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Preliminary social psychology questions and answers

People’s identity can be made sense of as existing in the cross-fire between our biological, psychological and social lives. This helps us to understand the differences between someone’s temperament, personality and self. Among social psychologists such as George Herbert Mead, the species homo sapiens is not fully human until we have been socialized. What are the skills necessary to build this social identity? Why is it that some skills have to be built before others? As adults we assume that our inner psychology and the objective world are separate. But research shows that it probably takes the child seven or eight years to develop both a subjective and objective self.

All animals have an individual temperament. But they only develop a personality if their species is social. No animal develops a self if they are not social beings. A foundation for developing a social self is to play roles, learn rules, navigate situations and learn to think abstractly. Mammals learn to play but why is play important to learning roles?

A good companion article to this one is my article Why Study History? – especially the section that begins “History is about collective creative activity.” In it I discuss the cooperative nature of the human species; how we are subjects and objects of history; role-making and role taking and how we objectify our thinking through externalization, objectification and internalization. I also discuss reification, alienation, legitimization and ideology. I close with a claim that there is in society a “social unconscious”.

Mead’s work took place in an industrial capitalist society and the kind of self that Mead studied was what cross-cultural psychologists called an “individualist self”. Cross-culturally, researchers contrasted that to the “collectivist self”. Lastly, I ask what kind of self would be possible in an industrial communist society? How would learning roles, playing by rules and navigating situations be any different?

This article is divided into two parts. The first part is a description of the ingredients Mead identifies as needed in the cultivation of a social self. In part II I sketch out how Mead’s characteristics might play out – first in collectivist societies such as India or Japan and second what the self would be like in an ideal communist society.

George Herbert Mead and the deeply social self  

George Herbert Mead was an interdisciplinarian at heart. Born in 1863 in Massachusetts, the heart of his work was in what I call micro-social psychology. That means he was interested in the process of how an individual became a social being. But unlike many major Yankee social psychologists who followed Mead, he was a deeply social,social psychologist. While others consciously or unconsciously followed Rosseau’s social contract theory, Mead insisted that humans were constitutionally social beings. For him, individuality was a bi-product of society rather than its starting point.

Mead had also drunk deeply in the Yankee philosophers of late 19th century to about 1940. His colleagues included John Dewey, Chares Sanders Peirce, Josiah Royce and William James at the University of Chicago. He did not begin to read process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s work until late in life when Mead became interested in the ontology and epistemology of philosophy. Long before process philosophy emerged Mead saw society as a collective creative activity rather than a thing. Mead showed how society created humanity and individuals acquired and sustained their humanity by playing roles. While not a Marxian, there is no other Yankee social psychologist who comes close to Mead in understanding how deeply social we are. The basis for this article in Part I is Mead’s book Mind, Self and Society; John Hewitt’s book Self and Society and Joel Charon’s book Symbolic Interactionism.

Three Layers of Human Identity

Human identity can be divided into three interacting layers. The first layer is temperament. This is the biological predispositions an organism has prior to becoming socialized. These are processes such as introversion-extroversion or calmness-hyperactivity. The second layer of identity is personality. Personality results from the interaction between temperament, which is innate, and personal experience, which is learned as part of being socialized into the human community. Personality is the relatively stable set of characteristics that make an individual unique compared to others. These characteristics appear to remain stable over time and to vary little across the roles that we play and the situations we find ourselves in. While personality is socialized, it is understood to emerge from the particular biography of the individual.

The third layer of identity is the self. The micro and macro groups who make up society are relatively indifferent to people’s personality, but have high expectations about the self. It is the self that meets the social world less from the point of view of the individual biography and more from the requirements of what it takes to be a social being. The self learns to be both a recipient of social forces and their dynamics and a co-constructor of those forces.  Furthermore, in order for society to be transmitted across generations those who develop selves must also, as parents, help build the selves of their children.

