Point 'Oh!' Five


Is there such thing as an individual?

“Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretative one in search of meaning.”

– Clifford Geertz –

Perhaps the most popularized attempt to describe the self, Freud argued that individuals are defined by three cognitive components: the id (das Es/it), the ego (das Ich/I), and the super-ego (das Über-Ich/over-I). The id, he described as the carnal, animalistic, and instinctual part of the mind that underlies our consciousness. The id, however, is not our consciousness. Consciousness, for Freud, resides in the ego. Thus, it is the ego, not the id, that experiences, makes judgements, and forms rationalizations. In short, the ego is the ‘us’ within us. Together the ego and the id face reality: they eat, they sleep, and they interact with others. This third point, social interaction, is where the super-ego comes in. Freud believed that the super-ego is the moralistic, conscientious, and inner critic that checks and balances the carnal id—driving the ego towards compliance with social norms and ideals. Freud illustrates the concept of the super-ego by conflating it with that of the father: paternalizing, commanding obedience, standing in the way of the childish wants of the id. However, this conflation is more than mere hyperbole or metaphor. Freud believed that the super-ego is a product of the home—shaped by the pageantry of parenting.

While others would agree that environments play an important role in human development, critics of Freud argued that his cognitive model was not falsifiable, and that instead psychologists should focus on observable behavior rather than trying to decode internal cognitive states. In a progressive domination over Freud, behaviorists like Thondike, Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner convincingly demonstrated that behavior could be explained largely as a product of external stimuli: When a dog hears the dinner bell, he comes for dinner. When a parent hears a child’s cry, they come to rescue. When a child hears his mother’s song, he is lulled to sleep. By the early 1950’s it seemed as if cognitive theories were on their last leg. Skinner had made significant progress in describing how behavioral (operant) conditioning could explain complex human phenomenon like emotion, speech, and free will. However, on a warm summer day in 1956, there was revolution brewing. It was the second day of the Special Interest Group in Information Theory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky and others presented a broad array of works, each chipping away at the assertion that cognitive research was irredeemable and that behaviorism was the law of the land. Summarizing the collective judgment against Behaviourism, Chomsky states: “One would naturally expect that prediction of the behavior of a complex organism (or machine) would require, in addition to information about external stimulation, knowledge of the internal structure of the organism, the ways in which it processes input information and organizes its own behavior.” According to one notable attendee (George A. Miller) of this symposium, “I left the symposium with a conviction, more intuitive than rational, that experimental psychology, theoretical linguistics, and the computer simulation of cognitive processes were all pieces from a larger whole.” As history would have it, the summer of 1956 was only the start. In the coming few years, Psychology, Anthropology, Sociology, and many of the other -ologies (linguistics too) would redefine themselves by the cognitive perspective. Each of these fields signaled “an end to the era of ‘Lets look at people’s behavior and see what they do.’” 

While some, like Bandura, attempted to strike a conciliatory tone between behaviorists and cognitivists, even he acknowledged that “although behavior can be shaped into new patterns to some extent by rewarding and punishing consequences, learning would be exceedingly laborious and hazardous if it proceeded solely on this basis.” Instead, Bandura and others suggest that families facilitate early social learning by modeling “language, mores, vocational activities, familial customs, and the educational, religious, and political practices.” of their societies. In short, children learn not just by responding to their families, but by mimetically becoming one of them.

This process of identity formation begins early in a child’s life and is inseparably rooted in the intimate relationships that infants have with their kin, particularly their parents. Imagine, for a moment: when an infant smiles, her parents are there to smile back; when she cries, they are there with doting sympathy; and when she is angry, they are there with their own frustrations. Children are born and raised with this sort of well-practiced call and response, back and fourth, give and take. Indeed, throughout a child’s life, parents and children engage in an intricate and delicate ballet of information exchange. As a result, this dance increase social bonding between parent and child, and the more bonded two people are, the more they mirror, mimic, and model one another.

Biologists have identified two primary neuropeptides that facilitate this process of bonding and information exchange: oxytocin and arginine vasopressin. They have also shown that so called “mirror neurons” fire in our brains when we watch others complete a task, as if we were completing it ourselves. Further, researchers have observed that the mere act of watching someone engage in a behavior, increases the chance that the observer will subsequently engage in that same behavior. As these processes are rooted in one’s neurobiological development it is believed, for good reason, that the family exerts profound influence over how individuals will interact and connect with others for the rest of their lives.

