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Lecture Notes

Chapter 11: Symbols, Self, and Mind: Our Active Nature


Sociologists tend to be what is sometimes called “deterministic.”

If a perspective is deterministic, this means that the cause of human behavior is thought to be outside free choice.

Determinism is definitely part of what much of sociology is. It just seems to “come with the territory” because the real purpose of sociology (as well as all other sciences) is to understand what causes something—what causes human action. The question does not lend itself to an investigation of freedom and individuality.

Yet sociologists will almost always become defensive when people charge that their perspective does not account for at least some freedom.

The work of George Herbert Mead wrote about the links between the individual and society, and always emphasized the interdependence of the two. Society makes the human being, yet the human being, in turn, makes society. We are social beings, Mead argued, but our most important individual qualities (all of which arise from society)—symbols, self, and mind—also allow us to exercise some control over our lives.

Individuality and Freedom

Perhaps the most important questions thinking people ask concern the relationship between the individual and society:

Are we simply the product of our social life?

Do we make free choices?

Do we have any impact on the direction of society?

Is there any real individuality?

A philosophy of freedom is central to our political ideas.

Individualism is also central to the United States culture.

Not all societies value freedom and individualism. In some, commitment to kin is far more important. In some, commitment to tradition, God, or society itself overshadows freedom or individuality.

It is important to separate freedom from individuality.

Freedom means that the actor actively makes choices and directs him or herself in situations. The actor is in control of his or her own life. This may mean the actor is an individual; it may also mean the actor is like other individuals.

Individuality means that the actor is unique. The actor is different from others around him or her. This may arise from freedom: The actor may actively refuse to think or act in a certain way simply because others do so.

Copyright © 2005 Mount Vernon Nazarene University Adult and Graduate Studies

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