Together alone - The Other in a love relationship

Term Paper, 2010

15 Pages, Grade: 1,0




Symbolic Interactionism - the theory erger

Berger & Luckmann

Charles Horton Cooley

George Herbert Mead

The “other” in a love relationship





„Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast...“[1]

Symbolic Interactionists are also referred to as “cultural romantics.”[2] They sympathize with outsiders and underdogs, believe in the contingency of self and society and envision social reality as an ongoing interaction of people, which entails change and transformation.[3] On the other hand, Symbolic Interactionism reflects not only a subjective study of human experience, but it also attempts to evolve an objective (social) science which holds man as a product of society and one's self as “only existing in the definite relationships to other selves.”[4] This dichotomy appears to be fairly interesting when it comes to social phenomena that are assumingly either mainly subjective or objective. Love tends to be seen as a merely subjective experience of the self. Falling in love with somebody seems to be possible under the most incredible circumstances, not complying to any rules, being mysterious and unpredictable. The “beloved other” prompts feelings and might get positioned on a throne for the most inexplicable (personal) reasons. But who is the “beloved-other” really? Why is he or she privileged to ascend the throne? Are the reasons for loving this particular person barely subjective or might they be rooted in society and hence influenced and induced by an objective reality? Do we really choose our “beloved-other” or is he/she chosen by society? This would make the phenomenon of love rather predictable and unromantic and the Symbolic Interactionists' appellation “cultural romantics” would therefore seem fairly questionable.

The following essay wants to investigate the “beloved-other” from a Symbolic Interactionists' perspective and aims to answer the aforementioned questions. Since there are multiple readings of this perspective, the present discussion will focus on certain scholars like Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Charles Horton Cooley and George Herbert Mead as the main representatives of Symbolic Interactionism. Primarily there will be a brief summary of the different approaches of the mentioned scholars. Thereupon the ideas will be discussed and related to the subject of “the other” in a love relationship.

Symbolic Interactionism - the theory

“...And on a day we meet to walk the line And set the wall between us once again.

We keep thewall between us as we go”

Symbolic Interactionism generally developed out of American pragmatism in the late nineteenth century and is also called “the most sociological of social psychologies.”[5] The theory is based on three root assumptions: firstly, that the individual acts towards things on the basis of the meanings that these things have for him. Second, meaning of these things is created by a process of social interaction and third, meanings alter through the interpretation of the self-reflective individuals who symbolically interact with each other. Through this process the individuals' action influences the actions of others and vice versa. Only through the interactions with others is it that the individuals become social beings. Thus, every interaction between individuals forms society as well as society forms the individual. Symbolic interactionism is hence concerned with the socialization of the individual and the social construction of reality.

Berger & Luckmann

According to Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, the relationship between human beings and the social world is a dialectical one. “That is, man (not, of course, in isolation but in his collectivities) and his social world interact with each other. The product acts back upon the producer.”[6]. Externalization, objectification and internalization are the three dialectical moments in which the individual participates in the social reality. According to Berger & Luckmann, society consists of an objective and subjective reality. In order to become a member of society the human being needs to be socialized, which is to say the induction of an individual into the objective world of a society and is described as “primary socialization” by the authors. This first step of the socialization process takes place in the childhood of an individual. It is the process of internalizing the objective social world around one’s self “as a manifestation of another’s subjective processes which thereby becomes subjectively meaningful”[7] to one’s self. By means of language, the child identifies with the significant others[8] in various emotional ways, takes on their roles and attitudes and thus leams how to become a member of society. Primary socialization is completed after the individual established a firm comprehension of the generalized other[9] and thereupon a symmetrical relationship between objective and subjective reality developed.

Based on the primary socialization the already formed self enters the process of secondary socialization. In the secondary socialization, the individual internalizes institutional sub-worlds and learns role-specific vocabularies in order to manage his way through the various sub-worlds. The content of these partial realities is much less subjective than the content of primary socialization and hence can be set aside much easier since the emotional ties do not play an important part in the secondary socialization. However, even though the individual can choose among various sub­worlds, the processes of secondary socialization are governed by the presupposed processes of primary socialization. There may not be a smooth transition from primary to secondary socialization but rather a “problem of consistency between the original and the new internalizations”[10] which could lead to an unsuccessful socialization.

