Towards a Cultural Psychology of the Self

  • Scott S. Blake
  • Theories of Social Psychology
  • March 14, 1995
  • Morris Schwartz
  • Copyright 1995, Scott S. Blake.

    Do not quote without permission of the author.


    There are many theories that attempt to account for the social aspects of the self. Unfortunately, most, if not all, of these theories do not account for variation over time and across space. Social psychological theories of the self also walk a thin line between social science and theology. In this essay, I will bracket questions relating to the necessity and/or usefulness of this divide. There are many good reasons why theories of the self have this difficulty. Among them is perhaps the most important, namely that our understanding of the self is necessarily rooted deeply in our own cultural and social milieu. As numerous post-modern theorists have pointed out, humans are creatures of our environment. Therefore, it is essentially impossible for our theories to be anything but products of our environment.

    Here we arrive at the point of departure for this essay. Given that our consciousness is historically and socially specific, what are the mechanisms through which we come to be overdetermined by society and simultaneously individuals full of unique qualities, thoughts, and emotions? Put another way, what is the interface of the individual and the collectivity? The social is commonly understood as being made up of groups-both formal groups (institutions ranging from government to the family) and informal groups (ranging from extended kinship networks to the basic unit of the social, the dyad). It is these phenomena that I refer to when using the words social, society, and the like. In contrast, I separate the social and the cultural. By the cultural, I mean such phenomena as ideology, consumerism, mass media, popular music, and art. Furthermore, the cultural also refers to mores, folkways, stigma, paradigms, and other thought-defining phenomena. The cultural is always already changing as one moves through space and time.

    It is my proposition that the cultural constitutes the interface between the self and the social. Through the cultural, society shapes individuals in a continuous and changing process of inculturation. The term inculturation is particularly well-suited to this phenomenon because it precisely indicates the internalization of culture. What is does not do, however, is indicate the feedback that individuals give to culture. Many social psychologists have indicated that the social in incorporated into children as they are being reared. Few, if any, have shown that this is an imperfect process and that individuals may not be inculturated properly. Fewer still have shown how change takes place. To paraphrase an astute sociologist, cultural change is either regarded as so commonsense as to be unworthy of mention or as so complex that nothing can be said about it. In both cases, nothing gets said. My central intellectual enterprise is to attempt to comprehend cultural change. An understanding of the self is critical to this endeavor.

    Inculturation and Children.

    This topic has been dealt with at great length elsewhere, so I will treat it only briefly. Since Freud, psychologists have recognized the important role that parents play in creating children who can function in a given society (or, in some cases, children who cannot function in society). Also since Freud, the dynamics of person creation have become more complex. With the growth of mandatory public education and media consumption by children, budding persons are exposed to many more influences that shape consciousness than their parents (by parents I refer to any adult person with primary responsibility for child-rearing). Television, teachers, peer groups, and other factors all come to influence personality formation.

    In Freud's time, children were raised by their parents or by surrogate parents in the form of relatives, community members, or professionals (nannies). These people were often the only significant influence in the child's life (children should be seen and not heard). Children received morality, religiosity, preferences, and the complex of unconscious predilections that I refer to as thought patterns from these adults. This is not to say that the transmission of values from one generation to the next was flawless. Indeed, there are many historical examples of people whose values did not match those of the period. However, these discrepancies can often be explained in terms of contradictions within the value system of the time and place. Furthermore, there are noteworthy historical periods when the predominant values did not change appreciably (for example: the Tokugawa period in Japan, the early Middle Ages in Western Europe, and pre-colonial Sub-Saharan Africa, to name a few). Thus, it is not unreasonable to suggest that prior to the massification of culture through mass media and mass education, culture change occurred relatively slowly and primarily through the introduction of external influences (through wars, trade, or invention, primarily).

    Any discussion of static culture begs questions about how cultures change. Clearly, cultures do change. In this essay, I am largely bracketing a macro-level analysis of cultural change, although certain implications can be drawn from my analysis of culture and the self.

    This digression into history aside, we are faced with a situation today in which children receive the values not only of their parents, but also those of the society at large, via television and schooling. This much is fairly commonsense. What does not appear immediately, however, is the significance of this inculturation on the meaning of self. As Jane Flax pointed out, many of us are fragmented beings. We exist in a multitude of selves and in a plethora of worlds synchronously. We learn to do this as children, as a direct result of the dynamics of growing up. First, we are at home and learn to behave as our parents teach us. Second, we are in school with different restrictions and expectations. Third, we are with our peer groups, at play, where we form yet another set of rules. Finally, we are experiencing media. Whether playing computer games, watching television, or listening to music, we learn to suspend disbelief, ignore discrepancies, play within the setting, and, above all, consume.

