The importance of context, situating knowledge and the bigger picture
“It was regarded as almost outside the proper interest of an analyst to give systematic attention to a person’s real experiences.” John Bowlby
“Until you are willing to be confused about what you already know, what you know will never grow bigger, better, or more useful.” Milton Erickson
“According to Foucault: The examination as the fixing, at once ritual and “scientific,” of individual differences, as the pinning down of each individual in his own particularity … clearly indicates the appearance of a new modality of power in which each individual receives as his status his own individuality, and in which he is linked by his status to the features, the measurements, the gaps, the “marks” that characterize him and make him a “case.” From The Myth of Empowerment by Dana Becker
My posts often reflect what I’ve been engaging with. Over these recent weeks I’ve managed to do some painting and drawing, and have also completed Dana Becker’s book, which I referred to in the previous post. So, in this post I thought I’d include some new drawings and continue the thread from the previous post in relation to the importance of contextualizing our own and others’ experience both in space and in time. I think Becker’s discussion is useful in increasing our discernment of social dynamics and discourse and the purposes they may serve. It’s not a long book but it’s packed with information, and I think that to some extent it contributes to making visible a bigger picture, and to clarifying the purpose that particular social discourse serves. As a result I intend to briefly present only some of the many salient points discussed in the book, as food for thought for anyone (myself included) interested. I’m also sharing a link to a talk by Rick Hanson that seems relevant to these topics.
As I’ve also been listening to audio story books and recordings by influential figures in psychology recently it has become salient how stories and discourse, research findings, theories, claims and ideas often reflect particular contexts and eras. Some claims are universal and timeless in some sense, but other arguments and narratives might need to be updated, revised, expanded or critically re-evaluated. For instance, I had a look at an essay, a genogram and an accompanying narrative that I had written and constructed in 2011 as part of a Family Therapy Course and I realized how much I would do differently if I were to do the activities now, eleven plus years later. My essays were situated, context and limitations taken into account, and probably well written because they had got me an A+ but since 2011, I have acquired some new knowledge and understanding, I have done a short genealogy course, have interacted with registry offices, have accumulated more experiences for better or worse, have meditated, have eroded some old conditioning, have grown older, and generally, more information has come my way.
In this sense, not all, but aspects of our narratives and written work needs to be situated in time and revised when required. These particular papers were basically informed by Murray Bowen’s theory [psychiatrist, and pioneering researcher of Family Systems Theory /1913-1990], whose systems approach and ideas I had found and still find valuable. However, to come back to the importance of situating human experience, theories included, family systems theory, for instance, has been critiqued for its assumption of universality and for not taking socio-economic conditions and cultural differences into account. Developmental theories for all their great contributions have also been critiqued. Becker writes: “the criticism that Jean Baker Miller, Carol Gilligan, and others have justifiably leveled at theories such as Erik Erikson’s that do not emphasize caring and interdependence as goals for human development throughout the life span…..” Theories are useful and can be of value over time, but as British psychologist, child psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst, John Bowlby (1907-1990) notable for his interest in child development and his pioneering work in attachment theory, wrote: “All knowledge is conjectural and … science progresses through new theories coming to replace older ones when it becomes clear that a new theory is able to make sense of a greater circle of phenomena than are comprehended and explained by the older one and is able to predict new phenomena more accurately.”
In this post today I can only selectively refer to some of the points Becker makes because as I mentioned above the book is packed with concepts, historical facts, references and arguments. The central thread in the book, as the title connotes, is the empowerment of women or maybe not. Becker writes that what empowerment promises women is control over their lives; however, she explains when applied to women, it usually connotes nothing more than self-knowledge or self-improvement. She argues that power is not an increase in self-esteem, relational skills, or an improved ability to cope with or adapt to familial, social and societal expectations, although these, may be some of the aims of the therapeutic culture. She further argues that personal change in the service of achieving personal goals, cannot furnish women, either collectively or individually, with power. She also critiques the wildly held beliefs of women’s strengths as being primarily relational and their needs as primarily personal.
