Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted: April 7, 2008

Axiodrama involves using psychodramatic methods to explore the underlying and often unconscious assumptions, expectations or definitions associated with the abstract ideas that govern so much of our thinking.

Individual psychology overlaps with social psychology and culture, and people’s individual problems are often significantly affected by how they think about their social roles and cultural ideals. There are often many issues at all three levels—the individual, social, and cultural.

Psychodrama reflects the dynamics at the individual level—what are my relationships among parts of myself and with those with whom I have my closest relations—and also the images or expectations I have of those others (i.e., the internalized “object relationships,” as they are called by psychoanalysts).

Sociodrama addresses the dynamics that people in various groups, categories, or general social roles have in common. These might involve such themes as what is “cool” or high status, what is “tacky” or “unfashionable” among my larger circle of peers—such matters are more the subject of examination in sociodrama. Sociodrama addresses the depth of roles—the many definitions, conflicts, expectations, and attitudes attendant on one’s most relevant social relations:
    – what is appropriate effort in one’s subgroup, and how it might differ depending on whether one is a middle-class wage earner, a housewife in the 1950s, a teen gang member
     – what are the appropriate expectations for sexual activity in one’s peer group
     – which kind of politics or other social norms are respectable, and what is fringy?
     – what kinds of eccentricity makes for one being “interesting” and which kinds are “too far out” and make others uncomfortable... and so forth.

Axiodrama, though, addresses issues a bit more encompassing, higher on the level of abstraction, perhaps more philosophical, global or fundamental. For example:
    – What do we mean when we call on certain ideals?
    – What do we mean by God? Do we mean a being that is vaguely male, somewhat judgmental?
     – What do we really mean by heaven, justice, the devil, hell, strength, weakness, maturity, wisdom, goodness, wickedness, foolishness, acceptable and unacceptable types of ignorance?
     – We are supposed to be loving, but what does that mean? Whom does it include, and what kinds of people do not deserve to be loved?
     – What is edible and not edible (or at least disgusting)? What is alive and not alive? What merits consideration about feelings and are there animals, plants, or “inanimate” things that you can chop up or attack and there is no sense of moral opprobrium?
      – What is God’s relationship with you? How can you clarify this? What if it were represented not as the top, main God—that would be too overwhelming—but a diluted representative, a saint, ancestor, guardian angel, “avatar” (i.e., expression or manifestation of divine will), or something that could be portrayed in an enactment, something that would respond to your questions and possibly challenge you in turn?
        – What is democracy? Who should be included in being able to vote? What age? What sex? (You mean you think women should be included? Wow, next you’ll suggest that we include slaves! Oh, was that settled a century or two ago?) How much property should a person own to participate in the democratic process? What are the requirements for voting regarding immigrant or citizenship status? Mental competence or sanity? What kinds of crimes should lead to a forfeiture of voting rights? So you see, democracy is not just a simple principle, but is full of edges, qualifications, sub-component definitions.
These themes can also be enacted and their underlying assumptions brought into consciousness. It turns out that many of the ways we think we might desire to re-think in light of present levels of maturity, present circumstances, and the freedom to review these issues in our own minds. Without that help, a context and method for doing this review, we tend to continue to live according to a wide range of attitudes that have been picked up in childhood. Some have been inherited from parents or have been adopted as reactions to parental attitudes. Some reflect the overall worldview of one’s ethnicity, tribe, neighborhood, historical era and circumstances.

(Indeed, it seems to me that every cultural background is laced with at least a third and sometimes two-thirds of superstitions, residual prejudices, subtle rules, customs, and the like that interfere with adaptation to the circumstances of today’s changing world. While there are some of these elements that contain some wisdom in that they run counter to or resist the more foolish role elements of the postmodern dominant culture, there are also elements that are at odds with some of the wiser, more inclusive ideas of our evolving civilization. It takes some judgment and struggle to differentiate what to jettison so that we don’t throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.)

The ideal of preserving diversity and cultural identity is problematic when a significant portion of what that identity involves includes elements that are imbued with the values of fifty, a hundred, or even two hundred years ago, many of which are outmoded. “Preserving culture” is itself an axiom that could become the subject of an axiodrama! It turns out not to be an either-or proposition, but an invitation to a good deal of discernment.

Axiodrama: The Method

It’s very similar to sociodrama. A theme is identified by the group and personified. Someone takes the role of the value. The group identifies one or a few opposite values, and these are further personified, made into roles that could be played. The people playing these roles begin to argue: “Strength” speaks up for why it is good, needed, virtuous. “Weakness” speaks up and asserts why strength is at times foolish, how there are occasions that certain kinds of weakness need to be recognized as in fact another kind of strength.

The group might recognize this argument by splitting the antagonist weakness into two or more separate roles—one being a wiser kind of seeming weakness, another being a more foolish or craven form of weakness. Strength might also split into sub-roles, a kind of strength that all might agree is wise and virtuous, and some other kinds that are not so virtuous—indeed, some pretensions to strength, some ways it is expressed may give the illusion of virtue but really express wickedness or another kind of weakness.

This process of analysis through identifying different types, sub-types, all are brought again and again into more concrete form by being led to enact scenes in which their quality is manifest. This movement from abstract or general to concrete or specific is most important. Axiodrama in this sense is a form of applied semantics—a “what do we really mean by the use of this or that

To be emphasized again is the psychological and philosophical principle that in fact many people haven’t thought through what they mean by certain words. They’ve lived in groups that seem to agree with them, and many religions, schoolteachers, and others seem to imply that questioning the meaning of words is subversive, vaguely wicked. “We all know what we mean by liberty!” suppresses earnest and actually needed inquiry into the edges of how that word is being used.

Liberty. Freedom. Americanism. Patriotism. Nobility. Honor. Truth. Falsehood. Reality. What if in fact people actually mean rather different things when they use these terms and don’t want to experience the deep discomfort have being invited to question certain assumptions. Folks are tempted to say, “The meaning seems obvious! Why are you questioning it?”

Of course the courtrooms are the locale where drawing fine distinctions about such matters as  what the limits of freedom should be, or what are the appropriate prerogatives of owning property. It turns out that there are many occasions in which generalities are insufficient in themselves to resolve finer points of dispute.

Overlapping Categories

In every psychodrama there are some elements that are really more sociodramatic in quality. In every sociodrama there are also the problems of applying the issues one addresses within the particulars of the lives of the group members, so one might say that within any sociodrama there are also some implicit psychodramas. This overlap may extend also to axiodrama, because in a personal psychodrama, the issues involve some role definitions based on personal temperament, even somato-psychic variables that are quite unique; but also there are other role definitions that are held in common with a peer group, such as “In our family, we show more respect for the elders.” This theme might clash as one explores a psychodrama of a marriage to someone with a different set of social norms.

In the same way, people’s attitudes about what is or should be a proper degree of religious observance, or what success entails affects behavior at the personal and the group level, but is based on assumptions that are more global, cultural, archetypal. A person might say, “The individual has more value than the needs of the community,” as if it were an eternal truism. Perhaps that person has never encountered an alternative idea. If he meets one who says, “No, the community is more important,” an argument ensues. Nowadays, people are beginning to recognize some of these points of conflict as expressions not just of truth or error, but of different cultural viewpoints.

As one explores an issue axiodramatically, the way this plays out in one’s own social network as a norm, or in one’s personal life, becomes more apparent. The point is to identify the underlying attitudes, and it helps to realize that some of these attitudes are not just a personal neurosis, but may represent a social norm, a sub-group fashion, or a cultural absolute.

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