Review of Understanding People

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Making Sense of Ourselves and Others

Review of Understanding People

By Trevor Butt

Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2004, 193 pp., £16.99, $24.95

Reviewed by Meg Barker
Trevor Butt’s previous book, Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology, written with Vivien Burr, (Burr & Butt, 1992) had a profound effect on me both academically and personally. I happened across it in a second hand shop and picked it up because I was familiar with Burr’s (1995, 1998) books on social constructionism and gender, both of which I had found invaluable in my teaching on those areas. I knew very little about personal construct theory (PCT) since Kelly and his followers are only given the briefest of mentions in the UK psychology undergraduate curriculum. The ideas in Burr and Butt’s book resonated with me more than any theories I had come across previously. They provided me with a more satisfactory way of understanding the way my research participants made sense of their lives, and subsequently encouraged me to explore PCT and related theories in more depth. Perhaps more importantly, the clear real-life examples given in the book made it easy for me to apply PCT to my own experiences, and to see the ways in which my difficulties were often rooted in either/or thinking or “ground shaking” when events failed to fit my existing ways of construing. For all these reasons I was very excited to hear of Butt’s new book and keen to read how his ideas had progressed since 1992.

In his preface Butt justifies the title of his book in some depth, wary that some might see Understanding People as a rather grand or pretentious aim. However, the title is fitting because the book lays out a thorough and detailed framework for making sense of human behavior, drawing on PCT, social constructionism, the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, and the social psychology of Mead, amongst other approaches. The book is structured into two main parts, the first covering traditional psychological and social constructionist personality theories and the second laying out Butt’s alternative “existential phenomenological approach.” This proposes that understanding people entails recognizing the ways in which we are both all similar and at the same time different, since we all live in the same cultural world, which enables us to communicate with each other through shared language and taken-for-granted rules, but we experience this differently through the different ways in which we make sense of our experiences and internalize and externalize social messages.

As with his previous book, Butt writes in a very accessible manner, using engaging examples to illustrate many of the more complex ideas. The first four chapters introduce traditional and constructionist ways of explaining personality, bringing the non-psychological reader up to speed on the main theories and the problems with these before the alternative approach is put forward. The book gives a strong historical background to all the theories it presents. This helps the reader to see the political and cultural context behind the acceptance of some, but not other, theories within psychology and psychotherapy—for example the aim to be seen as a science and the North American individualism that lay behind the embracing of theories using “cognitive vocabularies” (p. 36). This clear explanation and historical context means that the first part of this book would be a useful introduction to students at the beginning of their psychology careers, describing the theories in a more critical way than most textbooks and enabling them to see the links between them and the circumstances that led to their acceptance or rejection. However, I am concerned that unfamiliar readers might be put off by the preface, which seems to be written with more of an expert in mind and summarizes some of the complex pragmatist and phenomenological ideas put forward in the latter half of the book. Such a reader would be better to ignore the preface and start at chapter 1.

In the preface Butt also raises the concern of sounding like he has “swallowed a psychological dictionary” (p ix). Certainly it is impossible to avoid the polysyllabic words that abound in the areas of psychology, sociology, and philosophy he is drawing on (symbolic interactionism, constructionism, pragmatism, phenomenology, microsociology, existentialism, hermeneutics). Rather than inventing another new word, Butt fixes on the term “existential phenomenology” to refer to his position, based as it is in the U.S. pragmatism of Kelly and Mead and the existentialism and phenomenology that developed in parallel to this in Europe. I wondered whether a glossary of definitions at the end of the book might have been useful, as it can be difficult to remember the different terms used within each of the theories. I also found myself drawing a mental time-line to clarify when the various key thinkers were writing and when the important shifts took place in U.S. and European psychology and psychotherapy. A diagrammatic version of this would have been a helpful appendix. But these suggestions are not to critique in any way the content of the book, which is superb. I suppose as I read I just felt a strong urge that these ideas should reach a wider audience than those of us within the constructivist, psychological, or even academic, worlds and I found myself searching for ways to enable this. I will return to this point towards the end of this review.

