February 19, 2008


Caption: Wu (orange kitty) develops his sense of self by fighting with Seamus McGoogle.

El Cabrero is musing about sociology this week, although you will also find links and comments about current events. In particular, I've been thinking about that approach to the study of society that has been called symbolic interactionism, an approach that was first developed in this country.

Three pioneers of this approach are George Herbert Mead, Charles Cooley, and W.I. Thomas. Each deserves way more space that they're going to get here but here's a selection of their greatest hits that hold up pretty well.

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) was a pioneer in this field. He believed that people develop a sense of themselves through interaction with others, a process that begins in childhood. Through play--which moves from simple imitation to complex games--children learn to take on the role of the other and begin to imagine how their own actions appear to others. He called this the sense of the "generalized other." Through the process of socialization, a child gradually develops a sense of the "I" or self as active subject.

Charles Cooley was an almost exact contemporary of Mead (1864-1929) who proceeded along similar lines. He is largely remembered today for his idea of "the looking glass self." This refers to the pretty much undisputed idea that we derive our sense of ourselves from how we are treated by others and how they respond to us.

Another theorist in this tradition was W.I. Thomas (1963-1947) who is most widely remembered today for what came to be called the "Thomas theorem," which goes like this:

If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.

It's hard to argue with this one either. If people think Martians are landing and wreaking havoc--as many did when Orson Welles aired his radio version of "War of the Worlds" in the 1930s--they're gonna act like the Martians are a-coming, even if they're not. We see the Thomas theorem in action pretty much every day in the news and maybe even in the living room.

One of the most interesting symbolic interactionists was Erving Goffman, but that'll have to keep until tomorrow.

THE OLD IDEA of the tradeoff between jobs and the environment needs to be retired. This item argues that aggressively attacking climate change could revitalize US manufacturing.

OH GOOD. New generations of "non-lethal" weapons might mimic schizophrenia.

WANT TO ADD SOME ZEST TO YOUR CAREER? Here are some suggestions.

A SPOT IN THE BRAIN. This is an interesting item on the physiology of prejudice.

IS BIGFOOT IN WV or have researchers just not met some of the guys I went to school with? Here's the Daily Mail on the subject.

HAVE YOU THANKED A FISH TODAY? Maybe you should. And don't forget a nod to cuttlefish as well.


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