Charles Horton Cooley

According to Cooley, society is an organic whole, a “relation among personal ideas”[11] where every individual is in some degree dependent upon the other, since everyone contributes something to the common life that no other individual can contribute. It is a society where each individual is reflective or a “looking-glass self”, which means that one imagines one’s self through the perspective of the other and internalizes a self-feeling which arises from the imagined judgment of the other. Thus the individual constantly internalizes the thoughts, feelings, and judgments of the others directed towards the self which explains the instrumental character of the other in the socialization process of the social self. Cooley introduces the concept of a group-self or “we” which is an “I” that includes other persons. If the “I” is the self, the “we” is the larger community, a group which one identifies himself in a social situation. Cooley also appears to establish psychological perspectives in his conception of society. He discusses suggestibility and choice, excitement and habit as predisposed factors to each individual in the relation of social mind to the organic structure and the process of socialization. The presence of sympathy, as an “active process of mental assimilation”[12] with the other, is an indication of mental health and implies growing social power.

Through “entering into and sharing the minds of other persons”[13], one can understand the other and thus has the capacity to enter into their lives. Hence sympathy is the basis for understanding the other, however it also allows the views and ideas of others to create an impression on one's own self. While the individual is connected with the thought of the other, the “self idea is always a consciousness of the peculiar or differentiated aspect of one's life (...)”[14]. Thus sympathy, which implies having an inside experience of the life of an other organism, evokes consciousness in the self which is an inevitable characteristic in order to fulfill a successful socialization.

George Herbert Mead

Within the writings of George Herbert Mead the self can arise only in a social process. However, instead of starting out with individual minds and continue to society, Mead begins with “an objective social process and works inward through the importation of the social process of communication into the individual by the medium of the vocal gesture.”[15] Based on vocal gestures the individual indicates meaning to others and the self and hence it can be stated, that language surfaced as a result ofhuman interaction and collaboration.

According to Mead, the complete self is conceived as being an “I” and a “me”. The “I” is the active agent and principle of individual impulse, which is able to change the social structure. It is the “response of the organism to the attitudes of the others.” Whereas the “me” is the “organized set of attitudes of others which one assumes”[16]. A reflective self is able to see itself in the actions and reactions of the others towards itself and thereupon constructs its own “me”. Therefore it is the attitudes of the others which constitute the organized “me” and the reactions toward that, constitute the “I”.

Furthermore Mead claims that the development of the social self is based on two stages: the stages of play and the game. In the play the individual simply imitates the behavior of others whereas the game requires competent participation and internalization of the whole organized activity within one’s self. Therefore, the individual has to assume not only the role of a specific other but of any other participant in the common activity in order to play the game successfully.


[1] Frost, Robert: Mending Wall, in: URL:

[2] Denzin, Norman K.: Symbolic Interactionism and Cultural Studies, 1992, p. 2.

[3] cf., ibid. p. 2.

[4] Mead, Herbert: Mind Self and Societyfrom the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, 1934, p.

[5] Denzin, Norman K., 1992, p. xiv.

[6] Berger, Peter L., Luckmann, Thomas: The social construction of reality, 1967, p. 61.

[7] Ibid., p. 149.

[8] significant others are people immediately around the individual who raise him and serve to mediate the world to him

[9] Generalized others are an abstraction from the roles and attitudes of significant others. It is the roles in general.

[10] Berger, Peter L., Luckmann, Thomas, p. 140.

[11] Cooley, Charles Horton: Human Nature And The Social Order, 1992, p. 119.

[12] Ibid., p. 138.

[13] Ibid., p. 136.

[14] Ibid., p. 179.

[15] Mead, George Herbert: Mind, Self And Society, 1937, p. xxii.

[16] Ibid., p. 175.

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Together alone - The Other in a love relationship
Uppsala University
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Symbolic Interactionism, sociology, socialpsychology, George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, Peter Berger, Thomas Luckmann, love, social interaction, socialization, social self, looking-glass self, Robert Frost, Mending Wall
Quote paper
Kathrin Rochow (Author), 2010, Together alone - The Other in a love relationship, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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