The personal is political. As a college student deciding between a major in psychology or journalism, the statement stuck with me. I couldn't shake it. As a feminist, I knew it meant that questions of who should do the housework and childcare were not just women's personal problems but also societal problems of power and patriarchy. But as a young social psychologist, I sensed there was even more to this provocative statement. I came to see that the more you peer inside the personal, the more you discover not only the political and its twin, the economic, but also the historical and all forms of the social and cultural. And this, for me, was a central psychological insight.
What feels so personal – my identity, my subjectivity, my agency, my self, my I, or my me – is not just mine, not fully my own creation, and not just my private property. To be sure, my self requires genes, neurons, and hormones, but also my self belongs to others and rests in the eyes, minds, and actions of others, current, past, and future. Being is thus inherently social. Who we are, what we want, what we care about, what we are supposed to do, what moves us to action, what is possible for us is shaped by the cultural. For me, the cultural is an umbrella term that also covers the political, the economic, the historical, and the social. Specifically, culture is not just the symphony or the ballet or what we eat or how we worship; it includes all the institutions, interactions, and ideas that guide the thoughts, feelings, and actions of individuals. Individuals are born biological beings, but they become people only as they inhabit the many intersecting cultures that give form and meaning to their lives. Understanding selves and cultures and, as Rick Shweder says, the ways in they “make each other up” has been an ongoing theme of my research.
The self or the me at the center of experience is the sense of being a more or less enduring agent who acts and reacts to the world around and to the world within.