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Do You Actually Have a Personality?

According to social constructionist approaches to meaning-making, you don't.

 jura-photography [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Original image: jura-photography [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you actually have a personality? This may seem, on the face of it, like a ridiculous question. Or even (pardon me!) an insulting one. After all, it’s commonly assumed that people have personalities that they carry with them from situation to situation. Your personality traits—friendly, stern, analytical, petulant, etc.—are believed to originate deep within you and reflect the essence of who you are.

From the standpoint of social constructionist approaches to meaning-making, this presumption that how you act stems mainly from stable and enduring qualities inside you is suspect because it fails to fully consider the crucial influence of context on behavior. That thoughtful, deliberative, and soft-spoken person you are at work is quite different from the suave and charming flirt you become on that first date or the shirtless, face-painted maniac you morph into while tailgating on Sundays. Which one reflects who you “really” are?

That’s a head-scratcher because—according to social constructionism—it’s a questionable question in the first place. Social constructionists (such as renowned psychologist Ken Gergen) argue that Western societies place so much emphasis on the unique qualities of individuals that they get locked into ways of understanding that privilege the person over the social. According to social constructionism, who you are in any given situation inevitably emerges less from internal traits inside you and more from the relational ways of communicating and interacting unique to that context (what social constructionists sometimes call “discourses”). All this is a fancy way of saying that who you are gets “constructed” in the course of relationships. For instance, you can only be “grouchy” if the idea of “grouchiness” exists in language and you are surrounded by other people who use that term to describe and define you.

This perhaps explains why it was a relief for so many of us when we finally graduated high school. After years of being talked about and defined according to various preexisting discourses of identity (jock, nerd, cool kid, cut up, etc.), we were finally free! When we went to college or got that first job and nobody from high school was there to hold us to previous constructions of who we “really” were, we felt we could become whatever we wanted—or at least, we could redefine ourselves within the socially constructed identities available to us in that new context.

The idea here is that rather than having a singular “personality,” we have numerous “identities”—as many identities as we have relationships in which we and those we interact with come to understand and define us. Hence, you are “caring” to your spouse within the context of your marriage but “aloof” to your employees in the context of work. Both socially constructed identities are true within their respective contexts—not necessarily because they reflect traits inside you, but because in the marital and work contexts the relationships and discourses that come to define you vary.

Thus, from a social constructionist point of view, people don’t have permanent and context-free personalities. They have assorted identities, which are always unique to specific situations and the ways people in those situations come to hold shared understandings—including the shared understanding that people “have” personalities!

More from Jonathan D. Raskin, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today