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SELF IN SOCIETY

Robert A. Harsh

Robert.Harsh@Plattsburgh.edu

110 College Center - 518-564-2293

SUNY COLLEGE AT PLATTSBURGH

SOCIOLOGY DEPARTMENT

Fall 2006

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Cruise the Self-in-Society Web Site with TeeShark by Clicking on the Buttons at the Top, Middle, or Bottom of this Home Page/Introduction (Click here for more on the TeeShark and his relatives.)

INTRODUCTION

    Welcome to the fall semester at SUNY Plattsburgh, to Self in Society, and to this Web site, which I hope will complement and enrich our readings and class sessions. I've asked the TeeShark - a former criminal justice major who never really caught on to the whole idea of higher education as "schooling" - to help you navigate among the class updates, discussions, course unit guides, readings, and glossary on the Web site. I hope you will visit the site regularly through the semester and will feel free to share your opinions, perspectives, concerns, and suggestions for improvements in the course format and materials, including this Web site. For now, please take the time to read through this home page as an introduction to the class and to our overall approach to the course topics.

     I first taught this course in the fall of 1997 after previously teaching sections of Introduction to Sociology, Sociology of Religion, and a junior/senior seminar on religion and social change as an adjunct instructor for the SUNY Plattsburgh Sociology Department. Each spring I generally teach a topical seminar for the Honors Program. I've greatly enjoyed the opportunity to develop this course through several semesters and to now try my hand at Web pages as a new course component.

wpeD.jpg (1987 bytes)  Click here for a brief summary of my teaching and professional experience and a brief biography from the Sociology Department Web site.

CONSTRUCTING THE SELF FROM THE "OUTSIDE IN"

   I believe this class was originally titled Social Psychology but then changed to Self in Society to distinguish it from the Social Psychology course offered by the Psychology Department. That's a good thing, I think, since it encourages us to take a more distinctly sociological approach to the subject grounded in social construction and symbolic interaction.

   Initially sticking with this symbolic interactionist approach, we'll begin with readings in George Herbert Mead's Mind, Self, and Society for a theoretical foundation in the construction of the self through social interaction and then move to Erving Goffman's The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life for a more detailed description of symbolic interaction from the perspective of individual identity and social life as a performance with shared rules and strategies (Goffman's dramaturgical perspective) . (Click here for brief biographies of Mead and Goffman.)

    Here at the beginning of the course it's important to note that from this perspective the self is constructed from the outside in through interaction with our social and physical environments.

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       This more uniquely sociological perspective differs greatly from depth-psychology perspectives that instead construct the self from the inside out, with the individual "acting out" in behavior and relationships a deeper, inner self-consciousness. (Consider, for example, Sigmund Freud's three-part self in which an individual develops an ego identity [compare personality, self] that mediates between the id [compare animal instinct, drives] and the super ego [compare conscience, morality]. Mead, on the other hand, grounds his work in behavioral psychology and therefore terms himself a behaviorist, viewing the self as instead constructed in the process of our interactions [behavior] with others.) [Modern psychological theorists have posited an "adaptive unconscious" with both behavioral and depth-psychological functions.]

    The contrast between these perspectives is fertile ground for very interesting discussion. Are we "social animals" whose identities are determined by our interactions with others and our environment ("socialized" from the "outside in")? Or are we instead isolated souls with inner consciousnesses essentially abstracted (looking "inside out") from the world around us? And while the sociological /interactionist perspective seems to leave less room for individual freedom in the determination of personal identity, the depth-psychological perspective seems in turn to envision human identity as essentially an alienated, conflicted ("neurotic" for Freud) tension of thought and feeling "acted out" in our behavior. (Click here or on the Talk button below for a discussion question and forum on this topic.)

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THREE DYNAMICS OF INDIVIDUAL SELF-DEVELOPMENT    

   Again working from the social interactionist perspective, we can identify three dynamics - and corresponding course units - in the development of a personal identity (self) as follows:

Socialization

   Hopefully you will remember this concept from your SOC 101 class as the process by which an individual learns how to live and function in a society. This could be the primary socialization provided by parents and schools as you grow up or the developmental socialization provided by new experiences and relationships. In class we'll also discuss orientation to college as a process of re-socialization in a total institution. (Click here for a listing of the types of socialization in the Socialization unit guide.)

