The Dialogical Self Theory, Valuation Theory and the Self-Confrontation Method - Narrative Methodology

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

The Dialogical Self Theory, Valuation Theory and the Self-Confrontation Method
Narrative Methodology

The dialogical self theory, elaborated by Hubert Hermans and his school, purports to extend the storytelling metaphor into the research and therapeutic spheres. In 2002, reflecting on more than 30 years of research work, Hermans wrote:

As a researcher in the field of personality I started, at the end of the sixties, to construct tests for the measurement of achievement motivation and fear of failure. […] Dissatisfaction, however, with the objectifying and impersonal nature of these tests, with the separation between assessment and change, and with the rather limited value range of such instruments, motivated me to search for alternatives. (Hermans 2002: 3)

Drawing inspiration from William James and George Kelly”s work, Hermans “came to realize that the most appropriate way to characterize the way in which people give form to their own lives is to phrase it in terms of the metaphor of the motivated storyteller”, which provided “a fertile starting point for both theory and practice” (Hermans 2002: 3). Thus, it would appear that Hermans is articulating a critique of the formal scientific paradigm, identifying the limits of its applicability in the human sciences. However, as further analysis shows, the scope of critique is considerably narrower: while it does go against the cognitive-behaviour framework, it leaves the premises of positivistic science untouched.

The metaphor of the motivated storyteller at the core of Hermans”s model is complemented by the assumption of dialogism. However, these ideas appear to have little bearing on the methodology that Hermans employs in his research programme. Hermans”s main research tool is represented by valuation theory and self-confrontation method. Already in the title one can sense a shift in rhetorical register—from the vocabulary of story and dialogue inspired by literary study and phenomenological philosophy, to the terminological stock in trade of social-learning and cognitive-behaviour theory.

Valuation theory is supposed to bring together story, telling and motivation of the guiding metaphor as parts of an articulated conceptual system:

The central concept, “valuation” refers both to the process of meaning construction and its product in which the events of a self-narrative are organized. A valuation has a positive (pleasant), negative (unpleasant) or ambivalent connotation in the eyes of the individual. Personal valuations, as subjective constructions of personal experiences, refer to a broad range of phenomena such as: a dear memory, a pleasant activity, a good talk with a friend, a disappointment in the contact with a significant other, a particular source of satisfaction in one”s work, a physical handicap, an unreachable ideal, etc. During different periods of one”s life, different valuations may emerge because one”s reference point is constantly changing. As a result of the act of self-reflection different valuations are brought together into an organized valuation system in which one valuation is given a more prominent place than another. (Hermans 2002: 6)

Valuations are technical means of depicting the meaning of a story. It is noticeable, however, how quickly—in the space of the paragraph quoted above—story as a concept is virtually eliminated and substituted by something very different: a dismembered account that concurs more with the paradigmatic or logico-scientific mode of knowledge rather than with its narrative organization. Story is cut into non-narrative units, “valuations”, consisting sometimes of a single sentence.

This logic is amplified in the self-confrontation method, which represents the core of Hermans”s methodology. The self-confrontation method invites a person (subject or client) to perform a thorough self-investigation consisting of three parts: (a) the construction of a set of valuations; (b) rating each of the valuations using a list of affective terms; and (c) discussion of the results.

The data acquired as a result of the application of the self-confrontation procedure is represented by numerical values corresponding to the ratings assigned by the subjects to different variables, that can be arranged as a matrix. This kind of quantitative analysis conforms to the standard logic and criteria of experimental research, allowing a further application of statistical procedures aimed at comparisons of groups, rather than individuals, and reifying such types of analysis as a regression or factor analysis as a result of which the number of variables bearing on the construction of meaning can be further reduced.

Hermans treats the phenomenological richness of personal valuations, which may vary not only between individuals but also within a single individual across time and space, as the manifest level of the self. He insists that analysis should move on to the latent level, where a limited number of basic motives exist and are reflected in the affective component of the valuation system. The study of the affective component can therefore reveal which particular motive is active in a particular valuation and in the system as a whole. Hermans postulates two basic motives: striving for self-enhancement, or S motive (self-maintenance and self-expansion), and the longing for contact and union with the other, or O motive (interaction with other people and participation in the surrounding world). He finds support for this model in the works of David Bakan (1966), Andras Angyal (1965) and Ludwig Klages (1948)—works produced in the mid-twentieth century by thinkers who all shared broadly modern assumptions about human nature. It can be argued thus that the privileging of motives of achievement and connection are in accord with a particular historical view of personality, motivation and emotions.