Building Blocks of a Social Self

In order for an individual to develop a social self the following “building blocks” must be mastered:

  • distinguish the inner world from the outer world;
  • learn language: both verbal and non-verbal;
  • manipulate tools effectively;
  • suppress or relativize biological urges;
  • cultivate a conscience;
  • learn to play in an improvised and designed manner;
  • decipher beliefs and customs of society;
  • master how to role-take and role-make;
  • learn the status and entitlements of people in roles;
  • learn to think abstractly to draw from past experiences and plan future intentions;
  • navigate across routine, mildly-problematic and crisis situations;
  • learn to cooperate and produce synergy in groups;
  • manage the tension between individual and social self-interest (“I-Me” dialogues).

Cultivating Subjectivity and Objectivity

All of these skills can be grouped into “objective” skills and “subjective” skills. Subjective skills have to do with what is going on inside of people. This involves understanding yourself as being unique compared to others, cultivating the capacity to think abstractly, learning how to self-regulate your body as well as how to self-reflect. People imagine that having a sense of internal identity is something that exists from birth. But psychologist Margret Mahler has demonstrated that a baby has to be at least 2 years old before there is any internal identity.

Cultivating objectivity is the capacity to understand that other people have minds and intentions of their own and that people in societies have expectations about how to act, play roles and navigate situations which are independent of our needs, wishes and expectations. Learning to be objectivity is difficult. In fact, it is so difficult that many adults never master it. But if an infant at birth has neither a subjective or objective self, then how does a very young child experience the world?

What babies possess is a proto-social self that is pre-subjective and pre-objective. On the one hand, babies are too lost in their own needs to see their caretakers as full beings playing roles and navigating in situations that are independent of them. They have no social objectivity. Other people are used as a means to satisfy their needs. At the same time, this proto-social self does not realize that its own internal states (emotions, fantasies and urges) are closed off and invisible to others. In order to develop subjectivity, there must be awareness that one’s inner life cannot be publicly scrutinized.

Elaboration of the Social Building Blocks

Let us review the building blocks and connect them up to the cultivation of objectivity and subjectivity. There are a number of important skills and concepts a child must learn as part of socialization that cannot be categorized in the service of either subjectivity or objectivity because they are both. These include learning to distinguish the inner world from the outer world, learning to use verbal language as well as non-verbal body language and learning how to manipulate tools.

Making and manipulating tools

All beings have to be able to earn a living in the environment. Most other biological beings are limited to their physical anatomy in earning that living – claws for raking, teeth for tearing and beaks for pecking. Human beings craft objects – tools – that allow us to act upon other objects to meet their needs.  Tools help us to focus our attention, intensify our actions and permit us to carve and shape what the world becomes. In order to become fully human and navigate through the world we must master the most important tools – spoons and knives, hammers, nails, chisels, weaving looms, telephones and cars.

Learning language

Learning language is vital to enable us to live beyond the here-and-now. It allows us to analyze our experiences by comparing them to our past experience and to project our future plans. Language allows us to share our experiences with others. This advances the learning curve for everyone. Further, verbal language allows us to build from others’ experience in the past and share experiences with future generations.

Developing a conscience

Another foundational skill in cultivating objectivity is to develop a conscience. As all parents know, it is futile to expect a one or two-year old to know what is right and what is wrong. So too, it is unrealistic to tell a child what is right and wrong and expect this moral encouragement to govern their behavior from that point forward. Tangible consequences —reinforcement or punishment— are more likely to be effective. But there is a point at which the conversations between parents and children about beliefs and morals move from interpersonaldiscussions to intrapersonaldialogues. In other words, the child internalizes these conversations between themselves and parents and makes them their own. Then an individual possesses a conscience.

Of course, having a conscience does not guarantee that the child will do what the parents want. But if the child does not enact the beliefs and morals of their parents, they will be aware of the difference, experience an inner conflict and probably feel guilty about their actions.  Prior to this internalization of previous conversations, guilt and remorse do not exist. Wrongdoing is merely a matter of fear of punishment, and following what the parent wants is motivated by an anticipated reward. The child is building a conscience at the same time as s/he is learning their society’s morals and beliefs as their parents pass them on.

Suppressing and relativizing biological urges

Another skill to be mastered is how to suppress and relativize biological functions. Biological elimination and sexual play have to be structured spatially and temporally so as not to offend social customs and laws.

