Tim Squirrell is a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at the University of Edinburgh. His research focusses on construction and negotiation of authority and expertise on the internet, with a focus on fitness and nutrition communities.

Understanding Charles Cooley's "Looking Glass Self"

Understanding Charles Cooley's "Looking Glass Self"

Who are we? We tend to think of our selves - our identities - as reasonably fixed. I might consider myself a "warm" person, a person who enjoys spirited debate, a "self-aware" person. I've changed over time, to be sure - the long hair and the penchant for death metal is gone, as is much of the self-loathing I experienced as a teenager - but I'm still me. There's a core to my being which is unchanging - and if it did change, I wouldn't really be myself anymore.

But according to many social theorists, this is simply untrue. Instead of the inner essence I just described, I might have a self-image which is formed by my interactions with others, or even no essential self-image at all.

The core idea here is simple. Who we are is shaped by socialisation: the people, groups, institutions and ideas that we are surrounded by. It's also intuitive: no matter how much we might wish to stress that we are our own person, we have to admit that a lot of our identity - our beliefs, ideas, opinions, preferences - is a product of our circumstances. When we accept the premise of socialisation, though, two questions still remain. First, how far does it go? Are we entirely products of society, or is there some kind of natural essence to our character and identity? And second, how does it work? It's all well and good to acknowledge that our environment contributes to our character, but that doesn't give us a framework for understanding how it does so - and ideas without supporting frameworks aren't social theory; they're Jaden Smith tweets.

There are as many theories of the self as there are theorists, so we're going to explore two of the most prominent and influential accounts in sociology: Charles Cooley's "Looking Glass Self", and Erving Goffman's "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life".

I'll deal with Goffman in a future post, as there's a lot more meat to his theory. Let's start with Cooley. Cooley says that the framework for his theory comes from the idea that the human mind is social, and this allows the mind to be mental: that is, our mental abilities (particularly in imagining ourselves) directly result from human social interaction. He locates his empirical evidence for this in observations of children, whom he sees as skilful managers of self-presentation almost from the very beginning. The context of our socialisations allows us to define ourselves, and it is this idea that underpins the rest of his conceptual analysis.

The "looking-glass self" is a concept drawn originally from the work of George Herbert Mead,  encapsulating the idea that our self-image - the mental idea we have of who and how we are - is shaped by our interactions with others. This has three steps:

  1. We imagine how we appear to another person.
  2. We imagine what judgements that person makes of us based on our appearance and the way we present ourselves.
  3. We imagine how that person feels about us, on the basis of the judgements they've made.

It's common to see people interpret this theory as one that encapsulates the ubiquitous, rampant insecurity of the modern human condition: in an age characterised by the proliferation of social media, a thousand shoddy opinion pieces have been written in an attempt to use the looking-glass self - or what they imagine it to be - to bemoan a generation lost to narcissism and obsession with self-presentation.

This misses most of the important nuance of Cooley's ideas. On face, this concept might look like one in which the individual is passive: we're constantly beholden to the judgements of others, shaped by their impressions of us. But this couldn't be further from the truth if it were wearing a "Make America Great Again" baseball cap.

The important thing to clarify is that Cooley doesn't see this process as a one-way internalisation of others' perceptions. Instead, we play an active role in trying to shape how others perceive, judge and feel about us. In fact, Cooley specifically focusses on our participation in forming our self-image. He stresses three things:

First, the active role the individual plays in interpreting the perceived responses of others. That means that we don't know - cannot know - how we actually appear to other people. All we can know is how we imagine we appear. If you go out to a karaoke baron a Friday night, you'll encounter a surfeit of people who think they appear tuneful, articulate and soulful, even if how they actually appear to you is as the physical embodiment of nails dragging down a chalkboard. Our perceptions of others' judgements can be highly inaccurate.

This applies to the second and third steps, too: we can't know how others judge us or how they feel about us. Instead, we depend on our imagination: either thinking about how they might react when we're looking in the mirror, or observing their responses and attempting to infer from those to their inner ruminations.

What this means is that our self-image is shaped by others, but only through the mediation of our own mind.

Second, Cooley stresses the individual's selective application of the looking glass self. The reason this concept doesn't predict or explain constant, crippling insecurity on the part of every single person in society, like some kind of pound-shop Black Mirror episode, is because we aren't constantly engaging with it. There are some circumstances in which we care more about others' perceptions of us than others. If I'm moving anonymously through a city I've never visited before, I might be less self-conscious than I would be on a date with someone I'm infatuated with. We have the capacity to care more about some things than others, and our self-image is no exception to this.

Third and finally, Cooley says we use the looking-glass self to control and manipulate the responses and evaluation of others. Because we are aware that others are watching us, reacting to us, and judging us, he says, we are able to use that knowledge to shape the impressions we try to give off.

This means, for example, that a person might boast to their friends about the sheer volume of alcohol they consumed last weekend, recounting in painstaking (and boring) details every shot, bottle and glass, because they think that doing so will impress their peers and win them respect and street cred (or whatever the kids are calling "street cred" since the end of the 90s). They would be less likely to tell their boss about this event in any great detail, and they might even go out of their way to hide it - upping the privacy settings on their social media profiles, untagging themselves from incriminating photos, and taking pains to appear a functional human being on Monday morning.

In imagining how others will respond to our actions and presentation, we allow ourselves to manage the kind of self-image we attempt to project - but crucially, as Cooley highlights, there is no way to truly know what others think of us.

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