Postmodern Psychology and Socially Constructed Selves

QUESTION: Postmodern Psychology – Socially Constructed Selves


The Postmodern psychology of the socially constructed self was developed by Jacques Lacan, a French psychologist, who was one of four French intellectuals of the 1960s whose writings forged much of Postmodern thought.1 “Lacan’s vision of the self is outlined in his famous essay, ‘The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I,’ first published in 1949” writes Glenn Ward. Then, quoting Lacan, “‘Selfhood is really nothing but a fleeting, unstable, incomplete and open-minded mess of desires which cannot be fulfilled.’”2

Ward comments, “Lacan and Foucault propose that the stable, unified self has always been an illusion.”3 In their view, our identity is the result of social factors—“You are constructed by the social [e.g., language, geography, family, education, government, etc.] and are ultimately determined by it.”4

Walter Truett Anderson puts it this way: “All ideas about human reality are social constructions.”5 In other words, what used to be called the soul “is replaced with a collage of social constructs.”6

Stephens contends that “The implications of the [Postmodern] theory are large: It’s not just that we each have different sides to our personality; it’s that we have no central personality in relation to which all our varied behaviors might be seen as just ‘sides.’ We are, in other words, not absolutely anything.”7

Postmodern Psychology – A Multiplicity of Selves
But there is more. Postmodern psychologists are now asserting there is no one “self,” but a multiplicity of “selves.” Kenneth Gergen is a psychology professor at Swarthmore College. His book, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, is considered one of the best introductions to Postmodern psychology. Gergen states, “...postmoderns are populated with a plethora of selves. In place of an enduring core of deep and indelible character, there is a chorus of invitations. Each invitation ‘to be’ also casts doubt on the wisdom and authenticity of the others. Further, the postmodern person senses the constructed character of all attempts at being—on the part of both self and others.”8

Gergen’s assessment of the Postmodern condition has a following among other Postmodern psychologists. Stephens writes that “a group of counselors and therapists, for example, has begun noting that we all must ‘create’ other selves as we leave our families in search of friendship, success and love—and then move on to new friendships, new successes and new loves. Social psychologists have begun studying not only our ‘child selves,’ our ‘professional selves,’ our ‘friendship selves’ and our ‘parent selves,’ but also what Hazel Markus labels our ‘possible selves,’ our ‘feared possible selves,’ our ‘ideal selves,’ our ‘fleeting selves,’ our ‘tentative selves’ and our ‘chronically accessible selves.’”9

To illustrate our Postmodern multiplicity of selves, Gergen paints the following collage of Postmodern life: “Connie spent her childhood in New Jersey. After her parents were divorced, her mother moved with the children to San Diego. Connie’s teen years were spent shuttling between father and mother on either coast. After she graduated from the University of Colorado, she moved to Alaska to work on a fishing boat, and then to Wyoming to become a ski instructor. Now Connie is working on a geological-survey vessel in the Antarctic, and is engaged to a man living in Portland, Oregon. Fred is a neurologist who spends many of his spare hours working to aid families from El Salvador. Although he is married to Tina, on Tuesday and Thursday nights he lives with an Asian friend with whom he has a child. On weekends he drives his BMW to Atlantic City for gambling.”10

Gergen is pointing out that in our technologically “saturated” society with its multiple opportunities for personal interaction, it is impossible to know which is our “real” self, since we play so many different roles at different times and with different people. This can be disorienting to some. A theory of multiple socially constructed selves provides a way for those living in a Postmodern world to adjust to the reality of their condition.


Rendered with permission from the book, Understanding the Times: The Collision of Today’s Competing Worldviews (Rev. 2nd ed), David Noebel, Summit Press, 2006. Compliments of John Stonestreet, David Noebel, and the Christian Worldview Ministry at Summit Ministries. All rights reserved in the original.

1 Barbara Epstein, “Postmodernism and the Left,” New Politics vol. 6, no. 2, Winter, 1997: “The constellation of trends that I am calling Postmodernism has it origins in the writings of a group of French intellectuals of the 60s, the most preeminently Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Jean-Francois Lyotard. Those who developed Postmodernism tended to be associated with the radicalism of the 60s.”
2 Glen Ward, Postmodernism (Chicago, IL: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2003), 149.
3 Ibid., 120.
4 Ibid., 136. While Postmodernists are infatuated with race, gender, and class, it would appear that race and gender are not easily classified as social, but biological.
5 Walter Truett Anderson, Reality Isn’t What It Used To Be: Theatrical Politics, Ready-to-Wear Religion, Global Myths, Primitive Chic, and Other Wonders of the Postmodern World (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1990), 3.
6 Ibid.
7 Quoted in Mitchell Stephens, “To Thine Own Selves be True,” Los Angeles Times Magazine (August 23, 1992). Online article accessed August 10, 2005:
8 Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000), 174. See Questia, April 19, 2006 .
9 Stephens, “To Thine Own Selves be True.”
10 Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, 171.

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