Critique of a journal article on Maslow’s concept of self-actualization

The journal article I have chosen to perform a critical analysis on is titled “An HRD refresher. (human resource development) (list of social science scholars contributing to the foundation on which occupational training theories are based)”. It appeared in the May 1991 edition of Training & Development. The article discusses a list of sociology scholars and their most important contribution to the field. They are Chris Argyris, for his work on the Immaturity-Maturity theory; Kurt Lewin, who is regarded by some as the father of group dynamics; and Abraham H. Maslow, who proposed the concept of self-actualization.

The article explains Maslow’s theory thus: an individual grows and develops his/her personality in accordance with a specific hierarchy of needs. The stages in the hierarchy are physiological needs, safety/security needs, love and belongingness needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization needs; strictly in that order.

This concise statement of the theory is fairly well grounded and does not yield to critical analysis, but the following assertion does raise a few questions.

“According to Maslow, these needs occur in the order presented–beginning with physiological needs and ending with self-actualization needs. A person does not move on the next level until the previous need is fairly well satisfied.” (Quick 1991)

It is the above quotation from the article that will be scrutinized at length in the following pages.

A crucial problem with Maslow’s approach is its focus on the personal development of the individual and that social connections are marginal in Maslow’s theory. It is seen in the hierarchy of needs that social necessities like love, esteem, prestige and status, are relegated to stages three and four and do not find a mention in the final category – self actualization. According to Maslow, the social needs are essential stepping stones to the top of the hierarchy, but the eventual goal for the individual is realization of his/her potential. For persons that are self-sufficient enough to be able to realize their self, the lower level needs as love and esteem apply as deficiencies and leave them with the freedom “autonomous fulfillment”. The inconsistency is raised by the feminist theory which places very high value on the relatedness of women, but which in Maslow’s framework is seen as a deficiency to be conquered. (Trigg 2004)

More questions can be raised about the synthesis between Maslow’s hierarchy and the widespread critique of consumerism. For example, the theory’s relationship to the new “hierarchy of consumption” is yet to be elucidated. What is also unexplained is how and social needs operate in the hierarchy of needs. Do individuals will move from the third stage of social need, belongingness to the next one of self-esteem, and if successful onto the ultimate stage of self-realization. Trigg puts forward this consideration:

“Since the individual is unable to progress without satisfying each category of need in the hierarchy, then it logically follows that lexicographic preferences will apply at these higher points in the hierarchy. If lexicographic preferences are no longer relevant, but the hierarchy of needs is still in place, however, then how is the ordering of needs designed in the new Post Keynesian theory of consumption? And in more general terms, is the individual still the basic unit of analysis, or has the analysis moved onto a qualitatively different plane in which priority is given to social relationships?” (Trigg 2004)

Another criticism of the concept of self-actualization is its failure to take into account the process of learning in the context of human evolution. It is important because learning is crucial in any adaptation of the hierarchy of needs. This also influences the corresponding branch of the Post Keynesian synthesis. Higher economic status lead to broader choices to consumers, as they graduate away from the basic physiological imperatives. Consumer demand increasingly becomes a result of their knowledge and less so a result of their instincts.

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