With modernization, the quest for knowledge of oneself has become a major preoccupation for many Americans. "Who am I?" "Know Thyself" and "Unto thine own self be true"--Such are the themes of wall plaques, self-help manuals, and religious maxims. When surveying older individuals' reflections on the whole of life, one 83-year-old nun told one of my student researchers:
I would tell any young person to be your own self. Have a real good idea of your own strengths--they usually take care of the weaknesses. Find out where you fit in and what makes you happy. If you drift from one thing to another you will never be satisfied. If you don't find the part of yourself that will give you fulfillment you'll never be satisfied or content. You have to learn about and live with your true self.
Observed Helen Merrell Lynd, "the search for identity has become as strategic in our time as the study of sexuality was in Freud's time" (On Shame and the Search for Identity. New York: Science Editions, 1961:14). But what does this all mean? In part, it's our peculiar cultural obsession to search for a self that we supposedly don't know. It also involves the extreme individualism of American culture.

The sense of identity is important to both human psychology and to sociology. Not only does having a sense of self provide the sense of having free will ("This is who I am and this is what I want to do, therefore I am going to do it despite what others say") but it is also a basis of social control ("We Smiths are an industrious people and I am not about to let my people down by goofing off.").


A man never discloses his own character so clearly as when he describes another's.
--Jean Paul Richter (1763-1825)

Ironically, although the concept of self is one of the oldest and most enduring of psychological depictions of human nature, social scientists have yet to reach a consensus on precisely what the self is. Following those of the psychoanalytic perspective, do we understand personality as a cause of behavior or, as behaviorists, do we see personality as the effect of behavior (or, at least, the effect of others' reinforcements)? Is the self something you are (or, in the case of the very old or terminally ill, something you were), something you have, or is it something you aspire to be? Is it no more than a set of unique, identifying characteristics and, if so, from whose perspective: the actor or those who view him or her? Can, indeed, others know one's self better than the individual knows himself or herself? Or might it be that identity is determined not on the basis of who one thinks one is, but rather on the basis of who one is not--in other words, selfhood is a matter of exclusion rather than inclusion?

Studies of those with multiple personalities, or dissociative identity disorder, indicate interesting connections between body, mind and self. Here one individual may have numerous sub-personalities, each with its own name, age, memories, knowledge of foreign languages, temperament, handedness, talents, and medical conditions. Such persons may carry multiple glasses because their vision changes with each personality. Some sub-selves may be color blind or epileptic and while others are not. Rashes, blisters and scars may appear and disappear as different selves emerge.

Consider the expression "I know the type," when referring to a particular person. Implicit in the line is the assumption that there are types of selves and that each can be expected to act in distinctive ways in different types of situations. Such taxonomies of others make up a sizable portion of our everyday theories of social life. In schools, we create typologies of students (e.g.," nerd," "jock," "brown-noser," etc.) and faculty members, and routinely compare the predictiveness of our classifications with others. If, indeed, such connections between selves and behaviors really exist, why do they occur? Do these types of selves unthinkingly act in typical fashion, or is it the case that their behavior is determined by their self-concepts?

At least since when the Greek philosopher Empedocles began classifying personalities into the categories of air, earth, fire and water, people have attempted to explain variations in human behavior in terms of self-type drives. (Have you noticed how often Greek mythological figures are used as labels for various personality types? Why? Is there a universality to personality types--e.g., those with excessive hubris [Prometheus] or self-love [Narcissus]--that reveals the limits of enculturation?) Humans, for instance, have been sorted by psychoanalysts in terms of their dominant needs-based motivations. Compulsives, for instance, might be those with excessive needs for order; Machiavellians are those with high needs for power; authoritarians are those high in their need for discipline and cognitive simplicity; and the narcissists are those with high needs for esteem (see Sam Vaknin's Primer on Narcissism and his "Malignant Self Love--Narcissism Revisited"). Cognitive theorists have classified individuals on the bases of their ability to control thought impulses (e.g., compulsive gamblers), maintain their beliefs of self-efficacy, and the levels of their intellectual and moral reasoning (as in the works of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg). In studying the lives of older social scientists and educators, Robert Havighurst and his associates employed an omnibus personality inventory that included measures of such traits as social extroversion, complexity, practical outlook, anxiety level, theoretical orientation, warmth and sociability, self-sufficiency, emotional stability, aggressiveness, and personal integration.

Instead of thinking of thinking solely in terms of types of selves (who can be expected to act in predictable types of ways in certain situations), one can also conceptualize the self as various types of dynamic systems.

G. Scott Acton's Great Ideas in Personality
Myers-Briggs Introduction--classifying individuals into four dimensions: extraversion-introversion, sensing-intuition, thinking-feeling, and judging-perceiving
The Personality Project of Northwestern University
Enneagram Institute--9 personality types: Reformer, Helper, Achiever, Individualist, Investigator, Loyalist, Enthusiast, Challenger and Peacemaker
Margaret Talbot's "The Rorschach Chronicles" --thoughts & history of personality testings


One way to conceptualize the self is to consider the extent to which it is based on principles of exclusion: Developing further this exclusionary aspect of selfhood, Ernest Hartmann, in Boundaries in the Mind classifies individuals in terms of their self- boundaries. There are those with thin or porous boundaries, for whom the realities of dreams and wakefulness are blurry, whose feelings and thoughts run together, who have high empathy with others, and who sometimes are unsure who they are. Those with "thick boundaries," on the other hand, rarely confuse feeling and thought, have few close relationships, can "tune out" sights and sounds, and awake instantly in the mornings. It would be interesting to see how Hartmann's typology correlates with Eviatar Zerubavel's notions of fuzzy- vs. rigid-mindedness and Carl Jung's distinction between introverts and extroverts.

