Interpersonal Theory


Development of personality develops within social contexts

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … the range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … competent functioning, preferably with limited anxieties
  • Learner is … a social agent
  • Learning is … deriving meaning from experience
  • N/A




Interpersonal Theory describes seven developmental stages between infancy and late adolescence, each defined according to significant others (e.g., mother; friends; lover), interpersonal dynamics (e.g., playing together; trusting; being intimate), and key relationship-based learnings (e.g., distinguishing good from bad; cooperating; showing affection). As with other Developmental Discourses, especially those tied to Psychoanalytic Theories, failure to meet critical challenges at any stage can result in anxieties that can hamper (sometimes prevent) learning from one’s experiences.


Perhaps the most common criticisms of Interpersonal Theory arise from its origins in and associations with Psychoanalytic Theories. Concisely, Interpersonal Theory is typically seen to have similar shortcomings. As well, and as with most other Developmental Discourses, Interpersonal Theory is frequently criticized for being normative – that is, for failing to account for broad variations among individuals and across cultures.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Harry Stack Sullivan

Status as a Theory of Learning

Interpersonal Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Interpersonal Theory is a not theory of teaching, but it has been used to as a source of insight and advice on age- and stage-appropriate knowledge and activity in formal educational settings.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Interpersonal Theory meets some of the requirements of a scientific theory. Its focus is explicit, its images and metaphors are carefully selected and deployed, and it does have a limited evidence base. That said, many argue its evidence base is inadequate to its claims. In this regard, Interpersonal Theory is subject to the same criticisms as other Psychoanalytic Theories and Developmental Discourses.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2019). “Interpersonal Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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