How do I critically assess this statement
I am supposed to refer to these sources for my assignment:
- Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order, which is the second, separately-paginated section of Cooley, Two Major Works (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1956), pages183-185. The relevant passage, Cooley’s ‘The Looking-Glass Self’, is also available (along with much other material) via Resource List at: Theory/Cooley,%20Charles%20Horton/cooley,_charles_horton.htm
- George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1934), pages 135-178. Part of this section of Mead’s book is also to be found in Michael Hechter and Christine Horne, Theories of Social Order: A Reader (Stanford, CA:Stanford University Press, 2009), pages 60-66.
- John P. Hewitt, Self and Society: A Symbolic Interactionist Social Psychology (Boston: Allyn and Bacon,7,
- Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Edinburgh: Social Sciences Research Centre, 1956; later editions published by Penguin and others).
Philosophy is perhaps the first discipline that inquired extensively into the nature of the self, most significantly with Descartes’ cogito (I think, therefore I am). However, these theories tended to essentialize and isolate the self, envisaging an individual who is distinct and possessing an essence over and above the society she lives in. That is, the earliest philosophical self was an introverted unit, clearly distinguishable from her society and her surroundings.
Sociological theories of the self were aimed at precisely this fallacy: the individual is who she is by virtue of the society she moves in, and the socio-economic conditions that she is embroiled in. G. H. Mead, in particular, emphasised the crucial role of the other (what is other than the self) in the formation of one’s selfhood. His symbolic interactionism posits a self that is formed in a dynamic synthesis, through participation in social interaction. He dismissed isolated theories of mind which attempted to look at interactions in terms of the problem of other minds, to emphasise that the ‘mind’, as we know it cannot be thought of outside of the processes of social communication. Language and communication (including gestures, behaviour) become instruments through which an individual comes to understand her reality, and her place in it.
Charles Horton Cooley picks this up to present a mirror theory of the self. It is through social interactions that people are able to gauge a context or situation, attach meaning to it, to then behave appropriately. He can also be seen as endorsing Webber’s diagnosis of the loss of meaning in modern life (which the latter saw as a result of the breakdown of faith and community), to paint a (problematized) picture of human individuals becoming more and more isolated in an increasingly industrialising world. Communication becomes a means by which people can arrive at some consensus on the meaning of life events, and even mundane situations. For instance, the gesture of shaking hands when meeting someone for the first time can be quite meaningless without the context of the established convention that such a gesture fits into. Someone from a foreign culture, for example, may not know that this is an appropriate way to introduce oneself. Moreover, both parties participating in the communication should be aware of the convention, to be able to meaningfully employ it. In this way, individuals navigate a reality that is socially constructed and maintained in communication. The point being that social communication informs a person about her place in the situation (who am I, here) by means of codes directing her behaviour.
It is significant to note, here, that the sociological self is imagined as a dynamic person, ever changing, depending on the external context one finds oneself in. This is an important theme in Ervin Goffman’s work, who imagines social interactions as some sort of role-playing. He likens the arena of communication to a theatre. The context (ex: a wedding) is the background. People act out appropriate behaviour (the role of bride or the father, or a guest) after understanding the context, which is done collectively (as was discussed by Cooley). In performing these ‘roles’, people are able to synthesise an identity for themselves (as a bride, or bridegroom, etc). Each person’s sense of self, then, comes from a complex synthesis of all the roles she plays in different interactions. This doesn’t necessarily strip people of personal autonomy (seemingly making them actor-machines), but allows for spontaneity and creativity in the way each person understands a social context, and interprets a role: one doesn’t necessarily have to stick to normative ways a role is thought of. A man, for example, is free to choose to wear his hair long despite social norms presenting men as short-haired.