There are two facets of selfhood that cannot be doubted: its uniqueness and its innate tendency to preserve its integrity. The body self, for instance, is like no other; each individual's DNA and fingerprints are unique. To protect its integrity, it has a built-in defense system that destroys viral invaders and rejects transplanted organs. Analogously, there is the self that is experienced psychologically as one's own and like no other. And there is a social self, the self that can be identified by others owing to its distinctive attributes.


What distinguishes sociological from psychological approaches to the self is the former's focus on the ways in which identity is negotiated with others. As Charles Cooley (1864-1929) observed, self-feelings Blogger Frank Warren's collection of postcards wherein people make public their private thoughts are profoundly shaped by the imagined appraisals of one's self of significant others--the looking-glass self. The foundations of this sociological approach are largely built on the philosophical ideas of George Herbert Mead, who argued that society (e.g., culture, institutions, role systems, language, and acts) precedes symbolic thought which, in turn, precedes the development of selves. Mead observed that by studying role-taking, one can see how the rise of self is dependent upon the ability of an individual to become an object to himself or herself. In other words, one comes to act towards one's self (that entity one talks to when "talking to one's self") as one acts towards others. In this view, the self is a dynamic process within an individual. Mead stressed that participants in social interactions attempt to "take the role of the other" and to see themselves as others see them. This process allows individuals to know how they are coming across to others and allows them to guide their social behavior so that it has desired effect.


When considering the ways in which individuals generally conform to the demands of various social settings (like playing the student role in a classroom: trying to look attentive and interested, and never telling the instructor "Hey, take a break!  Let me handle today's lessons."), behavior may be better predicted by understanding the roles people think they occupy.  Personality factors may do no more than simply give style to one's basic role performances.  In the extreme, the self can be conceptualized to be no more than the roles it plays.  Take away one's roles and nothing is left.


Of interest to sociologically-inclined social psychologists is the social distribution of different self-types: how particular socio-historical climates can give rise to a preponderance of a given self-type in a society and how, in turn, this can affect a society's collective attitude and its religious, political, and economic orders. On the other hand, such collective transformation of attitudes and selves is also a function of structural change. Behavior often precedes its ideological justification and thus it is also the case that new social arrangements lead to new actions (and new roles) which lead to new attitudes and types of people.

In anthropology, cultural determinists, such as Margaret Mead, stress the plasticity of the human organism and how it is shaped by different cultures to create distinctive personality types. Mead studied, for instance, the cultural construction of childhood and gender roles.

In attempting to categorize the types of selves cross-culturally, researchers often focus on the extent to which selves are collectivist or individualistic. For instance, in In Search of Self in India and Japan (1988), Alan Roland writes:

Several years ago  the New York Times asked several foreign photographers to comment on which one of their captured images  is most telling of Americans ("Foreigners Frame America," July 5, 1993) Observed one about his photograph of an Ernest Hemingway look-alike festival in Key West, Florida: "There is no other country where people so cherish the ability to look like famous people.  I could spend the rest of my life photographing look-alike contests as well as ugly baby contests, conventions of twins.  Although these are fascinating events, there is a sense of desperation and emptiness in a society that places such a high regard on looking like someone else." Is such a symptom of our supposed other-directedness?  This historical personality type was posited by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd: A Study in the Changing American Character (1950).  He argued that, with changing demographics, the American character had changed from an "inner-directed" self, internally motivated, responsive to a sort of inner gyroscope and controlled by the emotion of guilt, to an "other-directed" conformist personality, externally motivated, sensitive to peer pressure, attuned the mass values of one's neighbors with a sort of social radar, and controlled by anxiety.


Whereas when predicting behavior sociologists are more likely to look at individuals' social settings and the roles therein that they occupy, psychologists are inclined to consider personality type. Their assumption is that certain types of selves--i.e., Machiavellians, authoritarians, high self-monitors, introverted feelers, narcissists, or thrill-seekers--can be expected to act in distinctive ways regardless of the context. Numerous are their methodological strategies for gauging self-types, including graphology (believing that one's handwriting is some personality X-ray, such traits as enthusiasm, imagination, and ambition are gauged from the size and slant of one's script, how the "t's" are crossed, and whether the m's and n's are pointed or wedge-shaped), Rorschach inkblot tests, and questionnaires. In Reading Faces, Dr. Leopold Bellak perceives the face as "map of the mind." Dividing the face in half lengthwise and across, Bellak argues that the right-side supposedly reflects qualities people want to show while the left reflects what they would rather hide.

The mass media is likewise filled with self gauges. Unbeknownst to many, we're told that even one's favorite rock star reveals who you are. According to less a reputable scientific source as the Star, for instance, if your favorite Beatle is George Harrison, you are the strong, silent type, very spiritually inclined; you have a deep feeling for religious matters and may be psychic. You may tend to be a loner but are connected to others through the spiritual world. Advice columnist Abigail Van Buren informs us "The best index to a person's character is (a) how he treats people who can't do him any good, and (b) how he treats people who can't fight back."

Yahoo's links to online personality tests"The search engine and directory for the best online-tests on the internet"
A battery of tests from "Cyberia Shrink"
Another battery of tests from
Keirsey Temperament Sorter- Jungian Personality Test
Profiles of the 16 Psychological Types
Graphic Insight--is one's handwriting really a window on the soul?
College of Orgonomy