|Presented at the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy Conference (AAGT), St. Petersburg, Florida, November 11, 2004.|
A GESTALT THERAPY AND FIELD-THEORY BASED MODEL FOR SOCIAL ANALYSIS AND CHANGE
Sonoma State University
|The "Gestalt Social Field Analysis" approach applies insights from Gestalt Therapy, Rousseau's "social contract," and other sources to advancing the kind of large-system analysis of social phenomena begun by Kurt Lewin and Erich Fromm. It is both descriptive and normative in its goals, and both objective and subjective (quantitative and qualitative) in its methodologies. It provides a method of examining what occurs in one relationship, group, or larger social polity over time, and of comparing what occurs in a number of different groups at the same time, from couples and families at one extreme to nations at the other. Fifteen categories of events labeled "social fields" are used as a basis for making such comparisons. A visual model of these fields is presented. Each field is divided into subsidiary dimensions. Then, depending on the situation, from one to eight "layers" of observation may be employed. Each of these reflects a somewhat different way of apprehending the phenomenon it objectively or subjectively describes. Application of all eight provides a remarkably broad and deep understanding of the entire "social Gestalt," which as used here includes its component interacting systems. Historical roots of the approach are described, and next steps in developing it are outlined. The presentation includes two experiential elements. The first is participation by the listeners in applying the eight layers of observation to their own "life-spaces." The second, at the end, asks each of them to use the approach to discover one new insight or methodological innovation that seemspotentially useful in their work.|
Gestalt Social Field Analysis asks "What dimensions of human nature
does a peraon, an environment, or a social institution at any level, from
a couple to a culture address, need to address, and how are these dimensions
addressed by this person or social unit? Which of these ways work well,
and which badly? How can the latter be changed?
It examines intrapsychic events and dynamics that can occur in an interaction
between two people. Then it does on to examine what additional events
become possible in larger groups, and in groups that are more specialized,
or differentiated in other ways. As Kurt Lewin noted, such social "fields"
can be viewed as force-fields that are in a perpetual process of shifting
and movement that is analogous to physical force fields. What are they,
and how do they operate? These are the descriptive questions.
There are also normative questions, as raised by Perls, Lewin, Fromm,
Pettigrew, and others. What are the dimensions of personal well-being,
and what are the dimensions of the well-being of a social group, be it
a couple, family, company, or culture? What does one person, or a group
of people, do that contributes to the well-being or lack of well-being
of another or others with whom that person or group interacts? What does
a social group at any level and of any size, from a couple to a civilization,
need to do to ensure its continued well-being over an extended period?
How can a social group ensure its well being in ways that contribute to
enhancing the well being of its members, rather reducing it? And how can
a social group ensure its well being in ways that contribute to enhancing
the well being of other groups with which it interacts, rather than reducing
the well-being of those groups? While these questions themselves are obvious,
the present approach addresses them in a unique way.
FEATURES OF THE APPROACH
Gestalt Social Field Analysis includes:
Two caveats are in order. First, The term "social" is used
broadly here, to include relationships with nonhuman inhabitants and objects
in the world, such as animals, plants, and places. The approach described
here can be applied at any level from an individual person to the ecosphere
as a whole.
Second, the term "well-being" used above is vague. For many
purposes it must be defined in more differentiated, precise, and measurable
terms, and in some cases it must be defined within a broader philosophical
and intercultural perspective.
The approach described here can be used with a couple, family, workplace,
company, community, county, state, nation, ethnic group, or even the entire
ecosphere. It allows comparing different social units of a given kind
(such as neighborhoods) at a given moment in time, or a particular specified
social unit over a period of time.
It is actually possible to compare any two-or multiple-variations on a particular thematic event, such as funerals or even beach scenes. In its descriptive sense, with classical scientific impartiality, it lends itself to such comparison for any purpose, even the crassly commercial. A resort hotel, for example, might use the method to make comparisons among the beach scenes in front of several other hotels in order to find out how it might make its own beach scene more attractive. It can be used by agencies as an expanded form of program evaluation research. Some of the possibilities are shown just below:
A HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: SOME ANTECEDENTS.
