UCSD Sociology Looking Glass Self and Self Image Discussion

SOC 320: Sociological TheoryRobert E. L. Roberts
Instructor’s Comments
Topic 12: Symbolic Interaction: Cooley and Mead
This week we turn our attention to symbolic interactionism—a sociological
perspective that aims to explain the complex interconnections between self and
society. Unlike some of the other more sweeping theories we have encountered this
semester, symbolic interaction focuses very closely on the micro-social world wherein
our innermost thoughts and feelings shape and are shaped by our interactions with
other people. Interestingly, symbolic interactionism draws heavily from several
academic disciplines outside of sociology, including philosophy, biology, psychology,
and linguistics. Over time, this multidisciplinary perspective has become one of the
most influential theories in sociology and the subspecialty of social psychology.
Our readings and class activities this week examine the work of two important early
contributors to the development of interactionism: George Herbert Mead and Charles
Horton Cooley. Before diving into their work, I will discuss some of the philosophical
underpinnings of the theory, which are part of a broader intellectual theme that
informs some of the more contemporary theories we will examine later in the course.
Philosophical Pragmatism
As I mentioned above, an important feature of symbolic interactionism is its
multidisciplinary foundation. As you recall, many of the early sociological theorists
began with the view there could and should be a uniquely “sociological” approach to
investigating and understanding the universe (Durkheim was a good example). Their
project was then to articulate this perspective and to demonstrate its usefulness for
deepening our knowledge of the human condition. By contrast, symbolic
interactionism grew out of a different intellectual challenge, a question that had
bedeviled philosophers for millennia: What is the nature of the human mind?
This question, of course immediately leads to other questions. What is the
relationship between the mind and the body? Is there a relationship between the
mind, which seems finite, and something infinite, such as the soul and/or a supreme
intelligence? I could go on, but you get the idea…many difficult-to-answer questions.
Mead and Cooley entered the intellectual fray during the late 19th and early 20th
century. During this period, a number of philosophers had developed an approach to
understanding questions about the human mind called philosophical pragmatism. This
approach was strongly influenced by advances in scientific understanding of human
biology and psychological/intellectual development. Long-held beliefs in the dualism
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
between mind and body were beginning to weaken and more attention was being paid
to the ways in which our consciousness was connected to physical world and selves we
Okay, fine, that may seem wicked cool to a historian of philosophy, but what is
philosophical pragmatism? Is it just a bunch of philosophers who prefer to buy 6packs of socks because they are practical people? Oh, if only it were that simple!
Well, actually, it’s not really that complicated.
The core proposition of philosophical pragmatism is that the human mind is made
possible by and emerges out of our basic and constant need to solve practical
problems of existence. The key idea is a rejection of the long popular belief in a
mind/body dualism: the view that the mind and body are separable entities with the
mind occupying a largely non-material and limitless realm and the body occupying a
finite physical one. Philosophical pragmatism rejects this dualism as an artificial and
misleading premise upon which to build an accurate understanding of the human
One line of argument for rejecting (or at least softening) mind/body dualism grew out
of advances in biological science. A growing body of evidence supported the view
that what we perceive as mind and consciousness was connected to biological activity
in the brain. From this perspective, the mind is really just what we experience when
the brain is doing its thing.
However, advances in psychological sciences were also showing that the mind was
more than a biological byproduct. In fact, evidence grew that contact with our
environment had profound effects on what we perceived as mind. For example, the
internal language of one mind was almost entirely a function of the language spoken
by one’s early caretakers. Similarly, many of the beliefs one developed could be
traced to the beliefs of others with whom one had significant contact. What
philosophical pragmatism does is to build on these insights to argue that what we
come to understand and experience as “mind” develops in the process of solving
problems that must be solved in order to ensure our survival in the environments we
Perhaps the simplest way to frame the concept is this: thought, as we know it, arises
in response to a practical problem. “Mind” is what happens when we are thinking,
which, by definition arises in response to solving problems. Here is a basic example:
the problem is that you hear rumblings and feel pangs in your torso. In order to solve
this problem you need to develop a kind of thought architecture. First you have to be
able to differentiate the rumblings/pangs from the larger environment. In other
words, you have to realize that these sensations are attached to “you,” as opposed to
that which is “not you.” If you cannot do this, you are not going to survive. So, the
first thing you’ve done is to create a mental distinction between you and the
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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Robert E. L. Roberts
The next thing you have to figure out is what the pangs/rumblings mean. That’s
pretty easy (thanks to our biological wiring)…you decide that you are hungry. So now
your mind has categories for you, your environment, and that feeling your calling
hunger. You now need to figure out how to not be hungry anymore. This problem
forces you to further break up the environment (the “not you”) into conceptual
categories “food” and “not food.” Then, you have to create concepts and strategies
linking concepts to acquire the food and eat it. Oh, look, there is a yellow thing that
looks edible, but it’s hanging about 15 feet above you in a tree! How do you get it
(practical problem)? Oh, the things we have to think! In addition, that thinking
becomes what we think of as your “mind”, which would not exist if not for the
environment and the particular problems it presents to you. There is no dualism
between mind and environment implied. Your mind is a reflection of the situations
and problems your environment presents.
