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How does society shape the self?

Society plays a huge role in shaping an individual’s sense of self. From the moment we are born, we are socialized into the values, beliefs, and norms of our culture. Every society has its own expectations and guidelines about how people should behave, think, and feel. These societal rules and structures profoundly influence how we see ourselves and construct our identities. In this article, we will explore the complex, multidirectional relationship between society and the self. Some key questions we will consider include: How do societal institutions like family, education, media, and religion shape the self? How do social roles and statuses impact self-concept? What role do values like individualism and collectivism play in the cultural construction of identity? Understanding the dynamic interplay between the broader social world and individual sense of self can provide powerful insight into human psychology and development.

The Looking-Glass Self

One useful framework for understanding how society shapes self-concept is what sociologist Charles Horton Cooley referred to as the “looking-glass self.” This concept suggests that our sense of self is a reflection of how we believe others perceive us. We imagine how we appear to others, interpret their reactions to us, and ultimately develop a self-image based on these perceived social judgments. As we grow up, the looking-glass self emerges through our interactions with significant people in our lives like parents and teachers. Their responses to us, whether approving or disapproving, affirming or critical, slowly shape our self-concepts. The labels, expectations, and feedback we receive from the social world serve as a mirror in which we see ourselves.

Development of the Looking-Glass Self

The looking-glass self evolves over the course of childhood and adolescence. At a young age, children’s self-concepts tend to focus heavily on external characteristics like physical appearance and possessions. As their cognitive abilities mature, they develop a deeper understanding of personality traits and abstract personal qualities. Teenagers feel an intense need to belong, which further elevates the importance of social judgments in their self-perceptions. The imagined judgments of others act as a mirror reflecting back youth’s emerging identities. Although the power of the looking glass self dims in adulthood, it continues to operate subtly throughout life. Our self-concepts remain partially dependent on how we believe society sees us.

Agents of Socialization

The formation of the looking-glass self is driven by diverse socializing agents within the sociocultural environment. Some key agents of socialization that shape the self include:


As a child’s earliest source of human interaction, the family plays a foundational role in cultivating the self. Parenting styles, attachment relationships, values modeled by parents or grandparents, socioeconomic status, and other family dynamics profoundly influence a child’s developing identity both overtly and subtly. Warm, responsive parenting facilitates a positive self-image, while cold, rejecting parenting may lead to fragile self-worth. The degree of parental restrictiveness versus autonomy also impacts independence and self-efficacy. Family constructs like gender roles transmit societal expectations about appropriate identities.


School environments socialize children through formal curricula, peer interactions, teacher feedback, extracurricular activities, and more. Educational systems reinforce cultural norms surrounding achievement, competition, conformity, and what skills and knowledge matter most. Academic labeling and tracking systems strongly shape youth’s self-concepts regarding their own competences and future prospects. Positive school climates and strong teacher-student relationships aid in developing confident, resilient identities. However, biased tracking policies or discriminatory school cultures can damage marginalized students’ self-images.


As children grow, peer influence gains importance, peaking during adolescence. Friendship cliques and youth subcultures powerfully shape identity development. Belonging to a peer group provides crucial social validation, essential to crafting an integrated self-concept. The emergence of new social media further magnifies peer influence, as youth carefully curate their online profiles and compare their self-presentations. Peer conformity pressures surrounding issues like appearance and sexuality can create tension between authenticity and social acceptance.


Television, movies, advertising, social media, and other media transmit strong cultural messages that shape how we perceive ourselves. Media serve as “super-peer” socialization agents, providing templates for gender, race, beauty, success, normalcy, and other identity constructs. Identification with certain media icons and celebrities molds self-concepts, especially for youth. Social comparisons with unrealistic media imagery can damage body image and self-esteem. However, increased media representation of marginalized groups has potential to validate diverse identities.


For many people, religious or spiritual systems offer powerful guiding frameworks about the nature of selfhood. Different religious traditions espouse varied teachings about whether the self is individual or interconnected, whether identity is fixed or fluid, and what values or character virtues are most important. Religions promote norms around gender, sexuality, divinity, morality and more. Internalizing these belief systems influences congregation members’ self-concepts, purpose, and worldviews in deep ways. Both positive and negative impacts on identity development are possible.

Social Construction of Self

Building on Cooley’s looking-glass self, sociology and social psychology highlight that there is no intrinsic, “core” self separate from society’s shaping influences. Rather, the very idea we have an inner personality or selfhood is a social construct – we learn to define ourselves through socialization. Every aspect of identity, from emotions to memories to desires, emerges through complex interactions within a web of social and cultural patterns. Societal forces do not just shape the self – they socially construct the self.

