Phenomenological and Social Psychoanalytic Approaches to the Self

Published: 2019/12/04 Number of words: 2255

How we define ‘self’ is one of the questions in social psychology that is not only of interest to the practitioners themselves, but is also central to everyone on a more personal level. Even when we do not directly contemplate the meaning and how we have come to define ‘self’, we are nonetheless in the process of establishing our own meaning of the term and using it in our constructs of how we fit in the world. That the simple word “I” is always in the top twenty most common words used in the English language1 is no coincidence—we are central to our framework of the world, and therefore our ‘self’ is of great importance to everything we do and think. Whether self is a set of attitudes, roles or characteristics and how much of those stem from our own individuality and how much from how we fit into society, is key to understanding the impact and influence that our self-images have on our lives.

If you were asked to define your ‘self’, how would you do it? Would you say, “I am a mother, I am a daughter, I am a doctor”, using your roles in smaller and larger societies to define yourself? Or would you choose instead to define yourself by the individual characteristics that serve to set you apart from your group and the world en masse—”I am funny, I am kind, I am shy”? As central as the question of self may be, there is surprisingly little empirical research in social psychology on how we define ourselves. In the main, this can be attributed to the inability to agree on whether self is a set of attitudes or if it is otherwise constructed. Kuhn and McPartland (McPartland, 1954), however, did attempt to develop an experiment that would begin to clarify some of these questions. They asked 288 undergraduate students to answer “who am I?” twenty different ways, in a short amount of time. As sociologists, they looked at their results from a different perspective than social psychologists, but it is still of interest to see how the students responded in ways that held up the idea of an individual-society dichotomy. Invariably, their responses showcased either the role they filled (“student”, “son”, “friend”) or how they saw themselves as individuals (“smart”, “gentle”, “tall”)

While our binary constructs can help to clarify and simplify a question, it can also serve to make formulating a real-world answer more difficult. Just as the self cannot be defined strictly in terms of its conscious formulations while discounting its unconscious, so too is it impossible to truly understand the self when using the foundation of the individual-society dualism.

This paper will examine how two social psychological perspectives—phenomenological and social psychoanalytical—have worked to define the self and how well they have managed to step away from the black and white dualism of individual-society, that has been historically prevalent, and develop a more cohesive, integrated model of the self.

The historical understanding of ‘self’
When looking at the history of how a topic has been understood, it is always important to remember that knowledge is not a static formulation. Rather, it is a dynamic product that is always at the mercy of the historical framework in which it finds itself. (Holloway, 2007) The understanding of any subject comes down to the time period, the culture, and the social location present for that subject2. Consider, for example, how the study of the self was far less popular in psychology in the United States in the mid-twentieth century than it is now, or indeed, as it was in other fields such as philosophy or sociology. It is necessary to remember that during this time period, psychology in the U.S. was very much concerned with separating itself from the philosophical disciplines and becoming more aligned with the sciences—the study of the self can be seen to underscore the nebulous nature of the field, which was against the goals of that time and place3.

In Britain in 1694, society was in the midst of the ramifications of a society moving away from agriculture and towards industry—creating the fear of social ties being broken and of kinship no longer being the sole consideration for what makes a person—when John Locke began to discuss personal identity in a way that saw it as a “natural, observable phenomenon 4. This was a departure from when the basic understanding of ‘self’ saw it both as a reflection of the immortal ‘soul’ and of familial descent. What we take for granted—that the self is not merely a collection of outer actions, but is also made up of a self-consciousness—was then considered to be exceedingly modern and revolutionary.

The idea of defining self based on familial descent is an interesting one, as it serves to underscore the importance of situated knowledge in this topic. Whereas in the Western world academics have moved increasingly towards the individualisation of the self, it is important to remember that in many third-world cultures defining the self is still very much a matter of defining the kinship ties a person has and their relatedness to the rest of the world5. Does this mean that the self is a different entity depending on where you live? Is a person less of a separate being in Kenya than they are in Britain? This is at the root of why any definition that relies solely on a binary definition of self—especially of individual-society dualism–will always be lacking.

While this paper is primarily concerned with the issue of individual-society dualism, keeping in mind the other binary concepts that have had an impact on the definition of self—integrated vs. fragmented, conscious vs. unconscious, true vs. false—can help to reinforce the idea that attempting to follow a strict dichotomy undermines the ability to achieve a realistic, usable definition of the self.

The social psychoanalytic perspective and the self
Social psychoanalysis is one of the best perspectives in merging dualistic thinking into a more cohesive whole. This is the perspective that best strives to see how the unconscious impacts the conscious and vice versa and how the fragmented forms the integrated, through close examination of individual cases and their rich emotional experiences.

The best strength of social psychoanalysis is that it is able to delve into the hidden depths of meaning in a person’s experiences and relationships. If the best way to combat the individual-society strict dualism is to understand the interplay between the two, then social psychoanalysis is well-placed to find that interaction. Psychoanalysis is able to look at an individual’s setting and relationships and delve deeper into the emotional interplay that has such an impact on that person’s definition of self6. This allows the focus to be on the dynamic experience of an individual who is always a sum total of their relationships and settings, and cannot be broken down to individual parts outside of those connections7.

