Aside from possible universal aspects of the human psyche, what else is there to make each unique? This post explains one possible answer to this question by presenting a recent theory in social psychology: Positioning Theory (Positioning theory is an evolution of social constructionist perspective on social psychology).
So is the human psyche universal in some or all of its aspects? Social constructionism takes a moderate stance in response to one such question. It considers that “there are both local and universal features of social processes from which higher mental functions are appropriated” (Harré, 2002, p. 612). As such, if we would like to rationalize or understand human acts, we must incorporate unique locale- and culture-dependent contexts in which the acts occur. For example, while the denotative and universal meaning of “I’m sorry” is clear, there are notable connotative forces that can manipulate this phrase’s meaning. These connotative forces are “social forces, … performance of a variety of different social acts, [dependant] on who is using [the phrase], where and for what” (Moghaddam, Harré & Lee 2010, p. 11). In certain situations, “I’m sorry” can be an apology. “In the UK it is a way of asking someone to repeat what has just been said” (2010, p. 11). This example is a simplified model of how local rituals are as important as universal features of social processes; we must consider both when exploring human cognition.
“Positioning Theory” complements the universal features of the psyche to better explain it. This theory states that the individual’s psyche is necessarily affected by its society and group environment. Referencing Vygotsky (1952), Harré (2002) states, “individual psychological skills and capacities are derived from participation in collective psychological phenomena” (Harré, 2002, p. 612). So, using the previous example, the language of an individual living in the UK among British English speakers is surely affected by the environment, and she may understand “I’m sorry” as a request for repetition. In summary, given that an individual’s psyche is affected by its (unique) group environment, we must take both the local idiosyncrasies and the general trends of human psychology into account when assessing cognition.
One of the foundational developers of positioning theory, Rom Harré, discusses social constructionism as positioning theory’s preceding methodology. Positioning theory carefully considers “local variations” in what we deem to be more or less universal human psychological activities. As a consequence, positioning explanations of communication dismiss rigid notions of how our psyche operates.
Positioning theory also “adds a previously neglected dimension to the process of cognition” (Harré et al., 2009, p. 6). This dimension includes considering “normative frames within which people actually carry on their lives” (2009, p. 9). A major factor of positioning emphasizes beliefs and practices as derived from the local environment (2009, p. 6).
These critical local conditions in whose context we must consider human actions are clusters of beliefs and norms. They are all part of an order that is “tacitly subscribed by the actors in the same cultural setting” (Moghaddam, Harré, & Lee, 2010, p. 6). Everybody in the local community relates to and/or abides by their local cultural order. This order is part of a structure which the actors embrace that includes but is not limited to self-stereotypes, stereotypes regarding out-group members, local conventions, group allegiances (Harré & Moghaddam, 2003, p. 3), and “idiographic implicit/explicit practices implying powers, abilities, status levels” (Harré et al, 2009, p. 10). This collection of characteristics also defines an individual or a group’s identity (Moghaddam, et al., 2010). Therefore, it is also correct to attribute actors’ behavior to positions that are based on their social identity. Inversely, we can also assume that social identity attributes create positions in which members frame themselves. Positioning Theory stresses the critical importance of social context, “position”, framing human beliefs and behaviors. Thus, more universal aspects of our psyche are moderated or restricted by local positions we inherit from our environments.
Harré, R., & Moghaddam, F. (Eds.). (2003). The self and others: Positioning individuals and groups in personal, political, and cultural contexts. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Harré, R., Pilkerton-Cairnie, T., Moghaddam, F.M., Rothbart, D. & Sabat, S.R.. “Recent advances in positioning theory.” Theory and Psychology 19 (2009): 5-31.
Moghaddam, Fathali M., Rom Harré, and Naomi Lee. Global conflict resolution through positioning analysis. New York: Springer, 2010. Print.
Kirschner, Suzanne R., and Jack Martin.The sociocultural turn in psychology: the contextual emergence of mind and self. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010. Print.