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Self & identity
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In sociology, the self refers to an individual person from the perspective of that person. It is the individual's conception of himself or herself, and the underlying capacity of the person's mind or intellect which formed that conception (one's "true self"). What an individual thinks of him or herself is at least temporarily directly influenced by interactions with others: the instruction and example behaviors they provide, and the way they treat him or her. Essentially described by George Herbert Mead as the ability to take on oneself as an object (Ritzer, 2003)

Development of self

In Mind, Self and Society, Mead (1947), describes how the individual mind and self arises out of the social process. Instead of approaching human experience in terms of individual psychology, Mead (1947) analyzes experience from the "standpoint of communication as essential to the social order." Individual psychology, for Mead (1947) is intelligible only in terms of social processes. The "development of the individual's self, and of his self- consciousness within the field of his experience" is preeminently social (Mead, 1947). For Mead (1947), the social process is prior to the structures and processes of individual experience.

Components and contributions of the self

The self is not so much a substance, as a process, in which the conversation of gestures has been internalized within a natural form (Burke and Stets, 2005). This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part (Burke and Stets, 2005). The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes then the mind of the individual hence it includes the attitudes of others and becomes what are called social attitudes (Burke and Stets, 2005). The process of relating one's own organism to the others in the interactions that are going on, which results in changes to the conduct of the individual with the conversation of the "I" and the "me," constitutes the self (Burke and Stets, 2005). The value of this importation of the conversation of gestures into the conduct of the individual lies in the superior harmonization gained for society as a whole, and in the increased efficiency of the individual as a member of the group (Burke and Stets, 2005). It is the difference between the process which can take place in a group of rats or ants or bees, and that which can take place in a human community (Burke and Stets, 2005). Accordingly, the individual not only plays his part better under those conditions but also reacts back on the organization of which he is a part (Burke and Stets, 2005).

Theoretical implications of components and contributions

People’s view of self and society is rooted in the structural approach to the symbolic interactionist perspective (Stryker, 1980). Within this perspective, people do not see society as tentatively shaped. Instead, people assume that society is stable and durable as reflected in the “patterned regularities that characterize most human action” (Stryker, 1980). Patterns of behavior within and between individuals have different levels of analysis, and this is key to understanding the link between self and society (Burke and Stets, 2005). At one level, people can look at the patterns of behavior of one individual over time and come to know that individual (Burke and Stets, 2005). By pooling several such patterns across similar individuals, we can come to know individuals of a certain type (Burke and Stets, 2005). At still another level, we can look at the patterns of behavior across individuals to see how these patterns fit with the patterns of others to create larger patterns of behavior (Burke and Stets, 2005). It is these larger, inter-individual patterns that constitute social structure (Burke and Stets, 2005).

The symbolic interactionist perspective in sociological social psychology sees the self as emerging out of the mind, the mind as arising and developing out of social interaction, and patterned social interaction as forming the basis of social structure (Mead, 1947). The mind is the thinking part of the self, essentially, the covert action in which the organism points out meanings to itself and to others. The ability to point out meanings and to indicate them to others and to itself is made possible by language, which encapsulates meanings in the form of symbols (Burke and Stets, 2005). When one’s self is encapsulated as a set of symbols to which one may respond to itself as an object, as it responds to any other symbol, the self has emerged (Burke and Stets, 2005). One would say the trademark of this process – of selfhood – is reflexivity. Humans have the ability to reflect back upon themselves, taking themselves as objects (Burke and Stets, 2005). They are able to regard and evaluate themselves, to take account of themselves and plan accordingly to bring about future states, to be self-aware or achieve consciousness with respect to their own existence (Burke and Stets, 2005). In this way, one can assume that humans are a processual entity. They formulate and reflect, and this is ongoing (Burke and Stets, 2005).

Summarization of component and contributions

To be clear, the responses of the self as an object to itself come from the point of view of others with whom one interacts (Burke and Stets, 2005). As stated in the definition, by taking the role of the other and seeing one’s self from others’ perspectives, personal responses come to be like others’ responses, and the meaning of the self becomes a shared meaning (Burke and Stets, 2005). Thus, paradoxically, as the self emerges as a distinct object, perspectives of the self and others merge (Burke and Stets, 2005). This becoming as one is possible through the shared meanings of the objects and symbols to which individuals respond in interaction (Burke and Stets, 2005). To reiterate, the self is both individual and social in character, insofar, it works to control meanings to sustain itself, but many of those meanings, including the meanings of the self, are shared and form the basis of interaction with others and ultimately social structure (Burke and Stets, 2005). Because the self emerges in social interaction within the context of a complex, organized, differentiated society, it has been argued that the self must be complex, organized and differentiated as well, reflecting the truism that the “self reflects society” (Stryker, 2003).

Contribution of the self to identity and community

Most interaction is between persons who occupy positions (statuses) in groups or organizations in society (Burke and Stets, 2005). Interaction is thus not between whole persons, but between aspects of persons having to do with their roles and memberships in particular groups or organizations: their identities (Burke and Stets, 2005). An assumption and implication of the above is that any identity is always related to a corresponding counter-identity (Burke, 1980). When one claims an identity in an interaction with others, there is an alternative identity claimed by another to which it is related (Burke and Stets, 2005). In each of these cases, there are things that are not talked about because they are not relevant to that identity, and there are things that are more likely to be talked about given the identity that is currently being claimed (Burke and Stets, 2005). There are various styles of interaction that are appropriate in each situation for each identity (Burke and Stets, 2005). We move into and out of these modalities very easily, and generally with very little thought (Burke and Stets, 2005). Often we operate in two or more identities at a time as in being both a friend and colleague (Burke and Stets, 2005).

Fundamental attitudes are presumably those that are only changed gradually, and no one individual can reorganize the whole society; but one is continually affecting society by his own attitude because he does bring up the attitude of the group toward himself, responds to it, and through that response changes the attitude of the group (Burke and Stets, 2005). This is, of course, what people are constantly doing in their imagination, in their thought; people are utilizing their own attitude to bring about a different situation in the community of which people are a part; people are exerting themselves, bringing forward their own opinion, criticizing the attitudes of others, and approving or disapproving (Burke and Stets, 2005). But one can do that only in so far as they can call out in themselves the response of the community; people only have ideas in so far as they are able to take the attitude of the community and then respond to it (Burke and Stets, 2005).


Burke, P. J. (1980). The self: Measurement implications from a symbolic interactionist perspective. Social Psychology Quarterly, 43, 18-29.

Burke, P. J. & Stets, J. E. (2005). A sociological approach to self and identity. Mark Leary and June Tangney (Eds.), Handbook of Self and Identity, Guilford Press.

James, W. (1950). Principles of psychology. New York: Dover Publications.

Mead, G. H. (1934). Mind, self & society from the stand-point of a social behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ritzer, G. (2003). Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics. New York: The McGraw Hills Companies, Inc.

Stryker, S. (2003). Symbolic interactionism: A social structural version. New Jersey: The Blackburn Press.

See also

Concepts of self