Hubert Hermans: The Dialogical Self Theory - The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

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

Hubert Hermans: The Dialogical Self Theory
The “Narrative Turn” in Psychology

Another way of linking personality and narrative has been pursued since the 1960s by Hubert Hermans and his colleagues and followers. Hermans began his work within the individual differences approach, devising psychometric tests; he then moved towards a narrative approach, introducing a “self-confrontation method” designed to investigate the changing meaning of life events as part of a developing personal meaning system; finally, beginning in the 1990s, Hermans elaborated a dialogical approach to self “based on the assumption that the self is not organized around a core or inner self, but consists of a decentralised multiplicity of positions, or voices, that construct personal meaning as a result of their mutual interchange” (Hermans 2006: 6).

Hermans”s early research on personality was guided by the same question that McAdams raised towards the beginning of his career: “What do we know when we know a person?” It was self-evident for Hermans that “one can acquire knowledge about persons by describing them in terms of traits categories” (Hermans 2006: 6), the same categories McAdams located on the first level in his initial version of the narrative identity model. However, Hermans was quick to acknowledge that there was a tension between a static view of personality presupposed by the traits approach on the one hand and counselling and therapeutic procedures insisting on the existence of a changeable and malleable self on the other. Besides, Hermans”s focus on two particular aspects of personality functioning — achievement motive and fear of failure — attracted critique on ideological and political grounds as not only representing but also confirming the core values of an achievement-orientated, consumerist society. This criticism resonated with Hermans”s own uneasiness about the broader implications of his methodology. As a student Hermans was trained in two very different traditions: the American empirical approach and the European philosophical tradition, significantly influenced by Martin Heidegger. Heidegger”s maxim “Dasein ist Mitsein”, implying that our being in the world is intrinsically being together with other people and that the specific nature of human being can only be properly understood as a part of social relationship, was not easily reconcilable with an exclusive focus on the struggle for achievement.

Thus, feeling the need to acknowledge the intrapsychological aspects of personality functioning and its developing character, Hermans began to elaborate the self-confrontation method encompassing a narrative understanding of person. The method was intended to provide solutions to the problems that Hermans had encountered earlier. It was supposed to (a) enable clients to construct stories about their lives according to the meaning they attribute to different events — and not to be guided by one or several variables imposed by a researcher; (b) facilitate a gradual transition from assessment to therapeutic change; and finally (c) be based on a cooperative rather than on an objectifying relationship between counsellor and client. Overall, “the method should be a theory-guided, idiographic instrument in which two experts cooperate in order to construct a personal meaning system (or valuation system) that facilitates a gradual transition between assessment and change” (Hermans 2006: 9—10). The self-confrontation method is based on valuation theory, which defines the self as an “organized process of valuation” — a construction of the meaning of events as positive, negative or ambivalent (Hermans and Hermans-Jansen 1995). In the application of the self-confrontation method Hermans discovered that some valuations demonstrated changes that were significant from a therapeutic point of view and that it was precisely the combination of stability and change that was characteristic of an effective therapeutic process.

Over decades of research employing the confrontation method, Hermans established that people typically do not have only one integrative story to tell, but rather many stories told from various angles. These different and sometimes contradictory narratives seem to be constructed from different positions within an individual”s self. These observations prompted Hermans and his colleagues to propose a decentralized multivoiced model of self (Hermans 1996). Mikhail Bakhtin”s ideas on dialogue provided a key metaphor for this model, and so the notion of the “dialogical self” was born. Hermans saw the potential of bringing together both philosophical and psychological modes of inquiry for deepening the concepts of meaning and self. Besides Bakhtin, Hermans and his colleagues drew on a number of philosophical, psychological and literary sources, which were most explicitly outlined in the research monograph The Dialogical Self: Meaning as Movement co-authored with Harry Kempen (Hermans and Kempen 1993). While situating their inquiry between the opposing positions of Descartes”s “thinking in splendid isolation” and Giambattista Vico”s “knowledge resulting from communication”, Hermans and Kempen further drew on the work of Bruner, the Gergens, Ron Harré, McAdams and Sarbin. However, in contrast to these thinkers — and in particular to McAdams, for whom story as such, and not its context or addressee, provides a point of departure — Hermans and Kempen insisted that the very notion of narrative or story is already always dialogical, since it presupposes the existence of a teller and an actual or imagined presence of a listener or audience. To extend these considerations, Hermans and Kempen further mobilized Bakhtin”s dialogical approach, in particular the notion of the polyphonic novel.

