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A Psychosocial Epistemology

| #015 | THEORY > cns687 | 739 words |

It’s not about what I know or what you know, but it’s all about what we can know together.

self-other triangle diagram.png
Self and Other

Prior to adopting the wellness wheel to diagram this indigenous epistemology of balance, I too utilized a triangle diagram. Starting in 1981, I envisioned a tension between a self-emphasis and an other-emphasis. In self-emphasis, one focuses inward, upon ego needs like autonomy and free will. In other-emphasis, one focuses outward, upon social needs like belonging and affection.

Consider the options along the suggested ontological continuum (Hanson, 2004). I see constructivism as it is presented as correlating with self-emphasis—an internal ego-need focus. And I see social constructionism as it is presented correlating with other-emphasis—an external social-need focus.

“Constructivism is the epistemic position that individuals create realities. Social constructionism refers to the idea that groups create realities” (Hanson, 2004). These need not be mutually exclusive, especially from a postmodernist perspective of equally viable narratives.

Individuals create their own narratives, but draw heavily from the narratives shared by others. Internalizing narratives of others remain filtered through one’s unique subjectivity. Unlike a modernist view of discrete categories vying for authoritative truth, one could see these cycling with each other.

At times in our lives, and in the lives of our counseling clients, ego needs are more salient. For those leaning toward self-emphasis, focusing upon their ego needs (i.e., internal resources, like autonomy), constructivism will tend to be prominent. What is real to me is what I perceive myself finding as real, since I must then rely on my internal resources.

At other times in our lives, and in the lives of our counseling clients, social needs are more salient. For those leaning toward other-emphasis, focusing upon their social needs (i.e., external resources, like belongingness), social constructionism will tend to be prominent. What is real to me is what I perceive others help me define as real, since I rely on them for external resources.

It’s about needs

Our perceptions of reality tend to be anchored around our need-experience. What is “real” to us intersects with our perceptions of need-relief; what is totally irrelevant to our need-experience tends to lack sufficient salience to be captured in our concepts of what is “real.” Epistemology, then, if largely about knowing how to predictably relieve needs.

We know how to relieve some needs on our own. And we know we need to rely on others to relieve other needs. We often find ourselves in sociocultural situations where one tends to be more readily accessible than the other. Living at a time when an other-emphasis privileges social needs at many of my ego needs’ expense inevitably shapes my epistemology. This appears to be the ontological milieu that birthed modernism.

In its historical reaction to a premodern bias toward religiously defined collectivism, modernism presents as a corrective bias toward rationally and empirically defined individuation. Instead of entirely replacing religious epistemology, modernism competed alongside it for centuries.

This tended to fit into the specialization of labor, as the human need for meaning was left to the realm of religion while the human need for reliable need relieving experiences was left to the increasingly competitive realm of science and technology. In contrast to other cultures, Western culture tended to reify this distinction between the individuated self and the relational self.

This tendency toward discreteness appears to have set a template for the corrective attempts of postmodernism to follow. Postmodernist literature echoes this normalization of psychosocial imbalance, of seeing self-emphasis and other-emphasis as potentially mutually exclusive.

But in postmodernism I do see room to transcend this ontological binary. Despite the didactic rhetoric mirroring modernist truth claims, postmodernism at least sees itself as “working assumptions rather than confident assertions” (Gergen, 1999).

Fortunately, I see an emerging participatory epistemology with convincing viability (Sexton, 1997) that is inclusive of how minority indigenous cultures integrates these relational aspects of ontology. I see this bending into an arc that is slowly swinging back to our common indigenous roots, away from the reactionary materialistic orientation of the modernist era and more toward a holistic view of wellness, of beingness that integrates the individuated-self with the relatedness-self.

I see room for a psychosocial epistemology central to my own constructs as a practicing counselor. Problems in living among the disprivileged clients I serve appear to stem from normalized imbalanced attention to accessing both internal and external resources. Ultimately, it’s not only about constructed narratives, but about experiencing needs beyond language. And modernist tools may prove essential in helping us help clients find much needed relief.


Sexton, T. (1997). Constructivist thinking within the history of ideas: The challenge of a new paradigm. In T. Sexton & B. Griffin (Eds.), Constructivist thinking in counseling practice, research, and training (pp. 3-18). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gergen, K. (1999). An invitation to social construction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Chapter two: The communal construction of the real and the good (pp. 33-61).

Hansen, J. T. (2004). Thoughts on knowing: Epistemic implications of counseling practice. Journal of Counseling & Development, 82, 131-138.

Steph is a self-described transspirit, which is a kind of sacred misfit. By transcending conventional limits—gender norms, religious identities, political polarities, and more—Steph experiences a unique connection in life. And suspects others do as well. This blog shares that spirituality, and affirms others of a similar state of being.

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