Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Sociometry in the Family

Originally posted on February 10, 2012

Comments on a cover article for Time Magazine of October 3, 2011—title: Mom liked you best* (*of course she would never admit it); (author: Mr. Jeffrey Kluger).

It’s good that this theme is brought up again in an era in which social psychology is coming more into prominence, gradually competing with the trend towards focusing on the mind of the individual. Back in the mid-1930s, Jacob L. Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974) was doing experiments on sociometry—a method for assessing the quality and strength of interpersonal preferences. He began to wonder in a more systematic way why a person X might choose someone A over B in relationships and groups—and families should be recognized as small groups. It turns out that the whole theme is far more complex, because different role relationships evoke different preferences.

For example, Father X relates differently to child A and B, depending on which roles he prefers to play and which child complements those roles. X may relate to different roles at different times. A is less rebellious at bedtime than B, but on the other hand A plays a game that X likes. Doe  the disciplinarian role or the playmate role predominate?

Father X may have roles w, x, y, z, and q. Son B may resonate well, sharing roles x, q, but also having other roles c, f, v… They may click about x and q, and quite disconnect or even be antagonistic about role y. But, being creative, Father finds a way of mixing x & f, so they share something together. Or, parents (X and spouse) arrange for Son B to take classes, get mentored about role v  so he feels validated, even though A can’t give it.

Alternatively, Daughter  A competes with B’s interests in other than what dad is interested in, and so forth.  Parents often figure creative ways to enjoy certain kids’ qualities as separate, even if they don’t naturally "click"    it’s more than being "fair," it has to do with empathy.

Sometimes this is really difficult. Daughter C is a little autistic and doesn’t reciprocate subtle non-verbal cues, which makes her less likeable.
(Interestingly, at age 9, C finds a pal, L, who shares her peculiar interest in, say, hair barettes, also has a collection, and they become natural pals. L doesn’t need or relate to the more extroverted exchange of nonverbal cues that most folks including dad enjoy.) Anyway, C ends up feeling not fully appreciated or "liked" by Dad X, though Dad would have like to connect more, but just wasn’t able to.

It gets more complicated. The illustrations all imply possible permutations that depend on each individual’s levels or degrees of egocentricity, narcissism, and other hardly-noticeable and subtle limitations of consciousness, inability to see one’s own transferences and projections, denials they exist. All these subtle variations are quite common and make relationship complicated. Sometimes the kids do this more than the parents, depending on temperament. Kids are by no means "innocent" victims. Their abilities and temperaments and ways of interacting can be engaging or off-putting depending on far more than how parents treat them. Also, let’s not forget that whatever goes on between A and B is then biased by complex feelings from X’s wife and other siblings, C, D, E, in-laws, etc.) 

There are scores of factors involved, in fact, ranging from how a given quality is valued in the extended family or culture (some cultures celebrate that which other cultures devalue) to how much does a parent feel a need to be "best friends" with a kid. So what the article presents about birth order, gender preference, and other factors are okay, but if I were giving a class on family relations in a college, I’d also note the many other elements that are involved in any relationship.

Although such sociometric systems are so complicated that it’s impossible to make generalizations about relationships, this approach at least opens the door to frank discussions and action explorations, acknowledging a wider range of issues that had previously remained taboo to mention. From an awareness of the factors, more conscious negotiations can be generated.

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