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Dimensions of the In- and Interdependent Self

Text by Maria Clara Schaeffer (Freie Universität Berlin)

Image by Pablo Dohms

In this essay, I reconstruct findings regarding the constructions of selves and how they relate to how we perceive and act in the world within psychological and social-cultural sciences and discuss their meanings, potentials and critiques. Since psychology is a historically ethnocentric subject, I believe that a more profound interdisciplinary cooperation between psychology and anthropology would greatly benefit this research area.

The anthropological study of human existence rests on epistemological assumptions that both unite, and diversify persons, selves, and their experience. One being that we are social creatures, we depend on others around us; yet we are also individuals with a sense of autonomy – to differing degrees.

In 1955 Alfred Irving Hallowell noted that “[…] people everywhere are likely to develop an understanding of themselves as physically distinct and separable from others” (in Kitayama, Markus 1991, 225) referring to the construction of human selves

But what exactly is a self? I define it here as being aware of oneself, having a private sphere of thoughts, emotions, dreams that can only be known explicitly by oneself; having a sense of purpose with respect to one’s surroundings,[1] having an inner center of sorts and an inner referral point (cf. ibid). All of us humans have a sense of self but since our understandings of the world are grounded in our environment, and our cultural and social upbringing, it is by far not universal.

In 1991 Hazel Rose Markus and Shinobu Kitayama wrote an influential paper on in- and interdependent self-construals which marked a milestone for the field of psychology in particular, but for the field of anthropology as well. They challenged the universal view of the self and thus of motivation, cognition and emotion by arguing that “[t]he exact content and structure of the inner self may differ considerably by culture” (Markus, Kitayama 1991, 226). In this essay, I want to explore the meaning of the self by referring to Markus and Kitayama among others. Since many thought-/ emotion-/ and behavior patterns seem culturally naturalized, appearing self-evident and unquestionably “right” within one’s own society, it might be a worthwhile endeavor to reflect and challenge one's perception of the self, to challenge a taken for granted world view.

The term culture is central to this subject. While cultures are neither stable nor clearly definable, its notion demands clarification due to its imperviousness to establishing a common ground. Following Eileen Anderson-Fye (2018), I define culture as an assemblage of signs and symbols (“semiotic” element) which entail e.g., ideas, beliefs, and ideals that are intertwined learned, observed, and embodied behavior, comprising for example rituals and habits (cf. p. 2) that persons and collectives can draw on (cf. p.2).

In psychological theory, two dominant models of self-construal exist: An independent and an interdependent one. They are often outlined as binarily opposed to one another with whole societies being either egocentric – meaning individualist and autonomous – or sociocentric – meaning relational and collective. This stands in line with the Cartesian dualistic tradition of object-subject, nature-culture, individual-society on the one side and a monistic tradition that regards the person “to be of the same substance as the rest of nature” on the other (Kitayama, Markus 1991, 227).

Summarizing Markus and Kitayama’s findings on the effects of independent and interdependent self construals on cognition, emotion, and motivation one can state the following: The interdependent self is more sensitive to others since relationships are ends in themselves. The representation of the self as well as of others is context specific, for example “what is my ‘proper place’ in this social interaction, what are the obligations attached to it?” (Kitayama, Markus 1991, 234). Knowledge about the self is relational to other people and in sociocentric societies, one expects a crucial element of self-control and regulation as opposed to self-assertion, distinguishment in independent self-construals, where – according to psychological literature - the perception of the own self is considered to be more sophisticated than of others (cf. ibid, 231) and relationships may be used as a means to achieve personal goals. Here, pride, anger and frustration are central emotional states and labeled as ego-focused emotions (ibid, 235) since personal goals, opinions, values, desires serve as the “primary referent” (ibid). Studies imply that persons with independent self-construals experience feelings longer and more intensely with more physical symptoms accompanying it (such as racing heart, lump in throat etc.) (cf. ibid, 236). In individuals with interdependent selves, other-focused emotions (cf. ibid, 235) are more pronounced, for example sympathy, empathy, and shame. While emotional expression in societies with predominantly independent selves strive to be an authentic representation of one’s inner world, among interdependent selves it may be seen as “a public instrumental action” (ibid, 236). This finding thus challenges the universalist view that all people experience certain feelings equally (cf. ibid).

A person with an independent self is motivated to act to enhance his/her self-esteem, to avoid cognitive conflict (saying one thing, feeling another), to self-actualize and “to achieve some internalized standards of excellence” (ibid, 241). By contrast, so the argument goes, a person with an interdependent self will strive to adjust to the needs of those around him/her, to avoid blame and to assimilate and enhance one’s own social group’s social standing (ibid).

