Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Whose view of the brain? - applying Mead's social view of self

Like most part time PhD students, I'm juggling things and wishing I had more time. Recently, I've started data collection - conversations with research participants, which has led to the dreaded transcribing. I'm also reading and loving both de Silva (2007) "G H Mead - a critical introduction", Cambridge: Polity Press and Joas, H. (2001) "The Genesis of Values", Cambridge: Polity Press. All of this is good - the books, especially are 'bringing together' for me strands of thinking and feel like the right territory as someone who has read around a bit now in pragmatism and symbolic interactionsim. 

The down side has been that, what with the academic 'day job' and four children there hasn't been much writing. A few journal notes, of course, but no real work on the draft article I'm supposed to be working on with social work colleagues about social work relationships and constructing meaningful shared action in assessment. People do ask 'how many words have you written', perhaps imagining that my PhD thesis is simply in my head and all I need to do is get it out directly. 

So, the nearest I've got to that this last couple of weeks has been thinking about the radio. When I'm not cycling to work, I have the car - which has just had its radio fixed. Today, I listened to a  part of a programme on BBC Radio 4 - about neuroscience and behaviour change, actually. It proved to be useful food for thought, unexpectedly for thinking about G.H. Mead's (social) view of self and, well, how it wasn't represented at all in a very 'scientific' view of not just the brain but, by inference, wider assumptions about the nature of the 'self'.

A series of very authoritative people were involved in this programme, most quite interesting, with valid things to say - however - what struck me was the overwhelming view of consciousness (and to some extent the inference of 'self') as a purely cerebral (in the literal sense) process, contained in the skull. 

I thought of G H Mead's (radical) alternative to both this view of consciousness as biology or as Cartesian mind / body spilt. Mead proposed a view of consciousness as a fundamentally social process - requiring interaction with others for its genesis and development. His views on the four stages of the act illustrates this well (see the link to Mead in this post:

  1. Impulse: a response to novel situations.
  2. Perception: definition of a 'problem'.
  3. Manipulation: action taken on the basis of the second phase.
  4. Consummation: where the act is resolved.
Forgetting the detail, G.H. Mead's theory links the individual mind to the actions of others and so 'thinking' becomes fundamentally social. Listening to this particular programme, however, you would think that anything of significance happens only in the brain, misleadingly 'underselling' the interactive relationships that are actually reflected in brain activity. 
My point? If you don't have lots of time to write - and we need to make time - it's also good to think critically and analytically about material uncritically 'presented' to us in everyday life, seeing it from a particular theorists perspective. This does not mean I don't need to adapt Mead's view, or I buy in to all its ontological basis but I do extend my understanding of the thing by using it. A good pragmatic perspective, perhaps?