By Sinead Hunt
This semester, in a dual attempt to a) become a much more well-rounded student and b) fulfill Barnard’s “Thinking About Social Difference” requirement, I enrolled in “Introduction to Sociology: The Social World.” Although it is still early in the semester, this class has already managed to challenge my most fundamental conception of my identity.
As an economics major, I’m used to grappling with difficult mathematical concepts, to stripping people of their humanity and viewing them as the mere sum of their economic transactions. If economics is cold and calculating, then sociology is the diametric opposite. In order to understand the forces that drive individual human behaviors, sociologists fully integrate themselves into people’s daily lives. They infiltrate churches and schools, hospitals and boardrooms, camouflaging themselves in order to produce writing that is both academic and intimate.
This week, as part of our examination of the development of the self, we studied the work of George Herbert Mead, who is best known for his theory that a person’s identity is developed through their social interactions. At first I was rather resistant to Mead’s idea of identity formation through “social experiences and activities,” mostly because I have always tended to avoid social interactions. However, one thing I have learned thus far is that regardless of whether or not you subscribe to certain social norms, they nonetheless govern your life. Just because I was an anti-social preschooler doesn’t mean that I am the rare exception to Mead’s theory. Even as a four year-old, my fierce independence was fueled by the self-aggrandizing delusion that I was somehow above my peers, above my teachers, and most of all, above the patronizing institution of pre-K.
Mead believed that play is integral to children’s formation of identity, as it allows children to take on different roles, thereby adopting the perspective of others. I remember distinctly that one day I was playing with a friend of mine, Amanda, when she imperiously announced that she would play the role of a princess and I her servant. I still remember bitterly choking down tears as
I began to feel an acrid mixture of rage and resentment. I also remember feeling unbridled glee when I turned the tables on Amanda by channeling my pent up feelings of injustice into revenge. Play allowed me to experience of wide range of perspectives, all from the comfort the comfort of my home.
Mead posits that at a certain point, children’s conception of “self” is transformed by what he refers to as the “generalized other.” This is to say, when you are a very young child, your sense of self is predicated upon how your family members and caretakers perceive you. As you move out into the world, however, and begin to interact with those outside of your family circle, your identity is increasing influenced by how you think others perceive you. Your sense of self is increasingly predicated upon what you believe society expects of you.
In class, our professor asked us one simple question: “Who do you think you are?” She instructed us to summarize our identity in one word and write it down in our notebooks. As those around me diligently obeyed her directive, I couldn’t help but pause. The first thing I thought to write was “smart.” For about as long as I can remember, I have identified as “smart,” predicating not only self-worth, but the very essence of my sense of self upon my intelligence. When I was very young, I had no conception of my own intelligence or abilities. I felt no ambition, no desire to achieve, no impulse to prove myself to anyone: I simply just existed. Mostly I was content on fulfilling my own preschool version of hedonistic desires, which mostly consisted of fruit snacks.
It wasn’t until second or third grade that I began to internalize what my teachers thought of me. My teachers expected me to achieve, so in a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, I began to achieve at high levels. My mother once recounted to me a horrifying story about her coming home, only to discover that nine-year-old me was stressing about an upcoming state science exam. When she asked me why I felt so anxious, I responded that I had heard the teachers talking about me, and they had expressed a certainty that I would get a perfect score. Suddenly, I felt not only an obligation to perform well, but to perform perfectly. My intelligence, my achievement and my sense of self became inextricably and dangerously linked.
The moral of the story? Sociology will fuck you up.
New Yorker Cartoon linked here
Edited by Ruby Samuels