    Parents come in all shapes and sizes, with a wide variety of beliefs. Some subscribe to the Dr. Spock school of child-rearing, others break out the belt over spilled milk. Some live within the state-controlled world of AFDC and Medicaid, others , through luck or purchase, live beyond the direct reach of the state in enclaves or other relatively autonomous communities. Some attend Christian churches twice a week, others have nothing but disdain for religions. Even those parents who do not actively seek to create children who will follow in their footsteps teach by example and by exclusion. Parents who claim to have no interest in politics teach tacit acceptance, while those who espouse free choice have already made one and their children are thus prejudiced. Through design or not, children see how their parents live which has a profound effect on their selves. This is not to say that children are necessarily converted to their parents viewpoint. Indeed many children react negatively to their parents choices precisely because they are their parents choices, not the child's. Nevertheless, parents make an undeniable imprint on a child's consciousness, regardless of what other factors come into play.

    Children are delivered to the care of schools already imprinted with language and some (at least rudimentary) code of conduct. The school seeks to imprint upon each child its own rules which may or may not fit well with those the child absorbed from the parents. These rules are explicitly geared towards ensuring order in the school, good study skills, and, ultimately, preparing the child for entry into society. What children actually learn varies widely from place to place. Children in wealthy suburbs learn how to "get ahead" while children in inner cities learn to get through the day alive (hopefully). In any case, schools expose children to the values of the community (perhaps tempered somewhat by a broader context), which may or may not be in concert with what they learn at home. Where there is conflict, the stage is set for one or more of the following possibilities: neurosis, withdrawal, subscription to one set and rejection of the other set of values, anger, disillusionment, and rejection of everything one is presented with-often followed by seeking out alternatives. Furthermore, children begin to detect cleavages between what they are taught and what they experience. For example, children who are taught that anyone can "succeed" if they work hard and perceive that everyone they know is "down and out" quickly recognize this and react to it in similar ways to those mentioned above. The school setting differs from the peer group because of the authority structure involved.

    Another important formative factor in school is the child's encounter with authority. Although many (perhaps most) have authority figures at home, not all do. For some, school is the first encounter with an authority figure who cannot be cajoled into leniency. This is where children learn their reactions to institutionalized authority. Despite the best wishes of many educators, children learn their reactions according to their perception of expectations from the peer group and are often motivated by factors outside the immediate situation (such as gaining recognition and stature from peers). Children know perfectly well what to expect from teachers, having been exposed to the situation of "being bad" many times. And yet, they still "act up." Why? There are many examples, but I will focus on one in particular-the media.

    Thus far, I have focused on behavioral effects of inculturation. Turning now to the media, it is necessary to retreat from the readily observable world into a more abstract realm of thoughts-conscious and unconscious. A recent study found that on average, American children consume six hours of television per day. What are they watching? What effect does it have? Although there are many "educational" programs, their viewership is limited. As of this writing, the current rage in children's television is the "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers." These characters are yet another variety of super(s)hero. They do daily battle against the forces of evil, whose activities range from holding cities hostage with super-weapons to committing eco-terrorism. The Power Rangers do not generally use weapons, rather they engage in hand-to-hand combat. As evidence of the prevalence of the Power Ranger phenomenon, an article was recently run in a Northern Maine daily newspaper (The Bangor Daily News, March 8,1995) about an elementary school in Northern Maine that is banning all Power Ranger paraphernalia and is cracking down on mimicking behavior. The Power Rangers' trademark is a martial arts move known as the roundhouse kick. Children find this move very compelling and practice it on their schoolmates. Undoubtedly, these children mean no real harm, since the show is devoid of injuries or other consequences, but they are, nonetheless, getting hurt.

    This anecdote illustrates the subtle effect of television on children in a not so subtle way. By watching this show day and day out, the children come to function in a way that is wholly appropriate for the world portrayed in the show, but in not considered appropriate in the "real" world. The specifics of the behavior aside, we see the beginnings of fragmented selves. In order for the children to enjoy the show, as they believe they must (peer group sanctioning for failure to participate in the culture of the school can be severe and lead to later neuroses), they must learn to contain the world of the show within themselves and not express it outwardly. Put another way, children are not allowed to incorporate rules learned by watching television into the self that exists in the school setting. They are required to closet the self of the show when existing in other realms. The self that understands and learns from the show cannot be allowed to get in the way of the socially required behaviors of the school. As the reader will no doubt suspect, such compartmentalization is never perfect.

