Book Review: Dialogical Self Theory: Positioning and Counter-positioning in Globalizing Society

Book Reviews / August 2011

Hubert Hermans & Agnieszka Hermans-Konopka (2010)/ Dialogical Self Theory: Positioning and Counter-positioning in Globalizing Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

John Rowan

This is a brilliant book which would be of interest to Integral people for three reasons: although it does not have a concept of levels, it does range over all four quadrants of the AQAL model; it uses second-tier thinking throughout; and it is firmly research-based.

The first chapter takes us on to the international stage, and the concept of globalization. Straight away we are introduced to second-tier thinking. “The reaction to uncertainty that is central in the present book is a dialogical one. The special nature of dialogue is that it copes with uncertainty by going into this uncertainty rather than avoiding it. Entering a dialogue, with other individuals or with oneself, opens a range of possibilities that are not fixed at the beginning but remain flexible and susceptible to change during the process itself.” (p.46)

The book goes on to explore the process of globalization in a number of fruitful ways. The authors link external processes to internal processes all along the line. “In an era of increased globalization the number and nature of voices in the self have been expanded dramatically, and we are increasingly involved in mediated forms of dialogue: “In contrast to earlier times, dialogical relationships make use of technological advances such as the Internet, e-mail, mobile telephones, multi-user dimensions, and short-message systems that expand our dialogical possibilities beyond the boundaries of self and identity as described in traditional theories.” (p.64) These authors point out that dialogical self theory allows one to make distinctions between several closely related concepts such as uncertainty, anxiety, threat, confusion and absurdity. (p.79)

After the global reach of Chapter 1, in Chapter 2 we come to the individual. Self and identity are looked at in terms of traditional, modern, postmodern and dialogical models. The whole idea of dialogical self theory is that it enables us to get rid of less fruitful concepts such as subpersonalities, ego-states, parts and so forth, and to use instead the much more robust notion of I-positions. This avoids the dangers of reification inherent in the older concepts, and also enables us to work freely with such I-positions as soul and spirit. For example, I often used to say to people with a big decision to make, “What does your intellect say about this? What does your heart say about this? What does your body say about this?” I use chairwork to explore the matter. But more recently I have also been asking, “What does your soul say about this?” I use another chair for that. (People who do not like the word ‘soul’ often prefer terms like ‘higher self’ or ‘inner teacher’ or ‘wise self’ or something else.) I have expanded on this idea quite fully in my book Personification, which came out in 2010.

But this book has a much wider reach, and in Chapter 3 we meet with such concepts as self-conflict, self-criticism, self-agreement and self-consultancy. The dialogical self finds such internal splits very easy to handle, because each side of the split is given full authority and autonomy. There is a genuine respect for the two sides of the argument. The authors refer to Bakhtin (1973) as the originator of their approach using the concept of I-positions. For example, Bakhtin is quoted as saying: “For the author the hero is not ‘he’ and not ‘I’ but a full-valued ‘thou’, that is another full-fledged ‘I’.” (p.51) A self is part of a dynamic multiplicity of relatively autonomous I-positions in the landscape of the mind. This relative autonomy is very important. These authors go on to discuss the types of consciousness found in mysticism.

Having tackled, so to speak, the lower right quadrant and the upper left, the authors go on to deal with the lower left. They argue that each person is formed in a we-position, a culture, which forms part of their developmental matrix. And this starts early: experiments with one and two month old babies show that social interactions are already taking place. “These findings are in agreement with the general observation in developmental psychology that the second month of life marks the emergence of inter-subjectivity and the active sharing of experiences with social partners.” (p.202) A recent posting on You-Tube showed two babies in nappies standing up in a kitchen and having a long ‘conversation’ in babble, which apparently pleased both of them. The present authors even discuss the presence of transcendent experiences in childhood, quoting the research of Kohnstamm (2007).