Gestalt social field analysis has its roots in Gestalt psychology, Gestalt Therapy, Kurt Lewin's Field Theory, Erich Fromm's thories that bridge psychology and sociology, Social Psychology, Humanistic Psychology, General Systems theory, ecopsychology, Mortimer Adler's social philosophy, and other sources. Both Lewin and Fromm attempted to encompass the full horizon of phenomena from the personal-interpersonal to the large-scale sociocultural and political. They tried to conceptualize the larger social field within which we each live, describe the dynamics that operate within it, and ultimately make recommendations about how it can be changed to make the existence of most people whose lives are touched by it happier and more satisfying. Since Lewin and Fromm, this undertaking has largely languished, as psychosocial theory has focused on smaller-scale phenomena.
Today we face grave challenges that cannot be fully met by the widespread
approach of dividing everything into small pieces, endeavoring to understand
each in great detail, and trusting that the result will add up to a meaningful
whole. At this point there is no convincing evidence of significant movement
toward a such a meaningful whole. Both Lewin, Fromm, and Perls, by contrast,
characteristically examined the person in a situation. Social psychologist
Harold H. Kelley (2000) described Lewin's approach as having "an
interaction focus, which analyzes the interplay of situational and personal
Lewin viewed personality and a person's "life-space" as mutually
affecting each other. (We can take a moment here to note that Lewin referred
to both physical life-space and psychological life-space. The former consists
of the physical places a person actually inhabits or goes into. Psychological
life-space also includes the places a person mentally enters history,
literature, movies, other people's orally related stories, and his or
her personal imagination.
Or it can work the other way. The person may start, for example, with
the highly intrapersonal phenomenon of a dream. But there are almost always
other people in the dream, and personal conflicts or dilemmas are enacted
in an interpersonal forum, or several. Then often the counselor, therapist,
or facilitator teases out the dream's relationship to present or past
people and problems in the client's life. So the interpersonal is almost
always interpersonal, and vice-versa. In the neo-Freudian tradition Alfred
Adler, Karen Horney, and Harry Stack Sullivan held similar views.
Fromm went even farther than Lewin in extending his analysis of such
dynamics to the larger society and its historical conditions. He took
the whole sociohistorical field as his subject, from its representations
within each person at one extreme to such vast interactions as the actions
of governments and cultures at the other. A canvas of such scope has the
disadvantage of possible looseness of methodology. But as Lewin showed,
this can be corrected, by a dialectical movement back and forth between
real-world phenomena and laboratory studies. As Perls, Polster, and other
Gestalt therapists have shown, using a different epistemology, it can
also corrected by a dialectical movement between real-world phenomena
and clinical evidence from work with clients in counseling and therapy.
And when similar results emerge from all three of these epistemologies-the
sociological, the experimental, and the clinical, the findings are powerful.
Aurobindo and Gandhi both pointed out that the power of such insights
is enhanced still more when we add personal phenomenological data from
precisely prescribed yogic and Buddhist meditative traditions. And yet
another level of understanding is added when we take the original idea
of the Gestalt, meaning the whole pattern and configuration of a situation,
and examine the interactive feedback loops that are part of it, as described
in Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and Ludwig Von Bertanleffy's General System
Theory. The System is a component of the Gestalt Field, but it is not
the whole thing, because the Field contains subjective elements not readily
accessible to systems analysis. Nonetheless, the system approach has been
applied with substantial success by system-oriented family therapies and
Asking the question, "What dimensions of human nature does a person
or social institution at any level, from a couple to a culture, need to
address?" opens the door to evaluating what's occurring now in a
specified collectivity in relation to one, several, or all of those dimensions
of human nature. Previous thinking about human needs has included the
ancient yogic Chakra system, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and
philosopher Mortimer J. Adler's list of limited and unlimited real goods
necessary for a whole good life. All three focused on a personal frame
of reference. The present model, informed by their thinking, explicitly
considers both personal and social frames of reference and their interaction.
