If I wasn’t committed to the Computational Social Science Conference next week I would be there:

THE PSYCHOSOCIAL IMAGINATION

A symposium to celebrate the launch of

The Association for Psychosocial Studies

Friday 13 June 2014

10.30am – 6.30pm

at The British Library Conference Centre

St Pancras, London

with talks, responses and contributions from a wide range of psychosocial thinkers, practitioners and researchers including:

John Adlam (NHS), Caroline Bainbridge (Roehampton), Karl Figlio (Essex), Stephen Frosh (Birkbeck), Paul Hoggett (UWE), Wendy Hollway (OU), Gail Lewis (Birkbeck), Sasha Roseneil (Birkbeck), Mike Rustin (UEL), Paul Stenner (OU), Valerie Walkerdine (Cardiff)

Chaired by:

Lynn Froggett (UCLAN), Liz Frost (UWE) & Tom Wengraf

Organised in collaboration with the Social Sciences Department of the British Library

 

The Association for Psychosocial Studies is a Learned Society member of the Academy of the Social Sciences and a UK Charitable Trust

 

PROGRAMME

10.00             Registration & Tea/ Coffee

 

10.30             Welcome & Introduction to the Symposium

Lynn Froggett, APS & Polly Russell, Social Sciences Department, British Library

 

11.00             The Psychosocial Challenges of Building Psychosocial Studies

Sasha Roseneil, with response by Wendy Hollway

Chair: Lynn Froggett

 

12.00             Felix Guattari and the Psychosocial Imagination          

Valerie Walkerdine, with response by Gail Lewis

 

1.00              Lunch

 

2.00              The Nature of the Psychosocial: Debates from “Studies in the Psychosocial”

Stephen Frosh, with response by Karl Figlio

Chair: Liz Frost

 

3.00              Learning from Three Practices: Political, Clinical and Research

Paul Hoggett, with response by Mike Rustin

 

4.00              Tea break

 

4.15              Reflections and prospections    

John Adlam, Caroline Bainbridge, Paul Stenner & audience discussion

Chair: Tom Wengraf

 

5.30              Reception with wine and canapés to celebrate the launch of the APS

 

Limited places – registration essential

Cost, including morning and afternoon tea & coffee, lunch, & wine reception with canapés:

Members: £40

Unwaged members: £25

Non-members: £70

Unwaged non-members: £35

 

To join the Association for Psychosocial Studies, please visit our website: http://www.psychosocial-studies-association.org/. To register for the Symposium, please visit: https://www2.bbk.ac.uk/bisr/aps/

I really wish I could go to this but unfortunately it clashes with something I can’t get out of. I’ve wanted to engage more seriously with psychosocial studies for ages:

THE PSYCHOSOCIAL IMAGINATION

A symposium to celebrate the launch of

The Association for Psychosocial Studies

Friday 13 June 2014

10.30am – 6.30pm

at The British Library Conference Centre

St Pancras, London

with talks, responses and contributions from a wide range of psychosocial thinkers, practitioners and researchers including:

John Adlam (NHS), Caroline Bainbridge (Roehampton), Karl Figlio (Essex), Stephen Frosh (Birkbeck), Paul Hoggett (UWE), Wendy Hollway (OU), Gail Lewis (Birkbeck), Sasha Roseneil (Birkbeck), Mike Rustin (UEL), Paul Stenner (OU), Valerie Walkerdine (Cardiff)

Chaired by:

Lynn Froggett (UCLAN), Liz Frost (UWE) & Tom Wengraf

Organised in collaboration with the Social Sciences Department of the British Library

 

The Association for Psychosocial Studies is a Learned Society member of the Academy of the Social Sciences and a UK Charitable Trust

 

PROGRAMME

10.00             Registration & Tea/ Coffee

 

10.30             Welcome & Introduction to the Symposium

Lynn Froggett, APS & Polly Russell, Social Sciences Department, British Library

 

11.00             The Psychosocial Challenges of Building Psychosocial Studies

Sasha Roseneil, with response by Wendy Hollway

Chair: Lynn Froggett

 

12.00             Felix Guattari and the Psychosocial Imagination          

Valerie Walkerdine, with response by Gail Lewis

 

1.00              Lunch

 

2.00              The Nature of the Psychosocial: Debates from “Studies in the Psychosocial”

Stephen Frosh, with response by Karl Figlio

Chair: Liz Frost

 

3.00              Learning from Three Practices: Political, Clinical and Research

Paul Hoggett, with response by Mike Rustin

 

4.00              Tea break

 

4.15              Reflections and prospections    

John Adlam, Caroline Bainbridge, Paul Stenner & audience discussion

Chair: Tom Wengraf

 

5.30              Reception with wine and canapés to celebrate the launch of the APS

 

