Not expecting anyone to read, but thought I'd offer... If you're a dork and you are interested in reading about contrasting notions of how self/ego/identity evolves, here's sumpin that might help. I definitely agree with symbolic interactionist explanation for the evolution of personal identity/self-concept (which is arguably different from elusive spiritual notions of "Self").
“Know thyself.” This Socratic aphorism takes on new meaning in, what is becoming, an increasingly postmodern culture. Can an individual truly know one’s self, moreover, is there such a thing as “self,” and, if there is, what is it? A biological endowment, a history, a set of feelings, a conglomeration of experiences… an illusion? Whatever we call it, it seems to be our center of knowledge, the “place” where meaning resides. Self is the part of us we least understand yet most desire to know. Can science study it? Can philosophy reveal it? Can evolution explain it? Can psychology cure it? The answer to these questions plagues theologians and social scientists alike. Empirical investigation leaves us wanting, nevertheless, theories regarding the formation of the phenomenon called “self” continue to proliferate across academic disciplines.
Currently, two seemingly irreconcilable positions vie for acceptance within the ongoing debate regarding what “self” is. Structuralists, also known as modernists, purport that “self” is a fundamentally unchanging, autonomous, centralized and stable, pre-given essence, unique to every individual. Poststructuralists, also known as postmodernists, reject this view. Poststructuralists contend that “self” is an “overdetermined illusion.” Self is neither essential nor fixed; rather, it is a fabrication manufactured and sustained by discursive means. Linguistic determinacy and individual agency are at odds.
This paper is an attempt to reconcile these two positions. First, I will explicate arguments from both the structuralist and poststructuralist theories of self; then, in an attempt to transcend these positions, I offer the pragmatic theory of self proposed by both George Herbert Mead and Kenneth Burke. I critique the literature, and finally, I consider the implications of each theory for interpersonal relationships.
REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE
Origins of the concept of self have been traced back to Homeric times (Ziller, 1973 p. xiv). Translations of these writings express the distinction between the physical human body and some non-physical counterpart described as soul, spirit, or psyche. The self has continued, throughout the ages, to be a focal point of reflection and study. Greek philosophers of the Classical era spoke of a “soul” with unmitigated certainty; identity was considered essential, unitary, and fundamentally unchanging.
Idealism persisted throughout the Enlightenment era. Thinkers such as Descartes reified the promise of identity with the notion of cognito, Kant offered the transcendental ego, and even Freud advanced the Enlightenment project with the concept of “id.” Each believed self to be a natural entity; thus, offering an ontological base from which the individual was adopted as the primary reality. The self was described as an integrated core; a center from which awareness, feeling, thinking, and acting arose. The ideology of autonomy and individuality was now deeply embedded in Western thought. Geertz (in Shotter, 1989) describes the Western conception of personhood as:
bounded and unique, a more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe, a
dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment and action, organized into a
distinctive whole and set contrastively against other such wholes and against a social
and natural background (p. 1).
However, Geertz continued, “This is a rather peculiar idea within the context of world cultures.”
The modernist version of identity, according to Habermas (in Lash & Friedman, 1992), “carries with it a certain amount of very questionable baggage” (p. 5). With the era of modernity coming to an end, so too, was the rational and unified subject at the heart of Cartesian philosophy. Oravec (in Crusius, 1999) states:
The wholeness, uniqueness, intentionality, and generative power of individual human
beings, generally phrased “the problem of identity” has been thrown into question . . .
A common thrust that links these various approaches . . . [is] a view of the individual
as “constructed” rather than “constructing,” that is, determined by forces, whether
environmental or linguistic, which are impersonal and universal, and hence,
nonproductive of uniqueness or “identity” (p. 37).
Philosophers such as Hegel, Nietzche, and later Heidegger and Sartre began to question the concept of “self” as professed by Enlightenment thinkers. Throwing modernity’s ontological and epistemic assumptions into disarray, poststructuralist philosophers began to launch an attack on modernity’s notions of subject and identity. Contemporary postmodern theory about the concept of self has typically been concerned with an erosion of the belief in an essence of foundational identity defining the person. Fragmentation and multiplicity become central themes in theories of identity. In the era of postmodernity self becomes an “overdetermined illusion.” Identities are replaced with what Davis (2000) explains as
a fragmented, discontinuous dissolution of boundaries between interior and exterior
worlds .… No longer an individual, rather, a fluid set of effects produced by
processes of discourse. Poststructuralists announce the death of the subject. This
conception displaces the essentialist and unified notions of the individual by
repositioning it in unstable structures of language, discourse, thus, rendering self to a
shifting set of textual effects (p. 113).
