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The concept of self refers to a person’s experience of stability or consistency over time. To have a self is to experience and imagine oneself as the same person in the past, present, and future. The term is distinguished from related concepts such as mind (the center of cognitive activity), consciousness (the experience of self-awareness), and identity (the traits possessed by a self). In contrast to psychologists, who treat the self as an individual possession, sociologists generally view the self as a product of interpersonal relationship that is shaped by social and historical currents. As a consequence, for sociologists, the experience of self, and even the existence of selfhood, varies across cultures and historical periods.
Symbolic interactionism is the most influential sociological theory of self. This perspective grew out of the pragmatist social psychology of George Herbert Mead (1934). According to Mead, the self emerges as part of a developmental process that depends upon children’s interaction with language using caregivers. It is in the back and forth of human exchange that children learn to see themselves as others see them. Once children internalize the view that others have of them, a two-part structure is created: the I and the Me. The self is the conversation” between these two parts. The I” refers to subjective, creative, and spontaneous aspects of the self. It initiates action, but also escapes full-fledged articulation. It can never be captured entirely or described; hence its unpredictability and creativity. The Me” refers to objective, socially conditioned aspects of the self. This is the product of the internalization of the view of the other; the set of traits that make the self recognizable as a member of a society and community. Structural symbolic interactionists have studied these objective, and therefore measureable, aspects of the self. They have developed concepts like self-concept (the overall view a person has of herself), self-efficacy (the sense of control one has over one’s self), and self-esteem (the feelings one has for one’s self). Tests such as Manford Kuhn’s Twenty Statements Test (TST) and Morris Rosenberg’s Self-esteem Scale are used to measure these different aspects of self.
Erving Goffman (1959) further describes the relational character of selfhood through his dramaturgical theory. Selfhood, he argues, is the product of social performances akin to those in a theatrical production. In contrast to symbolic interactionism which, more or less, treats selves as stable and consistent over time, Goffman argues that there is no real or authentic self. Rather, selves are situationally contingent productions that depend upon the performances of others just as much as the performances of the social actor. Goffman summarizes this position with the following: the self, then, as a performed character, is not an organic thing that has a specific location, whose fundamental fate is to be born, mature, and die; it is a dramatic effect arising diffusely from a scene that is presented” (1959: 252-3).
Postmodern theorists have emphasized the cultural origins of selfhood. Like Goffman, they insist that authentic selfhood is an illusion. Through the technique of deconstruction, they attempt to reveal the linguistic structures, and grand narratives, that generate the ideal of selfhood. Most notably, contemporary western constructions of self valorize the individual, self-contained, masculine self. This kind of self is critiqued because it reflects the interests and experiences of only a small subset of the human population. In opposition to these culturally sanctioned aspirations, postmodernists offer an alternative ethic of selfhood. Since selves are constituted through language, and in relationship, it is possible to renegotiate and reconstruct outmoded and potentially harmful constructions of self. Here the commitment to a stable self is replaced by an ongoing playful encounter between self and other. The obligation to self is replaced by an obligation to fruitful relationship, selfhood becoming a product constituted only insofar as it serves the needs of relationship (Gergen 1991).
At its most radical, the postmodern view suggests that selfhood is infinitely malleable and even dispensable. Several contemporary scholars have challenged this implication, even as they embrace the importance of language and culture to the constitution of selves. Most important here is the work of Charles Taylor (1989). For Taylor, it is precisely the weight of culture and history – especially when these are integrated into personal biography – that gives selves their solidity, objectivity, and indubitable reality. Taylor shares with numerous contemporaries the view that selves are constituted in narrative. In contrast to the postmodernists who deconstruct narrative, Taylor shows that humans cannot help but to think and live their lives within the framework of shared, overarching stories. Narratives give human life existential meaning by structuring the inevitable relationship to time and death. Stories also provide people with moral orientations; deeply felt relationships to higher goods. The problem for contemporary selves, Taylor suggests, is that western cultures have lost the overarching narratives that historically have provided personal depth. Ironically, even though the principles of self-development and self-fulfillment have become central ideals of contemporary consumer societies, these principles remain without significant mooring and therefore meaning.
The most recent scholarship on selfhood has turned to problems of the body and emotion. This is a correction to the historical dominance of the language based theories described above. With her work on emotion management, Arlie Hochschild uses Goffman’s theory of self presentation to show that the management of situationally appropriate feeling is necessary for successful performances of selfhood. Thus, emotion is not only psychological, and biological, but also sociological. Scholars such as Norbert Elias, Michel Foucault, and Judith Butler have argued that the body is a social construction, disciplined through social norms and practices, rather than a natural fact. The achievement of selfhood depends upon the production of the kinds of bodies that align with the narratives and ideals that circulate within a culture.
Recent developments in the life sciences have lead sociologists like Patricia Clough to consider how biological processes, historically inaccessible to selves, have become central to the experience and production of selfhood. Here, affect theory” is unique in how it integrates biological phenomena into sociological accounts. Rather than using biological theories to explain human behavior, affect theorists describe how contemporary technologies interact with biology to create and control life energies and affective flows. Antidepressant medications, for example, allow people to modify mood by altering neurotransmitter levels in the brain. In the current context, then, the self is relational not only in its linguistic and social constructions, but also in the way that it is affected by the technological manipulation of deep biological processes. Future research will have to account for selfhood at all of these levels.
- Elliott, A. (2007) Concepts of the Self, 2nd edn. Polity, Cambridge.
- Gergen, K. (1991) The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life. Basic Books, New York.
- Goffman, E. (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Anchor, New York.
- Mead, G. H. (1934) Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.