Limited places – registration essential

Cost, including morning and afternoon tea & coffee, lunch, & wine reception with canapés:

Members: £40

Unwaged members: £25

Non-members: £70

Unwaged non-members: £35

 

To join the Association for Psychosocial Studies, please visit our website: http://www.psychosocial-studies-association.org/. To register for the Symposium, please visit: https://www2.bbk.ac.uk/bisr/aps/

I’ve just started reading Ian Craib’s Experiencing Identity. I’ve intended to read his work for a while and I’m already quite taken with it. It seems to be exactly the sort of realist engagement with the psychosocial that I’ve been looking for, after getting increasingly frustrated by ‘psychosocial studies’ but nonetheless being profoundly aware that the kind of social theory I do like has an inadequate account of the psychic. The introduction alone has sparked off some thoughts on an issue I felt my PhD helped me better understand but didn’t really offer me any answers to:

We certainly have social identities: I am a university teacher, a father, a husband, a psychotherapist, a supporter of the English cricket team and so on. Some of these (especially the last one) could disappear without my experiencing any great loss. I would have lost an identity, not my identity. If I suffered a major tragedy in my family life, ceasing to be a husband an becoming a divorced man or widower, my identity would have changed in an excruciatingly painful way but I would still have an identity. Social identities can come and go but my identity goes on as something which unites all the social identities I ever had, have or will have. My identity always overflows, adds to, transforms the social identities that are attached to me. (Craib 1998: 4)

The point here is not simply one of recognising interiority for philosophical reasons. Craib’s argument is that failing to recognise experience precludes the explanation of identity. However a broader point can be made here, namely that we foreclose the possibility of explaining biographical trajectories if we fail to account for personal identity. Consider Craib’s example: why would it be ‘excruciatingly painful’ to get divorced but not to lose interest in cricket? There are various vocabularies we could deploy here but the underlying point here is one of investment. One identity matters to him in a way that the other does not. He is invested in one in a way that is not the case with another.

But what does this mean? This depends on the vocabulary we’re working with. It could be explained in terms of preference, libido, attachment, concern or evaluation. Each of these has consequences but we can detach this issue from the underlying meta-theoretical point: if we ignore ‘experience’, as Craib describes it, we are left with a “gap” in “sociological understanding and explanation” (Craib 1998: 1). One of the most obvious manifestations of this ‘gap’ is the difficulties it creates for explaining biographical trajectories. The meaning of changes undergone by individuals, anchored in their identifications with roles and identities, drops out of the picture. So too does action ensuing, however directly or indirectly, from the meaning held by this change. Once more, it is possible to deploy various vocabularies to describe and conceptualise what is missing when we confront this ‘gap’. But I think it’s important to recognise the extent to which the meta-theoretical point, concerning the basic dimensionality of the social world, can be conceptually detached from substantive questions concerning our characterisation of those dimensions.

My point is that ignoring interiority (which is my habitual term for what Craib means by ‘experience’) when attempting to explain the social world* is like drawing in 2D versus drawing in 3D. There are occasions where 2D might actually be better and there are certainly many occasions where nothing is lost. But we need to be aware of this abstraction as a technique because there are methodological and theoretical risks attached to its ontologization. Furthermore, there are many occasions where it’s outright mistaken, such that ‘drawing’ in this way cannot help but produce lopsided and deficient accounts of the process in question. Craib makes this point well,

even where sociology attempts to grasp elements of subjective experience, as in the sociology of the emotions, the understanding remains limited and stereotyped, working primarily as if individuals were only cognitive beings. One might argue that this does not matter – sociology is the science of society so why should it concern itself with the inner worlds of individuals? This would be fair enough if sociologists are trying to explain the decline of feudalism, or changes in the contemporary class structure, the large scale shifts in social structures. An understanding of experience in these cases would add a dimension of intelligibility and of colour but would not be essential. However, when sociologists lay claim to talking about identity, the self and emotions we need to know what we are talking about and experience, the subjective, the inner world, is a vital part of this discussion. (Craib 1998: 4)

I think we can identify a ‘dimension’ in this sense as a recurrent meta-categorical feature of theoretical discourse. ‘Meta’ in the sense that it might not be explicitly stated but instead emerges in the exchange of theoretical arguments, arising in relation to denials and affirmations, characterisations and disagreements. Sociological theory, at its best, helps render these meta-categories in an explicit form: structure/agency, objective/subjective, macro/micro, social/individual etc. But the career structures of the academy and the attendant pressures towards specialisation often leaves these theoretical accounts insufficiently grounded in empirical research. Part of what I’m trying to work out at the moment, not so much for any publication purpose as because it’s something I realise I’m genuinely conflicted about**, concerns the role of general theory. I’m haphazardly moving towards an understanding of the sociology of social theory which sees general theory as a problem, in so far as that it is inherently generative of intellectual fragmentation given its tendency to amplify disagreement over a priori issues,  but also a potential solution. Perhaps a different sort of general theory? One that is provisional and iterative, emerging dialogically rather than developed monologically. But when I get to this point, I’m not even sure what I mean. The question is becoming clearer to me though: I want to study the formation of theoretical movements in different disciplines in order to feed into a normative account of trends within sociological theory. Not so much as another move within the game but as an analysis of the game in order that we might play it a bit better.

