(This paper was published in the journal, ReVision,
in 2006, with the title, Enacting the New Academy: Sociodrama as a
Powerful Tool in Higher Education. Posted October 17, 2009)
See related paper on Sociodrama
on this website.
A young man, barely twenty, is sitting in a
café talking to a friend. Suddenly, the woman at the table next
to him screams, "Faggot! You disgust me!" and throws a gin and tonic on
him, drenching his face and shirt. The young man is humiliated,
speechless, and looks to the restaurant staff and his shocked friend
for support, finding none. The woman, in her 50s, continues
raging against gay men. Someone then walks up behind her, touches her
shoulder, and says, "I am so angry because I can't find a man of my
own." Another person replaces the first one, saying, "I hate myself for
sinking so low; I can't stand to see you so happy!" A third student
touches the young man and says, as if voicing his inner thoughts, "This
is so unfair! You have no fucking right to talk to me like that!"
This scenario is a vignette from a sociodrama session that
occurred in a graduate -level course on inter-cultural
communication. Students were role playing, using a real-life experience
of one of the group members. The comments after the first interaction
were examples of a sociodramatic technique called doubling, which
dramatically expresses what the main players may have thought but did
not say. The theme of the reenactment, homophobia and prejudice in
general, and the exploration did not use abstract theory, but rather
the more compelling process of experiencing the situation in drama–as
if it were happening in the present. The point of the exercise was to
expose the underlying personal and cultural assumptions, beliefs, and
expectations relevant to any social issue or personal conflict, which
tend to be unrecognized or implicit in more academic analyses.
This article describes the history of the sociodrama approach, gives
examples, and explores its promise and relevance for educators
who would like to bring the lives of their students and the formal
Sociodrama is a derivative of psychodrama, a method of group
psychotherapy invented in the mid-1930s by Jacob L. Moreno, M.D.
(1889-1974). While psychodrama clarifies the dilemmas of an individual
in psychotherapy, sociodrama works in mainly non-clinical contexts to
clarify the issues involved in intergroup conflicts (Moreno,
1943, 1977). Personal and social issues are impacted by a host of
individual and cultural variables--expectations and definitions of the
roles we play (Kellermann, 1998; Blatner, 2000; Sternberg & Garcia,
2000). We live in an era of exceptional change, and this change is not
merely techological but also social: People expect more out of life,
women and minorities seek more civil rights, and most social norms and
arrangements are being challenged. Indeed, this ferment needs to be
recognized as one of the central features of our postmodern era.
Sociodrama fosters critical questioning and helps students recognize
how some people feel alienated and dislocated in a world where people
are more transient, cultures are mixing, and old norms, values, and
implicit social arrangements no longer offer the sense of security they
once did. Sociodrama’s praxis, its dynamic interplay of theory and
practice, resonates with recent writings in fields such as social
philosophy and humanistic psychology, especially those seeking to
promote greater interpersonal freedom.
Sociodrama as a Psychosocial Laboratory
Experiential learning, for some academic subjects, is an ideal tool.
For example, astronauts use flight simulators, chemists use
laboratories, generals use military exercises, computer software is
tested, and politicians role play before debates. All these express a
growing awareness that complex systems cannot be fully anticipated;
some degree of experimentation is needed to test and adapt the subject
matter to the styles of the users. Sociocultural and political
situations are no less complex, and sociodrama offers a living
The idea of a human relations laboratory is at the heart of sensitivity
training, encounter groups, and many procedures in organizational
development, having its roots in the “T-Group,” a method developed by
applied behavioral scientists in Bethel, Maine in the late 1940s. The
pioneers were influenced by Moreno and the field theorist Kurt Lewin,
and the early sessions including role playing; hence this approach was
also called the “laboratory method.” Psychological perspectives
are increasingly recognized as necessary for a deeper appreciation of
history, political science, and other subjects in the humanities.
Sociodrama, by integrating psychology, social group dynamics, and
cultural assumptions, serves as an adjunct to the standard textbooks,
illuminating the historical foundations in the arts and sciences. As an
action and experiential method, it integrates body-learning and appeals
to the hearts and minds of students (Propper, 2003). The
improvisational nature of the method further provides educators with a
way to communicate the creative process that is inherent in all modes
Sociodrama and Psychodrama
Sociodrama differs from psychodrama in that the latter involves the
role playing of the particulars of an individual’s life, which involves
the convergence of many different roles. In contrast, sociodrama
examines just one or two roles in general, what most people in a given
role might be dealing with as they relate to others in a complementary
role. The key roles in a challenging situation have their own depth and
inner tensions, and naming the roles and clarifying their associated
expectations and other issues becomes the focus of the work.
