Review of Ian Burkitt's epistemological position as identified in his book "Social Selves"

This paper will provide a critical review of Ian Burkitt’s epistemological position as discussed in his 1991 book “Social Selves: Theories of the Social Formation of Personality”. It will primarily focus on the epistemological position held by Burkitt, however other theorists will be discussed to draw out the strengths and weakness of Burkitt’s theory. These theorists will include Eysenck, Bandura and Kelly. Further issues that will be discussed are Burkitt’s view on dualist notions and his position regarding constructionist view points discussed within his book. This paper will conclude with a critical review of Burkitt’s view of the social self.

To logically open this discussion it is necessary to outline Burkitt’s view of the self. Burkitt (1991, p. 2) argues that the self is in reality a social self which is developed through interaction with the social world, this is not to say humans are not individuals. Burkitt (1991, p. 2) argues that every aspect of the individual is derived from the social word in which they live. He offers the following statement to explain his theory, “Like the relations we have to others which make up our society, the interconnections between different aspects of the self do not always appear as evident” (Burkitt, 1991, p. 2). Furthermore it is claimed that it is the individual differences in these interconnections that make up individual personalities. It is also claimed that these interconnections are learned through interaction with others, not something which is inborn (Burkitt, 1991, p. 2-3).

Burkitt offers evaluations of two types of dualism within his book, the first being the division between mind and body and the second being a division between the social self and the individual. Burkitt (1991, p. 2) argues that both are incorrect and should not be accepted. Burkitt (1991, p. 1) commences his discussion by disputing that humans are monads, this has been described as humans are indeed individuals which are separate from the society in which they live. Burkitt strongly disagrees with this position and claims there is no such boundary between the two selves.  The second dualism discussed by Burkitt (1991, 1) is the more philosophical of the two and is the mind and body split. This split Burkitt (1991, p. 1) claims encompasses the dilemma faced when thoughts and feelings do not correspond with behavior, such as when the ‘rational’ mind draws our behavior in one direction and emotions seem to be pulling in the opposite direction. It is Burkitt’s belief that this is not two opposing selves, rather it is one self which can be explained by considering the individual as a social self, whose knowledge and personality come from the social world in which they live. In concluding this discussion of the Burkitt beliefs on dualism it is important to state that he denies they have any use in the understanding of the formation of the self and his further work will make no use of them (Burkitt 1991, p. 3).

Burkitt gave some value to the work of constructionists as they, in some way, were in agreement with his theory as they state that some of an individual’s personality is shaped by the society and environment in which the individual lives. However, he believed most of them suffered the same fate or problem with their work, believing in a type of dualism, they still had a dividing line between the ‘social individual’ and ‘private individual’, seeing these as two separate types of individuals, not a part of the whole. Constructionists hold this view firmly and some believe it is an essential division in understanding the development of self. This stands in conflict with Burkitt’s theory, as he believed there is no distinction between the two (Burkitt 1991, p. 13).  Burkitt argues this point repeatedly against many writers including Weber (Burkitt 1991, p. 15) and Durkheim (Burkitt 1991, p. 13), clearly demonstrating how he sees that they have spilt the social and individual elements of the personality. Burkitt claims to enhance the explanatory power of the constructionist theories, it is necessary to extend these theories to encompass “social action and communication” (Burkitt 1991, p. 81). This would allow for the value and position of language and communication to be given its rightful place in the development of the self within society, as Burkitt feels it plays an important role in the structure of society (Burkitt 1991, p. 81).  Burkitt (1991, p. 114) also suggests that constructionists ignore the ‘sensuous’ part of the human experience. This, in Burkitt’s belief, causes them to overlook an important factor when understanding those issues which effect human behavior. He claims that the ‘sensuous’ element of humans plays a important role in the interactions individuals have with the world and therefore the development of the self. However it must be remembered that this is only Burkitt’s perspective, others have disagreed with him, such as Mancuso (1996, p. 1) who states that constructionist explanations are the most accepted by science in general.

