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The Emerging Self

Author: Robert K. Green, Ph.D.

Date: 3/28/2022

I have long been interested in the concept of emergence, especially as it applies to human beings; however, reviewing the literature can lead to some confusion regarding terminology and the development of conceptual frameworks. The literature is replete with articles and books that discuss emergence using physics and the hard sciences concepts. Physics concepts and theories include chaos theory, complexity theory, autopoiesis, linearity/non-linearity, and emergence. The crossover from the physical sciences to social and phenomenological studies has led to concepts that include the quantum self, quantum organizations, quantum leadership, quantum learning, quantum skills, quantum societies, nonlinear organizational life, and nonlinear organizational change, . Books and articles use physics to develop perspectives about people and societies (Salmon, 2007; Stacey, 2000, 2005; Young, 1991, 1997; Mark D. Youngblood, 1997; Mark D. Youngblood, 1997; Zohar, 1990, 1998; Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

I am not suggesting that human and social sciences are not beneficiaries of physical science concepts and theories. Quite the contrary. The issues surface when we use the physical sciences to serve as the primary vehicles for understanding people and societies. It is important that we maintain proper perspectives and have clear understandings of our conceptual frameworks, especially when we seek to serve the community of scholars and those interested in developing their interests in the human and social sciences.

The physical sciences are important! They serve humankind well by expanding our knowledge and understandings in medicine, astronomy, geography, global warming, pollution and the environment, and many other fields of study. However, issues can arise when we use the physical sciences to understand people and societies. Many of the issues contemporary sociology faces began with Comte who, in the 19th Century, was the founder of sociology and positivism. Positivism is the philosophy professing that knowledge is true (or positive) only when reason and logic produce hard and testable, a posteriori evidence or facts (based on observation; empirical evidence required). Positivism rejects other ways of knowing including metaphysics, intuition, introspection, reflection, and any other a priori methods that do not use general/physical laws of science and the scientific method.

Vestiges of positivism and its requisite quantitative approaches to social research still exist in the 21st Century; however, the constraints of using qualitative approaches for human and social research are giving way to postmodernism, metamodernism, and emerging theories including symbolic interactionism, social constructionism, relational theory, feminism, among other paradigm-changing theories.

My creation and development of this blog, like most blogs, has an agenda. The agenda is summed up in my mission statement:

To serve as a place where all people can come together and reconstruct narratives that will engender social and personal changes that can lead to the emergence of new paradigms focused on becoming more human(e). (Green, 2022)

My mission, then, is to create a safe environment where persons can learn, share, and deepen their understandings of themselves and others. It is through understanding our socially constructed perspectives that we gain the insights necessary to unburden ourselves of perspectives that preclude us from becoming our truest and most authentic selves. We are most human(e) when we live our most authentic lives.

Although not a common practice for blogs, I think it is important to illustrate and explain the conceptual framework that guides my work and the goals of this website. The remainder of this paper, then, serves as the conceptual framework for The Emergent Self. The conceptual framework should be viewed as a living model, which has the potential to change through time. The framework does not include the physical sciences; however, this is only to emphasize that postmodern and metamodern theories and concepts have more weight in terms of the mission statement.

The Conceptual Framework

Figure 1 illustrates the three structural components of The Emerging Self Framework and the three aspects and theories associated with each component. The remainder of this paper explicates each structural component, aspect, and theory.

Figure 1: The Emerging Self: Conceptual Framework.

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Structural Component 1: Sumballo

One issue related to understanding the meaning of emerging self is language itself. Western language tends to characterize the emergent self as a “thing.” Think about how we characterize human beings. What distinguishes human beings from all other life on Earth? Despite Olympia Dukais’ Steel Magnolias character, Clairee Belcher, who declares that “the only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize,” we can place more stock in “agency” as that which separates us from the animals. Even this human “action” is perceived more by the rules of speech than by what “it” does. My point here is that our language rules construct our understandings and perceptions. What might happen to our perceptions about human beings if we thought of ourselves as “actions” and not nouns (persons, places, or things). Let’s explore that conceptual change.

Language shapes reality, but we have the ability to use our critical thinking skills and challenge prevailing perspectives. Our inherited language has shaped the perceptions of many people to view persons as nouns, or objects. Hubris has led some to opine wrongly that their perceptions are Truth and that there can be only one Truth. This Truth often tends to be White, male, and straight and carries with it an agenda. The agenda? To construct systems that support straight White male privilege and to make “Other” anyone who is not White, straight, and male. This type of language creates social realities that include these dichotomies, among others: exclusion-acceptance; poverty-wealth-building; power-disempowerment; and privilege-oppression. Persons relegated to the status of “Other” are viewed, not as persons, but as “things.” For example, not so long ago, it was not uncommon to hear men talk about “the little woman,” “the wife,” or “the Mrs..” Men of a certain age are never referred to as “boys,” but women and men alike often refer to women as “the girls.” Men are rarely viewed as objects; however, women and children are frequently viewed this way. Western religions have also created a male god. Westerns have largely rejected the notion of god’s son as a Black Mediterranean Jewish man and have largely adopted the German light-skinned version of god instead. The agenda is clear when we examine these “Truths” using lenses that include social constructionism, symbolic interactionism, and feminism. We gain many perspectives when we use these theories, including one undeniable fact: those in privileged positions cannot see their privileges. Even though they can see the effects of their privilege (e.g., poverty), they cannot connect oppressions to their privileged status.

Western language rules (e.g., nouns, verbs, gerunds) “get in the way” and reinforce constructions of the self as a “thing.” When we view one another, and ourselves, as nouns (persons, places, things), it is not a big leap to ism’s that include essentialism, racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, classism, and any other number of oppressions. How we view ourselves and one another is a product of our language. Our inherited and culturally-shaped vocabulary, along with all the rules of speech, construct the shared meanings that we apply to our self-understanding and our understanding of one another.

Barnett Pearce, whom I had the privilege of knowing during my years of doctoral studies, co-developed the Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM) theory. Pearce (2012) acknowledged that “literacy changes the form of consciousness of the reader and of the societies in which literacy is primary” and he believed that “communication literacy does the same thing” (p. 8). My point here is that we need to develop a shared and coordinated consciousness regarding the language we use because it has the power to (re)construct who we are and who we are becoming.

Western language and communication, therefore, are characterized by what I call a “thing mentality.” It is likely the product of positivism and behaviorism. “Actions vs. Things” is one of the three aspects of σῠμβάλλω (sumballo) in my conceptual framework (see Figure 1). Sumballo is the first structural part of the conceptual model and looks at the emerging self as 1) action (not a “thing”); 2) symbol; and, 3) sacramental action. I want to be clear that I do not use the term “sacramental” as a religious term. In fact, my use of sacrament predates Christianity’s usurping of the term.

Koine Greek vocabulary includes the word σῠμβάλλω (sumballo) which meant “to throw together.” According to Online Etymology Dictionary (“symbol,” n.d.), the meanings of symbol evolved from “throwing together” to “contrasting,” then “comparing,” to “a token used in comparisons to determine if something is genuine.” By the Third Century C.E., symbol came to mean an “outward sign” of something. Over many centuries, symbol (as “action”) and sign (a “thing”) have been conflated and the characteristics that distinguished symbols from signs were lost.

During the Dark Ages (ca. 500-1000), Europe was cast into continual warfare. It was a time of chaos and darkness. We can characterize the Dark Ages as a time when people no longer traveled beyond their city borders because to do so could mean harm or death from marauders. Just as people did not venture beyond their city limits, few ventured into their cities. People were isolated. The isolation kept people relatively safe; however, it had its consequences. There would be no influx of new ideas or thinking. Education took a backseat to survival and eventually disappeared.

