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Many sociologists have different views on what ‘the self’ truly means

Many sociologists have different views on what ‘the self’ truly means. It is often defined as an individual’s perspective of themselves and their certain attributes or behaviour. From a sociology point of view these aspects are influenced by the people and environments we are surrounded by in society. Or as Hewitt described, “the self is something… to which attention is paid and toward which actions are directed” (Self and society, p 76). Sociologists Mead, Cooley and Goffman all put forward very distinct ideas of the self and how it is developed. Goffman’s views can be seen to be very different from those of Mead and Cooley but there are certain concepts of Goffman’s theory and earlier writings that show similarities. Although I think Goffman’s metaphor of life as a stage and performance is very relatable to the real world I do not think his theory can be seen as superior to that of Mead and Cooley, as all of the views have some application to the everyday life of an individual.
Goffman’s view of the self is based around the metaphor of a theatre, he saw the self as a ‘performed character’, where the individual acting displays their performance purely for the advantage and benefit of the audience watching (Goffman, 1990, p.28). Goffman’s active view of the self claims that people strive to influence others view of them by projecting an ideal self. According to Goffman’s dramaturgical theory we have two different roles to play in life, the ‘front’ and the ‘back’ stage. The front stage is part of the performance that the audience observes the performers desired self-image and the back stage is where the performance is assembled, the back stage is more private and behind the scenes but is compulsory to maintain appearances (Goffman, 1956, p.24). As Goffman described it “typically out of bounds to members of the audience”(1956, p.24). Goffman claims that there are four elements that make up a persons image. These four factors are the performance, the setting, the appearance and manner (Goffman, 1990, p. 32-35). The setting of the performance refers to the physical layout such as furnishing or theatre props, these are usually fixed so the play begins when in the proper setting and ends when the actor exits the setting. The appearance of the performer, also known as the ‘personal front’, are objects associated with the performer. For example they way they dress or their dialogue. Their appearance is essential to a successful play as it is the prompt that suggests their status. Lastly, their manner in their presentation of the self is what prepares the audience for the type of interaction part the performer will engage in. A good performance is made when the audience is convinced the character they are watching actually possesses the qualities and traits presented. According to Goffman’s theory people do not always present themselves in a positive light, this is known as ‘negative idealisation’. This negative presentation of the self may be due to suspicion of the consequence of the recipients reaction. Goffman’s theory of a correlating relationship between life and theatre demonstrates how our self is dependant on our individual scenarios and is persistently trying to be regular with our desired image.
Cooley coined the label ‘looking glass self’ to express how our self-image is shaped by the reflections of the reaction of people in our surrounding situation. The people we are surrounded by in each circumstance are the ‘mirrors’ that display our image of ourself. Therefore, we tend to see ourselves in the eyes of another persons perspective. In Cooley’s theory there are three primary elements to the idea of the self. The first is our imagination of our appearance to the other person, the second is our imagination of the persons judgement of that appearance and lastly some sort of feeling such as pride or mortification (Cooley 1902, p.152). It is not our own reflection that creates a feeling such a self-worth but instead our assumed effect of our reflection in someone else’s thoughts. Our opinion of ourself does not stem from who we really are but instead from what we think other people see in us or believe us to be, whether it is the reality or not. Cooley put this clearly by saying “I imagine your mind, and especially what your mind thinks about my mind”(Cooley, 1927, p.200). This suggest that individuals and society as intertwined. Furthermore, in Cooley’s book (1983) he went on to explain how ‘I’ is hardly ever used to describe the body but instead refers to our opinions or desires. For example, I want or I feel. Cooley claims we only see the body as ‘I’ when it has a certain social significance otherwise ‘I’ is mainly as self feeling or a demonstration this feeling.
Mead’s theory emphasises the way the self is developed. The basis of his theory is that the self arises from social relationships and acting in response to other perspectives of you. According to Mead the development of the self can be explained with three concepts (Mead, 1934). The first is ‘language’, Mead claims language explains how the self develops as it is the way people respond and communicate with each other. This communication is vital as it can make attitudes and emotions known toward another person. The second is ‘play’, this contributes to the development of the self by giving individuals a chance to act in different roles and show their expectations of others. This allows the individual to gain a better understanding of people’s differing perspectives of them in certain environments. And lastly ‘games’, which is involved in the development of the self by helping individuals recognise rules that they must follow in order to have a successful outcome in a social situation. Furthermore, Mead explained there are also two phases in which the self is developed and recreated. These two phases are the ‘I’ and the ‘Me’. The ‘Me’ state of the self is when people envision what others would think of them in that social situation. The ‘Me’ illustrates an individuals learned behaviours and can reveal their expectations of society. The ‘I’ side of the self is the acting subject phase, it is seen as the more present phase which can show an individuals character based on their response to the ‘Me’. The ‘Me’ is considered the phase where an individual sees themselves as an object rather than a subject because they visualize the reaction the other person will have to their potential response in the specific situation. The ‘Me’ ensures individuals conform to societies expectations and the ‘I’ provides individuals to have freedom of creativity (Mead, 1934).
