Do Relational Views of Self Support Subordinate Roles?

Stella Beatriz Kerl, Ph.D. and Thelma Duffey, Ph.D.

Southwest Texas State University

Stella Beatriz Kerl is an Assistant Professor of Professional Counseling at Southwest Texas State University.  She can be reached at sk08@swt.edu.

Thelma Marie Duffey is an Assistant Professor of Professional Counseling at Southwest Texas State University.  She can be reached at td05@swt.edu.


This paper challenges psychology’s individualistic conceptualization of identity for both men and women and argues that this view of self has primarily been of service to people with higher societal “value” or with more societal power.  However, relational theories that were originally designed for women and for people of color to counter this dilemma may actually contribute to it. Two relatively new theoretical frameworks involving a relational self/identity are delineated.  The connection between societal power and relational identity is explored.

Do Relational Views of Self Support Subordinate Roles?

            Criticisms of individualistic bias in dominant theories of psychology are common in multicultural and feminist views of counseling and therapy (Ivey, Ivey, & Simek-Morgan, 1997; Sue & Sue, 1999).  In spite of these criticisms, this individualistic view of self is still dominant in both literature and practice. The authors suggest that one reason for the perpetuation of this individualistic view of self is that it supports the hierarchical structure of power that is common in Western cultures.  Indeed, individualism in our culture commonly connotes images of autonomy, independence, and entitlement (Duffey, Carns, Carns, & Garcia, 1996).  

            It is interesting to note, however, that those individuals who most strongly insist on this individualistic paradigm in fact expect and receive various forms of support from subordinates and others with whom they associate (Miller, 1991).   This self-identified autonomy, coupled with the overt and covert enlisting of support from others, can lead to a distorted counter-dependent stance and generate further societal acceptance of a notion of individualism.  In this case, members of the dominant group can appear autonomous and remain focused on the self while enjoying the relational capacities of others around them.  It is this construct of “self” that permeates throughout traditional counseling theories. 

Relational Theories

            Theories of counseling are described as worldviews, each with their own values, biases, and assumptions about human behavior.  Some would argue that individualistic theories reflect the unacknowledged dependency needs of those individuals more commonly seen at “the top” of the hierarchy (Sue & Sue, 1999).  Alternately, relational feminism and relational views of self in multicultural counseling theory may also reflect that hierarchy by representing those individuals more commonly seen at "the bottom."  This commentary will discuss two theories that have gained recent popularity by conceptualizing the self in relational terms.  Views of self within each theory will be delineated.  The connection between societal power and the individualistic or relational sense of self will be explored.

            The two theories in question are relatively new.  The Stone Center for Developmental Services and Studies at Wellesley College has developed a theory of women’s development of self that is often referred to as the Self-in-Relation Theory, or simply, The Stone Center theory (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991). The second theory, developed by Sue, Ivey, and Pedersen (1996), all of whom are leading authorities on issues and concepts in counseling diverse populations, is the Multicultural Counseling Theory (MCT).

            These theories share commonalties.  Both theories are and have been evolving through dialogues between and among the contributors.  The Stone Center’s Self-In-Relation theory was available for about ten years as a series of “working papers” until 1991.  At that time, the Center published the major papers in Women’s Growth In Connection  (Jordan et al., 1991).  MCT has been discussed within college counseling centers and other institutions where diversity has been acknowledged as a significant issue for many years.  In time, these researchers published a book that outlined this theory, A Theory of Multicultural Counseling and Therapy (Sue et al., 1996).

             Both approaches were developed in response to the lack of fit between traditional theories and the experiences of individuals who did not feel adequately represented by these theories.   According to Sue et al. (1996), current theories of counseling and psychotherapy do not address the issues or complexity of a culturally diverse population.   They note that traditional theories are culture-bound and Euro-centric, reflecting values, mores, customs and philosophies of the dominant group within the Western cultural milieu.  These worldviews are naturally skewed by the experiences of those within each group.  It has then been necessary to develop newer theories that better depict the worldviews and experiences of those holding less power within the hierarchical structure.

