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The Self and Social Reality

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This paper examines the problem of a human self within a society viewed from a socio-psychological perspective. The author attempts to justify an interest in this field by drawing attention to the implications from this problem for a research field in general.

Keywords: social psychology, self, society.

The Self and Social Reality: A Psychological Perspective


The problem of a relationship between human self and society has always been an issue of interest for the majority of social and behavioral sciences. One may even state that it forms the grounds for the other research problems that are considered in these disciplines. Given the person-centered perspective of modern psychology, it would be interesting to consider an interdisciplinary perspective on the self that has been consistently advanced in many contemporary readings on social psychology. Therefore, this paper’s focus is on the problem of interaction between the self and society, with the particular emphasis on the varied viewpoints, advanced by different researchers and diverse schools of social psychology.

In Section 1, the main attention will be devoted to the review of the available professional literature, dealing with the subject under study. Section 2 will present the author’s own analysis of the problems of the self and society from a socio-psychological perspective. Finally, Section 3 will synthesize the findings of both previous sections, with conclusion summarizing the author’s perspective on the topic.

Literature Review

The American psychological school has traditionally been rather individual-centric, which may be explained by the pervasive individualism of the modern American society. However, from the mid 20th century on, a growing awareness of the need to pay greater attention to the group-based and society-wide psychological phenomena has become a key tendency bringing about a subsequent development of social psychology in the USA (Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi & Cotting, 1999, p.91). Thus, the problems of a social self and a social identity have been decisively integrated by the American science of psychology.

Various interpretations of the concept of a social self may be found in the psychological literature. For instance, Ruble et al. (2004) put the emphasis on the interplay between the formation of a child’s personal identity and that of a collective identity that may be conditioned not so much by the familial ties, but rather through the development of a sense of one’s allegiance to the particular social category (e.g. gender or race/ethnicity; Ruble et al., 2004, p.29). For these authors, the main deficiency of the majority of the psychological research devoted to the development of a self lies in its omission of a problem of the collective identity formation.

Summarizing prior research on the social identity issues, Ruble et al. (2004) have come to the conclusion that social identity is characterized by such features, as its relational character (i.e. social identity manifests itself only in the course of a respective individual’s interaction with other members of the group in question) and socially constructed nature (i.e. social identity is not a naturally recurring phenomenon of human biology). Moreover, collective social identities may be considered as performing the tangible differentiation and value formation functions, fulfilling individuals’ needs for identification and comparison (Ruble et al., 2004, p.31). Therefore, social identity may be regarded as the result of self-identification urges.

Simon (1999) focuses, in his own words, on the question of “what turns individuals into groups, and vice versa” (1999, p.48). Dismissing the early 20th century interpretations of group psychology, as determined by racial or ‘group mind’ factors as metaphysical; Simon (1999) follows Tajfel (1969) in laying the emphasis on the rationally analyzable group cognitive processes, which he denotes as “social categorization”, or “the process by which people group those they consider equivalent in functionally important respects in contrast to still others they consider different from the former” (Simon, 1999, p.48).  Most importantly, though, perceivers of the socially categorized others do categorize themselves as well in the same functional contexts, e.g. from the viewpoint of one’s gender or race, supplementing social categorization with self-categorization. In Simon’s opinion, it is this dialectical process that enables the development of socially significant group thinking, while preserving the sense of personal identity of each group’s member (Simon, 1999). So, for instance, a collective self would be a self-representation based on the shared characteristics of an individual in question and others who are placed in similar functional contexts. In contrast, the individual self is multi-dimensional and not dependent upon the comparison with the functionally similar others, being potentially richer in contents than any collective one (Simon, 1999, p.50).

MacKinnon & Heise (2010) draw from the general symbolic interactionist perspective to explain “how an individual uses identities to construct a self, and embodies identities in different situation to affirm the individual’s self-sentiment” (2010, p.95). Unlike Simon (1999), these authors view the individual self as a collection of socially significant identities that generally present themselves as true “constituents” of the self-concept at large (MacKinnon & Heise, 2010, p.97). However, at the same time, the collective identities that encompass the individual self may not manifest themselves simultaneously, so that their actualization in specific, spatial-temporal contexts gives rise to the peculiarities found among individual humans in their social interactions. Further, an individual’s psychologically determinable self-sentiment would actually define his/her preferred identities in the given time and situation (MacKinnon & Heise, 2010).