Postmodernists claim that it is the repetitive enactment of discursively produced identities that creates the illusion of an inner sense of identity. Identity is not substantial or essential, but a product of discourse about identity. There is no doer behind the deed; the doer is constructed by the deed.
The postmodern “self” is no longer an identifiable entity. It is not in the individual, it is not a single locus of control, never entirely defined because it is always in the process of creation. I become all of my cognitive debates and discussions, I am not permanent or fixed, rather a set of choices, possibilities, thoughts, conversations, always created in the present. I am an open-ended question responding, and responded to, with a never-ending referral of open-ended answers. Claiming then, that the essence of identity is a fabrication manufactured and sustained through discursive means, postmodernists proudly proclaim the centrality and sovereignty of the individual has been “unmasked” (Shotter, 1989). Fogel (1993) clarifies both the modern and postmodern position:
Dialogical Self (Constructed) Objective Self
the self has multiple I positions, each of which has the self is unitary with a single
different perspectives. the self is embodied such that I positions the self is disembodied and thought
must occupy an imaginary time and space. Can transcend its material
Thus cognition must participate in a dialogue boundaries by taking an abstract
and cannot transcend those positions, stance
except from some other embodied position..
the self is social the self is individual even though one
can think about interacting with another
the self is decentralized; it is not one particular the self is the centralized or ideal
position but all of them combined and in dialogue center of control with defined boundaries
the self is defined with respect to its historical the self is context free, without reference
and cultural context to society and culture, and can stand
outside its own history
What then, do these seemingly irreconcilable positions offer us? Must we choose between a sterile, unchanging, predetermined notion of self and a fragmented, unstable, discursive fiction? Can we retain self, some sense of identity and uniqueness, and also account for growth, change, and instability? Neither idealism nor deconstruction works. I propose a third alternative, which allows for the socially constructed self to maintain an individual identity. I propose Mead and Burke’s theory of self as a way to reconcile both positions. I begin with Mead.
Mead, like the poststructuralists, rejects the essentialist notion of self and opts for a constructivist position. Mead argues that selves, persons, traits are social and historical constructions. We are dependent on others to become ourselves. Self must be understood as evolving out of a process of symbolic interaction; it cannot develop without others. Self is not in “me” rather within “us.” While, for Mead, it is impossible to conceive of identity outside of social interaction, this does not translate to the poststructuralist conclusion that identity is an “illusion.” Self is neither an unchangeable substance nor a linguistic artifice. Decentering does not translate to dissolution. Meads saves the self while accounting for its social origin.
Mead sees persons as forming attitudes and dispositions taken from others, which becomes the basis of how one sees one’s self as a social entity as well as a means for developing social identity (Dunn, 1997). He claims self is based in the perceived social responses of others, which, become part of a person’s perception and relationship to self. Thus one’s relation with others becomes grounds for the conception of self. For Mead self is not fictive insofar as it is rooted in the capacity to make an object of one self as a real person.
Mead insists on the objective quality of the self. It is through the social process that an individual develops a mind and self. Meads theory of symbolic interaction claims that just as individuals are born mindless, they too, are born selfless; our selves arise in social interaction with others (Herman, 1994). The distinguishing aspect of the self is the self’s ability to be an object to itself. Herman explains Mead’s position:
One is able to stand outside oneself to view oneself as an object, by taking the role of
others toward oneself. One can experience himself [sic] as an object insofar as he can
become an object to himself just as other individuals are objects to him (p. 193).
The distinctive quality of the self then, is its duality, that is, its capacity to be both a subject an object to itself. How can an individual get outside of her or himself in such a way as to become an object to one’s self? Again, Herman argues:
He becomes an object only by taking the view of others toward himself within a social
environment. This reflexive ability is made possible through the use of language, a set
of symbols. A person comes to acquire a self and becomes conscious of this self
through the application of meanings and linguistic entities which are socially derived.
In short, the self is a linguistic construct (p. 193).
The capacity to reflect on oneself as an object thereby bringing self into existence is a process, according to Mead, that occurs within four developmental phases. Charon (1992) describes each of the phases as follows:
1) Preparatory stage – This is the most primitive self-emerging, presymbolic stage of self. As infants we learn to imitate others. But insofar as the act is imitation, it lacks meaning; it lacks symbolic understanding. Other objects have not taken on meaning, therefore “self” as object cannot be understood; it has no meaning. In this stage social objects, including self, are not yet defined.
