of the more pervasive phenomena in the interpersonal and social domain
is the rather obvious fact that we find ourselves more attracted to
some people than another, we feel more rapport with certain individuals
and a kind of negative rapport or repulsion with others. With many
people we are more neutral, or mixed. Yet this dynamic is often neither
spoken about or, for many people, even thought about consciously.
Exploring the topic openly tends to evoke a bit of anxiety lest we hurt
others’ feelings or ourselves feel rejected.
In the spirit of the continued movement towards becoming more
explicitly conscious about phenomena that had previously or generally
remained tacit or unconscious, it is useful to begin to address a
variety of topics–sex, death, and other themes that generally tend to
be emotionally loaded.
Sociometry in its narrower sense refers to the methods that are
designed to assess the nature and relative strength of these currents
of attraction and repulsion among people. (The inventor of sociometry,
Dr. J.L. Moreno, called these invisible currents "tele"--and this
dynamic is further described elsewhere on this website on a webpage
about Tele: The Dynamics of Interpersonal Preference.)
In the larger sense, the term refers to a general consideration of the
informal social psychology of relationships. While formal relationships
are determined by tradition, organizational rules, lines of authority,
chains of command, organizational charts, and generally-agreed-on role
definitions, informal relationships tend to be established by factors
that have more to do with personality, skill, temperament, and a number
of other factors, some of which are quite intangible. In part, that is
what makes this dynamic a little elusive–we cannot often give good
reasons why we prefer one person over another when they both have
similar roles or status.
The study of sociometry offers a number of advantages:
– It brings into explicit awareness a number of
themes that have been generally overlooked by most other theories of
psychology and sociology
– It opens our minds to phenomena that are
emotionally sensitive, and thus offers some promise of
understanding–and sometimes meaningful insights– about the ways people
– It can help a group address themes that may be
operating but their action has not been noted in the sphere of explicit
– Sociometry–and more, the reluctance to actively
think about and explore these issues--can also help us reflect on why
there is such reluctance, in terms of individual and cultural dynamics
as a method was developed by Jacob Levi Moreno, M.D. (1889-1974), a
physician-turned psychiatrist, raised in Vienna, who emigrated to the
United States in 1925, and worked in upstate New York in the 1930s.
Moreno is best known as the inventor of the therapeutic role playing
method called psychodrama, but was also a brilliant innovator who
helped pioneer group psychotherapy, social role theory, improvisational
theatre, and applications of role playing in business and education, as
well as in other settings. Moreno had been interested in the dynamics
of relationships since his college years, and intuitively recognized
that people tend to be more spontaneous and happy when allowed to
affiliated with others with whom they had good rapport. Moreno called
this invisible current of attraction or repulsion “tele” (pronounced
tay-lay), a term related to words like telephone or television. (For
those who find that term difficult to appreciate, I have found most
people understand it just as easily when referred to as “rapport.”) Tele, simply stated, is what is measured by
sociometry. With whom might you prefer to share some common
experience–having lunch, going on a date, playing tennis, working on a
study project, etc. (Right off, you’ll notice that it’s possible to
prefer one person for one kind of role or criterion, but another person
might be preferred for a different role! So the method exposes the
complexity of the field–it’s not just a matter of “who do you like?”)
Relatively New Field
think of sociometry as a relatively new field, and all of what we have
learned so far is perhaps but a small fraction of what there is yet to
learn. I think of sociometry as being roughly analogous to the
understanding of electricity back around 1850–we had learned a good
deal in the previous century, but there was yet much more to discover.
I note this in order to support an attitude of humility and an interest
in continued exploration and refinement.
I also note the relative newness of the field because there is a
tendency to attribute great insight to the founder, J. L. Moreno, and
some of the early pioneers. The problem with a new field is that there
may indeed be some very good ideas, but also these may be generously
mixed with ideas that have not yet been refined, tested, probed for
further variations, and their underlying dynamics further explored.
More particularly, Moreno’s writings should not be taken as sacred; he
himself warned against the tendency to rely on that which has been
created. (Moreno called the category of that which has already been
created “the cultural conserve,” and noted that while this category of
phenomena is the necessary springboard for most further developments in
creativity, criticism in the service of such further creative
development is a necessary principle.) For this reason, further on I
question a number of Moreno’s concepts in order to provoke further
dialog about the best way to understand the field.
Sociology of Sociometry
developed sociometry in the early 1930s and wrote a major book on the
subject, titled “Who Shall Survive?” The title indicated his belief
that our survival as a species required a maturation and application of
insights in the social sciences that would then catch up to the
advances being made in the hard sciences. In other words, what good is
it to develop sophisticated technologies capable of making
ever-more-destructive weapons when we don’t have in place a widespread
cultural matrix of social methods for more peacefully working out
In 1937, Moreno began publishing a professional journal titled
“Sociometry,” and many of the papers on the subject by his students
appeared in this and related journals. In 1956, there was sufficient
interest among sociologists so that Moreno donated the journal to the
American Sociological Association, who then published it for a few
For the most part, sociometry has been preserved and promoted within
the psychodrama community. It seems to have been given renewed energy
beginning in the later 1970s, and a knowledge of its methods and
principles became one of the requirements for certification as a
psychodramatist in the United States in the early 1980s.
