Theories of Self-Development
- Understand the difference between psychological and sociological theories of self-development
- Explain the process of moral development
When we are born, we have a genetic makeup and biological traits. However, who we are as human beings develops through social interaction. The nature vs. nurture debate refers to the ‘debate’ over how biological factors and social factors shape social behavior. Debate is in quotes because in the twentieth century this is no longer a debate on which approach matters. Mainstream natural sciences and social sciences agree that both biological and social factors shape human behavior. However, discipline perspectives certainly weight one part of the process ( or ) over the other. Even within the social sciences, there is some varied perspective on how to understand human behavior. Many scholars, both in the fields of psychology and in sociology, have described the process of self-development as a precursor to understanding how that “self” becomes socialized. You might be wondering: if sociologists and psychologists are both interested in people and their behavior, how are these two disciplines different? What do they agree on, and where do their ideas diverge? The answers are complicated, but the distinction is important to scholars in both fields.
As a general difference, we might say that while both disciplines are interested in human behavior, psychologists are focused on how the mind influences that behavior, while sociologists study the role of society in shaping behavior
Psychological Perspectives on Self-Development
Psychologists are interested in people’s mental development and how their minds process their world. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) was one of the most influential modern scientists to put forth a theory about how people develop a sense of self. He believed that personality and sexual development were closely linked, and he divided the maturation process into psychosexual stages: oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital. He posited that people’s self-development is closely linked to early stages of development, like breastfeeding, toilet training, and sexual awareness (Freud 1905).
According to Freud, failure to properly engage in or disengage from a specific stage results in emotional and psychological consequences throughout adulthood. An adult with an oral fixation may indulge in overeating or binge drinking. An anal fixation may produce a neat freak (hence the term “anal retentive”), while a person stuck in the phallic stage may be promiscuous or emotionally immature. Although no solid empirical evidence supports Freud’s theory, his ideas continue to contribute to the work of scholars in a variety of disciplines.
Psychologist Erik Erikson (1902–1994) created a theory of personality development based, in part, on the work of Freud. However, Erikson believed the personality continued to change over time and was never truly finished. His theory includes eight stages of development, beginning with birth and ending with death. According to Erikson, people move through these stages throughout their lives. In contrast to Freud’s focus on psychosexual stages and basic human urges, Erikson’s view of self-development gave credit to more social aspects, like the way we negotiate between our own base desires and what is socially accepted (Erikson 1982).
Jean Piaget (1896–1980) was a psychologist who specialized in child development who focused specifically on the role of social interactions in their development. He recognized that the development of self-evolved through a negotiation between the world as it exists in one’s mind and the world that exists as it is experienced socially (Piaget 1954). All three of these thinkers have contributed to our modern understanding of self-development.
Sociological Theories of Self-Development
Sociology, of course, is developed as a discipline after psychology. Sociologists have been greatly informed by the work that earlier psychologists engaged in to help understand human behavior. Sociologists are more likely to focus on how different aspects of society contribute to an individual’s relationship with his world. Another way to think of the difference is that psychologists tend to look inward (mental health, emotional processes, individual mentality), while sociologists tend to look outward (social institutions, cultural norms, interactions with others) to understand human behavior.
Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was the first to make this distinction in research, when he attributed differences in suicide rates among people to social causes (religious differences) rather than to psychological causes (like their mental wellbeing) (Durkheim 1897). Today, we see this same distinction. For example, a sociologist studying how a couple gets to the point of their first kiss on a date might focus her research on cultural norms for dating, social patterns of sexual activity over time, or how this process is different for seniors than for teens. A psychologist would more likely be interested in the person’s earliest sexual awareness or the mental processing of sexual desire.
One of the pioneering contributors to American sociological perspectives was Charles Cooley (1864–1929). He asserted that people’s self-understanding is constructed, in part, by their perception of how others view them—a process termed “the looking glass self” (Cooley 1902).
Finally, children develop, understand, and learn the idea of the , the common behavioral expectations of general society. By this stage of development, an individual is able to imagine how he or she is viewed by one or many others—and thus, from a sociological perspective, to have a “self” (Mead 1934; Mead 1964).
Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
is an important part of the socialization process. The term refers to the way people learn what society considered to be “good” and “bad,” which is important for a smoothly functioning society. Moral development prevents people from acting on unchecked urges, instead considering what is right for society and good for others. Lawrence Kohlberg (1927–1987) was interested in how people learn to decide what is right and what is wrong. To understand this topic, he developed a theory of moral development that includes three levels: pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional.
In the pre-conventional stage, young children, who lack a higher level of cognitive ability, experience the world around them only through their senses. It isn’t until the teen years that the conventional theory develops, when youngsters become increasingly aware of others’ feelings and take those into consideration when determining what’s “good” and “bad.” The final stage, called postconventional, is when people begin to think of morality in abstract terms, such as Americans believing that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this stage, people also recognize that legality and morality do not always match up evenly (Kohlberg 1981). When hundreds of thousands of Egyptians turned out in 2011 to protest government corruption, they were using post-conventional morality. They understood that although their government was legal, it was not morally correct.