It attempts to identify the principal elements that affect both the long-run
survival of a group and the happiness of its members. The fifteen "fields"
in the illustration below are not viewed as separate, but rather as interrelated
and interacting. The graphic depiction of the "sun" includes
a region into which influences from all the fields flow and meet and mingle,
according to principles described by cybernetics and general system theory.(Von
Bertanleffy, 1967). These fields were identified by intuitive contemplation
of the systems mentioned above. (Someone else might well classify them
differently.) This classification makes sense to me according to the tests
of comprehensiveness and utility.
Read the illustration below by starting in the center, then going clockwise around the sun from "security and safety field" on the upper right to "transcendent spirit field" on the upper left. The fields to the right of the sun are relatively more personal, and as you continue around those on the left become very explicitly social:
The ecological balance field is at the center because ultimately
everything else depends on nature's health. Here we ask whether each of
many aspects of the ecosphere, or any local place in it, remain at least
as able to support all kinds of life in the future as they are today.
At first glance it may seem surprising that these fifteen "social
fields" omit such conventional categories as politics and economics.
This omission is intentional. "Politics" is another term for
the exercise of power and influence, and it occurs in diverse settings
from a dyadic encounter at one extreme to international organizations
of states at the other. "Economics" is an abstraction that includes
many different activities related to survival and the allocation and distribution
of goods and services. Indeed, when we examine the fifteen fields specified
in the present model, we will find that activities that most contemporary
cultures define as "political" and "economic" are
interwoven throughout many of them. At the same time, a number of these
specific social fields are involved in most activities we define as either
political or economic.
The descriptive aspect of Gestalt Social Field Analysis includes attention
to how closely the subjective perceptions of the people in a given community
or culture correspond to what's actually happening in regard to any specified
aspect of social life. When such perceptions are inaccurate, it includes
analysis of how the inaccuracy is initiated and encouraged-which may involve
the honesty and disclosure field.
We can also look at how a given psychosocial process is similar through varied levels of personal and social discourse and how it is different. For instance, how are such processes as repression, denial, introjection, and projection carried out, and how do they manifest themselves in the personality, the family, a workplace or corporation, a community, or a culture? In examining contemporary thinking in the area of cross-cultural psychology, Thomas Pettigrew (1996) has argued convincingly for careful contemplation and study of "the mediating and moderating processes between individual and cultural variables, between the micro- and macro- levels of analysis."
We move next to the question of how to approach a situation or event
and assess what is occurring in one or more of the fifteen fields described
above. Think for a moment of an art or photography program on a personal
computer that has an option for working on multiple "layers"
of an image simultaneously and then putting them together to form a whole.
A social system with its constituent personalities-even such a simple
system as an interacting couple-is many times more complex than a two-dimensional
picture and it has interactive "field" qualities that a picture
lacks, but nonetheless, a layer-capable art program provides a useful
descriptive analogy for the Gestalt Social Field approach. Imagine a complete
real-life picture made up of the following layers superimposed in front
of each other. The "layers" considered here are as follows.
The back, or "ineffable" layer: an objectively existing
situation that cannot easily be described in words, or readily measured,
including subtle interactions among elements of the whole system-Gestalt.
This layer may have both visible and hidden elements. Either we have no
instruments to measure them, or measurement would be too costly or difficult.
The light-spectrum effects of a sunset during a five-minute period, together
with its effects on clouds and other atmospheric phenomena, are an example.
The second layer, just in front of the back layer: "The descriptive
layer." This is verbal description of the situation as seen by
the observer, such as an anthropologist or novelist might proivide. Our
description includes characteristics of natural and human-made environmental
features, objects, people, events, movement, procedures, and rules that
The fourth or "surface subjective" layer: subjective
reactions and observations that can be quantified. "Surface"
refers to subjective responses such as attitudes, opinions, or values
that can be readily tapped by immediate or almost-immediate responses
to questions, or groups of questions such as those included in surveys.
This level is widely used by social scientists, and often plays a substantial
role in program evaluation research.
The fifth "deep subjective"or "narrative" layer.
