To what extent are social psychologists in agreement about how best to approach an understanding of the “self”

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How do you define self? Some may say it is personality or characteristics that form an identity but what about somebody suffering with dissociative identity disorder – which personality defines who they are? If we believe our personality or characteristics form an identity and make up our “self” – well how do we form an identity; how do we gain the knowledge to make ourselves unique and an individual so much so we can term it as “me”? Postmodernists believe family and religion position people, (Holloway, 2007, p. 22) this is evident especially when we look at Middle Eastern people from the Muslim faith, growing up in a devout all-Muslim family and society – how easy or even possible would it be to say “I want to be catholic”. Within some countries and/or societies many aspects of creating a totally unique self have already been decided through social constructs within the individual’s society (i. e religion, occupation, freedom of choice with arranged marriages).

Western sociologists have termed this complex process of social transformation as individualisation – producing individuals with freedom of choice, self-reflection and the capacity for autonomy, however western culture is fraught with an illusion of an idealistic version of self delivered through media and advertising and a more readily available ability to transform oneself to conform to a westernised ideology of self (plastic surgery, diets etc) (Holloway, 2007, p. 123).

As well as social influences, Goffman (1959) believed human interaction influences how we form self (Holloway, 2007, p. 13) his theory suggested we project impressions of a desired self to others which again, questions who is the real “me”? Two social psychological perspectives will be looked at on their approach to understanding self. The phenomenological perspective takes the approach that “we are who we are because of the total sum of our experience” (as cited in Holloway, 2007, p. 28) and the social psychoanalytic perspective believes that self is influenced, unintentionally, by relationships and social actions. The two perspectives will have their methods compared and similarities highlighted as to discover whether they agree on any aspects on self. Phenomenological psychologists focus their analysis on conscious lived experience and embodiment, eliciting rich detailed description. In comparison to social psychoanalytic its main focus of investigation is subjective experience.

Although phenomenologist’s take great care when collecting information by taking a “view from nothing” whereby they suspend all expectations and assumptions as well as focusing on description rather than explanation and treating all descriptive information as equally significant (nothing takes priority), they are listening to someone’s subjective account which as mentioned earlier by Goffman (1959) and also backed by Mead (1934) “self-consciousness renders people aware of the judgements of others and thus exerts pressure toward acting within social conventions” (as cited in Holloway, 2007, p. 26). When taking information at “face-value” you run the risk of believing all that has been told and although the purpose of this approach is to understand self through the individuals experience it is unclear as to whether that “experience” is in fact true or even exaggerated. So how can you truly know that the embodied self being described in such detail is not a “self” that the individual is choosing to portray to the psychologist?

The social psychoanalytic approach attempts to deal with this using the Free Association Narrative interview which asks open but specific questions, these simple questions elicit complex, rich data similar to phenomenological data collection and similarly, the material is taken as whole to avoid contextualisation issues. However, the key difference is the analysis – phenomenologists do not analyse with an attempt to find causal relationships, they encourage a reflexive analysis in a hope to gain new insight, enough so to effect change (Finlay, 2007, DVD1).

This is all good and well, but moving back to Goffman and Meads theory; people have the ability to withhold and distort information, consciously and unconsciously. Once data is collected from the Free Association Narrative interview, social psychoanalytic psychologists analyse in an interpretative manner, looking for logical contradictions that reveal unconscious defence mechanisms, taking account of the social setting, they try to understand hidden aspects of self.

They believe many sources of motivation and action come from an unconscious place that is intersubjective (Holloway, 2007, p. 128). Introjection is a good example of this, whereby people can unconsciously internalise parts of others – this process can flow dynamically between people, for example a child that takes qualities from his/her parents (whether they be good or bad). Melanie Klein (1988) believed our defence against anxiety was intersubjective, and that this process begins before we have developed conscious memory.

As babies and children causes of anxiety and conflict come from adult relationships, babies and young children cannot differentiate what is self and what is the rest of the world, they go through a process of understanding what is and is not an object and splitting it into good or bad. There is then a depressive phase whereby an understanding occurs that objects can be both good and bad (McLeod, 2008, p. 103). These processes in childhood are all unconscious and dynamic, continuing throughout a person’s life, situationally dependant and deciphering meaning from experiences.

Phenomenologist’s are in agreement with the intersubjective self but rather they believe in various levels of consciousness that have the ability to be reflexive or non-refelxive (Holloway, 2007, p141). Both perspectives are also in the agreement that we cannot separate our bodies from self as the body is the vehicle by which we communicate in the social world (Finlay & Dandridge, 2007, p. 174). Phenomenologists recognise embodiment as they take in a whole experience.

Dr Finlay (2007) describes listening to a multiple sclerosis sufferer talk of feeling numbness in her finger tips and the great sadness this caused the patient not to feel her child’s face, she also describes observing the patient making the stroking gesture (Finlay, 2007, DVD1). The combination of visual and descriptive made the data richer in understanding how this embodied experience truly affected the patient. Within the social psychoanalytic analysis, embodiment can be portrayed in defence mechanisms such as repression or denial.

Holloway (2005) describes an interview with a patient (Vince) whose unconscious conflict regarding his employment had caused symptoms to present through his body (Holloway, 2007, p. 139). He had suppressed conflicting desire’s regarding an incident at work within his conscious mind which led to embodied symptoms of panic attacks and depression. These two different ontological approaches do share a common theme; they both believe that knowledge is situated within a time and place; knowledge, in this instance, is classified as our experience and social interactions and the meaning we make from them.

It is agreed that this situated knowledge shapes and influences the ingredients that make up who we are. In conclusion, within social psychology there is no correct approach to dealing with “self”, phenomenological and social psychoanalytic do agree on the dynamic, embodied, socially situated self and they both elicit rich data based on experience through a narrative or observation but it seems that depending on your ontological approach or what information you are trying to extract really dictates what methodology you choose.

Holloway (2007) discussed binaries in making sense of self, one particular binary; conscious awareness or unconscious motivations, with the case of Vince, whose unconscious motivations were revealed to him through psychoanalysis – what happens next? Phenomenology could take his newly discovered conscious awareness and reflexively help to ease a conflicted self. It seems that even though social psychologists do not always agree with methods or how we understand individuals the most important theme, that knowledge created from experience is reflective of the social context of time, is shared, after all self does not emerge from a vacuum.

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