Role-making and role-taking

One of the most important skills a self must learn is how to role-take and role-make. Roles are a predictable range of expected actions that are embedded in specific situations. Roles result from a conscious or unconscious division of labor between people for how to negotiate situations successfully. Role-taking and role-making requires a long time to learn. Learning to play roles in specific situations does not happen all at once. Children must first learn what the roles are. They first do this through play and then they learn to do this in earnest.

Mead’s Four Stages of Self-development

  • Preparation – in this first stage, the child is still mastering the language, tool manipulation, body movement and developing a conscience. S(he) imitates the actions of others in roles without understanding that they are roles nor do they understand the meaning of these roles.
  • Play -in this stage the child begins to understand roles but can only play the roles one at a time. Secondly, the child cannot see themselves from the perspective of others. Improvised play involves “let’s pretend” games in which the imagination is cultivated at the expense of structure. Roles, rules and purposes are invented, changed and ended quickly at the whim of the child and their friends. In the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes, Calvinball is a great example of improvised play where Calvin makes up the rules as he goes.
  • The game – in this stage the child can assume the perspectives of several others at the same time. In addition, the individual can now see her own selffrom the perspective of others. Here imagination is tempered by playing in games that have roles, rules and expectations built into them before the game begins and these constraints are rarely subject to modification. Designed play teaches structure, self-discipline and co-operation over extended periods of time. Any kind of group sports, a musical band or a theatre company organized in grammar school fits the bill.
  • Reference groups (Shibutani, 1955) In this stage an adult begins to identify with groups beyond significant others. One’s social class, ethnic/racial background and gender become significant in understanding how one is treated and how one is supposed to treat others. A person can play different roles while in each of these groups.

Power, Status and Privilege in Adulthood

Learning to play roles seriously involves not only learning what the codes are in general, but that some of the roles involve order-giving and order-taking. Every role has a status and a range of entitlements as to what is expected, permitted and prohibited. This is the origin of prestige, influence, privilege and power in adulthood.

Learning to Navigate Situations

Roles and situations produce synergy

Most groups cooperate. The agreement to play roles has embedded in it the assumption that if we divide up the tasks into roles, the end result will be more than anyone could achieve alone. When groups do this, they produce “synergy”. This is a sense that when individuals come together to cooperate, they produce a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Even the most seemingly uncooperative and competitive groups have some level of cooperation at their foundation.

Eight dimensions of situations

For a long time, the child does not understand that all roles are rooted in situations. Learning to decipher situations is a whole other skill. Individuals are virtually always in situations as they move across the day. Leaving the house in the morning, driving the car to work, discussing a problem at a staff meeting, going out to lunch in an outdoor restaurant and waiting in line for groceries after work are all situations that require us to play different roles. In every situation there are at least eight dimensions:

  • meaning (what is happening?);
  • purpose/hopes (why is it happening?);
  • power base (who is making it happen?);
  • rules (how is it happening? what is expected, permitted, forbidden?);
  • roles (how is this group organized? Is there a place for me?);
  • norms/customs (how am I supposed to act informally—my clothing, body language;
  • physical setting (furniture, artifacts – where is it happening?);
  • time-line (when is it happening? how long will it last?).

Routine, mild-problematic and crisis situations

There are three types of situations: routine, mild-problematic and crisis. A routine situation is one that is stable and repetitive in which most or all of these questions are answered by everyone in more or less the same way. They are usually taken for granted and not explicitly discussed. Lack of clarity among people over a critical mass of these eight dimensions destabilizes these routine situations and leads to either a restabilization of the routine situation through discussion or to problematic or crisis situations.

For example, classroom encounters are examples of routine situations. We come into the classroom and most of the students are sitting away from the front of the room. They understand they are in a classroom; they are students trying to get a decent grade and so they have to play by a certain set of rules and play the role of student. They are expected to raise questions, bring paper and pens, and take turns when speaking. The teacher does not have to announce that the students cannot spontaneously come to the front of the room and sit on our desks, or begin moving furniture around.

