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In their attempts to transcend the individual-society dualism in understandings of the self, how successful have the social psychoanalytic and phenomenological perspectives been?

Free essay example:

Mia Lherpiniere


TMA 02

In their attempts to transcend the individual-society dualism in understandings of the self, how successful have the social psychoanalytic and phenomenological perspectives been?

The ‘self’ is a concept that taken in its entirety may seem indefinable due to its innumerable connotations. Holloway (2007) presents a set of binary terms that make up some of the difficulties that have arisen in attempts to define the self and understanding people’s experience of themselves. This essay will approach these binary terms from a social psychoanalytic and phenomenological perspective to see to what extent they can reconcile these dualisms. All the binary terms fall on one side or the other of one of the most prominent dualisms in social psychology and one that Holloway (2007) refers to as an interrogative theme; the individual-society dualism. By evaluating the extent to which the perspectives can overcome these binaries, this essay aims to demonstrate how this in turn will show their successfulness in transcending the individual-society dualism itself. Throughout the debate I will recurrently resonate, as Holloway (2007) does, that the success or failure of reconciling the either/or argument is partially determined by the methods and methodologies of each approach who in turn are dictated by their ontological and epistemological assumptions.

The first set of binary terms that seem to oppose one another regard the question of whether the locus of self lies in unconscious motivations or conscious awareness. Phenomenologist’s make no attempt to merge these aspects together predominantly due to their ontology who view individuals as self-conscious, embodied active meaning makers (Holloway, 2007). However social psychoanalytic perspectives, although largely weighted on the unconscious side, do nevertheless give a place to unconsciousness; at the surface of the self. Holloway and Jefferson’s (2005, cited in Holloway, 2007) example of Vince’s ‘choice’, demonstrates how unconscious conflictual desires surpass conscious awareness leaving only resolution at the forefront of people’s thoughts. This happens once the unconscious defence mechanisms have resolved the contradictory feelings; in Vince’s case the conflicting feelings about his job were resolved unconsciously and resurfaced as physical symptoms allowing him to stop working.

By encompassing consciousness and unconsciousness and subsequently thought and feelings the social psychoanalytic perspective partially overcomes another dualism; that of agency-structure. The ‘Vince’ example reflects this by demonstrating how unconscious conflict resulted in a divide between the conscious deliberate self and the bodily self thus removing both agency and structure from the equation (Corlett, 2007).

Phenomenologist’s view individuals as unique and autonomous, experiencing the world they live in. This at first could be deemed as falling on the unitary/individual side of the binary with multiple/society. However, the perspective emphasises the uniqueness of conscious lived experience, embodiment and intersubjectivity thus making allowances for change by acknowledging that the continuity between an individuals past, present and future is partially responsible for the reflective self. This is in contrast with the defensive self that emerges from the social psychoanalytic perspective who in addition opposes to the idea of autonomous individuality. Edwards and colleagues (2006, cited in Lucey, 2007) carried out free association narrative interviews to show that the self can be viewed as multiple as it is co-created through introjecting element of others (in this case siblings) as well as social meanings of class, ethnicity, culture and race. Thus despite some difference of opinion on how to overcome the unitary/multiple binary both perspectives do have some common ground through their emphasis on intersubjectivity.

Each perspective is as flexible as their ontology and methodologies allow them to be. Social psychoanalytic methods of dealing with unconscious anxiety through splitting and projection for example allow the self to maintain a depressive position and thus be more integrated (Holloway, 2007). Phenomenologists adhere to Husserl’s key concepts of Desein and lifeworld which permits individuals to be autonomous and changeable (cited in Holloway, 2007, p131).    

The previous two binaries interlink with the following ones who questions if the self is fragmented or coherent and if it is realised over time or produced in the moment. To a certain extent both perspectives could define the self as fragmented. Phenomenological approaches acknowledge the continuity between ones past, present and future and in this way could be seen as fragmented and constituted overtime. However in the same breath the perspective focuses on active meaning making and emphasises the lived experience of social identity. A coherent self, produced in the moment could be elicited from the methods used by the perspective. The methods focus on rich descriptions in order to avoid interpretation and stay with lived experience. Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis is approached with the concepts of epoché which brackets off expectations in order to capture the immediate and present experience of objects and people’s lifeworlds (Holloway, 2007).  Therefore in this view the self could be viewed as coherently produced in the moment. To illustrate the capability of overcoming these binary terms, Holloway (2007) cites Seierstad’s (2004) rich and vivid description of going to market dressed in burkas. The coherent identity of ‘the burka’ appears to be built up from fragmented parts of Shakila who is able to produce her individuality through her body movements.  

Social psychoanalysts would argue that the self is fragmented due to it being composed from introjected parts of others. Furthermore they argue that the unconscious defence mechanisms of splitting and projecting are necessary to achieve self-homeostasis. The very notion of being able to split the self off into good and bad suggests non-coherency, likewise the ability to project parts of the self also lead to a view that it is fragmented. Holloway (2007) cites Klein’s (1988) idea of paranoid schizoid position to support the idea that by the process of splitting which is fragmented and produced over time one arrives at a contented depressive position that surpasses the dualism by allowing the self to be integrated, coherent (Holloway, 2007).  Emphasising the importance of historical antecedents such as childhood as Freud (cited in Holloway, 2007 p.83) did places the social psychoanalytic perspective on the ‘self created over time’ side, however as with the phenomenological perspective the self is also viewed as situated and changing dynamically through creating meaning out of experience and thus should also be considered to be produced in the moment. Vince’s ‘choice’ (cited in Holloway, 2007, p137-139) exemplifies the influence of both past and present conflictual unconscious dynamics. As the formation of the self is through the dynamic processes of introjection and projection of good and bad objects, the objects and the parts of them which we conclude as good or bad is based on the past and present situations, historical and cultural contexts in which we experience the world we live in. This is mirrored by Vince’s conscious belief that as a man he needs to provide for his family and failure to do so would mean failure as a family man (a situated traditional concept of what it means to be a man). His conscious mind therefore will not allow him to quit his job which he has come to dread. His unconscious mind (situated in the present and developed as a result of his forced perjury which drove him to dread his job) resolves the dilemma through physical illness which allows him not to have to go to work.

