Inquiry into concepts of ‘self’ and of ‘relational being’

Excerpt from my Master’s thesis, October 2007

Relevance: Change and innovation in organisations, political systems, society

Both from an individual and from an organisational perspective, I have considered it useful and relevant to explore different concepts of ‘self’ and of ‘relational being’, and I noticed throughout the process how much intense curiosity and desire to understand I brought to this inquiry!

I assume that there are different theories, of constructing self as ‘separate’ or as ‘in relation’. Mead (1934) states:

“It has been the tendency of psychology to deal with the self as a more or less isolated and independent element, a sort of entity that could conceivably exist by itself.” (p. 164)

I noticed how, potentially based on my own early conditioning in my experience of family, I seemed to act from a deep underlying “theory-in-use” of ‘self’ as ‘separate’ rather than ‘in connection’.

“… the assumptions are looking.” (Bohm 1996, p. 80)

I found myself deeply curious to understand concepts of self-in-connection and to explore a new “theory of action” based on a relational understanding of being.

Concepts of self in connection

Ricard (2003) presents the concept of ‘self’ as constituted of four elements: consciousness, interpretive memory of consciousness, attachment to body and placement in a certain environment.

Bentz & Shapiro offer understandings of the conditions of self drawn from two German philosophers: Heidegger’s “Being-in-the-world” describing

“… the actual nature of human existence as bounded by the physical environment at a particular time and place with a physical body that has a biography and history and a being who exists in a linguistically infused world.” (p. 169)

And Husserl’s “lifeworld” referring to

“… the cultural assumptions built into people’s underlying ways of experiencing reality (Husserl, 1970).” (p. 97)

Dowrick (2001) points out how both body and gender play a role in perception of self:

“Your body continues to matter. You touch, speak, stare, pause, lean forward, lean back, look ahead, look away, all with your gendered body.” (p. 190)

I then found references to the relational aspect of constructing self in Bateson’s (1972), Mead’s (1934), Gergen’s (1999), and Griffin & Stacey’s (2005) writing:

Particularly from Gergen’s writing on Bakhtin (pp. 130/131) I drew an understanding that is essential to me: To be is to be relational. We are born into, formed by, and participate in a collective meaning-making process through dialogue, communication and relationship.

According to Mead,

“It is the social process itself that is responsible for the appearance of the self …”
(p. 142)

Building on that, Griffin & Stacey state that

“… each self is socially formed while at the same time interacting selves are forming the social.” (p. 5)

Bateson claims that

“… adjectives … which purport to describe individual character are really not strictly applicable to the individual but rather describe transactions between the individual and his material and human environment. No man is “resourceful” or “dependent” or “fatalistic” in a vacuum.” (p. 298)

He explains how characteristics of self are “… learned … in sequences of relationship” and are “… terms for “roles” in relationships …” (p. 304).

I found this confirmed in Critchley/King/Higgins (2007)

“… there is no such thing as an autonomous individual because individual characters and identities can only exist in relationship with each other.” (p. 55)

Is there a ‘self’? Or what is it?

Leading me further in my exploration was Hugh Pidgeon’s feedback to my Assignment 5: He pointed to how both the theories of Dialogue and of Complex Responsive Processes “put in question the whole notion of what is individual about the individual”.

Bentz and Shapiro (1998) explain that radical postmodernists deny the existence of ‘self’ as subject:

“Rather we are modules in information flows.”

Bateson seems to think similarly:

“I once heard a Zen master state categorically: “To become accustomed to anything is a terrible thing.” But any freedom from the bondage of habit must also denote a profound redefinition of the self. If I stop at the level of Learning II, “I” am the aggregate of those characteristics which I call my “character”. “I” am my habits of acting in context and shaping and perceiving the contexts in which I act. Selfhood is a product or aggregate of Learning II. To the degree that a man achieves Learning III, … his “self” will take on a sort of irrelevance. The concept of “self” will no longer function as a nodal argument in the punctuation of experience.” (p. 304)

From reading Ricard, I would assume that the self taking on a sort of irrelevance would be the Buddhist perspective as well.