Do you get it? I hope this is not blowing your mind. However, I can understand if you
are wondering what this has to do with sociology and social psychology. Here is the
thing that makes it sociological: people are major features of our environment! We
all have to solve problems and some of those problems involve living and interacting
with other people. Philosophical pragmatism thus suggests that our minds are
formed in the process of interacting with other people. This is the fundamental
premise underlying symbolic interactionism. In the next section, I briefly describe the
theoretical perspective built on this foundation.
Symbolic Interactionism: The Basics
The distinguish feature of symbolic interactionism is that it focuses on the roles that
the exchange of symbolic information in human interaction plays in the shaping of
mind, self, and society. The basic idea is that, as part of their evolutionary
development, humans learned to create and exchange meaningful symbols
(representations) as an efficient way to manage problem solving. Much as we’re
doing in this course, people built mental maps of their environment that specified the
meaningful features of the environment and the relationships among these features.
These maps or representations of reality aided an individual’s planning how to behave
in ways that would solve practical problems. The basic units of these maps (symbols)
became the basic units of communication and through their continued exchange
between people led to the meanings of the symbols being shared across people (thus
defining a society/culture). There you go, symbolic interactionism is all about what
happens when we use symbols in interaction!
However, it is also more than that. Some interesting things happen when you apply
the logic to explore questions of the relationship between the human self and the
social world we occupy. If your mind (what happens when you “think”) is a reflection
of your social environment, then should not your self-consciousness be so as well?
This is a profound and somewhat provocative argument. How can it possible that
what is often argued to be the most distinctive human ability—becoming aware of
oneself as a unique, autonomous, sentient being…a “person” differentiated from
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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Robert E. L. Roberts
others—be a reflection of the social world? Isn’t that paradoxical? How can the self—
that compartmentalized feeling of differentiation from the world—be a mere
reflection of that world?
Philosophical pragmatism leads one to the conclusion that the self and society must
be inseparable, that you can’t have one without the other. In other words, you can’t
have the feeling of self-awareness, of your uniqueness, without social
relationships…and vice versa. Thus, the feeling of being an individual “me” is made
possible by your social interactions. Perhaps even more interesting is the idea that
society is not possible without your being able to differentiate your “self” from it.
Here is a pithy way to remember this point: there is no “me” without “we,” and there
is no “we” without “me.”
Sorry about that… However, we have just stumbled on a space for sociological
theorizing and research: the relationship between self and society. Charles Horton
Cooley and George Herbert Mead were two early explorers of this space and I’ll say a
few words about each of them below. One of their major contributions to symbolic
interaction was to begin to examine the role that the exchange of meaningful symbols
(e.g., words) plays in the co-construction of self and society. I have included links to
a couple of examples of their work in the “To do list” for this week. The Cooley
article is from 1907 and highlights his views on the connections between self and
society. There are some interesting comments on the work (at the end) by several of
his contemporaries, including Charlotte Perkins Gilman. The Mead article is from
1912 and is the text of a speech he made at a professional meeting of philosophers. It
is a bit dizzying to follow because it is very abstract. However, it gives you a good
sense of the deep philosophical issues that lie at the heart of symbolic interactionism.
