Adam Blatner, M.D.

Posted, July 16, 2013

For more on sociometry, see on this website other papers such as (1)  Exploring Interpersonal Preference  ; (2) Exploring Your Own Connectedness through Sociometry ; (3) Tele: The Dynamics of Rapport;  (4) Further Notes on Sociometry  ; (5) A Bibliography of Writings on Sociometry  ; (6) Social Depth Psychology (October 21, 2012); and (7) Sociometry Notes (July 6, 2009)

    And since role theory is also related to all this, browse on the table of contents of papers for various webpage articles about roles, role analysis, and so forth.

Knowledge is 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 groups suffered.

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.

Social Depth Psychology

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 useful.

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, etc.
   - 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 purposes.)
   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 by A.

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 renewed life.

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 dislike me?
   - 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 difference!
   ... 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 way.

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 between categories.

A Most Sensitive Theme

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.

Exploring 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 fantasies.

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 differently?
   - 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 explicitly conscious.

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.
        (Further comments to be added.)    For more about sociometry, see other papers on this website, such as
               Further Comments on Sociometry.