Wednesday, January 27, 2010

People, People, People!

Today I had an epiphany in my Sociology 100 class. Well, one spurred on by my professor's notes anyway. I'm not sure why I've never realized this (as I seem to realize every other "unthinkable" thing) but now that I have I must jot it down. Today I learned that "self" is socially negotiable. All those years of building up who you think you are (while, ironically, still questioning who you are) is determined by - you guessed it - society. In other words, PEOPLE. So, you think you're "fun," "hard-working," "nice," "outgoing," etc.? Well it turns out you might be. Depending on who's around you. How many of us label ourselves as such because PEOPLE tell us we are? How many of us label ourselves as such by comparing ourselves to other PEOPLE? Well I'll be damned. All of us. If you grew up alone on top of a mountain you wouldn't be any of these things. You'd just be. Which is what we all end up as if we take away everything that surrounds us. Obviously. But this leads me to say that if our lives were different, say, we were all prison mates (my professor's example) controlled by guards, our so-called "personalities" would diminish into nothing. If this all sounds familiar then you're thinking of the Stanford prison experiment conducted in 1971. Twenty-four undergraduate students were selected to play out roles as prisoners and guards in the basement of the psychology building at Stanford. The result was so traumatic that two students chose to quit and the whole experiment came to a complete halt in only six days. Students were becoming so engrossed with their roles that the guards would punish prisoners by taking away their mattresses or making the room colder. To avoid these consequences, prisoners would obey orders, thus diminishing their personalities, their "self." I use this example to exemplify the huge effect our environment plays on who we think we are. We think we're one way but as soon as we're thrust into a different way of life we turn out to be the complete opposite of what we thought.

Another example is from the current book I'm reading, "Nickel and Dimed" by Barbara Ehrenreich (which I highly recommend you read.) Ehrenreich took it upon herself as a journalist to do an undercover story "on (not) getting by in America." Working at such fine establishments as Wal-Mart and a nursing home, along with several restaurants, she sees if she can get by on low-wage jobs. She goes from living in trailer parks to motels and eating fast-food to eating out of donation bins. The result is that you honestly can't "get by" by having a low-wage job, though people inhumanly manage to do so. The point of bringing this novel up at all is that while working at Wal-Mart, Barb, as she's known there, gets into an argument with a fellow co-worker. Her co-worker being quite short and unable to do "returns" needs a ladder to reach the higher shelves. Barb, examining her, then writes, "And you know how I feel when I see the poor little mite pushing that ladder around? A surge of evil mirth. I peer around from where I am working in the Jordache, hoping to see her go splat." The point is that even in more minor situations such as this one, personalities are apt to change because of environment and those you're surrounded by (temporarily or in the long run.) Later she concludes:

"What I have to face is that 'Barb,' the name on my ID tag, is not exactly the same person as Barbara. 'Barb' is what I was called as a child, and still am by my siblings, and I sense that at some level I'm regressing. Take away the career and the higher education, and maybe what you're left with is this original Barb, the one who might have ended up working at Wal-Mart for real if her father hadn't managed to climb out of the mines. So it's interesting, and more than a little disturbing, to see how Barb turned out - that she's meaner and slyer than I am, more cherishing of grudges, and not quite as smart as I'd hoped."

Now looking at all that I've collected on the subject, including socialist Charles Cooley's theory which is a longer version of what I explained using the Stanford prison experiment example, I wholeheartedly agree that who we are is strongly influenced by people or society. Taking a more "positive" approach though and knowing that we can change so easily based on those around us, I encourage that even in those uncertain times we remember that, in the end, we're the ones who make the CHOICE to better or worsen ourselves or remain as is.

I really felt like I needed to write all this down. I'm not even sure if this is all making sense but it makes me feel better to have realized such an "obvious" part of everyday life.

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