Weaving the Dialectical Spiral into Individual Development

From Robert Kegan to Lev Vygotsky


Anyone who has taken a class on child, adolescent or adult development knows of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development, Jean Piaget’s four stages of cognitive development and Lawrence Kohlberg’s six stages of moral development. But as a Marxist I want to know if any of these stages can be organized according to a dialectical spiral? After all, Engels argued that there was a dialectic in nature. Marx and Engels presented a theory of society that was dialectical. Primitive communism was the thesis, slave, feudal and capitalist societies were the antithesis and socialism/communism were the synthesis. The synthesis was a qualitative leap beyond both the thesis and antithesis. The good news is that psychologist Robert Kegan wrote a book called the Evolving Self and sure enough, his model was organized around a dialectical spiral and it included Erikson’s, Piaget’s and Kohlberg’s stages.

The foundation of this article comes from one I wrote over 20 months ago call Spirals of Becoming: The Search for a Dialectical Spiral in the Individual Life Cycle. That article was more about the search for dialectics as a fifth stage of cognitive development. I discussed Kegan’s work as part of my search for cognitive development but it wasn’t center-stage. In this article I center on Kegan’s dialectical spiral, not as a stepping stone to understand cognitive development, but as a model for understanding psychological development as a whole – biologically, socially and epistemologically. While I praise some of his work, I point out his theory does not have a dialectical understanding of society, history, culture and class. I use the socio-historical theory of Vygotsky, Luria and Leontiev to be more inclusive of the whole world, or all adults as opposed to middle-class and upper-middle class westerners.

Kegan’s three-fold identity of a human being

Robert Kegan is a neo-Piagetian and claims that human beings go through three processes of development. One is as a biological organism which has to adapt to the environment. Secondly, as a psychological being the individual self is in a reciprocal relationship to society. Lastly, individual development has epistemological meaning at all six stages of his model. The individual goes through various crises in meaning-making.

How is Kegan’s model dialectical?

Spiral of differentiation and integration

For Keagan there is a life-long tension in the individual between the desire to differentiate from society and a desire to become increasingly community oriented and integrated. These are the two poles through which the spiral swings back and forth. But why the swing? Differentiation pushed also for turns into isolation, fragmentation and dissociation. And this lopsidedness towards differentiation calls forth meaning-making strategies which are more integrated. Conversely, too lopsided of an integration leads to the experience of being smothered, fused and enmeshed in communities. “But” you might say “this just sounds like a circle or a cycle? What makes it a spiral?” The cycle becomes a spiral because as it ascends with age to become more differentiated and more complexly integrated. Another way to say this is that “I” that the individual becomes is increasingly autonomous while his community expands far beyond what he expected.

Hierarchy of evolutionary stages

As I pointed out in my previous article, Kegan has six stages in which integration and differentiation spiral off into higher and higher levels.

  1. incorporative (center of the spiral)
  2. impulsive (integration 1)
  3. imperial (differentiation 1)
  4. interpersonal (integration 2)
  5. institutional (differentiation 2)
  6. interindividual integration 3)

For example, the integrative stage of the interpersonal is a higher version of integration than the impulsive stage. This is because the integrative stages involve more people and because people are more interdependent.  So too, the interindividual stage is a higher version of integration than the interpersonal. At the interpersonal stage the community is composed of fellow teenagers, whereas the inter-individual stage the community is composed of the entire human species.

Also, the institutional stage of differentiation is more complex than the imperial stage. Why? Because at the imperial stage skills like playing a musical instrument or acting in school plays are honed on a voluntary basis and they can be refined or abandoned based on whim. Additionally, there are no serious consequences for bad performances. At the institutional stage, however, many years of schooling may be involved in preparing for life in a work setting and there certainly are negative consequences for a bad performance. Lastly, at the interpersonal stage people’s interests and skills are enmeshed. You can be interested in a particular musical instrument and even if you are not very good, you can still play. At the institutional level, we have to face that although our interests in the flute may be high, we are not good enough to be a professional. So too, we may be skilled in certain areas such as counseling but have little interest in it. This happened to me with psychological counseling.

