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Theories on the Development of Self-Identity

S. W. Moore teaches spoken English, business English and U.S. history at Datong University in China. He writes articles on various topics.

The development of self-identity.

The development of self-identity.

Who Am I?

Undoubtedly everyone at some point in their life has posited the question, "Who am I?"

This question, along with:

  • "Why am I here?"
  • "What is the purpose of life?"

and other seemingly transient questions have been a query that has puzzled philosophers throughout the ages. Individuals and cultures alike have tried to render a verdict on the evidence that has been presented. Although the glut of answers given throughout history has varied tremendously both in scope and nature, they can all be condensed into two basic viewpoints: atheistic and theistic.

The atheistic view, which tends to be the leaning of most modern philosophers, is that we are here, just like everything else, by accident. Over the course of billions of years of evolution, humans, somewhere in the last few million years, have developed a conscience: self-realization. What it is really is anyone's guess, but it somehow puts us a little above the plants and flowers, which, although alive, growing, and reproducing, have in themselves no concept of being; they just simply exist and nothing more. Neither do they care.

In this scenario, we have no existence or purpose in life; we just have a few overdeveloped brain cells firing erratically, causing us to become somewhat aware of our existence temporarily. When we die, it is all over, and we, conscious of our being or not, simply cease to exist. On the other hand, in the theistic view, humans were created by God with a set purpose in life. We are created with a mind, a body, and a soul. Following are brief synopses of three prominent sociologists.

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Charles Horton Cooley

Charles Horton Cooley

The Looking-Glass Self

Charles Horton Cooley was a professor at the University of Michigan from 1892 until his death in 1929. Dr. Cooley set out to theorize human self-awareness by postulating three elements that define our awareness based on our relationships with those around us. He believed that we first imagine how we appear to those around us, then we interpret the reactions of others based on their perception of us, and finally we develop a self-concept based on how we interpret the reactions of others. He called this theory the "looking-glass self". He felt that we perceive in our minds how we look or seem to those around us. Regardless of how we feel about ourselves, we often worry about how others regard us. In middle school, we all hope that everyone will think we are cool. In high school we can't fathom the thought that we won't be found attractive. In college and throughout life we constantly worry that others will look down on us for some unknown reason. We often evaluate the responses we get from those around us to determine how they feel about us based on how they see us. Do they think we are weak because we are nice? Perhaps they see us as cool because we speak condescendingly to others. If we are quiet by nature, do they perceive us as intelligent, or simply unfriendly? After we have evaluated the reactions of our friends and acquaintances, we will begin to develop ideas about ourselves. He believed that the idea of self was a lifelong, constantly changing, process.

George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead

The 3 Step Process of Identity

George Herbert Mead also used a three-step process to explain the development of self, however, his steps differed from those proposed by Dr. Cooley. The first of his steps was what he called imitation. In this stage, which begins at an early age, we begin to imitate the actions and words of those around us. We don't really have a true sense of being; we simply view ourselves as an extension of those around us. In the second stage, called play, we begin the process of learning our self-identity by no longer simply imitating others, but rather by pretending to be them. Although we haven't fully realized ourselves as being a total and separate entity, we are realizing a step in that direction by showing that we understand that others are individuals who are different from one another. In the final stage we begin to take on the roles of others when we play team sports. In these situations we must learn to play as a team by not only playing our part, but by also knowing the roles that other people play so that we may anticipate their moves. In some cases we might also be required to actively take on their role, such as when a player is hurt and we must substitute for them. It is in these three steps, according to Dr. Mead, that we each develop our own individual identity.

Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

The 4 Stages of Development of Reasoning Skills

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist who noticed that children often make the same wrong observations in similar situations. He deduced that all children used the same reasoning when presented with a problem, regardless of their background. At the conclusion of years of studying them, Dr. Piaget determined that children go through four stages in the development of reasoning skills. The first stage, which he called the sensorimotor stage, lasts until about the age of two in most children. All of our ideas about self are limited to direct physical touch. We have yet to develop the idea of abstract thought or the ability to realize that actions have consequences. The preoperational stage, which lasts from about age two to age seven, is the period of time where we begin to learn about what he called symbols. That is, anything that we use to represent something else. This terminology not only applies to concrete symbols, such as the male/female silhouettes on bathroom doors, but also to more abstract symbols such as language and counting. Although children begin to use and realize the use of these symbols, they don't always fully understand their complete meaning. For example, a child may be able to comprehend the difference between one cookie and two cookies, but they would have no concept of the difference between a car that cost $400 and another that cost $40,000. In the third stage, the concrete operational stage which lasts from roughly 7-12 years of age, older children are beginning to grasp the overall meanings of concrete symbols such as numbers (even if they are very large numbers), yet still have difficulties understanding abstract ideas such as love and honesty. In the fourth and final stage of our development, the formal operational stage, we now are beginning to understand abstract ideas. We can now answer not only questions about who, what, where, and when, but we can also begin to answer questions related to why something is right, wrong, beautiful, kind, etc.

Face to Face With God

Although Charles Cooley and George Mead differed in their approach to the development of self (Cooley's was more mental in aspect, whereas Mead's was more physical), their ideas were the same in that their approach was the idea that we look to others to determine our idea of self. Regardless of whether it is our thoughts or actions that are based on those of others, we can't develop the idea of self without the presence of others. On the same hand though, those we are looking at are also looking back at us to make their own determinations about them selves. What we wind up with then is a case of the blind leading the blind. Jean Piaget on the other hand tended to see us as relying on symbols that help us explain and identify those things around us that in turn are our guide to the development of self-identity. These all, of course, differ from the theistic view which states that we should look to God. "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:2, KJV) The Bible recounts a story of the Apostle Paul debating with the philosophers in Athens. In brief Paul says to them, "... as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, To The Unknown God. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein... neither is worshipped with men's hands... he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things... they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us... for in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said... " (Acts 17:15-34 KJV) We are made in the image of God. The bible states that we cannot fully know ourself until we meet Him. "For we know in part, and we prophesy in part. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (I Corinthians 13:9-12 KJV)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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