Adam Blatner, M.D.

Revised Slightly & Re-posted, July 6, 2009
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  ;
    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.

One 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 interact
    – It can help a group address themes that may be operating but their action has not been noted in the sphere of explicit awareness
    – 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


Sociometry 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?”)

A Relatively New Field

I 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.

The Sociology of Sociometry

Moreno 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 conflicts?

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 decades.

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 sociometrists internationally.

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.

Further Issues in Sociometry

Rapport 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.

A Role-Based Dynamic

People 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.

Interpersonal Preference

Another 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 authentic preferences.

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.

Practical Social Network Development

One 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 designation.

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 enough.

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 networks.

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.

Developmental Dynamics

Let’s 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 her.

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 rejected,
   – 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.