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Definition: self from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Individual as an experiencing being, the subject of contemplation, the object of introspection, and the agent of thought and action. Personality and ego are commonly used synonyms, though they do not have exactly the same meaning. The personality is more outwardly observable (by others, that is) and the ego, as a psychoanalytical term at least, contains unconscious elements that the self does not recognize.

Summary Article: Self from Encyclopedia of Identity

Understanding the constructed nature of social reality, the symbolic dimensions of social processes, the social production of human selves, the shared nature of meanings, and the dynamics entailed in the formation, reinforcement, transformation of the negotiated social order are some of the pivotal issues that students of social psychology have discussed ever since the discipline asserted itself as a viable intellectual enterprise. Among these issues, the discussion of the relationship between self and society has received a dis-proportional attention. The prominent figures in the field have addressed the issue in different ways while mostly attempting to provide a nuanced view of how individual actions are constituted in social contexts. These scholars have exhibited a strong desire to avoid the pitfalls of social determinism and psychological reductionism. Whereas social determinism focuses on the role of social structural processes in the making of individuals to the extent of disregarding singularity, psychological reductionism considers the individual as the building block of social history without accounting for the role of social forces. Recent social theorists are even clearer regarding the relationship between self and society than were their previous counterparts. In describing the connection between self and society, the preferred expression is “society of selves” instead of “self and society” because the latter implies that self and society are mechanically related to one another where the former acknowledges the reciprocal interconnection between active agents and social situations without glossing over their separation. This entry examines several theories of the self.

Modern Theories of the Self

The U.S. pragmatist George Hebert Mead was the first modern social theorist to clearly spell out a full-fledged theory of the self. In Mead's symbolic interactionist theory, the self is a social construct; yet the self retains its distinctiveness without being outside the context of the social. Selves are responsible for the existence of social activities, but the self exists in the context of social organization only. Following this important precept, Mead was able to provide a luminous view of the self as a process. Three important conclusions follow from this assumption. First, the self as process is an active agent, rather than a passive receptacle, whose nature is determined by unparalleled external social forces. The self reacts with dynamism in as much it is acted upon by processes beyond it. Second, the self, as a process, has the characteristics of being both subject and object to itself. As subject, the self is an agent that is actively involved in acts of reflexivity and communicative action, and as an object to itself, it is the subject of its own analysis. Third, by virtue of its capacity to observe itself as an object, the self adds an important dimension to itself: It is capable of taking the perspective of the other. Through this capacity to be in the shoes of others, individuals retain their identity without being an “I” unto themselves while the social characteristics of the self are asserted and reinforced.

Mead elaborates the latter point by way of a discussion of the bifurcated nature of the self. The self, according to Mead, consists of two inseparable and mutually reinforcing dimensions. He calls these aspects of the self the “I” and the “Me.” The I represents the spontaneous and creative facet of the self. The I denotes that the social is not a fully coordinated organization in which individuals merely play a socially prescribed role. The Me represents the social face of the self. Although the I and the Me are interrelated, they remain separate. Except in uncharacteristic circumstances, such as religious fervor or acts of patriotism, in which both temporarily blend, the I and the Me are distinct. Because the self is a social construct, an individual is not born with the two aspects of the self marked for him or her. A good amount of time passes before the two facets of the self are differentiated. This moment of segregation, which is organically linked with the capacity of the self to participate in role-taking processes, comes at a later age.

Mead, accordingly, notes that there are three major steps in the genesis of the self. The first step involves what could be referred to as the pre-play stage. At this stage, children mimic the acts of their significant others. Despite taking the role of the other, the child cannot yet take on or see another person's perspective. Here the individual is a member of society by virtue of his or her descent and the social rights that it possesses. Sociologically speaking, however, it is an imminent “self-object” that lacks social characteristics. Hence, the self at this stage is a self only to the degree that it exists within the midst of a society of selves and it has the potential to be a full self. Only in the last stage, the game stage, does a child become a full person in the sense of being able to take the role of multiple others and understand the interconnection that exists between varied roles. Only here is imitation meaningful because it is based on a proper understanding of the subject reproduced. Once a child assumes the role of the “generalized other,” he or she is capable of taking the perspective of the community at largenot passively imitating the actions of significant others, but creatively reacting to actions on the basis of understanding broader social processes. But this important stage is reached only after a child passes through the play stage, a stage in which a child takes the role of one concrete other at a time. Role taking at a play stage is limited, for a child lacks the capacity to partake in an abstract imaginative act to see the interconnection between multiple roles.

