Social Construction of the Self


Socialization is the lifelong process through which people learn the values, norms, beliefs, and expectations of their society.

Socialization is the process through which people learn the values, norms, beliefs, and expectations of their society. Through socialization, people learn how to be members of their society, by developing and understanding how to behave in a way society finds appropriate. In turn, by learning and internalizing their society's culture, norms, values, and beliefs, individuals maintain and pass on the core characteristics of their society and culture.

Socialization takes place throughout a person's lifetime, but the effects of socialization are most clear in childhood. In a series of experiments that began in the 1950s, psychologists Harry and Margaret Harlow began studying the effects of social contact and social isolation on the rhesus monkey. In one experiment, the Harlows took baby rhesus monkeys from their biological mothers and placed them with two inanimate substitute mothers. One substitute mother was made of wire mesh and held a bottle to feed the baby monkeys. The other was covered in soft terry cloth but had no bottle or means for feeding the babies. Researchers found that the baby rhesus monkeys preferred the terry cloth mother. The babies visited the wire mother to eat, but they spent most of their time clinging to and cuddling with the terry cloth mother, especially when they were scared. Researchers theorized that physical comfort is an important element of healthy emotional attachment. In later experiments the Harlows isolated baby rhesus monkeys from their mothers and other monkeys for varying lengths of time. The monkeys suffered psychologically, and even after they were returned to their monkey group, they did not develop normal social behavior.

While rhesus monkey behavior does not necessarily represent human behavior, researchers have also studied rare cases of feral human children—children who have been isolated from human contact at early ages. One example is the so-called Leopard Boy, a feral child found near orphaned leopard cubs in India in 1912. Genie, an American girl who was discovered by authorities in 1970, was severely neglected in early childhood while locked alone in a small dark room with little to no human interaction. These children did not learn to walk, eat, behave, react, or interact as their socialized human counterparts did. Since they had rarely heard language, they did not learn to speak. Even when they were integrated into society and given care, social interaction, and rehabilitation, the children had extreme difficulty developing social skills and behavior. Because they had not been socialized, the children were unable to function as members of society and to develop a sense of self, or identity in relation to others and society.

Charles Cooley's Looking-Glass Self

Cooley's looking-glass self is the idea that people use social reactions from other people to create their conceptions of self and identity.
Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929) was an American sociologist at the University of Michigan who often based his ideas on observations of his children. He pioneered the idea of the looking-glass self, a theory that people develop a sense of self based on how they believe other people see and judge them. In 1902 he published Human Nature and the Social Order, in which he argued that individual self-concept depends on interactions with others. Individuals develop a sense of self based on how they think other people see and judge them. They see themselves, and construct a sense of identity, by interpreting what they think they see reflected about themselves in others' opinions and reactions. In this way the opinions and reactions of others function as a kind of looking glass (a mirror). For example, people may interpret the behavior and reactions of others as messages that they are intelligent, shy, attractive, greedy, kind, resourceful, or any number of traits. They incorporate these ideas into their sense of self.
The looking-glass self is a theory about how people develop an identity and sense of self. Individuals receive ideas about themselves from others, interpret them, and incorporate them into their self-image.
The concept of the looking-glass self has three parts. First, the individual imagines other people's perceptions of him or her. Second, the individual then interprets other people's reactions, perceiving either positive or negative judgment. Third, based on this interpretation, the individual develops feelings, such as pride or humiliation, which shape the individual's self-concept. If people believe others have positive views, they develop a positive self-image. If people believe others have negative views, their self-image is negative. For example, according to this model if students believe their teachers have negative views of them, they will develop a negative self-image of themselves in the role of student.

However, the individual may not accurately judge others' views. A person may interpret others' reactions incorrectly. For example, a person may think others are laughing in a negative way, when they are actually laughing at the person's wit. In this case the resulting feelings would be shaped by incorrect interpretation. Regardless of the accuracy of the individual's beliefs regarding the views of others, these beliefs form the sense of self.

This sense of self begins developing in childhood and by adulthood is usually solidly formed, although not completely defined. The process of developing and modifying a sense of self continues throughout an individual's life. As an individual comes into contact with new people and situations, beliefs regarding perception continually shape and reshape the sense of self.

George Herbert Mead's Concept of the Self

George Herbert Mead’s concept of the self proposes that the self is created through interaction between the I and the me.
American philosopher, psychologist, and sociologist George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) was influenced by Cooley's work. He built on the idea that an individual's self-concept develops through interactions with others. Mead believed that an individual develops two forms of the self, the I and the me. The I is the creative, active form of the self. It takes the self as a subject––something that does, thinks, acts. The me is the self as seen through the eyes of others. It takes the self as an object––something that is seen or understood, something that occupies a place within a society. The me conforms to social expectations and attitudes, while the I responds to those expectations and attitudes. For example, the me might understand social expectations or family norms related to young adulthood such as living apart from one’s parents, working, or getting married. The I can think about and reflect upon these expectations, as well as react to them. In the case of expectations related to young adulthood, the I might feel frustrated or enthusiastic about these expectations. The I responds in various ways to the what the me understands. The self is the result of the back-and-forth interaction between the me and the I, between conformity and creativity, and between social situations—and society's expectations in those situations—and the individual's response to the situations. Mead argued that an individual cannot develop a sense of self without society.

Mead's Theory of the Self

Sociologist George Herbert Mead argued that self-identity is formed from two parts: the I and the me. Social expectations—the generalized other—inform the development of the me part.
According to Mead, children learn how society expects them to behave through play and imitation. This imitation becomes more sophisticated as the child advances through increasingly complex stages of play. In the imitation stage babies and toddlers mimic the actions and words of the people around them. If a parent claps or makes noise, the child imitates what he or she sees and hears. At around age three the child enters the play stage, during which the child begins role-playing—pretending to be another person. The child may play dress-up in an adults' clothing or develop games in which the child acts out the role of parent or teacher or pretends to be a princess, superhero, or character from a favorite book or movie. At this stage the child begins to develop a sense of self.

At around age six the child moves into the game stage, playing team sports and other organized games. The child begins to understand the roles of other team members and how those roles interact. As the child advances through this stage, learning what each team member is expected to do during different game situations and coming to understand that individuals take multiple roles, the child begins to understand what Mead called the generalized other. The generalized other represents the perspective of society, including common behavioral social expectations—the roles society expects people to play and how they are expected to behave in those roles.