Micro-Sociology Primer - Ariana.


Micro-sociology, dealt with at Mills in "The Sociology of Everyday Life," is foundational in a micro-macro theory that explains social behavior in terms of what real, concrete individuals actually do. This sampler is a quick romp through the main voices in the sociological conversation about, as Goffman puts it, the basic model of the human that you need so that you can wind it up, set it down among its fellows, and have something like what we know as society ensue.

In a field of sociology that builds its foundation by assessing people as individuals and as unit of a larger, aggregate group, the key to understanding the sociology of the Self is understanding the Self in both respective arenas, as well as the chronological trajectory of the development on theories of Self. A number of works that contributed most prominently to this subfield of sociology can be separated into two categories: works that emphasize the inner-self and works that are more centered upon the Self and its interactions with others. In addition to providing you with that method of analyzing the theories of Self, I’ll provide you with a brief chronology of this self-based theorizing.


The earliest of the theorizers in my compilation of readings based on the Self is Karl Marx. Written in 1844, the almost latter-1800s, “Estranged Labour” discusses with vehemence the relationship between the selves of the proletariats of the 1800s in relation to the labor they provide to the bourgeoisie in order to sustain life. The relationship between the proletariat and the labor they provide, Marx argues, has repercussions of alienation and exploitation that in turn change the relationships one has with one’s self, one’s labor, the objects one creates, as well as other individuals (other workers and the bourgeoisie included), and with one’s “species-being.”

As time progressed into what was truly the late 1800s, William James begins theorizing about the self directly (not the self as a by-product of proletariat and bourgeoisie politics) in “The Self and Its Selves” in 1890. James, in this piece, claims that in our lives, we classify our dimensions of self—“me” and “mine,” “us” and “ours”—into four distinct categories, which are: the material self, the social self, the spiritual self, and the pure ego, and that each elicits different variations of feeling.

Foreshadowed by William James’ concepts of self as both subject and object was Charles Horton Cooley’s “The Looking-Glass Self” written in the earliest of the 1900s, 1902. The “looking glass” effect, the central idea of Cooley’s theory, is composed of three elements: the manner in which we imagine other people to perceive us, how we imagine them to judge the aforementioned perception, and finally a feeling catalyzed by appraisal of that judgment.

The next of the theorizers, Émile Durkheim, wrote his “The Cultural Logic of Collective Representations” in 1912. In it, he constructed a more macro-perspective of the self (which will be discussed in the “inner-self/outer self” portion of the page). The most relevant [to the Self discussion] of his concepts introduced in this piece include ideas of how we as people form a collective consciousness based on group feelings catalyzed by rituals. It is because of the group feelings experienced in social situations that a sense of essential us-ness is generated.

The last of the early 1900s contributions in this micro-sociology discussion was George Herbert Mead, contributing his “The Self, the I, and the Me”—a piece reminiscent of William James’ earlier work on multiple selves. According to Mead, the self and the body—described as a “double”—are distinctly separate, and once one can perceive one’s self objectively through communication, one can both create one’s own social experiences and consequently develop a generalized attitude.

In the latter half of the 1900s, Jacques Lacan wrote “The Mirror Stage” (1949). The mirror stage, similar to the idea of Cooley’s “looking-glass self,” is built upon principles of self-perception based on “mirrored” interactions. Lacan, a psychoanalyst, described his mirror stage as a stage of development in a child’s life as opposed to just a tool for understanding self.

During the next year, another psychoanalyst by the name of Erik H. Erikson published “Youth and American Identity,” in which he described adolescent stages of development for understanding one’s self. With puberty, Erikson explains, comes a divergence in the life of young children who have both child-like characteristics and are newly looking towards living up to adult expectations. Adulthood, then, brings a preoccupation with how people perceive them (as the adolescents) versus how the adolescents perceive themselves arise.

The last of the contributions to this micro-sociology chronology is Erving Goffman’s “On Face-Work” in 1955. In “On Face-Work,” Goffman asserts a new notion, even though the focus on feelings of self-images was more introduced by Cooley. Goffman claims that human nature is not natural, but a “ritually organized system of social activity” (Goffman 1955, pp. 342) that consists of creating harmonious lines and faces to represent one’s self that are expected to be well-formed enough to be durable in any and every social situation.