In his foundational work Problems of Dostoevsky”s Poetics, Bakhtin (1973) had argued that within Dostoevsky”s novels there is not a multitude of characters and fates within a unified objective world, organized by an omnipresent author, but rather a plurality of independent consciousnesses and worlds. Correspondingly, Hermans and Kempen suggested a challenge — within the discipline of psychology — to the existence of an “omniscient self as representing a highly centralised position from which the self as a whole could be organized and perceived” (Hermans and Kempen 1993: 59). Extending these considerations, and integrating Sarbin”s conception of I as author and Me as actor with Bakhtin”s dialogical approach, Hermans and Kempen conceptualized the self “in terms of a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I-positions in the landscape of the mind. […] As different voices, these characters exchange information about their respective Me(s) and their worlds, resulting in a complex, narratively structured self” (Hermans 2004b: 19).

For Hermans, dialogue is not restricted to different parts of the self, but also encompasses a dialogical relationship between an individual and the outside world. Redefining G.H. Mead”s (1934) notion of “generalised other” within the dialogical paradigm as a “collective voice”, Hermans and Kempen demonstrate how collective voices speak through the voice of an individual person. Similar to McAdams”s acknowledgement of relative historical and cultural dominance, they highlight that dominance of one meaning always implies the temporary suppression of another. Developing this idea, Hermans thus proposes a decentralization of both the concept of self and the concept of culture (Hermans 2001). Hermans challenges both the idea of a core, essential self and the idea of a core, essential culture, and proposes to conceive self and culture as a multiplicity of positions among which dialogical relationships can be established. Cultures and selves begin to be seen as moving and mixing and as increasingly sensitive to travel and translocality. Particular attention is paid to collective voices, domination and asymmetry of social relations, and embodied forms of dialogue. Two critical dimensions of this larger context of individuals” functioning are exchange and social power. While exchange for Hermans relates primarily to the respective taking of different positions by partners of dialogues and their real or imaginative exchange necessary for understanding, power is always embedded in this relationship — the positions can never be equal, and always reflect or are predetermined by power balances originating in a socio-cultural order.

Hermans”s most recent works expand the dialogical self theory (DST) to address new intrapsychological, interpsychological and social issues. In addition to the core assumptions of DST, in The Dialogical Self: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society Hermans and Hermans-Konopka (2010) explore such issues as the impact of globalization and localization on self and identity; self and identity in historical perspective; and practical implications of DST for organizations, motivation and conflict resolution.

The authors start by addressing an issue that is both psychological and political: how the self and identity operate and are to be understood in the context of globalization and localization. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka argue that a dialogical conceptualization of self and identity in which global and local voices are involved in continuous interchanges and negotiations provides a promising avenue for addressing the most pressing issues of our time, such as the growing uncertainty that motivates individuals and groups to find local niches for identity construction. They further propose studying self and identity on three levels — individual, local and global — paying particular attention to the increasing number of voices and countervoices, the role of social power, and the role of emotions.

Another useful innovation in this book is the addition of historical perspective on the issues of self and identity. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka outline three different perspectives on self, associated with different historical phases — traditional, modern and postmodern — and discuss advantages and “shadow sides” of each of the perspectives. They then suggest that the dialogical model of self provides a framework that can allow for the negotiation between these perspectives. This is important given that different perspectives do not succeed each other, but rather aspects of these different perspectives coexist in a contemporary society that raises significant challenges for contemporary identity building efforts.