In Australia and New Zealand, sociometry, role theory, and related
approaches have been applied in consultations to businesses and
organizations as a major tool in organizational development. Some of
their refinements continue to be absorbed by psychodramatists and
Alas, in the academic fields of sociology and social psychology,
increasingly since around 1970, sociometry is generally ignored, often
not even mentioned in major textbooks.
Issues in Sociometry
is that feeling of connectedness that one feels with other people.
Sometimes it happens relatively rapidly, and other times it grows
slowly. We should recognize also a variety of categories of negative
rapport, which may also be mild: Sometimes there’s a real edge of
negativity, and at other times, simply a sense that the other is just
“not my kind of person.” Thus, rapport may operate on a spectrum from
strongly negative to strongly positive.
One of the reasons this dynamic is being noted here is that there are a
number of little-known associated dynamics that are worth knowing
about, and also many as-yet unknowns that we are still exploring.
Another reason is that the whole topic for many people is somewhat
uncomfortable, because it deals with old complexes of sometimes
surprisingly strong feelings about not being “liked” or not feeling it
is all right to not particularly like another person. Nevertheless,
these dynamics are present and have a significant impact in most
relationships and group settings. Thus, in the belief that the most
constructive behaviors are pursued with clear awareness, it is worth
including in our considerations those processes that are most relevant.
play many roles, and thinking about the various roles we play offers
the best way to understand the dynamics of rapport. In general, for
example, we prefer people who share certain similar or “symmetrical”
key preferences or styles. On the other hand, good relations often have
a few or a moderate number of “complementary” preferences or styles,
which adds a bit of intriguing difference, appealing to curiosity and
the enjoyment of a bit of the exotic.
A role is any complex of attitude and behavior that can be portrayed
dramatically, played. Roles can operate at many levels–the way we eat
and sleep, many aspects of the way we think, how we relate to others,
operate in small and larger groups (family, church, work contexts),
subcultures and cultures.
aspect of rapport is that it is an extension of individual tastes.
Taste can arise from a variety of individual elements, including
ability or experience level, language, ethnicity and cultural
background, historical background or age / generation style,
temperament and various interests.
We can’t fully or rationally explain most of our tastes, why we prefer
this or that ethnic or specialty food over another type; or one artist
more than another. Some people relate to certain historical periods,
cultures, and life-styles, and again cannot be explained through any
amount of analysis. What’s important is to learn to get in touch with
Note also that there inauthentic preferences, learning to think one
likes this or that quality because it is fashionable, because one
associates certain tastes with the values and norms of a desired peer
group. Part of late adolescence involves re-evaluating one’s tastes,
discovering personal preferences that feel more “true” than living with
a sense of mere conformity.
There may be several layers involved in this process: Pre-teens begin
to break away from parents and experiment with dramatic alternatives to
parental values, thus reinforcing the need to feel that they are more
independent. The process may repeat itself in the later teens or
college years, and again several times during young, middle, and later
adulthood. Each experiment clarifies tastes. (Sometimes authentic
tastes are satisfied and open to new interests: “Been there, done that”
moves into “What might be fun next?”
For example, in my case, as a young teen, I wanted to be more popular,
and there were books about popularity. They seemed to be a mixture of
grooming, simple fashion, basic rules of courtesy (that seem quaint
many years later), and so forth. I didn’t feel I made much progress,
though. There were many reasons for this, but the main one, in
retrospect, was a misunderstanding of what popularity was all about: It
wasn’t an either-or, popular or not popular situation. It all seems
obvious now, but there were scores of different groups that one could
become more or less associated with. A few people seemed to be
everywhere, with the sports stars, in student government, and so forth.
These folks were exceptions, though. Most people were mild or
moderately popular within smaller or larger sub-groups.
It would have been helpful to recognize that one only needed a modest
circle of acquaintances and friends, and that larger circles required
unusual levels of involvement.
Social Network Development
of the most important dynamics in social psychology is the operation of
the interpersonal flow of rapport, a mutual sense of connectedness.
It’s universal, and a generally somewhat overlooked process, in part
because, even more than sex (at least nowadays), people are quite
emotionally sensitive about this topic. Yet it’s everywhere and in many
cases rapport is a far more important factor than any official
From childhood, we are encouraged to treat people “equally,” which
blurs a distinction between general fairness and the distribution of
the sense of rapport that operates in psychology, just as there is a
natural variation in temperament, tastes, background, ability, and
other variables. The fact is that we naturally tend to prefer some
folks over others, and there are some with whom we tend to clash,
though neither party has “done anything wrong.” They’re just not “our
type of people,” though they may have a lively social network with whom
they’re more naturally compatible.