A major strength of Understanding People is that Butt is comfortable bringing together various schools of thought from traditional and critical psychology, from existential philosophy, psychoanalysis (chapters 3 and 8) and sociology (from Berger and Luckmann, 1967 to Plummer, 1995). Butt argues that we cannot understand people purely on an individual level, as much psychology has done, or on a social level, as the British school of social constructionism has moved towards doing. People are agents operating within a social context, and we need a hermeneutic understanding where we can move from the part to the whole and back again, seeing the person in his or her social context as we see a word within a sentence, needing appreciation of both person and context (as with word and sentence) for a full understanding. It was heartening for me to read this having had my own research dismissed by fellow psychologists as “really sociology” several times. Butt provides some good, clear arguments for questioning the whole internal/external distinction, going beyond mere recognition of the importance of the situational context to the realization that people cannot be detached from the social world which they act within and that we need to focus on exploring how this world appears to the embodied person.

Butt argues that traditional personality theories within psychology have made several problematic assumptions, mostly rooted in their aim to portray psychology as a science, with the prestige that accompanies this. As well as focusing on what is inside a person, despite strong evidence that people display different characteristics in different situations, psychologists have searched for causes of human behavior, attempting to explain people rather than to understand them. Butt demonstrates that some of these explanations are actually no more than descriptions (the trait theories which simply describe regularities in behavior and/or how people like to see themselves), and often attempt to explain events at one level (e.g., behavioral) by recourse to events at another (e.g., physiological), when these are simply different ways of talking about the same thing (p. 28). Butt proposes that our task, instead, should be to understand people, to make sense of what they do, think and feel as a whole, rather than questioning which of behavior, cognition or emotion comes first or whether behavior is externally or internally caused.

Butt recognizes that we cannot simply ask people themselves for their motivations because often they are not aware of the taken-for-granted cultural discourses that their behavior is rooted in, or the forces at work on a level we are not aware of and do not reflect on. For these, Butt gives the examples of rules around touch and eye contact, which we adhere to in social space feeling that they are natural rather than constructed, and our unconscious refusal to recognize aspects of ourselves that do not fit with our preferred self-concept. So, Butt argues, to fully understand people we need both their account and an understanding of the social context they are embedded in. This maps on to Ricoeur’s (1970) notion of a hermeneutics of belief and a hermeneutics of suspicion. The belief part involves a phenomenological exploration of how the world appears to people, getting them to reflect on their own experiences and understandings of themselves. The suspicion part recognizes aspects that are not apparent to people themselves, for example in the discursive or unconscious fields, which require an exploration beyond the individual’s own reflections. This way of seeing people gets away from the old sociological arguments about whether people have agency or are simply puppets at the mercy of social forces (which have recently been rehashed by U.K. social constructionsts). Like the original social constructionism of Berger and Luckman (1967), existential phenomenology proposes that people are both personal agents and created by the social world that surrounds them. We internalize the rules and messages we are bombarded with and externalize them ourselves, putting them back out there as taken-for-granted knowledge. We are meaning-makers searching for patterns in the world around us, making sense of it for ourselves and jointly constructing it together when we share our understandings and meanings with others.

Following his tour of traditional psychological, psychoanalytic, and humanistic personality theories and social constructionist positions, Butt fleshes out the existential phenomenological approach. He concentrates on the way people make sense of the past and the situations they find themselves in (chapter 6), how they understand their self-identity (chapter 7) and the role of the unconscious (chapter 8). This latter he expresses rather differently than do psychoanalysts, suggesting that everything we do is unconscious, or pre-reflective, to begin with and only becomes conscious when we actively reflect on it. We engage in most behaviors without consciously reflecting on what we are doing. Drawing on Kelly’s (1969) ideas around choice he argues that the kinds of self-deceptions highlighted by psychoanalysts can be explained by the existential life projects we are all involved with, finding a way of being in the world. We are not driven to gain pleasure so much as to express the way we have found of being in the world, and we may well use forgetting, redefinition, and alternative ways of constructing events to avoid experiences which do not fit our self-concept.