In the same vein, The Stone Center’s Self-In-Relation Theory is an attempt to illustrate the worldviews of women, given the lack of fit between traditional theories and women’s experiences.  Jordan et al. (1991) explain that psychological theory assumes that the dominant experience, that of the "white, middle class, heterosexual 'paradigm man' is seen as truth"(p. 7) for all humans.  The authors respond to this dilemma by reexamining existing theories and developing one that is more representative of women’s experiences.  They note that their intent is not to discard existing theories but to sharpen and articulate what is useful from them, while providing a frame of reference to which women can relate and be understood.

.           Sue et al. (1996) note that a primary value in Euro-American cultures is the notion of individualism and the separate existence of the self.  Similarly, Jordan et al (1991) believe that most psychological theories of the self emphasize a separate self, an autonomous, self-sufficient, contained entity.  This theory does not fit the experience of most women.  Both theories suggest that the Western value or bias toward individualism has affected the view of self within the traditional theories.  These theories, by the means in which they embrace a more relational view of self, reject the more individualistic view of self as being at odds with the way women and people of color tend to experience themselves. They both suggest that the dominant cultural value of individualism creates a generally accepted view of self as one that exists separately and individualistically.  They further suggest that individuals are never truly separate, but that this worldview facilitates an illusion that maintains the structure and the dominant group’s position in the hierarchy.

Sociohistorical influences on theories

            The idea that sociohistorical events have influenced psychological theory is not new.  This is a view that has been cited by a number of other researchers in a variety of disciplines.  Gergen (1985) argues that descriptions of social realities are not independent of our language and mental constructions.  Kahn and Yoder (1989) further argue that psychology cannot be value-free, and that this claim maintains the societal status quo reflecting dominant social values. In fact, some theorists posit that social constructions within a given society are shaped by social, political, cultural and economic ideologies, ones generally created by powerful individuals (Epstein, 1988; Collins, 1990).  In time, these constructions are considered by members of a society to, in fact, be reality.  In this context, the social reality that was created by the power structure is assumed to be true.

This view became widely known in part through the work of the French historian Foucault (1975).  Foucault wrote that power relations determine ingrained precepts that are used to establish a reality, a reality that is seen as natural by most members of society (Foucault, 1978).  Critiques of presumed objectivity in the social sciences such at Rabinow (1983), also reiterated the belief that truth and power are inseparable.  Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1985) in their study of American culture, argued that the value of dominant social individualism can be traced to the historical beginnings of the United States, to the ideologies present in the political theories from which the U.S. was founded.  Miller (1976), in her ground breaking work on the psychology of women, argued that "a dominant group...has the greatest influence in determining a culture's overall outlook--its philosophy, morality, social theory, and even its science" (p. 8).

            If these views are accurate, it would follow that the members of the dominant group would embrace the individualistic view of self.  Further, if theory reflects the ideology of the power source from which it came, psychology has been instrumental in reflecting the reality of the people in power in Western culture.  The focus on separation and the identification with the notion of autonomy may be more applicable, or true, to the dominant group, than for subordinate groups in the culture. Both the Stone Center and MCT argue that the individualistic view of self does not fit with the experience of these two non-dominant groups, women and people of color.  Their goals have been to define the self in a more connected and relational way. 

Critique of relational theories

Although The Stone Center’s researchers indicate that they have moved away from an earlier framing of the theory as a self-in-relation model and more towards a model of relational development, they still describes women, in particular, as experiencing a more relational sense of self.  They illustrate how the early self is inseparable from dynamic interaction, which involves attention to another’s mental states and emotions.  They add that girls are socialized to continue this relational sense of self, developing a more encompassing self, while boys are diverted away from understanding self in relationship.  This delineation, while helpful in understanding current dynamics, falls short of advocating for more balances of power along the hierarchy. Indeed, the power sources could use differences in worldviews to justify established ways of being, perpetuating, for example, the myth that “boys will be boys.”

Like the Stone Center model, MCT outlines its underlying assumptions and the corollaries that go along with each assumption.  It differs from The Stone Center model by distinguishing between self-in-relation and self-within-context.  While the Stone Center advocates mutual empathy, in which both client and counselor are affected by their experience with one another, MCT notes, in Proposition No. 2 of their theory, that both counselor and client identities are formed and embedded in multiple levels of experience and contexts.  In essence, a person’s identity is formed and continually influenced by his or her context.  For the MCT therapist, working effectively with clients requires an understanding of how the individual is embedded in the family (p. 15).  According to Proposition No.6,  “MCT emphasizes the importance of expanding personal, family, group and organizational consciousness in the place of self-in-relation, family-in-relation, and organization-in-relation” (p. 22).  This sense of self within context is reflected throughout the theory. 