She claims that the therapeutic culture could help to create a different awareness of ourselves and the world, an awareness that might promote social change. However, she writes: “although the therapeutic culture does create its subjects, it is not generally creating subjects who are directed toward changing the status quo.” In fact she says what the therapeutic culture offers women, is merely a type of compensatory power that supports and reproduces the existing societal power and gender arrangements by obviating the need for social action to change things, as women continue to perform the “emotion work” of society. Becker writes that history tells us that women’s interiority and their claim to moral and emotional influence, their “domestic individualism,” have always been championed by men, because privileging the inner world will be less likely to foment trouble outside it. She describes how since the nineteenth century, individualistic psychological and medical discourses have been the vehicles through which women have been defined, and which have masked the need for structural changes— social, political, economic— in the gendered arrangements that have dictated women’s roles and have, in many cases, reduced women’s struggles to purely personal problems.
She adds that it is important to understand the history and the legacy of the past because it is this heritage that shapes our own and therapists’ understanding of the “self” and its meanings. It is necessary to examine the notions about personhood— the self—that culture espouses and the forms of individualism in which ideas of the self are grounded. This she explains is important because understanding “the vision of the self that is endorsed by a particular culture opens the door, as perhaps no other knowledge does, to that system of meanings, because “as cultures change, so do the modal types of personality that are their bearers.” She cites Nikolas Rose who supports that “the self….. [results from] the social expectations targeted upon it, the social duties accorded it, the norms according to which it is judged, the pleasures and pains that entice and coerce it, the forms of self-inspection inculcated in it, the languages according to which it is spoken about and about which it learns to account for itself in thought and speech.
Becker reminds us how both women and men construct specific representations of themselves from the discourses that are available to them and are shaped by time, place, and gender. Gender she says is a way of structuring human experience socially, politically, economically, intellectually, and psychologically and women’s consciousness, like that of men, results to a great extent from their historical experience, the roles society has assigned to them, their relations with men, and to prevailing socio-cultural discourses with which they have been invited to identify.
She also discusses how there is ample historical evidence that wrestling with the problems of the self is quite a modern preoccupation and that the emergence of consciousness of the self has much to do with what made the world modern and that centuries ago there was no distinction made between an internal and an external self, nor was the self understood, as it is now, as something abstract and also hidden. The self of the individual was viewed as the sum of their behaviors and public commitments, not, as today, the cause of these same phenomena and separate from them. She writes that it is not every culture that makes of self a noun, and the fact that our culture began to do so represented a historical change in the understanding of the self, which originated in the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly with Descartes, who believed that the individual had a unique, protected entrée into his own inner world and that for all the resistance to Descartes’ ideas from empiricist quarters, his perspective has continued to prevail in modern times. An important question to ask she writes is….for what purpose the distinction between inner and outer have permeated the culture?
Another discussion thread in the book is modern individualism, which she states has come to mean many things. She also clarifies that her critical stance in relation to individualism throughout this book is by no means suggesting either that the effects of individualism are altogether adverse or that individualism is monolithic. She writes: “its power lies precisely in its ambiguity and plasticity,” in the ways its meanings can be put to quite different and even contradictory uses ….Individualism and collectivism, often assumed to oppose each other absolutely, actually have a dialectical relationship…… people in everyday life will go on, trying … to accommodate these two and imperfectly to reconcile the indispensable values which are inherent in them both.” She also talks about utilitarian individualism as embodied in the institution of a competitive, capitalist economy and how this is reflected in the therapeutic culture, and expressive individualism, which emphasizes that emotions and self-expression, endorses autonomy, and which defines success in terms of the triumph of individual self-expression over societal repression, and is represented in such psychotherapy concepts as self-fulfillment and self-realization, and others, in the tradition of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.
She writes individualism was forged in response to the rule of monarchy and an oppressive class system, but there seem to be concerns that if left unchecked, a condition could arise with over emphasis on fulfillment through retreat into a private world apart from society, where people might imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands and the vital connections between public and private life are undermined. Becker writes; “…the private life of Americans provides little preparation for engagement in a public, political life that is essential for supporting democracy.” In relation to women what they have had to fear from individualism is an over-focus on the personal at the expense of the political; a search for the sources of their problems in the psyche that obscures their view of the social forces that frequently define those problems and prescribe their solutions. Power then need not be exercised from without because it is already being exercised by the individual on her (or himself), In the parts of the book devoted to “self-esteem” she writes self-esteem is only one among an array of technologies of selfhood…. a “state of esteem” is not arrived at through public acts and public talk; its foundation is an interior dialogue “between self and self.” From this perspective, Becker claims “freedom entails “slow, painstaking, and detailed work on our own subjective and personal realities, guided by an expert knowledge of the psyche.”