2) Play stage – Within this stage individuals acquire language. We are able to define objects with words that begin to have shared meaning. Objects that were acted upon because of imitation are now acted upon according to the meaning shared in interaction with others. The self is pointed out by others (“There you are.” There “who” is? “Are you sleeping?” Am “I” sleeping?). Others point us out to ourselves, we begin to see ourselves, point ourselves out, become objects to ourselves; we identify with this object. The “you” that you are talking to becomes “me.” Self-consciousness emerges. During this stage there is usually a set of significant others with which we are often in close contact. These significant others shape our ideas of self; they become our role models. They provide a pattern of behavior and conduct on which one patterns oneself. Through this interaction we begin to pattern our own behavior. Significant others are responsible for the emergence of self; the child comes to view self as an object because of significant others. In a sense I fail to see myself without the awareness that these significant others see me. In this stage it is assumed that the child assumes the perspective of only one significant other at a time. One cannot see self from the perspective of many persons simultaneously; the view of self is a segmented one. The self is a multitude of social objects, each defined in interaction with a single other.
3) Game stage – In this stage the individual begins to organize the perspective of several others simultaneously. Individuals begin to understand their social role in relation to a complex set of others; they acquire a group perspective. Self incorporates all significant others into a “generalized other.” Self also becomes more unitary, changing in interaction between significant others, but not radically. Roles are defined. The “me/them” dialectic emerges. Seeing others as objects, different from self allows the individual to see self as different from them and reflect on that difference. The generalized other has just afforded the individual with an understanding of self. From this development we are then allowed difference and coherence. We become stable in the sense we learn a fixed sense or rules, norms and roles; we come to an understanding of self’s role within that society (definition of self) yet, once we have a set of norms and behaviors we can then transcend them. We can emancipate ourselves from the particular situation. Yes, there is consistency across situations but also ability to reflect and make new choices changes according to new situations
4) Reference group stage – Within this stage we interact with an awareness of many different groups. We have a perspective and awareness used to define self within each social world. We can conceive not only of a generalized other, but also share new perspectives, even alter self in new ways. A changing self can occur as it has been provided with secure base from which to alter itself. Our significant others provided a structuring base from which differences can and do arise. We can show a different side of our self to different groups. We interact with many groups yet we can locate our “self” within mass society in this stage.
Self anchors us in all situations, because unlike other objects, the self is present in all situations. The self now serves as the base from which to make plans and take action toward objects that appear in each new situation. Self is now built and enduring yet has the ability to shift and adjust (Charon, 1992, pp. 72-74).
Mead offers a self that is enmeshed in society yet freed from society. The self is not present at birth – the closeness and repetition of early affiliations set a basic pattern of identity. Self is somewhat stable in that it is derived from consistent social affiliations yet the ability to reflect on social roles and possibilities allows us to make and remake identities. We are afforded the ability to grow and change while retaining a stable base from which to do so. Once endowed with the ability to reflect, we can now make choices, even alter our environment. We become agents of interpretation, definition and action.
The Enlightenment notion of an autonomous pre-symbolic essence has been abandoned. Mead and the poststructuralists reject the modern notion of self, opting instead for a linguistically oriented epistemology. Both agree that the subject needs to be removed from an exclusive internal world and relocated in an exterior world of shared symbolism. Both agree that self is not present at birth and that it is social in nature. Both agree that self-reflexivity is dependent on language. Mead and the Poststructuralists part when the poststructuralist conclude the self’s linguistic construction signifies its nonexistence. Poststructuralist claim that if self has no basis apart from language, and language is nothing more than unstable, ambiguous text, so too, must be our identity. We have mistaken self-narrative for self. Mead does not support this conclusion.
Language, according to Mead, is a “necessary but insufficient” condition of self (Dunn, 1997). Self can be understood as structured in and through discourse without being reduced to it. He argues that is it language that allows for the ability to formulate a self. Language is the vehicle for understanding connection between communication, community, and self. It allows us to share meaning, thus it has a unifying and not fragmenting effect. As Dunn explains:
Meaning is in a constant state of flux as a consequence of processes of adjustment to
changing social conditions. Self must adjust to different situations and may take on
many different roles “sociality is the capacity to be several things at once.” Mead
would understand these relations of difference as constituting identity rather than
fragmenting it. Difference shapes the subject – difference is incorporated into the
formation of self-identity. Unity is achieved through a socially integrated but multiply
determined self. Mead understands this multiplicity as the underlying principle of
identity. Self-identity is internalized yet continually shaped through interaction (p.