"Deep" refers to thoughts, feelings, sensations, or actions
that a person may not reveal in response to simple questionnaire items,
or even know about. They can be accessed by an observer through a phenomenologically-oriented
interview-that is, an attempt to fathom the respondent's full experience
of a place, situation, event, or less tangible phenomenon as it is for
the respondent. Qualitative research, and forms of interviewing that often
occur in counseling and clinical settings, and deep conversations among
trusted friends, are doorways to deep subjective reactions. In conversation
this layer tends to take the form of stories, or narration. In therapies
like Gestalt Therapy and Psychodrama it often takes the form of enactments.
Deep subjective reactions may have a historical dimension, as people tell
what led up to what's happening now. They may include "tension systems"
or "unfinished situations" like traumatic old events that continue
to influence a person's present reactions even without the person's recognition
of it. This approach embraces the postmodern insight of listening to different
people's varied experiences of a situation without thinking that one of
them has to be "right" and others "wrong."
The sixth or "observer's phenomenology" layer. In one
approach to organization development, the consultant's first act after
getting the job is to spend several days wandering around in the company-in
the hallways, the break room, the production facilities, the loading docks,
the accounting department, everywhere. The consultant uses himself or
herself as a "measuring instrument," sensing and feeling what's
going on, listening to what employees say, and assessing the emotional
tone of their responses. You can do this by walking along a block or two
in each of several different neighborhoods and feeling how they seem different
to you. There is special emphasis on the emotional and intuitive dimensions
of the observer's response. This can be very informative.
The seventh, or hermeneutic, layer. This involves discovering
the history that led to the present situation, reading and listening to
the kind of sense others have tried to make of it, and of similar situations
in history or literature, and contemplating it in the light of that expanded
The eighth layer: taking note of what happens when an attempt is
made to change the system or any part of it. The change attempt may
be a therapeutic maneuver, an experimental intervention, "action
research," legislated or decreed new rules or procedures, or unilateral
attempts at persuasion or coercion. How the person or group reacts to
this intervention react may tell us something that none of the other layers
Taking all these layers into account is obviously a complex undertaking.
But real life, including personal events and interactions with others
in sometimes-concrete and sometimes-ambiguous situations, is even more
complex. Taking a series of "pictures" at each of these eight
levels and putting them together can give us at least an approximation
of the whole Gestalt of what's occurring. Or if we use the term as a verb,
as is often done in German, it can help us "Gestalt" the situation.
Further, recognizing how they can all contribute can help us let go of
the parochial epistemological biases in which some investigators believe
that they're doing "real" research and others' efforts are less
Not all situations and purposes require gathering information from all
eight sources. Sometimes just one will do. A single objective or subjective
measurement may convey the essential information that we need to understand
what's going on, or what we may need to change. Gestalt Therapy teaches
us to use our intuition in paying attention to what Polster calls "neon
arrows" that tell us which dimensions or layers are most important
to pay attention to in a given case.
Lewin developed his "Field Theory" partly as an extension of a concept from physics into psychology and social psychology. It is interesting that he did so before the development of modern subatomic physics, which now tells us that many of our ideas about what occurs at subatomic levels are no more than metaphors for events whose precise nature we can never truly comprehend. The same is true of our use of the front three levels of a social-environmental field to tell us about some of the events that are occurring in the field itself. Some of those events are unobservable, consciously hidden, or too complex for us to grasp in their entirely. Nonetheless, we can discover a great deal about what's going on.
PUTTING GESTALT SOCIAL FIELD ANALYSIS INTO PRACTICE
Suppose, as a simple and very obvious example, we begin with the Survival and Livelihood field and the Justice & Equity Field. We could make both objective and subjective assessments such as these:
AN EXPERIENTIAL DIGRESSION
Since our time here is limited, I'm just going to ask you to draw your
physical life-space here at the conference. First draw a vertical line
from the top to the bottom of the page about halfway across it, to divide
it into two sections. Then on one side, draw a map, in whatever fashion
it exists in your mind, of everywhere you have been since you arrived
here, and include the Sirata Beach Resort as one place on your map. For
example, you may have begun at the airport and visited Busch Gardens in
Tampa and the Salvador Dali museum at the St. Pete's waterfront, and have
visited a friend and a doctor and been to a pharmacy and a supermarket.
