Individual Identity and Group Membership:
Some Reflections on the Politics of a Post-Modernist Therapy

Gail Simon

The Pink Practice, London

Published in Human Systems: Journal of Systemic Consultation and Management Vol. 9:1. 1998.

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"After all, what is reality anyway ? Nothin' but a collective hunch. My space chums think reality was once a primitive method of crowd control that got out of hand"
Jane Wagner "The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe"


This paper examines some political implications of therapies which focus on the individual and their immediate systems. I am suggesting that, as therapists, we need to review what we consider to be an appropriate system in focus within therapeutic conversation and address the ethical relationship between change occurring at a level of the individual and their immediate, smaller systems and change taking place in a wider system, at a level of society, of community.

I am proposing that by focusing on smaller systems alone, we are i) setting limits on the resources which a therapist and client may draw on and ii) undermining the potential for change on a larger scale in society through the individual not being invited to locate or identify their personal experiences or accounts within the broader or more public arena of a wider system.

As therapists concerned with ideology, I suggest that we need to develop more of a critique of the liberal humanist and postmodernist ideologies, so considering the influence and implications of these ideologies for practice and for the role our practice might play in maintaining or disrupting power relations in society. In particular, attention is paid to the social construction of the individual and the diminishing idea of group membership. With reference to clinical material, the paper goes on to propose some possible ways of expanding the client's and therapist's audiences, so increasing the ideas available through identification of and with a wider system. In particular, I introduce the notion of the hypothetical audience and its use with wider system questions.


The hypothesis in this paper is that therapy, including social constructionist practices, undermines or, at least, does not contribute sufficiently to a notion of group identity, potential group strength and the possibility of group action. I would suggest that this undermining takes place in the therapeutic conversation by the system in focus most frequently being constructed as involving only smaller, more local systems of the individual, family or work place etc.

I suggest we need to examine how are we limiting the stories and experience which clients and therapists draw on if the larger, specific groups, of which people are also members, are left out of the conversation. Are we overlooking the significance of that membership for the individual and undermining that individual's potential for participating in collective action and other discourses?

Given the level of abstraction involved in these concerns, I show, later in this paper, how I have experimented in practice with creating hypothetical or imaginary situations with clients in which they access multiple voices evoking the experiences, advice etc. of others. I call these voices hypothetical audiences. I have developed the use of wider system questions to facilitate such conversations.

In the interests of space in this paper, I have limited the discussion to the role of the therapist and have not focused on the co-constructive element in the therapy which I regard as central to social constructionist practice.

From Home Town to Cyberspace: Stories of Group Membership

My interest in group membership has been fuelled by my experience of growing up in a small town with an absence of others with whom I could identify. As a lesbian, as a jew, as an unconventional woman, I recognise the value in being able to identify the existence of others like myself. I have found strength in this identification and experienced the creativity of groups producing and participating in political debate.

In my experience of groupwork, both as a therapist and as a client, I have experienced how powerful groups can be in bringing forth accounts of experience in broader social contexts, particularly of commonalities and especially where encouraging a critique of dominant culture in groups, in societies.

The civil rights and protest movements of the 1960s gave rise to a notion of the validity of subjective experience and drew attention to the wider socio-political contexts as discriminating against certain groups of people. The consciousness-raising and self-help groups of the 1970s and '80s developed this shift and encouraged people, particularly women, to create their own accounts of the problems they were experiencing. In the context of these groups and movements, descriptions emerged which spoke both of individualised and shared struggles. People started to develop politicised accounts of personal difficulties, locating them in the contexts of gender, sexuality, class and race politics. People were not solely individuals with personal problems but peers, social critics and agents of change amongst other things.

A more current example of the potential uses of groups can be witnessed on the internet which offers the possibility of bringing together groups of people with similar interests or concerns who would otherwise not necessarily be able to create a sense of community. For example, there are newsgroups for people who have been sexually abused in which people can write openly about their experiences and the effects of their experiences and get feedback, advice or information about resources from other people who have also been abused. Another example is that of a mailing list for lesbian and gay narrative therapists who are geographically scattered and isolated which offers many people the possibility of entering into an international discourse about practices and theories and of "meeting" the occasional person with whom they feel they have something in common [1].

