Feral children lack a sense of self, in part because they’ve not had interactions with others with whom they could distinguish themselves. They also have not had feedback on their value, performance, talents, strengths, and weaknesses. Sociologists using concepts from Cooley and Mead have identified an insightful way of understanding our self-concept. TheLooking-Glass Self is the reflection of who we think we see by observing the treatment and behaviors of others towards us.
The metaphor used in this concept is a mirror—we see ourselves reflected in the actions and behaviors of those around us (like we see ourselves in a mirror). The Looking Glass Self has three distinct steps to it:
Steps to the Looking-glass self:
1. We imagine how we appear to others
2. We imagine and interpret their judgment of us
3. We react positively or negatively to that perceived judgment while developing a self-concept
Yes, we do watch how others react to us and how they might judge us. But, not everyone in our lives is equal in their potency of evaluation and how we respond to them. Let me show you what I mean. Make a list of the 10 closest people to you in your life. Once you’ve made the list then put a star beside the 3 with whom you feel the closest bond—you really value their opinion and are connected to them and vice versa. These top ten and top three represent your significant others.
Significant Others are those other people whose evaluations of the individual are important and regularly considered during interactions. Strangers you see on campus and in the grocery store do not have the same importance as roommates, close friends, parents, and others you listed. And not all significant others are valued equally. Your fraternity brothers’ or sorority sisters’ opinion of your Halloween costume probably means more than your younger sibling’s opinion.
The process leading up to a self-concept is easy to grasp. I’ve taught my students for decades to think of how they get feedback from others and watch others to get an idea of their expectations in a given role as though they were a weight lifter. The key to understanding self-concept is to understand that balanced self-concept works the same way as balanced weights. Ever try to lift a set of weight with 30 pounds on one side and only 20 pounds on the other? Please don’t! This would prove to be destructive to your physical health.
The same can be said of those who try to balance too high of an “Ideal” expectation in a role, because they’re most likely to perform less than expected in their “Actual” performance in this role. Again, the balance between “Ideal” and “Actual” is crucial. In this example, imagine that you are looking at the self-concept formed by a young female college graduate. She has been accepted into a prestigious corporate internship role and has actually been labeled the “Intern.”
Once on the job she asked her supervisors, co-workers, and former interns what was expected of her—this information provided the “Ideal” side of the weights. She wrote down her ideal expectations and decided that to perform well and later be considered for full-time employment she should: be on time; be prepared for every meeting; be zealous about doing specifically what her direct supervisor requested; and try to solve at least one lingering corporate problem related to her tasks.
By the end of her first year, she had established a strong pattern of being on time; had come to meetings prepared with additional information to supplement the agenda of the meeting; had accomplished every assignment given to her by her supervisor; but had not solved any lingering corporate problem. She did though discuss a lingering problem with her supervisor and volunteered for an inter-departmental ad hoc committee to study the issue and look for solutions. Because her ideals closely matched with her actual performance, she had a fairly balanced perception of her self-concept. Regardless of the corporation decision to hire or not hire her, she finished her internship and felt good about herself in the process (a balanced self-concept). Another intern might have set far too low of goals for her expectations or far too high. She might also have given herself little credit and under-evaluated her own performance based on comparisons of other interns who’ve worked there. In either case the imbalance typically shows up in imbalanced self-concept.
In the next example, a Freshmen student who desperately wanted to fit in and be accepted into a fraternity set way to high of goals in his college student expectations.
Once on campus he registered for pre-law. He wanted to be a lawyer like his father. He also pledged into a fraternity. Being young, and not knowing his own limitations, he took very tough GE courses yet spent over half his waking time supporting fraternity activities. By the end of his first term he failed 4 out of 5 classes. But, he was a member of the fraternity. His father and he had a long talk over the winter holiday break. In either case, assessing too high or low of ideals or too high or low of actual performance leaves a person imbalanced in their self-concept.
Please notice I have not spoken about a high self-esteem. Self-Esteem is pride in oneself, a positive self-regard, an inordinately high positive self-regard, or a high self-respect. This concept originated in psychological research and has lost popularity among psychologists and sociologists because a high-self esteem is often found among individuals who misbehave in their communities and relationships. Search self-esteem and narcissism on the Internet for more information about the complexities of self-esteem.
As far as our self-concept is concerned we learn early on that we must perform to a certain level if we are to receive the much desired approval from others. As children grow up and into adolescence they begin to develop their abstract reasoning skills. Eventually they develop the ability to sympathize with others. Taking the Role of Other is when children put themselves in someone else's shoes, understand how he/she feels, and anticipate how he/she will act. This happens frequently when children hear sad news about other children. They can put themselves in those circumstances to a certain degree.
George Herbert Mead’s "Mind Self, and Society" discusses the fact that we do take the role of others and by so doing begin to see the “other” within our own selves. By doing so, we conform, fit in, and criticize ourselves when we fall short of the expectations we perceive in the “other” (see Mind, Self, and Society, ed. C.W. Morris; University of Chicago 1934; and Blumer, Herbert. "Sociological Implications of the Thought of G.H. Mead," American J. of Sociology, 71 (1966): 535-44 or Blumer, Herbert. "Mead & Blumer: Social Behaviorism & Symbolic Interactionism," American Sociological Review, 45 (1980): 409-19).
In the Symbolic Interactionism perspective, the average person has a common perspective on what they think other members of society expect, do, and think. When we imagine what an average person would do in a situation we take on the perspective of the generalized other. The Generalized Other are classes of people with whom a person interacts on the basis of generalized roles rather than individualized characteristics. Mead also believed that it is through role playing as children that we learn to take on the role of other. This helps us to imagine and visualize the perspective of others in various groups. In other words, without really becoming a terrorist, we can imagine their point of view—like the role of fundamentalism with religious terrorists who blew up a federal building in Oklahoma or the World Trade Towers in New York (see Mead, G. H. and C. W. Morris (1934) Mind, Self, and Society from the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist, University of Chicago Press, Chicago).
As children grow into young adulthood they prepare for significant roles. They may focus heavily on their athletic talents and grades so they can attend college on a scholarship. They might join the Junior ROTC so they can become a military officer. They might volunteer for Peace Corps (see http://www.peacecorps.gov/) or some other charitable service mission. In either case, they are practicing anticipatory socialization. Anticipatory Socialization is practice in advance for some future role.