. On a few single occasions Mead spoke publicly to more individuals than he would ever teach in his entire academic career, although I readily note that the comparison between students of quarter-long academic lecture courses and the participants in a few contentious public meetings at which Mead briefly spoke is rather facetious.

More significantly, many of these public speeches were written up in newspapers and other periodicals, which, it goes perhaps without saying, reached a far larger readership than professional academic journals. In the evidence I have been able to gather, Mead was mentioned by the largest number of different newspapers in connection with the following events: the opening of the Chicago Physiological School in 1899 (reportedly the first experimental school dedicated to the study of children with learning disabilities) of which he was a trustee, the Chicago garment workers' strike of 1910–11 that he worked to arbitrate, the protests over a Board of Education rule change making it easier to fire public school teachers without cause in 1916 against which Mead was one of the vocal critics, his views on wartime "conscientious objectors" in 1918, and his resignation from the University of Chicago in 1931. Likewise, Mead's own published writings in newspapers, reformist journals, and philanthropic bulletins reached wide audiences.

It is not necessary to be dogmatic on this point. Indeed, as I demonstrate in other chapters, Mead had a considerable influence through his lectures and professional contacts in his own lifetime, which proved to be central to establishing and promoting a lasting legacy of ideas attributed to him. However, I think it important to emphasize here, in returning to questions of Mead's actual social practices in his lifetime, that things may have looked quite different from the perspective of the public at the time. It is, of course, symptomatic of his time and place, and of his political stance, that Mead spoke in public so frequently. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are times in the United States, especially its growing industrial cities, of traveling lecture bureaus, university extension lectures, "Open Forums," "curtain speeches" at popular entertainment shows, "speakers' tables" on the issues of the day, labor rallies, campaign whistle-stops, and other forms of public speech, not to mention growing newspaper and periodical circulation and the explosion of radio broadcasting.

In this environment, those intellectuals and reformers identified with the Progressive movement were apparently among the leaders in the promotion and use of such public speech platforms, both in exposing social ills and in widely disseminating the latest intellectual discoveries. As Abbott (2010) has demonstrated by reference to sociologist and minister Charles R. Henderson, the public of the Progressive era in Chicago was actually more akin to an "archipelago of publics" in which loose connections were woven between groups of Protestant and Jewish reformers, Catholic charities, the universities, the elite's "clubs," professional associations, and governmental organizations, among others. It is in this environment that Mead's close friend John Dewey (1927) worked to understand the nature and precariousness of the public sphere that was in evidence around them, and especially the constitution of such publics around the social problems of modern life. Mead was strongly involved in several of these movements to bring contentious issues into the public for discussion (such as his promotion of an elected rather than appointed school board) and to foster the broader distribution of general knowledge (such as his university extension lectures and talks on philosophy and science at local community centers). Joas (1997 [1985]) and others have dubbed Mead in this light a "radically democratic intellectual."


There is a danger in the way I have posed the analysis: in emphasizing Mead's practical social reform work one may, in effect, reinforce rather than question the distinction between his practical engagement and his scholarship. That is, to the extent that one attempts to make a clear shift from his academic papers to his reform work, one retains the boundary as a salient one. No doubt Mead recognized distinctions between various aspects of his life, but such a clear-cut division between one body of professional academic work and one or more delineated reform projects is problematic to maintain and does not do justice to the complex connections across Mead's activity. In order to point out some of these lines of connection, the practical contexts of Mead's "major" academic publications are key. Treating, for the moment, the twenty-five papers published together under the title Selected Writings (Mead 1964c) as an indicator of those considered Mead's "major" academic contributions, one finds that at least sixteen of them were substantially based on papers presented publicly, many at meetings freely open to the public-at-large, but some at more circumscribed professional meetings. (The bibliography of Mead's works at the end of this study indicates the talks connected with specific published papers, where I have found reasonable evidence to that effect.) This assessment, based on my own historical research, almost certainly underestimates the actual number of such direct connections, and for the moment it excludes all the less direct connections between the concepts or ideas in published articles and Mead's engagement in public and private discussions.

In several cases, this acknowledgment that Mead's articles were publicly presented helps reorient the reading of these texts by locating them as parts of particular ongoing dialogues and in reference to specific issues of concern. For example, "The Philosophical Basis of Ethics" (Mead 1908e) was originally given at the Chicago Ethical Society Congress on December 30, 1907. The article title was originally the name of the session at which Mead presented, not of the individual paper, and the session also included contributions by University of Chicago divinity professor George Burman Foster, Ethical Culture movement founder Felix Adler, Chicago philosopher Addison W. Moore, and American historian D. S. Muzzey, with leading Chicago figure of the Ethical Culture movement William M. Salter (William James's brother-in-law) presiding over the discussion. The Congress was held in conjunction with the Chicago national convention of Ethical Culture societies, and the Congress was reportedly intended to bring in other viewpoints from outside the formalized Ethical Culture movement. The Congress program was organized by Jane Addams and Charles E. Zueblin, and the discussions included James H. Tufts, Emil G. Hirsch, and Shailer Mathews, among Mead's other colleagues.

Mead's particular take on ethics in his paper was to examine it from the "evolutionary point of view" in which moral consciousness and the moral environment were codeveloped in situations of practical social action. In explicating this understanding of ethics in front of the participants of the Ethical Culture movement he argued that the standpoints of the "publicist and the reformer" and of the "pulpit" were inadequate to the extent that they maintained a fixed view of the moral society (either previously existing or coming into being) that did not permit the codetermination of the practical realities of a situation and the moral necessity of action. Hence, when Mead argued that this evolutionary view permitted social scientific investigation to guide ethical action by directing analysis to the conditions of particular situations, it would have been apparent to his audience that he was also attempting to make a case for the kind of pragmatic social scientific work championed at the University of Chicago over the exhortative stance of many involved in the Ethical Culture movement.

Likewise, "The Nature of Aesthetic Experience" (Mead 1926a) was originally given as a talk at the National Motion Picture Conference in Chicago on February 10, 1926. The conference was the fourth such gathering organized by a group of Protestant clergymen and social reformers to consider the moral influence of motion pictures. The Chicago conference talks were solicited and organized by Hilda Merriam, the wife of political science professor and Chicago city alderman Charles E. Merriam. Mead's talk was in a session chaired by his colleague in philosophy T. V. Smith, with another paper on "Pictures and Imitative Behavior" read by his sociology colleague Ellsworth Faris. L. L. Thurstone, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, was supposed to present on "Motives Prompting Movie Goers," and Herman Adler, head of the Institute for Juvenile Research connected with the university, was to have presented on "The Relation of the Motion Picture to Crime," but both had apparently fallen ill. When read in the context of the conference, at which the focus of debate was movie censorship and the moral (i.e., presumably immoral) influence of the silver screen, the sessions held by Chicago philosophers, sociologists, and psychologists constituted a sustained argument for the need to subject media influence to scientific investigation and to specify how particular influences are accomplished, if at all.


Excerpted from Becoming Mead by Daniel R. Huebner. Copyright © 2014 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Part One: Rethinking Mead
1. Public Participation
2. Laboratory Science
3. Hawaiian Sojourns

Part Two: Notes and Books
4. Lectures, Classrooms, and Students
5. The Construction of Mind, Self, and Society

Part Three: Influence and Interpretation
6. Intellectual Projects
7. In Reference to Mead, or How to Win Students and Influence Sociology


Appendix A: George Herbert Mead’s Published Works
Appendix B: Extant Notes from Mead’s Courses

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