Interpersonal Theory

AKA

Interpersonal Development Theory
Sullivan's Interpersonal Theory

Focus

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

Originated

1940s

Synopsis

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. In more detail, the stages are:
  • Infancy Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 1st level of Interpersonal Theory, from birth until the emergence of meaningful speech (typically 1.5–2 years), during which one learns tenderness from a “mothering one,” who provides food, shelter, and care
  • Childhood Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 2nd level of Interpersonal Theory, from the emergence of meaningful speech (typically 1.5–2 years) until the emergence of the need for playmates of equal status (typically 5–6 years), during which one learns to reciprocate emotions while engaging with parents who assist in language development, sex-role expectancies, and other aspects of acculturation
  • Juvenile Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 3rd level of Interpersonal Theory, from the emergence of the need for playmates of equal status (typically 5–6 years) through the first 3 years of school (~8–9 years), during which one learns to compete and cooperate while engaging with agemates
  • Preadolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 4th level of Interpersonal Theory, from 4th year of school (~8–9 years) to puberty (~13 years), during which the essence of friendship shifts to intimacy and love, typically experienced with a single close friend
  • Early Adolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 5th level of Interpersonal Theory, from puberty (~13 years) to the emergence of the need for sexual lust and love toward multiple people, during which the principal social learning is about along with others
  • Late Adolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 6th level of Interpersonal Theory, during the high-school years (from ~15 to 17–18 years), during which intimacy fuses with lust as one moves into a stable pattern of sexual activity
  • Adult Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 7th level of Interpersonal Theory, starting at ~18 years, during which one establishes an enduring love relationship with at least one other
Associated constructs include:
  • Self-System (Self-Dynamism) (Harry Stack Sullivan, 1940s) – the amalgamation of past interpersonal experiences that one chooses to describe one’s self, affording a relatively stable personality

Commentary

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.

Subdiscourses:

  • Adult Era -

    Adult Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 7th level of Interpersonal Theory, starting at ~18 years, during which one establishes an enduring love relationship with at least one other

  • Childhood Era -

    Childhood Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 2nd level of Interpersonal Theory, from the emergence of meaningful speech (typically 1.5–2 years) until the emergence of the need for playmates of equal status (typically 5–6 years), during which one learns to reciprocate emotions while engaging with parents who assist in language development, sex-role expectancies, and other aspects of acculturation

  • Early Adolescent Era -

    Early Adolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 5th level of Interpersonal Theory, from puberty (~13 years) to the emergence of the need for sexual lust and love toward multiple people, during which the principal social learning is about along with others

  • Infancy Era -

    Infancy Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 1st level of Interpersonal Theory, from birth until the emergence of meaningful speech (typically 1.5–2 years), during which one learns tenderness from a “mothering one,” who provides food, shelter, and care

  • Juvenile Era -

    Juvenile Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 3rd level of Interpersonal Theory, from the emergence of the need for playmates of equal status (typically 5–6 years) through the first 3 years of school (~8–9 years), during which one learns to compete and cooperate while engaging with agemates

  • Late Adolescent Era -

    Late Adolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 6th level of Interpersonal Theory, during the high-school years (from ~15 to 17–18 years), during which intimacy fuses with lust as one moves into a stable pattern of sexual activity

  • Preadolescent Era -

    Preadolescent Era (Henry Stack Sullivan, 1950s) – the 4th level of Interpersonal Theory, from 4th year of school (~8–9 years) to puberty (~13 years), during which the essence of friendship shifts to intimacy and love, typically experienced with a single close friend

  • Self-System (Self-Dynamism) - Self-System (Self-Dynamism) (Harry Stack Sullivan, 1940s) – the amalgamation of past interpersonal experiences that one chooses to describe one’s self, affording a relatively stable personality

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2022). “Interpersonal Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.


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