Home > Uncategorized > Hubert J.M. Hermans “The Dialogical Self: Toward a Theory of Personal and Cultural Positioning”

Hubert J.M. Hermans “The Dialogical Self: Toward a Theory of Personal and Cultural Positioning”

Hermans, Hubert J.M. 2001. The Dialogical Self: Toward a Theory of Personal and Cultural Positioning. Culture & Psychology 7(3): 243–281.

The central concept, the dialogical self, is inspired by two thinkers, James and Bakhtin, who worked in different countries (the USA and Russia, respectively), in different disciplines (psychology and literary sciences), and in different theoretical traditions (pragmatism and dialogism). The dialogical self finds itself, as a composite term, at the intersection of these traditions. (244)

In James’ view, the I is equated with the selfas-knower and has three features: continuity, distinctness and volition (see also Damon & Hart, 1982). The continuity of the self-as-knower is characterized by a sense of personal identity, that is, a sense of sameness through time. A feeling of distinctness from others, or individuality, also follows from the subjective nature of the self-as-knower. Finally, a sense of personal volition is reflected in the continuous appropriation and rejection of thoughts by which the self-as-knower proves itself as an active processor of experience. (244)

In James’ view, the Me is equated with the self-as-known and is composed of the empirical elements considered as belonging to oneself. Because James (1890) was aware that there is a gradual transition between Me and mine, he concluded that the empirical self is composed of all that the person can call his or her own, ‘not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank-account’ (p. 291). (244)

In James’ view, the self was ‘extended’ to the environment. The extended self can be contrasted with the Cartesian self, which is based on a dualistic conception, not only between self and body but also between self and other (Hermans & Kempen, 1993). Self and other do not exclude one another (self versus other), as if the other is simply ‘outside the skin’. With his conception of the extended self, James has paved the way for later theoretical developments in which contrasts, oppositions and negotiations are part of a distributed, multivoiced self. (244-245)

For Bakhtin, the notion of dialogue opens the possibility of differentiating the inner world of one and the same individual in the form of an interpersonal relationship. The transformation of an ‘inner’ thought of a particular character into an utterance enables dialogical relations to occur between this utterance and the utterance of imaginal
others. (245)

“The intersection, consonance, or interference of speeches in the overt dialog with the speeches in the heroes’ interior dialogs are everywhere present. The specific totality of ideas, thoughts and words is everywhere passed through several unmerged voices, taking on a different sound in each. The object of the author’s aspirations is not at all this totality of ideas in and of itself, as something neutral and identical with itself. No, the object is precisely the act of passing the themes through many and varied voices, it is, so to speak, the fundamental, irrescindable multivoicedness and varivoicedness of the theme.” (Bakhtin, 1929/1973, p. 226) (246)

In James’ work the I (self-as-knower) is portrayed as a unifying principle that is responsible for organizing the different aspects of the Me as parts of a continuous stream of consciousness. As such, James seems to emphasize the continuity of the self more than its discontinuity. In other parts of his foundational work, however, James (1890) speaks explicitly of the ‘rivalry and conflict of the different selves’ (p. 309), dealing with the inherent discontinuity of the self. (246)

In summary, James, as a theorist of the self, acknowledged not only the unity but also the multiplicity of the self. Bakhtin, on the other hand, as a literary theorist, elaborated on the multiplicity of characters in the polyphonic novel by introducing the notion of multivoicedness. Further, although James acknowledged the intrinsic social nature of the self in terms of competing characters, Bakhtin elaborated more extensively on the voices of the characters and their mutual dialogical relationships. Although James’ thinking on the self certainly 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. (247-248)

A particular feature of the dialogical self is the combination of continuity and discontinuity. In line with James, there is a continuity between my experience of, for example, my wife, children, ancestors and friends because, as belonging to the ‘Mine’, all of them are extensions of one and the same self. In line with Bakhtin, however, there is a discontinuity between the same characters as far as they represent different and perhaps opposed voices in the spatial realm of the self. As my wife and my children, they are continuous; as my wife and my children, they are discontinuous. In this conception the existence of unity in the self, as closely related to continuity, does not contradict the existence of multiplicity, as closely related to discontinuity. (248)

In contrast to the individualistic self, the dialogical self is based on the assumption that there are many I-positions that can be occupied by the same person. The I in the one position, moreover, can agree, disagree, understand, misunderstand, oppose, contradict, question, challenge and even ridicule the I in another position. In contrast to the
rationalistic self, the dialogical self is always tied to a particular position in space and time. As Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) would have it, there is no ‘God’s eye view’. As an embodied being, the person is not able to freely ‘fly above’ his or her position in space and time, but he or she is always located at some point in space and time. (249-250)

The dialogical self is ‘social’, not in the sense that a self-contained individual enters into social interactions with other outside people, but in the sense that other people occupy positions in a multivoiced self. The self is not only ‘here’ but also ‘there’, and, owing to the power of imagination, the person can act as if he or she were the other and the other were him- or herself. This is not the same as ‘taking the role of the other’, as Mead (1934) meant by this expression that the self is taking the actual perspective of the other. Rather, I’m able to construe another person or being as a position that I can occupy and as a position that creates an alternative perspective on the world and myself. (250)

[…] the spatial character of the polyphonic novel leads to the supposition of a decentralized multiplicity of I-positions as authors of a variety of stories. The I moves in an imaginal space (which is intimately intertwined with physical space) from the one to the other position, creating dynamic fields in which self-negotiations, selfcontradictions and self-integrations result in a great variety of meanings (Josephs, 2000). (252)

When speakers produce unique utterances, they always speak in social languages at the same time. Although the speaker may not be aware of the influence of social languages, these languages shape what individual voices can say. For this simultaneity of individual and collective utterances Bakhtin used the term ‘ventriloquation’, which means that one voice speaks through another voice or voice type as found in social language. When Bakhtin refers to ‘multivoicedness’, he not only has in mind the simultaneous existence of different individual voices, but also the simultaneous existence of an individual voice and the voice of a group (Wertsch, 1991). (262)

A central feature of collective voices is that they organize and constrain the meaning systems that emerge from dialogical relationships. Sampson (1993), for example, argued that societal relationships are governed by polar opposites leading to ‘social dichotomies’, such as male versus female, young versus old or white versus black. Within these dichotomies, the master term (e.g. young) is defined as possessing particular properties that the opposite term (e.g. old) lacks. (262-263)

In the tradition of authors like Bakhtin and Vygotsky, Linell emphasized that meanings are not entirely constructed ab novo in interaction. Rather, they belong to a cultural capital inherited and invested by new actors through history. This heritage implies that the microcontext of concrete dialogical relationships cannot be understood without some concept of macroframes (organizational and ethnographic context). Every utterance has a history in preceding dialogues and an embeddedness in situation and culture (see also Lyra, 1999). (264)

[…] the notion of social power or dominance is an intrinsic feature of dialogical processes and, moreover, closely associated with the position a person occupies in a particular institution. As such, dominance is an indispensable concept for the analysis of cultural processes. Dominance relations organize and constrain not only the interactions within societies or groups, but also the interactions between different cultural groups. (265)

Montaigne: “We are all framed of flaps and patches, and of so shapeless and diverse contexture, that every piece, and every moment plays its part. And there is as much difference found between us and ourselves, as there is between ourselves and others.” (pp. 196–197). (276)

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