Here is a summary of how Kegan’s stages line up with Erikson, Kohlberg, and Piaget:

Four Theories of Individual Development The stages are built on each other so that skipping stages is impossible.

  1. Though the stages can’t be skipped that doesn’t mean that the expectations, tasks and skills are necessarily fully completed before moving to the next stage.
  2. The stages have an interpenetrating relationship with society, not only an intrapsychic maturation process.
  3. Events have significance depending on in which stage they occurred.
  4. The higher stages reject, preserve and transform aspects of the lower level.

The criteria for development

  1. The higher stages include an increase in power over the society.
  2. The higher stages include an increasing differentiation and integration.
  3. Higher stages include more self-knowledge (self-reflectiveness).
  4. Higher stage have an expanding community.
  5. Higher stages have an increasing accumulation of consequences (baggage).

Every stage has a culture of embeddedness

Every evolutionary stage has a set of people who keep afloat, support and interact with the evolving individual. There are three possible kinds of cultures of embeddedness. Conventional cultures of embeddedness include parents, relatives, teachers, friends, lovers and workmates. When the conventional cultures are unable or unwilling to do their job, subcultures take their place. These included foster homes, reform schools or jails. Subcultures are not always bad. Many years ago when I played baseball at the sandlots, we were lucky enough to have an older, ex-minor league baseball player join us. He brought bats, balls, gloves and umpired our games. Many of these kids were from broken homes and Joe Austin was a substitute for missing conventional cultures of embeddedness. Countercultures of embeddedness include the hippie movement, the women’s movement and psychological, political or spiritual cults. Today, since Kegan wrote his book, we might include the New Age movement and the Neopagan movement

Functions of the cultures of embeddedness resemble Hegel’s dialectical criteria for development

Ideally the cultures should ”incubate” the individual through the three moments in between exchange. They must confirm, contradict and provide continuity.

  • Confirmation:  the people in the culture of embeddedness recognize and affirm the new stage of development and provide material nutriments and dialogue to solidify their presence in the stage. They provide structure without making the structures rigid.
  • Contradiction is promoting and provoking the opposite tendencies of the stage someone is in. At this stage once the confirmation stage is solid enough, the culture of embeddedness starts promoting and agitating for the skills necessary for the next stage. That might mean promoting independence if the individual is at the integrative stage or promoting community if the individual is in the differentiated stage.
  • Continuity means preservation. This function is to make sure that what has been attained in the confirming stage is not swallowed up or abandoned as the person gets swooped up by all the contradictory events in his life. It both preserves the confirmation stage but also carries it forward to a new level. It reminds the individual of their history in overcoming past crises at earlier stages.

Malfunctions of the cultures of embeddedness

There are two ways in which the cultures of embeddedness can fail. One is to be overly involved and the other is not to be involved enough. Over involvement is the refusal to let go and rigidly stay in a one holding environment while lacking the flexibility to move to another function. Another form of over-involvement is to fail to “move over” and make room for the company of new cultures of embeddedness. An example would be a mother or father who refuses to accept that their sons or daughters have friends who are now more important to their children. These adults  might also lose their identity when their son or daughter moves out.


Is where the people in the culture of embeddedness unintentionally or intentionally do not understand the different functions of the cultures of embeddedness and fail to support the individual. Another problem can  be that you could either perform the three functions at the earlier stages of development but not know how to perform the same functions at a later stage. For example, a parent may perform the functions very well for children between the ages of 7 to 11, but not know how to perform the functions of dealing with a teenager.

Epistemology: Meaning-making is evolving

In between events that occur in our world at any of Kegan’s stages and our responses to them, there is meaning-making. At the most fundamental level that we engage, we organize what happens to us. We construct what it means. Each of the six stages is an “evolutionary truce”, a weigh-station in how meaning is made at a given period of time within the stage. Meaning-making is the accumulating process of a life-long saga of making meaning. At every stage, we gain meaning, protect it, enhance it, relativize it, lose it and find new meaning in a new stage. Meaning making is a combination of possibility (what we can be or wish to be) and necessity (what we become in reaction to constraints and crisis).