    Children find themselves simultaneously existing in separate, yet parallel worlds that are not supposed to overlap. However, the child, while expressing the appropriate attitude (that the show is mere fantasy) nonetheless incorporates various aspects of the world of the show into her self. At the early stages of fragmentation, it is very difficult to keep the worlds separate. Adults, who have more practice, can often appear to keep their worlds separate. Children need reinforcement to aid in their forced cleavage of selves. Thus, teachers and parents work to keep children in line while the child struggles to contain and reconcile the fractures of her self. The process is, unfortunately, not as difficult as it sounds. Many aspects of our culture assist in solidifying the walls.

    For boys, such strictures as, "boys don't cry," reinforce the division between internal life and external life. The boy clearly feels like crying, but parents, teachers, and television equally clearly portray the normative image of boys who cry as sissies, crybabies, and wimps. Boys are taught to be like their fathers, or in the absence of a father, to be like other boys. While such role-modeling is on shaky ground (alternative role models can alter the inculturation), it is also extremely powerful. Children learn very early that if they are to be accepted by others, they must emulate people who are already accepted. A boy whose father breaks out of stereotypes is still confronted with teachers, peers, and television.

    For girls, the situation is somewhat more complicated. While boys are given fairly unified pictures of how to act, girls are presented with contradictory images. On the one hand, they are told that girls can do everything boys can. On the other, they learn quickly that people have different expectations. Girls are expected to play with dolls, talk about relationships, and be caretakers. Again role models come into play. Most girls today see their mothers going to work and cooking every meal. While there are certainly examples to the contrary, girls still learn that, "its not smart to be too smart."

    With these examples in hand, we can see that the inculturation process in terribly complex, riddled with counter-examples, and ambiguities. Nevertheless, we also see that it is extremely powerful in shaping the configuration of the modern self(s). The opinion of luminary developmental psychologists to the contrary, inculturation does not cease when one "grows up." This is a fundamental difference between inculturation and socialization. A young adult is almost completely socialized. S/he understands the basic rules of society and is more or less able to function according to the behavioral schemes of the society. One may even have become an active participant, creating and re-creating social structures. Inculturation, however, has not stopped. In adults, we also see more clearly the ways in which feedback occurs in the inculturation process.

    Inculturation and Adults

    We arrive in adulthood equipped with many of the heuristics necessary to navigate the social space we occupy. We also have developed the multiple selves necessary to keep "fantasy" out of "reality." For many of us this includes not only separating television and work, but also keeping our dreams out of rational planning. We understand that we cannot "get ahead" by dreaming, that imaginings do not put food on the table. The part of us that dreams and imagines has been closeted, only to find expression through consumption of media. Obviously, this fracture is not complete. There is always slippage between these aspects of the self. This slippage allows for feedback and change. To illustrate this point, I will look at the phenomenon of science fiction (hereafter referred to as sci-fi).

    Sci-fi exists at the intersection of imagination and rationality. It illuminates and facilitates the cleavage between the Homo œconomicus demanded by the worlds of business, government, and the like and the dreamer of our (pre-fracture) childhood. Sci-fi is part of our culture that has grown significantly in importance over the last twenty years. Beginning with the runaway box office performance of Star Wars, sci-fi has become part of our everyday culture. Today, many commercials utilize various components of sci-fi to generate demand. As a significant portion of our culture, sci-fi constitutes part of the inculturation we participate in. It also offers a unique example of how culture can change.

    When sci-fi first arrived in mainstream culture, it was predominantly of the variety known as "hard science fiction." This sub-genre addresses technological change over variable periods of time into the future. By and large, it does not foresee significant cultural or social shifts; rather, hard sci-fi superimposes technological and scientific advances over the social template that already exists. Star Wars, for example, places very recognizable s/hero figures into a distant future where government is quite reminiscent of Imperial Rome and our s/heroes are fighting for freedom from tyranny. This theme is not uncommon in hard sci-fi-nor is it uncommon in other adventure literature. There is nothing especially groundbreaking in the world presented in Star Wars. Hard sci-fi often places salvation in the invention of new technologies to solve the problems of the day. This characteristic makes it clearly identifiable as a product of Modernity. However, in the intervening years since Star Wars, sci-fi has undergone a massive shift.