Ricoeur (in Ezzy, 1998), states “because identities, at times seem confused and chaotic because of the disordered nature of life, and because we cannot be sure how the story will end, this does not mean that they lack a plot, only that it is not simple, clear or fully worked out” (p. 12).
Mead, rather than reducing self to discourse, establishes a relationship between them. Rather than destroy self, as the postmodernists do, Mead decentralizes self while maintaining its viability. Human beings have a self, it is socially constructed nevertheless, existent. Kenneth Burke, offers a different perspective yet advances it to same conclusion.
Burke challenges Descartes “sovereign, rational, atomistic and autonomous, disengaged and disembodied, ideally self-transparent” subject. He maintains (in Crusius, 1999):
Self is not atomistic because of the “intrinsically social character” of consciousness, it
is not autonomous because it is altered by the time and place in which it develops, it is
not self-transparent because it is never fully present to be seen and because of the
“influence of the unconscious on the conscious,” which conditions behavior in ways
that allude awareness, much less assessment or control. It is not disengaged because
subjects are always “practically engaged with the world.” And it is not disembodied
because mind and consciousness depends on the human brain, the human brain on the
human body (p. 37).
Burke’s “I” has following characteristics:
1) “It” exists in human bodies
2) Identity is not an essence but a process, a social, linguistic process
3) The self is normally multiple and conflicting
4) The self is poetic, integrative and synthetic
5) The self is dynamic, always on the way
Consistent with Mead’s theory regarding the social construction of self, it is Burke’s positioning of the human body as the central figure through which self is constructed, that distinguishes his theory from Mead’s. To Burke, there is no mind-body dualism as Descartes had theorized. There cannot be some separate “I” that then merges with the body, “I” has no existence apart from the body. The mind is dependent on the body therefore, dependent on biology and nature.
Identity is not an essence, rather a process. According to Burke, the self is a sum of our social roles whose stability is made possible through a pattern of identifications. What stability the “I” does have is made possible in the collective meanings with which “I” have identified. Mead claims that these collective meanings are made possible through our “generalized other” Burke redefines the generalized other as our “corporate we’s.” He claims that “self” is multiple; there are many of us “in here” because we identify with many corporate units and perform many social roles. To cope with our many, sometimes conflicting “we’s” we must synthesize them into an organized whole. To the extent that we can integrate our conflicting “we’s” is the extent to which we can build a self, thereby claiming coherence. But, Burke adds, because the “we’s” come in many pieces, always being added and changed, we are never fully unified; “I” is always “on the way.”
Burke, like the poststructuralists acknowledges that the self is more constructed than constructing but to the extent that we must actively integrate our many “corporate “we’s” we are agents of assembly. We are engaged in making ourselves. Burke calls this the “poet” in us. We are agents in a struggle to integrate multiple, social roles and identifications. For Burke, “the most fundamental process of all living is the drama of the self in quest” (p. 41)
Rejecting modern structuralism, Burke, like Mead, still allows for individual identity. It is social in nature, nevertheless, existent. He states (in Crusius), “To be sure, there is an individual. Each person is a unique set of situations, a unique aggregate of mutually reinforcing and conflicting ‘corporate we’s’” (p. 40). To explicate this point Crusius uses the analogy of family resemblance:
Perhaps every feature on “my” face is shared by some relative of mine – but the
peculiar combination of shared features remains uniquely mine. So it is with
individual identity; it can be because it must be both unique and collective, like the
combination of genes no one else has but me, both mine and not mine” (p. 41).
Full development of self comes by organizing individual attitudes that arise through the process of organizing the attitudes of our corporate units, our “generalized other.” The social group attitudes are brought within a field of direct experience, then organized to develop a set of individual attitudes, which constitute my “self.” This “self” is necessarily dependent on the body, on society, on language – on symbolism; nevertheless it does exist.