Contextualising Theory

The postmodernist paradigm lends itself well to exploring the themes of individual identity and group membership because of its emphasis on the centrality of subjectivity in what becomes established as "truth", "knowledge" or "reality". Descriptions of experience from within or between people are valued more highly than those generated by outside experts or those acting on behalf of others.

In practising a social constructionist therapy, I am interested in exploring the narratives through which people's ideas about themselves, their choices, their "realities", are constructed. In addition, I find social constructionism to be a useful methodology for examining the practices of therapy. By focusing on the ideology behind the methodology we can examine what ideas therapist and client are bringing to bear on a subject. I understand "reality" as something we construct socially when we "'actually live in language', (which is to avoid saying that individuals live in a real world and simply use language as a tool to denote and do things.)" (Leppington, 1991). Through language we can, to varying degrees, bring forth or reproduce our realities.

Social constructionism can be a useful framework in which to use and critique ideas from other discourses and from other paradigms. Ideas, for example, from a Marxist discourse might make a unique contribution but overlook the importance of language and yet the ideas need not be discarded. In this paper and in the context of my clinical work, I find it useful to draw on postmodernist and modernist theories arising out of the discourses of social constructionist therapy, literary criticism, critical art theory, cultural studies and sociology which appear to me to create contexts for each other. As Frazer and Williams (1993) remark, "The communitarian subject is exposed not just to one predominant cultural discourse but to multiple discourses" (cited in Williams 1995).

It may be useful here to contextualise social constructionist practice by exploring some of the ideological influences of both postmodernism and liberal humanism as I see them.

The Politics of Postmodernism and Some Expectations of "Change"

Postmodernism is steeped in political debate. It has been described as a-political, anti-political, politically ambiguous or politically ambivalent (Rosenau 1992). This relates largely to how the postmodernist idea of relativity is often misunderstood to mean "all ideas are of equal value" and is taken up by different groups to justify conflicting points of view at a moral level. Postmodernism may lack a particular political identity but this does not mean it can be politically "neutral". White (1991) has said that not everything is relative, not all stories are equal. Some stories are better than others in terms of the effect on an individual or society. I understand postmodernism is more of a paradigm for critiquing paradigms as well as a perspective in its own right. It does not have a theory of change as do many other paradigms such as Marxism. What it has is a theory of the reproduction of culture and, by implication, power relations and a status quo.

Jacques Derrida's ideas of deconstruction (1981) have been treated by the left as revolutionary with the possibility of destabilising the status quo, challenging modernist and hegemonic discourses and opening the way for marginalised groups and those oppressed by capitalism. Postmodernism has been seen by the right as overthrowing traditional methods without providing an alternative and as promoting a value relativism which does not distinguish between right and wrong. Some right wing theorists support postmodernism for having a value relativism which can break down specific political allegiances across groups (Rosenau 1992).

One criticism by Marxists of postmodernism is that, in paying strict attention to discourse, it can be seen "to set up language as an alternative to the social problems which plague society." (Eagleton 1983). Leppington (1991) uses the drawing by Escher of ants to visually convey the relational impact between ideas, practice and data in a reflexive figure of eight - but the image itself does not change: the ants are on a treadmill. There is no suggestion of any alteration in the environment of the ants. Is that their choice? An implication of this might be that it is our language, our accounts of what is happening that need to change and not our material environment.

The Construction of the Individual: A Liberal Humanist Creation

Liberal Humanism emphasises the rights of the individual above all else and has an "all people must be treated equally" philosophy. It has been criticised for denying differences between people (Kitzinger 1989, Eagleton 1983) and the contexts in which they live. Social constructionists encourage the recognition, valuing and generation of meaning of differences between people and across varying contexts but how do we recognise and challenge the structures which maintain inequalities based on difference? Are we running the risk of modelling an inactive response to social inequality by accepting differences in individuals without reference to the experience in a larger socio-political context?

Kitzinger (1989) describes an example of this with reference to the apparently accepting attitude of liberal humanists towards lesbian individuals. She points out that this acceptance is conditional upon lesbians being quiet about their experience, unchallenging, not too different from heterosexual women etc. Difference is underplayed with liberal humanism stressing "the essential personhood of the lesbian and the relatively trivial nature of her sexual preference" (Kitzinger 1989). The lesbian is assured of her relative social acceptability so long as she does not challenge the dominant heterosexual group nor define herself in a way that does not fit with the idea of the (acceptable) individual lesbian.

