Social Interaction, Social Context, and Language: Essays in Honor of Susan Ervin-Tripp

By Dan Isaac Slobin; Julie Gerhardt et al. | Go to book overview

2 1
THE LANGUAGE OF SOCIAL RELATIONSHIP

Roger Brown
Harvard University

There is a very big idea in psychology and anthropology these days which can be missed because its parts are distributed across authors and fields and there is some shifting of conceptual terms. Nakedly stated, the idea is that the self in Japan, China, Korea, India, Java, Thailand, the East generally, with Japan usually named as the clearest case, is not the same as the self in the West, with the United States usually named as the clearest case. The self in the East is said to be relational, interpersonal, or collective whereas the self in the West is individualistic and autonomous. The self in the West is, furthermore, said by Deborah Tannen ( 1991) and Carol Gilligan ( 1986) to be more characteristic of men than of women. Women in the West are said to have a more relational, a more Eastern self. And, what is more, the deflection of the West from its present doomsday course is thought to depend on the moderation of Western male individualism by Easternand-female relationism ( Geertz, 1975; Gergen & Gergen, 1988; Gilligan, 1982, 1986; Markus & Kitayama, 1991; Marselli, DeVos, & Hsu, 1985; Roland, 1988; Sampson, 1985, 1988, 1989; Shweder & Bourne, 1984; Shweder & LeVine, 1984; Tannen, 1991; Triandis, 1989; Triandis, Bontempo, Villareal, Asai, & Lucca, 1988).

Understandably, no one has cared to step forward as champion of so broad a thesis, so flatly stated. However, Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama in the July, 1991, Psychological Review have been bolder and more inclusive than most. Their paper "Culture and the Self" sets forth implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation, together with some persuasive evidence. It is getting a lot of attention.

The self construed as independent is organized as a repertoire of attributes -- more or less intelligent, sociable, practical, hard-working, sports-minded and the like; attributes conceptualized with little reference to others. Persons are thought to be inherently separate; connections are means to ends and can always be sundered.

For the self construed as relational, separation is a nightmare. It is imperative to maintain connections. Relations are primary goals in themselves and action is always contingent on the thoughts and feelings of others.

I have no trouble understanding what is meant by an individualistic autonomous self,

____________________
1
This paper was given in slightly different form as the Neil Graham Lecture at the University of Toronto, November, 1991.

-39-

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