Some examples of how culture actively constructs different dimensions of identity include:


While biological sex differences exist, gender roles and norms are almost entirely socially created. Men and women learn culturally-defined appropriate appearances, behaviors, careers, skills, and temperaments from childhood onward. These constructed gender differences shape individuals’ self-concepts and self-expression.


Racial categories like “white” or “Asian” are invented social groupings imposed on human diversity. Yet racial identities become psychologically real through socialization within a racist society. Prejudice and discrimination shape people’s racialized senses of self profoundly, even as race itself has no biological validity.


Same-sex desires and relationships have existed across eras, but only modern Western culture has constructed the socially-defined categories of heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc. Internalized cultural messages and norms surrounding these invented identities deeply influence how individuals frame their sexuality within their self-concepts.


While medical conditions have objective reality, the meaning of “disability” is socially constructed through stigmatization and barriers within an ableist society. Disabled individuals’ self-concepts reflect constant negotiation of internalized cultural messages versus pride in disability identity.

Overall, the “self” does not develop in isolation but is woven together through dynamic engagement with the social world. Shared cultural meanings form the very fabric of our inner lives and individual identities.

Self and Society as a System

Drawing on decades of research, most social scientists now reject linear models of socialization that depict society as “shaping” the individual. Rather, the relationship between self and society functions as a complex, multidirectional system with processes operating at cultural, institutional, interpersonal, and intrapersonal levels. Some key insights into this systemic perspective include:

Individuals Co-Construct Culture

The self is not just a passive product of society – individuals play active roles in reinforcing or transforming cultural meanings and structures. People collectively recreate shared symbolic systems like language that, in turn, reconstruct the self in an ongoing feedback loop.

Society Constrains and Enables

Social forces limit identity development through conformity pressures, prejudice, and other constraints. However, sociocultural resources also empower people to express agency and reshape identities in innovative ways. Authentic self-definition requires navigating this delicate line between social constraint and enablement.

Identity Tension and Synthesis

Individuals experience identity confusion or tension when different social dimensions of the self clash, as when gender, racial, class, and religious roles conflict. Developing a coherent self-concept involves creatively synthesizing these multifaceted social identities.

Reciprocal Social Interaction

The looking-glass self is not a one-way mirror but a reciprocal process of mutual influence in social interaction. We interpret responses to our identity performances, but also selectively project certain identity aspects, eliciting the social feedback we seek.

Self-Concepts Shape Behavior

Our internalized self-concepts, formed through social experience, shape our outward social behavior. At the same time, performed actions reshape the self, in a continual interplay at the very heart of human social life.

Overall, the relationship between society and self forms an evolving, open system through which personal and cultural meanings emerge, reinforce and transform each other.

Individualistic vs. Collectivist Cultures

One key dimension on which cultural value systems differ dramatically is individualism versus collectivism. These opposing worldviews carry critical implications for the social construction of selfhood.

Individualistic Cultures

Individualistic cultures like the U.S. and Western Europe emphasize personal freedom, self-reliance, and realization of unique talents and desires. Socialization in individualistic societies promotes an independent self-concept oriented toward personal goals and self-expression.

Collectivist Cultures

Alternatively, collectivist cultures like those in Asia, Africa, and Latin America prize the interdependent self, embedded within family or community. Socialization stresses conformity, shared responsibilities, and sacrifices for the group’s interests over the individual’s wishes.

Cultural Changes

As cultures become more interconnected, these value systems blend, with more collectivist outlooks penetrating Western individualism. For example, social media fuels new forms of interdependent self-presentation, oriented toward external validation.

Bicultural Identities

Members of cultural minorities like immigrant groups must navigate constructing bicultural identities spanning individualistic and collectivist worldviews. Their self-concepts bridge these cultures through complex negotiation processes.

Overall, cultural psychology reveals that independent and interdependent socialized selves represent two viable, but divergent, pathways shaped in sociocultural context.


In summary, the multifaceted relationship between society and the self remains one of the most central issues in social sciences. The self arises within cultural webs of meaning, social interaction, and institutional forces. Through diverse socializing agents, individuals construct self-concepts reflecting cultural norms, values, and identities. The looking glass self emerges as we internalize perceived judgments of us. In navigating social constraints and enablements, we assemble integrated identities. And the resulting self-concept continually guides our participation in the social processes that shaped it from the start. Individual and society form two inseparable poles that dynamically create each other in an ongoing dance across history and culture. Understanding this complex interplay can elucidate the deepest wellsprings of human thought, emotion and behavior.