Is where meaning-making comes to a head and a solution must be found. The old meaning-making doesn’t work anymore but no meaning identity is in sight. A good example of this would be a teenager who has spent twelve years of her life as a student, facing that she is graduating and will shed her student identity while having no idea what it means to be a worker. Another example might be of a woman who is facing the break-up of a marriage when for her entire adult life she has been with lovers or her married partner and has never been single. My last example is an electrician who has worked their whole adult life and has an accident where he now lacks the physical mobility to climb up telephone poles or snake around the nooks and crannies of a house. Under these conditions they reach the limit of how they know the world. This type of conditions is what the Chinese call a “dangerous opportunity.” If the crisis is survived there is a qualitative leap in the developmental spiral. Even during the crisis a new stage shows glimpses of exhilaration, relief and hope.

Description of the phases


In the United States, the culture of embeddedness exists primarily with the mother, with the father as a back-up. In collectivist cultures in an extended family, the culture of embeddedness may be the result of the mother’s brother or other relatives living in the house. At this stage, the experience of the child is just to get used to being separate from the mother. Psychologist Margaret Mahler says this process can take up to two years. The baby takes everything into their mouth. As Piaget writes, the child is in complete assimilation, bending reality to shape its needs. At Piaget’s  sensory motor stage, all learning is through the body as they hurl themselves at the world, taking action and developing motor skills.

Meanwhile the caretakers are doing their best to establish a culture of trust (Erikson) and providing close physical presence, plenty of eye-contact, holding, nuzzling and making themselves available to the child. At the same time, in the contradictory stage, the parents do not meet every need and will stop nursing, carrying the child less and support acts of independence. As the child moves into the “terrible twos” the parent supports this movement for independence and insists on the baby’s inclusion as being part of a family culture. A crisis in this stage may be if the mother has gotten ill, or worse died, and was unable to perform any of the functions of the culture of embeddedness.


At this stage, the culture of embeddedness has expanded beyond the immediate caretakers and includes relatives, neighbors or friends of the parents. The child has gotten used to these people and is no longer afraid of them. At this stage the child has learned the magical meaning of the word “no”. They assert sexuality through playing with themselves and have fully learned to manipulate tools (including spoons) and mastered language. No distinction is made between wishes and other needs.

One of the functions of the confirmation culture of embeddedness in this phase is to encourage fantasy and imagination by providing the child with toys which allow the child to make the toy their own. These are what have been called the “magical years” when the child plays with their imagination. George Herbert Mead has called this the pretend stage. The child must also learn to play with others and learn the conditions for cooperation as well as competition. The contradictory stage is for the caretaker to set limits by excluding the child from the marriage bed as well as encouraging the child to play outside the house. In terms of continuity the child is allowed to enter the cultures outside the home while still being available. A big crisis of this stage is the dissolution of a marriage between the ages of 5-7.


As the child goes to school, the culture of embeddedness expands to include teachers, schoolmates and neighborhood kids. At this phase the child needs to have mastered controlling their impulses. At Piaget’s concrete operational thinking stage, the child’s mind makes its first attempt to discipline the body by learning to play a musical instrument, make things in wood shop as well as toying with fixing things. The child’s understanding of the relationship between competition and cooperation is played out through organized games or sports. People are understood as more than simply instruments of organized needs.

In terms of holding environments, the child is confirmed by encouraging to not just make things, but to master them (Erikson’s industry vs inferiority stage). The caretakers may buy the child a musical instrument, good quality art supplies and/or a good quality baseball glove. The child’s culture may perform the contradictory culture of embeddedness by encouraging the child to treat other kids as ends in themselves rather than being genuinely interested in others. The culture of embeddedness will allow the  school culture to lead but will be available to process problems at school. These are not only between other students, but in clarifying and engaging the competition between teachers and parents in the child’s eyes. About the biggest crisis at this phase would be if the parents either switched schools within the same city or the parents had to move because of work obligations.


