June 17, 2020

The Generalized Other During COVID-19

Jessica Poling author photoBy Jessica Poling

It is an understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly disrupted our social lives and how we interact with others. Mandated to self-isolate, in-person interactions have been replaced with countless Zoom meetings, Facetime calls, and virtual happy hours and game nights.

The limited face-to-face interactions we do have are defined by new social norms. Suddenly, tasks that used to be mundane are defined by necessary, potentially life-altering decisions such as: should I go into public today? When should I wear a mask? When should I wash my hands? How close should or shouldn’t I get to other people?

In essence, how we think about our own behavior and actions in interaction with others has changed dramatically. How we address these questions is largely guided by external expectations, both formal (like those from the Center of Disease Control) and informal (such as peer-pressure from other affected citizens). In both cases, our day-to-day lives now invoke constant reflection on the impact of our actions on others.

The concept of the “generalized other” is helpful for thinking through these problems. In the late nineteenth century, the Chicago School micro-sociologist George Herbert Mead introduced his theory of the “reflexive self.” He argued that the essence of who we are—the “self”—is inherently social in its capacity for reflexivity.
Grayscale-photography-of-people-walking-in-train-station-735795
Source: Pexels.com

As we develop as social beings, our inner self develops the ability to view itself as both a subject and an object in relation to other people. It is this quality that makes us uniquely social creatures who can reflect on how we are seen through the eyes of others.

Additionally, Mead argues that as we gain reflexivity we also develop a sense of the “generalized other.” The generalized other acts as an internal representation of our communal attitudes and perspectives; once the individual has fully developed a reflexive self they are able to take on the perspective of their abstracted community and incorporate it into their own consciousness.

Consequently, before acting the individual can internally consider how others in their community would theoretically respond; they are then able to decide whether to conform to the community’s standards or potentially diverge from them. For example, an individual preparing for a job interview might decide what to wear and how to present themselves based on their internalized voice of the generalized other. Regardless of whether or not they have met their interviewer before, they are able to anticipate the perspective of a theoretical member of their community.

The generalized other informs us about how our behavior is shaped by our surrounding community and their collective expectations. The generalized other is a useful tool for thinking about how our understanding of social norms has dramatically shifted during the COVID-19 pandemic. Previously routine tasks like going to the grocery store now necessitate a different kind of interrogation. Rather than internally considering “how will others respond to the outfit I’ve chosen to wear to the store?” we must now consider “what precautions do others assume I will take to keep them safe?”

The internalized, communal voice in all of our reflexive heads must now account for a whole new set of questions that were previously insignificant to our communities. When should we wear masks? What other people am I allowed to see, if at all? How should I monitor my own health? Our generalized other has incorporated new assumptions and expectations due to the recent, threatening conditions of our society. Consequently, each of us must now think reflexively about our own actions in relation to these rapidly changing collective assumptions.

We must also consider how this phenomenon is raced, classed and gendered. Asian Americans, for example, have the additional task of considering others’ assumptions about their race given the resurgence of the “yellow peril” narrative.

Here, W.E.B. DuBois’ concept of the “double-consciousness” (which explains how as a means of survival marginalized people must develop two consciousness: how they view themselves and how others view them) might be helpful. The voice of the generalized other may vary depending on one’s class position. Consider, for example, that poorer Americans are more likely to live in population-dense neighborhoods with less access to healthcare and, therefore, communal expectations about how to behave in public and keep yourself and others safe might vary from rich, suburban individuals. Women, who are more likely to be caregivers and take on unpaid domestic work might also think more reflexively about their health than their male counterparts, who are less likely to engage in health-seeking behaviors or to be responsible for elderly family members and young children.

The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted many social changes, many of which are still unfolding. How we reflect on our own actions and place in the context of our community is one such shift. While there is still much to consider, using the generalized other as a guiding framework is one way we can understanding our changing social world.

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