After looking at these two models, it is important to remember that they paint an oversimplified and distorted image of how persons and societies construct selves. Apart from selves being molded and impacted by personal experiences, family values, upbringing and contact with other cultures, “[…] writers from many disciplines have emphasized that individuality and sociality are indispensable and mutually reinforcing aspects of human functioning in any cultural system” (Vignoles et al. 2016, 969, emphasis added). Hence, instead of juxtaposing cultures as either independent or interdependent, the question researchers should ask is how, to what degree and in what ways certain cultural aspects contribute to in-/interdependent self-construals.

It might make more sense to regard culture as “tacit” when it comes to its role in the construction of the self (Kitayama and Markus 2010, 426), assuming that culture is materialized and externalized by being inscribed into practices and institutions (cf. ibid). This allows for the evaluation of the degree of in-/interdependence by analyzing cultural artifacts such as advertisements, children’s books, religious texts and so on. Thus, US-American culture may be described as independent because its institutions and ideals are. But an ideal is by definition almost unachievable and is not necessarily of relevance to everyone.

In 2017 Hazel R. Markus published a follow-up article on in- and interdependent selves, dealing with interdependency in the USA, which she argued is ‘against general presumption’; a major and crucial aspect in the construction of most Americans yet stigmatized in public discourse since the cultural mainstream emphasizes independence and autonomy, a reflection of the white middle- and upper class sensibilities (cf. Markus 2017, 855p) (see appendix III).

A large part of the American population is part of the working class which can be characterized as having less money, less formal education, lower social status – overall limited resources compared to the middle and upper class, leading to greater degree of uncertainty. Uncertainty fosters interdependence, which is expressed in multiple ways, e.g., living in closer proximity to one’s family and generally tighter social networks (cf. ibid, 859). People enter relationships not only because of choice and preference but because of an increased reliance on others. This leads to a higher sense of connection and loyalty, of morality and hierarchy which renders personal opinions less important (cf. ibid). In this article, Markus shows the ambivalence and the situational character of in- and interdependence by taking the example of African-American communities – a group in which in relation to the entire society proportionally many belong to the working class due to structural and institutional disparities. “When the air is thick with assumptions of the inferiority of one’s group and one’s daily interactions […] it is difficult to be an independent self and to operate only as an 'I.' Stereotype threat is pervasive, and the 'We' self is chronically active” (ibid, 862). Yet, ideals of independence are strong among this group (such as uniqueness and self-confidence), possibly because of the ongoing fight for freedom and equality, and the denial of choice and control for centuries.

Douglas Hollan also provided examples of the interplay of in- and interdependence, in his 1992 published paper on his research among the Toraja in South Sulawesi, Indonesia and in the USA. In this work, he theorized that cultural models had been too readily assumed to correspond with subjective experience, something he accused, for example, Clifford Geertz and Louis Dumont of doing (cf. Hollan 1992, 285). Culture models being “the presupposed, taken-for-granted, commonsensical, and widely shared assumptions which a group of people hold about the world and its objects” (ibid). While he did acknowledge that linguistic as well as cultural categories and concepts shape the construction of the self significantly and thus also subjective experiences – he did not consider them to be interchangeable and regarded cultural models as simplified, idealized, and inconsistent premises and ideas by which people conceive their lives (Hollan 1992, 285p).

His research conducted in the USA in 1981 on the approach to death within one’s family among undergraduate students confirmed in sum that most participants had internalized and strived for ideals of independence, however in practice, they did not always adhere to this cultural model, their lives proved to be more intertwined and interdependent than the cultural model would suggest (cf. ibid).

Among his Toraja respondents and interlocutors, he found that alliance was highly valued while boasting, self-serving behavior was criticized. Most respondents displayed difficulties to assess their own actions without analyzing its effects on others when asked to evaluate their own behavior in specific situations. However, autonomous aspects of the self did surface, especially against the backdrop of the belief that it is wrong to coerce people and that assistance shouldn’t be taken for granted; it also became clear that Torajans used their expertise on for example harvesting, Gods, dreams to their own benefit:

Several men […] claimed that their knowledge of omens, dream interpretation, astrology, and special magical amulets […] enabled them to manipulate the life enhancing powers of the gods and ancestors to insure the fertility of their crops and livestock (ibid, 293).