From a theoretical perspective, I felt I could relate to and agree with the postmodernist view of people being ‘modules in information flow’ and a notion of self taking on a sort of irrelevance. I even found the perspective exciting. Nevertheless, I struggled with the concept. I noticed that ‘for practical purposes’, probably to give some structure to experience, most of us seem to “work with” that level of Learning II Bateson refers to. Most of us apparently choose to act ‘as if’ there was some kind of bounded self that makes quasi-autonomous choices?

Bohm (1996) argues

“… that boundaries are not really separations, but that they are there for descriptive purposes.” (p. 99)

The image of a ‘volume control’ came to my mind: Between a thoroughly closed understanding of bounded self and a thoroughly open understanding of being modules in information flows:

Volume control
Volume control

My assumption would be that each of us could find her-/himself somewhere along the line of this image in her/his (less or more conscious) personal construct of self?

A thoroughly closed perception might be, to me, a consciousness-cum-interpretive memory entirely not self-aware. Such a person might entertain an underlying, potentially subconscious belief in the existence of a “fixed” self (“a body of habitual assumptions”, Bateson, p. 314). She/he might possibly even go to the extreme of denying other views, holding on to one way of seeing in ‘uncritical subjectivity’ (Heron & Reason, in: Reason & Bradbury). That might represent an attitude of: “I am right, and you are all wrong!”

A thoroughly open perception could be, to me, a co-constructing understanding of self, in ‘critical subjectivity’ (Reason & Bradbury). Such a person would understand ‘self’ as a transitory space for an evolving process of ever-emergent, ever-modifying – and highly diverse – information flow and interpretive meaning-making. I assume there would be potential for such a process to keep expanding according to the range of environments experienced, and accelerating according to frequency of change experienced.

Bentz & Shapiro (p. 36) point out:

“… some theorists have warned of the demise of the identity, or self, as a hallmark of entering the postmodern age. Persons’ selves will split into multiple identities or exist merely as ever-changing nodes or agents in information networks (Weinstein, 1995).”

In comparison and contrast, Mead states:

“A multiple personality is in a certain sense normal … (…) … it is dependent upon the set of social reactions that is involved as to which self we are going to be.” (pp. 142/143)

Countering this, I take from Bentz and Shapiro:

“Contrary to some radical postmodernists … who advocate dissolution of personal identity …, most persons do not wish to be so deconstructed.” (p. 37)


I inquired with people around me about their concepts of self. I learned that some of them would indeed feel very uncomfortable with “being so deconstructed”! They expressed that it is important to them, even if they venture out into the world – experiencing other people, other cultures, other countries –, to create some bounded stability for themselves and adhere to a more stable notion of self (“Yes, I will be changed, but I will also remain the same!”). It is important to them to also have a sense of geographic and cultural roots and origin to which they want to be attached. I fully respect that attitude … and at the same time, I speculate whether there might be a correlation between the degree of a person’s openness to changing her/his concept of ‘self’ – and the degree of that person’s openness to change in general?

And while feeling intrigued by postmodernist thought, I still wonder that there must be ‘something’ in a person that makes choices? E.g. I might be surrounded by right-wing fundamentalists who try to influence me – but still choose a firmly democratic view for myself, and attach importance to that?

“It is because human agents are conscious and self-conscious that they are able to cooperate and reach consensus, while at the same time conflicting and competing with each other in the highly sophisticated ways in which they do.” (Griffin/Stacey, p. 5)

Conscious and self-conscious … Is there a ‘self’ making choices? In contrast, Bohm (1996) says:

“… thought has come to attribute itself to an image of an observer, a thinker. This gives it much greater authority, because it has then apparently come from a being who should know what to think. (…) I am suggesting, however, that thought is a system belonging to the whole culture and society, evolving over history, and it creates the image of an individual who is supposed to be the source of thought. (…) … thought tells you the way things are, and then “you” choose how to act from that information.” (pp. 81/82)

So is the ‘something’ that chooses nothing other than a current, potentially accidental, kaleidoscopic patterning of cultural and social influences? Taking that view, I could on the one hand see how a concept of ‘self’ would indeed take on a sort of irrelevance – until I experienced, on the other hand, how upset my ‘self’ got and how strongly ‘it’ acted up when I felt my needs were ignored by some colleagues.

