Self and Society
In sociology, the self refers to a set of perceptions that people have of who they are with respect to themselves, the social system and others. Classical sociologists consider the self as a form of social construction since its development is primarily influenced through the interaction with others. As is the case with socialization, the person is not a participant in the process of development of the self; instead, the individual has a significant influence on the process as well as its outcomes. Sociologists try to offer an explanation of the influence that social processes like socialization produce on the development of the self. George Herbert Mead, once a philosopher and now considered a sociologist, made important contributions towards understanding the concept of the self. The aim of this essay is to outline and evaluate how the arguments and perspective of George Herbert Mead have enhanced, challenged and transformed the modern idea of authentic self.
Mead challenged, improved and transformed the notion of authentic self by viewing the self as a social emergent. In this respect, Mead maintained that the self is an outcome of social interaction rather than preconditions (biological or logical) associated with the interaction. Mead's arguments are contrasted with the individualistic theories of the self, which argued that the self takes precedence over social processes. As illustrated later through his notions of “Me” and “I”, Mead challenges this assertion by stating that social processes take priority over the individual self. Mead also advances the notion of the self as something that develops rather than being initially there and attained during birth. With respect to this, the self develops due to the social experience as well as an individual’s interactions with others. The following subsequent paragraphs discuss how Mead advanced his arguments and views regarding the concept of the self, especially with respect to how social processes influence the self and not vice versa.
The first noteworthy contribution made by Mead pertaining to the development of the self relates to the close relationship existing between the development of language and development of the self. Mead illustrated this association using gestures. He opined that gestures refer to the behavioral responses that animals initiate when reacting to stimuli in the environment from other organisms. For instance, when a dog barks, another dog may also bark or opt to run away. In this case, the “meaning” associated with the “barking gesture” is tied to the manner in which the second dog responded to the first dog. However, dogs do not have an understanding of the meanings associated with their gestures, they merely respond, which means that, they utilize symbols without significance, as Mead called it. In order for a gesture to be considered significant, the second organism must respond in a way that is similar to the anticipations of the first, that is, both organisms should understand the meaning of the gesture in the same way. For Mead, “meaning” denoted the capacity to consciously expect the way in which other organisms are likely to respond to gestures or symbols. This capacity can be achieved using the vocal gesture, which is a phrase or a word. When an organism uses a vocal gesture, the person making the gesture reacts implicitly in the same way as the person hearing the gesture.
The role that language development plays in the development of the self stems from the fact that individuals hear their own vocal gestures; as a result, they are significant symbols in instances whereby they elicit the same responses in the person making them as in the person they are directed to. In other words, vocal gestures influence the self through reflexivity, that is, people hear their own gestures in the same way others hear them. In this sense, gestures provide an individual with the opportunity to speak to him/herself in the absence of others. Mead believed that reflexivity plays a crucial role in the development of the mind, which ultimately influences the development of the self. The underlying inference from Mead’s arguments is that language plays a role in the development of the self through permitting people to respond to others using sounds, words and gestures. Language is used to convey one’s opinions and attitudes towards other people or a subject. In addition, language is used in articulating a myriad of emotions such as confusion, happiness and anger. The development of the mind is influenced not only by language, but also by taking roles as described in the subsequent paragraph. Mead described taking roles as a play.
