The Self

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The Self

The concept of 'self' implies a conscious aware actor within that initiates action (behaviour), and knowledge about one's feelings, traits, thoughts and behaviours, both present and past.

To have a self, an organism must be conscious and self-reflective (Gergen, 1971)

Additionally, several theorists have argued that the self develops in humans because of social feedback and participation in social roles.

The Self

William James (1890), the pre-eminent American psychologist of the late 19th century, argued that our sense of self includes not just our inner values, interests and traits, but also our friends, intimate relationships, and even our possessions. The social nature of the self was further emphasised by George Herbert Mead (1934), who argued that people develop selves only by incorporating the perspectives of other people.

Mead never wrote any books and what we know of his ideas is filtered through the collated notes of his students.

The general principles on which he based his work were:

According to Mead, it is the human capacity for reflection, which enables us to reason and learn, on the basis of past experience. Humans can stand outside a past experience and look at the present in the light of it.

The meaning and significance of events and objects is selected out of an infinite range of possibilities by the filter of reflective intelligence. For example, to the contemporary mind lightening signifies a discharge of static electricity; to the ancient Greek world it was the wrath of the gods.

Mead rejected the idea of society as a group of autonomous individuals. The individual and their identity develop out of interaction with others in the present and, through culture, others of the past.

However, the individual self is no more programmed by social interaction than by biological impulse, individuals possess various intentions. These intentions have to be communicated back into society through the medium of symbolic acts, whose meaning has to be interpreted by others. The most significant group of symbols is represented by language.

A key idea was 'taking the role of the other'. What this means is that symbols have a double aspect. On the one hand, they are the common property of a group, but they also go to make up an important part of each individual personality. They are internalised and guide and inform an individual's conduct. Mead called this aspect of individual consciousness the 'generalised other'.

Like Freud, Mead placed great importance upon childhood and play. As the time for acquiring the control of the generalised other, and taking up personal identity. The generalised other is transmitted through the agency of 'significant others', for example, parents. From these, we learn about different roles which are absorbed into the self through childhood games.

The Self

Mead's best-known interpreter, and the person who coined the term symbolic interaction, was Herbert Blumer. Blumer's position is usually summarised in terms of three propositions.

(Blumer 1969).These premises are:.

  1. Human beings act towards things on the basis of the meaning that the things have for them. So clearly, the same thing can mean different things to different people, or even to the same people at different times and in different circumstances.
  2. These meanings are derived from the social interaction one has with other people.
  3. The meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by a person in dealing with the things they encounter.

Interaction is an active process. An individual creates their role in relation to others. We do not simply conform to some given account of what behaviour is appropriate, or required, in a given situation. There will be, however, certain broad limits that constitute the outer boundaries of what can be considered appropriate behaviour. These broad limits serve to take account of individuality of expression, within a basically shared meaning. But it is also possible if a meaning is not shared, that a response will be well wide of these limits. When this happens the perpetrator of the outrage may well be considered mad, or bad.

This inability to comprehend the meaning of a situation can also be just a case of misunderstanding, which is the basis of the farce genre on stage, or immaturity as with children, or a clash of differing constructions of reality such as a culture clash. In a culture clash it is not so much a matter of a mistake or misinterpretation, but that certain things quite literally do not make sense.

Within the broad limits that describe a situation there is a process of negotiation which is an attempt to bring to that specific situation a sharpened definition of its meaning. Negotiation obviously implies some flexibility. For example, students and lecturers will work out a definition of learning situations in terms of the desires and needs of all concerned. The social order, thus developed, is not rigid but constantly changing. Social interaction concentrates on the way that normality is negotiated through interaction.

Charles Cooley produced the metaphor of the 'looking glass self' to refer to the vision of the self that is reflected back to us when we communicate with other people.

The Self

James, Cooley and Mead all argue that the self is a social creation; a person growing up alone on a desert island could not develop a self, for a self requires experience and feedback.

William James introduced the idea that the self has two quite different aspects: the 'I' and the 'Me'. The 'I' is the active self, the ongoing stream of consciousness; the 'me' is the self as an object of thought and includes all the knowledge and beliefs we hold about ourselves. The 'I' thinks about the 'Me'.

The 'me' is more easily studied. It is relatively easy to ask people to report beliefs that they have about themselves (the content of the me), whilst to measure the internal processes responsible for generating people's actions from second to second is considerably harder.

If the self is a social creation then it must be learned rather than inborn. Both Freud and Piaget held that we do not possess selves when we are born. Freud speculated that the mystical oneness with the universe that some people can feel as adults, for an example a religious experience, represents as return to our infantile state of selflessness, when we literally did not know that we are separate from our mother.

We are born unconscious and what Freud called the ego (the conscious self) does not develop until later. Similarly, Piaget argued that young children do not fully realise the distinction between private experience and other people's experience. For example, a four year-old child may expect his parents to know about a dream he had.

The Self

The self is more than just internal and private. The self also has public - or rather many public - faces. A number of psychologists have emphasised that the self is in part a collection of roles and public performances.

William Jones noted this aspect:

'(We), may practically say that (a person) has as many different social selves as there are distinct groups of persons about whose opinions s/he cares'. (1890).

The Self

The most extreme view of the public self is that of the facade. Erving Goffman argued this point (as did Shakespeare) by using the theatre metaphor. In interacting with others we play roles just like actors on a stage. To stay in character we speak the right lines, use certain non-verbal behaviours, and use appropriate props.

W.I. Thomas put forward the idea that has come to be known as the 'definition of the situation'. He said:

'If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.'

