Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Considering Socio-Cultural Factors

Originally posted on June 12, 2011

We should consider the socio-cultural factors operating in a situation. (Some of the factors in human development are discussed on another paper on my website. In the future, I’ll explore in another paper some of the factors in adulthood, too, including socio-cultural factors—but of course I won’t pretend to be comprehensive.) Considering the socio-cultural factors might add another dimension in taking stock of one’s own life, writing an autobiography, self-development, philosophy, or psychotherapy, among other endeavors. Considering the socio-cultural factors at play in one’s life might include a wide variety of themes:
– gratitude for what we have or know now that we didn’t have or know earlier
– including factors that arise because of continuing progress, technologically, culturally, and these include phenomena that may offer a mixed blessing, having disadvantages as well as advantages.
– lingering traditions, social norms, subtle oppressions, gross oppressions
– unrealistic expectations from false or misleading norms of the past or present
– “overshoot”—ways that we may individually or collectively have gone a bit too far in this or that direction, sometimes too much, sometimes too little
…and so forth.

Avoiding Feeling Overwhelmed

First of all, actually naming all the relevant environmental elements in any given situation is in fact quite impossible. There’s no way we can know many of them, and in the future we may realize that there are certain dimensions or elements that were relevant that were not known about or appreciated in our own time. Thus, the challenge of considering socio-cultural factors can seem overwhelming. Relax! Any attempt to include these in your thinking is already better than avoiding do so. You don’t have to feel obliged to be complete in your assessment—that’s why the term “considering” was used. All I’m suggesting is that we open our mind a bit, include this wider context and its many variables. I think that people too often have avoided such considerations out of fear, and some of the reasons for that fear include the following:
– not wanting to experience being a victim, helpless, out of control, the product of an over-determined cultural and historical process
– intuiting that we may never be able to entirely get a grasp on it all, it’s just such a big topic
– not wanting to use excuses. (Of course, we are aware that there are those who seem to use excuses too much, to shun responsibility—and they do it so flagrantly that we feel embarrassed; we don’t want to be like them.)
– not wanting to blame too much (these are related feelings)
– the problems and influences are so big that it almost hurts to have to think about it
– it feels disrespectful towards all the people I felt were authorities in life, parents, teachers, people I knew were trying to help—but if I think about it—and I don’t really want to—they were limited: sometimes their approach lacked certain elements we now realize (or are beginning to realize) might have been good for us; sometimes their approach included elements that we now realize might have been actively bad for us! It is uncomfortable to think this way
– … and so forth.

But there’s a price to be paid by not including these elements: Avoiding thinking about this category adds to the sense of personal burden. There’s a balance to be struck here. I want to help people to take up the optimal level of responsibility. Only thus can we engage personal and collective problems effectively. But responsibility is like muscle tone and exercise. If you stretch or push beyond a certain level, the pain rapidly escalates and you’re in danger of stress injuries if you continue. (I am definitely against the no-pain-no-gain thesis!) On the other hand, in body exercise, there is a range of mild discomfort that, if you don’t engage, you lapse into over-laziness that leads to a flaccidity of the body, a lack of optimal tone. There’s that middle level with many psychological tasks, too, from trusting and loving to responsibility-taking. There’s too much as well as too little. More, each person needs to discover that optimal balance for him- or herself.

Back to the theme: We’re talking about widening our perspective, daring to get past the aforementioned resistances to thinking about what’s going on. It occurred to me that psychiatric diagnoses don’t do this enough, include the socio-cultural factors. Perhaps they can’t, really—in terms of listing and putting it on paper. It would be unrealistic for a number of reasons:
  – some of these factors are as yet unclear
  – how to weight the influence of any given factor is certainly unclear
  – the good/bad ratio of many factors is unclear or controversial
  – compared to what? That also makes an evaluation difficult.
  – social controversies abound about many of these factors
  – the whole ambiguity of “can’t help it” and individual responsibility versus accountability comes up. We want to encourage the optimal level of effort and taking responsibility, and want to discourage offering excuses that will undermine this effort—in ourselves and others—
  – it would take hours of philosophy, history, cultural criticism, and so forth, and perhaps also a great deal of background reading and personal experience to do this halfway adequately
  – …so, this is another way it’s all “overwhelming” and thus avoided.