Societies broke down. People found themselves living lawlessly, in extreme poverty and disease, and devoid of new ideas. There was only one place to which people could look for law and education and that was the Roman Catholic Church. Over time, the Church took on multiple roles that went beyond those associated with the spiritual welfare of the people. The Church became the law. Bishops and priests became the arbiters of feuds and judges for acts of civil disobedience. The Church became the educators of the people; however, it is important to understand that even the clergy were not highly educated individuals. There was a great deal of corruption in the Church. This was a time when superstitions emerged and having lost touch with the roots of Christian teachings, superstitions and misunderstandings of past teachings became the doctrines that guided the day-to-day lives of isolated and mostly-ignorant populations (including the clergy).

During the Dark Ages, superstitions were reified. Symbols, which before the Dark Ages, had been understood as “actions,” devolved and became “things.” This is most obvious when we look at the Eucharist from the perspectives of the Early Church and compare it with Christians who lived during the Dark Ages. In the Early Church, Augustine (354-430 CE) taught that the Eucharist was an action in which those who called themselves “Christians” participated. The Eucharistic symbols were not the bread and wine, as they came to be in the Dark Ages. Instead, the Eucharistic symbols were the actions of breaking the bread and pouring the cup. My sacramental theology professor, Sr. Theresa Koernke, reinforced the teachings of Augustine, who may have said, “Gaze upon the bread broken and the cup poured out and see yourselves.” In other words, the symbols of the Eucharist were not things, but were actions and to call themselves followers of Christ, Christians must do what Christ did. To be a Christian means to be the bread broken and cup poured out through acts of charity, kindness, and love. This, then was the work. The liturgy (which means “work”), for Augustine and those in the Early Church, was to “become the work worked.” In other words, Augustine believed that Christ had already completed the “work” (worked the work) through his action of giving his body and blood on the Cross. Followers were expected to follow Christ, even to the point of carrying the crosses they bore in this life. This notion is evident in the four gospels of the Christian Bible. It is also the “forgotten” meaning of the “Amen” when the Catholic receives the Eucharist. When the Christian says “Amen,” they are actually proclaiming that they are acting in communion with the Church and have lived their lives in such a way that they are the sacrament of Christ. Unfortunately, few Catholics understand this and view the Eucharist, not as an action, but as a “thing” they get.

The loss of the symbolic nature of the liturgy (the work) due to the influx of superstitions and ignorance of the teachings of the Early Church resulted in teachings that were never part of the Early Christian consciousness. Christians of the Dark Ages, having no sense of sacramental symbols as “actions” saw the sacraments as “things” that they “watch” and “get.” The emphasis was no longer on the “actions” of breaking and pouring out. The emphasis was on the bread and the wine. The priest was seen as more of a magician than a mediator in persona Christe (person of Christ). By pronouncing the words, “THIS is my body” and “THIS is my blood,” transubstantiated the “things” of bread and wine into the actual “things” of body and blood. People in the Dark Ages had visions of seeing the bloody corpse of Jesus lying on the altar.

There was no sense of community participation in the liturgy. People were passive observers as the priest did the work and made Jesus present with the extension of his hands over the bread and cup and the right words. The priest conjured up Jesus. The people who watched were superfluous. The priest could summon up Jesus at the drop of a hat and do so by himself. Priests had to “say Mass” daily and could do so by himself. Afterall, the liturgy was a “thing” and what the priest conjured up was a “thing” that had little relationship to the community.

My purpose in providing this introduction is to contextualize the three aspects of sumballo (actions vs. things; symbols vs. signs; and emerging self as sacramental action). I posit that we cannot appreciate or understand the emerging self without some historical insights.

Aspect 1: Action vs. things. Philippson (2009) speaks about selfhood from an existential-gestalt perspective stating, “Self is not a “thing” or a given, but an emergence in a given situation” (p. 3). In the context of my conceptual framework, I interpret this to means that the ‘self is a contextual action.’ The Western mindset views humans as “things” and this has resulted in a perilous trajectory for all of humankind. From whence does the “thingness” of humans come?

In addition to what I introduced regarding the early centuries of the Church, the “thing paradigm” also owes its origins to mechanistic thinking. Mechanistic thinking sees the whole as the sum of its parts. Influenced by mechanistic thinking, positivism interprets the world from an objective, scientifically measured, empirical, and observable perspective. Those who have been socialized in a Western mindset are mostly unaware of these mechanistic and positivistic influences. As I discuss later in this paper, social constructionism provides some perspective regarding our taken-for-granted notions related to our “thing mentality.”

What would happen if we challenged this notion and stated that, in fact, human being is not a “thing” and not a noun. A response from a reader might be that I am suggesting that human being is a gerund. In fact, I am not. The “gerund response” indicates that we are likely so mired in a mechanistic mindset that we cannot see our way clear of it. Therefore, what I am suggesting is a challenge that will likely be met with resistance. Think of the systems that would have to change to accommodate this notion. Think about the billions of dollars it would cost to reengineer textbooks, tests, teaching guides, instructor workshops, and so forth. Changes like this might be identified as a paradigmatic shift, which would have widespread implications that include attitudes and monetary costs, among many other considerations. Paradigm shifts are costly in many ways.

Still, I contend that we need to rethink our understandings of the term human being as an action, rather than a “thing.” Perhaps a very brief comparison of Plato and Aristotle might provide some insights.

Plato posited that the senses have the ability to fool people; Aristotle, on the other hand, held that the senses are necessary in order to determine reality. Plato’s notion is more passive. Aristotle’s notion is more active. For Plato, reality was found in the thoughts of human beings. Aristotle held that direct and active actions provided the deepest insights into reality. Plato’s more passive understanding can be seen in his ethics. For Plato, knowledge of good is tantamount to doing good. Here I think about Plato telling a child, “If you know what’s good for you…” implying that if we know what’s good for us, we will do the right thing. How Platonic! Aristotle rejected that notion and held that knowledge is not itself enough. Rather, a person must take action and act appropriately. Actions! Not things!

The question becomes how we develop perspectives about human being as an action. The development of perspectives and meaning requires the right tools, namely, theories. I use three theories to gain “new” or refreshed perspectives about the emerging self: (1) symbolic interactionism; (2) social constructionism; and, (3) relational theory.

In my reflections on this topic, I posit that another, and related, contributor to our “thing” paradigm is ontology itself. Ontology is the study of what is. Already, we have a hint that ontology may be mired in a “thing paradigm.” This makes it worth exploring further. Ontology is a broad concept. Ontological questions might focus on the existence of some entity (e.g., god or gods). Do gods exist is an ontological question. I do not want my discussion to wander to metaphysics; however, suffice it to say that a deeper study of ontology will eventually lead one to look at metaphysics.

One problem with an ontological approach, especially when looking at experiences, ideas, concepts, attitudes, and beliefs, for example, is that due to their nature and the limitations we have regarding understanding them, we eventually move towards “rationality” for answers. Rationality and logic, although important, seem to lead towards reification and this, in turn, leads to seeing everything as, well, “things.” Perhaps a question about ontology and logic has to do with whether they provide neutrality. Besides ontology not freeing us to examine social phenomena from a more neutral position, is ontology itself a reification of mechanistic and positivistic thinking? Perhaps this is a cart before the horse question, but I think it warrants some consideration with regards to how we free ourselves from our mechanistic and positivistic perspectives about the emerging self.

When we view one another as “things” it is likely that it will, at some point, lead us to see one another as mere objects. Seeing people as objects creates a basis for our failure to recognize human dignity. Here I want to engage in a discussion of dignity and look at two competing notions of human dignity (i.e., inherent human dignity and dignity constructed through recognition). Here I will examine human dignity as it relates to humiliation. There are two reasons why I want to discuss this. First, it provides an excellent example of how our social conversations and our language contribute to notions that have no basis in fact, but are products of religion, for example. Inherency is a good answer to a bad question (more about this later). Second, a discussion of dignity provides an elegant illustration of how the use of theories can help us gain new perspectives about who we are.

Human dignity is the conceptual foundation upon which to build a multiplicity of understandings of humiliation. Lindner (2001b) conceptualized humiliation as a stripping away of dignity. Margalit (1998) offered a similar proposition in his ground-breaking work, The Decent Society, arguing that without human dignity as a conceptual foundation, the concept of humiliation does not exist.