The main critique however should be directed not at the content of Hermans”s reductionist analysis, but, more importantly, at the reductionist procedure itself. In light of the problematization of the relationship between deep and manifest structure undertaken in literary study, Hermans”s insistence on the uncovering of deep structure in the work of human agents as storytellers reveals a dichotomous understanding of narrative, which is typical of the structuralist analysis. The singularity of the narrative act is not acknowledged: abstract, disembodied or subsumed entities that represent a “basic structure” leave very little of the manifest, material telling presented by people who undertake self-confrontation research.

Perhaps, most significantly, the real addressee of such telling remains unclear. This issue deserves special consideration in light of Hermans”s intention to approach the self as a dialogical phenomenon. However, on a methodological level, Hermans redefines dialogue along the lines of social-learning theory: “When there is a story, there is always someone who tells the story to someone else. It is the dialogical reciprocity between teller and listener that makes storytelling a highly dynamic interactional phenomenon” (Hermans 2002: 9). Further, the researcher is positioned as a dialogical partner of the client or subject:

The concept of telling implies that the person, as an author relating about him- or herself as an actor, is part of a dialogical relationship in which the conversational partner (e.g., the psychologist) co-constructs the person”s self-narrative. Clients are considered as experts in their personal meanings, whereas psychologists function as experts on theoretical and methodological issues and, moreover, have experience with a larger group of clients. (Hermans 2002: 9)

There is certainly an exchange of information happening in this interaction, but can it be defined as dialogical?

In the sense elaborated by Bakhtin, dialogical communication is not only a multiplicity and diversity of voices, a “heteroglossia”, but an act of (and an active) listening to each voice from the perspective of the others, a “dialogised heteroglossia”. Furthermore, the context in which dialogical interaction takes place (not acknowledged in Hermans”s research) has a tremendous weight in Bakhtinian elaborations of the theory. In “The Problem of Speech Genres”, Bakhtin (1986) claims that the sentence, considered as a unit of language in traditional disciplines, has only the context of the speech of one speaking (or writing) subject. The utterance, in contrast, considered as a unit of spoken (or written) communication, is situated within the framing context of an exchange of speaking (or writing) subjects. Thus, the utterance, unlike the sentence, correlates directly with “the extraverbal context of reality (situation, setting, prehistory)” and with the utterances of other speakers (Bakhtin 1986: 73). As “a link in the chain of speech communication”, the utterance has several distinguishing characteristics: a referentially semantic element (its theme), an expressive element (the speaker or writer”s attitude towards the theme) and, most importantly, an element of responsiveness or “addressivity” (its relation to other utterances) (Bakhtin 1986: 84, 90, 91, 95).

Set against these Bakhtinian concepts, the relationship between the psychologist and the subject of the self-confrontation research method could only be defined as quasi-dialogical, while the real dialogical partners of a subject remain outside this interaction, as well as outside the laboratory walls. However, the narrative message elicited in the procedure is addressed to these dialogical partners, and it is they who are critical in determining its meaning. Within the laboratory the only element of the interaction that comes close to dialogue is the one related to the demands of the experimental situation itself: the researcher asks a subject to perform certain tasks and a subject performs them—willingly, reluctantly or unwillingly. However, in accordance with the demand of experimental science these factors are bracketed and an illusion is created that in the dialogical process the subject reveals some truth about his/her life in the real world.

Overall, this analysis reveals fundamental tension between Bakhtin”s radical rethinking of the methodologies of the social sciences and Hermans”s commitment to the methodological assumptions of mainstream psychology. The process of development and elaboration of Hermans”s model illustrates how, at each move, Bakhtinian concepts are cleansed of heterogeneity, “brought into line” with the psychological discourse of observable, verifiable, reproducible, schematic and common characteristics that are congruent with the meta-language of theoretism that Bakhtin so radically opposed. For Bakhtin this bears on the possibility of any externalizing definition of character—including narrative definition:

An individual cannot be completely incarnated into the flesh of existing sociohistorical categories. There is no mere form that would be able to incarnate once and forever all of his human possibilities and needs, no form in which he could exhaust himself down to the last word, like the tragic or epic hero; no form that he could fill to the very brim, and yet at the same time not splash over the brim. There always remains an unrealized surplus of humanness; there always remains a need for the future, and a place for this future must be found. (Bakhtin 1981: 37)

There is thus a significant divergence between Hermans”s operationalized model of dialogical self theory and the implications of Bakhtin”s philosophical insight for the methodological aspects of psychology. The reason is perhaps best defined by Per Linell (1998) who suggests that an inadequate use of dialogism as an analytical tool by a range of disciplines that appropriated it is the result of a failure to grasp the concept”s role in intellectual history—specifically, its position within the philosophical and philological contexts where dialogism refers not to a specific format of a narrative text, but to a conglomerate of problems in the study of human language, communication and consciousness.