Competence is generally defined as the network of skills, knowledge, and talents that enable a person to interact effectively with the environment (White, 1963). As outlined below, theorists and researchers from various disciplines have contributed much to its study.
On the basis of evidence from research on animal and early childhood behavior that cannot be adequately explained by traditional motivational theories rooted in instinctual drives and tension reduction, White (1963) postulates that an autonomous drive toward competence motivates the human being to keep trying out the effectiveness of his or her ripening capacities for action. Gladwin (1967) emphasizes the role of social processes and interactions in personality development. He believes that competence develops along three principal and interrelated axes: (1) “the ability to learn or to use a variety of alternative pathways or behavioral responses in order to reach a given goal”; (2) the ability to comprehend a variety of social systems within society and in particular to use the resources that they offer; and (3) effective reality testing, involving not only “lack of psychopathological impairment but also a positive broad and sophisticated understanding of the world.”
Smith (1968) points out that competence involves intrinsic as well as extrinsic motivation, social skills as well as personal abilities, and effective performance for self as well as society in one’s social roles. He indicates that competent functioning is affected by key factors in the personal system of the organism as well as by strategic components in the social structure. The key factors in the personal system include the sense of efficacy or potency in controlling one’s destiny, the attitude of hope, and a favorable level of self-respect or self-acceptance. Corresponding features in the social system are opportunity (e.g., supports or resources), which stimulates and reinforces the sense of hope; respect by others, which provides the social ground for respect of self; and power, which guarantees access to opportunity.
These varying formulations contribute to a comprehensive idea of competence in its multiple biological, psychological, social, and cultural aspects. The notion of the human organism’s drive toward dealing effectively with the environment is uniformly emphasized, with agreement also that personality growth takes place in the dynamic interplay between the qualities of the organism and the characteristics of the impinging environment. Traditional formulations frequently place the burden on the human organism, because competence is viewed simplistically as a property or trait of the person. It seems more accurate, however, to regard it as a transactional concept, an attribute of the interplay between the person and the environment.
This view is emphasized in particular by Sundberg et al. (1978), who propose the notion of ecological competence. These authors point out that an adequate consideration of competence should take into account all appropriate personal dimensions, such as one’s skills, qualities, and expectations. In other words, competence is not a fixed attribute of the person. It is the outcome of the transactions between (1) the person’s capacities, skills, and motivation, and (2) environmental qualities such as social networks, social supports, and demands or obstacles in one’s ecological context. For example, how competent a child might become in various academic subjects depends not only on his or her native ability and motivation, but also on the quality and quantity of opportunities available in the school setting. This view is further supported and elaborated by writers on the ecology of human development, notably Bronfenbrenner (1979) and Garbarino (1982).
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Smith, M. B. (1968). Competence and socialization. In Clausen, J. A. (Ed.), Socialization and Society. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Co. pp279-320
Sundberg, N. D.; Snowden, L. R. & Reynolds, W. M. (1978) Towards assessment of personal competence and incompetence in life situations. Annual Review of Psychology 29: 179-211
White, R. W. (1963). Ego and reality in psychoanalytic theory. In Psychological Issues (Vol. 3). New York: International Universities Press. p 3