In the sharing period, individuals offer examples of their own
particular life experiences, noting how these are similar or different
from the enacted sociodrama. Even if students disclose details of their
personal life in the discussion, a more individual, therapy-like
exploration should not be pursued. It is important in an educational
context for the leader and/or group members to resist the temptation to
turn the process into the more individual focus of psychodrama. If
personal issues are pressing, acknowledging that personal counseling is
available is all that is needed. Nor should the leader allow class
members to be subtly manipulated by peer pressure to disclose more
about themselves more than they would have done otherwise. Since
directing personal psychodramas requires a level of psychotherapeutic
training that most teachers don’t have, so in the classroom the
tendency of sociodrama to drift into psychodrama should be avoided.
The Sociodramatic Method
Sociodrama involves four phases: First, the group decides on a topic
and begins to warm up to it and each other. Second, they explore the
theme through a series of role-played or enacted scenes, employing
various psychodramatic techniques to expose the deeper levels
associated with the conflicts. Third, this process is brought to a
close and a sharing phase ensues, where participants disclose further
thoughts, feelings, questions, and ideas that they experienced both in
role and then as the actual student in the classroom. The fourth phase
could include a more general discussion, depending on the
In addition to a brief explanation of the method, the first phase of
sociodrama involves activities that foster a sense of safety and trust
and build group cohesion. Another element includes a measure of
playfulness, a sense of tentative openness that is part of an
improvised exploration. This playfulness encourages trust, because a
given enactment can viewed as a rehearsal, not something that counts.
The mixture of trust-building activities and playfulness is needed
because improvisational role playing can only emerge spontaneously in
contexts that have low anxiety. The creative flow of ideas unfolds
naturally when people feel others will withhold judgment.
Selecting the Theme
The theme may be chosen by the
instructor or group leader as part of the curriculum, or the issue to
be explored may arise from the group’s own concerns. Sometimes the
theme is decided upon a week or more in advance, and the roles might
even be identified and assigned at that point; the students are then
expected to do some research into the predicament associated with their
role. If the leader initiates the general theme, the first part of the
discussion after building group cohesion involves finding living and
relevant examples, situations that could help the students appreciate
the predicaments of those involved. Examples include:
– a situation in literature, such as a play, novel, or story in
the Bible or some other religious scripture. The point is to evoke what
is not explicitly stated–the thoughts not spoken in the text, or
underlying assumptions and beliefs (Pitzele, 1999.)
– a historical event, exploring the deeper reasons why the decisions were made in that instance.
– a current sociocultural situation in which familiar
roles or norms are challenged, including episodes in personal
lives–dating, marriage, parenting, or family relations.
– health concerns, such as pressures to drink, have sex, the dynamics of domestic abuse.
– anticipated situations, how the students might respond to some political or social change or upcoming event
The situations can include varying degrees of “surplus reality,”
meaning the inclusion of enacted events that perhaps could never
happen, such as having an encounter between two politicians,
philosophers, or other thinkers who lived in different centuries.
Teachers should help group members identify all the roles to be played
in the scene. The exploration of the situation might involve an
encounter between two people. Then they change parts, each student
taking the other role in the scene. Other students might be invited to
substitute for the initial players, showing how they might handle the
problem. This process of exploration and including new perspectives,
ways of interacting, and so forth, may be re-iterated several more
times. Certain sub-themes within this encounter can become separate
scenes. This process will allow for critical analysis and the personal
reactions that follow.
After an enactment, participants may reflect on the experience,
including their feelings in the role or what the character may have
felt but did not express. Then they can de-role, clearly communicate
how they as real people are not their characters, and share what they
feel as a student in this class and in life.
Some enactments may involve several participants, perhaps with all of
the students taking a role. Whatever the number of actors, the scenes
can be shifted so that participants have different roles. One of the
goals is to help the students become aware of all the people who could
influence the participants, such as a newspaper reporter or editorial
writer, leaders of the opposing political parties, family members, and
For example, in a sociodrama about abortion, the fetus may be given a
voice, using the principle of surplus reality. This reflects the way
the mind works: While someone who is dead or not yet born does not have
a voice, those voices are imagined and heard inside our minds. In that
sense, psychological truth is expressed. (For this reason, Moreno
called psychodrama a “theatre of truth”– what was or could not be said
may be more true than the shallow gestures that occurred in the
superficial world of actual “truth.”)
