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Human consciousness and the social self. Caroline Howarth. “we are incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture” Geertz, 1993. The self is born in social interaction. The generalised other. Dialogical self. If culture produces the self:

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Human consciousness and the social self l.jpg

Human consciousness and the social self

Caroline Howarth

“we are incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture” Geertz, 1993

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The self is born in social interaction

The generalised other

Dialogical self

If culture produces the self:

What happens when culture transforms?

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Theoretical frameworks:

  • Self as the outcome of social interaction

    • George Herbert Mead

  • The everyday drama of the self

    • Goffman

  • Cultural differences in the production of self

    • Markus and Kitayama

  • The impact of culture and late modernity

    • Gergen; Giddens

  • The self in an intercultural world

    - Hermans; Howarth

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The effects of isolation on the self

  • We CANNOT develop psychologically without others – we are social beings in a very profound sense.

  • Evidence from:

  • primate psychology

  • wild children

  • Social psychology

Harlow (1958)

Zazzo (1975): Chimps and apes brought up in isolation cannot recognise themselves in a mirror.

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The non-social self is an ‘idiot’:

The Greek word ‘idiot’ originally meant someone who lived by himself and therefore was mentally incompetent.

Feral children demonstrate the vital importance of human relationships for the development of human psychological capacities.

Hence the psychological does not and cannot develop outside of the social.

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Mead: Self as product of interaction

a) Becoming self-conscious: through speech

b) Taking the role of the other: in games

c) The ‘I’ and the ‘me’: connected in dialogue

Individualisation is the outcome, not the antithesis, of socialisation.

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a) Becoming self-conscious: through speech

The conversation of gestures is the social matrix out of which mind and awareness of self as an object in the social world of others emerges both phylogenetically and ontogenetically.

Through speech we hear ourselves thinking – we become self conscious. Self-consciousness is the ability to take the role of others with respect to oneself.

Reflexiveness is the essential condition, within the social process, for the development of mind. (Mead, 1934, p.134)

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b) Taking the role of other:in games


Take on social roles of others.

Particularises the child’s perspective.

Develop a sense of otherness and therefore self


Appreciate the diverse roles of many others

Dialectic of universalism and particularism

Develop a social (collective) self-identity.

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Taking on attitudes

What goes on in the game goes on in the life of the child all the time. He is continually taking on the attitudes of those around him, especially the roles of those whom in some sense control him and on whom he depends.

Mead, 1967, p. 160.

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The development of self requires

1. Taking the role of others in unstructured play

2. Participating in games

3. Developing a sense of the generalized other

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c) The ‘I’ and the ‘me’: connected in dialogue


- is the acting body-subject

- is the spontaneous response

- gives the self the capacity to innovate

- becomes part of the ‘me’


- is the ‘I’s objectification

- is the organized set of attitudes of others

- is the vehicle of self-regulation and control

- incorporates the ‘I’

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Self consciousness – a social achievement

“it is because of the ‘I’ that we say that we are never fully aware of what we are, that we surprise ourselves by our own action. It is as we act that we are aware of our selves”

Mead, 1967, p. 174

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Hence, the self…

Is a joint accomplishment

arises out social interaction

is never fully ‘achieved’

experiences itself only indirectly

is reflexive, self-conscious and agentic

is produced by and marked by culture

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Goffman: The contradictions of self

1. The self is produced through our performances in social situations. The self acts as a ‘holding company’ of multiple selves.

But …

The production of self is constrained by social norms and expectations.

2. The self is entirely a social product, with no underlying personal core.


There is an unsocialised component of the self that drives the individual into and out social interactions and sometimes leads the individual to react against social norms.

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Institutionalisation and agency

“Whenever we look at a social establishment, … we find participants decline in some way to accept the official view of what they should be putting into and getting out of the organisation and, behind this, of what sort of self and world they are to accept for themselves … We find a multiple of homely little histories, each in its way a movement of liberty. Whenever worlds are laid on, underlives develop.”

Goffman, 1961, p. 305

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Goffman:the self as a performance

  • The moral integrity of ‘our’ self

  • Selves are created in social interaction.

  • We stage manage our interactions, through scripts and masks.

  • We develop ‘back regions’ and try to influence the impressions we ‘give off’.

  • We adopt different ‘roles’, sometimes cynically (‘role distance’).

  • Selfhood is inevitably intersubjective.

Others are ready to “pounce on trifling flaws as a sign that the whole show is false” and so find “chinks in his symbolic armour”.

Goffman, 1959.

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Man. Rockaway Park Beach. - mdpNY20100607

He took care to avoid anyone’s eye. First he had to make it clear to those potential companions of his holiday that they were no concern to him whatsoever. He stared through them, round them, over them – eyes lost in space. The beach might have been empty. If by chance a ball was thrown his way, he looked surprised: then let a smile of amusement light his face (Kindly Preedy), looked around dazed to see that there were people on the beach, tossed it back with a smile to himself and not a smile at the people … (He) then gathered his beach wrap and bag into a neat sand-resistant pile (Methodical and Sensible Preedy), rose to stretch his huge frame (Big-Cat Preedy), and tossed his sandals (Carefree Preedy, after all).

From Novelist William Sansom,

cited in Goffman (1959 – pp. 4- 5).