Objective reality (whatever that is!) is of little use in understanding individual behaviour in groups. It is the actor's own perception of reality which must be considered if his/her action is to be interpreted correctly.

It is this perspective, which is used by Goffman in his analysis of the day-to-day performances of individuals within social establishments. Coupled with this, Goffman also used the idea of the 'theatrical performance', in which human interaction is viewed as a stage play. Such an idea is not new to sociology, the concept of role is crucial to sociological insight. Sociologists have often spoken of the actor in social interaction. Cultural patterns and associated linguistic forms may be seen as stage directions and in some formal situations as a script.

The two concepts, 'definition of the situation' and 'theatrical performance' are not unrelated. Of human interaction is to proceed smoothly the various actors in a social situation must all accept a set of assumptions which standardise and regulate the framework within such interaction can occur. How else could the actors know how to behave? Without agreement on basic assumptions, ambiguity and misunderstanding would quickly render behaviour incoherent.

At the level of face-to-face interaction it is continuously necessary for the parties concerned to define the situation in which they find themselves. Although each situation will occur within a cultural and institutionalised framework it will still be necessary to define the situation in order to establish what performances are appropriate.

Below is an attempt to analyse social behaviour in a specific type of social institution; an F.E. College, in the same terms as those used by Goffman.

Actors in a social situation may be performing with complete belief in what they are doing, or they may be putting on a show for the benefit of others. In other words, they may believe that their performance represents reality or they may well be aware of the falsity of the definition of the situation they are trying to project. Thus a lecturer may find him/herself running a course, which they do not fully understand.

With some student groups, it may be possible to admit this situation, but other groups may be so insecure or outraged by such an admission that the reality of the situation will be hidden from them by the lecturer who will attempt to hide their ignorance. Thus the lecturer might put on a show, which we might term cynical. It is also possible (likely!) that students can be cynical, for example, pretending that a poor lecturer is in fact satisfactory.

Most dramatic performances within a college function with the aid of certain fixed equipment. This is composed of two types; physical equipment which is often immobile, and other items of expressive equipment, which are associated with individual performance.

Physical equipment Goffman calls setting. This is the furniture and machinery and physical layout, which supply the scenery and stage props for social interaction. This physical setting helps lecturers win acceptance for their definition of the situation. It also provides students with clues as to the appropriate behaviour within the setting by providing information that they can fit into their 'recipe knowledge' based on past experience or knowledge of similar situations.

The Self

A college of F.E. is well stocked with examples of setting. Technical workshops, labs, studios all contain specialised equipment which spells out for all concerned the situations which are intended to deveop in these places. Lecturers are considerably assissted in defining the situation by specialised machine tools, work-benches, computers, cookers, for example.

In contrast to this rich setting, ordinary classrooms give less assistance to lecturers. Here lecturers may seek to supplement their setting with items of equipment such as audio-visual aids, and these may be employed as much to help define a situation as to assist in learning. The next time a lecturer reads aloud what is written on an OHP try joining in!

Setting also plays an important part in helping those at senior levels of the college hierarchy to define situations. Heads of Faculty have their own offices, which are furnished to reflect their status vis-a-vis their staff. A Principal can usually call upon a larger office, a more substantial desk and a personal secretary. These are not differences based upon practicalities but on status, who really needs more space clerical workers or working academic staff?

The other aspect of front has two forms, tangible and intangible. The former involves insignia of office, clothing, for example. The more obvious forms of this are, perhaps not accidentally, displayed by those with least status, caretakers, porters, cooks, for example. They all tend to wear specific identifying uniforms. Even when no obvious uniform is displayed 'proper' forms of dress are used to support performances. Lecturers, for example, may tend towards a conventional style of jacket and tie, but equally a uniform is the less conventional style of dress that may be 'required' in the Art Department (only joking!)

The Self

Front also includes the less tangible factors of looks, postures, speech patterns (right? OK? - moving on), facial expressions and bodily gestures.

Many performances involve a discrepancy between appearance and reality. We all wish to idealise our roles in the eyes of our audience. For example, despite their exhortations to students about plagiarism, lecturers may present their students with careful notes, which seem impressive and original and appear to be evidence of diligent preparation but are, in fact 'borrowed'. (I nicked these!) Reality is concealed in order that the performance may seem more perfect.

Many performances do not occur in isolation. Actors often perform as a team. If a lecturer needs to communicate with a colleague while one or both of them are performing before students it is often the case that they will address each other formally, although at other times they would use first names. On the other hand, if two lecturers are part of a team which wishes to foster a definition of the situation, which contains greater informality then they may deliberately use first names.

Members of teams are bound together in bonds of reciprocal dependence. Any one member of a team can give the show away and thus each team member is forced to rely on the good conduct of their team-mates (the college is great, all the courses are great, all the lecturers are world class).

Goffman suggests that a term more applicable to lecturers than 'team' is 'colleagues'. These he defines as persons who present the same routine to the same kind of audience, but who do not participate together as do team mates.

Lecturers, although sharing the same problems and using the same language, can never be entirely at ease with each other. Where examinations are involved a lecturer is usually on their own. But of greater significance than this, is the unease which lecturers may feel when a colleague becomes a member of the audience, alongside students.

In the same way that a theatre has a stage where the performance is given, and backstage regions where actors can be 'themselves', so social establishments have front and back regions. Lecturers, for instance, have staff rooms where the props such as text-books, registers and reports are kept. Typically, the back regions are physically separated from front regions and members of the audience are not allowed access to them.