Molds and Totems: Nonhumans and the constitution of the social self

Colin Jerolmack, Iddo Tavory

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    The role of nonhumans in social life has recently generated significant scholarly interest. The two main paradigms for explaining the sociological significance of nonhumans are constructivism and actor-network theory. We propose a pragmatist synthesis inspired by George Herbert Mead, demonstrating how interactions with nonhumans help constitute the social self - that is, the identity one constructs by imaginatively looking upon oneself as others would. Drawing upon observations of humans interacting with objects, animals, and nature, we identify two complementary ways that nonhumans organize the social self and enable people to experience group membership in absentia: (1) by molding how one is perceived by others and constraining alternative presentations of self and (2) by acting as a totem that conjures up awareness of, and feelings of attachment to, a particular social group. This formulation moves beyond constructivist claims that nonhumans reflect people's self-definitions, and it offers a corrective to actor-network theory's neglect of sociality.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)64-77
    Number of pages14
    JournalSociological Theory
    Issue number1
    StatePublished - Mar 2014


    • Mead
    • actor-network theory
    • nonhumans
    • pragmatism
    • self

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Sociology and Political Science


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