Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Psychodrama: Changing Word Meanings

Originally posted on September 28, 2013

Words change their meanings over time. In the 1930s “gay” was carefree, but now it’s homosexual. I’m in a field that uses the term psychodrama—a type of therapy, mainly, that uses the activity of role playing to raise consciousness. But psychodrama as a word drifted into the mainstream and become a term for a situation in which the people involved are indulging in “a lot of drama.” Drama in this setting means “too much” expressivity, not enough matter-of-fact-ness. That’s not at all what the method involves, though. Good psychodrama promotes creativity in coping, and sometimes that involves lessons in self-control.

While reporters had been degrading the word, I had thought editors would hold off, but I just found out that they, too, have joined the mainstream. Specifically, the editors of prestigious Annals of Neurology (in Volume 73, Issue 1, pages A5–A6, January 2013) have commented on the recent controversies about the recent 5th edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. In an article titled: DSM-V: Psychodrama on the public stage, the editors have clearly  adopted what has become the term as used by various reporters  over the last twenty or more years. I don’t know if they have any awareness that the word actually alludes to a method invented by J. L. Moreno in the late 1930s—is practiced by thousands of professionals globally.

Moreno’s developed an approach that used enactment instead of talking about a problem to help people to be more conscious and effective in life. “Psycho,” though, grew to be a vague mixture of murderous insanity (thanks in part of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie), residual skepticism about the caricature of psychoanalysis, and the way the word drama has drifted to mean being excessive in the expression of emotion. So news reporters used the term to refer to situations in which psychological resonances could be discerned and folks were reacting dramatically—which is most definitely not what Moreno when he was alive (he died in 1974) or the thousands of practitioners internationally who use psychodrama mean by the term.

I’ve found that few of my colleagues in the field want to change the name, and I confess I’m reluctant, because I’ve written a few books and many papers about the method. But I must recognize that, alas, the word now means something rather different to many people.

Beyond the Medical Model

Another problem in defining psychodrama is that most dictionaries view it as a form of psychotherapy or psychiatric treatment, but that is only one application. In fact,  this rich method in its larger form is a group of methods that has applications in education, business, community development, spiritual deepening, and so forth.

For these reasons, I have chosen to use the term action explorations to describe the use of these techniques in many settings. Let psychodrama be for psychotherapy. Or not. At any rate, I think the complex of Moreno’s methods are great tools, used together or separately, and also used with other techniques derived from other fields. I want to promote their wider application. So I’ve taken to use terms such as action methods, applied role playing, or action explorations.

One Response to “Psychodrama: Changing Word Meanings”

  • Thanks for sharing this Adam.

    I did not realise the extent to which the term Psychodrama has increasingly become synonymous with extreme emotions. Maybe the way TV sells in soap operas has changed how our culture perceives drama in general. The movement from naturalism to hyper-reality is a strong one, and one which continues to bypass an active engagement by audience members.

    In a therapy context I also sense Pyschodrama has become associated incorrectly with being a reductive analysis and treatment approach for the mind. Moreno was ahead of his time in embracing complexity, but could not stop the dominant reductive approaches being projected on his work.

    I like your alternative suggestions.
    I have been looking at enactivism and the associated philosophies about meaning construction as a way of framing. Enactivism extend the social constructivist approaches currently followed in social sciences to understand social and personal make-meaning.

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