    While socialization is typically viewed as at least in part a process of social control that teaches individuals to conform to the norms (rules) of social interaction, in fact it can include considerable deviation from expected behavior. Thus, the following two dynamics highlight ways in which our choices of behaviors, relationships, and living environments construct our unique individualities (Click here for a discussion of personality in the Individuation course unit guide.)

Individuation

   This term describes the deliberate, "self-conscious" choices you make that in part determine who you are and will become. (Mead seems to include this dynamic as active intelligence in social interactions.) For instance, instead of coming to Plattsburgh State you could have joined, say, The Spice Girls, The Backstreet Boys, a religious cult, or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and these choices would probably have "made you a different person." In fact, choosing to pursue a college education can itself have a profound effect on your individual identity, since both academic and campus life include degrees of freedom that, in turn, allow a broad range of additional learning and behavior choices. (In class we'll discuss two models of emotional and intellectual development in college and how they might resonate with your own college experience. Also, click here for a description of the reflective paper assignment in the course syllabus as it relates to these dynamics of self-development.)

    This concept begs other questions about the nature and limits of human freedom and the psychological dynamics of choice. It also implies that some choices may be more restricting than others, perhaps on a continuum from addictions to transcendence.

Transformation

    Which brings us to the third dynamic of self-development - transformation. You probably won't find this one in most social psychology texts or even on the ever-expanding New Age or self-improvement shelves at Barnes and Noble or the Book Nook. This dynamic should not be limited to more routinized, individuated (see above) "born again" religious conversions or self-help regimens, but instead refers more broadly to those experiences or behavior choices that 1) significantly reshape our personal identity and 2) are self-consciously discontinuous with our previous life experience. The course readings include several books that discuss such experiences, including Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (mental illness and identity), Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild (wilderness and identity), and Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death (television culture and identity), and I look forward to our discussions of these readings in this context.

THE SELF IN HUMANISTIC AND CULTURAL PERSPECTIVES

   The interactionist perspective on the social construction of the self will also allow us to include discussion of self-development and personality from a humanistic perspective. For instance, in focusing on individuation and transformation we can also examine personal characteristics ("personality traits") and behaviors - temperament, integrity, congruence, tolerance, control/letting go, etc. - as these relate to socialization and cultural differences. Likewise, I will often relate topics, concepts, and issues to college academic and campus life to add relevance and individual perspective, and some course units will include fictional or real-life narratives of "representative lives" as these reflect course concepts and themes. Also, our discussion of individuation and transformation in the fourth course unit will include an examination of how cultural change affects individual identities, using Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death as a text for this final course section.

The Social Construction of Self and Personality

    "The condition of the human organism in the world is thus characterized by a built-in instability. Man does not have a given relationship to the world. He must ongoingly establish a relationship with it. The same instability mark's man's relationship with his own body.... In a curious way, man [woman] is 'out of balance' with himself [herself], but must continuously come to terms with himself by expressing himself in activity. Human existence is an ongoing 'balancing act' between man and his body, man and his world. One may put this differently by saying that man is constantly in the process of 'catching up with himself.' It is in this process that man produces a world. Only in such a world produced by himself can he locate himself and realize his life. But the same process that builds his world also 'finishes' his own being. In other words, man not only produces a world, but he [she] also produces himself [herself]. More precisely, he produces himself in a world."

       Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion

wpe2.jpg (9365 bytes) AND AWAY WE GO...through what I hope will be a lively, engaging, and informative semester. Now that you've read through this introductory home page, the foci of the Web site information will shift to the other Web pages as follows:

    The TABS button will provide course updates, assignments, and announcements. Check this page daily.

    Clicking on the TALK button will access discussion questions and the discussion forum. Regular participation in this forum can improve your course grade and will enrich our related class discussions.

    Supplementary course readings and course unit guides are available by clicking on the TOPICS button. I've also included a copy of the course syllabus in the Topics pages as well as my own text/writings on course topics.

    Definitions of course terms and concepts are in the glossary accessed by clicking on the TERMS button.

    And, fin-ally, the TeeShark can always lead you back to this home page by clicking on the TANK button.

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Copyright 2004 Robert Harsh
Address e-mail to Robert.Harsh@Plattsburgh.edu

This page last modified September 15, 2006