Inner-Self vis-à-vis Outer-Self:

It is easy to be presented with sixty-five years and eight classical sociologists and assume that a) they are all arguing the same point, or b) they are all arguing entirely opposing points. What one typically would not conclude, however, is the truth at hand in this case: they are not all saying the same thing nor different things, but they are each providing theories that lend themselves to the next theories in an interdependent manner within a similar department—that of the Self. On a basic level, the works can be separated into two categories: works that emphasize the inner-self, and works that are more centered upon the Self and its interactions with others. Of course, there is no getting by that simply either; for what could be the basis of multi-Self interactions without first a fundamental ground of a singular Self?

In establishing a basis for what constitutes a “Self” or how we as individuals come to understand our Self, we can further dichotomize the eight classic thinkers yet again: both William James (1890) and George Herbert Mead (1929) build their theories upon a basis of multiple distinct selves that subsequently come together to form one cohesive Self, and Charles Horton Cooley (1902) and Jacques Lacan (1949) instead base their theories upon how individuals come to an understanding or perception of Self—as opposed to what exactly makes the Self.

The remainder of the readings, as opposed to being centered upon the micro-idea of Self, explained how an individual Self interacts with other beings and/or entities. The sociologists analyzing Self on an interpersonal level were much more diverse in their approaches, though still all contributed to each other to formulate a collective idea of how individuals interact with others based on their singular Self. Karl Marx (1844), Émile Durkheim, (1912), Erik H. Erikson (1950) and Erving Goffman (1955) all formulated theories that analyzed how an individual relates to and uses society in order to develop. Marx, unlike the latter three, focused much more on what the individual experiences on account of how they interact with society. For example, experiencing an exploitative relationship leads one to feeling alienated to one’s self, objects and eventually all others. This alienation is, in essence, a retardation of one’s ability to relate to others in society the way one did pre-alienation.

Goffman, although taking a much different approach and relying on how Self is portrayed through multiple representations, also describes the effects of not being able to maintain a solid, cohesive Self in the face of others. Goffman describes individual’s interactions with others like that of putting on, exchanging and taking off masks. There are different faces for different people and situations, and when one experiences any kind of disharmony in regards to face-work a multitude of negative repercussions, like shame or anxiety, is the result. Erikson, yet again, displays another approach in explaining how an identity is formed in relationship to society. He seems to exhibit a much more linear approach (as opposed to cyclical) describing how one develops, but also addresses the personal conflict that arises if one cannot maintain a sense of harmony between one’s self and those around him.

Although Durkheim does not relate as strongly to the aforementioned writers in regards to how we think of ourselves, he addresses the theme all four of the writers took to in the most over-arching, seemingly generalized manner: society defines who we are, what we think and what our values are to some extent or another—differing only due to varying degrees of personal autonomy. He claims that individuals come to believe, think and understand in accordance to what he names a “collective consciousness.” Each individual, though keeping individuality in tact, is essentially only one piece of the puzzle: one piece that fits into the whole, but does not alone change the whole.

In retrospect, although all eight aforementioned classic sociologists adhere to distinct theories, the theories and the thinkers are not all entirely different nor the same. Instead, each theory, like singular individuals, contributes a different piece to the aggregate. The former half of the group focused on the Self from a micro-perspective, using their theories to describe how the individual Self is formed and perceived. The latter half focused on the Self in a more macro-perspective, analyzing how the individual Self interacts and fits into the whole of society. But, of course, in order to see the puzzle, we must first deal with the individual pieces—and that is how these voices approach “the basic model of the human that you need so that you can wind it up, set it down among its fellows, and have something like what we know as society ensue” (DJJR 2010, ref. Goffman 1955).


  • For your own theorizing and analyzing fun, each link below will transport you to both a summary and "tweets" for the given excerpt.

Marx, Karl. 1844. "Estranged Labour" (32-38)
Durkheim Émile. 1912. "The Cultural Logic of Collective Representations" (94-103)
James, William. 1890. The Self and Its Selves" (161-166)
Cooley, Charles Horton. 1902. "The Looking-Glass Self" (189)
Mead, George Herbert. ca.1929. "The Self, the I, and the Me" (224-229)
Goffman, Erving. 1955. "On Face-Work" (338-343)
Lacan, Jacques. 1949. "The Mirror Stage" (343-344)
Erikson, Erik H. 1950. "Youth and American Identity" (334-337)

Mills Library

May, Tim Powell, Jason. 2008. Situating Social Theory. Open University Press. E-301/.01

Hello! I cannot open comments page this is Erika!
I think that your initial definitions are very concise.I think that an expansion on the themes dealing with Micro-Sociology and a definition would be helpful.

  • I think that including more details, such as quotes, would make your paper stronger.~Amy
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