A dualism that resonates alongside the individual-society dualism and all its subsidiaries is the agency-structure dualism. Since the experiencing individual is always viewed in relation to the social world the terms agency structure mean little to phenomenologists. However dualisms can manifest as a result of variability or weaknesses in the methods used within a perspective.  

Contrarily to the social psychoanalytic perspective, phenomenologists avoid interpretation in order to understand people’s lifeworld. However, there is some degree of questionability when it comes to how successful researchers are in bracketing off their presuppositions. For example it could be argued that the description of the burka that Holloway (2007) cites carries a sense of negativity about wearing a burka and this could be deemed as being interpretative which in turn could be held responsible for insinuating that Shakila holds had agency within her social constraints. In a similar manner, the presentation of the social psychoanalytic perspective given in Holloway et al. (2007) leaves me with a personal resounding thought that there is disagreement amongst the psychoanalysts about how much conscious agency individuals can exhibit based on the unconscious structures. At one extreme, views such as those of Freud (cited in Holloway, 2007, p.83) postulate that there is little or no conscious agency and others such as Klein (cited in Holloway, 2007, p.129) suggests that agency is dependent on how well one attains the depressive position. Thus whilst phenomenologist’s avoid this dualism, social psychoanalytic perspectives attempt to bridge the gap by suggesting that there is a degree of agency but we are also driven by unconscious processes.

The final binary terms that reflect the individual-society dualism concern whether the self is intrapsychic or intersubjective. To represent the social psychoanalytic perspective Holloway (2007) uses a vignette from Turp (2004) to demonstrate how self-worth is produced through intersubjective processes between Esther and her father. Likewise Ashworth and Ashworth (2003, cited in Holloway, 2007) display the intersubjectivity found in the phenomenological approach to an Alzheimer’s sufferer by identifying certain characteristics of the self in order to share their experience of the world. Both perspectives as previously discussed also contain aspects that concern individual’s thoughts, feelings, conscious awareness and unconscious motivations thus the two perspectives incorporate intrapsychic as well as intersubjective processes.

Beyond transcending the individual-society dualism through its subsidiaries as presented so far, the two perspectives also attempt to surpass this leading dualism. Holloway (2007) uses three examples of a phenomenological approach to the experience of a working-class man, wearing a burka and suffering from Alzheimer’s to illustrate how individual lifeworlds represent the inseparability between the setting of people’s life and their subjective experience of it (Corlett, 2007). Linda Finlay (2007, DVD 1, DD307) carried out some research into the lived experience of multiple sclerosis and quickly came to the realisation that she would not be able to encompass multiple accounts of ‘the’ experience of multiple sclerosis. The necessity for the uniqueness of the narrative was illuminated when she described the story of Ann. Within this account it is clear that the patients experience of not being able to feel her baby’s skin could not be comprehended outside of a social framework. The individual-society dualism is thus transcended by this perspective as it acknowledges the fact that to be or to experience anything; you must do so within a social framework or ‘to be is to do’ as Sartre’s claimed (Holloway, 2007).

Central to the social psychoanalytic argument is the importance of significant others (as portrayed by the example of Esther and her father in Holloway, 2007) and of societal beliefs and ideologies (as represented by the example of Vince in Holloway, 2007). These intersubjective dynamics that are reconciled by people’s innermost needs, wishes and anxieties which are thought to happen below consciousness, form a strong basis for how individuals are inseparable from the social (Corlett, 2007).

The bipolar influences under consideration are biological (for the individual) and sociological (for society). By covering the self from a social psychoanalytical and phenomenological perspective who are in essence neither biological nor sociological but psychological, it could be argued that the individual-society dualism has no grounding within these perspectives.    

To conclude this essay I have argued that the individual-society dualism has encapsulated a number of binary terms that have often proven to be problematic when defining the self. Each binary presented was, to some extent, representative of either one side or the other of the dualism. The individual represented by thought, conscious awareness, unitary, coherent, produced in the moment, intrapsychic and agency and society denoted by feelings, unconsciousness, multiplicity, fragmented, produced over time and structure. Both perspectives went someway in overcoming all the binaries with an overreaching view of considering them as both/and rather than either/or (Holloway, 2007). The phenomenological focus on ‘lifeworlds’, ‘lived experience’, ‘being-in-the-world’ (Dasein) and ‘the world as lived’ and the social psychoanalytical emphasis on intersubjectivity as presented by Holloway et al. (2007) disallows any severance between people and their social structures and contexts and therefore accomplishes a transcendence of the individual-society dualism.

Word count 2034


Corlett. L. (2007) DD307 Revision Pack

Finlay, L. (2007) in DVD 1, DD307, The Open University

Holloway, W (2007) ‘Self’, in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (eds) Social Psychology Matters Milton Keynes, Open University Press

Holloway, W., Lucey H. and Phoenix A. (eds) Social Psychology Matters Milton Keynes, Open University Press

Lucey, H. (2007) ‘Families’, in W. Holloway, H. Lucey and A. Phoenix (eds) Social Psychology Matters Milton Keynes, Open University Press

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