expanding and with it all sorts of new dimensions or aspects of
phenomena are revealed. This is happening in many fields, from
astronomy to microbiology. In psychology, too, we have had an
expansion in research in social psychology and have brought to
light many complexities not previously appreciated. In this
complex, it turns out (not infrequently) that there have been
people in the past who have already begun to pave the way. In
the realm of social psychology, halfway between individual
psychology and sociology, there’s a rich category of dynamic
processes that were first brought to light by Jacob L. Moreno in
the 1930s. (Even this was based on precursor intuitions over a
decade earlier in his life—such is the history of science.)
Moreno sensed a way people interacted and that given enough
information, they could choose themselves how best to organize
themselves, how to sort themselves out. With whom do they feel
most comfortable, most rapport? It’s mainly as simple as that.
But the mechanistic and authoritarian traditions that had become
part of large systems ranging from school administration to
hosptials to refugee camps ignored such touchy-feely
ambiguities. As a result, people felt more alienated and
oppressed than they needed to be, and optimal functioning of
Moreno called his method for assessing the patterns of natural
rapport in groups—he called it “tele”—“sociometry.” My point is
that sociometry is indeed a method for systematically assessing
the nature of what I call “social depth psychology.” It is not
the only method, nor is it so perfect that it might not benefit
from further refinement.
As an analogy: the microscope opened the field of microbiology;
and sociometry opened the field of social depth psychology. The
microscope is not the only tool for exploring microbiology—there
are many others; and sociometry, however valuable, is not the
only tool for exploring social depth psychology. It does raise a
goodly number of questions, though, and we can build from there.
The point in this paragraph is the utility of differentiating
the most historically useful tool from the field that is opened
or examined by the tool.
A second point is that, although with great respect that Moreno
is due the credit for really opening this field up and beginning
to think about it, this opening was only a beginning. In his
defense, Moreno did suggest, in writing about creativity,
another one of his brilliant insights, that creative processes
in general needs to continue to be creative, and not be stuck on
what was created before. All this is just to say that Moreno’s
ideas about sociometry are not the last word.
What is this field
Moreno opened? It’s several things: It’s a bit of individual
psychology in two ways: How we feel about how others feel about
us runs deeper than sex, so I consider this very deep
psychology. Secondly, we have a sort of social dynamic as to
part of ourselves that we like and dislike and why, if we would
dare name these parts. Of course they don’t actually exist as
parts, and Alfred Adler was technically correct to correct Freud
and say that we are not-divided into id, ego, and supergo, we
are in-dividual, not divided.
But it’s useful to allow the self to be imagined as many parts
and to encourage inner dialogue among the various parts, and
indeed to expand the party, the number of voices, add new ones
even. It’s useful. Things don’t have to be literally true to be
Another part of social depth psychology is the social: Who are
these people? What if there are three of them agreeing and we
don’t agree? The mind is a profoundly socially sensitive organ
and hundreds of psychology experiments in the last thirty years
by psychologists who owed nothing to Freud have shown this deep
sensitivity to being liked or disliked, feeling left out or
included, and so forth. These feelings are the bread and butter
of social depth psychology.
The third component (and although that’s all I think of now,
I’ll probably come up with more facets later) is the
inter-personal, which is a thick dynamic composed of:
- nonverbal signals, in voice, eye gaze, gesture,
- interpretation (sometimes mistaken—too sensitive
or not sensitive enough) of such signals
- unconscious or conscious responses to the others’
signals, both accurate and often mixed with other feelings.
(For example, men who are rather homophobic have
trouble even being simply friendly to other men, needing to pad
these interactions with an edge of teasing for distancing
The main dynamic in this interpersonal sphere is
the positive feedback systems, so if you like me and I sense it
I’m more inclined to respond, and you may pick that up and like
me more, and so forth. Negative feelings often happen and cannot
be disguised. Often, even when A dislikes B, messages of
friendship from B will be interpreted as deceptive or offensive
Moreno, then, noticed this thick interpersonal field dynamic
while most colleagues in psychiatry and psychology were
struggling with the dynamics imagined to be in the mind of the
individual. There’s a whole discussion here about the culture
that viewed the person as a replace-able element in a
machine—“fungible,”—and so interactional dynamics were generally
not considered. It was also a denial of feelings in
organizations: It shouldn’t matter how you feel about me: I’m
the captain, that’s all you need to know. Authorities wanted to
be feared and needed to deny that it was important to be liked,
so this whole dynamic was seen as a bit of a weakness.