A mildly problematic situation is one in which unexpected, minor novel events stretch the boundaries of the eight dimensions without calling them into question. But in a mildly problematic situation, some of the eight dimensions come to the level of group consciousness because they must be discussed and negotiated in order for the situation to be stabilized. Sometimes mildly problematic situations emerge not because of events but because a significant number of people in the group misunderstand some of the dimensions of situations or do understand them and are in conflict about them.

In the example of a classroom, a mildly problematic situation might be a number of students questioning the absence policy or grading criteria in front of other students. The authority of the teacher, the rules for the class and the time-line are being tested. But the reason why everyone is present and what they are doing remain stable. Whether this situation returns to routine or escalates into a crisis depends on how everyone in the room negotiates over these reservations.

A crisis situation occurs when either most of the dimensions are called into question or only the most important ones are, such as the meaning, purpose or power base. Then the very meaning of what we are doing together in the situation is up for grabs. A natural disaster that rocks a school can immediately change a routine situation into a crisis. It ends the formal educational setting and forces the same group of people to renegotiate how they are to be together in a collapsing building. Because the situation has changed, all the dimensions of the situations have to be reorganized.

Designed play, role-taking and routine situations

There is an important relationship between Mead’s “play” and “the game” on the one hand and routine and crisis situations on the other. Designed play (the game) socialized children to respect structure and perseverance in order to participate in routine actions. When an individual operates in a routine situation s/he is role taking.  S/he is entering a role that is already in place.

Improvised play, role-making and crisis situations

Improvised play teaches a child how to be imaginative when the group is faced with a crisis situation. When an individual is operating in a crisis situation they are role-making. They are creating the role (with others) on the spot. These skills are the micro-roots for understanding that individuals, by our actions, are always creating order and conflict, of conforming and being creative.

Summarizing, social order goes with designed play, routine situations and role taking. Conflict and creativity goes with improvised play, problematic or crisis situations and role-making. Improvised play, role making and learning how to navigate in crisis situations in everyday life are the skills needed to participate in social movements and revolutions we shall see.

Cultivating an Objective Self and a “Generalized Other”

When children first enter a social situation they do not know anything about roles or situational rules. This proto-social self imposes their personality on the roles and situations they stumble into, oblivious to the roles people are already playing and the type of situation they are in.  But no sooner has a person learned how to play a given role than they must learn that:

  • A person (say their parents) play many differentroles in the course of a single day other than “mom” and “dad”;
  • roles are detachable from particular people. Roles can be played by anyone, not just the people they know;
  • these multiple and detachable roles will change depending on whether a person is in a routine, mildly problematic or crisis situation.
  • These roles are New roles emerge in certain historical periods, for example a computer programmer. Other roles dwindle such as the role of a peddler in the Middle Ages or a farmer operating a small farm in Yankeedom today.

Playing all these roles as children, whether in musical bands, dance companies or sports groups is of course preparation to play roles at work.

Thus far the tools that go with cultivating objectivity include playing roles and learning how to change roles as situations dictate. In addition to this, there is a movement in the experience of a young child away from present time (their individual lifetime) and local geography (the domestic household) to past and future time history) and a less local geography (beyond the domestic household). This is what Mead meant when he characterized it as cultivating a “generalized other.” Developing a generalized other is an internalized sense that other people and the situations they find themselves in are objective and independent of the internal wishes, hopes and fears of any individual.

Children come to realize that the domestic household, which they think is the world, is, in fact, a tiny slice of a world surrounded by many other domestic households. They may learn that the roles they master are small parts of historical structures that have come into being before their individual lifetime and may remain after they die. In short, developing the objective side of a self involves cultivating a detached understanding that what is going on in society is independent of our needs, wants, interests, hopes and fears.

Cultivating a Subjective Self

But what about an individual’s “subjectivity” or as symbolic interactionists call their “biographical self”? According to Mead, developing a sense of subjectivity is impossible without first understanding what it means to be objective. Once objectivity is understood one’s personal identity can be seen in perspective, as relatively small but also unique. The proto-social self of the child comes to understand that their inner world is not on display to others – that others are not simply an audience for the child’s personal dramas. Other people have individual lives that are unique to them, theirs to make for better or worse. This awakening allows them to think about, fantasize and act towards themselves, not as the center of the universe, but as a unique being among other unique beings.