One of their most interesting contributions is the idea of promoter positions. A promoter position “is needed for creating order and direction in the multiplicity of positions of the self.” They go on to say: “Whereas continuity is guaranteed by their ability to link the past, present and future of the self, a certain degree of discontinuity results from the fact that they function as a source of new positions. In this sense, promoter positions function as innovators of the self.” (p.228) And they point out that the people in our lives who have the greatest influence on us may be adopted as new promoter positions, particularly when this person appeals to positions in the self that were hidden, neglected, or waiting to become actualized. (p.234)

In Chapter 5 we come on to the Upper Right quadrant, with a discussion of emotions and the brain. “The brain has two circuits for producing an emotion, a lower and a higher one. The lower circuit is involved when the amygdala, an important part of the limbic system involved in the processing of emotions, senses danger and produces an emergency signal to the brain and the body. The higher circuit, slower than the lower one, is involved when the danger signal is carried from the lower parts of the brain to the neocortex.” (p.255) But then, true to the practice of the second tier, they go on to relate all this to the social sphere. “Emotions are not purely internal processes, but parts of a highly dynamic social and societal process of positioning. Depending on the positions in which people find themselves, particular emotions are expected to emerge, whereas others are expected to be absent or suppressed. Under the influence of position-related expectations, some emotions are tolerated, accepted, emphasized, exaggerated, or denied, whereas others are not.” (p.257) This is very sophisticated thinking, it seems to me. And they go to an interesting examination of the concept of authenticity.  “Dialogical authenticity implies not only listening to the voice of one’s own emotions, but also to the voice and messages of the emotion of the other. When these messages are part of a meaningful interchange, then the alterity of the other has a chance to become integrated into one’s own emotions, without the risk that their voice is neglected, adapted to the other, or prematurely changed. Dialogical authenticity can be understood by considering it from the perspective of the Buddhist notion of compassion.” (p.277)

In the final chapter, the authors look at practical implications for organizations, motivation and conflict resolution. “It is essential for dialogical leadership that the leader himself is introduced into the position repertoire of his colleagues as a promoter position. In this sense, the leader is not purely outside the self of the participants of the organization but included as a common part of their external positions.” (p.328) The authors go on to discuss the example of a group taken by Hermans, concerned with innovations in school organizations. “During our discussion in the innovation group, we observed that in the conventional school system the teacher was mainly in one position, that of the knowledgeable expert who transfers his know-how to the students. However, in the new system, he has to act from another position, that of a coach. Whereas the expert position allows him to teach, the coach position requires him to coach and supervise.  (p.331)

There is a good discussion of conflict resolution, but as so often happens, the ideas of Mary Parker Follett (Graham 1995) are used without any credit being given to her pioneering work. Nevertheless, they do get the point. “When the principle of multi-positionality is recognised and accepted, an important condition is fulfilled for acknowledging and accepting that another perspective is possible. Awareness and acceptance of this possibility serves as the great door to dialogue. Dialogue can only develop when conflicting parties see their own perspective or position as not being the only one.” (p.348) This is well said, and forms part of the whole second-tier stance that informs this book throughout. They are quite critical (e.g. p.39) of the more usual monological approach.

This is a long book, and quite a heavy book, but it is so interesting to read for anyone concerned with these matters that it is well worth a serious look.


Bakhtin, M. (1973). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics (2nd ed. trans R W Rotsel.) Ann Arbor: Ardis.
Graham, P (ed.) (1995). Mary Parker Follett: Prophet of management. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
Kohnstamm, P (2007). I am I – sudden flashes of self-awareness in childhood. London: Athena Press.
Rowan, J. (2010). Personification: Using the dialogical self in psychotherapy and counselling. Hove: Routledge.

About the Author

John Rowan

John  Rowan  is an author, counselor, psychotherapist and clinical supervisor who practices Primal integration in England. He has worked with Ken Wilber in exploring Transpersonal psychology and has written several books on subpersonalities. He has a Ph. D from Middlesex University, is an Honorary Fellow of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy and a past member of its governing board, representing the Humanistic and Integrative Section. He is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society (member of the Psychotherapy Section and the Counseling Psychology Division, the Counseling Psychology Division, the Transpersonal Psychology Section and the Consciousness and Experience Section). He is also a Fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and a founding member of the Association of Humanistic Psychology Practitioners. His most popular publication is Ordinary Ecstasy which was originally published in 1976 and is a summary and guide to all the branches of Humanistic psychology.