Dignity, as the conceptual foundation of humiliation, finds general acceptance in the scholarly community; however, not all those scholars who are part of the humiliation core conversation share this position. Statman (2000), for example, used Darwinism as the basis of his argument and cautioned against basing humiliation on a conceptual foundation of human dignity.

The humiliation core conversation finds two dichotomous perspectives of human dignity. The traditional perspective of human dignity focuses on inherency/innateness. This perspective dominates the scholarly conversation. The second perspective of human dignity focuses on recognition and respect. A review of the literature finds evidence that the dominant notion is problematic and, for the most part, unchallenged.

Statman does not use the inherency of human dignity as the conceptual foundation of humiliation. Statman (2000) stated, “If we hold a descriptive account of dignity, it is difficult to see how such a loss can occur, especially when we bear in mind that the feature that entitles humans to dignity belongs to all members of the species, irrespective of their individual capacities or behavior” (p. 525). Paraphrasing his words, Statman seems to say that if we hold an inherent perspective of dignity, it is difficult to see how a loss resulting from humiliation can occur, especially when we bear in mind that the feature that entitles humans to dignity belongs to all members of the species, irrespective of their individual capacities or behavior.

Macklin (2004) challenged the scholarly community to rethink its conceptualization of dignity, noting that the concept of human dignity has remained almost entirely unanalyzed. “It is as if everyone knows what dignity is—or, at least, can recognize it when they see it” (p. 212).

Weinrib (2004/2005) lent her voice to the core conversation and provided a succinct history of the concept of human dignity that demonstrates the rather dramatic evolution scholarship has taken with the conceptualization of human dignity. Human dignity has roots in the Roman term, dignitas, denoting intrinsic worth that, in Roman society, connoted an elevated political and social status. Cicero (106 – 43 BCE) modified the meaning of human dignity, imbuing it with a human being’s distinctive rational capacity. Judaism and Christianity further shaped the concept of human dignity through the development of theological notions of humankind’s position in the divine order. During the Renaissance, Petrarch linked dignity with the notion that God created humankind in God’s image; hence, human beings possess an immortal soul and have dominion over the animal kingdom. During the Enlightenment, scholars accentuated the importance of human capacities of rationality, stripping away religious notions. Rationality entitles human beings to equal treatment. Kant elaborated on the inherent dignity of autonomous human beings and held that human beings are to act in a way that respects the dignity of self and the dignity of others.

In my review of the literature, I sought to find a bridge between the perspective of inherent human dignity and an alternative perspective of dignity, namely that of recognition and respect. Although she held to a notion of inherent human dignity, the voice of Hannah Arendt, a mid-20th century political theorist, lends itself to this conversation and appears to bridge these two dichotomous understandings of human dignity (namely, inherency versus recognition/respect).

Arendt’s work acknowledged that of Edmund Burke (1729-1797), most particularly on his insistence that human existence confers no moral entitlements and that all such entitlements rely upon authoritative forms of recognition found in definite communities (Isaac, 1996). Arendt (1958/1998) posits that the world is what human beings make of it. Human efforts and agreements provide the only assurances of human rights and human dignity.

Arendt discussed persons who, by virtue of their statelessness, have no rights because no organized body recognizes them. Rationality, or even being born into the human family, is insufficient to be recognized as providing a legitimate claim to rights (Arendt, 1968). More so, members of a social community must recognize and incorporate its members. Arendt (1968) provides an ontological argument for human dignity in the existence of a common world culturally shared. Human dignity is possible in the reality of a common world and common experiences (Parekh, 2008). Arendt (1968) posited that human beings are not born equal, but become equal as members of a group on the strength of the decision to guarantee mutually equal rights to each person. This is an important segue that appears to bridge two conversations; namely, the conversation regarding the inherency of human dignity and the conversation regarding human dignity as a social construction that involves the human acts of recognition and respect.

Johannes Fischer, a scholar at the Universität Zürich (Institut für Sozialethik), argued that human beings, nomen dignitatis (that is, a dignity-conferring name), possess dignity through the processes of recognition and respect. The social world serves as the foundation of human dignity (Fischer, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). This view contrasts sharply with the natural world perspective that a human being possesses dignity inherently by virtue of birth as a human being. In my emails with Dr. Fischer, at the University of Zurich, he confirmed that when we examine the social world, it is there that we see dignity demonstrated. Again, I interpreted his words to mean that dignity is the social action of recognition.

How scholars explain the normative meaning of the expression, human being, is the most fundamental question regarding the concept of human dignity (Fischer, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). Arriving at some understanding of human dignity requires that scholars consider the specific structure of the social world in contrast to the natural, or biological, world.

In the natural world, things are what they are independent of recognition and respect. In other words, properties are inherent independent of recognition and respect.

The social world contrasts sharply with the natural world because human recognition and respect forms the basis of the social world. Recognition is equated with acknowledgement; and it is that which governs social belonging and social status (Fischer, 2009a, 2009b, 2010). “[Recognition] governs who belongs to the social world or to a particular group within it, as well as the social status a person has within this world” (Fischer, 2009a, p. 2). Respect focuses on the human claims and rights persons have based on social belonging or a certain social status (Fischer, 2009a, 2009b, 2010).

Those who do not recognize human dignity make a moral mistake (Fischer, 2009a). Being a member of the human community is a social status based on recognition and respect. Human beings owe recognition and respect to each other precisely because of human beings’ biological human properties. Membership of the social world is a normative status based on due recognition (Fischer, 2009a). “It is important to see that a creature has not to be recognized as a human being … because it is a human being in this sense, but rather, it is a human being in this sense because it has to be recognized as such¸ due to its natural human properties” (Fischer, 2009a, p. 3).

Other scholars appear to confirm the importance of recognition in the scholarly conversation regarding human dignity. “All humans yearn for recognition” (Lindner, 2007, p. 39). Lindner (2007) also finds that there is a significant literature in philosophy on the politics of recognition. Honneth (1995) sums up this notion with a rather direct statement: “Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need” (p. x).

Why do the various scholarly voices not agree regarding the inherency of human dignity? A transferal of the paradigm of the natural world to the social world appears to provide the answer. This transferal creates the impression that only something which is already there can be recognized (Fischer, 2009a). Therefore, human dignity has to be already there before recognition is possible. Naturalism, then, provides the basis, or grounding, for human dignity “beyond the social world within the biological nature of human existence” (p. 4).

The scholarly conversation about human dignity, then, divides itself over an emphasis on the social world or the natural world. This is crucial because it requires scholars to reconsider the differentiation between the biological (natural) concept of human existence and a social concept of human existence. This distinction shapes any definition, or understanding, of human dignity. Fischer’s (2009a) social conceptualization of human dignity led him to define it as follows:

[H]aving human dignity means being a creature which is to be recognized and respected as a human being in the sense of a member of the human community, and which is to be treated accordingly. And this is equivalent to being a member of [the] human community. (p. 4)

How does this understanding of human dignity alter the dominant perspective of humiliation? In other words, does an agent of humiliation have the power to strip another human being of his or her inherent dignity, or is humiliation, more precisely, the loss of social status and recognition?

Mark R. Leary, Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University addressed humiliation in terms of an individual’s social status. A horror of humiliation is the fear of a loss of social status (Leary, 2001). Similarly, humiliation can be understood as the fear of being discarded and replaced by someone more attractive, compounding the pain of betrayal, rejection, and humiliation (Shettel-Neuber, Bryson, & Young, 1978).

The lack of recognition and respect, especially in the form of social exclusion and ostracism, evokes humiliation. Many acts of exclusion involve the disruption of a power balance between two interdependent parties. The humiliator places his or her needs and desires above those of the humiliated person. The humiliator discounts, disrespects, and excludes the humiliated person. It is possible for the humiliated person to become a social outcast (Leary, 2001).

Baumeister and Dewall join their voices with Arendt and Fisher, bringing a communal and co-constructivist perspective into the scholarly conversation. The environment provides most beings what they need to live; however, humans, in contrast, are relational beings and obtain what they need from each other and from their culture. Furthermore, human beings have the mechanisms, including motivation, cognition, and self-regulation, to obtain and maintain inclusion (Baumeister & Dewall, 2005).