            One of the major shared experiences of women and people of color is that they are both subordinate groups in American culture.  This leads to two questions:  Is the experience of a more relational sense of self a result of existing as a subordinate in the larger societal culture?  Further, does a hierarchical system support an individualistic sense of self in order to maintain itself?  If the larger societal system has any part in shaping one’s sense of self, it follows that the people on top (dominant) in a hierarchical system would have a separate sense of self (the prevailing model or “norm”), while the people on the bottom (subordinate) would have a relational sense of self.  In other words, the sense of self might be consistent with one’s position in the social hierarchy.

            Although both theories touch upon this question, they may be too quick to release the implications of this possibility.  Miller (1976) suggests that since women exist as subordinates in the dominant culture, their experience of self may recognize the relational aspect rather than the individual aspect, which is prevalent and recognized in the dominant culture.  She later argues that the concept of being-in-relationship is descriptive of the reality of the human condition, not just the condition of women.  However, the theory continues to describe how it is that women tend to experience this relational self, while men do not. 

            One could argue that people who experience a relational sense of self need to develop a more individualistic sense of self in order to be compatible with the people “at the top.”  Some might take this to mean, “becoming more like men” or “becoming more like White people.”  One could also argue that having a relational sense of self might be the reason that women and people of color stay on the bottom.  It may be beneficial for women and people of color to emphasize that there is a danger in focusing only on a particular subordinate group and “way of being” without tying it to the larger societal context.  MCT and the Stone Center theory, while echoing the experience of people of color and women, need to continuously look to the larger societal picture. Their work could focus on providing changes in the societal picture, lest the theories work to further reinforce the “appropriateness” of that picture (i.e., people that are relational “fit” at the bottom).

            One way in which this could be accomplished is to extend the model so that it includes the sense of self for men, as first introduced by Miller (1991).  She wrote that the development of self has been seen in traditional theories as a series of painful crises by which the individual accomplishes a sequence of allegedly necessary separations from others.  It is through successful separation that individuals achieve an inner sense of separated individuation.  She argued that it is questionable that men even fit the traditional, individualistic model, for “they are usually supported by wives, mistresses, mothers, daughters, secretaries, nurses, and other women (as well as other men who are lower than they in the socioeconomic hierarchy)” (p. 12).  In other words, the individuated sense of self may actually be an illusion.  Rather than setting aside this important point and specifically focusing on women’s experience of growth in connection, the authors could also delineate the reality that all people in general grow in connection, in relationship, even when they experience themselves as existing as separate beings.  While it seems beneficial to women and to people of color to have theories that speak to their experiences, this could also serve as another way of defining and restricting their roles and identities.

            Whether in separateness or relatedness, individuals live with one another and must negotiate their place within their given structure.  One can never really know what a “real” self would be, or whether the self is “truly” separate or relational.  However, to talk about the self in either way without considering societal power dynamics and one’s place in hierarchical systems risks compromising the positions of people in subordinate positions.  As stated earlier, the dominant view of self in the fields of counseling and psychology is individualistic.  The authors argue that the structure of American society, itself a hierarchical structure in which individuals can “rise above” other individuals fits well with an individualistic sense of self.  Hierarchical structures reflect similar emphasis on separateness and distinct boundaries, as does the individualistic view of self.  The two theories presented in this paper support a sense of self for women and people of color that seems more relational than other theories.  In this paper, the authors suggest that a relational sense of self may be incompatible with the top of a hierarchical power structure (i.e. most current societal organizations) and more compatible with the bottom.

            The two theories discussed in this paper have significant contributions to the body of psychological theory.  Their relational conceptualization of self is outside of the traditional, individualistic norm, which adds diverse “voices” to the conversation, and allows us to think more pluralistically and contextually.  Their theories fit the experiences of people who are often ignored, devalued, and dismissed and give these experiences validity.  However, there is more work to be done.  The larger societal picture must include all psychological theory.  If power shapes truth, we need to look at what is shaping our reality and our own contributions to it; whether it is to change it or to help it to stay the same.



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