Individual and society

8 August 2016

Focuses on the social system as a whole and its functional requirements are normally that of structural sociology’ (Calhoun, C et al 2002) However Marxism a conflict theory of sociology takes exactly this focus when analysing how an individual creates an identity and relationship within society. Marxism as a Macro-theory of sociology focuses on ‘human agents as cogs in the machine of social forces’ (Calhoun, C et al 2002) who have little or no control over the development of their identities, because of the overpowering social superstructure which is dictating a social hierarchy of which they are forced to obey.

This large scale view of society as over powering in the formation of one’s identity is not that taken by ‘Micro-sociologist who emphasise the social system as being a human creation, rather than one which is imposed on individuals by the system; thus micro sociologists see social order as being produced from below […] created and maintained by the institutions we actively produce.

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It is this explanation of micro-sociologists like Mead which give room to theories like his of the symbolic self which belong within the category of action theories; and more closely associated with Symbolic Interactionism. This essay will explore and analysis the theories put forward by both Marx and Mead in their approach to sociology and will more closely concentrate on their beliefs of how individuals form identities and relationships within society.

Furthermore these essay will both compare and contrast these theorists in their politics and how these have affected modern day sociology with a final evaluation given to explain; the contemporary situation of each of these theories. Firstly though an introduction to briefly outline the basic principles behind each philosophy. George Herbet Mead; an American Pragmatist and developer of the micro-social approach into the symbolic self through interaction and communication of individuals is critical in the knowledge of sociology and more specifically Symbolic Interactionism.

Mead’s fascination with sociality, along with his knowledge that human beings are malleable; gave expansion to his theory that human behaviour is transcendent; thus our abilities to change, control and reflect on our conduct. The notion that “the individual mind can exist only in relation to other minds” (Mead, 1982) is the fundamental concept to Mead’s theory; that the ‘self’ of an individual is embodied and established through stimuli of social matters like; communication, language and essentially gestures.

Mead’s publications of Mind, Self and Society in 1934, highlights the significance of social organisms, and more precisely human ability (which is unlike all other animals) to communicate through both language and gestures of the prehensile hand. Past theories viewed ‘mind’ as separate from the ‘self’ of an individual, but symbolic integrationist’s; like Mead recognise how the mind develops alongside the ‘self’ from social processes of communication; thus acts, whether impulsive or controlled constitute towards how an individual’s relationship with society is started.

The micro-social position of Mead within social interactionism varies greatly in both the size and approach of Karl Marx and his inputs to Marxism. Marxism; the father of conflict approaches in sociology is a standpoint which focuses on the move of political ideologies through history which have created the modern capitalist society.

Central to this theoretical approach is the economic development of the mode of production from feudalism to the current state of capitalism which has created segregation of the social classes with only one option to change the social assembly; revolution. Karl Marx, partnership in founder of the Marxist approach of Marxism, argues that current capitalism has caused large divides between the social classes; the proletariat; or working class are controlled and alienated by the bourgeoisie; the ruling class who own the means of production.

‘Capitalist class structures’ according to Gouldner (1980) ‘are the catalyst of alienation of workers; dehumanising them from their lives through the loss of control of their work’, further arguing that current capitalism holds the proletariat class Vitim to many differing forms of alienation, and it is this concept which is central to Marx ideas; that although individuals believe they are autonomous; their actions are dictated to them by those in authority (Bourgeosie) therefore suggesting a dictation in the relationships individuals hold with society.

Marxism; a macro-theory; depicts individuals within society a only developing because of the social class they belong to; suggesting the superstructure of society creates individuals, whilst moulding the relationship they retain with society. This starting analytical outline of each theorist brings to light the main difference between Mead as a micro-theorist and Marx as a macro-theorist and what they contribute towards our understanding of the relationships between individuals and society.

Marx ‘attempted to build a multi-dimension theory of modern society’ (Jones, et al, 2011) which explored how social structure impacted on the development of individuals identities through their socialisation into a society, where they were controlled. Socialisation to Marx was what created and formed how an individual had a relationship with society, he believed that proletariat members were socialised into conditions of obeying authority from an early age, with agents of the superstructure; like education, family and the church also maintaining these socialising norms.

