How we define ‘self’ is one of the questions in social psychology that is not only of interest to the practitioners themselves, but is also central to everyone on a more personal level. Even when we do not directly contemplate the meaning and how we have come to define ‘self’, we are nonetheless in the process of establishing our own meaning of the term and using it in our constructs of how we fit in the world. That the simple word “I” is always in the top twenty most common words used in the English language1 is no coincidence—we are central to our framework of the world, and therefore our ‘self’ is of great importance to everything we do and think. Whether self is a set of attitudes, roles or characteristics and how much of those stem from our own individuality and how much from how we fit into society, is key to understanding the impact and influence that our self-images have on our lives.
If you were asked to define your ‘self’, how would you do it? Would you say, “I am a mother, I am a daughter, I am a doctor”, using your roles in smaller and larger societies to define yourself? Or would you choose instead to define yourself by the individual characteristics that serve to set you apart from your group and the world en masse—”I am funny, I am kind, I am shy”? As central as the question of self may be, there is surprisingly little empirical research in social psychology on how we define ourselves. In the main, this can be attributed to the inability to agree on whether self is a set of attitudes or if it is otherwise constructed. Kuhn and McPartland (McPartland, 1954), however, did attempt to develop an experiment that would begin to clarify some of these questions. They asked 288 undergraduate students to answer “who am I?” twenty different ways, in a short amount of time. As sociologists, they looked at their results from a different perspective than social psychologists, but it is still of interest to see how the students responded in ways that held up the idea of an individual-society dichotomy. Invariably, their responses showcased either the role they filled (“student”, “son”, “friend”) or how they saw themselves as individuals (“smart”, “gentle”, “tall”)
While our binary constructs can help to clarify and simplify a question, it can also serve to make formulating a real-world answer more difficult. Just as the self cannot be defined strictly in terms of its conscious formulations while discounting its unconscious, so too is it impossible to truly understand the self when using the foundation of the individual-society dualism.
This paper will examine how two social psychological perspectives—phenomenological and social psychoanalytical—have worked to define the self and how well they have managed to step away from the black and white dualism of individual-society, that has been historically prevalent, and develop a more cohesive, integrated model of the self.
The historical understanding of ‘self’
When looking at the history of how a topic has been understood, it is always important to remember that knowledge is not a static formulation. Rather, it is a dynamic product that is always at the mercy of the historical framework in which it finds itself. (Holloway, 2007) The understanding of any subject comes down to the time period, the culture, and the social location present for that subject2. Consider, for example, how the study of the self was far less popular in psychology in the United States in the mid-twentieth century than it is now, or indeed, as it was in other fields such as philosophy or sociology. It is necessary to remember that during this time period, psychology in the U.S. was very much concerned with separating itself from the philosophical disciplines and becoming more aligned with the sciences—the study of the self can be seen to underscore the nebulous nature of the field, which was against the goals of that time and place3.
In Britain in 1694, society was in the midst of the...
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