Quite a few social theorists have managed to reconstruct Mead's theory of the self with some success. Sheldon Stryker and Erving Goffman are among the most important theorists in this regard. The U.S. sociologist Stryker, who is famous for his identity theory, believes that, despite his important contributions to the theory of the self, Mead has not adequately addressed the relationship between social person and social structure. Although Mead contended that an individual can possess multiple selves, and the I and the Me are important dimensions of the self, he never fully extricated himself from the view that the self is an undifferentiated whole. Accordingly, consistent with Mead's point that the self is an active agent that exists in a symbolic universe, and mindful of the intersection between the self and social structure, Stryker provides his own structural version of symbolic interactionism. This structuralist perspective is primarily intended to show the intricate nature of the self because it exists within the perimeters of an increasingly differentiated social system. Self and social structure, however, do not exist in a separate realm; rather, they are two mutually conditioning aspects of the same whole.

In Stryker's structural symbolic interactionist approach of the self, role theoretic concepts play a critical role. Roles, as position-related performative expectations, act as important mediators between the social person and social structure. The concept of role, however, has to be stripped of its static connotations before it is synthesized with other symbolic interactionist concepts of the self. Stryker thus notes that roles are not preestablished scripts that are played out by social actors who have no choice but to act accordingly. Although roles are made possible in a relatively structured system of social relations, they are recast as they are played out. The extent to which roles are made depends on the nature of the existing structure. Some social structural conditions are much more open than others are in enabling members of society to perform roles in a creative fashion.

In Stryker's reconstructed notion of the self, a person does not possess more than one self; rather, Stryker notes the existence of multiple interrelated positional designations. He calls these context-dependent designations identities. An identity is a “part” within the same self and exists with other counterparts insofar as an individual is actively engaged in a complex social structure. Because actors assume multiple positions and play different roles corresponding to them, they have to prioritize their choices. Here, Stryker introduces the concept of identity salience, according to which identities are invoked in a given social situation on the basis of their place in the hierarchy of positional designations. Identity invocation is situational. In a relatively isolated social condition, only the same identity is invoked. But under situations where varied social spaces intersect, there is a good likelihood that multiple identities are brought into play in which an individual is much more committed to some identities than to others. Commitment to an identity largely depends on a person's relationship to a set of individuals with whom he or she interacts on a regular basis.

Goffman, the Canadian American social theorist who described a dramaturgical perspective, was much more specific than Mead was in his description of the self as a social construct. In contrast to Mead, who provided an interiorized view of the self, despite his emphasis on social experience, Goffman sees the self as the dramatic outcome of interactions made possible through the copresence of multiple actors. In describing the nature of the self, Goffman used the metaphor of drama without subscribing to the view that actors are born agents who, on the basis of pre-spelled scripts, make performance possible. The self is also not an organic entity whose potentialities unfold over time. Rather, Goffman sees the self as a dramatic effect instead of being responsible for the existence of dramatic processes. From this perspective, the self is not a social integrated unitary whole existing in its own right. Instead, the self is the result of a joint “ceremonial labor” whose existence is intimately related to the existence of other selves. Nor is the self, although a social element, the result of a generalized social reality. The self is constructed and reconstructed in specific social scenes. More exactly, the self is a performed-character whose fate is either to be credited or discredited.

And so that the self may not be a discredited character, and so that actors can carry on their performances smoothly, they use different techniques, including the techniques of idealization and mystification. In the case of idealization, actors go by the officially subscribed social rules. In instances where their acts contradict these rules, utmost care is taken to hide the act so that it may not be part of the publicly executed transcript. One such example includes secretive consumption, such as consuming alcohol or eating animal products where actors are expected to abide by the principle of ascetic purity. Or, actors may exercise constraint in revealing their wealth to foster the impression that their social status may not be perceived as the result of ascription. However, all idealizations are not carried out in a positive fashion. Actors can be engaged in negative idealization as well. A beggar who pretends that he is too weak to move is acting on the basis of a stereotyped image that may allow him or her to get the desired outcome. Actors do not present the same image to all audiences under all circumstances. They have to be engaged in audience segregation. By so acting, actors make sure that they are presenting themselves in the right manner to the right audience. A politician may be less successful if he or she is engaged in self-presentation of the self to all audiences in the same way; rather, he or she has to highlight certain facts and suppress others to meet the expected demands of a particular audience.

