“What do you think of the relevance of social therapeutics to China and Chinese psychology?” This is one of the questions posed to me by a Chinese colleague, Bo Wang, who is an assistant professor in the psychology department at Nanjing University. Bo and I have known each other for a few years and he’s translated an article I wrote for publication (Critical psychology, philosophy and social therapy, in Bo Wang (Ed.), Special Issue of Register of Critical Theory of Society: Critical Psychology. Nanjing: Jiangsu People’s Publishing House). Professor Wang’s questions to me were wide ranging and I was pleased to respond to them and contribute to what is an ongoing series he’s doing, translating and publishing interviews with critical psychologists to enrich the dialogue in China on among theoretical psychologists (and I hope clinical and developmental ones too). Here’s our conversation.
When did you begin to think about social therapeutics and why?
I was introduced to the clinical practice of Social Therapy when I met Fred Newman in 1976. I had just completed my PhD in developmental psychology and was doing postdoctoral research at Michael Cole’s Laboratory of Comparative Human Cognition at the Rockefeller University in New York City. My passion was for language as a human socio-cultural creative activity and its relationship to everything else human beings do and create. I had little interest in, very little knowledge of, and no experience with psychotherapy at the time. Nevertheless, I was skeptical toward what I took to be its premise—that an explanation or interpretation for how you were feeling could change how you were feeling. On his part, Newman’s study of philosophy of science and foundations of mathematics at Stanford University had led him to reject therapy’s premises and major conceptions—explanation, interpretation, the notion of an inner self that therapist and client needed to go deeply into, and other dualistic and otherwise problematic conceptions. However, in the late 1960s Newman went into therapy and found it surprisingly helpful. This raised a very serious issue for him: Therapy should not work, but it does. How it works is the question. He began to practice and train others, mostly lay people who were working with him as political activists and community organizers, in a new kind of therapy that was not based in the presuppositions of mainstream psychology or psychotherapy. Newman called it Social Therapy.
That Social Therapy rejected the premises of mainstream psychology and psychotherapy that I too rejected was very appealing to me. I joined Newman in his activism and immersed myself in Social Therapy, and Newman and I together pursued the puzzle of how Social Therapy worked, me with my developmental and linguistics vantage point, and Newman with his philosophical and (by then) Marxist vantage point. In the nearly 40 years since, Social Therapy has been practiced as a method of helping people with whatever emotional pain they are experiencing without diagnosing their problem, analyzing their childhood, or interpreting their current life. It is a unique kind of group therapy, and its effectiveness has to do with what people are doing together in therapy, namely creating their therapy as an environment in which they can develop emotionally. This entails a reconstruction—in practice—of the relationship between individual and group. Additionally, social therapeutic method has been expanded far outside the therapy room into schools, hospitals, outside of school programs, organizations and business workplaces.
Who has had the greatest impact on your studies and practice? Why do you think they are important?
Aside from Fred Newman, the greatest influence on my studies and practice are Karl Marx, Lev Vygotsky and Ludwig Wittgenstein.Each of themhelped me to understand the potential for ordinary people to effect radical social change and the subjective constraints that need to be engaged in order to actualize this potential. Social therapeutics has evolved as an unorthodox synthesis of these three thinkers.
More than his political economy, it is Marx’s radically social humanism and methodology, especially in his early writings that influenced and inspired the development of social therapeutics. For Marx, human beings are social beings; human activity and human mind are social, not just in their origins but in their content. Methodologically, the transformation of the world and of ourselves as human beings is one and the same task: “The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.”
Vygotsky brought Marx’s insights to bear on the practical question of how human beings learn and develop. Human activity (qualitative and transformative) not behavior change (particularistic and cumulative) is the unique feature of human individual, cultural and species development. Human beings do not merely respond to stimuli, acquire societally determined and useful skills, and adapt to the determining environment. The uniqueness of human social life is that we ourselves transform the determining circumstances.Vygotsky’s understanding of development—that it is not an individual accomplishment but a socio-cultural activity—helped us to see how our therapeutic and educational practices worked. His writings on cognitive development, play and language in early childhood have great relevance to emotional growth at all ages. Children learn and develop, according to Vygotsky through being related to as beyond themselves, and being supported to play or perform, “a head taller” than they are. We take Vygotsky to be a forerunner to a new psychology of becoming, in which people experience the social nature of their existence and the power of collective creative activity in the process of making new tools for growth.
