Study of self-descriptions and the locus of the self knowledge: a comparison study to research done by Rosenberg (1979)

This study explored the self-descriptions of two children and the locus of their self knowledge. The study was based on previous research by Rosenberg (1979). This study used an open-ended questionnaire as part of a one-to-one interview. The results were then compared to the findings of Rosenberg (1979). The results were similar to the findings of Rosenberg’s (1979) and therefore suggested that his hypothesis of self-descriptions seem to shift from physical to psychological characteristics by age. They also suggested that the locus of self knowledge shifts from parent to the self. However, some methodological issues were noted in gathering the empirical evidence.


The developmental psychologists such as Piaget (1976) have been interested in the processes of self-understanding and the establishment of a personal identity. But how does the sense of self form and what might be the factors influencing this process?

Young infants may respond to their carer’s smile with a smile. Yet, these infants do not have a self-understanding or a concept of being separate from their primary caregiver (Bowlby, 1944). However, at around two years old, children seem to appreciate that they make reflections in the mirror to move (Miell, 1995, p. 194). Children also realise that they are different from other people as adults cannot produce the identical movements as they did in front of the mirror (Miell, 1995, p. 194). This awareness of their own uniqueness and power to act in life events was labelled by James (1892) during this period of recognising self as ‘the existential self’ or ‘I’. From this age children have become aware that their actions have an impact upon their surroundings. They have realized that they are able to cause things to happen and that they are able to control objects; yet their identity continues to exist (James, 1892).

However, the process of the ‘existential self’ was not enough to explain the development of a full sense of self. As Dunn (1988) pointed out, children require everyday social interactions in order for their sense of self to emerge.

The second step in the process of developing a full sense of self, was according to James (1892), ‘the categorical self’ or ‘me’. Once a child has achieved a certain level of ‘the existential self’ he will be able to place himself in categories that define him as a person. This self is made up of social roles, such as Indian, boy or brother (Miell, 1995, p. 195). ‘The categorical self’ is also made up of characteristics which derive their meaning from comparison or interaction with other people (Miell, 1995, p. 195). These may be described as shyness, industriousness etc. However, it has been suggested that social deprivation may have profound effects on a child’s development of sense of self (Miell, 1995, p. 196). These children are referred as the feral children. Even after extensive rehabilitation these children rarely manage to establish few features of the elements of ‘the categorical self’ (Miell, 1995, p. 196).The distinction between ‘I’ and ‘me’ has consequently been the interest of other developmental psychologists e.g. Mead (1934).

The development of ‘me’ and the locus of self knowledge were in the centre of Rosenberg’s study. What he meant by the locus of self knowledge was that how far children had developed an independent and self-reflective sense of self that was separate from others (Rosenberg, 1979). Although Rosenberg (1979) focused on the latter part of the developmental process of self, he suggested that whilst children grow up and mature the emphasis of self descriptions would change from physical to more psychological characteristics. He also suggested that the emphasis of locus of self knowledge shifted with age from parent to the self. However, there have been some methodological problems in the interpretations of these descriptions. For example, the subjective nature of the statements made by participants may be interpreted differently by different researchers and therefore lead to variations in the empirical evidence.

The purpose of this research project was to explore whether the Rosenberg’s study could be replicated and whether there exists a shift of locus of self knowledge from parent to the self. This research project also attempts to seek if there were any cross-cultural aspects influencing the results.



As intimated earlier, the method used was based on a protocol published by Rosenberg (1979). Comparisons were made between two case studies with the participants who were recruited being of Indian origin. The two participants were both part of an extended family of the researcher.


The first participant, Philip, was a lively, eight-year old boy. He was attending a secondary school in Newport. The second participant was Anne. She was 17-years old and the older sister of Philip. She was in the process of taking her A-levels. They were the only children in the family. Their family had moved from Kerala, South India, only six months earlier to South Wales; where they now lived with their mother. Their father was working in Kuwait and did not permanently live with the rest of the family.


Both participants were interviewed at different times. The questions (Appendix 1) were open-ended but their basic structure and topics were defined by the Open University (Resources Booklet, 2003, p. 13-15). A tape recorder was used to record both interviews. The researcher also used a notepad to make short notes.


The study was conducted following the BPS ethical code and principles. After parental permission was obtained, the children were informed of what the study would involve and their consent to proceed was obtained. The interviews were carried out at the participants’ home taking care to reduce distracting factors such as noise and privacy from other members of the family.

The interview consisted of a number of open-ended questions aimed at identifying self-descriptions (Appendix 1, questions 1-6) and questions concerning the locus of self-knowledge which had been adapted to suit both age groups (Appendix 1, questions 7-9). Philip was asked the aspects of his father’s opinion rather than his mother’s as Philip favoured his father over his mother. Questions 8 and 9 were not proposed to him at all as he showed signs of tiredness and became disinterested in the interview. However, all the questions were proposed to Anne.

The interviews were tape-recorded but some notes were gathered by the researcher. The interview with Philip took approximately 20 minutes whereas interviewing Anne took approximately 30 minutes.


Rosenberg (1979), in his original study, had categorised participant replies into broad groups of self-descriptions. In this study, the self-descriptions were divided into four major categories which were adapted by the Open University (2004) from Rosenberg’s original work (1979). These categories were Physical, Character, Relationship and Inner.

Figure 1: The pie chart for Philip’s self-description category analysis

Figure 2: The pie chart for Anne’s self-description category analysis

The rationale for assigning answers into specific categories was taken from the examples and suggestions provided by the Open University (2004). The number of answers in each of these columns was then totalled and a percentage calculated for each category (Appendix 2). This procedure was repeated for each of the participants and the results are presented in the pie charts below (Figure 1 & 2).