With an apparently strong sense of self combined with apparently little regard for other views, they had assumed they could make some important decisions about my professional future for me. Was that just my patterns rebelling against their patterns?

I shared all those aspects and my confusion about them with Kevin Power, who is now studying for his Ashridge doctorate in organisation consulting (ADOC). While he agreed that mind constructs a concept of self, he said something like:

“It’s okay for you to perceive some kind of bounded self – don’t go yet towards trying to fully understand a concept of complete deconstruction and dissolution, otherwise you’ll go mad! Stay where you are right now – for the moment, it’s fine to construct ‘self’ as a kind of ‘punctuation’.”

I must admit that I found his words comforting and calming, and later on, I found something similar with Bohm (1996, p. 103):

“… that the body is a sort of “focus” of life at a certain place. (…)

In addition, he (the individual) has a self-image, by which he tries to identify himself.”

Mead’s “me” and “I”

In grappling with understanding concepts of self, I finally found it highly helpful to consult Mead, who I had strangely avoided reading up until then. What felt helpful? His distinction of “me” and “I”: To him, the self, the personality, is an ongoing social process (or “conversation of gestures”, p. 179) composed of “me” and “I”.

The “me” arises out of society, community – as societal gesture received from “the generalized other, which represents the organized responses of all the members of the group” (p. 162). I would understand that as the social conditioning of the person.

“The “I” is in a certain sense that with which we do identify ourselves. (…) The “I” is the response of the organism to the attitudes of the others …” (pp. 174/175)

In my understanding then, consciousness is (socially conditioned) awareness of self and other, and “I” is choice, as individual expression arising out of the social “me”. This individual expression would be a complex responsive process, a complex interpretation (or kaleidoscopic reorganisation) of and reaction to “me”: as creatively choiceful ego – and as such an emergent construct. This choiceful “I” then contributes to the social process of the group/community by influencing back.

Personally, I find it exciting to evolve towards a rather open understanding of self:

expanding the “me” through experiencing every kind of diversity there is in the world, different constructs, various ‘generalized others’; willing to be influenced and changed by that, and considering multiple points of view simultaneously in the choiceful construction of “I”. Especially for my practice as a consultant, taking that attitude feels important to me. I guess what matters is both awareness of and non-attachment to that current “I” construct – open to reviewing and modifying choices!

I assume Kevin’s “going mad” reference might be about fear or discomfort arising from assuming self-lessness – and I assume the concept in question might be less about self-less being than about non-attachment to self as current patterning? While my inquiry continues, for now I assume that such an attitude of non-attachment can be helpful in just staying present and noticing:

“Open presence is a clear, open, vast, and alert state of mind, free from mental constructs. It is not actively focused on anything, yet it is not distracted.” (Ricard, p. 190)



Bateson, Gregory (1972)

Steps to an Ecology of Mind

The University of Chicago Press

ISBN 0 2260 3905 6

Bentz, Valerie Malhotra &  Shapiro, Jeremy J. (1998)

Mindful Inquiry in Social Research

Sage Publications, ISBN 0 7619 0409 3

Bohm, David (1996)

On Dialogue

Routledge Classics, ISBN 0 4153 3641 4

Critchley, Bill,  King, Kathleen & Higgins, John (2007)

Organisational Consulting – A Relational Perspective

Middlesex University Press

ISBN 1 9047 5014 7

Dowrick, Stephanie (2001)

Intimacy & Solitude

W.W. Norton & Company, ISBN 0 3930 3627 8

Gergen, Kenneth J. (1999)

An Invitation to Social Construction

Sage Publications, ISBN 0 8039 8377 8

Griffin, Douglas & Stacey, Ralph (2005)

Complexity and the Experience of Leading Organizations

Routledge, ISBN 0 4153 6693 3

Mead, George H. (1934)

Mind, Self and Society

University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0 2265 1668 7

Reason, Peter & Bradbury, Hillary (2001)

Handbook of Action Research

Sage Publications, ISBN 0 7619 6645

Ricard, Matthieu (2003)


Atlantic Books, ISBN 1 8435 4558 3

Published by scheubel

Organisational Change Consultant, Coach and Trainer - focus on Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability

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