There is a clear similarity in Goffman’s earlier work to that of Mead and Cooley (Scheff, 2003). This similarity is based around the concept of symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism is an important theory in sociology that centres around the idea that individuals develop through their relationships with others. This social psychology theory is shown in Mead and Cooley’s work as both emphasize how behaviour in individuals stems from their interpretation of a persons thoughts or meaning of a situation. Goffman’s view could be seen as similar to this as he believes individuals put on an ‘act’ when in social situations with other people. Therefore, this acting can be seen as a way to dodge embarrassment. People will attempt to come across in a way that will result in the best possible outcome, which means our presentation of the self depends on the predicted end result, showing our preference to avoid feeling embarrassment. Goffman’s work on humiliation, shame and embarrassment is comparable to Cooley’s third idea that we take into account a sort of feeling such as pride or mortification (Scheff, 2005). This shows that both Cooley and Goffman saw the feeling of shame as an emotion that could control and alter the way we act. Goffman expressed this by writing that there is “no interaction in which participants do not take appreciable chance of being slightly embarrassed or a slight chance of being deeply humiliated” (1959:243). This quote demonstrates that Goffman believed that every interaction involved the chance of being embarrassed. Goffman may not mention Cooley’s theory of the looking glass self but Cooley is mentioned in the earlier chapters of the Goffman’s book, Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Scheff, 2003). These mentions imply that some of Goffman’s more primary ideas could have derived from Cooley.
In contrast to Mead and Cooley, Goffman’s theory of the self is more active. This is because in Goffman’s theory it is the individual that is actively attempting to influence how other people see them, where the self is being determined by a persons own goals and desires. Whereas, Mead and Cooley centre their theories around how an individual acts and behaves depending on how they think the other person will perceive them, making their view on the self more passive. According to Goffman “a firm self… will appear to emanate intrinsically from its performer” (Goffman 1959, 252-3). Furthermore, this is shown when Goffman explains how a successful presentation of the self requires a setting, a personal front and a certain manner. These three aspects that are presented by a person are all decided and constructed by themselves, no one else has influenced how they want to come to across. These concepts made vary depending on the performance and the audience but it is still the performer that decides how they wish to be presented. Conversely, Cooley believes that individuals actually assemble their presentation of the self based on assumption of what other people think of them. Mead’s view is similar to Cooley in which the self is developed from social interaction and responses to others judgement of them. However, Franks and Gecas (1992) believe Cooley’s view is not passive but is in fact more active, akin to Goffman’s theory. In Franks and Gecas Autonomy and Conformity 1992 they focus on the action of selectivity in the development of the self. This guides us away from concentrating on the more reactionary and passive view that Cooley seemed to have. Franks and Gecas mention that “research inspired by Cooley’s thesis… ignores these aspects of his theory which describe more active and stable processes involved in self formation” (1992, p49). Furthermore displaying their view that there is too much attention directed to the more conformist sides of the self. According to Franks and Gecas, Cooley’s view is not passive because individuals decide which judgements will influence their self presentation. In some of Cooley’s writings he expresses the significance of individuals having values and morals that give them independence. Therefore showing his view is more similar to Goffman’s than it may seem.
After comparing Cooley, Mead and Goffman’s theories it is clear that there are principal differences in their views. For example Goffman’s metaphor of performances on stage and Cooley’s figurative example of the Looking Glass Self, as well as different views on to what extent and how society shapes our identity. However, similarities have been presented between the three theories by authors such as Scheff and Franks and Gecas. As a result I do not think that evidence from Goffman’s view means his theory can be seen as superior because his view does not take societies effects or influence on a persons self into enough consideration. Mead and Cooley have a more applicable view to how the self is developed by discussing in depth how other people’s assumed perspective can influence how individuals act daily. In closing, all three views of the self successfully explain how social interactions and our own mind create our identities.