Poststructualists purport it is not an “I” that speaks but rather language. Mead and Burke both stress the primacy of language yet refuse to reduce self to discourse. They assert that we can dissolve the notion of a pre-symbolic, sovereign essence, without believing self, as an agent, is an illusion. Postmodernists want to solve the problem of identity by doing away with it. Mead and Burke choose, instead, to “manage” the problem, thereby offering an alternative to both positions. For Mead self is not fictive insofar as it is rooted in the capacity to make an object of one self. For Burke self is not fictive insofar as it has the ability act as agent; an agent responsible for integrating multiple, conflicting we’s. Our uniqueness resides in our ability to think and maintain that thinking in the process of adjusting to multiple situations. According to Burke and Mead, we need not exalt nor forfeit our identity, we exist as subjects working through our discursive and social nature.
Contrasting the poststrucuralist with the structuralist theory of self provides an insightful framework from which to study the formation, maintenance, and stability of personal identity. The “reality” of personhood, as revealed by Mead and Burke, cannot be grasped by either polarity. While the Cartesian notion of an autonomous, disengaged self has been displaced as an ontological falsity, the postmodern dissolution of the subject also has been rejected. Mead and Burke offer an objective basis for identity while retaining the notion that symbolic interaction is the source of that identity.
Each theory however, does not come without criticism. First, Mead’s theory fails to account for organic factors, which may influence behavior. Are there no biological motivations for behavior? Burke’s theory accounts for biological factors by rooting self in a human body and by acknowledging that chemical changes within the body instigate disparate moods, attitudes, and behaviors.
Mead also fails to account for biological influences on personality formation. Is introversion and extroversion simply socially constructed personality types? Are there no innate qualities from which individuals draw upon with regard to character formation? Biological theories of personality (i.e., theories of evolution, genetic science) may provide evidence to the contrary. Mead might respond, that while biology may influence personality, these traits cannot be revealed without language. It is only through our capacity to use symbols that we are allowed to express, what may be, innate differences.
Mead and Burke do not account for the influence of emotion on identity formation. Organistic and constructivist theories of emotion have yet to be worked out. While there is broad agreement that emotions such as fear and anger are physiologically grounded (Herman & Reynolds, 1994), others emotions such as love and shame are grafted through socialization. Both Mead and Burke would argue that those emotions existing apart from the social self must nevertheless be managed interactionally. However, further research exploring the origin of emotion, and its influence on identity construction is warranted. Withstanding criticism, Mead and Burke offer enormous contribution to the study of human development.
Mead and Burke allow for human agency. If, as postructuralists assert, we are determined from one minute to the next by an “ever changing flow of ambiguous text” human agency is a pretense. Any sense we have to act as a “free” agent must be dismissed as a self-deception. Mead and Burke allow us to be agents thereby bequeathing us moral beings capable and responsible for moral choices. Self-reflexivity allows me to think, act, and reflect upon my actions, thereby making me responsible for them. This capability is made possible through our uniquely human capacity to use symbols. Without the symbolic ability to self-reflect, we must abandon the possibility of moral agency.
Symbolic interactionism underscores the importance and significance of the study of interpersonal communication. In fact, symbolic interactionism signals the urgency for and need of further theoretical advancement. If identity is socially produced, not an individual property, researchers, by studying interpersonal relationships, can understand how interactions mold individual’s sense of self. If Mead’s four stages of self-development are accurate, communication scholars should focus their research on early interaction between children and their significant others in order to better understand identity construction.
Regarding the study of adult interpersonal relationships, researchers should investigate why and how different dimensions of self are employed in different social interactions. Symbolic interactionism affords us the capacity to redefine self and other in each new relationship; thus, confirming current interpersonal communication researcher assumptions that we are co-created in and through our interpersonal relationships. Our ability to create meaning, the very essence of humanity, is derived through relationships with others.
Davis (2000) explains:
All meaning, including meaning of ones self, is rooted in the social [symbolic] process
and must be seen as an ongoing accomplishment of that process. Neither meaning nor
self is a precondition for social interaction: rather, these emerge from and are
sustained by conversations occurring between people (P. 149).
What Mead and Burke offer us is a communication theory that privileges language as the primary tool through which we come to an understanding of self, other, and the relationship between them. Language creates a pattern of symbolic meanings through which the members of a collective society grasp their world. It is also the process of communication that transmits the experience of the group into the subjective world of meaning that shapes and guides each individual. The person is a mediated product of society and also, by acting, transforms that society. The study of symbolic interaction provides the basis upon which we can come to understand self, society, and social reality. The person-society relationship must be acknowledged if we are to truly understand the “self.”