Simply naming the different roles in a complex situation involves
exercising the imagination: Who might need to be in this scene to fully
understand its dynamics and impact? Show how the players have inner
conflicts, by having each role in an encounter played by three
people–the one officially in role, and two behind the that player who
play the different conflicting viewpoints. The classical cartoon
character who has an angel on one side and a devil on the other, each
with its own set of rationalizations is an example.
Using Sociodramatic Techniques
The goal of using of various techniques derived from psychodrama is not
simply to portray the event as it might be seen to happen, but rather
to elucidate the underlying psychological and cultural issues involved.
For example, Abraham Lincoln suffered from depression and troubles with
his family, but the question for the class might be more the
conflicting concerns that affected his decisions as president.
A trained “auxiliary”–someone who can role play easily–is often helps
in teaching a sociodrama class. Although this element is not necessary,
if the teacher has associates or advanced students who share in the
appreciation of sociodrama as a method, they might want to team up in
The stage area is another added element. A stage area can be a raised
area six to twelve inches above the classroom floor, and about ten to
twelve feet in diameter. However, simply assigning one part of the
classroom for enacted encounters may suffice. Behaviors that are
enacted in this area should not be taken as representative of the real
feelings or attitudes of the students who volunteer to take roles in
the scene. The enactments are not literal, but rather tentative
Perhaps the most important technique is pausing in the action, which is
a key element in rehearsing music or drama: The director calls cut and
makes a suggestion, or simply says, “take it over.” This practice often
involves a number of repetitions while the actors refine their
approach. A statement or action has a variety of ways to play it–more
strongly, gently, coarsely, subtly, and so on–, and in considering
issues of politics, literature, psychology, and so forth, how something
is expressed may be as important if not more important than the actual
The teacher as director may suggest that the student playing a role
vary his or her nonverbal behavior. Practicing an attitude or belief
with a full voice, rather than weak can be both dramatic and
transformative. People’s nonverbal behavior reinforces certain
attitudes in their own being as well as communicating to others.
The technique of the double is also powerful. This technique has one
actor portraying the inner voice or voice over of another actor.
Another variant of this is the aside, in which the player turns and
talks to the audience, indicating that what is said is not heard by
others in the scene.
If the sociodrama involves an encounter between two people, in addition
to these roles, the teacher might assign roles to the different
concerns or loyalties that might impact on each opponent–the multiple
double technique. The technique has two to four doubles stand behind
each party, illustrating the complexity of a true dialog.
Exploring Deeper Levels of Consciousness
The double technique demonstrates one of the key values of sociodrama,
which is to disclose the kinds of issues that are not generally
admitted in ordinary discourse. The purpose is understanding.
Psychological reality is more complex than the conventional idea that
two levels of disclosure exist–open dialogue and secret. Five levels
that can theoretically be discerned and played.
The enactment might begin with the exploration of the first level, the
statements that the people in role could express openly, including the
standard slogans and, clichés. The second level is then brought
forth, using asides or the double (i.e., an auxiliary or another
student playing the inner voice.)
Using such techniques, sociodrama also brings into open discourse a
third level, the pre-conscious realm in which awkward thoughts and
feelings that are not ordinarily admitted are brought into the open.
People have certain attitudes and expectations of which they are only
vaguely conscious–they register briefly in people’s minds, but are
pushed away as uncomfortable. If stated, they would be expressed with
an understood “I don’t even like to admit this to myself, but...”
Many prejudices and irrational components of belief operate on this
level; therefore, when brought into explicit consciousness in the
group, they are more amenable to re-evaluation, deeper understanding,
The ideas that occur at level three, in the pre-conscious, are actually
only the beginning. A fourth and deeper, unconscious level also exists
that contains thoughts and feelings that are out of synch with the
person’s beliefs about himself and cannot be consciously admitted. Carl
Jung calls this level of repressed thoughts “the shadow.” Many find
such ideas or feelings unacceptable, repugnant or socially disreputable.
