Gordon Allport’s narrative approach to personality

Gordon Allport’s Narrative Approach to PersonalityGordon Willard Allport combined methodological, theoretical, and pedagogical approaches: rigorous experimental and quantitative research and qualitative means of data collection and analysis. Allport’s interest in the entire life and the whole personality marked the historical emergence of the narrative approach in psychology (Allport, 1942). In his autobiography, Allport posed these three empirical questions for the social sciences: “How shall a psychological life history be written? What processes and what structures must a full-bodied account of personality include? How can one detect unifying threads in a life, if they exist?” (1967, p. 3). 

Allport’s Proprium
In Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality based on the Terry Lectures he delivered at Yale University, Allport (1955) laid the groundwork for his psychology of personality using eight propriate functions; or “aspects of personality that established inward unity” (p. 40). Allport’s proprium, or “quality of organismic complexity, having to do with warmth, unity, and a sense of personal importance, evolved with human need” (pp. 64-65) and “made for the peculiar unity and distinctiveness of personality that develops in time” (p. 61).

Like William James, Allport (1955) professed that “all psychological functions commonly ascribed to a self or ego must be admitted as data in the scientific study of personality” (p. 55). Advancing James’s taxonomic scheme of the empirical and knowing self, Allport’s proprium contained a substantive psychodynamic flavor: bodily sense, self-identity, ego-enhancement, ego-extension, rational activity, self-image, propriate striving, and knowing (p. 56), which were “inextricably interlocked and emphasized the individual’s uniqueness and the whole” (p. 23).

Propriate strivings. Propriate strivings distinguished themselves from other forms of motivation in their ability to unify personality: “existential awareness, self-actualization, idealization of the course of development, and a self-transcendent view… having clarity of vision, acceptance of responsibility, courage, self-objectification, oriented becoming… and the freedom that marks personal choice” (Allport, 1955, pp. 79-80). Likewise, “drive reduction seem[ed] to break down when motivation includes propriate strivings, which do not confer fulfillment, repose, or reduced tension upon personality” (p. 67). When the center of the organization of personality shifts suddenly and without warning, it provides the impetus for a reorientation and recentering; “personality being the projected outcome of one’s growth” (p. 90).

Comprehensive belief system. Allport (1955) asked, “Is it not true that at the highest levels of integration the structure of a personality clarifies?” (p. 91). To which he replied, “When the many threads are assembled we perceive that they are woven into cables. The cables serve the function of binding the individual to the world in terms of major meanings” (p. 92). Allport, building on James, further distinguished “religious sentiment” as that aspect of the developed personality that sought a theory of being in which all fragments are meaningfully ordered in the quest for a comprehensive belief system (pp. 94-95). Per Allport, the final task of personality, “the relating of oneself meaningfully to creation; the religious form of propriate strivings alone provided one with a synthesis of all that lies within and beyond experience” (p. 97). This approach to personality goes beyond research at the cognitive and behavioral levels to explore the existential grounding of behavior and the transcendental realm of higher consciousness.

Allport’s Narrative Approach
In Letters from Jenny (Allport, 1965), a series of 301 letters written between 1926-1937 by Jenny Masterson (58 -70 years old) to her deceased son Ross’s college roommate Glenn and his wife Isabel, Allport presents a case study in his seminar on personality at Harvard for the purpose of challenging his students to explain Jenny’s raw uninhibited expressions of feeling, perception, and unconscious motivation. These autobiographical documents, later edited and published in The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, traced the story of this mother-son relationship to illustrate the use of personal documents in psychological science. What did Letters from Jenny teach Allport’s students?

Mixed methods and perception of the observer. Allport’s (1965) commentary on Jenny blended existential, depth, and structural-dynamic approaches. His seminar pointed to how differences in the approach the psychologist used to interpret Jenny’s letters changed the meaning of her experience: The existential approach tied together themes and threads of Jenny’s world-view—subjective perceptions, emotions, and feelings; or phenomenological “being-in-the-world” (p. 163); the depth approach looked for hidden motivation; and the structural approach found underlying traits that accounted for the recurrence of characteristic perceptions.

Where is the person in psychology? A first-person subjective approach is foundational to research in psychology. A second-person, intersubjective perspective is equally essential. Third-person science is an extrapolation of experience. While statistics reduce the person to symptom clusters, human beings do not mirror statistics. Predictability is an illusion. Where do you find yourself along Allport’s (1965) continuum of interpreting the case of Jenny?
•    Depth psychology: unconscious motivations stem from childhood and family situations; phenomenological approach provides Jenny’s symptoms on the psychic surface.
•    Eriksonian perspective: basic distrust motif in Jenny’s nature rested functionally upon early affectional deprivation.
•    Jungian approach: Jenny’s thinking function, animus nature, shadow, and archetypes revealed unconscious motivation.
•    Adlerian perspective: Jenny’s problem was her conflict between autonomy and sociality.
•    Freudian framework: Jenny was a neurotic anal character type who had not resolved her oedipal conflict; sadomasochistic, frigid, guilt-ridden woman with repressed homosexual identity having an incestuous component.
•    Ego psychologists: less emphasis on unconscious motivation, psychosexual fixations, and ego defenses; more on conflict free ego dispositions and current interest patterns of life.
•    Structural-dynamic: existential-phenomenological, emphasis on conscious motivation.
•    Learning theory: personality depends on habits and contemporary systems of interests; learned dispositions/traits provide an interlocking matrix with dominant themes and a predictable, statistically significant, objectifiable structure to personality.

Allport, G. W. (1942). The use of personal documents in psychological science (Bulletin 49). New York, NY: Social Science Research Council.

Allport, G. W. (1955). Becoming: Basic considerations for a psychology of personality. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Allport, G. W. (1965). (Ed.). Letters from Jenny. New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Allport, G. W. (1967). Autobiography. In E. G. Boring & G. Lindzey (Eds.), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 5, pp. 3-25). New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Allport, G. W. (1968). The person in psychology: Selected essays. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Allport, Gordon W., Ph.D., (1897-1967) studied psychology and social ethics at Harvard University as an undergraduate (1915-1919) under Hugo Münsterberg, Edwin B. Holt, Leonard Troland, Walter Dearborn, Ernest Southard, and Herbert Langfeld. He taught English and sociology in Istanbul at Robert College (1919-1920) and returned to Harvard to complete his Ph.D. under Herbert S. Langfeld, William McDougall, and James Ford. His dissertation was entitled An Experimental Study of the Traits of Personality: With Special Reference to the Problem of Social Diagnosis (1922). Thereafter, Allport studied in Germany with Stumpf and Dessoir, in Berlin with the Gestaltists Wertheimer, Köhler, and Spranger, and in Hamburg with Werner and Stern. Influenced by Richard Cabot, Allport lectured on psychological and social aspects of personality at Harvard (1924-1926) and was an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Dartmouth College (1926-1930). Allport returned to Harvard as an Assistant Professor (1930-1937), Associate Professor (1937-1942), and Professor (1942-1967). He edited the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (1937 to 1948), served as President of the American Psychological Association (1939), President of the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (1944), and cofounded the Department of Social Relations at Harvard. Among Allport’s works are Personality: A Psychological Interpretation (1937), The Use of Personal Documents in Psychological Science (1942), The Nature of Prejudice (1954), Becoming: Basic Considerations for a Psychology of Personality (1955), Letters from Jenny (1965), Autobiography (1967), and The Person in Psychology: Selected Essays (1968).

— Susan Gordon

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