Donald C. Klein (1923 – 2007), who developed the term, Humiliation Dynamic, provided deep insights into the humiliation core conversation. The Humiliation Dynamic is used to socialize and is a “major weapon in the oppression of women, people of color, and other stigmatized groups” (Klein, 1991, p. 93). Humiliation plays a role in the development of our self-understanding. Klein’s voice supports the notion of recognition as an element of the Humiliation Dynamic. When people are humiliated, they “become less than those who exclude [them], often as if in their eyes, you do not exist at all” (p. 97). The ideas and potential contributions of humiliated persons go unacknowledged and unrecognized. “To be excluded or made less involves being put out of the circle of inclusion, control, and intimacy enjoyed by those who are the perpetrators of one’s humiliation” (p. 97).

Naming and defining people are useful tools of recognition and exclusion. “The importance, significance, and ramifications of naming and defining people cannot be over-emphasized. From Genesis and beyond, to the present time, the power which comes from naming and defining people has had positive as well as negative effects on entire populations” (Bosmajian, 1983, p. 1). Naming can be inclusionary, but it can be exclusionary, too. There is power in naming. Bosmajian (1983) stated in this regard that

The power which comes from names and naming is related directly to the power to define others—individuals, races, sexes, ethnic groups. Our identities, who and what we are, how others see us, are greatly affected by the names we are called and the words with which we are labeled. The names, labels, and phrases employed to “identify” a people may in the end determine their survival. The word “define” comes from the Latin definire, meaning to limit. Through definition we restrict, we set boundaries, we name. (p. 5)

In naming and labeling, human beings co-construct the world, not once, but repeatedly. Naming and labeling is a form of recognition, but is also a form of exclusion and ostracism. George Herbert Mead coined the term “the looking glass self” to explain, or symbolize, how a human being’s sense of self is an internalized collection of a multiplicity of interactions with real and imagined others. The sense of self, therefore, is a reflection of others’ reactions. Clearly, the looking glass metaphor speaks to the image of recognition. Individuals’ co-constructions of themselves in the world reflects a continuum of interactions with others, and events. Human beings are relational and experience, define, and respond in-relation-to-others.

Public condemnation can produce feelings of humiliation. Public condemnation likely causes humiliated persons to think that their humiliator(s) have failed to recognize and respect their dignity as members of human society (Elison & Harter, 2007). Miller (1993) wrote one of the few specific books on humiliation and sees humiliation as related to pretensions, or, more accurately, an emotion of pretension deflation. Humiliation strikes when someone reveals aspirations and beliefs that another individual, or group, considers beyond the individual. Humiliation is the emotional experience of being recognized as an interloper, or intruder, having entered into a territory, in which she or he will not find acceptance or recognition (Miller, 1993).

Humiliated persons have the perception that the person who humiliates treats them as contemptible, inferior, or ridiculous. As relational beings, each human being’s survival depends on the degree to which society recognizes, accepts, and respects him or her. To that end, people go to great lengths to achieve this acceptance and respect. Stated another way, many people do whatever they feel is necessary to avoid the humiliation of ostracism, looking weak, or appearing foolish (Miller, 1993).

To a very large degree, Lindner (2001a) framed her definition of humiliation on the work of Miller (1993) and Margalit (1998). Viewing humiliation from a more global perspective, Lindner (2001a) described the phenomena of humiliation in the following way:

Humiliation means the enforced lowering of a person or group, a process of subjugation that damages or strips away their pride, honor, or dignity. To be humiliated is to be placed, against your will and often in a deeply hurtful way (although in some cases with your consent) in a situation that is much worse, or much “lower,” than what you feel you should expect. Humiliation entails demeaning treatment that transgresses established expectations. It may involve acts of force, including violent force. At its heart is the idea of pinning down, putting down or holding against the ground. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of humiliation as a process is that the victim is forced into passivity, acted upon, and made helpless. (p. 4)

Lindner’s perspective is richly deserving of critical analysis in the scholarly community. The literature supports Lindner’s conception of humiliation, but with one exception; namely, humiliation does not and cannot strip away human dignity.

Linda Hartling, Director of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies Institute, who is closely associated with Evelin Lindner, the Founding President, uses an appreciative lens and understands humiliation as a profound relational violation, an assault on one’s essential need for relationships. Humiliation threatens one’s survival by threatening one’s vital connections (Hartling, 2005).

Humiliation is a powerful weapon used by individuals, or groups, with power upon individuals, or groups, with less power. However, some events, or actions, can be humiliating to one person, or group, and not another; that is, humiliation can sometimes be relative (Manning, 2005). There exists an implication that humiliation is a social construction or relational experience that includes a relationship between a minimum of two persons. The literature indicates that humiliation does not exist apart from a relationship. Working through humiliation requires an examination of relationships with others (Manning, 2005).

Wasserman (2004) used relational theory in her dissertation research project in which she identified discursive processes that provide the conditions for individuals to stay engaged with others such that the engagement is transformative. Relational theory is a relatively new tool that can help frame questions about identity in relationship with others. The connectedness of human beings forms the basis of, and potential for, healthy human development. Growth is a process that occurs in the context of relationships with others. As I have indicated, humiliation occurs in the context of relationships with others, too. I illustrate this phenomenon in Figure 2.

Human growth moves toward entropy with the introduction of humiliation. Because humiliation is the denial of relationship with others (e.g., ostracism, excommunication, exclusion, denial of recognition), it precludes human growth resulting in alienation and entropy. On the other hand, connectedness and positive human relationships provide a framework for human growth and development.

Figure 2. Transformative growth model.

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It is through connection, or mutual empathy, that people find the ability to be moved, to respond, and to move the other (Surrey, 1991; Wasserman, 2004). It seems, then, that people experience upward transformative human growth through the discursive process of positive human relationships. Conversely, humiliators force humiliated people into a downward momentum where they can potentially fall into a state of entropy.

Humiliation involves social and personal elements. Loosely borrowing from Wasserman’s (2004) exploration of discursive processes, deeply humiliated persons are precluded from transformative human growth because their humiliator(s) attempt to exclude certain others from full acceptance in a human community. One such method of humiliation is to obfuscate membership in a human community; in other words, fail to recognize and respect human beings. Social identity theory submits that human beings base their sense of identity on their membership(s) in various groups. Social identity theory posits that in-group members seek negative aspects of out-group members, thus enhancing in-group members’ self-images. From a social constructionist perspective, human beings continuously define social identity in social encounters (Wasserman, 2004).

Humiliation appears, then, to be the antithesis of the discursive process of transformative growth because a more powerful person, or group, invokes a process that annihilates discursive processes that lead to transformation and growth by severing social inclusion and acceptance, thereby leading to the painful humiliation found in the absence of recognition. Based on the current arguments wrought by various scholars, the literature supports the following definition of humiliation. Humiliation is an intentional, or unintentional, intrusion into the human developmental path by a more powerful person, or group, leading to the failure of recognition and respect (Green, 2015).

Aspect 2: Symbols vs. Signs. Signs and symbols provide the next aspect of my conceptual framework. Some people conflate the meaning of signs and symbols; however, relative to this discussion, signs are “things” and symbols are “actions.” Signs have a minimal set of meanings attached to them. For example, a stop sign means little more than stop. Obviously there are consequences to disobeying the sign, but those consequences are rather defined and linear. The failure to follow the sign could result in a traffic ticket, a car accident, embarrassment, or even death. The meanings are somewhat limited and are not open to much interpretation.

Symbols, on the other hand, are polyvalent (i.e., they carry a multitude of meanings). Deacon (1997) holds that humans are a symbolic species. Human language is an example of our use of symbols. It is essential not to underestimate the power of the symbolic nature of language. The symbolic significance of language includes the careful selection of words, gestures, facial expressions, rhythms of speech, tone, mantras, colors, and logos. Examples of this are readily available when we study the language used by political figures including Hitler, Franco, and Mussolini (Fuentes, 2013). The language, slogans, graphics, gestures, tone, and expressions were deliberate performances that had the effect of inciting violence and hatred to a primarily unaware population.