Use in Life Review

Given that I would not expect a colleague to do anywhere near a complete analysis of sociocultural factors in a write-up still what occurs to me is that neither should this category be completely avoided. For people who want to know what’s going on with them in life, it helps to put things in perspective. It need not be complete—even taking a stab at socio-cultural analysis adds a good deal of depth to the situation. More, it accounts for what we all know are active operating factors. We are indeed in part determined by historical, political, regional, geographical, ethnic, and other socio-cultural themes. This awareness need not rob us of our recognition that we need to take an optimal degree of responsibility for what we can do to cope.

Being Too Much a “Victim of Circumstances”

Some people in certain roles over-do their victim-hood, but for most others this tendency seems morally weak and near-repulsive. There’s also the tendency to be too much a victim in certain roles while taking on too much responsibility in other roles. The point is that rejecting any thoughts about relative helplessness can be a form of repression, a neurotic refusal to cut oneself  any slack. All intuitions of dysfunction are taken on as a personal moral weakness—that is, for lots of people, we blame ourselves too much, beat ourselves up without really being able to back up what it is we should have known by now, why we shouldn’t have forgotten to do this or that, and so forth. There is in fact a more realistic balance that should ensure a relatively accurate distribution of “causes” for our sense of challenge.  (I have a paper on my website that addresses the value of seeking an optimal balance in a wide range of qualities in life.)

Again, trying to assess all the relevant socio-cultural factors will be overwhelming because the actual whole situation is far too complex to be fully grasped or accurately quantified. However, if we avoid such unrealistic expectations—and the expectation itself is a sociocultural stress—i.e, the unrealistic expectation that anyone can fully and accurately grasp the nature and extent of the many forces operating within and around his existence—, then we may perhaps find the optimal balance between self-forgiveness and taking responsibility.

A Theme for Psychotherapy

Depending on the timing and situation for the client, it might be worthwhile dipping into this category for a while: Some people are so into hating themselves for their inadequacies that this obscures much in the way of taking stock. Too much judgment. Some recognition of the way we are all products of our environment offers a cognitive structure for the relatively accepting attitude of the therapist.

I imagine this exercise also being used towards the end of therapy, because recovery, in my thinking, also includes a marshaling of the client’s interest in doing more than being relieved of symptoms. I think there’s healing that comes with finding that one can meaningfully help in the greater good. (Alfred Adler is unique in developing a model for optimal mental health through an attitude of wanting to participate in the advancement of the collective. He called this “Gemeinschaftsgefuehl,” which means a feeling for the community, also translated as “social interest.”)

If the client can’t get out of himself enough to accept his duty to the larger “we,” in my thinking the client hasn’t truly gotten “well.” (I heard that Fritz Perls, a pioneer of the method called “Gestalt Therapy,” once sourly observed: “Most patients don’t really want to get better; they just want to get better at being neurotic.” My interpretation of this is related to this shift of attitude from me to we, from personal mastery to some sense of duty to be useful to the collective.)


While it may seem overwhelming, an effort to consider, analyze, and weigh properly the many types of socio-cultural factors at play in our lives is an activity that should be done. I suspect that too often it tends to be avoided, for reasons mentioned, and avoiding it in turn tends to add to the personal burden of shame and guilt. I don’t object to a certain degree of owning shame and guilt — in small doses I think these are bracing for the building of our character. As I’ve noted elsewhere, problems arise when people experience too little shame or guilt! But too much isn’t good, either, and a socio-cultural analysis may help to put things into proper perspective.

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