Charles Horton Cooley
Charles Cooley (1864-1929) was an American academic who spent his professional life
teaching at the University of Michigan. He was one of the founders of the American
Sociological Association. His best known work (Human Nature and the Social Order)
was originally published in 1902. In the book he explored some of the pragmatist
ideas I’ve described above in trying to explain the relationship between the individual
self and the society in which it develops. One of the interesting ideas he offers is the
notion that “sympathy” is what enables and energizes social life. His word choice
probably reflects the time in which he wrote, but he’s not equating sympathy with
feeling sorry for others. For him, “sympathy” corresponded to the ability to share in
one or more people’s mental states: the ability to understand the meanings that
others gave a situation. In his view, social life could only happen if people were able
to understand the meanings that others were giving a shared situation and thereby
coordinate their actions and interactions with one another. Imagine how difficult it
would be to have any kind of coordinated interaction if everyone in a room had
completely different meanings running around in their heads and no way to
communicate those meanings or understand the meanings of others. Chaos would
certainly ensue.
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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The fact that we live orderly social lives suggests that we are good at understanding
what other people are thinking and feeling. Cooley goes a step further to argue that
our sympathetic abilities are crucial in the formation of our self-concepts. In his
view, our ability to imagine what others think empowers us to imagine what they
think of us. It is this internalization of what we think others think of us (sympathetic
introspection) that gives rise to our sense of being a separate individual (in
philosophical jargon: an object to ourselves).
This line of argument gave rise to Cooley’s most famous and influential idea: the
looking glass self. Cooley’s insight was that one’s self is constructed by
introspectively examining the feedback about ourselves we receive from other
people, our social looking glass (mirror). It is a process that involves first imagining
how you appear to others and their evaluations (positive, negative, neutral) of you.
This process then gives rise to an internal emotional response (positive, negative, or
neutral) and self-evaluation. These self-beliefs and self-judgments are the
cornerstones of the self-concept and largely reflect how other people have perceived
and reacted to us. There is the “we” in “me.”
Cooley argued that, for the most part, the looking-glass self principal explained
human social behavior. Like all symbolic interactionist theorists, he saw most human
behavior elicited by the meanings people give a situation. Employing the lookingglass self principle, he argued that people first imagine others’ likely reactions to
various potential behaviors and then steer their actions in ways they imagine will
meet social approval in the situation. This, he argued, explained why people tend to
conform to social norms and why society tends more toward stability than chaos.
George Herbert Mead
Like Cooley, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) spent most of his professional life
teaching in the American Midwest. Born and raised in Massachusetts, he earned an
M.A. in philosophy at Harvard after which he moved to Germany to work on a Ph.D. in
philosophy and physiological psychology. While in Germany, he studied with Wilhelm
Wundt, one of the early developers of experimental psychology. He left Germany in
1891, prior to finishing his doctorate, to accept a teaching position at the University
of Michigan. In 1894 he accepted an assistant professor position in philosophy at the
University of Chicago (which had been founded in 1892), where he taught for the
remainder of his professional career.
Mead did not publish a book during his lifetime. He put most of his creative scholarly
efforts into his teaching and shared his most profound insights with students in the
classroom. Most of what we know about his ideas was the result of students
publishing his lecture notes posthumously. The most influential of those publications
was the book Mind, Self, and Society (1934). This work provides a very extensive
glimpse into what he called social behaviorism (which was later subsumed under the
label symbolic interactionism).
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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Mead identified his work as social behaviorism because a lot of his thinking about the
intersection of the human subjectivity, behavior, and social life arose as something of
a critique of psychological behaviorism. Remember he had received some exposure to
early experimental psychology. Behaviorism was a very influential approach to
studying human psychology at the time. This was because it seemed to overcome
what had seemed like an insurmountable problem for the development of a positivist
science of psychology: that what goes on inside one’s head could not be objectively
measured. How could you have a science that studied things that could not be
measured? Behaviorism pointed out one possible way to do this…just ignore what is
going on internally and focus on things you can measure, like behavior.
The basic tenet of behaviorism is that most human behavior can be understood as a
learned response to one or more stimuli. In that case, one need not make any
reference to what is going on in a person’s mind to understand why a person behaves
in one way or another. People encounter a stimulus and act toward it in a manner
that reflects past learning. Experimental psychologists could learn more about this
process by merely controlling the conditions under which a person encountered a
stimulus and then measure the behaviors to ensue as a response. In shorthand, the
behaviorists viewed human behavior as merely a chain of stimulusresponse
Mead was among a group of scholars that believed the vision of human life endorsed
by the behaviorists was too mechanical. Human life was more than just a series of
mindless responses to stimuli for these folks. They believed that humans were more
complicated and creative, with the ability to act in novel and unpredictable ways.