Language is not a “thing.” It is an “action” and it is performative (i.e., it does something). Austin demonstrates his priority of the performative (“action”) over the descriptive (“thing”). Furthermore, language is relational. Austin (as cited in Duffy, 2005) argued that “an utterance only achieves a happy outcome when there is an uptake by the hearer” (p. 13). Lending support to my conceptual framework, Austin stated:

First, words are our tools, and as a minimum, we should use clean tools; we should know what we mean and what we do not, and we must forearm ourselves against the traps that language sets us. Secondly, words are not (except in their own little corner) facts or things: we need therefore to hold them apart from and against it, so that we can realize their inadequacies and arbitrariness, and can re-look at the world without blinkers. Thirdly, and more hopefully, our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men [sic] have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations: these surely are likely to be more numerous, more sound, since they have stood up to the long test of the survival of the fittest, and more subtle, at least in all ordinary and reasonably practical matters, than any that your or I are likely to think up in our arm-chairs of an afternoon – the most favored alternative method. (Duffy, 2005, pp. 25-26)

Strengthening my conceptual framework that language is action, I look to Habermas. Habermas, influenced by Marx and Austin, takes communication and the use of language, instead of labor, as the most basic form of human action. Habermas advocated for reflexivity based on the actions of thinking and acting.

These perspectives and theories demonstrate a movement away from an ontological emphasis and focus, which seeks to find a thing called truth. Habermas, Austin, and others sought to emancipate us from an ontological perspective of ourselves to one that seeks to understand human beings through actions. These actions include reflexivity, reminding, remembering, speaking, listening, and so forth. These types of actions may be more difficult to quantify and they tend to be more qualitative. That alone moves the discussion from one bound up in mechanistic and positivistic machinations, thus emancipating the research project.

Think about a reinterpretation of the chant learned by children. “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This taken-for-granted saying, steeped in a mechanistic and positivistic mindset, gives precedence to things. Actions were viewed as less powerful and merely essences or feelings (cf. Plato). The conceptual framework of this paper rejects that notion and holds that words are potent actions that create and destroy worlds. Actions are powerful. Human beings not only use words as tools; we become symbols of the very words we use. This points to the most likely raison d’être regarding adopting a reflexive approach to our words, gestures, expressions, and rituals.

Aspect 3: Emerging Self as Sacramental Action. In the previous two sections, I advocated for reconceptualizing humans as actions, not things. I then posited that symbols are actions, not things. In my introduction to Sumballum, I stated that sacraments were originally viewed as symbols (actions) and not things. In this, the third aspect of sumballum, I posit that our emerging self is a sacramental action; self and emergence are not “things” but are on-going actions. Our emergence into fully human(e) persons is, indeed, a sacramental action. The emerging self is a sacramental action. Again, I want to emphasize that my use of the word “sacrament(al)” does not suggest a religious interpretation. Therefore, I want to discuss what I mean by sacramental action.

Sacraments are symbols. Just as symbols are actions and not things, so, too, are sacraments actions and not things. Sacramental actions are symbolic actions. The term sacrament, which originally referred to an oath, was usurped by early Christians who were experienced at taking common terms (including pagan celebrations) and translating them for their own purposes. These translations made sense to people at the time the terms were created; however, those original understandings were forgotten and the words lost their original meanings. This was beneficial to the Church, who could exploit the meanings of these terms and bestow upon them nuances such as μυστήριον (Greek mustērion meaning mystery), sacer (Latin sacred), and sacramentum (Latin sacred oath).

I want to reclaim the term sacrament(al) and recall into use its more secular meaning. The word sacrament was derived from the Greek word mysterion. Ancient Rome, the term referred to a soldier’s oath of allegiance. This pledge was a symbolic action, much as pledging oaths of allegiance is today. In the United States, we “pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands.” This is “symbol language.” The flag is a symbol. Our pledge is a symbolic action. Think about the multiple meanings this symbolic action embraced throughout U.S. history. Pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag after 9/11 took on an array of meanings and brought to a conscious level the fragility of peace and democracy. Pledging allegiance to the flag after the 2021 insurrection in Washington D.C. brought new meanings to our pledge of allegiance by raising questions about peace, democracy, and corruption at the highest levels of government. These actions are dramatic representations of the powerful nature of symbols and how they reach the very core of our humanity and evoke new messages and new meanings. That is what symbols do. They are polyvalent with inexhaustible meanings that change and evolve. When we embrace these symbols, something happens to our consciousness. We are no longer the same. Symbols have power because they are actions. If they were “things” or “signs,” they would not have power.

When human beings act in ways that inspire renewed meanings, we are, in fact, being human(e). When we live out our lives selflessly, we become increasingly more human(e). This is what I mean by sacramental action. We are committed to the work (liturgy) of being (action) human(e) (sacramental).

The sacramental action to which I refer is our participation in the work of reconstructing new understandings of being human(e). Being in service to one another is sacramental action. Recognizing the dignity of all people is sacramental action. Committing to the humane treatment of all sentient beings is sacramental action. Through our expressions of sacramental actions, we reconstruct new realities and worlds. We have the power to renew humankind through our actions.

Habermas’ concept of four types of actions provides deepened insights into this conceptual framework: teleological, normatively regulated, dramaturgical, and communicative. Table 1 provides a glimpse into how Habermas distinguishes these four types of action.

Table 1: Habermas’ Concepts of Action (adapted from Duffy, 2005)

Teleological Action Normatively Regulated Action Dramaturgical Action Communicative Action[1]
  • Actions are defined by an end goal, purpose, or intention
  • Alternative courses are evaluated
  • Defined by the interpretation of a single individual
  • Action is derived from Law and Sociology
  • Defined by the normative limits of a social group (which establish the limits and understandings of the action)
  • Members of social groups expect certain behaviors
  • Members of the social group determine the validity of norms
  • Compliance with a norm is key
  • Uses analogy of the theatre (considers interactions between individuals in terms of stage actors and their public
  • Partners in dialogue alternate as public to each other’s self-presentation
  • “Masks” express the inner self
  • Interaction of at least two subjects capable of speech and action who establish interpersonal relations.
  • The actors seek to reach an understanding about the action situation and their plans of action in order to coordinate their actions by way of agreement.

The action of being human is teleological. What are you doing with your life? This is a teleological question. Through all the complexities of life, some part of our answer to this question has to be focused on becoming a more loving member of the human family and serving as an outward symbol of what it means to be human(e). Hatred, fundamentalism, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, self-righteousness, and all the other isms are not human(e) actions, which means that to the degree that we live our lives ruled by these isms, we are sacraments for the world. Our teleological goal is to embrace our humanity and that of all other people.

One way that we can live our lives in harmony with others is to make conscious choices that ensure our actions and perspectives respect laws and that we recognize dignity into this world (see Structural Component 1: Aspect 1).

Being human is also represented in the actions associated with who we are in relationship to others. Becoming human (see earlier writing about Aristotle) involves us in the act(ion) of celebrating others whose actions take center stage. At the same time, we need to celebrate our own human(e) actions and give ourselves permission to take center stage from time to time. We are renewed when we listen to, and hear, the stories of others who take center stage. Storytelling is important because it is our stories, individually and collectively, that nurtures who we are as sacramental actions in the world. It is important that we find creative ways to invite others to take center stage and tell their stories. We, then, should also be ready to share our own. I am reminded of when I was growing up. We spent every Thanksgiving with my grandparents and my grandfather’s sisters. Every year, I would hear the same stories told around the table. I remember my father coming home and being disgruntled because he had to hear the same stories again. I never understood that. I delighted in hearing those stories. Those stories became a part of who I am. I miss hearing the stories; however, they are now part of who I am. I can now pass those stories on with the hope that those memorials will find a new home.

