Kegan's Subject-Object Theory of Developement
Robert Kegan first introduced his subject-object theory in his books The Evolving Self (1982) and In Over Our Heads (1994). His theory extends Piaget’s stages of development into adulthood, and focuses on how an individual acquires knowledge. He refers to it as the Subject-Object theory. To understand why he named his theory Subject-Object we must take a look at what it means. “Subject” stands for things that can be identified with, tied on, fused with, or embedded on. “Object” refers to things that people can reflect on, handle, look at, take control of, or be responsible for. Kegan believes that once an individual reaches adulthood, they transition from stage to stage at their own pace and may not accomplish all stages. This is different from Piaget’s theory because he believed that only childhood stages should be associated with age. Kegan’s theory also sheds more light and assistance to counselors and teachers on what they should do in order to assist in promoting optimal progression from stage to stage.
Kegan presents a model of psychological development consisting of six "equilibrium stages": the incorporative stage, the impulsive stage, the imperial stage, the interpersonal stage, the institutional stage, and the inter-individual stage. The object of each stage is the subject of the preceding stage. During the incorporative stage, this stage is birth to about eighteen months, the child is only aware of things in their immediate site and they feel the world basically revolves around them. At this stage, infants can be mismatched by reducing the time the child is held and acknowledge the fact that the child is gaining their independence.
The next stage is the impulsive stage, occurring between the ages of two and seven; during this phase children have a short attention span and are very impulsive. They are very ignorant to the fact that of others have needs and wants, just like children in the incorporative phase. Individuals can be challenged at this age when parents set clear boundaries they make children aware that there is a hierarchy that they must follow, stop making impulsive decisions, and exhibit more self control. Children in this stage can be mismatched when set clear boundaries that the child understands, teach the child to think before reacting, and to become more independent.
After the impulsive stage comes the imperial stage which occurs from age eight to around age twelve. While in this stage children become more aware of the world around them and more conscience of the role they play in their family. They also participate in “peer gangs” that help improve their socialization skills and aid in the development of interests and hobbies. Imperial needs can be mismatched when individuals are expected to exhibit good behavior, consider others’ feelings with a view of promoting own interest, and try to maintain social relationships. An important transition must take place from the imperial stage to the interpersonal stage. During this transition, both imperial and interpersonal capacities are present. It will most likely take place between the ages of twelve and twenty. This transition is important because if an adolescent does not develop fully and enter the interpersonal stage with a good foundation based on the imperial stage, they will mentally not be able to function as a productive adult.
During the interpersonal stage, individuals enter adulthood and are assumed to be productive citizens who contribute positively to society. They have an inept need for approval and have adapted their family’s values and traditions which limits their ability to connect to people who are presumed different from them. In this stage, an individual can be mismatched by expecting them to think about their actions and whether all relationships are worth maintaining.
Next is the institutional stage. Individuals in this stage are considered to be valuable citizens that make important contributions to society. They think rationally and honor their values and morals. In order to mismatch an individual’s needs in the interpersonal balance, individuals need independently study to evaluate if what they have been taught is true or not.
The interindividual stage is the final stage and can be difficult to understand. Very few people reach this stage. This stage is primary for adults who have moved closer to individualism. They are mature enough to reflect back on things that have happened in their lives or on their own personal experiences, or lack of, and compare it to those of others.
I am a pre-kindergarten teacher so all of my students enter my classroom in the impulsive stage. Most, if not all of my students, are quite impulsive, self-centered, and fidgety. We spend the whole year learning how to compose ourselves and why it is important to think of others and not just of ourselves. Rules and procedures are strictly enforced so that students begin to understand that they will always have laws to abide by in order to be an asset to the world. We also work on increasing the child’s vocabulary so that they understand that words may hold multiple meanings. Fantasy play is encouraged because it is important to their cognitive growth. I appreciate being exposed to this article due to the fact that I now know why some parents have a hard time setting boundaries and limits because they have not grown past the interpersonal stage and just may not understand.
Eriksen, K. (2008). Robert Kegan's Subject-Object Theory of Development. Applying Lifespan Development
Theories in Couseling. Boston: Houghton Mifflin