At this stage, hormones kick in and relationships with friends and potential lovers overshadow the previous cultures of embeddedness. Cultures of embeddedness might also include gangs. This stage corresponds to Erikson’s identity vs role confusion. This phase is mostly unique to industrial capitalist countries where role models from music, sports and movies pulls teenagers in unrealistic directions. In collectivist culture there is far less role confusion because teenagers are expected to carry on the work of their parents. In this integrative stage the differentiation that was built up from the imperial stage is likely to be overwhelmed by the desire to fit in and be approved by others. There is also a difficulty in trusting oneself to evaluate whether or not they should try LSD, join a gang to rob a liquor store, wear makeup or wear pants instead of skirts. There is also much solidarity between teenagers against the adult world. Again, this is unique to the West. What work is done at this stage is likely to have less meaning because, with exceptions, there is not enough specialized trainings.

The job of the cultures of embeddedness here is to encourage the interdependence that goes with teenage life. At the same time they should support the desire for independence that goes with going to college, as well as ambition in seeking a career counselor in finding the right fit for work. The culture of embeddedness supports continuity in reminding the late teenager of the skills they developed during the industry stage and building confidence that they should be kept alive as they enter adulthood even if it is not in the form of paid work. Crisis may occur with the disappearance of cultures of embeddedness if the individual goes away to college. Crisis is also likely if the individual joins the military. Boot camp systematically attempts to undermine all previous cultures of embeddedness in their attempts to re-socialize the individual.


In this phase the individual is involved in starting their work-life, getting married and likely to raise children. These days people’s first jobs are not likely to be their last, so we can expect that while the skills they use through college training may be relatively stable, the settings in which they take place will probably change. For example, it may take time for a grammar school teacher to figure out which grade level they are best suited to teach. It may take five years of work for a counselor to understand that they like to work in groups rather than one-on-one or that they prefer to work with people in institutional settings rather than private therapy. If the person is lucky enough to be middle class (either self-employed) or a middle manager, they relate to their occupation as a “career” rather than as a job. When work is too narrowly defined and combined with a mediocre or bad marriage this can lead to the person becoming a workaholic.

In the confirmation phase of the culture of embeddedness workmates and human resource departments support the individual in their work. They provide them with professional training and reward them both financially and emotionally with recognition and reward, as in Maslow’s self-esteem level. But in more visionary cultures of embeddedness, this individual would be challenged to move into some kind of socially responsible activity of their job. At best they might even convince them to work for a new organization which is carrying out more socially responsible activities. Crises may occur if their job is dissolved because of the company’s failure to make the job high priority or if they are a victim of a company buy-out by a venture capitalist.


This is a visionary stage that most people fail to reach. The culture of embeddedness has expanded beyond the local to include regional, national and international levels.

At this stage the individual has moved beyond Piaget’s formal operations to include a new dialectical way of thinking (see my previous article). At the moral level the individual has moved from conventional to post-conventional morality, where conventional laws are challenged as a basis of morality. Finally, the person has moved beyond caring for the next generation of family, to caring about the human species as a whole and what becomes of us. People like Gandhi, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are examples of people who reached the interindividual stage. Work has expanded to become life work. They are inspired and inspire others through political or spiritual peak experiences. Life work becomes linked to deep time and deep space. Deep time is thinking of how their work links to the next stage of human history.

Enter Lev Vygotsky and Criticism of Kegan’s Theory

If the communist psychologist Lev Vygotsky were alive today, he would be very appreciative of Kegan. First he would say the tension between the poles of the dialectic between differentiation and integration is part of the human condition. Secondly, he would appreciate how Kegan’s cultures of embeddedness expand from the family to friends, schoolmates, work mates and possibly into regional and even international cultures of embeddedness. Thirdly, the functions of the cultures of embedded of confirmation, contradiction and continuity are like Hegel’s description of the dialectical spiral of contradiction and preservation. Fourth, Kegan’s movement from stage to stage are qualitative leaps rather than simply gradual transitions.