Take for instance the infant-caregiver relationship: According to Attachment Theory, which is rooted in a psychological experiment called the strange situation protocol, patterns of early social bonding have a dramatic influence on a child’s life course. In summary, the experiment places a caregiver and their infant child in a strange room as researchers watch from behind the secrecy of a one-way mirror. At some point, the mother is asked to leave the child in the room alone, and then after a few minutes is asked to return. During this time, children have been observed to react in predictable ways to the departure and return of their caregiver. Based on these reactions infant-caregiver attachment patterns are classified as either (i) secure, (ii) avoidant, (iii) ambivalent, or (iv) disoriented.

Based on a number of longitudinal prospective studies, these patterns of attachment have been found to be predictive a wide array of personal and interpersonal outcomes. For instance, securely attached children are more likely to be socially competent and better adjusted later in life. They have higher IQs, better social skills, greater relationship success and satisfaction. Meanwhile, ambivalently attached  children are more anxious; avoidantly attached children have greater difficulty establishing emotional relationships throughout adulthood and experience a narrower range of emotions in their day to day lives; and children who express disorganized attachment as infants have less developed brains and higher rates of psychopathology.

All of this is not to say that our family lives determine our destinies, only that they influence them. After all, the categories used above to describe infant-caregiver relationships, as with all attempts to categorize humans, are somewhat fluid and more nuanced than their description would lead you to believe. Indeed, infants become toddlers, toddlers become teenagers, teenagers become young adults, and so on, and so on. Throughout it all, our social environments shift and change. Perhaps we find new mentors, make new friends, and find fulfillment through intimate relationships. Each of these new bonds, as with our infant-caregiver bond, leaves some impression on us, shaping who we are and how we relate to the world.

Indeed, according to social and cultural theorists, individuals are influenced by a broad array of social forces.  For instance, habitus, which describes a set of embodied mental and physical schemata—and what Bourdieu famously refers to as the “structured structures…structuring structures”—have even been leveraged to discount the subjective experience of free will. For instance, the way one sits in a chair or caries their shoulders, the words and syntax used to rationalize the world to a child, the seemingly individualized tastes and preferences around food or fashion, the subtle but not insignificant social cues exhibited by a social class or group of people—these sort of unprocessed, unconscious behaviors, can all be attributed to habitus. Contrasting habitus with norms, norms are better articulated and more present in the forefront of behavioral cognition. They are more like social pressure than destiny. Indeed, like habitus, they influence how we act, but offer greater agency in their expression.

Both habitus and norms are related to culture—indeed, some will use ‘culture’ as an umbrella term to describe all of which I have discussed here (In fact, I may do the same later in this exam, though more so for convenience than accuracy). Regarding culture, D’Andrade has said that “culture consists not of behaviors, or even patterns of behavior, but rather of shared information or knowledge encoded in systems of symbols.” Indeed, culture is conceptualized as a system of shared meaning. For example, sportsmanship, marriage, beauty, justice—the shared definition of these things is what we would think of as culture. According to Schneider, “Where norms tell the actor how to play the scene, culture tells the actor how the scene is set and what it all means.” Finally, in addition to habitus, culture, and norms, there is also discourse. Discourse is also primarily concerned with language as opposed to behavior, per se. According to Chomsky, de Saussure, Foucault, Derrida, and others, language serves as a sort of foundation for culture. Without language, whether physical or verbal, there are no shared meaning systems: each person must learn the significance of things for themselves. Language allows for shared meaning to exist because it creates a vehicle for the social transmission of culture. But, according to social scientists, language is not just a peripheral phenomenon. Indeed, culture is like carrots suspended in a green Jell-O pudding, and language is the Jell-O. Discourse, then, is a language process by which culture is constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed within and between social groups.

Together, culture, discourse, habitus, and norms have a profound impact on the constitution of the self. For instance, the Bongo-Bongo people report that their minds are located in their knees—not behind their eyes. Tahitians can only define themselves in relations to others (e.g., for example I would not be a writer, I would be a person who is writing for you.). The Gahuku-Gama do not distinguish individuals from the social roles they occupy (e.g., Caesar is both the man and the ruler). Neither do they imagine themselves to be of equal worth with others, but are instead subject to their social position. People living in Oriyas, India describe personalities by what people do, while American informants tend to overlook behavioral context and speak more abstractly about “what a person is like.” Perhaps of greater familiarity, many in the West believe that they are the same continuous person in any given context across their life—despite obvious context-dependent changes in behaviour, personality, intellect, etc. In summary, all of this evidence demonstrates that “People around the world do not all think alike…The relationship between what one thinks about (e.g., other people) and how one thinks (e.g., ‘contexts and cases’) may be mediated by the world premise to which one is committed (e.g., holism) and by the metaphors by which one lives.”

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