The second contribution made by Mead with respect to the development of the self relates to the capacity of an individual to position him/herself in others’ positions, which Mead considered pivotal in the development of self-consciousness as well as the self. Mead argued that the self is essentially cognitive and social. He also emphasized on the need to differentiate the self from personality, which is characterized by non-cognitive aspects. Therefore, Mead argued that the self is not the same as the individual; instead, it is related to self-consciousness. In this respect, the development of the self commences when an individual initiates interactions with others and begins to play roles. Role playing entails taking up other peoples’ perspectives and attitudes. Essentially, Mead argued that the self and the self-consciousness cannot develop without taking others’ perspectives. In the absence of perspective-taking, an individual is likely to develop an incomplete self-consciousness similar to the kind of reflexive awareness needed to make use of the significant gestures. Mead referred to this type of self-consciousness as proto-self instead of self because it lacks the complexity needed to develop the self as a whole. Mead pointed out that self developed from role taking arises from the generalized other, which denotes the general idea that people have with respect to the expectations of others in the social groups. When people take roles, it can be argued that they are taking them in dyads. Nevertheless, this kind of exchange is somewhat different from the complex behaviors needed to take part in the games although an individual can internalize the behaviors related to every position in the playing field. This means that people not only learn from others’ responses, but also from the rules defining the behaviors specific to each position in the playing field. In this respect, Mead argued that individuals come to perceive their own behaviors from the viewpoint of the game as a whole characterized a by a set of organized actions. From Mead’s arguments, it is evident that an individual’s existence in the community is more important than self-consciousness. This implies that a person has to first take part in various social positions found in the community or society, and then to utilize the experience to take others’ perspective in order to become self-conscious.
By taking up various roles and articulating one’s expectation of others, the self develops. In the course of the role-play, an individual internalizes others’ perspectives and begins to understand how other people feel about themselves and their feelings towards others in diverse social situations. Games also facilitate the development of the self by providing people with an opportunity to comprehend and comply with the rules associated with an activity. In this way, the development of the self is facilitated through accepting that there are rules to be followed for one to be successful in a particular activity.
Another notable contribution of Mead towards understanding the modern concept of the self relates to the distinction between “Me” and “I”. Mead had an interest in exploring human consciousness as well as the personal aspects associated with consciousness, which compelled to embark on a study of social facet of the self and the biological aspect of an organism; thus, providing with insights to explain the development of self-consciousness and the mind. Mead argued that “Me” and “I” are components of the self and that the two are distinct with respect to the development of the self although they belong together since they are parts of the whole self. It is necessary to stress that although the distinction between “Me” and “I” is utilized in sociology, Mead emphasized their philosophical basis. The socialized facet of the person refers to the “Me”, which denotes the learned expectations, attitudes and behaviors of other people as well as the societal expectations. This is also referred to as the generalized other. According to Mead, “Me” represents the stage of the self in the past and its development stems from one’s knowledge of society as well as his/her knowledge regarding the society and interactions with others. Simply stated, the “Me” denotes the social self, that is, how an individual’s social group views him/her. In addition, Mead considered the “Me” as an example of a cognitive object. The “I” aspect of the self denotes the present as well as the future stage with respect to the development of the self. It refers to the identity of the individual that is influenced by the manner in which he/she reacts to “Me”. For instance, the “I” might say, “Society requires me to behave this way, and “I” think I should (not),” this view becomes the self. The “I” stage of the development of the self is characterized by the individual having freedom of initiative. This is contrasted with the “Me” phase of the development of the self whereby the values, meanings and attitudes of others are integrated into the self through role-taking. The “I” phase is also typified by uncertainty, uniqueness, creativity, freedom and impulse. It is also vital to point out that the “Me” and “I” phases of the development of the self are in didactic association analogous to a system of balances and checks. In this respect, the “Me” imposes societal control over the self. Thus, the “Me” plays an important role in preventing an individual from breaking the boundaries and rules imposed by the expectations of the society. On the other hand, the “I” enables the individual to articulate individualism and creativity, and to have an understanding of how he/she can breach the rules governing societal interactions. Both, the “I” and “Me” constitute the self. Mead also emphasized that the “Me” comes first before the “I” in the sense that an individual must first take part in the various social positions found in society and subsequently utilize the experience in taking up others’ perspective in order to develop self-consciousness.
In conclusion, Mead challenged the modern day idea of the authentic self by contradicting with the individualistic theories, which argue that the individual self precedes social processes. He challenged this assertion by stating that social processes precede the individual self in the sense that the “Me” (social self) came first before the “I” (the object self). Mead also emphasized on the developmental feature of the self in the sense that it developed from social interactions and experiences in the social environment rather than something that an individual had at birth. In emphasizing the development aspect of the self, Mead elucidated the social emergence of the concept of the self-using the influence of language, play and games on the self.