This Marxist ideal; that social structure constructed the social relationship between individual and society; through its dictatorship of individuals actions, varied greatly from the symbolic interaction view of Mead that an individual’s identity and moreover their relationship with society was formed through the relationship they had with other members of that same society. Mead; as a theorist of symbolic interactionism gives credit to the need for others in the creation of individual’s identities.

Mead, differing from Marx believed that other individuals are the only agency needed to establish a relationship between individual and society and that social structure although plays a role in the different types of individual one would come in contact to, is not the only force behind individual identity. Mead identifies how reflection through others in society is how individuals learn their role and therefore adapt to situations through controlling their impulses.

Mead explains how viewing ourselves through other people is how we learn to control our behaviour, and through controlling and changing our behaviour we change the format our biology and neurology, a concept which past theorists believed was not possible; only acknowledging the reversed roles; that our biology was the moulding of our behaviour. One fundamental concept in Mead’s theory of how individuals develop their identity is role exchange; Mead explains that individuals place themselves in the position of others to anticipate their response to gestures; whether it be impulsive or a form of

communication, and it is this exchange in roles that allows individuals to create a notion of the self and more importantly self-consciousness through which they are reflexive of their own actions. ‘The generalized other’ is Mead’s basic concept of role exchange and what he argues the driving force of the connection between individuals and society. Mead argues the notion of ‘the generalized other’ as being a concept which argues that individuals are able to role take because of their belief that all individuals within the same social group, have common expectations and will therefore preform similar actions.

“The child must have the attitude of all the others involved in that game” (Mead, 1962) because without this attitude they are unable to be self-critical or reflective on their behaviours; due to their lack of viewing a situation from antonymous positions. Although appearing difficult Mead’s explanation of how an individual develops their relationship society, it is in fact simply based on viewing ourselves from other people’s perspectives, through taking on the roles of these individuals.

The micro-approach of Mead and how individuals develop within society based only on the individuals they communication and interact with is a contrasting polarisation to Marx theory that individuals are established within society based solely on the social class they belong to. However there is one similarity to the theories of Marx and Mead; although very distinct.

Positivism; a sociological idea which holds its ‘values with control, experiments and observations’ is the epistemological position that Goff (1981) argues both Mead and Marx seek to deter from. Goff argues that although different in their approaches to the development of individual’s identity within society, both theorists ‘bear the imprint of early biological theories of evolution, with the central importance they give to man’s conscious activities in the development of man’s life’ (ibid) and it is this that gives similarity to the theories.

Mead’s theory of biological physiognomies and social environment, including human communication; through gestures and language in the creation and embodiment of the self, with Marx contrasting these ideas in his early Humanist writing’s where argues a lack of ontological urgency between thought and reality in their determining of one another. Contemporary applications of both Marx and Mead’s theories are very different, Marx theory of social identity although still highly regarded in modern sociology has little practical applications, with interactionist’s like Mead constantly disregarding it, because of its lack of pragmatism.

Marx theories of individual identities and concepts such as alienation are still strong within sociology with many agreeing that these conditions do exist, however disregarding the extent to which Marx explained them. Marx theories are often seen as high deterministic and although are often considered when approaching a subject matter like how an individual develops their relationship with society are quickly marginalised because of their impracticality and furthermore their lack of explanation to the future and how a revolution to a communist society where “all is fair” which change individuals.

Mead’s theories within symbolic interactionism are popular in their developments; his initial ideas came from a strong partnership with John Dewey a fellow American Pragmatist, who agreed with Mead on his concepts on how a society needed to be based on democracy in order to allow individuals to exchange roles, and without this political state individuals would be conditioned into a hierarchal system; like that of what Marx explains and therefore would not be able to efficiently develop any relationship with society.

In conclusion Mead’s concentration into ‘social evolution’ and how man is able to change both the social and physical world is one that can be viewed as liberal; in its acknowledgment of freedom and how autonomy of individuals is the driving force behind the creation of their individuality. Mead’s theory often criticised for its ignorance; in the belief that individuals are the only creator of social institutions, lacks acknowledgment of external social forces which could impact on both the development and embodiment of the self.

However Marx theories also strong in its hold of sociology; could be argued fails in the same way as Mead; through ignorance. Marx approach to how individuals develop within society it very deterministic with little emphasis given to how small scale forms of communication with other individuals affects one’s identity. This summary therefore both gives and takes strength from each theory, with little predication being formatted on which of these theories is better able to explain how an individual constructs their identity within society.

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