Lastly, being human is represented in the action of communication. Here I recommend reading the work of Barnett Pearce and his lifelong work with Coordinated Management of Meaning (CMM). “[C]ommunication is far more than exchanging information and ideas; it’s a dynamic social construction process [emphasis added] in which the products we make together include relationships, personal identities, family values, traditions, institutions and even forms of government” (“Cosmopolis 2045: Imagine a better social world in which communicating matters,” 2022). This perspective on communication was represented by Martin Buber who viewed all life as relational (see relational theory) and dialogue represents a particular type of relationship between people. He called this the I and Thou relation (Buber, 1971). In her discussion of Buber, Penman (2000) emphasizes four features that act to distinguish the I-Thou quality of relating. These features are a genuineness in the engagement between “I” and “Thou”; future orientation that is open to new possibilities in the process; commitment to collaborating with the other(s); and, presence and immediacy to the participation.

The emergent (emerging) self is a process that includes relationship, communication, recognizing and providing dignity to the human experience, and a profound respect for all sentient life. This process is lifelong. Throughout the process, we will journey inwardly and outwardly. Inward journeys are not possible without the outward journey; the outward journey is perilous, or impossible, without the inward journey. Both are needed. That is the meaning of being a sacramental action. We become the symbols/sacraments that nourish and inspire others on their journey. Similarly, we need the inspiration of others who are doing the work to become symbols/sacramental actions in the world.

In the next section, I discuss the second structural component of my conceptual framework, Experience-Interpretation-Response (EIR). These are actions through which we find meanings and make sense of life.

Structural Component 2: EIR Cycle

The second structural part of my conceptual framework is what I call the EIR Cycle: Experience, Interpretation, and Response. Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey and I developed this model when I was writing my doctoral dissertation. The EIR Cycle describes a sensemaking process (action) by which we interpret our experiences and make responses based on our interpretations. The responses, or actions, inform our future experiences. Again, this process is continual and when it becomes part of our consciousness, it establishes a trajectory for all actions associated with becoming. These actions lead us to become more authentically human(e).

In my doctoral dissertation (Green, 2015), Dr. Margo Okazawa-Rey, my Chairperson, and I developed the EIR Cycle. My research project focused on how fat[2] persons make sense of their experiences of humiliation in societies that stigmatize fat people. Analysis of my research data revealed that the study participants went through a process of facing experiences, interpreting and drawing meaning from them, then forming some type of response. They seemed to have interpreted what they considered a significant experience, rather than all experiences. Figure 3 illustrates this circular process.

Figure 3: Experiences-Interpretations-Responses (EIR) Cycle.

Aspect 1: Experiences. An experience is an event, a relationship, social object, or a combination of the three, that participants of my study described as humiliating. Regarding experiences, Kagan (2013) argues that “no experience, as a camera would record it, has a univocal effect on all individuals because of the variety of private interpretations which depend, in turn, on the context in which the presumed formative experiences occurred. These contexts include [a person’s] social class, ethnicity, cultural background, historical era and the extent to which membership in these categories marginalized [a person] in his or her community” (pp. 273-274).

The EIR cycle views events as the process of segmenting the time associated with a continuous stream of activity into meaningful events (Zacks & Swallow, 2007). This segmentation of time into events is automatic; however, “segmentation still may be affected by [a person’s] attention and goals” (p. 81). Zacks and Swallow (2007) further state that identifying events requires tracking how sets of “fine-grained events” group together into larger meaningful units. The brain and mind track features or characteristics of a person’s own environment. When a salient feature changes unpredictably, or some anomaly occurs, the person perceives an event.

Regarding relationships, the connectedness of human beings forms the basis of, and potential for, healthy human development. Growth is an experiential process that occurs in the context of relationships with others (Wasserman, 2004). Experiences are not constant, but change as human beings interpret them and respond to them. People’s interpretations and responses inform their next set of experiences. People use social objects to achieve growth. Anything can become a social object. Charon (2004) talks about social objects, which include physical natural objects, human-made objects, other people, a person’s past and future, his or her self, symbols, ideas and perspectives, and emotions:

A social object is any object in a situation that an actor uses in that situation. That use has arisen socially. That use is understood and can be applied to a variety of situations. Other objects are ignored. However, as action unfolds, the individual may change his or her use, notice new objects, ignore objects used initially, and so on. The actor acts toward objects, socially defined, of use to him or her in a particular situation. (p. 47)

How people use social objects arises socially and the particular way people use social objects informs their interpretations and responses to experiences.

Aspect 2: Interpretations. Human beings interpret experiences. People seek to understand their world and apply that understanding to achieve goals (Charon, 2004).

Symbolic interactionism, a theory based on the work of sociologists Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead and further developed and named by Mead’s student, Herbert Blumer, is useful in understanding people’s processes of interpretations and meaning making. Blumer (1969) argued that interpretation and the creation of social reality constitute the ongoing process of meaning making through human interaction. Charon (2004) states,

Any given act along the stream of action is caused by the individual’s decisions at that point. A given decision in turn is caused by the individual’s definition of the situation at that point, including goals, plans, social objects, future consequences, relevant memories recalled and applied. The definition of the situation the individual arrives at in turn is influenced by two things: interaction with self (thinking) and interaction with others. (p. 125)

Baumeister (1991) argued that, “interpretation is a matter of processing things and events with meaning” (p. 24) and suggested that meaning meets four specific psychological needs: purpose, legitimation or value, efficacy, and self-worth (see Table 1). These needs motivate persons to find explanations and answers. Baumeister further asserts that people are “strongly motivated to find meaning in life. Deprived of meaning, they may become unhappy, agitated, even sick” (p. 30).

Table 2: Four Specific Psychological Needs (Baumeister, 1991)

Need Description
  • A person’s need for life to have purpose
  • Purpose involves:
    • Goal is imagined/conceptualized
    • Current behavior options are analyzed/evaluated
    • Choice is made to achieve goal
Legitimation (Value)
  • A person’s need to feel that actions are right, good, justifiable
  • Life has positive value
  • A person’s need to believe that he/she has control over events
  • A person’s need to feel that they are making a difference; that he/she is capable and strong enough to achieve goals and realize his/her values
  • A person’s need to make sense of his/her life in a way that enables the person to feel he/she has positive value
  • A person’s need to have some claim on respect—both self-respect and the respect of others [emphasis based on my definition of humiliation]

Reality is social. People develop what they see or recognize in the world and in themselves in and through interaction with others. They interpret the world according to social definitions (Charon, 2004). People learn in social interaction about the world, but then manipulate what they learn and arrive at their own interpretation of it. “Social reality is not all that there is for us; it is what begins the process of definition” (Charon, 2004, p. 44).

Interpretation was one of three important elements in my study participants’ sensemaking processes. Regarding the interpretation process, Blumer (1969) stated,

While the meaning of things is formed in the context of social interaction and is derived by the person from that interaction, it is a mistake to think that the use of meaning by a person is but an application of the meaning so derived. This mistake seriously mars the work of many scholars who otherwise follow the symbolic interactionist approach. They fail to see that the use of meanings by a person in his action involves an interpretative process. … the use of meanings by the actor occurs through a process of interpretation. (p. 5)

The data revealed a pattern across the participants’ interpretative processes and an underlying framework that included societal norms, standards, and expectations. Both the pattern and framework comprised a complex set of inter-related elements that influenced the interpretive process: the participants’ needs for meaning and their ability to recognize, decode, and evaluate.

Blumer (1969) describes the interpretative process as comprising two steps. First, a person identifies the social objects that have meaning and to which she or he is drawn. This is an internal social process whereby interaction is with herself or himself. Blumer (1969) calls this the process of self-communication. Second, through the process of self-communication, interpretation becomes a matter of handling meanings. The person selects, checks, suspends, regroups, then transforms the meanings in the light of the situation in which she/he finds him- or herself and shapes the direction of her/his action. As such, interpretation is a formative process in which a person uses and revises meanings as instruments for the guidance and formation of action (1969). Meanings play their part in action through this process of self-interaction.

Aspect 3: Responses. Following upon a person’s interpretation of an experience, they respond in some way, whether visible or not. The responses vary and could be reactions, actions, some type of transition or change, a conceptual change, or perhaps a paradigm shift over time.

