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Class 7: Social Construction of Self

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Author: Jessica Collett
Prof. Jessica Collett, University of Notre Dame. "Introduction to Social Psychology" lecture notes - Social Construction of Self

Class Notes

Nature versus Nurture debate- most sociologists would argue that human beings are much more than a collection of physical and psychological characteristics.  However, that doesn't mean that inborn traits aren't important.  Our selves are a combination of nature and nurture (Newman 2006). 

At birth, babies have no sense of self.  They do act on their own- the eat, cry, sleep, and so on, but this is not characterized as being conscious of self which develops later in life.  Babies cry when they are hungry not because they think "If I cry, I will get Mom's attention," but rather because they feel discomfort.  As children age, they are able to exert greater control over their conduct.  Part of this is because of muscle control and tactical development.  However, humans also must develop cognitive capacities through interactions with others that allow them to differentiate self from others, to understand and use symbolic language, and to take the roles of others.

To distinguish yourself from others, you must first recognize yourself as a distinct entity.  The first step is to distinguish yourself (your face and body) from the rest of the physical environment.  Humans are not born with this ability, but most studies suggest that it develops around 18-months of age.  If you make a large mark on a child's forehead with a washable marker, hold the child up to a mirror, and observe whether the child reaches up to wipe away the smudge, you can tell if the child recognizes that image in the mirror has his or her own.

The second step in the acquisition of self is the development of speech.  Language acquisition relies on neurological development as well as input from others, often from parents.  Parents often speak with children, and children learn to make the sounds, imitate sounds, and use sounds as symbols for particular physical sensations or objects.  This learning process gives the child access to the preexisting linguistic world in which his or her parents and others live.  The child learns the names of concrete objects as well as abstract ideas that cannot be directly perceived.  

Children can also learn that they are objects and have names.  A child who learns that others are referring to her when they make the sound "Elena," and that she can too use "Elena" to refer to herself, has taken a significant leap forward in the acquisition of self.  The child now can visualize herself as a part of the named world and the named relationships to which she belongs. By observing how people act toward themselves, they can learn the meaning of themselves.   

Charles Horton Cooley, one of the earliest symbolic interactionist, referred to this process as acquisition of the looking glass self.  

In this process we

  1. imagine how we might look to other people
  2. interpret their responses to us
  3. form a self-concept, based on pride or shame, from their response
Reflected appraisal- the idea that a person bases his or her self-concept on the reaction he or she perceives from others during social interaction.  Studies show that it is the perceived reactions of others, rather than their actual reactions, that are crucial for self-concept formation.
Why is it that a person's self-ratings are related more closely to his or her perceived ratings of others than the actual ratings?
  1. People rarely provide full, honest feedback on their reactions to us.
  2. The feedback we receive is often inconsistent or even contradictory.
  3. The feedback is ambiguous and often difficult to interpret.
We may know little about others' actual reactions to us.  Instead, we must rely on our perceptions of others' reactions to construct our self-concepts.

Works Cited

Newman, David M. 2006. Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA:Pine Forge Press
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