The Dialogical Self Theory: Towards Decentralization - Constructing the Narrative Subject

Narrative Psychology: Identity, Transformation and Ethics - Julia Vassilieva 2016

The Dialogical Self Theory: Towards Decentralization
Constructing the Narrative Subject

In comparison to McAdams”s model of identity as a life story, Hubert Hermans”s DST moves away from a modern discourse of the self as unitary, reflexive and transparent. According to Hermans, the model of dialogical self assumes a far-reaching decentralization of both self and society. Hermans”s DST weaves two concepts, self and dialogue, together in such a way that a more profound understanding of the interconnection of self and society is achieved. Hermans extends the narrative theorizing of subject and self by emphasizing the role of the Other. In doing so he draws on Bakhtin”s ideas regarding dialogism. Hermans further incorporates two main trends of twentieth-century literature into his model: (1) the spatialization of time, and (2) the retreat of the omniscient narrator. Like McAdams, Hermans utilizes James”s I/Me dichotomy (in which both follow Sarbin, who was the first to reconceptualise the I as the author of a self-narrative and the Me as an actor), but maps it within not Erikson”s eight-stage model of psychosocial development but rather Bakhtin”s model of the polyphonic novel. Hermans”s comparison of James”s and Bakhtin”s approaches is instructive here not only as a way of delineating Hermans”s own position but also for outlining the difference between his own and McAdams”s theory.

Hermans suggests that although James”s thinking on the self admitted the possibility of a multiplicity of characters, Bakhtin”s polyphonic novel, if applied to the self, can be seen as a challenge not only to the notion of individuality (the self as discrete from other selves), but also to the unity and continuity of the self. If the self is considered in terms of a polyphonic novel, the implication is a far-reaching decentralization of the self in terms of a decentralized plurality of characters (Hermans 2001b).

Whereas in McAdams”s model a single author is assumed to tell a story about himself/herself as an actor, in Hermans”s model there is a provision for “one and the same individual to live in a multiplicity of worlds with each world having its own author telling a story relatively independent of the authors of the other worlds” (Hermans and Kempen 1993: 46). Moreover, following principles of dialogism, Hermans maintains that at times several authors within the self may enter into dialogue with each other. As such, the self is accorded a capacity not only for dialogue but also for imaginative narrative.

Hermans contrasts his model to the rationalism and individualism of the Cartesian cogito. The Cartesian conception of the self, subsumed in the principle “I think”, presupposes one centralized I responsible for reasoning. As a cornerstone of consciousness, “I think” is located in disembodied mental processes and is opposed to the body and material processes extended in space. In contrast to the Cartesian unitary self, Hermans”s dialogical self is based on the assumption that there are many I-positions that can be occupied by the same person and furthermore that the dialogical self can be physically distributed among individuals and practices in the social world. In proposing his model of the dialogical self, Hermans contributes to the growing critique of the Cartesian Ego as a universal and individualistic phenomenon.

Hermans thus continues a questioning of the category of the subject initiated by two groups of philosophers: on the one hand the American pragmatists—John Dewey, Charles Pierce, William James and George Herbert Mead—and, on the other, twentieth-century French philosophers—Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard. As Hermans and Kempen note, both these broad movements “share a concern with the decentering of the person as a subject” (Hermans and Kempen 1993: 29). Hermans and Kempen draw further support for DST from the growing body of research on the “multifacetedness” and “possibilities” of self deriving from experimental psychology and psychotherapy. At the same time, he incorporates the insight of deconstructionism in literary criticism, in the light of which stories told by subjects and clients can be seen not as a fixed text, but as a text that is continuously interpreted and reinterpreted and thereby reordered in changing social contexts. Finally, Hermans emphasizes the relevance to the narrative conceptualization of the self of structural analysis of myth and folktales, such as offered by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Vladimir Propp. In drawing on these various sources, Hermans and Kempen lay a foundation for a view of the subject that “takes decentralization seriously without neglecting the potentials of the individual as an agentic force” (Hermans and Kempen 1993: 39).

Crucially, though, it is Bakhtin”s ideas on dialogue, multivoicedness and polyphony that allow Hermans to decentralize the self. Following Bakhtin, in Hermans”s model there is no provision for an overarching I that organizes the constituents of Me. Instead, the polyphonic character of the organization leads to the supposition of a decentralized multiplicity of I-positions that function like relatively independent authors, constructing their narratives about their respective Me”s as actors. The DST thus addresses the coherence of the self within the context of the intrinsic separateness of different contrasting I-positions: “As such the self functions as a multiplicity of positions that are located at different places in an imagined and imaginative landscape. At the same time, however, the self is multivoiced, and the different voices may enter into dialogical relationships with one another. It is in the dialogical relation that the possibility of coherence is given” (Hermans and Kempen 1993: 58).

The coherence is to be achieved through a synthesizing activity of the self, which encompasses both centrifugal and centripetal forces. Commenting on their respective positions, McAdams notes with regards to Hermans”s dialogical self:

Hermans rejects the simple consistency of a univocal self, but he suggests that a kind of self-coherence can nonetheless be realized in the multivocal dialogue itself. Different voices, or I-positions, assert their separateness and autonomy, Hermans maintains, but they may also be seen as working together by virtue of participating in the same self-defining conversation. (McAdams 2006a: 119)

Hermans”s view is considerably different from McAdams”s with regard to the unity and centredness of the self—the former is much more in favour of multiple and decentred understanding. Hermans is also not in accord with McAdams”s understanding of narrative coherence as the criterion of “good story”.