The EIR cycle encompasses the process of experiences, interpretations, and responses. Responses influence subsequent experiences. People interpret the experiences and move to some type of response. The resulting response(s) influence(s) subsequent experiences, interpretations, and responses.

Charon (2004) argues that each time people interact, they come to share with each other a reinterpreted view of what they are seeing or recognizing. As people interact, they develop a perspective as to what is real and how they are able to act toward that reality. “This interaction that gives rise to our reality is symbolic—it is through symbolic interaction with one another that we give the world meaning and develop the reality toward which we act” (p. 61).

Figure 4 illustrates that the locus for sensemaking is at the micro contextual level, but is interrelated with the meso and macro contextual levels. Community recognition, expectations, and interactions, which occur at the meso level, inform the sensemaking experience. The social categories, classifications, and structural inequalities at the macro level also inform the sensemaking experience. All levels influence all other levels.

Figure 4. EIR: Micro-Meso-Macro contexts.

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Charon (2004) discusses the interactions that occur between the micro, meso, and macro levels from the perspective of symbolic interactionism:

Streams of action are influenced by many instances of social interaction, definition, and decision-making. At times, our streams are steady; at other times, they waver a bit; and at other times, they are dramatically changed—always because of social interaction, definition, and decision-making.

When we say that interaction influences our definition of the situation, we mean that, as actors act toward each other, the action of each become part of the situation that each actor is defining, and thus each actor becomes a social object to the other. The acts of each are influenced, and the stream of action of each is influenced. It is interesting to note that social interaction really is the intersection of different actors’ streams of action, each altering his or her own stream according, in part, to what others do … Over time such interaction leads to a shared view of reality—a perspective—and this too enters into definition, decision making, and the direction of action. (p. 126)

Interactions with family members, co-workers, and other members of the community at the meso level, as well as social structures at the macro level, influenced our experiences. Our interactions with social objects at each level affect our experiences, interpretations, and responses, thus affecting how we make sense of our experiences in environments that can embrace or stigmatize us.

Thus, the EIR processes at the micro contextual level are not isolated from our EIR processes at the meso or macro levels. In fact, the EIR processes at the meso and macro levels inform our EIR process at the micro level. Race, color, gender, and ethnicity, among other participant attributes, further interact in the EIR process.

Structural Component 3: Theories

The third structural part of my conceptual framework includes the use of three specific theories: social constructionism, symbolic interactionism, and relational theory. Any number of theories can and should be used to develop perspectives and insights about the phenomenon of the emerging self. I have already mentioned CMM, but have chosen to discuss it in relation to social constructionism. This blog will explore the emerging self by using many social theories; however, for the purposes of my conceptual model, I find that social constructionism, symbolic interactionism, and relational theory serve as the “best” lenses through which to develop the emerging self conceptual framework.

Theory 1: Symbolic Interactionism. People use language and symbols to communicate and interact. This is a key aspect of symbolic interactionism. House (1977) provides a succinct summary of the major emphases of symbolic interactionism:

First, people interpret the world to themselves: Meaning is not inherent in the people or objects that a human being confronts and perceives, but rather meaning is given to these people and objects by the person perceiving them. Similarly, behavior is not an automatic reaction to given stimuli, but rather a creative construction growing out of a person’s interpretation of the situation and others in it. Further, there is a considerable and irreducible amount of indeterminacy or unpredictability in human behavior because human beings create meaning and action in ways that can never be perfectly predicted from knowledge of antecedent characteristics of the person and/or situation. Finally, the interpretation of situations and the construction of behavior are processes occurring in the context of human interaction, which must be studied as such and not reduced to a set of relationships between static structural variables. Thus, to understand social life is to understand the processes through which individuals interpret situations and construct their actions with respect to each other. (p. 167)

Blumer (as cited by Carter & Fuller, 2016) identified four tenets of symbolic interactionism, which include (1) the actions of individuals are based on meanings objects have for them; (2) interactions occur within particular social and cultural contexts in which objects, human beings, and situations must be defined or categorized based on individual meanings; (3) meanings emerge from interactions with other people and with society; and (4) meanings are continuously constructed and reconstructed through interpreting processes during interactions with others.

According to Snow (2001), Blumer’s conceptualization “links symbolic interactionism too tightly and narrowly to the issue of meaning and interpretation, thereby glossing over other cornerstone principles of the perspective and failing to embrace the range of work that falls under the interactionist umbrella” (p. 368). Snow suggests that symbolic interactionism is better understood using the following four principles: (1) principle of interactive determination; (2) principle of symbolization; (3) principle of emergence; and (4) principle of human agency. Table 3 provides a synopsis of each principle.

Table 3: Snow’s Four Principles of Social Interactionism (Snow, 2001, pp. 369-375)

Principle of Interactive Determinism Principle of Symbolization Principle of Emergence Principle of Human Agency
Requires consideration of the interactional contexts or webs of relationships in which they are ensnared and embedded. Highlights the processes through events and conditions, artifacts and edifices, people and aggregations, and other features of the ambient environment take on particular meanings, becoming objects of orientation that elicit specifiable feelings and actions. Encompasses processes out of which new, novel, or revitalized social entities, or cognitive and emotional states, arise that constitute departures from, challenges to, and clarifications or transformations of everyday routines, practices, or perspectives. Highlights the active, willful character of human actors. Human beings are viewed neither as hard-wired robots responding in a lockstep fashion to internal directives or codes nor as passive social actors behaving merely in accord with extant structural and cultural directive and constraints.
Neither individual or society nor self or other are ontologically prior but exist only in relation to each other; thus one can fully understand them only through their interaction, whether actual, virtual, or imagined. This principle lies at the heart of Blumer’s conceptualization of symbolic interactionism and typically is presume to be the focal concern of the perspective.

To focus too heavily on the generation and imputation of meanings and on associated interpretive processes can give rise to two erroneous presumptions: (1) symbolization is a continuously problematic issue for social actors; and (2) we therefore are continuously engaged in the iterative work of making sense of the social world as we encounter and negotiate it throughout or daily lives. Such presumptions are misguided inasmuch as they fail to recognize the extent to which symbols and the meanings they convey are often, perhaps routinely, embedded in and reflective of existing cultural and organizational contexts and systems of meaning.

This principle is rooted, in part, in Mead’s emphasis on the novel and emergent nature of the act and in part in Blumer’s conceptualization of the various forms of collective behavior not only as emergent phenomena but as often constitutive of new forms of social life as well. Social actors take into account the structural and cultural constraints (e.g., roles, social expectations, norms, values) that impinge on situations in which they find themselves in the course of developing their respective lines of action.

Theory 2: Social Constructionism. Social constructionism theorizes that social conventions create and shape all cultural and social realities. Social constructionism claims that our realities and anything with meaning in our lives, originate within the matrix of relationships in which we are engaged (Gergen & Gergen, 2000). Social systems, not individuals, construct meaning (Allen, 2005).

Reality and perceptions are socially constructed through language and communication. One way that reality and perceptions change, indeed how we change, is by becoming more aware of the words we use and making conscious and deliberate choices regarding our daily vocabulary.

Social constructionists are suspicious of how we understand ourselves and the world (Allen, 2005). Those of us who use social constructionism as a lens, challenge the categories and social ascriptions assigned to people and groups. Social constructionists recognize that all knowledge is historically and culturally specific. Knowledge is socially, culturally, and historically constructed. The labels and classifications we use are the socially constructed products of a given time and place. Ideologies drive the creation of social identity categories and their meanings.

To use social constructionism as a tool, it is important not to conflate it with constructivism. Unfortunately, a review of the literature finds that the uses of constructivism and social constructionism are conflated. Pearce (1995) states that “[o]ne way of distinguish among these intellectual cousins is to separate constructivists from social constructionists. Although it is an oversimplification, it is useful to say that constructivists see communication as a cognitive process of knowing the world and social constructionists see it’s a social process of creating the world. If neither term is taken as excluding the other, constructivists foreground perception while social constructionists foreground action [emphasis added]” (p. 98).

