Self and Society are Two Sides of the Same Coin

“The self is the individual as known to the individual” . The self as defined by Murphy above shows a definition of the self described as in internal occurrence but this idea is then subject to outside contributions – family, friends, colleagues – society in which you live. The definitions of self all seem to highlight a reflective process to achieve its identification (looking inwardly to determine who I am?) but could this identification process be possible without societal interactions. This essay will examine the reciprocal relationship between the self and society and the theories and research into this relationship (however acknowledgement is made as to the breadth of this area of social psychology and has due to limited time and space decided to concentrate on self construction, gender and cultural influences).

The self and its existence within society is a topic which is a topic which has engaged psychologists from the 1800s through to the present. The modern theories of the self still echo the teachings of William James, who first notioned towards the self’s intrinsic dualism back in 1890. Perceptions of the self are split between two main ideas: firstly self -concept (James referred to this as the “Known”) our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves and secondly self-awareness (the “knower” or “I”) the act of thinking about ourselves. These two aspect combine together to provide a unified self. “Your self is both (the) book…and also the reader of that book…” (Aronson). This concept of self is quite basic and is open to outside interactions and they the one sure thing which is liable to change how you view yourself – age. Investigations into children’s changing self perception show this vividly.

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As children age their self concepts become more complex (as does their command of language), more mature descriptions of “who we are” seem to move from merely describing physical characteristics towards descriptions of more psychological states i.e. “I have brown hair and a small nose” becomes “I am curious and confident”. (These descriptions of psychological states are also curiously social in nature – relating to how people interact.) As mentioned earlier these changes in self descriptions grow with language development, which is in turn developed due to social interactions. This is not claiming that thought does not occur as a consequence of language acquisition, but the ability to develop complex and abstract thought can be helped by language development (i.e. education) which is a very social process and only possible through interaction (also seen as key to self-formation).

Influence of language will be discussed again later on in the essay. Both Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934) view self-formation as a reflective process, with the key to self development being interactions with others. The idea that the self is socially constructed – with individuals looking to others for cues to know who we are. This idea of a “looking glass” society, has those surrounding us holding the mirror, displaying an image of who they think we are. To an extent this very true, we look to others for confirmations of our roles within our communities an also the ability to look at ourselves through other people’s eyes is crucial to developing a sense of self. As through this we can learn to understand that we may see the world differently from how others do. Experiments with great apes found that those held in social isolation were less likely to recognise or react to a reflection of themselves in the mirror, than those with social experience.

Human children can recognise or react to a mirror image of themselves from the age of two, when a child is much more socially experienced. This experiment show a knowledge of who we are stems from being around others like us, interacting with people gives us a recognition of “self”, from a recognition of what it is to be human. Would this recognition still exist if we lived in isolation, well if we were Great Ape’s the answer would be no, but the idea that we humans gain such a sense of who we are from our social interactions is an idea echoed though out every book, journal and study which has contemplated “the self”. If we do gain so much meaning and knowledge from our social environment (and the society surrounding us) what happens if the social environment is removed.

All categories of mankind are phenomenological constructs employed by the members of mankind. When we remove the social environment in which we live do the words we use to describe ourselves still have meaning – do they still apply. When listing descriptions of ourselves we tend to use words which apply to our “selves” as living in a social environment or how we interact within our relationships, seeing self-concept “as existing not within people but between them”. “I am shy, confident, a good listener, jealous, moody”, if placed in a new environment devoid of contact would these descriptions still apply? These words lose all meaning if an individual lived alone on a desert island, without the presence of a social environment can a person claim to be “confident”. Would such words carry meaning when devoid of the context in which they are used i.e. within a social interaction.

The flip side of this is to claim that people are predisposed to act in these ways but only do so when the environmental cues are present. As humans we find we are defined by our environment “each you is constructed socially” (V. Burr,1995). We become the products of the social encounters which we have experienced, past and present – we are shy, thoughtful etc. due to the relationships we have had in our lives. What this does not really address is the issue that “The self” remains largely consistent throughout our lives. The opinions and personality (subject to moods) I went to bed with last night is largely the same as I wake with this morning. Can a view that individuals are “constant” truly be possible if our relationships are forever building and shifting redefining themselves as our lives change (i.e. the relationship with a friend from school needs to change and be redefined once the friends have left school as that continual contact is now changed) and we age.

