Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Growing Up a Third Culture Kid: A Sociological Self-Exploration

Academic journal article Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge

Growing Up a Third Culture Kid: A Sociological Self-Exploration

Article excerpt


Growing up overseas and mainly outside of mainstream American culture has shaped me in ways that I am still discovering. Relocating every few years forced me to constantly reassess my surroundings, my identity, and my roles. My upbringing not only shaped me, but triggered my interest in the social world and interactions at both micro as well as macro levels, from how we present ourselves in every life, to stepping back and viewing broader social interactions as infectious patterns of learned behaviors shaped by roles and norms.

C. Wright Mills' (1959) notion of the sociological imagination allows me to articulate how my experiences growing up in a transitory environment, exposed to many cultures and ways of life, and viewing American culture from afar ignited my interest in public problems through the lens of personal experience. Mills (1959) describes the sociological imagination as that which enables individuals to grasp history and biography and the relations between the two within society (p. 349). On a micro-sociological level, having had to frequently enter new social groups, I became acutely aware of the practice of presentation of self and how it relates to identity. From a macro-sociological perspective, experiencing a frequently changing lifeworld has allowed me to see how, while many aspects of interaction and expectations change from group to group, many behaviors or rituals remain the same and are universally understood. Edmund Husserl used the term 'lifeworld' to refer to the world of existing assumptions as they are experienced and made meaningful in consciousness (Appelrouth and Edles 2008:539). Emile Durkheim (1912) explored the concept of rituals, or highly routinized acts, and described social life as inherently religious.

Throughout my life, like many others, I have been very aware of how I present myself and highly attuned to my social surroundings. While I understand this is not necessarily uncommon, as I reflect more on my past and how I have arrived at my current situation, I believe these traits are in large part a result of my unique upbringing. At times I have thought of this hypersensitivity as stemming from insecurity or anxiety. However, viewing my experiences through a sociological lens, I have come to an alternative conclusion which I investigate in this sociological self-research paper.


I have always known that growing up in a culture outside of one's own is an experience I share with many others; however I was unfamiliar with the breadth of research on the phenomena. The definition of a third culture kid (TCK) fits my nomadic lifestyle and, for me, has reinforced the notion that we are all products of our experience. A third culture kid is defined as

... an individual who, having spent a significant part of the developmental years in a culture other than the parents' culture, develops a sense of relationship to all of the cultures while not having full ownership in any. Elements from each culture are incorporated into the life experience, but the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar experience. (Pollock 1988)

Individuals who fit the description of third culture kids, such as me, tend to develop diverse stocks of knowledge. Alfred Schutz introduced the concept of stocks of knowledge as that which provides us with rules for interpreting the world around us, whether it is social relationships or institutions. TCKs are likely to acquire diverse stocks of knowledge due to the necessity to change recipes, or implicit instructions, for behavior from culture to culture or group to group and the necessity to adapt to the expectations of each (Schutz 1967).

In the documentary, Multiple Personalities, each of the three, featured individuals struggled with the inability to control the multiple personalities that made up their self. Though multiple personality disorder (nowadays referred to as "dissociative disorder") is an extreme and, at times, dangerous condition, it demonstrates the possibility of how each of us can have many selves that arise in different contexts. …

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