The Relational Self: Comfort or Threat? The African Experience

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In this second of the series on sense of self and how it differs across cultures, I am going to look at the interconnected or relational self, and how awareness of how interdependent we are might lead to fear of others.

It has long been a commonplace in psychology and sociology that the idea of a single self, free and independent, powering its way through life on its own self esteem, is a recent historical phenomenon — and one which came about, loosely speaking, in Western societies and refers rather (particularly historically) to men, who first acquired the economic power with which to feel free, independent and separate. The more powerful the men (so here race and class come into play), the more free and independent they are likely to feel.

People with other experiences of the world, from cultures or circumstances which tend towards, or dictate, an experience of being interdependent with others, part of a mesh or web of relationships from which it is not so easy to step out and exert your ‘freedom’, have formed other concepts of self, such as the relational self.

Feminist writers have often emphasised how central and fundamental relationships are to women’s experience, and how irrelevant the idea is of a wholly autonomous, independent self, isolated in its complete freedom and responsibility. From this often quite warm and fuzzy sense of the self as a part of a great web of relationships, I am going to consider a piece of research, ‘Self and Identity in African Studies’, by Adams and Afi Dzokoto (2003), which stresses the significance of enemies.

African studies have long championed the existence of a relational self, or interdependent self-ways (Markus, Mullally and Kitayama 1997), stressing how the fundamental condition of the individual is intrinsic connection to other people, places, spirits of ancestors, etc. There is, however, a significant difference between the feminist and African experiences/concepts of self. While in Western cultures the concept of interconnection is often value laden, seen as a positive phenomenon, in West Africa interdependence is seen rather as a simple fact of life — the fundamental fact of life, indeed, with no values attached.

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Adams and Afi Dzokoto argue that in West Africa, the fact of visible, experienced interdependence (I would argue that all of us are interdependent, but in Western culture it is easier to construct an illusion to hide it) not only allows people to feel supported and held by an order in the universe, but actually renders people vulnerable. Hence the possibility of enemyship, “a form of personal relationship involving hatred, malice, and sabotage” (Adams 2000).

Adams and Afi Dzokoto did find evidence to suggest that the people in West Africa who participated in their research were concerned about the existence of people who wished them ill, particularly amongst their own friends or inner circle — the enemy within, rather than outside, in some ‘other’ group. They themselves professed to bear no ill will towards anybody. Yet there was a pervasive sense of threat. Why is this?

The authors argue that material forms of interdependence, for example of eating from a shared bowl, sleeping in a bed shared with other members of the family rather than having one’s own room, travelling on buses or in taxis with the maximum possible load of other people travelling the same way, rather than in a separate car, may contribute to a culture in which it is very common to fear the existence of enemies, to a degree which would be labelled in North American culture as paranoia. The close proximity of other people in living spaces makes interpersonal tension more likely and enemies much harder to avoid.

However, many people in different cultures around the world live in these material conditions, and I do not know if they all share the same concern about enemies. Maybe it is the belief in destiny — that the universe works to its own hierarchical order rather than being a random collection of events — that leads to the assigning of bad intent to things which inevitably go wrong in people’s lives, supplying a reason for them to happen?

The study, which is far more complex and wide-ranging than I show it to be here, serves as a useful correction to a tendency to idealise our connections and relationships, finding them to be the most vital source of nourishment in our lives, a desire to relax into a sense that we are at one with the universe to counteract the lonely struggle of the individual exerting his (sic) will and rights.

It may well be the case that we are at one with the universe, and our relationships are the most meaningful elements in our lives — but the universe has two sides, the good and the bad.


Adams, G. (2000) The collective construction of enemyship in Ghana and the USA: Implications for the study of psychology and culture. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Stanford University, Stanford, CA.

Adams, G. and Dzokoto, V.A.(2003) ‘Self and Identity in African Studies’, Self and Identity, 2(4): 345-359.

Markus, H.R.; Mullally, P.; and Kitayama, S. (1997) ‘Selfways: Diversity in modes of cultural participation’. In U. Neisser and D.A. Jopling (Eds.), The conceptual self in context: Culture, experience, self-understanding, pp. 13-61. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University

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