You can make some kind of drawing of each place, or just a small oval
with a label. Lewin called each of these places in the life-space "capsules."
For each place where you have any trace of a positive or negative feeling,
however slight, put a plus or minus-small if the feeling is slight and
larger if it is strong.
When you've done that, on the other side of the page make a larger scale
drawing of just the conference hotel here at Sirata beach and any area
just around it you want to include. Again, your drawing doesn't have to
be accurate, but rather it shows how it is for you. It may have your room
and a dining room and some conference rooms and hallways and rooms of
friends and other features that may be unique to your map. Again, put
pluses or minuses at each spot to indicate the kind of affect it has for
you. Since I love to swim, my map would have big pluses by the swimming
pools, but another person's map might not even show them. Now go ahead
and make your drawings. You'll have about ten minutes to make both of
them. When you're done, please lay your marker down so I can see when
everyone has finished. . . .
Now please get together with two or three other people, and take turns
describing your life-spaces to the others. As you do, you may wish to
refer to one or more of the fifteen fields in the sun diagram where they
seem relevant, describing what aspect of that field is or is not present
in a given place in your drawing, and how it is or is not satisfying.
You'll have about four minutes each to explain your drawings to the others.
Notice that as you do, you'll find yourself drawing comparisons of how
the different people's life-spaces and the social fields that are involved
in them, including your own, are similar and how they're different. .
Now let's hear briefly from each of the groups. What emerged that was
interesting for you?
A quite different starting point is a phenomenological one. The investigators
might walk into the neighborhood streets, cafes and bars, beauty parlors,
police stations, jails, and other settings, and strike up conversations
with whoever they meet, listening to their subjective realities in regard
to personal security. They take full note of their own feelings and reactions
as they do. And of course they record their experience of each outing
either immediately or as soon as possible afterward. (In a sense, this
is analogous to family therapy that takes place in the home rather than
in the consulting office.)
A situationally- or topically-appropriate methodology or methodologies from among the eight layers of observation might be selected.You might want to fully grasp the physical and psychological life-spaces of the participants. A sociologist might want to include sociometry. An organizational consultant working from a Sociotechnical Systems Perspective might want to gather a vertical slice of personnel from every level of the organization (from a janitor to the President, or in the example above, the Warden) in a room, put them to talking on a specified topic, and hear what emerges. A different organizational consultant might want to run focus groups consisting of people from each level or branch of the organization. In regard to security, for example, we might have a focus group of victims of property crimes, one of victims of violence, one of prison guards, of short-timers, of lifers without parole, and of prison administrators. There is no specified "right" or "wrong" method to carry out the analysis, so long as the methods used are operationally defined and described. They should also present a picture of as much of the social field as we are interested in understanding, in as much breadth and depth as we need. They should be adequate to show perceptual gestalts, belief and attitude systems, "culturally shared pathologies," and feedback loops among the above, rather than relying on the kind of simple cause-and-effect thinking that is so often tragically mistaken. The embracing epistemology is to gain as full a picture of what's occurring as is needed to discern what the essential variables are and how they operate. A "wrong" approach is one that overlooks or excludes important information.
WHICH NORMS, CUSTOMS, OR PROCEDURES ARE BEST IN A GIVEN SETTING?
The tradition of action research initiated by Kurt Lewin asks essentially,
"Where and how do our social and cultural arrangements interfere
with human health and happiness, and how can we modify them to increase
health and happiness instead? Kelley's slant is to ask what people can
do to make their relationship "viable, stable, and optimally satisfactory."
Now as we move toward a more ecologically conscious age, we can add, "Where
and how do our social and cultural arrangements damage our planet 's living
systems, and how can we transform them so that they contribute to restoring
and enhancing its health instead?
