Self and Society are Two Sides of the Same Coin

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Murphy states that the self is an internal phenomenon that is shaped by external influences like family, friends, coworkers, and society. All explanations of the self highlight the act of introspection and doubting one’s authentic self. Nonetheless, it is crucial to ponder whether this process of identification can happen in isolation from societal interactions. The aim of this essay is to explore the connection between the self and society, along with relevant theories and research on this subject. Considering the vast realm of social psychology in this domain, attention will primarily be given to self development, gender, and cultural impacts.

Psychologists have been studying the self and its existence within society since the 1800s. The modern theories of the self are influenced by William James, who first introduced the notion of the self’s intrinsic dualism in 1890. There are two main perceptions of the self: self-concept, which refers to our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves (referred to as the “Known” by James), and self-awareness, which is the act of thinking about ourselves (referred to as the “knower” or “I“). These two aspects combine to form a unified self. According to Aronson, our self can be likened to both a book and its reader. This fundamental understanding of self is shaped by external interactions, with age being one of the significant factors that can impact how we view ourselves. Research on children’s evolving sense of identity serves as a clear illustration of this phenomenon.

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As children advance in age, their comprehension of themselves becomes more intricate while their language abilities progress. Their self-descriptions also evolve, shifting from physical attributes to psychological states. For instance, a basic description such as “I possess brown hair and a small nose” transforms into something like “I am inquisitive and self-assured”. Interestingly, these mental descriptions are closely intertwined with social interactions. It is crucial to note that these changes in self-descriptions happen concurrently with the development of language, which is facilitated by social interactions. This implies that language acquisition alone is not the sole catalyst for cognitive processes; instead, it aids in the advancement of elaborate and conceptual thinking. The primary impetus behind this growth lies in social interactions, which play an indispensable role in shaping one’s identity.

The essay will discuss the influence of language later on. Cooley (1902) and Mead (1934) both argue that self-formation is a process of reflection, and interactions with others are crucial for self-development. They posit that the self is socially constructed because individuals depend on others to define their identity. According to this idea of a “looking glass” society, people around us act as mirrors, reflecting how they perceive us. This holds some truth as we seek validation of our roles within our communities and require others’ perspectives to develop a sense of self. By viewing ourselves through others’ eyes, we can comprehend that different individuals may have diverse perceptions of the world. Experiments involving great apes demonstrate that those raised in isolation are less likely to acknowledge or respond to their reflection in a mirror compared to those with social experience.

According to this experiment, children aged two demonstrate the capacity to identify themselves in a mirror. This recognition is thought to be influenced by their social experiences and interactions with others who are like them, aiding their comprehension of their own identity. Multiple sources discussing “the self” have supported this idea. However, if we were isolated like Great Apes, this recognition would not exist. Hence, the question arises: what occurs to our sense of self when our social environment is removed?

Humans themselves have created the categorization of humanity. The question is whether the words we use to describe ourselves still hold meaning without our social environment. When describing ourselves, we often use terms related to our existence in society and interactions with others. This suggests that our self-perception not only exists within us but also depends on connections between individuals. For instance, labels like “shy,” “confident,” “good listener,” “jealous,” and “moody” may lose their relevance in a human-free environment such as a deserted island. Can someone truly be considered “confident” without social interaction? These words may lose their importance when removed from their usual context – social exchanges.

The opposing argument suggests that individuals possess inherent inclinations but only express them when influenced by their surroundings. As humans, we acknowledge that our identities are molded by our environment. Valerie Burr (1995) asserts that “each you is constructed socially,” indicating that our personalities and traits, such as shyness or thoughtfulness, stem from the social interactions we encounter throughout our lives. Nevertheless, this standpoint fails to consider the fact that our sense of self remains relatively steady over time. The opinions and personality traits (which can be impacted by moods) I had prior to going to bed last night mostly match those I wake up with this morning. Is it truly feasible for individuals to remain unchanged when our relationships are perpetually evolving and redefining themselves as our lives transform? For example, once both friends graduate from school, their relationship must adapt and redefine itself since ongoing contact is no longer identical. Furthermore, as we age, our relationships also undergo shifts and alterations.

According to the argument, individuals acquire knowledge about their self-concept from others. This relinquishes control from the individual and places it in the hands of the surrounding environment. In this perspective, we adapt to our current surroundings by assuming different roles. Berger suggests that the self is continuously shaped and reshaped in every social context, making humans adaptable like chameleons in terms of their self-concept. However, despite this adaptability, we firmly believe our attitudes and opinions about ourselves are stable. One potential explanation for this is that our memories offer a sense of coherence. We selectively remember memories that establish a consistent “narrative framework” (Burr), providing us with a structured belief system that changes less during introspection.

Instead of relying on external cues or seeking information from others, it may be more advantageous to engage in introspection and look inward. However, self-reflection and examining our own thoughts, feelings, and motives do not have as significant an impact on our self-concept as expected. According to Csikszentmihalyi and Figurski’s (1982) study, people spend most of their day thinking about ordinary matters or pondering over other individuals and conversations with them. Surprisingly, thoughts about oneself are less common than thoughts about others or no thoughts at all. Introspection can be unpleasant because it directs our attention towards our deficiencies compared to our internal standards. It is a natural tendency for humans to strive for a consistent and positive sense of self; however, when evaluating ourselves, we often lack the objectivity that both critics and sources of praise can provide.

Research has shown that our self-perception can be influenced by the social environment we live in, as well as cultural differences. Two perspectives of the self have been identified through research: “Independent” and “Interdependent”. The “Independent” view is commonly seen in Western environments, where self-concepts are shaped by internal thoughts. Conversely, the “Interdependent” view defines the self based on relationships with others, where one’s thoughts and feelings are also influenced by those around them.

This cultural difference emphasizes the importance of socialization in shaping individuals’ self-perception, regardless of whether it is influenced by internal or external factors. Both perspectives are shaped by the culture in which individuals are brought up. Therefore, if the self were independent and unaffected by society, there would be no cultural variations. Society constantly evolves, and within each societal unit (such as a nation, family, or school), there are unique characteristics that distinguish that particular group. These characteristics would not be as noticeable if individuals did not experience significant influence from others.

The notion of culture is not innate but rather built, and when individuals are taken away from their cultural environment, it prompts the inquiry regarding which belief system they will adopt. For instance, if Asian parents reside in Britain, which culture will their offspring be inclined to embrace? Furthermore, the Westernization of non-Western societies has brought about various consequences in the twenty-first century. The extensive prevalence of Western television, movies, music, fashion, and media has influenced individuals beyond this setting.

Recent research suggests that self-concept differences based on culture and gender are present in Western and Asian societies. In the United States, women tend to have an “Interdependent” self-view, defining themselves in relation to others and maintaining close friendships throughout their lives. On the other hand, men see themselves as independent from others and prefer larger friendship groups with less intimate connections. This distinction can be traced back to childhood where boys engage in competitive activities while girls develop cooperative social relationships. However, it is not a new concept that each gender manages relationships differently despite sharing similar goals but using different strategies. Additionally, there is significant overlap in motivations between both genders, helping to balance out these disparities.

In summary, social science research emphasizes that the self is influenced by interactions within a community, highlighting its social nature. Humans coexist and depend on one another, so the perception of the self cannot be isolated. Our identity is shaped through involvement in a social environment where we share language, living spaces, and time with others. The inherent need for companionship, love, and fear of loneliness demonstrate our natural desires for social interaction. It is universally acknowledged that humans are inherently social beings and this recognition cannot be disregarded when considering these motivations. Society and the self are inseparable; we cannot detach ourselves from the society surrounding us.


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