The most obvious expression of this blindness to the factor of rapport
is the way teachers and administrators lump people together according
to arbitrary criteria, the order of height, first letter of the last
name, order of people arriving, etc. Such an approach assumes that
we’re all equal cogs in an industrial assembly line, replaceable. It’s
our job to “work out” frictions, and, like the illusion that you can do
anything if you try hard enough, a variation is that all conflicts can
be resolved with good will and skill. The corollary is that conflicts
resistant to solution are due to a lack of good will, effort, or skill–
the latter evoking shame for being “clueless” or “dumb” or not clever
Only a few people have had the courage to challenge the above
pervasive, subtly oppressive attitudes, and say that what seems to be
common sense is in fact not so. There is an alternative, of course: Let
people work in teams in which the people have for the most part chosen
each other! Let people room in bunkhouses and pal around as their
natural inclinations lead them!
Of course, several objections immediately arise: Won’t this reinforce
the development of cliques and separatism, rather than
integration? And won’t some folks be left out and their feelings
hurt? This last is the crux of the matter: Avoid hurting people’s
feelings, and avoid having one’s own feelings getting hurt.
The paradox is that like sex, the problems of which tend to magnify
with ignorance and avoidance, the problems of relationship are also
worsened by avoidance. We need to look at the whole deal on
relationships and being hurt, and become a little desensitized to this
complex problem. Freedom requires an infrastructure that supports
responsibility, not only at the political level, but even in the
family, in clubs, churches, with friends, and in various informal
That infrastructure involves a combination of a certain amount of
self-awareness, communications skills, and problem-solving skills, and
I confess that these skills are insufficiently developed in the vast
majority of people today. So this paper aims at looking more frankly at
the problems of rapport in relationship.
start off by noting that in older children, teenagers and adults,
liking and being liked rests on not just a simple either-or dimension,
but varies according to the roles being played. One can like another
kid as a friend, but not as one with whom wants to be romantic or
sexual. A teammate chosen to work on a science project may be someone
other than the teammate for playing baseball, and just because a kid
plays first base well, that doesn’t mean you want to go camping with
Yet at first, younger children don’t make this distinction, and their
feelings are quite sensitive about the awareness that at times, two
other people seem to prefer being together more than either one with
the child who thus feels vulnerable. All this begins at the age when
children who play with one other kid at a time begin to relate to two
kids at a time. It also partakes of the awareness of having to share
the attention of a parent with a sibling–that is, around three or four
years of age.
Freud attributed the patterns of jealousy to sexual fantasies, but he
was only partly correct. Occasionally, patterns of early sexual
stimulation, possessiveness of one parent, harshness of another parent,
set up mixtures of complexes–the Oedipal complex being the most
prominent in psychoanalytic thought. (In all likelihood, Freud himself
developed such a complex because of the mixture of factors in his own
life; he was mistaken in projecting the whole package onto others as
“normal.”) What is inevitable, though, is that kids who begin to play
in groups of three or four will notice the flow of shifting alliances!
Sometimes A and B will play more intensely and C will be left out, but
later on it may be B and C who seem closer, and then A feels left out.
For the one feeling left out, jealousy, shame, hurt, bewilderment,
betrayal–a variety of feelings are evoked.
Over the next few years, children are learning a variety of ways of
being socialized, and one of the components of this process involve the
courtesies of minimizing the frictions of obvious rejection and
preference. We all seem to covertly avoid being too obvious about whom
we prefer and whom we don’t–or even those we consciously reject.
We don’t want to be hurt, so we don’t hurt others.
Now, in healthy development, it becomes more clear that being not
preferred need not precipitate a catastrophe of humiliation. One has
enough residual esteem–not just self-esteem, but also a sense that
there are indeed other groups out there with whom one can be more
naturally congenial, feel esteemed interpersonally. However, most
people have only marginally healthy development. That seemingly
high-functioning people can be marginally healthy in some roles is
again best illustrated by the way people functioned sexually a century
ago, when sexuality was still dominated by Victorian attitudes and
otherwise well-educated people were woefully ignorant in the bedroom.
So, nowadays, it is not common for a person to feel “hurt,” “rejected,”
when relationships don’t click very well. These feelings tend to be
psychologically infected by false but pervasive attitudes: If one is
– the other person must be somehow not friendly, mean, and
it’s worth coming up with some judgmental conclusions about that person
– the other person is given the benefit of the doubt,
especially if s/he has higher status, in which case, being rejected
“proves” that one is lacking in some way. It used to be status, and
these frictions were ameliorated by “knowing your place,” but by the
mid-20th century, rejections were often attributed to matters of
“personality.” That is, one tended to psychologically evaluate and
devalue based on ambiguous generalities. It is important to note that
whether one could actually will oneself to be different was
unclear–there was that other pervasive attitude that one could do or be
anything with sufficient effort.
So in middle school, what happened to kids who were significantly more
intelligent or intellectual than other kids?
(Further comments to be
added.) For more about sociometry, see other papers
on this website, such as
Further Comments on Sociometry.