In short, difference can be acceptable in the individual. It is more threatening if demonstrated by groups or if the individual does not conform with being a "nice" version of a lesbian, black man, person with HIV etc. Individuals from oppressed or minority groups are unlikely to communicate parts of their identity which may be experienced as threatening to a therapist perceived to be from a more dominant cultural group.

I am proposing that a liberal humanist ideology is, in part, responsible for our focus on smaller systems. Let us consider further the hypothesis that therapy, including social constructionist and narrative therapies, might be contributing to the maintenance of ruling classes and dominant oppressive structures through the separating of the individual from the group, for fear of its potential strength or threat, and by constructing the individual as a local site for treatment. Philippi (1991) draws attention to the political significance of focusing on the individual:

"Site marks the cross-roads of relations of power and their effectiveness on the level of the real, on the subject's very body; the site becomes a specific point of collision of forces - social, political, cultural - which can be distinguished from the ...... [institution] ..... where they are enacted."

Kitzinger (1989) asserts that liberal humanism takes identity and experience out of the public and political arena and relocates it in the personal zone.

If we are to review where we focus - on the notion of the individual or on society - perhaps we can consider Leppington's suggestion (1991) of a shift in focus from the individual to the social context. "The question then is not 'How does the individual rational consciousness account for the social world?' but 'How, in a social world, to account for the culturally specific notions of the individual?'" (Leppington 1991) [my italics].

Such a shift is obviously not straightforward. Even in leaving behind modernist discourses, Eagleton (1983) proposes that literary theory, for example, reveals an "unconscious complicity" with them. I would suggest these influences are still affecting social constructionist therapy practices. "It assumes, in the main, that at the centre of the world is the contemplative individual self ..... this individual is in personal relationship with others ...... but it is noticeable how often such individual consciousness, set in its small circle of relationships, ends up as a touchstone of all else." (Eagleton 1983)

Therapy and the Reproduction of the Status Quo

Focusing on the Smaller System

When I was studying sociology and social work in the late 1970's, the thinking was that social workers were tools of the state, agents of social control. The role of psychotherapists was similarly regarded, namely, by treating the symptoms of individuals or of individual families the therapist was seen as ignoring the social and political causes of their distress. Further, by developing a particular story with the individual or family of their own pathology being the sole or main cause of their difficulties, the therapist decontextualised and, by implication, depoliticised the client's plight. I do not believe that all therapists are, by virtue of being therapists, inclined to act to maintain the status quo but I believe that therapy is often practised without sufficient recognition of the political impact of dominant ideologies.

Most social constructionist and narrative therapists have adopted a framework which is less likely to participate in a discourse of "pathology" and take into account the various social contexts in which people are living, particularly with regard to race and gender, and some also recognise the oppressive discourses which maintain an imbalance of power. However, the system in focus in the therapy does tend to be only known, nameable others from within a person's immediate social or professional circles. The accounts, then, that emerge are likely to be drawn from the "knowledge" and descriptions of experience available to the individual, their smaller system and the therapist.

"Leave it to the politicians......."

Recently, while addressing these issues at a conference, I heard the following questions: "Is it really the job of psychotherapists to concern themselves with the way society works?" and "Shouldn't our focus be our [sic] client?". There are ethical questions for us to consider here. Should we, as therapists, have an analysis of how society works for and against peoples? Is life what you make (of) it? Where do our responsibilities as therapists begin and end? Where do our responsibilities as human beings begin and end? Are therapists and human beings one and the same thing? Are they compatible identities?

It is interesting to speculate as to how the implied dualism of either acting for the individual (or smaller system) or acting for the state or larger system has come about. I do not see this dilemma as being connected with a question of who is commissioning the work so much as raising a question about where therapists see therapy as located.