Consider, for example, a sibling relationship. Siblings and placement in one’s family is fundamental in how a person defines themselves by role—”I am an older brother, I am a protector”, “I am an only child”—and in the dynamics of how those relationships establish their own moral and cultural codes for that person, which is inherent in their unconscious motivations. Here then, is a clear interplay between the hidden and the visible in defining the self, which the social psychoanalytic perspective is best poised to understand.

The phenomenological perspective and the self
The strong ties between phenomenology and philosophy lend both the greatest strengths for phenomenological perspectives to explain a cohesive definition of self, but also the greatest weakness in forming a definition of self that is applicable in the practical world:

“Because phenomenology is considered to be fundamentally irrelevant in any scientific explanation of the mind, the person-level is regarded as “scientifically invisible”: it is a ghost-like housing for sub-personal computational cognition. The problem of explaining how the sub-personal and sub-phenomenological machinery of mind is related to person-level experience is as troublesome for cognitive psychology as the problem Descartes faced in explaining how the ghost (the non-corporeal mind) is related to the machine (the material body)8. “

On the surface, phenomenology stands out as being one of the best perspectives to take on when attempting to view the definition of self away from the harsh dichotomy of individual-society. As phenomenology looks at how a person experiences the world they inhabit, without the brackets of prior assumptions and understanding9, it is well-situated to examine the essence of the self as it exists, rather than within the constraints of defining where that meaning comes from. This perspective retains its close links with its philosophical roots, and is therefore less bound by the attempts of scientific methodology to reduce definitions down to measurable parts.

In phenomenology, a person does not need to be separated from the parts of their world; rather, they can be viewed as a range of experiences within that whole world, in whatever shape it takes in that particular moment. This is best understood through the core concept of “lifeworld”, wherein each person is seen as being inseparable from the setting of that person’s life and their experience within that setting10. This emphasis on a person’s experiences, shared with others found in their situated settings, helps phenomenology to go beyond the individual-society dualism concept and instead formulate an idea of self as a fully in-the-moment combination of meaning.

Concluding thoughts
Both phenomenological and social psychoanalytical perspectives do much to move away from the individual-society dualism, though their methods in doing so are markedly different. Both methods look to go beyond simply what the person says is their idea of self—social psychoanalysis by looking for the hidden emotional meaning and connection of the words and phenomenology by looking below the surface for the meaning behind the experience. Both perspectives—perhaps most importantly—allow for an understanding of the self that is dynamically changing and developing as the individual has experiences and formulates meaning out of those experiences. This is the greatest combination of individual and society, where a person is both their existence in society, but also how they formulate the meaning of that existence.

Neither have attained a perfect, clear definition, however, as both are equally troubled by the interaction of consciousness and unconsciousness in finding the meaning and existence of self—philosophically11, it could be said that while both are able to explain and understand the meaning and function of the machine, both are still struggling to understand fully how its ghost interacts with that meaning and function.

Holloway, W. (2007). Chapter 1: Social Psychology: Past and Present. In W. Holloway, H. Lucey, & A.Phoenix, Social Psychology Matters (pp. 3-29). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Holloway, W. (2007). Chapter 5: Self. In W. Holloway, H. Lucey, & A. Phoenix, Social Psychology Matters (pp. 119-144). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Jopling, D. A. (1996). Sub-Phenomenology. Human Studies , 19 (2), 153-173.

Lucey, H. (2007). Chapter 3: Families. In W. Holloway, H. Lucey, & A. Phoenix, Social Psychology Matters (pp. 65-92). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

McPartland, M. H. (1954). An Empirical Investigation of Self-Attitudes. American Sociological Review, 19 (1), 68-76.

Ryle, G. (1949). The Concept of Mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

“Africa Within”

“The 500 Most Common Words in the English Language”

1 “The 500 Most Common Words in the English Language” (April 2009) “I” ranked 18.
2 Chapter 1, Section 4.2 in Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway
3 Primarily Chapter 1 in Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway. See also Chapter 5, Section 1.3 in the same text, also by Wendy Holloway.
4 Chapter 5, Section 1.1 in Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway. This is in reference to John Locke’s second edition of his work Essay Concerning Human Understanding published in 1694.
5 Chapter 5, Section 1.1 in Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway. See also,, which discusses the African culture’s depiction of the self and its interconnectedness within the world, which influenced this paragraph.
6 Chapter 5, Section 3 in Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway.
7 Chapter 3, Section 4.1 in Social Psychology Matters by Helen Lucey
8 From “Sub-Phenomenology” by David A. Jopling
9 Chapter 5, Section 2 of Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway, but also see Chapter 1, Section 2 of the same text.
10 Chapter 5, Section 2 of Social Psychology Matters by Wendy Holloway, but also see “Sub-Phenomenology” by David A. Jopling for support of this concept.
11 The concept is from Gilbert Ryle’s The Concept of Mind in reference to Descartes’ discussion of dualism—the mangling of the meaning to suit my purposes is all mine.

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