Incoherence is theorized by Hermans as a multiplicity of I-positions that can be articulated, explored, and brought into dialogical or polyvocal communication. Furthermore, the dialogical self incorporates collective voices that are conceived as being both inside and outside the self. In this way the dialogical self bridges the divide between individual and social, overthrowing the individualistic constriction of self “within the skin”. Thus, Hermans maintains that “the dialogical self distances itself from any autonomy between self and society. As a multiplicity of voices, the self functions as a society and is, at the same time, part of a broader society” (Hermans 2001c: 59). For Hermans, this aspect of the dialogical conceptualization of the self holds particular promise in the postmodern context, where individuals have to deal with “a high density of voices, a large heterogeneity of voices, and rapid shifting among opposing, contradicting, and conflicting voices” (Hermans 2001c: 59). From this position Hermans urges a rethinking of the problem of the unity versus multiplicity of self, and positions his dialogical self as a solution to the following conundrum:

In my view, the basic issue for the future theorizing in the realm of self and identity is not the opposition between unity and fragmentation with unity seen as desirable and fragmentation as undesirable. Rather, the issue is the relation between unity and multiplicity. Dialogue has the potential to transform fragmentation into constructive multiplicity. (Hermans 2001c: 59)

In comparison to McAdams, Hermans moves away from a modernist discourse of the self as a coherent, centred, bounded entity. Hermans specifically addresses the issue of the relationship between his DST and modern versus postmodern views on self in his and Hermans-Konopka”s Dialogical Self Theory: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society, which integrates the DST with broader research on cultural, political and historical determinants of the self. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka outline three historical perspectives on the self: traditional, modern and postmodern. These represent not consecutive historical stages, but models that can overlap in their operation and provide templates for identity building, each characterized by its advantages and disadvantages.

The traditional model of self is encompassed by the view of the world “as one of totality, unity and purpose” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 84). It further relies on the existence of a moral telos, social hierarchy, authority and dogmatic truth. The traditional model of self operates on the basis of a cyclical conception of time, in contrast with the linear temporality characteristic of the modern period. The traditional sense of self is more firmly embedded in the community and connected to the natural environment. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka suggest that the connection with the environment and with nature represents a valuable resource that can be borrowed from the traditional model of self and incorporated into contemporary identity.

Hermans and Hermans-Konopka then define the modern self as grounded in the quest for “undisputed certainties, science and conceptual analysis” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 87) and “the pretention to universal truth” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 114). While the traditional self is defined by its place in a meaningful cosmic order, the modern self places a premium on self definition and individuality. The modern self strives for personal autonomy and self-development. It establishes strict boundaries between self and non-self and its relationship to the natural environment changes from embeddedness to control. While the loss of this connection is regrettable, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka argue that the assumption that the individual represents an autonomous and independent being, whose actions and thoughts are not reduced to the working of the external agencies, is a valuable lesson of modernity.

In the postmodern self Hermans and Hermans-Konopka highlight an “emphasis on difference, otherness, local knowledge” and “a far reaching decentralization of the subject, whose stable sense of identity and biographical continuity give way to fragmentation” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 114). The authors see as a valuable achievement of postmodernism the tendency to acknowledge the impacts of history, language communities, social conventions, globalization, networks and technology as factors relevant to the construction of the self in a contemporary world. However, they emphasize that, while liberating the self from the confines of the encapsulated and centralized structure of the modern self, the postmodern self does not make provision for a solid basis for an engaged agency.

Hermans and Hermans-Konopka then develop an argument that the different phases in the historical development of self are not purely successive and mutually exclusive. Rather, they coexist and overlap, making certain positions prominent while overshadowing others. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka argue, “Positions that were prominent in a previous phase are not totally removed from the repertoire but, in so far as they are neglected, dominated, or suppressed, are backgrounded, with the possibility of becoming, under facilitating conditions, prominent in a later phase” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 104). They further argue that in a contemporary globalized society, “traditional, modern, and postmodern selves and identities are confronted with each other and show fits or misfits” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 116). The gap that can emerge between different models and reciprocal world views can lead to a “global misunderstanding”, and thus the dialogical self model is needed to negotiate between and integrate these various positions.

The dialogical self model is formed on the basis of the comparison of the three models of the self—traditional, modern and postmodern—that are incorporated as different positions within a society of mind. It acknowledges lessons from three historical models and takes into account both their positives and their negatives. The dialogical self thus relies on extensions of self both in time (historical positioning) and space (positioning within a globalized contemporary world). Hermans and Hermans-Konopka highlight that “[i]t would be a misunderstanding to conceive the self as an essence in itself and its extensions as “secondary” or “added” characteristics. In contrast, the dialogical self is formed and constituted by its extensions” (Hermans and Hermans-Konopka 2010: 6).

Hermans thus posits his dialogical self as a metatheoretical construct that introduces a broader principle (positioning and dialogism) according to which various models of self—traditional, model and postmodern—can be reconciled. White and Epston choose a different strategy. Putting into practice a highly critical epistemology, they question and challenge the core ontological and gnoseological assumptions of mainstream academic psychology, including the very concept of “self”.