The second part of Understanding People uses some fascinating examples to illustrate the existential phenomenological approach, which provide interesting stories in their own right. In chapter 8, Butt uses the diaries of the British comedian Kenneth Williams to illustrate the points described above. Chapter 6 describes the history of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to illustrate the construction of psychological knowledge (the effects of battle stress were understood and treated differently before the definition of PTSD), the importance of phenomenological understanding of what an event means to a person (not all people in the same circumstances get PTSD), and the influence of the social world (a cultural shift from valuing stoicism to advocating “getting in touch with our emotions” enables expression of pre-reflective feelings that might previously have been dismissed or ignored).

The chapter that had perhaps the most impact on my own thinking and research was chapter 7 on the sense of self. In this, Butt draws on his own research (Butt, Burr, & Bell, 1997) to illustrate how people spontaneously talk about the possibility of “being themselves” by drawing on the culturally dominant notion of a real or core self, but also recognize that they may express different selves in different relationships or situations. Butt et al.’s (1997) participants accepted that they could feel that they were being themselves even in two relationships where they were expressing very different, or even contradictory, versions of themselves (for example, deferential and dominant, protective and protected in the sample grid given in the book, p. 135). Being themselves meant being able to let go of any self-monitoring and to allow behavior to flow naturally in a situation, relaxing into joint action with the other person. So self is a process constructed in social interaction, and it is also a narrative, a story we tell of our past and how we came to be the way we are, which makes sense of events and informs how we act in the future. The people I research are generally involved in the kinds of projects of self and identity mentioned in this book and by authors such as Giddens (1991) and Plummer (1995), who Butt references. They have reflected on their sexual and gendered identities and/or their ways of managing relationships and found different ways of expressing themselves, perhaps moving towards what Giddens calls the “pure relationship,” based on the rewards it can offer rather than reciprocal sense of duty (see, for example, Barker, accepted). It seems that their new ways of being enable them to express several versions of themselves (in multiple relationships or psycho-sexual positions), but there also seems to be a striving to “be themselves,” with these alternative ways of being somehow aiming towards this.

I found it interesting that Butt was happy to synthesize ideas from psychology, sociology, and Western philosophy, but that there was no integration of any of the ideas from Eastern philosophy that seem so similar to much constructivist and phenomenological thinking. I happened to read Stephen Batchelor’s (1983) Alone With Others soon after reading Understanding People. Batchelor presents an existential take on Buddhism that has much in common with Butt’s approach, even explicitly proposing a phenomenological approach (p. 56) to understanding humans which sees them as both inescapably alone in their own way of making sense the world and inescapably together in the social world, constructing themselves through interactions and relationships with others. I was struck by the similarity between the existential phenomenological and Buddhist ways of understanding the self as constructed through our lives. Batchelor (1997) says “I cannot find the self by pointing my finger at any physical or mental trait and saying: ‘Yes, that’s me.’ For such traits come and go, whereas the sense of ‘I’ remains constant” (p. 79). Both existential phenomenology and Buddhism call for reflection on or awareness of our own ways of understanding. Both say that escaping psychological distress or anguish requires changing the way we see things and emphasize how difficult it is to question our ingrained habitual ways of making sense of the world. Finally, the Buddhist call for empathy and compassion seems similar to Kelly’s suggestion that putting ourselves in the shoes of others and seeing the world through their eyes is something we morally ought to aim at. Buddhism suggests that we reverse our roles to understand the other person’s way of seeing the world and recognize each person as acting on the basis of his or her own ideas and feelings, and holding on to these in the same way we hold onto ours.