Wittgenstein challenged the foundations of philosophy, psychology and linguistics. His was a radically new method of doing philosophy—without foundations, theses, premises, generalizations or abstractions. He exposed the “pathology” embedded in language and in accepted conceptions of language, thoughts and emotions. His work can be seen not only as therapy for philosophers (as some have noted) but also for ordinary people. This is because versions of philosophical pathologies permeate everyday life and create intellectual-emotional muddles through the complicated network of social, communicative institutions that have evolved since human beings invented language,
What is social therapeutics? Especially, what is “social” in social therapeutics? What is the relevance of social therapeutics to theoretical psychology?
Social therapeutics is an approach to human development and learning at the leading edge of the critical and postmodernist movements in psychology. In practice and theory, it challenges many of psychology’s and psychiatry’s presuppositions about persons; therapy, the therapeutic relationship and therapeutic discourse; illness, cure and treatment; emotions and cognition; and mind, body and brain. This orientation locates social therapeutics within the diverse grouping of approaches that identify as discursive, collaborative and/or social constructionist.
Social therapeutics is a philosophically informed, practically oriented methodology in which human beings are related to as creators of their culture and ensemble performers of their lives. Developed outside of academia at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy in New York, social therapeutics has been practiced since the mid-1970s in social therapy centers, clinics, schools, hospitals and social service organizations in the US and, increasingly, abroad. As a method for social-emotional growth and learning, the social therapeutic approach has impacted on education in school and outside of school, and youth development, training and practice in medicine and healthcare and on organizational development and executive leadership.
Its relevance to theoretical psychology is: 1) as an alternative understanding of theory and practice in which theory and practice are inseparable in Vygotsky’s sense of being simultaneously “tool-and-result”; and 2) as neither an ideological critique nor an epistemological alternative, but rather an alternative to epistemology. Rather, social therapeutics offers performance— the ongoing activity of organizing and reorganizing the dialectic who we are/who we are becoming— as a new ontology of human life.
What is the relevance of social therapeutics to critical psychology?
Social therapeutics brings a new dimension to critical psychology, that is, to the variety of approaches that critique and challenge, in theory and/or practice, the foundations of mainstream psychology from primarily an identity-based, ideology-based, or epistemology-based perspective. While it shares the ethics and goals of these approaches, it is ontologically based, offering performance as a new ontology of human life.
Its critique of mainstream psychology’s inner-outer dualism and belief in an inner life calls on Marx’s philosophical insights. For example, some critical psychologies challenge the conception of an inner life, which is foundational in mainstream psychology. However, social therapeutics’ rejection differs from most in its invoking of the philosophical and Marxist conceptions of totality and the particular. In creating and glorifying the isolated individual, psychology adopted the philosophical belief that particulars are what is “real” and that totalities are an abstraction. Speaking of psychotherapy, the notion that emotions are the mental states of isolated individuals is a version of this misconception that social therapeutics takes to be a major source of people’s emotional pain. In social therapeutics helping people therapeutically means challenging them to relate to emotions as other than private mental states and to themselves as other than “particulars.”
“Social constructionism fever”, “postmodern psychology” and “embodied cognition studies”, etc. have been sweeping through Chinese theoretical psychology academic circles in recent years. What do you think of the growing popularity of them in China?
It is understandable to me that alternative epistemological psychologies that are more socially based than mainstream Western individualistically based psychology would be reaching China (as everything Western is reaching China). It is also understandable that such alternatives would be finding a sympathetic ear because they are clearly more creative and sophisticated that traditional psychology is. They are however, academic trends and not, for the most part, social practices that involve masses of people. Social therapeutics is both theoretically sophisticated and practical-critical in Marx’s sense, reaching many, many thousands of people. For this reason, I wish social therapeutics were sweeping China.
What’s your opinion about the future of social therapeutics in North America and around the globe? What do you think of the relevance of social therapeutics to China and Chinese psychology?