However there are a number of significant problems in Kegan’s work  all of which have to do with social macro-structures that Kegan does not discuss.  They are:

  • An atomistic, as opposed to a dialectical, relationship between the individual and society.
  • A lack of the importance of history in individual development.
  • Neglect of the cross-cultural implications of his theory.
  • No mention of how social class might impact individual development.

Atomistic concept of the relationship between society and the individual

Kegan treats our social nature similarly to Piaget. He treats it as an add-on at the end. For example, Vygotsky would say the mother or father are not simply private individuals who decide together the way the baby is socialized. The parents are members of a particular kind of society, a capitalist society, which socialized all its individuals in that direction. Parents raised in state-capitalists and socialist societies would have socialized their children differently. Kegan’s model moves from micro-groups and only becomes macro at the end of the developmental line. Vygotsky would argue first there is macro-socialization of parents, then a micro-internalization application to their children and finally a return to the macro on a higher level in the form of children turned workers as young adults.

Lack of importance given to world-history in individual development

If people who lived during the Middle Ages had developmental psychologists on hand  these stages of development would be very different. The fact that feminism hit the West in two waves, 1830 to 1860 and then in the twelve year period from 1968 to around 1980, has affected women’s opportunity to develop into the institutional stage. In the same Middle Ages before the printing press, most people could not read or write. Without writing individuals would never have developed Piaget’s formal operational stage which is the foundation for Kegan’s institutional stage.

Cross-cultural insensitivity

The last three stages of Kegan’s model, the interpersonal stage, the institutional stage and the interindividual stage would not have developed in a collectivist society and collectivists compose at least 70 – 80% of the world’s population. The interpersonal stage is about alliances being formed by teenagers against the adult world. But in collectivist societies teenagers are put to work with adults for most of their teenage life. There is little opportunity for teenagers to form a distinct identity from the adult world. Consequently, there is no “storm and stress stage” of teenage life. As mentioned earlier, collectivists are less confused about roles (Erikson’s stage) because they are expected to do the same work their parents did.

When it comes to Kegan’s institutional stage, we have to keep in mind that collectivist societies do not have a Protestant work ethic that accompanies this stage. For them, work is a curse. It is leisure time that is held up as a virtue to be emulated. Lastly, for the most part collectivists do not have a visionary stage of development. Most collectivists around the world are peasants and peasants, with rare exception, do not produce visionaries. People like Gandhi in India were Western-trained. He didn’t start making trouble for the British until after studying law there. In the West individualism goes all the way back to the Middle Ages and it is individualists who inspire science, the Enlightenment and even socialism. All these go with Kegan’s interindividual stage. Collectivists don’t have such a stage.

The absence of social class in Kegan’s model of development

There is little or no mention of how socioeconomic class (working-class or poor) would impact any of Kegan’s concepts. By default, it seems that his model for social class are educated middle and upper-middle class people. For example, all the talk about the fifth institutionalist stage is about a career. Typically working-class people don’t identify with a career. For them work is a job.

Other questions Kegan doesn’t ask about social class are the following.  Would the polarity between differentiation and integration be as vital for poor and working class people? Are working-class and poor people just as interested in autonomy and differentiation? What differences might there be in who is in the various cultures of embeddedness? It there a difference in the conformation, contradiction and continuity processes within the functions? Are there more or less sub-cultures of embeddedness in a working-class person’s life? What about countercultures of embeddedness? Are working class and poor people more or less likely to use them?

In Kegan’s counter-culture of embeddedness there is no mention of socialism or communism. This is a huge oversight given the thousands or even millions of people who have lived in existing socialist societies.

Lastly, we said that there is a downside to differentiation which is dissociation, amputation and fragmentation. Are working class people more or less likely to experience this? Conversely, the downside of integration is enmeshment, fusion or the experience of being smothered. Are poor and working-class people more or less likely to experience this? These class questions are very interesting and unfortunately Kegan leaves these unanswered. A communist psychology could answer them robustly.

First published at Socialist Planning Beyond Capitalism

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his three books found on Amazon. Read other articles by Bruce, or visit Bruce's website.