Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Sociometry: An often-overlooked dimension of social psychology.

Originally posted on August 6, 2010

One of the more important dimensions of psychology operates not so much in the mind of the individual but rather in the interpersonal field. (This is perhaps why it was missed by the psychoanalysts.) One pioneer, Dr. Jacob L. Moreno, in the 1930s, noticed this dynamic and tried to find ways of measuring it. It’s elusive. Moreno called it “tele” but another term that may be more familiar is “rapport.” Why do we prefer this person over that person in relation to some role? Some folks we prefer as teammates for certain games. They may not be the same people that we’d want to date, or have for a more philosophical conversation. The saying, “different strokes for different folks,” applies also in a different way as we think of the way we prefer certain people more or less for different roles.

Moreno called the method of assessing gradients of interpersonal preference “sociometry,” and in time this became the name of the field that contemplates this dimension. So far it’s not widely appreciated, though it’s been written about extensively in the professional literature. I’d like to see it become a part of what everyone needs to know, a part of popular psychology.

The trouble with sociometry is that it’s still a young field and there’s much yet to be learned. More pointedly, though, the theme addresses feelings that are generally felt to be extremely personal, extremely emotionally loaded. I think that a consideration of the dynamics of preference and rapport is every bit as relevant in psychological and interpersonal understanding as anything Freud came up with. But what we’re talking about here is the deep feelings that got stirred up when you:
– wanted to play with Billy but he seemed to be having more fun with Johnny;
– wanted your mom’s attention but she seemed to be giving more attention to your baby brother
– wanted your dad’s attention but he seemed more proud of your older sister
– wanted to play with Billy and Johnny wanted to play, too, but you didn’t want him to play, and you also didn’t want to hurt his feelings
– didn’t want to kiss Aunt Suzy (because she kissed wet—or that’s what you said), although you couldn’t get enough of Aunt Jennie
– discovered as a parent that although you really tried not to play favorites in truth you felt more fascination or affection toward one of your kids over the other one;
. . . and so forth.

This is emotionally loaded material, and yet we live in an era that recognizes that avoiding problems, trying to stifle them or sweep them under the figurative carpet, just doesn’t work. It all leaks out somehow. (That’s the basic lesson of psychoanalysis summed up in a sentence!) So you might as well find out what the situation is about so you can deal with it more consciously, find a way to work out the mixed feelings in a constructive fashion. Sociometry says that this needs to apply not only in working out conflicts among the different roles or parts of your own mind, but in relationships, families, groups, organizations, and in the culture!

We also need to look at the dynamics of social preferences at the cultural level. While we may be seeking to be egalitarian in general social and legal policy, the truth is that we cannot escape the dynamic of preferring people who share our values—and these may be aesthetic, political, and so forth. One might make an argument that class is more important than race, though the whole topic is generally avoided. The point to be made is that people really cannot help the feelings of preference, though they may be able to take responsibility for how they act on such feelings.

(The accusation of “racism” is an over-generalization. People cannot help feeling certain affinities with certain people and ethnic or cultural or racial elements may be part of this; affinities often cross racial lines, too! Problems arise when people allow those intuitive feelings to become the major factor in their behavior. Our job as adults is to become aware of our feelings and intuitions and to choose how they are played out in real life—but we can’t make ourselves feel this or that way by an act of will.)

There is much I’ve written on my website and elsewhere about sociometry, and much, much more that others have written (see my bibliography). I hope you’ll get interested and pursue this.

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