I locate the practice of therapy in the context of our communities. I understand therapy as occurring, not "on the margin of society" (which would suggest a modernist notion of objectivity), but within social contexts which participate in power relations and which cannot be free of prejudices. We will all have investments in maintaining certain accounts and structures but as therapists we particularly need to address how we exercise reflexivity about our most fundamental ideological assumptions of which we are often least mindful; assumptions which will be influencing our practice and by implication what gets brought forth through therapeutic conversation. What might be some of the implications of reviewing our relationship with these ideas? Would we feel comfortable enough to remain therapists or heterosexual, retain certain gender specific behaviours or cultural norms? Could we feel safe, protected and part of a solution; that we were always likely to be on the "right" side of the law?

Critical Therapy

In proposing a shift from knowledge to ethics, Leppington (1991) suggests that all actions in the world are moral actions and therefore have political implications. Languaging, conversing, communicating are considered political acts in that they have social repercussions. "Words are deeds and action is discourse, both construct and express reality." Therapy is not exempt. White (Allen & White, 1993) remarks "Without doubt, the psychologies and psychotherapies play an entirely significant role in the reproduction of the dominant culture" and Eagleton (1983), speaking of literary criticism, makes the comment "The idea that there are non-political forms of criticism is simply a myth which furthers certain uses of literature all the more effectively." Substitute "therapy" for "literature".

Ethical Dilemmas in Questioning

Social constructionist and systemic therapists are constantly faced with decisions about the implications of where to focus in the therapeutic conversation. I want to illustrate with a case example some of the political implications certain questions. (I am not intending here to pay attention to the context for the conversation, who is asking, the hypothesising, the client's expectations from the conversation etc.)

Case Example I

David [2], a forty five year old man who has been unemployed for two years complains of social isolation. His colleagues served a social purpose and he now sees no-one socially outside of his mother and his brother. He feels very bitter about being unemployed and wants another job but feels his prospects are very poor.

David - So what am I going to do? I'm not going to find another job at my age.

Response 1

Therapist - If you were never going to find another job, what do you think you would do instead?

['Job' is reframed as merely an activity; the right to work/earn is not taken into account.]

Response 2

Therapist - What does having a job mean to you?

[Deconstruction of 'job'; possible implication that unemployment is not a 'real' issue; localising of meaning within the individual.]

Response 3

Therapist - If you were never to find another job, who, out of all the people you know would be most affected?

[Implication of coming to terms with unemployment. Reference to smaller system voices only.]

Response 4

Therapist - If you weren't to think of yourself as 'unemployed', how would you describe yourself?

[The deconstruction of 'unemployment' could trivialise its significance; an invitation to an individualised description.]

Response 5

Therapist - Can you think of other situations in which you have felt pessimistic about your prospects?

[May be empowering but is individualising; implication that his worry is not a 'real' problem.]

Response 6

Therapist - Perhaps you should join the Socialist Workers' Party in their fight for jobs or help the Labour Party by stuffing envelopes for their campaign against unemployment.

[Similar to Response 1 in focusing on alternative activities and making suggestions which do not necessarily address his concerns.]

Response 7

Therapist - If we were having this conversation as a group of marchers on a demonstration about unemployment on the way to the Houses of Parliament, what might we be saying to each other about the effect of unemployment on social isolation?

[Wider context introduced for conversation. Relocating of David's individual concerns into a wider context.]

Response 8

Therapist - If, in the next room, there were a hundred or so other men in their mid forties who had also been unemployed for a while, what sort of advice might they give you?

[The individual's experience is being relocated in a wider system of hypothetical others.]

The last two questions allow for reference to a collective experience by creating a hypothetical audience or virtual group and manage to avoid imposing solutions or attempting to deconstruct the client's concerns.

Critical Therapy prompts us to constantly review the thinking that shapes our practices in therapeutic contexts. Connerton (1978) described critical theory as "resistant to summary; not least, because almost its only unchanging basic thesis is that it is itself changeable." Such an approach invites and encourages reflexivity and account-ability: how we account for our actions as therapists, how our accounts in turn influence what we notice and treat as meaningful, what we include and exclude.

Leppington (1991) proposes a way of thinking about practice by looking at the reflexive and recursive relationship between our methodological assumptions, which are incalculably influenced by dominant cultural ideology and epistemology (ways of thinking about what we think we know), theory, method and data (what we do, learn and feedback). This diagram demonstrates a relationship between these components which allows for change - encourages change - at any level, at any point in the therapeutic process although change at a methodological level may be the hardest to change as it is influenced by our ideologies. Each level acts as a context for each other.

