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By Levi Clancy for Student Reader on

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Self is our sense of who we are, distinct from other people. Our sense of self is shaped by our social circumstances.

What is the self? According to Charles Horton Cooley, explain the “looking glass self” (discuss the three phases). George Herbert Mead also discusses the stages of the self: identify differences between I and Me. What is meant by significant others? How are significant others related to the self? Identify Mead’s three-stage process of self-development.

According to Cooley’s “looking glass self” theory, we understand our self based on what we believe others think about us. Developing our self is a constant process that permeates our every interactions with others. The process has three phases: we form an idea of what others think about us; we make conclusions about how others evaluate us; and then our sense of self forms from this understanding. Despite its dependence on others, this process of self development oftentimes largely arises through our imagination, and can be very endogenous. We do not actually know what other think about us, or what evaluations they draw about us.

Mead uses Cooley’s model as the basis for his theory of self. The general Cooley process pervades Mead’s own theory, but Mead elaborates. Significantly, Mead describes an I and a Me as two components of self. While the I acts and is a participant with the world, the Me more closely resembles Cooley’s understanding: the Me observes, judges and plans. If the Me restrains the I from performing an action that it later turns out would have been positive/beneficial, then the Me pours out frustration.

Mead also adds granularity to the idea of other. He identifies significant others as those people “closest” to us who carry greater impact in our self development. Significant others are the people whose perception of us carries the most weight as we assess and conjure the development of our own self. Also, Mead identifies the generalized other as a broader social unit (not an individual, but perhaps our socioeconomic class or even entire nation) which we constantly reference in our self development.

Mead posits three stages in self development -- a) preparatory stage; b) game stage; c) play stage.
In the preparatory stage (up until about age three) the individual simply imitates the actions of others s/he observes. A child watching a soccer game will tinker with the ball, perhaps throw it convulsively, but without much understanding of the game.

In the play stage (ages three to five) the individual has understood the symbolic meaning of actions and tools and can play roles: pretending to be a doctor, police officer, princess or other archetypal role. However, a group of children playing a ball game will not understand that the complex interplay of different roles acting together to accomplish an actual soccer game. They might shift roles suddenly, or all the children will respond the same way and try to chase or hit the ball (as opposed to according to their assigned role).
In the game stage (ages six to nine) there is an understanding of different roles, which can be held by an individual or group simultaneously. Now, it is possible to play a soccer game.