Another thread in the book is the “stress” discourse”, She suggests that the discourse of stress (women’s in particular) attempts to address things by locating the problems within a medical and psychological context rather than in the sociopolitical domain. She further claims that “professionalization of social problems such as poverty rendered them more readily isolable and controllable, placing all domains of living under the professional’s authority and helping to maintain the societal status quo. The culture of professionalism also reinforced individualism by deracinating social causes from social problems in the interest of science; the social system could not be held responsible for life’s vicissitudes, nor could it be blamed for people’s “nerves.””
She traces the evolution of this way of thinking to past movements and ideas. For instance, Mind Cure was helping people believe that the world outside themselves was not responsible for their miseries, but only how they viewed that world that had significance – their problems were in their minds. Becker writes: “today we might say that what mattered was how they “internalized” perceptions of the world.” She provides examples like the Alcoholics Anonymous, certain “human potential” movements and New Age philosophies, which she explains are the not-so-distant cousins of New Thought; the popular philosophy that emphasized the individual’s ability to fully control his or her own destiny, espoused on certain TV shows today and the rhetoric of codependency, and which to a great extent eschew altogether the virtues of interdependence— community, cooperation, compassion for others, delay of gratification. She writes about the mental hygiene movement in the 1920s and 1930s and suggests that from this perspective, personality was also shaped by the environment, but “environment” was now narrowly defined as the home, with a particular emphasis on the emotional climate in which childrearing took place.
Becker also critiques the idea of infinite possibilities and limitless opportunity that at least part of the self help and therapeutic industry are promising. She writes: “… the American love affair with infinite opportunity cloaks “an equally happy acceptance of normative social control….. For possibility and contentment may be sworn enemies. Pure potential and its despair combine to create the ideal late-capitalist perpetual-motion engine, with self-realization powering the drive train…… [For after all] if you don’t become all that you pretty much want, you’ve only your own indolence to blame.”
Topics like the feminist movement with it contradictions and differences, PTSD and women, caring and caretaking within the context of an individualistic culture, the reasons the practice of psychotherapy has been feminized, as women have become psychotherapy’s chief professional purveyors, the psychologization and medicaization of every day experiences and difficulties, “self-esteem” and the concept of “normal”, and how “hierarchical surveillance and normalizing judgment” became a means of exercising control and authority, and more, are discussed in the book. However, this post is already quite lengthy, so I will end here, and maybe I will return to a particular topic in some future post.
Meanwhile, I’d like to share a link: https://www.rickhanson.net/meditation-talk-privilege-what-we-dont-take-into-account-and-should/ for Rick Hanson’s talk on January 19th, which I think relates to the above. The central theme is privilege, which he defines as not having to take something into account. Privilege he says is the result of three sources of status, standing and resources: luck for better or worse (e.g. to be born in an advantaged or disadvantaged situation, gene lottery, events and opportunities in life, e.g. being hit by a car at a green light or meeting someone who might open a door for you, which might be slammed shut for someone else, etc); virtuous effort (e.g. work, effort to learn, taking on of responsibility, perseverance, etc), and socio-economic structures that advantage some while disadvantaging others. He comments that privilege that accrues may disadvantage others, and also, that the societal field is tilted to advantage some by disadvantaging others. He provides several examples. For instance, he refers to the different responses people often encounter in medical settings. Some may be disrespected, patronized, their concerns dismissed, or they may not receive the deserved attention and help, and then there is also the fact that inequality plays a huge role in the agency and means that people have in relation to taking care of their health. He also provides examples of attribution error. More about this bias in my 6-3-2021 post: The Broken Ladder
He poses the following questions for reflection:
What are the systems of advantage and disadvantage that people have to take into account?
What do we need to take into account that others don’t, and what do others need to take into account that we don’t?