*Obviously many people wouldn’t seek to ‘explain’ but addressing that issue risks derailing this blog post.

**If I could go back and tell my anarchist punk self of my early 20s that this is what I would be “genuinely conflicted about” by my late 20s, would I still have done a PhD? Hmm.

One writer who made a huge impact on me during my transition from philosophy to sociology was Ken Plummer. There are many aspects of his work which I now have problems with but I think my engagement with his work (particularly Sexual Stigma, Telling Sexual Stories and Documents of Life) had a big impact on how I approach sociological inquiry. It’s on the question of the individual where we part ways and I think this can make me seem a lot less interactionist than I seem: 

Certainly the concrete human must always be located within this historically specific culture – for ‘the individual’ becomes a very different animal under different social orders. This is not a book that champions looking at the wonderful solitary human being: my conception of the human subjects and their experiences is one that cannot divorce them from the social, collective, cultural, historical moment. But in the face of the inherent society-individual dualism of sociology, I argue that there must surely always remain a strand of work that highlights the active human subject? And in the face of a constant tendency towards the abstract and the linear in modern thought, surely there is also always a need for the creative, imaginative and concrete? (Plummer 2000: 7).

This seemed radical and provocative to me when I first read it. Now it simply seems mistaken. I don’t think the society/individual dualism represents some intractable problem and my enthusiasm for Margaret Archer’s work stems largely from my conviction that she has largely solved this problem (in so far as one really does ‘solve’ theoretical ‘problems’) in a way conducive to empirical research. Lots of substantive theoretical and empirical work remains to be done but there’s an astonishingly expansive research programme incipient in the work she’s done, particularly in the last fifteen years. My point in writing this isn’t to sing the praises of her approach but simply to explain how, from my point of view, her work offers a much more powerful way to approach the exact same things I was interested in when I was a symbolic interactionist.

If I’d encountered psychosocial approaches at the time I was entering sociology, I doubtless would have been attracted to them too, given that they work from an understanding of  “research subjects whose inner worlds cannot be understood without knowledge of their experiences in the world, and whose experiences of the world cannot be understood without knowledge of the way in which the inner worlds allow them to experience the outer world (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 4). However the difficulty with these approaches arises because of their construal of the subject as psychic and social such that the underlying gap between ‘individual’ and ‘society’ which Plummer sees as intrinsic is not bridged in any meaningful way. The general trajectory of psychosocial approaches is animated by a critique of ‘naive’ models of subjectivity which is simultaneously methodological and ontological:

Taking a research subject’s account as a faithful reflection of ‘reality’ similarly assumes that a person is one who: 

  • shares meanings with the researcher; 
  • is knowledgable about him or herself (his or her actions, feelings and relations;) 
  • can access the relevant knowledge accurately and comprehensively (that is, has accurate memory); 
  • can convey that knowledge to a stranger listener; 
  • is motivated to tell the truth” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 11-12)

Some of the methodological aspects to this are perfectly acceptable from a realist perspective. There is a sense in which the resolution of the ‘individual-social paradox’ (described by Hollway and Jefferson (2000: 13) as “how individuals come to have experiences supposedly at odds with the norm for their social position, the fearless woman, the fearful man etc”) is precisely Archer’s  point when she contends that reflexivity should feature in our explanations because,

without it we can have no explanatory purchase upon what exactly agents do. Deprived of such explanations, sociology has to settle for empirical generalisation about ‘what most of the people do most of the time’. Indeed, without a real explanatory handle, sociologists often settle for much less: ‘under circumstances x, a statistically significant number of agents do y’. These, of course, are not real explanations at all. (Archer 2007: 133).

The correct recognition that “once methods allow for individuals to express what they mean, theories not only have to address the status of these meanings for that person and their understanding by the researcher, but they must also take into account the uniqueness of individuals” licenses a deeply problematic ‘drilling down’ into the (supposed) psychic life of the subject. The plausibility of this move rests largely on the (false) assumption that the only available alternatives are to treat the subject as ‘self-transparent’ or collapse their particularity into their socio-demographic placement.

