THREE IMAGES OF SELF
Much of social science seems to be based on two images of the self, which, like all such images, focus attention on certain aspects of life and away from others. The first image is of the conscious, cognitive self. According to this image, we consciously want something (e. g., money or status) and consciously calculate the merits of various means of getting it. For example, Erving Goffman takes us into the world of the presented self, and more particularly into the world of rational calculations that lead us to make each presentation. It is a world of Everyman as Con Man, a world of impressions managed and manipulated toward the end of an advantageous self-portrait. Consider Goffman’s quote from Willard Waller: “It has been reported by many observers that a girl who is called to the telephone in the dormitories will often allow herself to be called several times, in order to give all the other girls ample opportunity to hear her paged.”1- Goffman shows us how much more we calculate than we think we do, but he neglects how much more we also feel in socially arranged ways than we think we do. We are not shown, for example, how a socially induced feeling, like anxiety or fear, may lead a girl in the dorm to compulsively calculate her advantages. Such calculation is surely not a constant feature of the consciousness of everyone. Outsiders and subordinates may be more concerned about looking, smiling, or talking in just the right way than are kings and queens, whose presentation of self rests peacefully upon unquestioned hereditary title.
Like many images, this one is not wrong, but it is only partly useful in its choice of what to highlight. It implies that we clearly know what we want, and it emphasizes the having of a goal (not the doubt or triumph attached to it) and the use of a means (not the guilt, apprehension, or glee attached to its use). Those who posit a model of a rational self generally don’t deny that actors feel. But they imply that little is lost when feelings are ignored or tidily bunched under the terms “ends” and “means."
The second image, indebted to Sigmund Freud, is that of the unconscious, emotional self Here we are guided by unconscious motivations and do or think things whose meanings are better understood by experts than ourselves. The self is said to be “driven” or “prompted" by a limited number of “instincts,” “impulses,” or “needs” to achieve, affiliate, or do any number of
things that surface merely as ends or means. Philip Slater, for example, explores the world of unconscious affect, focusing on the subterranean channels through which energy emerges into behavior, nearly bypassing the actor’s consciousness of feeling altogether.*
This image, like that ol the conscious cognitive actor, does not deny affective consciousness. Images deny nothing. Rather a focus on conscious thinking, as with Goffman, and a focus on unconscious promptings, as with Freud and Slater, allow conscious feeling to fall into a no-man Viand in between. So we need a third image—that of the self, a that is capable offeel
ings and aware of being so. More than a bloodless calculator or blind expresser of uncontrolled emotions, the sentient self is aware of feeling as well as of the many cultural guideposts that shape it. In everyday life we are often aware of indicating to ourselves our subjective states (“I feel anxious today”), which in turn stand out against a taken-for-granted background stream of experience (I’m not usually this anxious”). Further, we select and apply to these states a variety of labels (e. g., anxiety, malaise, uptightness) from among the emotion vocabularies available to us at a given time and place in the world.
Every’ sociological study focuses on a range of variation. In the study oi the sentient self, we distinguish between one and another emotional state given the emotional vocabulary we have at hand. We explore what we expect to feel and wanted to feel. With clinical insight, we sometimes link these to unconscious goings-on beneath the conscious tip of the iceberg.
But we keep an eye out for patterns in the very terms we apply to emotional states and the “standing,” so to speak, of each term. We can describe ourselves as “apathetic.” But how bad is it to be apathetic? Is it always a problem? Is it ever normal or average? As Gordon Allport and H. S. Odbert obseive, certain terms came into use in English only after die eighteenth century (e. g., depression, ennui, chagrin, apathy), and the modern sense of some older terms has become more subjective (e. g., constraint, embarrassment, disappointment. Such labels are not, as they note, “univocal symbols corresponding through the ages to fixed varieties of human disposition.”’ 1 u addition, feelings—its people describe them to themselves and others— may vary in social ways. Just as certain behaviors (e. g., suicide, homicide, delinquency) are unevenly distributed across layers of society and the stream of time, so too we need to ask whether and why the various emotions, such as joy or depression, unfold in ways that reflect larger social patterns.
But are we not caught in a peculiar embarrassment by the elusiveness of our subject matter? For one thing, feelings relate to acts in many ways. So feelings are by no means a neat, clear predictor of actions, i’or example, William Kephart asked college students, “If a boy or girl had all the other qualities you desire, would you marry this person if you were not in love with him/her?" A total of 64 percent of the men, but only 24 percent of the
women, said “no.” For men and women, feeling in love appears to have a different tie to the act of marrying.3
There is another question, too: What if we think we are in love at one point, but later look back and declare that we were just infatuated? Or what if we think we’re in love, but the beloved and our therapist don’t agree? All this is no reason to flee to other questions that rest on more solid sociological ground. This is sociological ground. It’s as solid as sociological ground ever really gets. If we want to pretend that we know what the actor’s emotion “really is” (e. g., “It’s really depression”) and call what a person thinks it is “bias” (“I’m tired”), then part of our intellectual domain must still be precisely this “bias.” For in ridding ourselves of the actor’s own codification of feeling, and of his or her ignorance or linguistic habits, we rid ourselves of part of what is social about emotion. We eliminate from the start what we can then claim we do not find, a sociology of feeling and emotion. We are then left with inferences about instinct or motivation on one side and cognition on the other, because we haven’t posed our question in a way that would lead to anything else.
і Г we start instead with the idea of a self capable of feeling, a sentient self, we then take an interest in a person’s тип definition of his or her feeling. We learn from this how the individual uses an “emotion vocabulary” and what social situations or rules call feelings forth or tuck them under. The image of a sentient self does not imply that there are no unconscious forces leading us to feel as we do. It does not imply that being emotional or emotionless in certain situations is “good” or “bad,” “sick” or “healthy.” It is often “rational,” in the larger sense of being adaptive, to feel and very maladaptive not to feel. The business executive who felt terror at the sight, smell, or
word of nearby smoke in the nearby World Trade Center and fled ended up
better off than co-workers who tragically didn’t feel afraid enough.
In The Theory of Social and Economic Organization Weber posits a model of social action based on a misguided set of categories—emotion-free rational action and emotional irrational action.6 Here Weber confuses irrationality as it refers to thinking and doing with irrationality as it refers to feeling. He implies that emotion and feeling are not positively required for individuals both to really grasp what’s going on and to pursue a rational course of action. He implies, too, that institutions don’t need people who listen well to their feelings and those of others in order to adapt to their environment and act rationally. Weber thought emotions important, and deplored a “rationalistic bias” that might grow out of what he meant merely as a methodological device. But I do not get the sense that he saw how very necessary emotions were to making tilings run. Take his example of a theoretically posited course of rational action on the stock market. He treats deviations from rational behavior as something the sociologist might explain in terms of “irrational emotions” (e. g., panic). But, in the realm of emotion,
the difference between the normal stock market and the sudden depression in stocks is the difference between stockbrokers in a state of elation and stockbrokers in a state of despair. It is highly questionable whether emotion enters into the life of stockbrokers only when there is panic or that emotion makes people act only in irrational ways.
Surely emotion and sentiment are active ingredients in rational behavior as well. A normal day at the stock market would amply show that feelings of excitement, anxiety, or glee are all part of a good, rational day’s work. Weber mistakes actual emotionlessness for the prevailing nonn of affective neutrality we suppose stockbrokers to have adopted for themselves. The image of the sentient self, on the other hand, guides our eye not only to exceptional waves of emotion, as in stock market panics, religious trances, and riotous crowds, but also to normal emotions in the office, factory, school, and home.