Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Social-Depth Psychology

Originally posted on September 10, 2012

J. L. Moreno developed a method called sociometry that involved more systematically asking people about their interpersonal preferences according to specified criteria. Diagramming the responses brings into view the intangible matrix of the social field. It operates in a way analogous to what a microscope does. But more, the social field thus exposed deserves attention because there is much there, more even than can be found through the sociometric method. (A number of papers on sociometry are on my website.)

What needs to be noted is that this field of interactions and the psychological feelings associated with having preferences and sensing or being anxious about others’ preferences is very emotionally sensitive. The mind is a social organ, exquisitely attuned to slight shifts in perceived status, whether one is noticed, liked, approved of, cared about, preferred, and so forth. Other depth psychology approaches touch on these dynamics, such as the psychoanalytic theories that attend to interpersonal relations (Harry Stack Sullivan’s writings in the 1940s); or “object relations theory;” or “self psychology;” and beyond Freudianism, Alfred Adler’s ideas in his system of individual psychology. But these built out from the one-to-one setting in therapy or observations on the family unit in early childhood.

Social-depth psychology mixes the social psychology with the way these interactions resonate deeply and often involve non-rational dynamics in the minds of those involved. For example, since even young children develop preferences, child A prefers to play with B in one setting, but with friend C in another setting. But there’s a curious compartment-alization. A feels hurt if he finds out that B prefers to play with C in certain settings, even if A doesn’t even like that type of play. This is because A as a young child wants to be preferred by everyone—it’s normal egocentricity.

In other words, folks have preference for different people and it doesn’t mean that the one not chosen must feel ashamed and rejected. Talking openly about these things may reduce the immature tendency to be hurt. The point is that in our culture and many cultures such talk is taboo, avoided unconsciously, and much of what we call courtesy arises to cover over the possible frictions generated by this natural dynamic that people indeed prefer some folks over others according to many criteria, common interests being most prominent. And people differentiate more in their interests as they grow older.

Unless this reality is talked about openly, processed consciously, many people sustain the sense of being hurt if they become aware that they are not always preferred—that early childhood attitude. In other words, becoming more overtly aware of the natural principles of social preference might help folks not take it so personally, might help counter this childish attitude.

The Oedipal Complex

Freud was right and I think he was also mistaken. He was right that all kids around the ages of 3 – 6 have emotional conflicts about jealousy, but it was about the dynamics mentioned above, not about wanting to be sexually close to one’s mother and being afraid that the father in retaliation will cut off (or has magically cut off) the child’s penis. Possibly a few kids with very weird family dynamics have that, but what Freud was picking up and trying to understand might, I think, be better appreciated in terms of social-depth psychology: Why do some people like me now but seem to prefer others in other contexts?

The point is that this problem of having to adjust to the reality of social differentiation is a normal developmental phase, and it is worked out in a wide variety of healthy and unhealthy ways. I think that if the culture as a whole could address the underlying issues more directly—as matters of natural differentiation of preference—it would make it easier for kids to negotiate this transition: For example, it becomes clear that some kids like to play sports more, and other kids like quieter games. Temperament begins to be a part of how we choose playmates. And so forth.

Wider Implications

Social-depth psychology might well address many issues, complementing a number of books that have been written lately about social psychology, such as Daniel Goleman’s “Social Intelligence.” Some people remember the word “sociometry,” developed by Moreno in the 1930s, based in part on observations over the previous few decades; some have forgotten this root. Nevertheless, there has been a resurgence of interest in social psychology as an extension of our culture’s becoming more psychologically-minded. It all points to a growing awareness of the need to address greater levels of complexity in the bio-psycho-socio-cultural matrix, and recognizing that there’s a depth psychology dimension to sociology and social psychology may help in this endeavor.

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