Now for a break: I’ve been thinking about sociometry for
decades, and the significance of this field, these dynamics,
continue to strike me with renewed relevance. I don’t know if
many psychodramatists recognize this, but in fact the activity
of investigating this field, often with Moreno’s own tools, has
been carried on by many social psychologists under the name,
“Social Network Analysis.”
Where Moreno stood out, and I stand with him on this, is that
the method and issues associated with sociometry should be given
over to the people in the group, popularized, so that people can
more consciously use what there is to know in the way they
structure the social dimension.
What I want to call your attention to is that this dimension is
real, it’s deep, it’s exquisitely sensitive, and it makes a big
difference in all psychodynamic processes. If social depth
psychology would fertilize psychoanalysis it might give it
So, again, I am not focusing on the technique of chart-making,
nor on the desire to elaborate ever-more scientific and
mathematically complex approaches to sociometry. I’m trying to
suggest a direct view on what it’s all about.
The word “sociometry” is a little misleading, because the realm
of mind cannot be precisely measured. There are too many
relevant variables in play:
- how many other groups are available where I can
get my needs for social inclusion satisfied?
- how highly valued is this group?
- what is the balance between numbers of people I
really like and numbers I don’t like, or that I feel like or
- what is the size of the group?
- how old am I? The younger I am, the less
experience I’ve had with other groups?
- have I been deeply shamed, wounded, or excluded
before, and if so, how often? How badly?
- have I had success experiences with others, even
one or two, in my family or neighborhood? Even a few whom I
value strongly, if they have valued me strongly, make a
... and so forth. Given the list above, I welcome
your additions. What experiences might make you more or less
able to deal with these issues?
If past pains are sufficient, it may be that you cannot
consciously contemplate this problem.
I find Moreno’s
terminology to be expressions of their own era and the worldview
that went with it, and such word may be somewhat misleading
three generations later. In the case of sociometry, the word
under-plays the degree of personal depth psychology that goes
into it, or the degree that it’s interpersonal. It’s also
not all that metric, scientific, easy to measure with some
precision. But the word and concept points to something real,
something important. People prefer some other people over other.
They also prefer some parts of themselves over others, and some
roles over others, and there’s differential preference
applicable to considerations of types of music and priorities
and interests and all sorts of things. Sociometry might better
be called assessment of preferences, but that’s not the
half of it. Equally sociometry hints at and leads us to assess
more consciously what we fantasize or perceive others’
preferences are towards us! Wow!
These kinds of concerns are very basic, mainly overlooked, and
very very sensitive. More than admitting our sexual
inclinations, talking about preferences—which overlaps with sex,
too, of course—but also speaks to what temperature we prefer,
firmness or lightness of touch and by whom, rising early in the
morning or sleeping late, bedtime, and many other elements: I’m
talking about preference, and this overlaps with temperament but
is also social. So I try to put all this into the category
I call “connected-ness,” and it also links to our primary motive
to bond. We bond in many ways and at different strengths. It’s
not all or nothing. It’s some more than some others. It’s also
deep preferences, and these may not be conscious.
Once you warm up to this being a significant dimension of
psychology and sociology, you begin to detect elements of it in
almost everything. Spirituality isn’t what you believe as a
creed or doctrine, it’s that you may gravitate more towards the
ritual or the family life, the writings or the images. Different
folks do it differently, and although some sub-types are
recognized, most folks have their own unconscious blend of what
works best to lift them. And in other fields too.
So becoming aware of preferences in general takes the dynamic
towards people becoming more able to recognize consciously the
difference between what they think they should prefer and
what in fact they do they prefer—a process that may take a fair
amoung of experimentation to work out. Sometimes it’s
qualitative—the what—and sometimes quantitative—how much, not
enough, too much, just right. Then this overlaps with
preferences for people, but it also gets complicated in another
Sociometry deals with preferences, then, but it also deals at a
more complex level with reciprocal prefrences and concerns and
feelings about how you might feel towards me. It’s analogous to
the difference between bacterial biology and multi-cellular
biology—the latter just being a whole lot more complex in
certain ways. The truth though is that boundaries are not sharp
A Most Sensitive
This dynamic is very
sensitive, more than sex and shame. It’s worse because it
doesn’t get talked about. So let’s talk about it.
