The collectivity that is ‘I’


After reading Norbert Elias’ What is Sociology and having taught the subject for 36 years myself, I’m struck by what it takes to make a person(ality) and reminded of the complexity of the task.  As the symbolic interactionists among us are quick to point out, we, as individuals, are a product of our interactions with ‘others.’  Charles Horton Cooley even refers to the ‘looking glass’ self in emphasizing the notion that our person(alities) are socially created.  Thinking about it for even a moment makes that fact clear.  What language would you speak if you weren’t ‘created’ socially?  What kinds of things would you believe?  So, given that we have a certain bio-genetic reality which is  itself socially created (what is the sexual act if it’s not a social one?), we are ‘constructed’ in our interactions with others.  ‘Others’ here must be taken quite broadly to include not just people close to us, but also people (and I would also include other species of animal and even ‘things’ very broadly determined) far removed from us in time (grandparents, relatives, etc.) and space (neighbours, local people, etc.).  In fact, ‘others are no less socially created than we are, of course. Our person(alities) are virtually collective realities that wouldn’t exist outside of the collectivity or collectivities.  So, we probably shouldn’t refer to ourselves as ‘I’ but as ‘we.’ Of course the Queen does that when she refers to herself using the royal ‘we.’  She does it because she represents the state and so she includes all citizens of the Commonwealth when she refers to herself in the third person.  If I were to use ‘we’ to refer to myself, I would include all the people, including myself, in all of our interactions and interweavings, who had a hand in ‘raising’ me and making me what I am.  Which would mean that if I were diagnosed with bipolar disorder or any of the other thousands of ‘disorders’ that are found in the DSM-5, the psychiatric bible of disorders, I would have to say that ‘we’ have bipolar disorder.  Sounds strange, doesn’t it?  But what other conclusion can I reach?  This is the conclusion R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz (both psychiatrists) came to with regards to schizophenia and they were soundly criticized for it and symbolically beaten up by their ‘colleagues’ for even suggesting such a heresy.

And heresy it is.  The reason that this is such a heretical idea is that we have clung to the idea for a long time now that we, as individuals, are the agents of our own destiny.  We have individual ‘free will,’ not collective free will.  [I’ll switch to I now for emphasis.]  I am responsible for my own actions.  That way if I work hard and get rich, I can say it was all my doing, and if I fail, I must feel the shame of it all by myself.  Others can do the same when they think about me.  They can judge me as a success or failure and they can (without a doubt) attribute that to my own actions.  If I commit a crime, it’s my responsibility and not a collective one.  After all we don’t send families to jail for the crimes of one family member, we send just that one person to jail.  This is an ideology, a way that we justify and explain ourselves to ourselves and to others, based in the early days of the capitalist mode of production when the ‘individual’ was created, a crucial state of being for entering into contractual agreements.  Fernand Braudel argues this in his awesome three volume tome on early capitalism as does George Duby in his introduction to A History of Private Life, a book he edited that was published in 1988.  Others too have taken up the challenge of putting our individuality fetish into a social, historical and political context.  C. B. Macpherson’s The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, published in 1962, traces our love affair with individualism to Locke and Hobbes (I would throw in Descartes too) but anchors his views in a clearly dialectical framework, with material life still leading ideas in the end.

I could go on for a long time on this topic.  In fact, I want to turn this discussion to Durkheim and Collins in my next post.  They argue (along with many others) that God is a symbol for society.  So, when we say that we are created by God, we are really saying that we are created by society.  Let’s see where that takes us.

5 thoughts on “The collectivity that is ‘I’

  1. It’s funny that society and the court system, as a representation of current societal views, will hold a parent or guardian somewhat responsible (financially not criminally) for the actions of a child until the age of maturity; but once that age has been reached, the child spontaneously becomes an adult and is completely responsible for their own actions, Both financially and criminally. Why is it that society only punishes the person that commits an offense and not the people that had a direct role in the socialization of that person. I imagine that the thought of being held criminally responsible for the actions of thier kin (child or adult) would send chills down the spine of any parent; but if this was indeed the case, would that change the way by which people would raise children. How would this change the current model of socialization? If someone was sent to jail for dealing drugs or beating a spouse, maybe killing someone, and the parents, grandparents, neighbours had to go to jail with them, would this change the dynamics by which society “raises” children? Obvious problems with this line of thinking would be in determining where the influence begins and ends…who is responsible for the socialization that led this person to commit an offense. Is it just ma and pa who serve time, or maybe granny and papi or how about his friends. Do we send the hockey coach to jail for teaching him to hit. How about the media for providing access to violance via T.V or the internet. Then there is very common and outright refusal of people to accept any responsibility for the socializing of the individual and the actions they take. There is also the argument that mental illness is responsible for the behaviour. But as you have pointed out, Szasz and Laing would argue that mental illness is also socially constructed. Obviously sending ma and pa to jail cause 23 year old son or daughter robs a bank is not in line with the current ambitions of society but it is interesting never the less to imagine a society where it is. I definatly agree that we are socially “constructed” and believe that everyone needs to be aware that their every interaction with an individual can and does have an impact on the individual and the socialization process that “creates” the person he or she will become and I believe that this is something that each person needs to understand and pay closer attention to.
    Shaun Lindner – Sociologist in training

    1. This is a very thoughtful response, Shaun. There are many issues here. I’ll post an addendum to my last post addressing some of the issues you raise here.

  2. Had I read this article prior to reading the one you more recently posted on the importance of social contact in the developing child, I may have replied slightly differently, Roger. I haven’t had any reminder e-mails of your blogs. This could be my fault.

  3. As for mental illness, I once asked a doctors, “Who is to say when a person passes from being a flamboyant free spirit into being considered bipolar? He replied, “it’s a matter of degree.” I can attest that the extreme phase of mania is very real and beyond the person’s control and the person with this disorder has a very real dysfunction of the mind. It does not surprise me that this condition is found to a high degree among stage actors, film actors, and performing musicians and other forms of artists. Their creativity is often released in the “hypomanic” state, but when they flip over into mania, there is nothing but chaos. In their verbal anger, they can be scary, but I believe that if a person is well mannered in their normal state, they are not truly dangerous in the manic phase. They do possess almost superhuman physical strength and this is often why the psych ward staff resort to physical restraint and must inject these patient’s with a drug to common them down. Otherwise, they can hurt others or themselves and disrupt the routines of other patients and the staff. Once calmed down (usually shortly after admission to the psych ward) the patient, who has been without sleep for several days, due to the mania, sleep for a couple of days. Then the psychiatrist can talk with him/her about trying medication to level them out to a more level balance of mood.

    The mood where the manic-depressive (bipolar patient) is likely to commit suicide, which is also a very, very real possibility, is obviously the depressed mood. It is an ongoing balance that must be maintained by drugs and cognitive behavioral therapy and other techniques.

    This illness wears on family members and friends. Many of these people lose their friends over the years, due to their difficult behaviour.

    When the news media enter prisons and psychiatric wards with cameras and only show staff or police over-reacting with these patients, I don’t feel it’s fair to them. Some of these patients are in states where there is nothing you can do with them unless they are quickly calmed down. I do believe that the police are not well-trained in what my nephew refers to as “deportment skills” that he is trained in for his job as a security guard and this is why they go in all guns blazing.

    There is definitely room for improvement among workers in these fields.

    I am going to shut down for tonight.

    1. I don’t know what the research is on what you comment on above. I’m not clinically inclined but I know what Szasz and Laing have to say and it’s not complimentary to the psychiatric profession although they were both psychiatrists themselves.

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