Just as the individual must understand the social world as expanding in geography and time, so the individual must come to see their own life as having wider temporal and geographical reaches. The budding self realizes that it has a past and future as well as a present. The individual must be able to reflect on past experience, not only in the service of their present situation, but also in where they want to go. At the same time the individual self must understand that their ability to shape and change things can extend beyond the domestic household to work settings and as citizens. In other words, just as the individual comes to understand the world as expanding in time and space, so they come to see the same process, at least a microcosmic version of it, going on in their life. Some learn these skills better than others. Many social problems in the world result from the inability of individuals to master these building blocks.

“I-Me” Dialogues

Once an individual develops a picture of an independent objective world and a distinct subjective world, a unique problem presents itself. An understanding of the objective world means that there are stable expectations that social groups and the situation they are embedded in have for the individual. Yet at the same time, because we understand how to navigate these social roles and situations, we have a greater chance of transforming them in the service of what we want. The problem now is how to reconcile the individual and social self-interest.

Once this conflict is recognized, internal negotiations must take place. Mead calls the part of the individual who has internalized the expectations of others the “me” part of the self. This is probably confusing to many since “me” might usually refer to individual self-interest. It probably would have been better had Mead called this the “they” or the “we” part. But if we want to follow Mead we are stuck with the “me” part. The part of the self that represents the interests of the individual in relation to society is the “I” part. Mead calls the subsequent negotiation between these two parts the “I-Me” dialogue. These two sides both cooperate and compete with each other. They haggle, trade, plead when in roles and situations. The following is an example.

Suppose an individual in a tribal society sees a member of their kin group headed toward their hut expecting to visit and be fed. The I part of the potential host says to themselves, “here comes so-and-so, the loafer, expecting a free hand-out. Let’s leave quickly so we don’t have to entertain him”. The Me part says “no, he is our kinsman and I am responsible for treating him as one of our own.” The I part counters with “but he is such a free-loader. He wouldn’t do the same for me”. The me part counters with, “but the members of his family would be upset with me and they are not loafers. I don’t want to start trouble with them.”  The I part tries a compromise. “Maybe I can stay with him for a few minutes and pretend to be sick in order to send him on his way.”

Forces of Socialization and Learning Mechanisms

All the ingredients in building a social self: the thirteen building blocks; cultivating an objective and subjective self; learning to navigate routine, mild problematic and crisis situations; learning to role-take and role-make; identification with status groups; learning designed and improvised play and cultivating I-Me dialogues are mediated by macro social forces. In our society these forces of socialization include family, friends, educational institutions, mass media, sports institutions, the state and religious organizations. The manner in which the forces socialize the individual occurs though four methods of learning – association and consequent conditioning (behaviorism), social learning (Bandura) and cooperative learning (Vygotsky).

Coming Attractions

The self in cross-cultural perspective

Up to now we have treated the building of a social self as if it had no variation across cultures. While all societies have to provide children with the building blocks described, how they get built, what they emphasize and what gets downplayed varies from society to society, depending on whether they are hunter-gatherers’ bands, horticultural villages, herding societies, agricultural states or industrial capitalist societies. As societies change and evolve, so does the form of the social self. In part II we are leaving the direct claims of Mead and discussing how his work might be applied by cross-cultural psychologists and show how it might be connected with the collectivist self.

The self in social movements and world history as precursors of the communist self

In order to understand what a communist self might look like we also need to understand the social movements that might give rise to socialism or communism. What you are asked to do in a social movement helps to birth a new kind of self, whether that self is communist or not. Secondly, being part of a social movement is not just something that spans the globe. Being part of a social movement links the individual to history. Individuals develop a world-historical identity. It invites us to engage all of Mead’s ingredients in a social sense in a whole new way, as part of world history in the making. The world-historical self is embedded in the communist self.

This essay is part of our ESSENTIALS collection.

About the author
Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his four books: From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World Co-Authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present and Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized. He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia WA.

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