Pearce (1995) characterizes constructivists by their interest in the stories we make up and live within. Social constructionists are characterized by their interest in the stories we make real in our actions [emphasis added]. Social constructionism has intellectual roots in (a) the ecological epistemology of Gregory Bateson; (b) American pragmatism; and (c) the philosophical critiques of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Pearce goes on to say that “[i]n these approaches, the real world of social action, not the cognitive world of knowing, is the realm of interest” (p. 100).

Before moving to relational theory, I want to distinguish social constructionism from symbolic interactionism. Table X illustrates this comparison.

Table 4: Social Constructionism and Symbolic Interactionism: A Comparison (Leeds-Hurwitz, 2006)

Social Constructionism Symbolic Interactionism
Levels of Interest Macro-level Micro-level
Goal Understanding how people create meaning for themselves and others Understanding how people create meaning for themselves and others
Origin Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann Herbert Blumer (Chicago School)

George Herbert Mead

Emphasis To understand how knowledge is constructed (NB: Not how communication is created) Meanings, the self, and the ways the self is constructed through interaction with others. Focus on social roles
Important Elements
  • People make sense of experience by constructing a model of the social world and how it works
  • Social constructionism is principally concerned with explicating the process by which people come to describe, explain, or otherwise account for the world (including themselves) in the world in which they live
  • Social constructionism emphasizes language as the most important sign system of human society
  • The most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is conversation (i.e., we use talk to make things happen; by naming things, we given them substance
  • Important to pay attention to the actual use of language in interaction: Language allows for the creation of culture
  • Use language to create the self as well as others and our sense of the social world around us
  • Metaphors: building, making, bringing something into being that had no existence before; constituted through interaction/language
  • Studying how something inchoate appears to have substance and definition
  • References to discursive practices (e.g., meaning, talk) through which interaction is constructed
  • Social construction that requires two or more individuals
  • Nothing exists in the world unless it has been introduced into that world by a human social and constructive act
  • Construction, maintenance, repair, and change. First we develop/construct a concept and then figure out ways to make it concrete. We need to keep the concept active and alive lest it dissipates, dissolves, or ceases to be true over time. We need to maintain it to be relevant. Occasionally we need to repair our social construction because aspects may change or be inadvertently forgotten over time. Finally, constructions that worked at one time need to be changed to work in another (meaning creation is ongoing)
  • Social constructionism is an interpretive theory; emphasizes study of meaning construction
  • Emphasizes centrality of social interaction; how people make sense of the world
  • People are unique creatures because of the ability to use symbols
  • People become distinctly human through their interaction
  • People are conscious and self-reflective beings who actively shape their own behavior
  • People are purposeful creatures who act in and toward situations
  • Human society consists of people engaging in social interaction
  • To understand people’s social acts, we need to use methods that enable us to discern the meanings they attribute to these acts
  • Important to pay attention to the actual use of language in interaction: Language allows for the creation of culture
  • Use language to create the self as well as others and our sense of the social world around us
  • Symbolic interactionism is an interpretive theory; emphasizes study of meaning construction
  • Emphasizes centrality of social interaction
  • Emphasis on making sense of the self and social roles

Theory 3: Relational Theory. Relational theory asserts that relationship is the cornerstone of human development. Any notion of autonomy, separation, and individuation must be seen as occurring within relationship rather than apart from relationship (Freedberg, 2009). Relational theory offers deepened perspectives about emerging self in the context of relationship. We can flourish and grow as human(e) beings when we recognize how the realities that we construct result in oppressing persons and groups. It is important to see oppression[3] within the context of relationship.

Each person, then, as part of the relational fabric of culture, and especially when they act as oppressor, must be willing to examine their role in the oppression of anyone they relegate to the status of “other.” This examination can lead the oppressor to a conversation and culminate in a profound rebirth (Freire, 2000), thus becoming more authentically human. The process of becoming more authentically human means becoming a relational being. Relational beings continually recommit to an ongoing reexamination of their role in the oppression of people at the intersection of beliefs, ideals, stereotypes, and prejudices.

As relational beings, human beings absorb the belief systems of societies and cultures, which they comprise. The relational approach asserts that variables such as gender, class, and ethnicity have a major impact on the experiences of everyday relationships (Freedberg, 2009). People relate to each other within the context of community. It is within the context of the community that exchanges occur, exchanges that affect self and other. Human dignity, for example, is understandable only within the context of relationship and community. Humiliation is understandable, most profoundly, within the context of human recognition and human dignity.

Relational theory posits that people influence each other. Each human being, in a relational exchange, must be capable of recognizing the subjective feelings, rights, and experiences of others. Humiliation occurs when some members of a community find themselves excluded from full participation in the community and are not recognized by certain others. The failure of the community to recognize some of its members, as fully participating members, is an act of humiliation that has profound consequences. It also has profound consequences to the extent that the community deprives itself of benefits that can result only when all community members find meaning, fulfillment, and opportunities within it.


The purpose of this paper is to provide readers with a deep understanding of the conceptual framework that I will use in the future development of articles. I have never created a blog before The Emergent Self. When I was investigating other websites and blogs, I found myself often confused by the conceptual foundations that blog and website developers used to ground and inform their subsequent essays. For example, when one can find blogs focused on symbolic interactionism; however, there is no indication regarding whether the developer is basing their content on the Chicago School, Indiana School, or Iowa School. This is an important distinction if for no other reason than to understand the research methods. The Chicago School uses a qualitative approach; the Indiana and Iowa Schools break from the traditions of the Chicago School and use quantitative methods. While the later may be interest, they do not always support my interests which lean towards qualitative work.

For these reasons, I devoted a great deal of time and research to creating this conceptual framework. It will provide my readers with a deeper understanding of the direction that I hope to take this blog. Perhaps even more important is that this conceptual framework could be easily adopted and modified by a someone interested in pursuing a research project, especially as it might relate to the emergent (emerging) self.

Next, this conceptual framework is a call to examine the language we use, not only in the essays we write, but in the everyday conversations we have. Words have the power to create new realities … new worlds. I posit that this rather messy and problem-laden world is a result of the language we use, which has shaped our understandings of ourselves and others as “things” rather than a renewed look at a somewhat more Aristotelian perspective focused on the action of becoming.

Finally, having investigated numerous philosophies (e.g., Christian; Agnostic; Atheist; Humanism; Buddhism), I wanted to create a conceptual framework that could be used regardless of one’s religious philosophical leanings and interests. My conceptual framework does not begin with God or “I.” This framework begins with us as a human race and with self in the world. This requires a balancing act that can be difficult to maintain; however, I view it as necessary. It is impossible to understand the self without developing an understanding of one’s society and culture. Similarly, it is impossible to understand culture and society until I understand who I am in those constructions and how we, together, co-construct shared meanings that (co)(re)construct self and world. That is the context for understanding the emergent (emerging) self.


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  1. Compare to Barnett Pearce’s CMM (Pearce, 1989, 2007; Pearce, Cronen, Johnson, Jones, & Raymond, 1980)
  2. The term fat is used in an emerging field called Fat Studies. The use of the term fat is preferred over medicalized terms such as “obese” and “overweight.” For more insights, read Green, R. K. (2015). Fat persons finding meaning in their experiences of humiliation: An interpretative phenomenological analysis. Human and Organizational Systems. Santa Barbara, CA, Fielding Graduate University. Doctorate (Ph.D.).
  3. Oppression: “Prejudice and discrimination directed toward whole socially recognized groups of people, and promoted by the ideologies and practices of all social institutions. The critical elements differentiating oppression from simple prejudice and discrimination are that it is a group phenomenon and that institutional power and authority are used to support prejudices and enforce discriminatory behaviors in systematic ways. Everyone is socialized to participate in oppressive practices, either as direct and indirect perpetrators or passive beneficiaries, or—as with some oppressed peoples—by directing discriminatory behaviors at members of one’s own group or another group deemed inferior” (Kirk & Okazawa-Rey, 2007, p. G4).

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