Regulating information to foster a positive impression alone may not bring about the desired outcome. In addition to avoiding acts that disrupt the anticipated definition of the situation, actors have to be involved in regulating their contact with their audiences to avoid ritual contamination. Managing contact with the audience is accomplished through the acts of mystification. To mystify oneself does not mean to be completely extricated from the social scene where the drama is being enacted, for such action renders the actor into a non-actor. Rather, mystification is a balanced form of social distance through which actors create a sense of awe among their audiences. By creating a distance between themselves and their audience, actors get ample time and space to prepare for the forthcoming interaction. Moreover, distance keeps the audience from observing actors at a close range, which could cause performance disruption. Most importantly, social distance prevents actors from revealing “secret mysteries,” however minimal they are, that play a critical role in presenting the self positively.

High-Modern/Postmodern Theories of the Self

Contemporary theorists contend that the nature of the self has changed as a result of the major social changes that have taken place recently. Hence, these theorists argue that a reconstructed notion of the self is timely. These social theorists, however, differ regarding the nature of the social change that has occurred. Some contend that a rupture has transpired between the modern and postmodern worlds. Others assert that modernity has not become a bygone era; instead, they note that modernity has asserted itself in a radicalized form rather than leaving the historical space for a qualitatively new social order.

Anthony Giddens, an internationally renowned English sociologist, is one such social theorist who belongs to the second category. He holds the view that we live in what he calls high modernity, a global social order in which the salient features of modernity are extended to their ultimate limits. Accordingly, despite some overlaps, his stance on the self is different from the postmodern views of the self. Fundamentally, according to Giddens, the self is now a reflexive agent that is actively involved in the practice of self-construction. To accomplish this, members of the radicalized modernity have to undertake self-observation on a regular basis. Each moment is examined for what it is worth. And in their reflexive engagements, individuals are assisted by experts and expert systems that dominate late modernity. Hence, the self under radicalized modernity can hardly dissociate itself from its autobiographical project in which creative inputs are constantly sought. The project, however, is not limited to a cognitive level. The body is also involved, not as a passive receptacle but as an “action system.” In general, the self has not been rendered inconsequential as a result of overwhelming global processes and a good dose of constraining conditions set on it. Rather, despite the enormous influences exerted on it, the radicalized modern self frequently asserts and reconstructs itself, thereby affecting the social processes that condition it.

Conversely, Kenneth Gergen, an U.S. social psychologist who became well-known after proposing an interesting theory of the postmodern self, contends that the change recent Western societies have undergone is so radical that societies have entered a new era and the nature of the self consequently is altered dramatically. The self has now, accordingly, become a “saturated self,” a postmodern self much different from selves based on romanticist and modern conceptions that are grounded in the precepts of personal depth, passion, and soul, on the one hand, and reason and rationality, on the other hand. The concomitant results of these conceptions have been, among other things, deeply committed relations, dedicated friendships, and life purposes for the romanticist self and relationships based on rational choice and predictable persona for the modernist self.

The emergence of the postmodern self, according to Gergen, is mainly caused by what he calls technologies of saturation, technological transformations that have assumed both low-tech (the railroad, public postal services, the automobile, the telephone, radio broadcasting, motion pictures, printed books) and high-tech (air transportation, television, and electronic communication) forms. The impact of these technologies of saturation on interpersonal relations has resulted in the perseverance of the past and acceleration of the future. In the former case, time and distance have become less threatening elements that jeopardize social relationships. By way of technologies, the cast of characters has increased with the consequences of either creating discomfort from the overburdens of interpersonal contact or creating comfort as a result of the opportunity to maintain relationships with a significant number of people. However, the acceleration of the future entails that the paces of relationships have assumed a faster mode such that interpersonal contacts are carried out almost instantly and in an uninterrupted fashion, leading to an increasing interdependence among individuals. Hence, the “population of the self”the exposure of the self to varied images, encounters, and opportunitieshas undermined commitments to romanticist and modern conceptions of the self. Although the saturated self is well informed in its orientation of the social world and efficient in its undertakings, it is more decentered than were the previous forms of selves. The saturated self is less enduring in its essence and much more subject to reformation and redirection with multiple possibilities of expression.

See also

Impression Management, Symbolic Interactionism

Further Readings
  • Bauman, Z. (2004). Identity: Conversations with Benedetto Vecchi. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Burkitt, I. (2008). Social selves: Theories of self and society. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Elliott, A. (2008). Concepts of the self. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Elliott, A., & Lemert, C. (2006). The new individualism: The emotional costs of globalization. London: Routledge.
  • Gergen, K. (1991). The saturated self: Dilemmas of identity in contemporary life. New York: Basic Books.
  • Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
  • Goffman, E. (1959). The presentation of self in everyday life. New York: Anchor Books.
  • Mead, G. H. (1962). Mind, self and society: From the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (Original work published 1934).
  • Stryker, S. (1980). Symbolic interactionism: A structural version. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
  • Kebede, Alem
    Copyright © 2010 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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