Through the Institute’s varied programs, we have trained well over a thousand people who live and work as psychologists, counselors, youth workers, social workers, educators, researchers, doctors (and more) in 76 cities in 38 countries. Many more have studied our works academically. And so, it is growing. However, the medical and natural science model of understanding and relating to human beings is so dominant that social therapeutics, like other non-mainstream approaches, is rarely taught in universities or professional schools. That, plus the fact that there are 7 billion people on the planet, means that we have a long, long way to go!
As far as I know, social therapeutics is the only approach in which the individual/collective dialectic is directly engaged for the development of all and, for this reason, it might be well suited for China. In both Western and Eastern cultures (and capitalist and communist/socialist societies) the individual and the group/collective have been pitted against each other; the relationship has historically been antagonistic. In social therapeutics, the two are seen as dialectically intertwined. In social therapeutic theory/practice, far from disappearing or being denied, individuals become, grow, thrive, etc. by virtue of participating in creating the groups/collectives they are “in.”
What is the role of Marxism in social therapeutics? Do you think that Marx’s critique of political economy has any relevance to social therapeutics?
Marx’s understanding of practical-critical, revolutionary activity is central to social therapeutics. Equally important are his understanding of dialectics as a new conception of method and his articulations of alienation and commodification. Mainstream psychology is designed as the study of product—the isolated individual at different points in time. It is incapable of seeing, let alone understanding, process. In this way, mainstream psychology contributes mightily to alienation, i.e., relating to the products of production severed from their producers and from the process of their production, that is, as commodities. This way of relating is not limited to cars, loaves of bread and computers. It is, rather, the normal way of seeing and relating to everything in contemporary Western culture. People relate to their lives, their relationships, their feelings, their culture, and so on, as things, torn away from the process of their creation and from their creators. Such alienation and commodification are major factors in people’s lives, and in particular in their emotional and learning problems.
If we are commodified and alienated individuals, then transformative social change needs to entail the de-commodification and de-alienation of “human products” through a positive and constructive process of producing sociality. Social therapeutics, as we understand it, produces sociality. As the synthesis of Vygotsky’s cultural-historical contributions with postmodern psychology’s challenge to the philosophical-psychological conceptions of self, truth, reality and identity, it is a method to de-commodify and de-alienate, through a deconstruction-reconstruction of the ontology of modernist psychology in which human beings are understood to be only who we are. The performatory process ontology of social therapeutics relates to human beings as both who we are and who we are becoming. And who we are becoming are creators of tools (-and-results) that can continuously transform mundane specific life practices (including those that produce alienation) into new forms of life. Creating these new kinds of tools is the becoming activity of creating/giving expression to our sociality.
In Will Wadlington’s opinion (in The handbook of humanistic psychology. London: Sage Publications, Inc., 2001.), social therapeutics is the specific application of postmodern humanist psychology. Do you agree with him?
I have two friendly amendments to Wadlington’s characterization of social therapeutics. First, I would alter his phase from “postmodern humanist” to “postmodern Marxist humanist” psychology. More precisely, it is postmodern humanistic psychology (i.e., a practice of method) rather than an application of it, since application implies using an existing method rather than the practical-critical, tool-and-result activity of, in Vygotsky’s sense, a “search for method.” Secondly, the history of humanistic psychology is individualistic. We call social therapeutics radically humanistic because it gets at the root of what makes us human, our creative sociality—in both the Marxist sense of overthrowing what we’ve created, and in the postmodern sense of there being nothing other than what we create. Thus, I would further alter Wadlington’s phrase to characterize social therapeutics as “postmodern Marxist humanist psychology.”
What kind of influence does social therapeutics have on your personal life?
It’s how I live my life. I build the groups of which I am a part, including my family and friends, my staff, and my various communities. I see the potential for growth in all people and relationships. I like to think of myself as a developmentalist and an activity-ist—supporting people to develop through their active participation in their and their community’s development and, thereby, transforming the world.
What would you say to Chinese researchers and activists, if they decide to pursue social therapeutics in China?
I would say, “I’m thrilled.” I think social therapeutics is in sync with the most growthful and developmental aspects of Chinese history and culture. Not only to do I think it would aid the Chinese people by helping them grow, but also that bringing Chinese experiences and perspectives into social therapeutics would enrich social therapeutics in ways unforeseen.