The results show that there was a shifting of self-descriptions of physical characteristics from 67% to 41% for Philip and Anne respectively. Concomitantly, there was an increase in the percentages for the Inner and Character categories from 13% to 33% and 7% to 13% respectively. There was no change noted for the Relationship category.

The summary of the replies to the questions from 2-6 (Appendix 1):

Question 2: Philip considered his best point was his success in playing sports. Anne considered herself as honest.

Question 3: Philip did not have an answer to this question. Anne considered vertigo as her weakness.

Question 4: Philip stated that he liked watching TV like other boys in his age group. Anne stated that it was quite normal to dislike her little brother as she was a teenager.

Question 5: Philip’s response was to laugh. Anne thought she was generally more mature compared to the rest of the girls in her class.

Question 6: Philip’s answer to this question was more related to his plans to become an astronaut. Anne wished to become as a better person.

The summary of the replies to the questions 7-9 (Appendix 1):

Regarding the questions referring to the locus of self knowledge, Philip’s answer to question 7 was that his father would be correct. However, Anne answered that she would be correct on question 7 and 8 but for question 9 she replied that she did not know whether her mother would be correct.


Play has an important role in a child’s social development. Piaget (1976) argued that the social need to share the thoughts of others and to communicate helped a child to overcome egocentricity. He thought that through coping with and trying to grasp how best to make relationships work was important for a child. Through symbolic understanding, the child would later develop more abstract reasoning in the process of developing a sense of self. Other psychologists, such as Mead (1934) also emphasised the importance of social interactions.

According to him, children acquire a sense of self through play when they interact with others. He also highlighted the symbolic importance of language in these interactions. According to Mead (1934) ‘self arises in social experience, not outside of it’. In contrast, James (1892) argued that it was the internal psychological factors rather than social interactions that determined a child’s self-esteem. Therefore, he believed the child’s own evaluation of his achievements and competence in the areas that were important to him determined his sense of self.

The results from the first part of the interview (based on the questions 1-6, Appendix 1) suggested a shift from physical to psychological characteristics as age increased. This finding compares with the results obtained by Rosenberg (1979). Mead (1934) placed the emphasis on role-play and pretence. Through that, the child achieves the mature sense of self when he learns to take the role of the other. Although he highlighted the stage of play in this social developmental process, he did not consider the child as being egocentric as Piaget did (1976). Mead(1934) also noted that in order to develop a sense of ‘the generalized other’, the child must internalize a composite role of the ideals and expectations that the group hold in common. In this study, both of the participants were of Indian origin, but had only recently immigrated to Wales. Not only did they have an environmental change but they also had an immense cultural challenge to face as Western society emphasizes the individual’s social development whereas the Eastern society highlights the person as a member of society (Whiting and Edwards, 1988, p. 213).

In the finding of the locus of self knowledge this study showed similar results to the research obtained by Rosenberg (1979). Although the answers given by the participants indicated that the locus of self knowledge shifted from parent to self by age, there is a danger in over generalizing these results as self-descriptions may change with time and situations (Harter, 1986). Cooley (1902) had previously argued that other people provided ‘a social mirror’ that we reflect ourselves in. He also suggested that there may be ‘significant others’, such as parents, peer group, siblings etc. whose opinion matter to the children. However, these ‘significant others’ may change over time and situations, implying that there was a high correlation between self-esteem and the support given to the child.

Social psychologists seem to emphasise the importance of social interactions and play in early childhood for the development of a full sense of self. There is some evidence to support this theory of the feral children who have been socially deprived early in life. They lack features of a categorical self. However, caution must be taken when drawing conclusions of these studies as little is known about the social conditions of these children before they were found (Miell, 1995, p.196-197). Although there seems to be evidence of the importance of early childhood social interactions, more empirical evidence regarding the early social experiences of these children is required.

There may be differences in the children’s developmental trends and how they achieve the sense of self. ‘The categorical self’ or ‘me’ may only be achieved after a sufficient ‘existential self’ or ‘I’ has been established (James, 1892). According to Harter (1988) the child moves from observing others to being able to reflect on the self as seen by others. This shift in ‘the locus of self knowledge’ was also found in the study of Philip and Anne.

There were some methodological issues related to categorising the self-descriptions which were not necessarily related to different age groups. For example, in Philip’s self-descriptions when he answered ‘I like playing with Brian as he has a PS2’, this may be categorised into the ‘relationship’ column as he is talking about his friend. However, it may also be categorised to the ‘character’ column as it is a ‘manifested preference’ (The Open University, 2004, p. 23-24). Similarly, Anne comments that she enjoys playing the clarinet and singing in a choir. This again may be considered to be both a ‘manifested preference’ or an ’emotional characteristic’ (The Open University, 2004, p. 23-24).

As this study only involved two children from a different ethnic background, there is scope for future research involving a comparison of the effect of cultural and environmental change.


In conclusion, children mature at different rates. The development of self relies upon multiple factors: parents, peer group, culture, society etc. What seems to be general though is that there is a trend from physical towards psychological self descriptions. These descriptions are liquid and exist within the discourse. They change through social interactions with others and across the time. The locus of self-knowledge also shifts by age from parent to self. There is some evidence (Rymer, 1993) suggesting that without these social interactions and play the development of full sense of self will never be achieved. However, there are some methodological issues related in the study of existential and categorical selves. Future research involving a larger sample with different researchers categorising results may help to overcome some of these issues.

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