This paper will now briefly discuss some differing stances regarding the self to the one offered by Burkitt. The first of those is George Kelly, who offers a somewhat similar explanation to the development of the self in his Personal Construct Theory (Monte & Sollod 2003, p. 528). Kelly worked under the premise that humans have an innate need to gain knowledge and hence all humans work as naive scientists studying their world, learning to make predictions and therefore feeling they have some form of control over their world (Kelly 1955, p5 as cited in Monte & Sollod 2003, p. 536). This theory shows similarities to Burkitt’s theory as it states that all knowledge is derived from the environment.

The second theorist discussed who offered a different explanation of the self is Hans Eysenck. He offers a biological underpinning of the self and personality. His claims include that behavior is primarily controlled by the central nervous system and it is the functioning of the central nervous system. The activity of the central nervous system according to Eysenck is either stimulus craving or withdrawn. The reaction to stimulus determines if behavior will be extraverted stimulus craving or introverted stimulus withdrawn (Monte & Sollod 2003, p. 584).
The final theorist to be discussed that offers a differing opinion to Burkitt is Albert Bandura, who is a founder of the social learning theory (Woolfolk 2004, p. 315). The basis of Bandura’s work is modeling that is, he states, that individuals observe behavior and then repeat it, hence behavior is learned. Burkitt (1991, p24) disputes the ability of this theory to explain behavior because it fails to account for social interaction in which people learn.  However, social learning theory does make an effort to explain this interaction, it offers self efficacy, which is the individual’s appraisal of their ability to complete tasks (Monte & Sollod 2003, p. 562). Bandura states that self efficacy is an important factor in understanding behavior. The level of an individuals self efficacy is affected by the social world through the feed back, reward or punishment of any kind which an individual has received in the past from the social world on tasks or behaviors  (Bandura & Locke 2003, p. 87-88) 
Burkitt’s theory fails to take into account any biological foundation to human personality or the self and fails to offer any argument against theorists such as Eysenck who support such ideas. Furthermore it fails to take into account numerous twin studies which show strong support of a biological link in formation of self and personality such as Zawadzki et al (2001, p. 1). Zawadzki et al (2001, p. 1) claim their study demonstrates that there are both biological and environmental issues involved in the development of the self and personality.  

There are limited differences between Burkitt’s and Kelly’s theory, however it could be argued that Kelly’s is the more comprehensives of the two as it offers a clear  explanation of how environmental or society forces are incorporated into the self. Burkitt’s theory could be found lacking in an explanation of exactly how the society an individual resides in effects the formation of the self.
However Burkitt should be commended for the number of theories and issues which are addresses within his book. Few, if any, authors address such a wide range of theories covering sociology, philosophy and psychology. It is clear that an exhaustive attempt has been made to cover all possible schools of thought.
In conclusion Burkitt has produced a well discussed and outlined theory that attempts to fill some gaps in the understating of the self. Burkitt offers a comprehensive comparison with many theories including some from sociology, philosophy and psychology. It has also been shown that even with this comprehensives coverage some issues have been overlooked by Burkitt, such as the biological aspect and a clear explanation of exactly how society has its effect of the self and the personality. 

Reference list

  • Bandura, A & Locke, E  2003, Negative Self-Efficacy and Goal Effects Revisited     Journal of Applied Psychology vol. 88, no. 1, pp. 87-99.
  • Burkitt, I 1991, Social selves: Theories of the social formation of personality, Sage     Publications, London.
  • Mancuso, J 1996, ‘Constructionism, personal construct psychology and narrative psychology’, Theory & psychology, vol. 6, no. 1, pp. 47-70.
  • Monte, C 2003, Beneath the mask: An introduction to theories of personality, 7th edn,     Wiley, USA.
  • Woolfolk, A 2004, Educational psychology, 9th edn, Pearson, Allyn and Bacon,     Boston.
  • Zawadzki, B, Strelau, J, Oniszczenko, W, Riemann, R,  & Angleither, A 2001,    ‘Genetic and environmental influences on temperament: the Polish-German     twin study, based on self report and peer-rating’, European Psychologist, vol.     6, no. 4 pp 272-286.

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