In this piece Nathan Palmer asks us to consider who we are and how traveling to a new place for vacation may allow us to become someone different.
Greetings from 60,000 feet. As I type these words, I’m flying back home from my summer vacation. In addition to replaying the highlights from the trip in my head, I’ve spent the last few hours noticing how good I feel. Heading home, I’m relaxed, tan, and eager to get back to my life. Vacations are wonderful because we get to do things we don’t normally do; on my trip I hiked to the top of a mountain, zip lined, and ate lots of delicious foods. But despite how much I enjoyed those experiences, I don’t think the deep sense of relief I’m currently feeling came from what I did on my trip. I think it is what I didn’t do on my trip that has me feeling serene.
I love taking vacations because I get to be someone else for a few days. I mean that literally. When we take vacations, especially if we can travel far from home or to another country, we can become a different person. That might sound looney, but let me explain. First, we have to talk about where our sense of self comes from in the first place.
Who Are You?
Each of us has an idea of who we are; sociologists call this our self-concept. For instance, I am a sociology professor, a husband/father, a Nebraskan, a white guy, etc. I also think I have a personality. I’m generally a jovial, curious, and introverted person. That’s my self-concept, but the question that sociologists have been asking for generations is, where does my sense of self come from?
Do You Come From Inside Yourself?
Many people believe that they have a personality, demeanor, or something else inside them that creates who they are. From this perspective, individuals possess a self that lives inside them. You could take a person anywhere in the world, and they would be exactly the same.
It is easy to see how many people come to this conclusion. Each of us experiences our selves as relatively stable. We don’t go to sleep at night a brutish soldier and wake up the next day as a gentle kindergarten teacher. No, for most of us, tomorrow will be very similar to today. Throughout all of our days, one thing that is always present is our self and our body. Therefore, it is no surprise that many of us attribute our stable self-concepts to some fundamental quality of our character or personality.
Do You Come From Outside Yourself?
Sociologists, however, argue that it is not our internal selves that are stable, but rather it is our social context that is consistent. A social context includes all of the factors that influence an individual’s life that exist outside of that individual. For example, the culture, economy, and legal system that surround each of us influences how we think and behave.
Two crucial elements of an individual’s social context are the statuses and roles. Statuses are the positions or titles an individual holds in society. Some statuses are ascribed at birth (e.g. being a son/daughter, your sex, race, age) and others are achieved later in life (e.g. husband, father, firefighter, Olympic champion). Roles are the behavioral expectations associated with a social status. For example, as a father (status) I am expected to be a caretaker (role) for my daughter.
Many statuses do not change over the course of our lives. For instance, I have been a white male American citizen my whole life. I’ve also always been a son, brother, grandson, cousin, etc. within my family. Other statuses I’ve achieved over the course of my life (e.g. being a husband, father, and sociology professor) have been a part of my identity for years and will likely remain a part of my identity for most if not all of the remainder of my life.
Each day I wake up in roughly the same social context. I live in the same town, work at the same university, and occupy the same statuses I did the day before. I have similar opportunities and constraints. When I interact with others they treat me in similar ways (i.e. the observe my statuses and expect me to fulfill their corresponding roles). For the most part, each day society sees me as the same person I was the day before.
From the sociological perspective, your self is a product of both your internal sense of who you are and the messages you receive from everyone else in society. Your self-concept is your perception of yourself, but those perceptions are informed by your interactions with others. Furthermore, your perception of yourself is filtered through what your culture has taught you to think and feel.
Traveling To Become Someone New
On the road, no one knows who I am unless I tell them. I can break free from many, but not all, of my achieved statuses. I don’t have to act like a university professor, for example. No one expects me to explain sociology to them, respond to their emails, or work on research. By changing my social context, even slightly, I am able to live a different life. I am able to become a different person. If just for a moment.
- What are some of the aspects of our identity/self that come from within an individual (hint: think about the self in psychological or biological terms)? Explain your answers.
- What are some of the aspects of our identity/self that come from outside an individual (hint: think about our social context affects our self-concept)? Explain your answers.
- Everyone in Bob’s life thinks he is lying, but Bob knows he told the truth. If everyone thinks Bob is a liar and treats him accordingly, then does it matter that Bob is in fact not a liar? Explain your answer.
- What does Bob’s experience (from question 3) show us about where our sense of self comes from? If Bob isn’t a liar, but everyone around him believes he is, then does Bob’s internal sense of self really matter? Explain your answers.