Throughout Understanding People, but particularly in the final chapter, Butt makes the point that the reason theories for understanding people are important is because of their implications for personal change. People in psychological distress need an understanding to “make sense of their suffering and offer a route to psychological reconstruction” (p. 159). An existential phenomenological psychotherapy involves understanding people within their world, how they make sense of it and how their ways of seeing things might be constraining them or unhelpful. Therapy is about making this understanding accessible to people themselves in a way that gives them more options and alternatives. Butt concludes that an existential phenomenological understanding of people should eradicate the desire to find the answers to humans “deep inside,” but should aim at a better understanding for all that will “enable us to live with both others and ourselves in a more generous, forgiving and constructive way” (p. 177).

I share with Butt the hope that such an approach could lead people to a more useful way of understanding themselves and others which would enable them to help people (through seeing the different ways in which they make sense of things), and avoid conflict (through recognition that differences are often due to people clinging their own ways of construing a situation). My only reservation is that there is very little chance of most people coming across the existential phenomenological approach, or related approaches (like PCT or the early versions of social constructionism). Even as a psychologist I had been studying and researching for nearly a decade before I came across these ideas. The average person has very little chance. In the final chapter of his book Butt writes about the rise of therapy, but still most counseling and psychotherapy are based on humanistic, or perhaps psychoanalytic or cognitive, theories. Butt also mentions the shelves of bookshops “filled with works on self-help and recovery” (p. 161). But how many of these books are based on phenomenological, existential or constructivist ideas? From a brief review of the best sellers it seems that most of them just reproduce dominant cultural discourses, for example around gender roles or ways of behaving in relationships, as rules for readers to follow if they want to be successful in love or life. They are also frequently couched in the language of simplistic trait theories of personality, often with an evolutionary psychological explanation underlying the differences between types of people (men and women, introverts and extroverts, and so on). In terms of change, people are encouraged to accept the status quo and learn the rules better. There is little questioning of whether the standard way of seeing things is useful, and it is always individuals, rather than the social world around them, that needs to change.

I feel strongly that those of us within constructivist psychology and psychotherapy should be contributing to the “self-help” literature and to newspaper and magazine articles, radio and TV programs about how humans tick. How else will people get access to these theories which may help them to understand themselves and others in more useful ways and to make positive changes to their ways of making sense of the world? There is a great deal of negativity, in U.K. psychology at least, about any academic who contributes to “pop” psychology, but I believe that it is our responsibility to get these ideas out in an accessible form to a wider audience, rather than circulating texts and journal articles, heavy in jargon, amongst ourselves. I hope that Trevor Butt will follow up Understanding People with a companion volume, putting these ideas out to a wider audience, drawing on the kinds of clear, relevant, real-life examples he and Burr used in Invitation to Personal Construct Psychology, but marketing the text towards the self-help section of the bookshop.


Barker, M. (in press). This is my partner, and this is my…partner’s partner: Constructing a polyamorous identity in a monogamous world. Journal of Constructivist Psychology.

Batchelor, S. (1983). Alone with others: An existential approach to Buddhism. New York: Grove Press.

Batchelor, S. (1997). Buddhism without beliefs. London: Bloomsbury.

Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The social construction of reality. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Burr, V., & Butt, T. (1992). Invitation to personal construct psychology. London: Whurr Publishers.

Burr, V. (1995). An introduction to social constructionism. London: Routledge.

Burr, V. (1998). Gender and social psychology. London: Routledge.

Butt, T., Burr, V., & Bell, R. (1997), Fragmentation and the sense of self. Constructivism in the Human Sciences, 2, 12-29.

Giddens, A. (1992). The transformation of intimacy. Cambridge: Polity.

Kelly, G. A. (1969). Man’s construction of his alternatives. In B. Maher (Ed.) Clinical psychology and personality: The selected papers of George Kelly. London: Wiley.

Plummer, K. (1995). Telling sexual stories: Power, change and social worlds. London: Routledge.

Ricoeur, P. (1970). Freud and philosophy: An essay on interpretation. New Haven: Yale University Press.

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