Taking the role of the other

The social-psychological turn in contemporary social theory is marked in respective ways by Bourdieu’s “habitus,” Habermas’s “lifeworld,” Giddens’ theory of structure, Alexander’s updating of Parsons, and Foucault’s cultural theory of power. Each of these theorists has in common a unique way of incorporating a sociology of knowledge perspective while maintaining a focus on structure, creating what Alexander called “multidimensional” social theory.

Arguably, one of the consequences of a thematic focus on knowledge within contemporary social theory is the renewed relevance of pragmatist social-psychology, by which is meant James, Pierce, Mead, Dewey, and Mills (circa his early social-psychology papers and books). The multidimensional concerns of today’s theorists were the same concerns of the pragmatists — namely, peoples’ minds in a structural context; thinking; the human ability to think about thinking, to shape our own thinking, and to have our thinking be shaped by contextual influences. What Mead called “social minds.”

For example, today’s world of heavy communication and the proliferation of relationships based on ethics of salesmanship and marketing bring to mind not only Bourdieu’s “habitus” but also Mead’s “taking the role of the other.” As a form of thinking (and developmental imperative), the ability to take the role of the other is the ability to understand an audience, to give an audience what it thinks it wants. This skill is learned in social interaction, and when executed brings a great deal of human capital/power to the performer. Indeed I find it hard to define social power nowadays (as opposed to purely coercive power) without including the word ‘audience.’

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