Perinbanayagam (2000) presents an overtly semiotic account of the human self, with social identities being the main instruments through which the objectification of the individual self takes place. In Perinbanayagam’s definition, self is “reflexive objectification of one’s presence in a world of other selves and objects, a process achieved by using signs of various kinds” (Perinbanayagam, 2000, p.83). However, this objectification is dependent on the already extant ‘vocabularies’ of social semiotics that thus inform the creation of a supposedly unique individual self.

For Perinbanayagam, the very formation of the self-concept is directly enmeshed with the socially significant attitudes and perspectives that an individual encounters in the course of his/her social maturation. The “systematized social acts” that children learn to engage in (e.g. interaction in play), prepare the ground for the emergence of an individual’s self that is then bolstered by the social roles he/she aims to fulfill in the respective social environment (Perinbanayagam, 2000, p.22). In this interpretation, a personal self is a derivative of the collective ones, rather than their opposites.

Owens (2006) attempts to differentiate between self and identity by positing a relationship wherein “self is a process and organization born of self-reflection whereas identity is a tool…by which individuals or groups categorize themselves and present themselves to the world” (Owens, 2006, p.206). Here the similarity with Simon’s (1999) viewpoint is perfectly tangible. Owens focuses his readers’ attention on the concept of self-presentation, as the stratagem employed by individuals in order to convince or impress their others with respect to some socially important phenomena or facts (Owens, 2006, p.211). The social identity is thus viewed as the mask worn by the individual self in order to accommodate the demands of specific social situation. It is not a component of overarching totality, as it is the case with Perinbanayagam (2000) or MacKinnon & Heise (2010). On the contrary, for Owens, it is more or less a secondary phenomenon, generally dependent on individual transpositions (Owens, 2006).

Having briefly reviewed some of the most important recent contributions to the psychological research of a social self, one may note that two major perspectives may be glimpsed here, i.e. individualist and collectivist ones. The proponents of the former promote a view of the individual self as a basically autonomous social unit, with group-based social categorization being consciously and rationally selected by an individual. The supporters of the latter paradigm argue that it is a social context, exemplified by collective identities, which defines the distinctive features of the individual selves. Hence, it is necessary to evaluate these two competing claims in order to define the exact relationship between self and society.

Self and Society: A Socio-Psychological Perspective

As emphasized by several researchers reviewed above, a self is not a stable mental phenomenon that may be considered independent from the external social reality. In fact, it is strongly dependent on evaluative and inferential judgments made by the society at large with respect to particular behaviors and/or opinions adopted by specific individuals. Hence, it may be possible to posit that social norms and values have a direct impact on the individual self.

Some of the implications of this perspective may be already evident. For instance, it is without doubt that social concepts of ‘deviant’ and ‘acceptable’ behavior inform the individual’s decisions on committing or refraining from the particular acts. The case of actions, classified as criminal offences in the particular societies is most characteristic one, as it is understandable that a majority of individuals socialized in the respective society would be likely to associate relevant forms of behavior with the concepts of ‘criminality’ or ‘legality’.

On the other hand, the development of particular social stereotypes may be certain to stipulate the individual interactions, conforming to these stereotypes. The study by Snyder, Berscheid, & Tanke (1977) on the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotyping in dyadic interactions between individuals belonging to different cultural (or, in this case, gender) groups may be used as an example of the dialectic relationship between social/collective and individual selves. The behavior of a perceived other may conform to the perceiver’s expectations when he/she in turn perceives the presence of the stereotyped attitude on behalf of the other interlocutor. Hence, dyadic interpersonal communications would be biased in accordance with the collective psychical phenomena of both parties.