Instead the strategy offered is essentially one of psychoanalytically ‘reading’ the subject in a socially situated fashion, such that psychic phenomena are understood as a “feature of individuals” but without being “reducible to psychology”. For instance ‘anxiety’ is construed in a way that is “psychic because it is a product of a unique biography of anxiety-provoking life-events and the manner in which they have been unconsciously defended again” and it is social because “such defensive activities affect and are affected by discourse (systems of meaning which are a product of the social world)”, “the unconscious defences that we describe are intersubjective processes (that is, they affect and are affected by others)” and involves “real events in the external, social world which are discursively and defensively appropriated” (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 24).

Leaving aside the many questions which can be asked about the application of these conceptual frameworks outside of a clinical context, the difficulty here is the lack of space between the social world ‘out there’ and psychic life ‘in here’. It is an attempt to solve the ‘individual-social’ paradox by peering into the inner depths of particular individuals, armed with a toolkit cobbled together from items borrowed from psychoanalysts based on meta-theoretical criteria which are vague at best, rather than Archer’s work which systematically bridges the two sides of the dichotomy in a way orientated towards empirical inquiry at the micro, meso and macro levels.

Any thoughts on this much appreciated. It’s intended as a friendly engagement – until starting the Hollway and Jefferson book recently my interaction with psychosocial approaches had come predominately through conferences and online videos. I often feel I have more in common with people who work in this way in terms of my interests than I do with anyone else I meet in sociology. I also think I get the general trajectory of it as an intellectual current and am largely in agreement. My problem is with its response to this problem – plus I find the appropriation of psychoanalytical concepts very problematic over and above my broader theoretical disagreement.

For those interested in psychosocial approaches to research, this video series I just stumbled across will be of interest. It’s from a seminar series which was jointly organised by people from Cardiff University and City University a few years ago. It aimed to “bring recent interest in affect with older traditions, especially those developed in relation to psychoanalysis, thus bringing different traditions of work into dialogue with each other“. I’ve included a quick snippet of Wendy Hollway below – you can find the full selection of videos here.

I personally find this incorporation of psychoanalytic concepts deeply problematic in terms of both their application outside of clinical settings and the far from clear meta-theoretical criteria upon which this quasi-psychoanalytical toolbox is constructed. But I also find it very interesting and, if I’m correct in my understanding of what motivates it, I’m largely persuaded by the underlying direction of travel i.e. the need to recover the individual as an explanatory variable within social research without construing the subject in a rationalistic and/or self-transparent fashion. I’m just sceptical about the method adopted, effectively amounting to the psychoanalytic reading of a socially situated subject – peering into the inner depths of concrete individuals. It doesn’t solve the underlying problem of how individual and society (agency/structure, micro/macro, subjectivity/objectivity etc) are interconnected – instead it just ‘drills down’ into one side of the dichotomy.

It seems obvious to me that there are, so to speak, things ‘between’ the psychic and the social – I’m very interested to read any psychosocial writing that explores the stratification of the self at an ontological level if any readers can offer suggestions. Such distinctions clearly seem to be circulating within this body of work but from the relatively small amount I’ve read thus far, it’s hard to get a handle on precisely what they are. I don’t want to sound unduly critical: I’m really interested in this stuff and my familiarity with it thus far comes more from hearing people talk than actually reading the literature in any serious and ongoing way.

The idea of the psychosocial (or psycho-social) can be traced back to Sigmund Freud’s early writings, particularly ‘The Future of an Illusion’ and ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ address sociological notions of structures, classes, society, the masses as well as psychoanalytic concepts of the individual, the psyche, the Superego, drives, etc.

Many scholars after Freud have explored the dualism of individual and society, or the social and psychical and ways to think the two in conjunction as opposed to a binary. From the Frankfurt School’s Freudian-Marxist perspective to Norbert Elias, to contemporary psychosocial studies in Britain and the US to name just a few, there is an academic field that is about overcoming theoretical and epistemological boundaries between micro and macro, between the individual and the social. It is this tradition that marks the starting point for the conference.

What is the psychosocial? What theoretical and empirical scholarship is helpful in thinking about it? How can the idea of the psychosocial be developed further?

We invite MA or PhD students who would like to present their research, be it of an empirical or theoretical nature, that can be broadly situated within psychosocial studies or that addresses ideas in relation to individual psyche’s and society. Papers should be 20 minutes in length and work in progress papers or the presentation of an idea or thought are very welcome.

The conference will be an informal opportunity to share research with others and to network and meet other researchers.

Please submit abstracts of max. 500 words along with a short bio to Jacob Johanssen (jacob@cyborgsubjects.org) and Siobhan Lennon-Patience (u9919166@uel.ac.uk) by November 4th, 2013.

The conference will be held on December 7th at the University of East London, UK and is organised by the Psychosocial Studies Postgraduate Group http://www.facebook.com/PsychosocialPostgradGroup) and supported by UEL (www.uel.ac.uk).