For them, one had to take into account the meanings that people gave a situation in
order to understand how they acted. The shorthand that most aptly summarizes this
position is that human behavior is viewed as chains of stimulusmeaningsbehavior
relationships. In order to understand the meanings, one had to understand the how
looked to social relationships as to understanding the mind. Central to his approach
was a focus on how the abstract symbols (e.g., words/language) we used to
communicate with one another became the basic building blocks of our mental
As you will see in the article I assigned, Mead spent a good deal time thinking about
the process of self-objectification. He argued that there were two states of being.
In one of them, we are active, purposeful, creative actors–a subject that acts
according to a will or purpose. In the other, we are acted upon, the objects of
others’ attention, actions, feelings, etc. He called the first state “I,” as in “I made
that pizza!” or “I went for a walk.” He called the second state “me,” as in “they
made me do it” or “they like me.” The “I” is a creative human state and the “me” is
what happens when others or we take ourselves as an object. When I think of “me”
there is an active agent “I,” but then also a passive object “me.”
Mead’s view of what the self was was similar to Cooley’s, but a bit more specific. The
“I” in some sense requires no social relationships to exist, it is an essential part of
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Robert E. L. Roberts
being human, a drive to act in accordance with urges and impulses, etc. On the other
hand, the “me” cannot exist without living in at least one social relationship within
which one learns how to take oneself as an object (by watching how the other does
it). Mead also extends Cooley’s view on sympathy by arguing that there is also a
third component of the self, which reflects a kind of summation of one’s many social
relationships over time and place. Mead calls this third component of the self the
“generalized other”, and it contains one’s general expectations of how any typical
other person interpret oneself, one’s behavior, and the situation. The generalized
other then becomes the basis for how we view ourselves (“me”) and channel the
urges of the “I” into socially acceptable behaviors. If you are thinking that concept of
the self is a bit like Freud’s “id,” “ego,” and “super ego,” you are not alone.
However, Mead’s orientation was much more toward the social aspects of experience
than Freud, who also explored the roles of unconscious processes in his work.
Another of Mead’s influential theories concerns how the three dimensions of the self
develop. He envisioned the “I,” “me,” and “generalized other” developing across
three stages from birth through adolescence. [Stage theories of development were
quite popular with developmental psychologists (think Piaget), but we’ve also
encountered this kind of thinking in Comte’s work (law of the three stages) on the
development of society.]
Mead believed the first stage of self-development began at around age two, when kids
are moving around the environment and interacting with people and things in ways
that reflect their “I” self. He called this period the “pre-play stage.” He called the
second stage the “play stage” and argued that it began when children could imagine
themselves in the role of another person, like when they might imagine they are a
super hero or role play with dolls.
The third stage (game stage) unfolded when the child reached a point when s/he
could act as a member of a team. This involves being able to understand the
roles/responsibilities of each team member and to be able to understand/anticipate
the thoughts and feelings of the other team members. In this stage, the generalized
other begins to develop, as well as a clearly differentiated “me.”
Discussion Questions
(1) Apply Cooley’s notion of the looking -glass self to your experience. In what ways
do you think introspective sympathy has shaped your sense of self? In other words, in
what ways can you see your self-concept as a reflection of others’ beliefs and
judgments about you?
(2) How might one use Mead’s notion of the three-dimensional self (I, me,
generalized other) to explain social stability and change? In answering this question,
try to use examples from your experience. For example, think of any social
relationships you have had that had periods of stability and change. What roles might
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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Robert E. L. Roberts
your “I,” “me,” and “generalized other” played in producing the stability and/or
(3) One criticism sometimes leveled at symbolic interactionism is that while it is good
for explaining things at the micro-social level, it is not very good at explaining things
at a macro level. Using the logic of philosophical pragmatism, how might one rebut
such a criticism? Hint: what does philosophical pragmatism have to say about the
relation between self and society? How might one use that to use the symbolic
interactionist insights of Cooley or Mead to explain broader patterns of order and
change in society?
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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