    Through the influence of such writers as Ursula LeGuin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Samuel R. Delaney sci-fi has transformed itself from a realm primarily populated by educated, white men to one that embraces both genders and many races (though there is still a definite class characteristic in the readership). Today, it is virtually impossible to publish short fiction in the major sci-fi magazines that is considered hard sci-fi. A recent editorial in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction described what the editors look for in a story. To paraphrase, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, the managing editor, identified stories that deal with the human condition, that explore the ways humans adjust to technology, and re-arrange societies as being most in demand. Other magazines have identified similar interests (e.g., Asimov's Science Fiction, Aboriginal Science Fiction, Amazing, and Interzone, to name but a few). William Bainbridge has coined the term new wave sci-fi to describe this new trend.

    New wave sci-fi includes several sub-genre such as cyberpunk, twenty-minutes-into-the-future, utopian, and feminist. While each of these has distinct characteristics, all de-center technology from the story. The reader is invited to experience an alternative lifestyle, one that probably (but not necessarily) includes new technologies, but certainly includes different ways of looking at the world. In cyberpunk sci-fi, current social trends are extrapolated. Often computers are seen to be smaller, faster, and more common. Crime and stratification have grown to fantastic proportions. Characters come from different social classes, with different worldviews and (often) conflicting ideas about how things should be. In hard sci-fi, conflict is usually restricted to some other, while in new wave, conflict is between social categories or is internal, visceral.

    Armed with this general understanding of sci-fi, we can now turn to an examination of the effect its consumption has on the self. As noted above, adults are usually already fragmented into (at least) their fantasy and rational selves. Consumption of sci-fi is definitely an enterprise of the fantasy self. However, as we have also noted, there is always slippage between one's selves. Part of the allure of scifi is its relationship to "reality." New wave scifi is firmly grounded in the world we occupy. Feminist sci-fi, for example, is primarily concerned with showing futures in which women have escaped their historical bonds. This fiction is only interesting precisely because women still occupy a position of relative deprivation and the fiction shows that we can imagine a world where that is no longer the case. It is compelling because it is such stark contrast to the world of "reality." Suddenly, a person who might not have dared to imagine a better life has had it presented before her.

    This person, the reader, is faced with a conflict between what she has dreamed and what she faces everyday. This is not the same conflict as that faced by the child who envisions a world through the television and finds it incompatible with the requirements of existing in society. The child is testing limits to determine what is expected. The adult already knows. She has experienced fully what it means to be fragmented even if she does not put that word to the feeling. The child's conflict arises from an unwillingness to become fragmented, the adult's conflict is rooted in the experience of dissatisfaction with the world. The adult experiences an inability to reconcile the two visions of how things should be. She is forced to fragment further or begin to reject the fragmentation.

    It is here, on the fault lines, that change occurs. This model of change has been identified by many people, in various contexts. Thomas Kuhn used the idea of accumulating data inconsistent with expectations to explain scientific paradigm shift. Dorothy Smith (and other feminists) wrote of ruptures between women's experience and their expectations as being causal factors in women's understanding of the oppression of women. Even Darwin had a similar conception of how evolution takes place-slight mutations with survival value are selected for. The elaboration of this model as it applies to culture will constitute the conclusion of this essay.

    The Cultural Self in Cultural Change

    When one experiences a fracture between self and culture, change can begin to occur. Importantly, the fracture must be experienced by an individual. A work of art may have an effect on me that leads me to re-evaluate an attitude that I hold, but another person may have a totally different response. Prediction of that response is beyond the scope of this essay. For now, suffice it to say that the cultural human is extremely complex. So much so that it may be necessary to employ chaos theory to generate probabilities of outcomes rather than being able to predict the reaction of any given individual. Such considerations aside, we can explore the dynamics of both individual response and the ensuing re-action.

    When an individual consumes a cultural artifact (be it book, essay, movie, painting, or commercial), there is an assimilation process in which the individual interprets the artifact. This phenomenon is influenced by myriad factors. Here, an individual's prejudices, attitudes, and personality are all brought to bear upon the problem. These psychological categories form a filter through which impulses pass. The consumptive act creates a body of sensory data that the person must interpret in a meaningful way. The data themselves do not have meaning. A person must impart meaning on the experience. This is done by reaching into the body of heuristics one has learned throughout life. There may be innumerable conflicts within this body of knowledge. The process may be filled with ambivalence. The meaning of an experience may be revised at a future point. Nevertheless, meaning is imparted on the experience, if only provisionally. Once a person has given meaning to an experience, the experience brought into the personality, producing an internal effect.

