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Mead's Theory of Self and Cooley's Looking Glass Self

Mead's Theory of Self and Cooley's Looking Glass Self

Author: Paul Hannan

Recognize George Herbert Mead and Charles Cooley's theories of how the self is constructed.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Welcome to this episode of Sociology, Studies of Society. Today's lesson is on the social self. As always, don't be afraid to pause, stop, rewind, or even fast forward to make sure you get the most out of this tutorial.


So when considering the self, I think it's sometimes helpful to well, look at yourself as an example. So when I'm thinking of myself, this is what I think of. And I don't know what-- who you are or what you look like.

So right now, consider yourself. Look at yourself in the mirror, or just imagine yourself on the screen in front of you. And as we look at the self today, don't be afraid to refer back to well, yourself.

So Herbert Mead was really the first one to look at the self. And he created what's called Herbert Mead's theory of the self. And he really saw the self as something that's constructed socially.

So it's not something that biologically automatically happens. It's not through DNA or an instinct. It has to do with society, and family, and people, and interactions making people's view of themselves.

And he saw this as this being built by an exchange of symbols. That sounds a little weird. But what he means by that is that when I make a gesture with my hands, which I'm actually doing right now, but you can't see, that is a symbol. I'm representing something, or actually right now, as I'm speaking to you, that is also symbol. Language is a symbol.

So the self is built through this exchange of symbols. Now, he also says that the self to be built requires empathy. So it requires people to think about other people's roles and perspectives.

If I'm walking down the hall and I point to a soda fountain, maybe it means that I want soda, or that there's something going on with that soda machine You are trying to put yourself into my shoes and figure out what I want by pointing-- when I'm pointing at that soda machine. And he says that the self has actually developed by taking the role of other people. So you start to understand yourself by taking the role of other people.

And he really saw two different stages of self-awareness. And he labeled these I and me. So when you're thinking about self-awareness, we all start thinking as an I. The self is the actor and is active.

I have a quote there. So you can help kind of process this. I need to eat something. I am the one who's acting. I am just doing something because I need it. That is when it's an I situation.

Another example might be I need to clean my room. Well, I'm not thinking about anyone else. I'm just saying my room is messy. I should clean it.

Eventually, people progress to the second stage in this theory, the me. So self-awareness when using me is it's not just about my actions. It's about how my actions interact with other people's.

So the self is actually evaluated based on other responses. So it's up to me to fix this problem is the quote you see in front of you right there. And that implies that I am considering other people's role. And I'm saying that if I don't fix this problem, no one else will. So that's why it's up to me to fix the problem.

Charles Cooley kind of expanded this idea. And he had this theory called the Charles Cooley's looking glass self. And a looking glass, if you didn't know, back in the day was just a different way of saying mirror. And he really thought that what we think of ourselves depends on what others think about us.

So the way that I really understand who I am is what other people think of me because they're a reflection of my personality. So if people were reflecting to me that I am clumsy, I think that I'm clumsy. If people are reflecting back to me that I'm smart and caring, then I think I'm smart and caring. So humans use other people as like a mirror to see their own self, to see who they are.

Today's takeaway message. So we started learning about Herbert Mead's theory of the self. And that view is that our views of ourselves are socially constructed. And there's two different ways that we view the self. There's the I, which is just me acting. And there's the me, which is me thinking about other's reactions, then acting.

Charles Cooley is another person we learned about today. He had the looking glass self. And he just saw other people as a reflection, as a mirror so that we could look at ourselves. And that's really the way that we learn about who we are.

That's it for this lesson. Good work, and hopefully you'll be seeing me on your screen again soon. Peace.

Terms to Know
C.H. Cooley's Looking Glass Self

Cooley argued that the self is a product of our social interactions with other people that involves three steps: 1) The imagination of our appearance to other people and associated feelings; 2) Imagining that others are evaluating our behavior; 3) We develop feelings and react to the imaginary evaluations of ourselves as objects.

George Herbert Mead's Theory of the Self

According to Mead, the self, the part of one's personality composed of self-awareness and self-image, emerges through social interaction. Mead made several assumptions in proposing this idea: 1) that the self develops only through social interaction; 2) that social interaction involves the exchange of symbols; 3) that understanding symbols involves being able to take the role role of another.