The following examples based on Leppington's diagram, (1991) illustrate some differences between the influence on therapeutic practice of a liberal humanist ideology and a more radical ideology.

Fig. 1 - Liberal Humanist Therapy

Fig. 1 - Liberal Humanist Therapy

Fig. 2 - Critical Therapy

Fig. 2 - Critical Therapy

In discussing the relationship between these different levels, Leppington (1991) proposes taking an ironic stance to one's work and to the conversation by asking questions of oneself:

What are the stories I am drawing on?

What might be some consequences of my ideas?

How are they influencing what is being brought forth or not being brought forth?

As Weingarten (1992) points out, the therapist "is constantly selecting aspects of the conversation to amplify or diminish" and "that this process of selection is guided by a number of variables including the therapist's experiences gained by virtue of being located in a particular racial, gendered and class position in the wider socio-political context within which therapy takes place."

There are problems in identifying what one is overlooking, not bringing forth. Leppington suggests exploring a person's "final vocabulary" which shows itself in half finished sentences or phrases like "You know what I mean". White (1991), is also interested in what might be "present" in conversation but not said and asks how certain ideas are privileged and come to dominate a person's "reality". He uses Derrida's ideas of deconstruction (1981) to explore these absent voices, why they have been silenced and make explicit the dominant narratives in people's lives. "Deconstruction has to do with procedures that subvert taken-for-granted realities and practices; those so-called 'truths' that are split off from the conditions and the context of their production, those disembodied ways of speaking that hide their biases and prejudices, and those familiar practices of self and of relationship that are subjugating of persons' lives." (White 1991)

I am using the term "deconstruction" in this paper to refer to a questioning process which explores taken-for-granted descriptions associated with particular voices and which encourages openness and curiosity to enquire about meaning, how it is attributed, its contexts and its exceptions. By using a hypothetical audience, one can create additional contexts in which further or preferred descriptions of self can emerge. White (1991) sees an integral part of a politicised therapeutic practice as going beyond the deconstructing of ideas and going on to "develop alternative and preferred practices of self and relationship - counter practices."

Hypothetical Audiences and Wider System Questions

I have created the term of hypothetical audience to describe a group of other people who may not be physically present but who undoubtedly exist and on whose stories the therapist and client may be able to draw.

Hypothetical audiences can be used to bring forth multiple descriptions or offer support for personal views which do not find support in their immediate systems.

The hypothetical audience can take many different forms. The therapist can invite the client to participate in an imaginary scenario with a group of others of whom the client might ask questions.

The use of the hypothetical audience has proved useful in a practice context where

a client has a strong attachment to a decontextualised description of their own difficulties

and/or where

clients sometimes present as isolated with no peer group or community on whose experience or advice they might draw.

Using a Hypothetical Audience and Wider System Questions with Clients

When co-constructing a hypothetical audience with a client, I have found it most fruitful to "invite" a group of people who might directly relate to the client's situation. The audience will still contain different points of view. Selecting a more general or very different audience has often proved too difficult for the client to identify with and can exacerbate any sense of isolation. Being very specific seems to help the client to identify with or conceptualise of such a group; for example, a hundred other mothers with children under five who have been living in poor temporary accommodation for over six months; a hundred other men in their fifties who have been made redundant for whom work was their life; a hundred other single gay men who have considered coming out to their parents as gay since finding they were HIV positive.

It is also an intervention with the client to create such a group. Individuals become mindful of themselves as members of a group that does exist albeit not immediately or visibly.

Inviting a large number of people allows for the possibility of more variation in audience response. I have found that the first responses which clients bring forth "from" their audience are usually their most familiar and least supportive voice - what Michael White might refer to as the dominant description (1991): "They would think I am crap", "They would think I should try harder", "They would be shocked". It is important to enquire beyond these initial voices to invite the alternative descriptions of other voices not yet heard.

A shift can also be seen here from an idea of interviewing a named 'internalised other' (Tomm, 1991) to exploring 'internalised discourses' (Allen & White, 1993).