Further theoretical enrichment comes from the authors” engagement with the developmental perspective. Here, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka focus on evidence related to the emergence of dialogical relationship from early pre-verbal interactional practices between the infant and its significant others. They outline a number of precursors or early manifestations of dialogical self, such as the phenomenon of joint attention, turn-taking and role-playing. Their central argument here is that self-reflection and self-knowledge are mediated from the very beginning by the interaction with the Other, which forms a solid basis for the later emergence of dialogical self.

This analysis ties in well with a discussion of emotions and the brain. From Hermans and Hermans-Konopka”s perspective emotions are of direct relevance to the functioning of the dialogical self because they can either hinder or facilitate the dialogical relationship between different positions within the self and between self and the other. While persistent anger can present an obstacle to dialogical relationship, love can foster and promote the dialogue. Hermans and Hermans-Konopka focus closely on three types of emotions that they consider particularly prominent in their different historical models of the self: gratitude as the key emotion in the traditional period, self-esteem emotions as typical of the modern period, and enjoyment as the quintessentially postmodern emotion. The authors conclude by proposing a model that can facilitate articulation, clarification and changing of emotions and is based on the development of a dialogical relationship between emotions.

Finally, Hermans and Hermans-Konopka unpack practical implications of DST for organizations, motivation and conflict resolution. Given the complexity of contemporary organizational cultures the authors argue for the value of dialogical leadership, whereby a dialogical leader has a variety of I-positions in his repertoire and can move and negotiate between them with great flexibility. Dialogical leadership can meet the challenges of an increasingly complex work environment for both individual and organizations, while dialogical relationships more broadly represent a powerful means of conflict resolution.

The edited collection Handbook of Dialogical Self Theory that appeared 2 years later demonstrated the scope and breadth of the expanded DST, with contributions addressing developmental and cross-cultural aspects of DST, the relationship between new technologies and dialogical self, methodological issues, and implications for therapy and workplace (Hermans and Gieser 2012). It also made an intervention on a metatheoretical level by positing DST as a bridging theory with regard to scientific knowledge and practices. Hermans and Thorsten Gieser propose that DST is neither a “grand” theory aspiring to provide a comprehensive explanation of much of human behaviour, nor a “mini” theory focused on a particular aspect of human functioning. They contend that “It is rather a bridging theory in which a larger diversity of theories, research traditions and practices meet, or will meet, in order to create new and unexpected linkages” (Hermans and Gieser 2012: 4). On a metatheoretical level DST thus becomes a tool facilitating an intellectual dialogue across disciplinary boundaries and theoretical thresholds. As Hermans and Gieser explain, “this framework is formulated in such an open way that different, separated or even contradictory conceptual systems or approaches can find a platform that enables them to meet other theories, research, traditions and practices, in the service of their further development and security” (Hermans and Gieser 2012: 4).

Finally, Hermans”s (2012) Between Dreaming and Recognition Seeking: The Emergence of Dialogical Self Theory provides an account of some significant — and sometimes destabilizing — events in his life and investigates their meaning through the lens of DST. The book demonstrates much of the potential of DST to negotiate the sense of self across the lifespan by engaging in a dialogue between different I-positions, and also provides an example of an integration of the personal and professional life of a person dedicated to the quest for meaning.