Gilligan’s Theory of Moral Development and Gender
Another sociologist, Carol Gilligan (1936–), recognized that Kohlberg’s theory might show gender bias since his research was only conducted on male subjects. Would females study subjects have responded differently? Would a female social scientist notice different patterns when analyzing the research? To answer the first question, she set out to study differences between how boys and girls developed morality. Gilligan’s research demonstrated that boys and girls do, in fact, have different understandings of morality. Boys tend to have a justice perspective, by placing emphasis on rules and laws. Girls, on the other hand, have a care and responsibility perspective; they consider people’s reasons behind behavior that seems morally wrong.
Gilligan also recognized that Kohlberg’s theory rested on the assumption that the justice perspective was the right, or better, perspective. Gilligan, in contrast, theorized that neither perspective was “better”: the two norms of justice served different purposes. Ultimately, she explained that boys are socialized for a work environment where rules make operations run smoothly, while girls are socialized for a home environment where flexibility allows for harmony in care taking and nurturing (Gilligan 1982; Gilligan 1990).
“What a cute dress!” “I like the ribbons in your hair.” “Wow, you look so pretty today.”
According to Lisa Bloom, author of Think: Straight Talk for Women to Stay Smart in a Dumbed Down World, most of us use pleasantries like these when we first meet little girls. “So what?” you might ask. Bloom asserts that we are too focused on the appearance of young girls, and as a result, our society is socializing them to believe that how they look is of vital importance. And Bloom may be on to something. How often do you tell a little boy how attractive his outfit is, how nice looking his shoes are, or how handsome he looks today? To support her assertions, Bloom cites, as one example, that about 50 percent of girls ages three to six worry about being fat (Bloom 2011). We’re talking about kindergarteners who are concerned about their body image. Sociologists are acutely interested in of this type of gender socialization, by which societal expectations of how boys and girls should be—how they should behave, what toys and colors they should like, and how important their attire is—are reinforced.
One solution to this type of gender socialization is being experimented with at the Egalia preschool in Sweden, where children develop in a genderless environment. All the children at Egalia are referred to with neutral terms like “friend” instead of “he” or “she.” Play areas and toys are consciously set up to eliminate any reinforcement of gender expectations (Haney 2011). Egalia strives to eliminate all societal gender norms from these children’s preschool world. Extreme? Perhaps. So what is the middle ground? Bloom suggests that we start with simple steps: when introduced to a young girl, ask about her favorite book or what she likes. In short, engage with her mind … not her outward appearance (Bloom 2011).
Psychological theories of self-development have been broadened by sociologists who explicitly study the role of society and social interaction in self-development. Charles Cooley and George Mead both contributed significantly to the sociological understanding of the development of self. Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed their ideas further and researched how our sense of morality develops. Gilligan added the dimension of gender differences to Kohlberg’s theory.
Think of a current issue or pattern that a sociologist might study. What types of questions would the sociologist ask, and what research methods might he employ? Now consider the questions and methods a psychologist might use to study the same issue. Comment on their different approaches.
Lawrence Kohlberg was most famous for his research using moral dilemmas. He presented dilemmas to boys and asked them how they would judge the situations. Visit http://openstaxcollege.org/l/Dilemma to read about Kohlberg’s most famous moral dilemma, known as the Heinz dilemma.
Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. “The Looking Glass Self.” Pp. 179–185 in Human Nature and Social Order. New York: Scribner’s.
Bloom, Lisa. 2011. “How to Talk to Little Girls.” Huffington Post, June 22. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-bloom/how-to-talk-to-little-gir_b_882510.html).
Erikson, Erik. 1982. The Lifecycle Completed: A Review. New York: Norton.
Durkheim, Émile. 2011 . Suicide. London: Routledge.
Freud, Sigmund. 2000 . Three Essays on Theories of Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
Gilligan, Carol. 1982. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gilligan, Carol. 1990. Making Connections: The Relational Worlds of Adolescent Girls at Emma Willard School. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Haney, Phil. 2011. “Genderless Preschool in Sweden.” Baby & Kids, June 28. Retrieved January 12, 2012 (http://www.neatorama.com/2011/06/28/genderless-preschool-in-sweden/).
Harlow, Harry F. 1971. Learning to Love. New York: Ballantine.
Harlow, Harry F., and Margaret Kuenne Harlow. 1962. “Social Deprivation in Monkeys.” Scientific American November:137–46.
Kohlberg, Lawrence. 1981. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages. New York: Harper and Row.
Mead, George H. 1934. Mind, Self and Society, edited by C. W. Morris. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mead, George H. 1964. On Social Psychology, edited by A. Strauss. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Piaget, Jean. 1954. The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.
that role that our individual genetics play in self-development
the role that our social environment plays in self-development
the common behavioral expectations of general society
the way people learn what is “good” and “bad” in society