    The internal effect of a meaningful experience is largely unpredictable and can range from life transforming to undetectable. The internal effect can reinforce previously existing ideas or heuristics. If the meaning imparted by the assimilation process is insignificance, the internal effect will most likely be negligible. Meaning can also be inconsistent with expectations. In this case, there may be a fracture. Fractures in the self may simply lead to a shifting of the heuristics applied to a given situation or they may allow insight pertaining to the fractious character of the self and its consumption. The process may stop with an internal effect. Sometimes, no other reaction is called for or demanded. In other cases, the internal action produces a reaction.

    Here we finally see how feedback occurs in the culture-self loop. People are constantly required to act in the world. This can be in relatively innocuous ways, such as cooking dinner, or in more virulent ways, such as copy writing for commercials. All desires pass through the filter of our acquired heuristics. For example, when a person feels hungry, she expresses that desire in a culturally specific way. In America, we often reach for a snack. Which snack we choose depends on our inculturation, but may also be influenced by ephemeral factors such as ease of locating an item or some notion of what we think we should eat. However, our choice of snack (and indeed the choice of to snack or not to snack) has an external effect. The choice to consume one thing and not everything else is measured in sales and, in turn, effects the culture we live and breathe. Continuing with the snack example, if I choose a piece of fruit for my snack, I am contributing (in a small way) to more fruit sales. My choice may or may not, in the final analysis, have a direct effect on fruit sales. If others do not choose fruit or choose not to snack, fruit growing may become unprofitable and prices may increase. If others do choose fruit, businesses may notice and begin selling more fruit-we may begin to see advertising for fruit, thus attempting to create more demand. When one sees the advertising, the loop begins again. Perhaps the advertisement is offensive in some way. In this case, I do not choose fruit next time. Others, however, decide to switch to fruit thus offsetting my choice to avoid fruit. And so it goes. This example suffers somewhat from its economistic nature, but the dynamics are similar for non-economic phenomena.

    I have gathered a body of sensory data from experiencing a novel. Much of the data gathered is from my own translation of the words into images, smells, and emotions. In this book, children who thought they were playing a video game were actually commanding real starships in an all-out war against an alien species. I have assigned meaning to this experience. In particular, I have reinforced my convictions that authority must be questioned and guarded against (I simplify my actual reactions for expository purposes). I had a pre-existing heuristic that told me to be wary when assigning meaning to experiences generated by interaction with institutionalized authority. My consumption of the novel served to add strength and validity to that heuristic. There was no direct external re-action on my part. However, all subsequent re-actions and assimilation processes have been affected by my consumption. The feedback occurs in an ongoing and incremental process of assimilation and re-action. Note also that there was significant cross-over between my selves in this process. Although the novel was clearly read in the fantasy self and my fantasy self shared in the adventure of the novel, my reality selves were also affected. The lessons learned from the novel color not only the heuristics I use to assimilate and re-act to literature, but also those that I use in dealing with "reality." This example did not serve to further illuminate the fractures of myself because the meaning I assigned to the experience did not conflict with my division of my selves. However, a friend of mine read it and assigned a totally different meaning to the book and did come to realize something about her fractures.

    This person assimilated the novel as a prophecy about the dangers of over reliance on technological barriers between people. My friend had been devoted to abusing others through the medium of electronic mail. It had not truly occurred to her that actual feelings were attached to the string of numbers she sent mail to. The novel showed her that despite apparent divisions induced by technology, there is always a feeling person on the other side. She subsequently evaluated her own behavior and realized that she had used many other techniques to insulate herself from others and their feelings. She is in the process of re-aligning her heuristics such that she no longer interprets and re-acts as she did.

    This essay has attempted to analyze the mechanisms whereby individuals come to assign meaning to experiences and the dynamics of the culture-self feedback loop. I have avoided many questions, primarily those pertaining to the implications of this psychological model for cultural and social level analyses. Among the important questions that should be addressed are: What are the factors that prevent cultural change? What is the relative importance of self and culture in determining the course of events in a society? How is creativity possible within this model? How does technology interact with individuals to facilitate the fragmentation of selves? There are innumerable others, but these should serve to whet the readers appetite.