Describe the diverse views to approach an understanding of the notion of ‘self’ from the Social Psychology literature.

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Self, is an elusive but still significant notion and comprises all the unique and distinctive qualities of an individual, distinguishing one person from other.  Self is quite a complex concept to comprehend, as it involves individual’s conscious awareness of own identity and own self-being within the social context. Allport’s statement (1943) about ‘self’ (ego), emphasised it’s crucial role in psychology, as its understanding gives us meaningful explanations of people’s behaviour and inner experiences (Allport, as cited to Hollway, 2007).    

Historically self was widely studied by philosophers and psychologists aiming to provide insight of the basic elements that comprise the idea of self.  According to Locke, a British philosopher, the notion of self (personal identity), is only founded and reflected through consciousness and that self is separated from the idea of “soul” (Danziger, as cited in Hollway, 2007).  As Locke argued, self was divided into the monitoring self (own self) and monitored self (self been observed by others) basically promoting the dualistic nature of self (Hollway, 2007).  Interesting to note here, is that Locke’s idea of self-consciousness reflected situated and cultural ideas of the so called ‘Enlightenment’ period of Western societies during the 18th century were societies were moving away from ideas of tradition and religion beliefs that were restrictive to human reason.

A different approach was given by William James’ views on self, during 1890, the so called ‘social self’, whereas he considered that an individual has multiple selves in relation to the response of how an individual is perceived by different people within the social context (Hollway, 2007). 

Later in time the view of self became even more complex introducing the idea of the ‘looking-glass self’ developed in 1902 by a sociologist Charles Horton Cooley.  He basically contrasted people’s reactions as a mirror that reflected their perception on to the individual.  This idea was split up in three elements, what we imagine other people perceive of us, what we imagine in regards to the other’s judgement and what we feel about it (Cooley, as cited in Hollway, 2007). 

Furthermore, Mead’s explanation of self emphasizes duality between ‘I’ and ‘me’, where it does not only sits on the reflection of the social context, but takes it a bit further to the difference of language usage so called ‘Self reflexive’ theory, meaning the observer who monitors ‘me’ and the observed (Mead, as cited in Hollway, 2007). 

Additionally, Goffman, an American social psychologist in the 1959, gave an interesting explanation of ‘self’ in the social unit, that resembles to a play and the actors performance.  His theory divides ‘self’ in three different elements the self-performer, self as audience and self as the character performed (Goffman, as cited in Hollway, 2007).  It is interesting to note some continuity to Mead’s view when self is aware and reflects upon others judgement and self is experiencing pressure to act in a specific way, (Hollway, 2007).

Borges, an Argentinean writer, in an extract he wrote in 1970, refers to the duality of self, a distinction between the one self, mentioned as ‘he’ (the other one) which is for the public eye and ‘I’ the other more private and pleasurable self based, a conflicting explanation to Cooley’s ideas.  This acknowledges Winncott’s view (1971), a psychoanalyst and paediatrician, about the division of self, to the true and authentic self and the false one that is presented only for the public eye.  He demonstrated his ideas in a contrasting way of how self is developed within the context of a child.  He explained that if the child has a concerned primary carer whom is responsive to child’s feelings the child develop his true sense of self (Winncott, as cited in Hollway, 2007).  If the primary carer is more inconsiderate not offering appropriate care, then the child tends to develop a self that is projected from what parents feels.  This results to the distortion of self, based on what is reflected from the surroundings (Phillips, as cited in Hollway, 2007).

Presumably, it is nothing like so clear cut, to have a precise understanding of the diverse and complex idea of ‘self’.  We need to explore and combine findings for example from Social Psychoanalysis and Social Phenomenology, so as to be able to have meaningful knowledge of what lies beneath this simple word ‘self’. The concept of ‘self’ is a diverse and complex notion and social psychologists have different views and methods which produce different results and this kind of diversity reveals a wider point of view about self, that leads to an inevitable further process of exploration of the notion ‘Self’.


Hollway, W. (2007).  Self.  In W. Hollway, H. Lucey, & A. Phoenix (Eds.), Social Psychology matters, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

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