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict's interest in the question of which ways
of organizing our social life enhance a people's well-being and happiness
led her to the important concept of synergy. In her field work, she found
that some societies were organized in such a manner that pursuing one's
individual interest also furthered the interests of the larger social
group, and other cultures were so organized that individual and group
interests were antagonistic. She termed the former high-synergy societies
and the latter low-synergy societies. One of her students, psychologist
Abraham Maslow, implicitly identified potential feedback loops within
that question when he asked how healthy personalities could contribute
to creating a healthy culture and how a healthy culture could help foster
Such an intervention process is more complex than individual therapy
partly because in the latter, the client's dominant interest is in his
or her own personal well being. In the kind of social process just described,
different stakeholders have different personal interests that may be at
cross-purposes. In such situations, notes Bertram H. Raven (1990), "Motivations
to influence and to resist influence determine choices of influence strategies,
selection of bases of power or more complex strategies, and how power
is exercised or resisted." Here we are in three realms: the interaction
among personalities (to the degree that different personalities are animated
by different configurations of motives), the character of the other person
with whom one is in interaction, and realm of the constraints of the situation
Even though the resolution of such conflicts is inherently different
in some ways than the resolution of internal conflicts, we can reasonably
nonetheless expect that a powerful intrapsychic approach such as Gestalt
Therapy should be able to contribute valuable insights and methods for
working with social conflicts as well, just as psychoanalytic object relations
theory was extended to analyzing and improving the quality of social interaction
in families by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.
In reflecting on the insights that have emerged from such sources as
the Prisoner's Dilemma game and the social exchange theories of Thibaut
& Kelley (1959), and Homans (1961), Thomas Pettigrew points out that
there are many social dilemmas in which individuals may gain more from
making selfish choices, but everyone is better off if all cooperate than
if all defect. In Ecology, Garrett Hardin phrased this as the "problem
of the commons," in which while individuals gain by running as much
livestock as they can on the common pasture, the whole community loses
when the pasture deteriorates from overgrazing ( 1969).
The process of psychotherapy, however, teaches us that comprehending that lesson may require deep relearning and the resolution of old complexes. A Gestalt Therapy perspective constantly reminds us that complex internal perceptual and motivational systems are part of the externally observable interactive system (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951). An apparent simple change in one person's behavior in response to the other's action may result in a deep change in feelings that will profoundly influence future actions. If, for instance, a parent is coercive and abusive toward a child, the latter might shrink inward and become shy and introverted, or might take a turn toward being coercive and abusive toward others. In many cases, cognitive relearning based on rational appraisal alone may be wholly inadequate to the challenge of making such changes.
There are several logical next steps in the development of the approach
I have described today. They do not have to take place in the order described
The first step is to evaluate the model itself. Does it make good sense?
Is it useful? How might it be modified to make it more so?
The second step is to select specific fields, and consider the various
dimensions that comprise each one.
Yet another step is to select or devise appropriate means to measure
or otherwise appraise both the objective dimensions and the surface-subjective
dimensions. Gathering some of this data may precede the step described
just above. The situation and our purposes will determine which comes
A fifth step is to use the information that has been gathered for lateral
and logitudinal comparisons. Laterally, for example, what degree of dialogue
and participation do employees in several comparable companies (or citizens
in several comparable towns) feel? What are the effects of this? Longtitudinally,
what is happening with the various dimensions of water supply and water
quality in a given community? Subjectively, how do residents feel about
the actions of community decisionmakers in regard to water allocation?
The sixth step, when appropriate, is to make changes based on the information
gathered in earlier steps, in system- and gestalt-oriented ways that consider
the total configuration of forces in the situation. These changes should
involve finding out what works, making refinements that the original results
suggest, and then repeating the process. An experimental orientation will
often prove useful here, trying and perfecting a new policy or procedure
on a small scale before adopting it systemwide.
When existing social forces and inertia tend to push people's actions
back toward the way they were, Lewin's concept of "unfreezing,"
changing to a new procedure, and "refreezing" is relevant, so
that procedures and behavior are "locked into" a new procedure
and can't easily slide back into the old one.
To move from theory to putting the model into practice is a large undertaking that can only succeed if many people take part. One test of the approach, therefore, will be whether it inspires such enthusiasm. If you yourself would be interested in some kind of application or other involvement, please let me know at <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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