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Self and cultural differences

Markus and Kitayama,


Triandis, 1989

  • The independent self:

    • describe themselves in psychological terms

      • I am sincere

    • separation of self and society

    • autonomous and agentic

      European American identity projects:

      • Attaining personal goals

      • Individualisation of the self

  • The connected self:

    • describe themselves in social terms

      • I am a student at the LSE

    • embedded in a network of social relations

    • group agency and collective change

      Asian and African identity projects:

      • Living in harmony in the social and environmental context

      • Enhancing the collective life of the community

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Cultural selves?

  • Mbiti (1970) Africa, the community and the collective self

    • No concept of individual self

    • Self is always collective and contextual

  • Bharati (1986) Hinduism, God and the innermost self

    • Indivisibility of the ‘true’ self with the one-ness of God

    • Innermost self reached through mediation and self-discipline

  • Devos (1985)Japan, social awareness, the relational self

    • Parents ‘suffer’ their children’s actions (shared grief, social shame)

    • Need to belong and maintain social balance (self can be hidden)

  • Hall (1990) Multiculture, cultural change and new identities

    • Meeting and merging of different cultures/ identities

    • Identity, as self, as a process of becoming

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Giddens: the late modern self

  • “Modern man cannot pause in his journey for ego-identification and say confidently: This is I’.” (Glicksberg, 1963:xi).

  • “The transmutations introduced by modern institutions interlace in a direct way with individual life and therefore with the self” (Giddens, 1991, p. 1).

  • Modernity breaks down the protective framework of community and of tradition – and so threatens the unity of self.

For Foucault the self is coerced into existence, not to become an agent but as a mechanism of control where systems of discourse work from the inside out by creating a self-regulating subject. (Foucault, 1988)

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E.g. New communication technologies

  • Does this:

    • Liberate us as we invent new aspects of our selves?

    • Or

    • Expand the technologies of surveillance and the mechanisms of induced self-regulation?

      Turkle (1996; 2011)

  • Expanded access to a wide range of ‘generalised others’ thus altering “the backdrop against which identity is constructed” (Cerulo, 1997, p. 397).

  • Leads to new ‘global selves’ where the difference of culture falls away:

    • Eg. Collectivist values and practices declining in Japan

    • Eg. Leadership models in the West are recognising the important of shared values and identities

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Gergen: impact of modernity on self

As we absorb the views, values, and visions of others, and live out the multiple plots in which we are enmeshed, we enter a postmodern consciousness. It is a world in which we no longer experience a secure sense of self, and in which doubt is increasingly placed on the very assumption of a bounded identity with palpable attributes. What are the consequences? How are we to respond to the coming conditions?

(Gergen, 1991, p. 15 – 16).

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Polyphonic and dialogical selves

  • The self is therefore never completely stable or finished, but is ‘populated’ with multiple selves or i-positions that represent a ‘society of mind’ (Hermans, 2002). Eg:

    • I-as-British; I-as-other; I-as-mixed

  • How do we respond to the ‘vertigo of unlimited multiplicity’ (Gergen, 1991)?

  • Hermans sees these as connected through an internal dialogue and so in place of a ‘core’ or ‘real’ self there is a dialogical self made of different i-positions.

  • (see also Bakhtin, 1981)

  • Both Bakhtin and Mead “accommodate cultural and individual dynamics in a self that both appropriates aspects of the culture in which it lives and reacts to that very appropriation” (Sullivan and McCarthy, 2004, p. 292).

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The inter-subjective essence of self highlights the ideological limits

Self is not freely constructed. It is born in dialogues ‘between’ the expectations of ‘generalised others’ and one’s spontaneous reactions.

“These dialogues are always in a macro context influenced by historical and political issues of racism, gender, imperialism and power” (Aveling and Gillespie, 2008; Bhatia, 2002).

Dominant expectations of the generalised other filter into and limit constructions of self (Howarth, 2002).

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The inter-subjective essence of self highlights possibilities for agency

The self does not (should not) collapse into the generalised other

Dialogue promotes the possibility for difference – new ways of thinking, acting and relating. Hence dialogue also promotes agency.

The conditions for agency are both cultural and psychological.

“An individual deprived of social stimulation and support would not develop agency just as she would not develop psychological functions” (Ratner, 2000).

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Theories of self in social research

  • Culture

    • Understanding the psychological impact of migration and mixed identities

      • Bhatia and Ram (2001); Hale and de Abreu (2010).

  • Organisations

    • The importance of reflexivity and taking the perspective of the other in professional contexts

    • Schon(1983); Schwartzman (1993).

  • Communication

    • Cross-cultural differences in communication; dialogues with virtual selves

    • Banlund(1975); Turkle(1996; 2011)

  • Health, community and development

    • How to promote social change and conscientisation

      • Campbell and Cornish (2010); Vaughan (2011)

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Eg: Intercultural relations today

  • The impact of the generalised other on identity

    • Growing up in a multicultural community and

      the psychological violence of stigma (Howarth, 2002)

  • Taking the perspective of dominant others

    • Institutionalised expectations lead to cultural differences in educational performance (Howarth, 2004)

  • The on-going performance and drama of cultural identities

    • Using community arts to encourage reflexive and critical dialogues on self (Howarth, 2011)

  • Multiple, dialogical selves and the psychology of agency

    • Highlights the situated, relational and fundamentally political nature of dialogical selves (Howarth et al, 2011)

    • Identities in movement

    • Howarth paper….

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The self is born in social interaction

Limited by relations of power and ideologies of difference

Possibilities for agency and social change