Even though we generally cannot directly access our fourth level, just
knowing that the unconscious exists begins to loosen the rigidity of
repression and makes exploration a little more possible. Sociodrama can
help students see in the imagined lives of the roles being played
what they might not have been able to permit themselves to see in
themselves–especially if there is sufficient social
distance–culturally, status, or age.
The fifth level can also be probed: These ideas have not been repressed
so much as never considered. We live in a time of multiculturalism when
what used to seem unthinkable as customs and attitudes are now being
brought into discourse. It is becoming increasingly difficult to have
never heard of previously taboo ideas.
The personal is political, and the psychological attitudes about
various issues go deep. Dealing with such levels only at the level of
logical argumentation denies the reality of the psychological
influences on politics, economics, and social relations. Sociodrama
brings these deeper attitudes into explicit awareness so they can be
re-evaluated. The process aims to identify the norms, rules, values,
assumptions, beliefs, and specific elements within human unconscious
complexes that may be obsolete, arguable, worthy of revision or finer
discrimination, or otherwise critiqued. Such forces are not merely
influences in personal neurosis, but also determine major historical
events, underlie schools of political and religious philosophy, and
interpenetrate the study of the humanities. In other words, sociodrama
is a process for analyzing and examining social situations in terms of
their deeper psychological, social, and cultural dynamics.
Another major technique in sociodrama is that of role reversal–changing
parts or having a person who was arguing a point shift roles and take
the opposing position. Another variant, if several roles are present,
is having everyone involved shift and take a different role part-way
through an enactment, which will foster a more compassionate level of
Warming up to the issues and roles is not enough, it is also important
to learn mental flexibility and imagine what it is like in other roles.
This is the most reliable core of empathy, and a skill that can be
practiced and developed. Thus, after acting out scenes at different
levels and identifying some of the various issues, the scene is paused,
and the participants change roles.
Shifting roles warms up the participants to imagining the situation
from a different perspective, which is what actors do, especially in an
unsavory part. Learning to explore a role quite different from one’s
own familiar outlook may be one of the most important elements in not
only learning about the world, but in developing one of the essential
components of true maturity–the capacity to relinquish egocentricity.
Rationale for Sociodrama in Education
Sociodrama is useful because it is a vehicle for a number of educational dynamics and functions:
First, it recognizes that people learn best by doing, through
experiential modes of education (Mathis, Fairchild & Cannon, 1980).
In sociodrama, the students participate in all components of the
process. This idea further integrates rational process that can be
expressed in language, and the less rational but no less meaningful
domain of feelings, intuitions, non-verbal dimensions of communication,
and imagination into education.
Second, young adulthood ideally involves a relative consolidation of a
sense of meaning, which entails a balancing of task and a heightened
sensitivity to values: Whitehead (1948: 199) called this process
aesthetic education, and noted that through it participation in the
arts aided a more holistic approach. In this sense, sociodrama is part
of an arts education–it is an improvisational and interactive
application of theatre to help people become more aware of their own
values, preferences and how they may be intellectually coordinated with
evidence, concepts, and other modes of learning. A liberal education
might involve this balance and integration of aesthetic sensitivity and
task- and fact-oriented learning.
Hardin (1978) notes that opinion change involves possibly months of
unconscious wrestling with new ideas as the mind re-adjusts its inner
ecology. Sociodrama as a core element in the curriculum allows a
gradual processes of re-evaluation and consolidation of worldviews. Yet
the process also supports the emergence of a heightened degree of
mental flexibility, because shifting roles leads to holding viewpoints
This idea also recognizes that from high school onward many young
people are developing their sense of meaning, belonging and purpose.
Higher education offers an opportunity to rationally coordinate these
ideas when more experiential modes such as sociodrama are part of the
curriculum. The process brings up the question of relevance for
students and challenges them to wonder for themselves what is important.
This involvement takes into account the unique learning style and
requirements of each student. Each participant will generate his or her
own interpretation of an event, based on personal background,
temperament, abilities, types of motivation, interests, and more subtle
forms of preference (Reiss, 2000; Blatner, 2005). Each of these
variables has more specific types, and in combination, results in a
complex interplay that cries out for a type of education that can be
individualized. Sociodrama allows for and builds on the unique
perspective of each participant.
The process of drama is exciting, drawing on the intrinsic motivation
provided by improvisational activity. This excitement occurs because
the mind is intrigued and often delighted by the subtle inspirations
that come through the process of spontaneous interaction. One discovers
unknown aspects of one’s creative unconscious. Being able to share this
natural self-expressive impulse in a context of playful safety is fun,
as is the experience of being creative.