Over the last 30 years Hermans”s valuation theory, the DST, and the self-confrontation method have contributed to research in a broad range of psychological subdisciplines including personality psychology (e.g. Barresi and Juckes 1997; Hermans 2002; Hermans and Bonarius 1991; Hermans and Oles 1996; Lamiell 1991; Thorne 1995; Valsiner 2002), developmental psychology (Hermans 1992; Sandfort 1984; Valsiner 1997), clinical psychology (Dimaggio et al. 2006; Hermans 1998; Lysaker and Hermans 2007), psychotherapy (Hermans 1989; Hermans and Dimaggio 2004; Hermans and Hermans-Jansen 1992), counselling (Hermans 1987; Hermans et al. 1990; Neimeyer 2006), cultural psychology (Hermans 2001; Hermans and Kempen 1995; Hermans et al. 1992), the psychology of religion (Hermans and Van Loon 1991; Rioux and Barresi 1997), personal construct psychology (Hermans 2003; Neimeyer et al. 1998), and the discussion of effects of a global digital age on self (Hermans 2004a).

At the same time, the DST has been met with some scepticism in the mainstream psychological community. Questions have been raised whether the kind of radical dialogical freedom implied by this theory is necessarily beneficial, and it has been suggested that it could also lead to confusion, disorientation and indecisiveness (Pollard 2004). Hermans speculates that such scepticism reflects the social sciences” lack of interest in the notion of dialogue. He further points out that the gap between theory and research and lack of research procedures that are sufficiently common to allow for the exchange of research data among investigators further contribute to cautious attitudes on the part of mainstream psychology with regard to his theory.1

Yet the limitations of the DST are also probed by the researchers who share Hermans”s interest in and commitment to dialogue. Prior to the publication of The Dialogical Self: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society Hermans was criticized for a tendency to overlook the relationship between the dialogical self and the pre-intentional and inarticulate dialogical processes. For example, Ian Burkitt challenged the status of Hermans”s early agentic, dialogical I as “something that originally exists apart from voice with the ability to move at will between positions and voices, seemingly animated by its own agency”; he claimed that this view overlooks the developmental fact of “the sense of “otherness” within the self: that from the earliest years our sense of self is intertwined with the voices of others, often in unwanted, unplanned, unwelcome, and surprising ways” (Burkitt 2010: 306). Similarly, Matthew Adams (2010) argues that the emphasis on linguistic and voiced connotations of the dialogical self may be restricting a more complex understanding of the intersubjective constitution of selfhood. He suggested that pre-reflective intersubjectivity, unspoken and “unspeakable” aspects of self-dialogue, and active psychological processes of disavowal should also be taken into account, and questions the role of the “voice” in the dialogical achievement of selfhood. However, The Dialogical Self: Positioning and Counter-Positioning in a Globalizing Society directly addressed this critique, particularly from the developmental perspective.

A broader critical point though revolves around the limitations of fully discursively formulated dialogical knowledge in relation to the knowledge about the other vis-à-vis the self and internalized dialogical positions within the self — the central assumption in Hermans”s theorizing.

This critique is most poignantly expressed by Barresi (2002), who draws attention to the fact that both James”s theorizing of the self and Bakhtin”s understanding of dialogism presuppose a more complex dialogical understanding of self than the one articulated by Hermans. Barresi specifically points out that Hermans draws on only a limited set of Bakhtin”s works, leaving aside Bakhtin”s key insight that “the radical difference exists between our understanding of self and other” (Barresi 2002: 243). These two epistemological positions can never be merged fully, even though there is a constant need to do so in order to develop both self and other understanding. The weakness that Barresi sees in Hermans”s DST is “the assumption that he makes that an individual can adopt a narrative or authorial stance, somewhat above the characters that make up the polyphonic and dialogical self, and can freely move the narrative “I-position” from one character to another to give each his or her voice” (Barresi 2002: 247). Barresi points out that Bakhtin”s view does not allow for such seamless integration and manipulation with various positions of “otherness” within the self. Barresi notes, “Even if the self could enclose its own past and future it could never enclose the consciousness or activity of the other. […] The other is always an unfinished unknown” (Barresi 2002: 249). Barresi”s arguments open up a way for a productive critique of Hermans”s theorizing vis-à-vis Bakhtin”s original ideas which will be developed in subsequent chapters.