I am an onion

Having written recently about being a bug and an alien, I was reminded of psychological and sociological research into the self-concept.

Shrek isn’t the first to use the analogy of an onion to describe his sense of self.  Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (1867) describes his own life in such terms:

You are no emperor, but an onion!

So now my good Peer, I shall peel you away,

neither tears nor entreaties will my verdict sway.

There goes the battered, dry outer peel-

the shipwrecked seaman on a lifeboat’s keel.

This one, the wanderer – scrawny and thin

still bearing the scent of the old Peer Gynt.

Next underneath, comes the gold-mining clown –

the juice, if there ever was any, is gone.

What an incredible number of peels!

Will one ever get the heart of the deal?

Damn it, we won’t!  For right down to the core,

there’s nothing but layers and layers and more.

Will one ever get to the heart of the deal?

In 1934, academic George Herbert Mead explored the concept of the self.  He distinguished between ‘I’ and ‘Me’.  He regarded our sense of selves to be socially constructed as humans are essentially social creatures. We are members of a society which to function efficiently must impact on the behaviour of its individuals.  The ‘me’ is what is learned in response to interactions with our environment, society and others.  The ‘me’ holds the ‘I’ in check, constraining behaviour within the functional boundaries of which the individual is a part.

The self is not so much a substance as a process in which the conversation of gestures has been internalized within an organic form. This process does not exist for itself, but is simply a phase of the whole social organization of which the individual is a part. The organization of the social act has been imported into the organism and becomes then the mind of the individual.

However, it does suggest that there is a heart of the deal, an ‘I’ that needs to be constrained.  This is not unlike Freud’s concept of the superego, the parent inside our heads, which constrains the impulses of the ‘id’ and the actions of the ‘ego’.

Freud held that many aspects of our personality are buried deep in our unconscious minds.  An idea that was incorporated into Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham’s Johari Window.  This is a tool to help better understand the self and one’s relationship’s with others.

The window has four panes.  The first being an area of commonality – what I know about myself that others know too.  The second is what I know about myself that others don’t know.  The third is a blind spot.  What others know about me, that I don’t see and the final pane is the unknown, what no-one knows about me, including me.  The tool may be an aid to becoming aware of the blind spots and what might be ‘the heart of the deal’.

You can try it for yourself, but will need several people who know you to cooperate.

The Johari Window

You’ll notice that the exercise is based on picking words from a prescribed list.  The list is a set of personality traits.  One problem with this, is it presumes that is how people view themselves and others.  That isn’t necessarily the case.  For example, I asked a Japanese friend to interpret ‘I am an artist, not a builder’ into Japanese for me.  But she replied that isn’t the way a Japanese person would describe themselves.  If our ‘self’ is social, then it would right to presume that there are cultural differences in self-perception.

In order to address this, M.H. Kuhn and T.S. McPartland devised a more open-ended tool for investigating self-perception.  It is known as the Twenty Statement Test and you are merely asked to respond to the question “Who am I?”  Responses are then categorised.  Kuhn (1960) suggested these:

  • social roles
  • ideological beliefs
  • interests
  • ambitions
  • self-evaluations

Various studies suggest that there are categorical differences in self-concept across social classes, gender, age and culture.

While supporting the view that the self is social, it doesn’t help us to understand if we are more like an apple with an inner core, or can get to the ‘heart of the deal’.   But so far, these discussions of self suggest that we are not one, but many selves.

The idea that we are multiple selves was suggested by Erving Goffman.  His thesis is very well represented in Jacques’ soliloquy in the play Hamlet, by William Shakespeare:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

In any given situation, we enter a stage wearing a mask, which represents our definition of the situation.  For example, in a work situation, I could wear the mask of the subordinate, but when I go to the club, where I’m secretary, I wear the mask of the superior.  Others respond to my self-attributions and wear masks appropriate to the parts they are playing according to their definition of the situation.  Problems occur when the situation is defined differently by the actors.  But groups generally work towards concordance, which is why in some situations you might feel like the child in the group, and in others, more like the parent.  You may have your mask given to you according to how the groups defines the situation.

Goffman is attributed with saying that the self is the sum total of all the public masks worn over a lifetime.

There is no heart of the deal.

When challenged to look more closely at our self, or multiple selves as the case may be, how might these thoughts affect your introspective processes?  Is it possible that we would have no self-concept at all if we didn’t interact with other people?



3 thoughts on “I am an onion

  1. “Is it possible that we would have no self-concept at all if we didn’t interact with other people?” Now THAT is a very interesting question. (It’s very much like “If you’ve never been taught about religion, would you ever intuit a God?”) I’m not smart by any means, but I’d have to go with no, we wouldn’t. We wouldn’t be aware there was anyone but us. Just a guess. What do YOU think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is indeed interesting. I think that we would have the rudiments for self-awareness, self-recognition and forming a self-concept – but without social activation, they are unlikely to develop. It is interesting that a mirror test (where a ‘paint’ mark is surreptitiously placed (generally) on the animal’s face and their behaviour towards their mirror reflection is recorded. If they respond by touching the mark on their own face, this is taken as self-recognition – the rudiments of a self-concept or identity) has only shown social animals such as humans and apes (chimps, bonobos and orang-utans), bottlenose dolphins and orcas, elephants and magpies to respond as if they have self-recognition. Additionally, younger members of ape species often fail the test, suggesting it develops (possibly through social interaction). As to whether we have a “heart of the deal’ an inner stable core for our self-concept, I’m unsure. Goffman talks about how one ‘mask’ can become the dominant core for self-identity. I tend to lean towards multi-faceted explanations – initial social shaping, conscious awareness and the capacity for self-reflection all work together to create a coherent sense of self if that’s what we desire. But the fact we like to ponder the question of ‘who am I?’ additionally suggests perhaps there is not.
      A postmodern thinker – I forget who, right now, coined the term ‘fragmented self’. Postmodern society is characterised by a breakdown of traditional ‘labels’ that define our social roles and hence identities. Gender, class, ethnicity, culture are now more blurred – fragmenting identity.
      However, another way to think about that is that individuals have the power to redefine the situation. So for example at the age of 16, I actively rejected my mother’s definition of what it means to be female. There are many examples throughout history of a wider social movement to redefine the situation and claim the ‘core’ identity rather than accept the socially shaped one.
      Not sure I’ve answered your question!!

      Liked by 1 person

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