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Social scientists have long been concerned with describing the structure and functions of the human selfthe constellation of self-referent thoughts, feelings, and motives that constitute the individuals experience of himself or herself in relation to the world. These descriptions range from intrapsychic to cultural in focus, and the accounts of structure and functions range from those that portray the self as a stable, monolithic entity, to those that outline a complex, dynamic system of interrelated elements and processes. These latter accounts typically refer to the self as the self-system.

System-oriented accounts of the self comprise two features: (1) They specify a set of self-aspectsconstituents of a differentiated but unified whole; and (2) they posit mechanisms that give rise to the different self-aspects, the interplay between them, and the interplay between the self-system and the experienced world. System accounts often trace their origin to the work of philosopher/psychologist William James (18421910), who, in his oft-quoted Principles of Psychology (1890), first described the self as a differentiated entity. James specified two dimensions of differentiation. One is distinctly social, describing self-aspects as internalized representations of the self in relation to significant others. The other dimension positions these representations in the social self, which, along with the material self and the spiritual self, constitute the full self-system.

Although many models of the self-system draw on Jamess description, it does not fully describe the self in system terms because it does not posit mechanisms by which the social, material, and spiritual selves arise, and it does not offer a systematic account of the interplay between these self-aspects or between the self-system and the experienced world. In perhaps the earliest fully drawn model of the self-system, Harry Stack Sullivan (18921949), in The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry (1953), outlined the interpersonal processes that give rise to the self-system. The good-me arises from positive interactions between the infant and caregiver. The bad-me arises from interactions with the caregiver that engender anxiety. Finally, the not-me encompasses interpersonal aspects of the self-system that are nonconsciousthe private mode of living. These self-aspects are a joint product of interpersonal reward and anxiety that, in the mentally healthy individual, function cooperatively to promote security and guard against anxiety in interpersonal relations.

The cognitive revolution of the 1960s provided social scientists with the conceptual and methodological tools for developing and studying models that proffer more detailed accounts of the structure of the self-system and richer accounts of processes that operate within the self-system and between the self-system and the environment. In terms of structure, these models generally view the self-system as a highly organized network of knowledge structures that are either activated directly through self-directed attention or by stimuli in the environment or indirectly as a result of their association with other knowledge structures that have been activated. Once activated, these constituents of self-knowledge influence attention, perception, emotion, and behavior, typically, in a manner that ensures the stability and continuity of the self-system across situations and over time.

SEE ALSO Cognition; Emotion; James, William; Psychoanalytic Theory; Psychology


Hoyle, Rick H., Michael H. Kernis, Mark R. Leary, and Mark W. Baldwin. 1999. Selfhood: Identity, Esteem, Regulation. Boulder, CO: Westview.

Sullivan, Harry S. 1953. The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry, eds. Helen Swick Perry and Mary Ladd Gawel. New York: Norton.

Rick H. Hoyle

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