Claiming that individual learn there self-concept from others does present a problem – it rather removes the control from the individual, instead placing this into the hands of the surrounding environment. We then merely role play to adapt to the present environment. looking at the self as a process “continuously created and recreated in each social situation that one enters” Berger sees humans as chameleon like in their self-concept, but if this were true and humans were constantly “recreating” selves to adapt to our social settings, why do we so strongly believe our attitudes and opinions (of ourselves) to be so constant. One suggestion is that these feelings of consistency is provided by our memories. We select those memories that provided a consistent “narrative framework” (Burr) so that when we do look inwardly we find a more structured and less changing set of beliefs.

Contrasting to looking to others for cues or clues as to why we are so-why not look inside. “Introspection is difficult and fallible…(T)he difficulty is simply that of all observation of whatever kind.” Looking inwardly and examining your own thoughts, feelings and motives, does not have as much influence as one would assume on an individuals self-concept. A study by Csikszentmihalyi and Figurski (1982) into individuals thoughts throughout the day found individuals were more likely to be thinking mundane thoughts or indeed thoughts about other people and conversations with them account for the majority of our daily thoughts. (they also found no thoughts at all, were counted more than thoughts on the self. Introspection can be unpleasant, because it focuses our attention on how we fall short of our internal standards, “People generally strive to maintain a sense of self that is both consistent and positive”. Towards ourselves we are a biased critic, whether suggesting compliments or criticisms – we lack the subjectivity that others can provided.

As shown above the social environment in which we live can have an effect on how we perceive ourselves, however not all humans live in similar social circumstances – we are also subject to cultural differences. Research into the cultural differences between humans have identified two perspectives which influence how the self is seen. They are the: “Independent” and “Interdependent” view of “the self”. The “Independent” view is shared more by those socialised within a “Western” environment, their self-concepts are more influenced by the internal thoughts of the individual. This is contrast with the “Interdependent” view, which finds the self defined in-terms of the individuals relationships with other people (i.e. your thoughts and feelings are also determined by those of the people who surround you).

This cultural difference shows how strongly socialisation can affect self-conception, whether the self is viewed internally or externally guided, both viewpoints are influenced by the culture you are socialised in. Therefore if “the self” existed independently and not subject to the society which surrounds it, there would not be cultural differences. Society is forever evolving and in each society (whether that means a country, a family, or school) there are idiosyncratcies which are unique to that society, these would not be maintained to the degree they are if people were not subject to so much influence from others.

However it is a good idea to remember that culture is “only a construction and not an inherent reality”. Therefore what happens when you are removed from that reality? If your parents were socialised within an Asian culture, but are living in Britain what belief system are you more likely to relate to? Also the question of the westernisation of the non-western world has this had any affects on the peoples living in the twenty-first century, with so much western television/films, music, fashion, media in general offered to those outside of this environment, what could this impact have?

Linking to the above points regarding the dualism within different cultures, recent research has suggested that there is a parallel between cultural differences (seen within Western and Asian societies) and gender differences, in self-concepts, in the USA. Research suggests that women in the USA are more likely to hold a view of self which is “Interdependent” finding that women are more likely to define themselves more in relation to other people (making and maintaining close friendships throughout their lives), whereas men define themselves more as independent of others (trends suggesting that men tend to prefer a larger friendship groups – but less intimate relationships with their friends). Cross and Madson (1997) suggested these differences start in early childhood with choices of competitive activities for boy’s and more co-operative social relationships for girls and carry on into adulthood. The idea that each sex manages relationships differently is not really any new idea (one gets the idea we all have the same goals just different game plans) but the overlap between the sexes, in terms of their motives, more than makes up for the differences, suggested above.

In conclusion, research in social science has focused on the self as a social object, “defined and determined by actions occurring within the collectively of others”. Looking for the self as an isolate being is a rather impossible exercise, as humans live with, and amongst each other. Our sense of individuality comes from living in a social world – where we share language, living space and time with others. We all actively seek friendships, loving relationships and fear being left alone, it would near be impossible to try to separate one individual from the society which surrounds them. It is a rather overused cliché, but humans are social beings, and this is lacking from the above mentioned motives, the intrinsic need to be around others. We cannot separate society from the self as “ourselves” cannot be separated from society.


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Self and Society are Two Sides of the Same Coin. (2018, Jul 03). Retrieved from