Similarly, the interpersonal interactions of the individuals belonging to diverse cultures, races or ethnicities are heavily predicated by the ‘cultural selves’; they construct for one another. MacKinnon & Heise (2010) define this process as ‘internalization’, which occurs when “actors objectify themselves as the agents of their actions, employing linguistic labels for their objectifications, and then respond to these objectifications of self” (MacKinnon & Heise, 2010, p.101). Crandall, O’Brien & Eshleman (2002) describe the importance of the individual’s internalization in the social group he/she affiliates with for the purposes of social adaptation (2002, p.300). The absence of an individual’s adaptation to the social environment may then seriously inhibit his/her capacity to effectively communicate within the given society. Hence, shared cultural self of the members of a particular social group has a direct bearing upon the opportunities, possessed by an individual within the context of his/her social life.

Therefore, one may claim that the collective/social self of human beings is not secondary to their individual selves. On the contrary, the former exerts a powerful impact over the latter, with the cultural and normative aspects of the social identity being instrumental in the determination of individual behavior. At the same time, the individual self maintains its cognitive and affective autonomy, with each individual recognizing him/herself to be distinct from the other persons. Thus, a complex interplay of two tiers of human self may be discerned.

Self and Society: Meta-Theoretical Issues

Recognition of the dual nature of human self as a product of interpellations between individual cognitive and collective relational phenomena of psychic life may be found even in the earliest works by George Herbert Mead, one of the founders of contemporary social psychology, with his famous observation that “there neither can nor could have been any mind or thought without language” (Mead, 1934, p.192), with language clearly being a social interaction factor. However, practical acknowledgement of this state of affairs in the science of social psychology has been a relatively recent phenomenon. Furthermore, the exact mechanisms by which an interaction between individual consciousness and collective psyche takes place are still the largely untraced research field. Thus, proceeding from the analysis presented in the two previous sections, it may be possible to explore some research questions that may be of utmost interest to the psychology scholars.

One of these problems is that of an interrelationship between the biological factors, influencing the development of human collective facilities, on the one hand, and the social identity development that is predicated by the larger societal framework. As observed by Hood (2012), the brain conjunction that gives rise to the collective sharing of information, which is necessary for the emergence of any stable symbolic structures, may have evolved to its present state through a related evolutionary process. The latter may have been useful from the purely evolutionary perspective for the purposes of constructing “a meaningful narrative” of an individual’s experience (Hood, 2012, p.290). Thus, the problem of biological factors in the development of both individual and collective selves should be further explored by the next generations of researchers.

Second, a narrative of social influence and hierarchy should be fitted within the conceptual framework for a proper understanding of the social self. Turner & Oakes (1986) attempted to dwell on the salience of social identity concept for the study of the social influence problems; however, it appears that their study has been just a preliminary step into this direction. Hence, social psychologists ought to pay increased attention to this side of this problem. As one may infer from various social dominance concepts reviewed by Sidanius & Pratto (2012), this gap may be filled via a concerted effort of the scholars belonging to different research approaches.

Finally, the concept of self-categorization, as presented by Simon (1999), requires further elaboration. Spears (2011) emphasizes the general character of the self-categorization theory as covering a plethora of research problems, including the aspects of identity salience (i.e. that of a preference of one identity over the others) or group inequality (Spears, 2011, p.208). However, it is evident that an issue of interrelationship between social categorization at large and self-categorization as its salient case still needs further exploration.


The author’s interest in the topic of this discussion is generally validated by the interrelated character of the humans’ social life that simultaneously emphasizes individual agency and collective interaction. As all members of contemporary society inevitably encounter situations that raise the issue of the association between individual and group thinking and/or action, the problem of the self-society relationship should be viewed through a lens of its practical relevance for our social life.

Further, a key cognitive issue of the relativity of human self-perception may be connected therewith. As the individualist concepts of the self are frequently presented in mainstream narratives of contemporary mass media stress the ultimate authenticity of each actor’s choices (primarily consumption-oriented ones), a question of the validity of such claims may arise. Arguably, recognition of the determination of consumer and other mass behavior by the superior influence of collective/social identities may dispel some of the flawed interpretations of the problem of identity and self often prevalent in the public media space. Thus, the choice of the present research topic for elaboration is conditioned primarily by the concern for the public perceptions of the relationship between a collectivity and individual.

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