It’s the kind of talk that needs to have a lot of people share
so you don’t feel so weird and different. This is a big dynamic
in group work. The theories are okay, but just getting others
opening up and joining you, getting the support of hey, me too.
This is one of the benefits of the encounter group. It counters
the feeling that you’re crazy for feeling this way, your
abnormal to be this vulnerable. Nobody else cares that
much. You’re too sensitive. And it’s mainly not true!
That’s the crazy-making point, and the corollary is that large
numbers of people are suffering from the same delusions. In
other words, getting this reality of human social sensitivity
out in the open and validated is both healing and allows for
other sharing to happen.
So when Moreno wrote about sociometry and group work, I think he
had some intuitions about all this. He said so many things and I
wasn’t clear always about what he meant. But it seems to me
these concerns overlap, group work, exploring preferences
openly, and then that overlaps with what and how people can
explore openly together.
We can talk aboout our
problems in life and get empathy and suggestions in
return. And we can talk about our transference and
expectations of each other as happens in some psychoanalytic
groups. But Moreno noted that there’s something more awkward,
and that’s to talk about our preferences toward one another
regarding various criteria. That cuts close to the bone. Not
just the preferences, but why, what are the associations, the
There’s a lot of insight to be gained from considering several
themes in a group:
- what do I hope for or expect from people and how
realistic is it?
- am I willing to do or be the kind of person that
would earn or elicit the treatment I want?
- am I able to bend myself?
- would the pay-off really be worth it?
- what about my negative or neutral preferences?
Can the other do anything to change this?
- might there be other roles that would compensate
for my negative or neutral tele?
- could I modify the others’ behavior by getting
clear on what I don’t like and asking specifically to be treated
- would I be willing to modify my behavior so that
I could accommodate the other’s preferences?
Throughout all this there’s the very real danger of “hurting”
the other or feeling “hurt” by what the other says. Sometimes we
can change and sometimes we really don’t want to change. The
truth of human relations is that sometime what one wants is
truly impossible to fulfill without the other going against the
grain of the other’s deep personality or natural preference.
Sometimes a warm encounter isn’t possible and as Fritz Perls
said, “Nothing to be done.”
The idealization of positive encounter can be a false idol. Some
things we can’t make ourselves do or be without doing a
disservice to our deeper self. Some things we should as a matter
of courtesy or kindness. It has to do with how much, and also a
willingness to release another to be most naturally herself.
So interpersonal relations are touchy. We want closeness and we
can’t have it. We don’t want to put ourselves out there lest we
be rejected. We are afraid to cast a wider net. But these
vulnerabilities and fears are part of the game of being
Most people cope by turning away from the explicit and living in
an illusory state of avoidance. This in turn can take many
forms: One may be chronically disappointed by others and focus
on why others are so “bad.” One may overly optimistic and blind
to the often non-explicit messages of annoyance, boredom,
inhibited hostility. And so forth. A lot of what’s called
psycho-pathology or character disorder has to do with habitual
interpersonal styles of interaction. This has been written about
as neurotic styles, for example, but it overlaps into
interactional dynamics. One may set up a pattern with one person
and a different pattern emerges with someone else.
In other words, sociometry as a topic opens the category that
says, in effect, let’s just talk about all this more openly.
Let’s admit all this to ourselves. It also offers ways to think
about these issues, categories of dynamics. Sociometry invites
people to take responsibility and offers them some methods or
tools for working that increased level of interaction. It’s s a
little new and not easy.
The point of all this
is to call to you all to get folks thinking and talking about
this dynamic.It’s as basic as washing your hands and trying to
keep a germ-free environment for surgery—and we’ve only known
about that for less than a hundred and fifty years. It’s as
basic as nutrition and vitamins—and we’ve only known about
vitamins for a hundred years or less. So now it’s time to
appreciate the complexities of the ways we’re socially embedded
and to act intelligently rather than react unconsciously to the
problems this raises.