Case Illustration II

Clara, a woman in her late twenties from near Dublin, was approaching the end of her four years in therapy and was still very much under the influence of an individualised description of her struggles which she had been recruited into and which did not include systems greater than her family and colleagues. Working here as the therapist, I thought I would see what other descriptions might be brought forth with a wider audience.

Clara - I don't know. I must be mad.

Therapist - I wonder what a hundred other young women, also from or near Dublin,

living in London, would think of your struggles over the past four years? What

sense would they make of it?

C - [Pause] I don't know. [Looks puzzled]

T - Well, if someone had made a movie of your life over the last four years or so,

including our conversations, edited clips, a two hour movie maybe and had

shown it to these other women from Ireland, in their late twenties, what sort of

comment would they be making on coming out after the film?

C - Women from Ireland?

T - Women from Ireland who now live in London.

C - Oh. They'd know what I'd been through. They'd understand the isolation and not

understanding how things work here, living in poor accommodations, feeling lost

and confused. [Pause] I don't know. They'd probably think I was mad.

T - All of them?

C - Yes. No.

T - Out of a hundred women from Ireland of about your age, now living in London,

how many would think you were mad and how many would understand your

experience differently?

C - [Contemplative pause] Maybe sixty would understand what I had been through.

The others might think I was mad. But they might have it yet to come. They

might be trying to fit in and suffering like the rest of...... like I used to.

This conversation begins to locate the client's experience within wider systems: a cultural context, a religious context, a political context of immigration, ethnic prejudice. The conversation strengthened the client's positive identification with others from a similar background to herself with an analysis which highlights the plights and strengths of Irish People in London and more generally, of immigrants received by the English. By relocating her experience from the personal to the political or social arena, she loosens her attachment to the personalised story of inadequacy and madness. It was interesting for me to see a shift in the client's posture which seemed to indicate more confidence. She also sounded more confident and contemplative.

In the past, in enquiring about the meaning of the word "mad", I called on the voices in her smaller, known systems. It might have been useful to have interviewed the movie goers about their interpretations of the word "mad" and so used a wider system to deconstruct the term.

The following examples demonstrate the use of wider system questions in bringing forth other audiences which offer further contexts for exploring the meanings of personal experience.

Case Illustration III

Bimla and Rachel, age 29 and 32, had been together three years when they came to counselling. They were having regular arguments which were exhausting them, leaving them feel the only alternative was to split up. Their problems were compounded by living in a small town and not having friends who understood some of the issues they had to deal with in an racially mixed relationship.

I asked them some wider system questions to help them find validity for their experiences in a group beyond their immediate friends, families and therapist. (Simon, 1996)

  • If we could, by magic, skip to the next town in this county, what do you think the chances are of us finding another racially mixed lesbian couple in a similar position to yourselves?
  • Supposing we hold a conference now for all the lesbian and gay couples in a similar position to you from smaller towns across the U.K., what kinds of things do you think these couples would be putting on the agenda?
  • What effect would it have on you two, as a couple, to be surrounded by so many other racially mixed lesbian or gay couples in a similar position to yourselves?
  • Imagine you have two or three days at this conference and you are now returning to your home town, to your friends, what do you think you might, if anything, do differently?

By using a hypothetical audience (the conference of other couples) with wider system questions we are drawing on a range of experience which might not otherwise find a voice or an audience and, hence, validation. Another advantage to using these questions is that the counsellor does not need to be an "expert" in the area of the clients' concerns - on the other hand, in many situations some "knowledge" of other groups is necessary in order to know what questions to ask. In this instance, the couple find their own solutions and at the same time relocate their experience into a more public or political arena.

Shotter (1989) writes, "I act not simply 'out of' my own plans and desires but in some sense also 'into' the opportunities offered to me to act, or else my attempts to communicate will fail or be sanctioned in some way." He stresses the importance of audience in bringing forth different "you's" and emphasises the co-constructive nature of the relationship between "you" and an audience whose expectations organise the emergent "you". These accounts says Shotter (1989), are "constitutive of our actual relations to one another, and to the extent that we constitute ourselves in our relations to others, constitutive of ourselves." Identity is something which is performed to and brought forth in conjunction with an audience.

Obviously different questions bring out different voices. For example:

  • If you were at a meeting now with tens, hundreds and thousands of others and they were saying, in turn, just what you had been saying to me now

- what effect would that have on you?