Students also enjoy the implicit learning of psychology, because they
find they often have mixed feelings, and this process validates their
natural ambivalence. The role concept serves as a tool for appreciating
and constructively working with both intra- and interpersonal conflicts.
Many of the benefits of a therapy group also apply to learning groups,
especially those that call on the integration of personal
understanding, empathy, and meaning-making. Processes such as modeling,
sharing information, cultivating a degree of altruism and helpfulness,
and discovering one’s concerns are shared by others add to group
cohesion and a spirit of optimism in learning (Yalom, 1995).
Sociodrama’s capacity to help students re-evaluate general norms allows
for a sublimation of a natural tendency towards rebellion, especially
in late adolescence and the college years (Murray, 1948). This process
also offers an alternative to the widespread tendency noted by Deborah
Tannen (1998) to present issues in terms of polarized positions.
Sociodrama offers a forum for an expression of a middle ground and the
exploration of other alternatives.
Finally, the value of this skill applies to the elucidation of personal
philosophy and a critique of general cultural clichés and the
skills themselves are particularly appropriate for coping with a more
complex and changing world.
Implications for Education
In the postmodern era, education needs to transform to evoke optimal
degrees of creativity (Pink, 2005). Our culture is in transition, with
the social institution of education leaving an era in which schooling
was primarily a process of instilling information, and entering an era
in which the process becomes educare, (from the Latin, "to draw
out") drawing forth from the students’ inner potentials. The
technology of psychology is becoming widely applied and its concepts
more integrated. Sociodrama is a method that embodies some implications
of these developments for higher education:
– It cultivates psychological literacy, building skills in communications, problem solving, and self-awareness.
– Its techniques, such as role reversal, doubling, and taking
role playing into a deeper appreciation of underlying assumptions and
attitudes, promotes a truly relevant understanding of the people and
the predicaments in human situations.
-- Sociodrama’s group techniques also support students as they
identify their own values, convictions, and perspectives, while leaving
them provisional and open to development.
-- It fosters the skills of improvisation, expression, and creativity, which are qualities needed in a changing world.
Psychology was once more of an academic subject but became increasingly
known in association with the treatment of mental illness or simple
neurosis. As such, the field was somewhat stigmatized. In a sense, it
is analogous to the way computers were thought of as only for
technicians until the user-friendly personal computer made it possible
for ordinary people to apply these tools in a thousand ways. Psychology
is now becoming recognized as a group of concepts and tools that can be
practically applied in business, community-building, and the home. This
recognition is only beginning to gain traction–the stigma still is
prevalent. The hunger for greater effectiveness and the availability of
ways of achieving this goal make it inevitable that psychology will
become an integral part of education, business, organizational
development, religion, parenting, and relationships in general. In
turn, higher education is strategically important for those interested
in fostering this integration.
Let us return to the opening vignette in which a class in intercultural
communication enacted a scenario drawn from the experience of one of
its members. Imagine how much richer and deeper the subsequent
discussion and debriefing would be if this sociodramatic exercise were
compared to a straightforward lecture on homophobia from a professor.
This contrast shows how higher education needs to integrate the
benefits of the latest technologies. Practical techniques arising from
psychotherapy, organizational development, the human potential
movement, and other developments in the broad realm of the behavioral
sciences are particularly promising.. Those fields were more
compartmentalized a generation ago, but are becoming recognized as
necessary for a truly relevant and contemporary educational
process–that is, preparing people to cope with an ever-more-rapidly
changing world. Schools should value creativity and seek to build on
the skills that enhance it, which include noticing and adapting to
individual differences, focusing on strengths and dealing wisely with
weaknesses; learning the skills of psychological literacy; learning to
be more empathic with others, addressing complex social and political
situations (through sociodrama); working more effectively in groups and
teams; and developing the capacity for improvisation and
Certainly higher education as a social institution is capable of as
much reform as other institutions in our culture, from marriage to
various political and economic arrangements. IN higher education, these
ideas apply to life-long learning, including classes for middle-aged
people and seniors. Each age group has similar and different
challenges, and throughout all, students as active participants give
input as to what is important and relevant to them. Finally, the
resulting process will require a greater degree of mutuality, and
modification of focus and approach by both teachers and students.
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