When Markus and Kityama published their paper in 1991, it contributed greatly to the conceptualization of the self as culture bound. Admittedly, there is one salient issue with their paper, namely the East (interdependency) - West (independency) divide. This was certainly not their intention, but it is necessary to reflect upon and to find alternative ways of thinking and representing the construction of selves. One such approach was offered by an international research team in 2016 in response to Markus and Kitayama’s paper with the aim to counter this division. Instead of the two-dimensional model of self (in-/interdependent) they used a seven dimensional one for different ways of being in- or interdependent[2] (cf. Vignoles et al. 2016, 987). They conducted two large-scale studies, the largest one to that date,[3] being the first research group to explore the cultural dimensionality of self-construals (cf. ibid, 970). Their findings contradicted the clear-cut difference presented by the binary opposition of independent- vs. interdependent self-construals, proving it to be a lot more diverse and indistinguishable. [4]

To conclude, I want to underline that the study of the self is a vast field and an intriguingly interesting one too, since the construction of our selves influences every moment of our being and becoming. Yet, it often remains beyond our grasp. It poses some challenges to anthropology, especially regarding cultural comparisons and its methods (how do we even identify culture? Can we rely on quantitative self-report surveys only or would it take qualitative interviews, and if so, how could we compare those? It seems that fieldwork and ethnographic studies involving long-term participant observation are crucial). There are many more dimensions that need to be taken into account in future researches regarding the self, such as on personal wealth, religious beliefs, historical influences, or climato-economic interactions (and its interplays), to name but a few (cf. Vignoles et al. 2016, 992).

The exploration of the self presents a promising field of cooperation between anthropology and psychology, as the latter's theorizing and measurement methods are based on a rather ethnocentric and universal scheme, grounded in an idealized version of a self modeled after a white working-class American (cf. Kitayama, Markus 2010, 856). Hence, anthropologists could contribute to the gradually changing paradigm shift of the representation of the self in mainstream psychology towards a more culturally sensitive approach by anchoring, refuting and refurbishing data gathered in universities and research labs through fieldwork and ethnography. Michael Fischer’s ethnography is best suited to make use of the discipline’s credo of “ground-truthing, of showing when aggregate statistics, models, and maps produce errors that do not match with what is happening ‘on the ground,’ in reality, among actual people” (Fischer 2018, 4).


[1]cf. Neisser’s “ecological self“ (1988, 3)

[2] 1. Difference vs. Similarity 2. Self-containment vs. Connection to others 3. Self-direction vs. Receptiveness to influence 4. Self-reliance vs. Dependence on others 5. Consistency vs. Variability 6. Self-expression vs. Harmony 7. Self-interest vs. Commitment to others [3]“Study 1, N =2924 students in 16 nations […] Study 2, N =7279 adults from 55 cultural groups in 33 nations” (Vignoles et al. 2016, 967).

[4] “In study 2a we found no support for the predicted higher-order factor of independence versus interdependence at the cultural level of analysis (H1); instead, we found evidence of seven correlated but distinct dimensions at a cultural level, paralleling those at the individual level. Further analyses showed that neither a contrast between Western and non-Western cultures (H2, Study 2b) nor between individualist and collectivist cultures (H3, Study 2c) was sufficient to characterize the complexity of cultural models of selfhood across our diverse samples. These findings show clearly that it is not useful to characterize any culture as ‘independent’ or ‘interdependent’ in a general sense” (Vignoles et al. 2016, 991).


Anderson–Fye, Eileen. 2018. “Cultural Influences on Body Image and Eating Disorders.” In: The Oxford Handbook of Eating Disorders, edited by W. Stewart Agras. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (10/22/2020).

Becker, Maja, Brown, Rupert, Easterbrook Matthew J., Owe, Ellinor, Smith, Peter B., Vignoles, Vivian L. et al. 2016. “Beyond the 'East-West' Dichotomy: Global Variation in Cultural Models of Selfhood.” Journal of Experimental Psychology 145 (8), 966–1000.

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Killen, Melanie, Wainryb, Cecilia. (2000). “Independence and interdependence in diverse cultural contexts.” In Variability in the social construction of the child, edited by Harkness, Sara, C. Raeff, C. M. Super, 5-21. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kitayama, Shinobu, Markus, Hazel Rose. 1991. “Culture and the self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation.” Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224–253.

Kitayama, Shinobu, Markus, Hazel Rose. 2010. “Cultures and Selves: A Cycle of Mutual Constitution.” Perspectives on Psychological Science 5 (4), 420–430.

LeVine, Robert A. 2010. Psychological Anthropology: A Reader on Self in Culture. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

Markus, Hazel Rose. 2017. “American = Independent?” Perspectives on Psychological Science 12 (5), 855–866.

Neisser, Ulric. 1988. “Five kinds of self-knowledge.” Philosophical Psychology, 1 (1), 35-59.

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