- how might you understand differently what you have been saying?

- what might the range of opinions be?

- what do you think you would remember most five years down the line from the experience of hearing hundreds and hundreds of people say the

same as you said?

  • If you were reading a book of accounts written by mothers who had brought up a severely disabled child, what difference, if any, do you think it would make for you if you came across a story which was just like yours?
  • If we imagined for a moment that our conversation was being witnessed, with your consent, by a room filled with other gay men who had also been arrested for "soliciting" a while ago, what advice do you think they would be giving you for coping with this arrest and its effects on your life?
  • If we were to go out onto the streets and interview other African Caribbean young men about what they would do if their girlfriends got pregnant, what do you think the range of opinions would be? And if we then interviewed them individually, do you think they would say anything different to what they had said in public amongst their friends?

Or in instances where diversity in opinion is hard to bring forth:

  • I think I can see a couple of women at the back of the room who seem to be holding back. What do they think?

Appraising Some Issues, Identifying Some Questions.....

  • What are the social and political implications of a therapeutic discourse which places the emphasis on language?

Brad Keeney was asked by Stephen Madigan (1994) whether he saw the individual as an isolated unit 'pulling themselves up by their bootstraps' or whether Keeney thought that empowerment happened "in a community of conversation"? Keeney replied, "Nothing so abstract. Just a community, one's family, one's clan, one's tribe etc." He locates the individual in a larger system, asking, "What is your part at the community table? What is your offering to the whole?"

  • What is your account of the link between change at a level of the individual or smaller system in therapy and change at a level of society or larger group?

  • What is the relationship between group identity and group action in a postmodernist discourse?

Butler (1991) asks "Can the visibility of identity suffice as a political strategy or can it only be the starting point for a strategic intervention which calls for a transformation of policy?"

Perhaps it is important for therapists to re-examine their own membership to groups - actual and virtual, present or hypothetical.

  • How does your group membership show itself and to whom?
  • How would you like it show itself?
  • Do you count only the actual groups or hypothetical groups too?
  • What purposes does your group membership serve?
  • What are your accounts for how group action comes about, its effectiveness or otherwise?
  • Do you believe change can occur using the methods of protest and representation available through existing structures or do you feel more drastic action is sometimes required?
  • For what kinds of people or issues would you/do you support or encourage or participate in alternative forms of protest?
  • How constrained might you feel from participating publicly in alternative forms of protest by virtue of "being" a therapist?

  • To what degree does focusing on the re-description of individual circumstances contribute to change at a level of society?

One thing systemic and social constructionist therapists have not yet developed is an analysis of change at a level of the larger system, of society. I feel strongly that we should concern ourselves with this issue so we can have a coherent analysis of change at both a level of the smaller system - the individual, the family, the workplace - and at a level of wider systems. The ethical implications of actions between human beings are a central concern for postmodernist therapists. I have suggested the use of wider system questions using hypothetical audiences as one response to this issue. But this is a small contribution and the question remains of how else systemic, social constructionist and narrative therapy might go on to contribute to a notion of group membership, group responsibility and group action with a view to changing institutionalised discourses and practices which maintain an oppressive status quo.

I understand postmodernist therapy as the practice of inciting people to riot - against oppressive discourses and the structures or institutions which thrive on them. "Riot" is often used to refer to an idea of "mindless", uncontrollable or "anti-social" group behaviour and "incitement", in a therapeutic context, reminds me of the revised ideas about maintaining neutrality or non-directive therapy. But "to incite" can be taken to mean to provoke, arouse, call forth and "riot" to mean disorder, confusion or revolt. The practice of deconstructing dominant, oppressive discourses is no less than a calling forth of disorder as part of a process of change which can create the conditions for other alternative and challenging voices, practices of power and structures to emerge.

[Footnote 1:

Queer Psych listserv@HOME.EASE.LSOFT.COM (with message: subscribe QUEER-PSYCH yourname)

Narrative Therapy (with message: subscribe MFTC-L yourname) ]

[Footnote 2: All case examples have been changed to protect client identity.]


Butler, J. (1991) Imitation and Gender Subordination. In Inside/Out Lesbian Theories, Gay

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