Adam Blatner, M.D

Posted August 3, 2005 (re-done 10/5/11) (An earlier version of this article was published in 1985, in the 1st and 2nd spiral-bound editions of my personally published (at that time) general text, Foundations of Psychodrama. However, it wasn't included in the later 3rd or 4th editions published in 1988 and then 2000 by Springer Publishing Company. Here I offer it again as a supplement to the chapters on role theory in Foundations.) (Revised slightly and re-posted, August 2, 2002)   The other part of this earlier chapter, "Looking at Relationships," is also published elsewhere on this website as Role Analysis.

How deeply our sense of connection runs–to family, to extended family, to groups. There are real experiences of loss and hunger when people lose the sense of embeddedness (which happens all too often in our postmodern, highly mobile, and variably alienated society. Our psychological theories and aspects of our culture have also overvalued individualism, and from that value, tends to deny and repress the degree to which humans are naturally and optimally interdependent. We are herd animals, tribal, as were our pre-hominid ancestors–and very likely we evolved not as individuals, but as tribes. The idea that there was a primordial male-female couple is likely a projection of the need to simplify and personify our collective creation myths. It is more difficult to encompass with our minds, but the complexities of group dynamics, tribal dynamics, have been ever with us.

Several psychiatrists who pioneered group therapy considered the fundamental reality and influence of the interpersonal and group field, such as J. L. Moreno and Trigant Burrow. Some group analysts have posited a kind of collective subconscious operating in group dynamics. The philosophical implications are significant. What if mind in subtle ways operates at levels of complexity beyond the awareness of individuals, and even beyond their capacity to directly perceive. Perhaps, as with the existence of quasars, black holes, and sub-atomic particles, we can only infer them from their effects. (More recently, the contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber (1995) has also elaborated a more comprehensive theory of holism and holarchies.)

Direct intuition can help: At certain points in their development collectives begin to take on a life of their own. Their core ideas function as "memes," units of information that tend to attract interest and thus propagate themselves, even when those who founded the organization die off or leave (Dawkins). Families, churches and religions, tribes, many organizations, varying professions, academic fields of endeavor, hobbies, all sorts of other collective endeavors exist, their collective dynamics are not merely the sum of its parts.

Systems at different levels of complexity have what are called "emergent qualities," so that group dynamics, for example, involve more than just the aggregate of individual transferences and projections. Even a relationship between two people has its own kind of life. This is not simply our interpretation or an abstract conceptualization. You can feel it happening if you can open your mind to it. It's subtle, but, like listening to beautiful music, you can learn to discern its features.

One of the reasons we don't learn to be more sensitive to this is that, as I noted, our social being-ness is a subtly devalued dimension. Western culture has come to value "independence" and "individualism"-- values that support an economic system of haves and have-nots (and the "haves" have the power that maintains the system). People are taught to feel pride in competitive individualism, and it feeds ego-addictions. It is supported by the illusions of freedom associated with independence. On the other hand, there are few words in our language that can communicate the desires for closeness and affiliation without seeming to be contaminated with the subtle or not-so-subtle suggestion of childishness or character weakness: "dependence"? "enmeshment"? "To need others"?

But of course we do! We hunger for what Eric Berne called "strokes," whether through a wave and a smile or the more intimate sense of touch. And too young and too extensively we are weaned away from this natural clumping togetherness and taught to be more independent. It begins with having to sleep apart from parents and siblings, each one in his or her own bed. This clumping continues through the pre-school years--watch them in line or standing around, note their natural desire to hug, to sit intertwined with grownups and each other. Then it goes underground, emerging only in the sphere of actual genital sexuality.

Levels of Collective Existence

It's an aesthetic, philosophical, and intellectual exercise to begin to consider how we are a living part of everything that's happening in the present moment. Thus, social and cross-cultural psychology, physiology and all other fields are an inseparable part of psychology; the knowledge in any specialized area alone is not adequate for appreciating the relationships and meaning of the whole.

For example, let's contemplate the kinds of social networks indicated in Figure 1, to the right. The realities of an individual's social network include the dynamic shifts in relationships mentioned in the previous section. When infused with living dynamism, the diagram itself almost looks like a small living organism. Now imagine that the woman at the center of the social atom got married to her fiancee, had some kids, and began to interact with a wider community.

Consider that this diagram is a "slice of life," a picture taken at a particular time, reflecting the dynamics of the various relationships involved. Notice that the veterinarian is included, because at the time this was drawn the central person's favorite pet had become ill. Persons on the periphery of a social atom may become more central in situations involving role transitions. The social atom of the fictional person pictured above includes those who play a role significant enough to require a fair amount of consideration or adjustment if they change their behavior or relationship.

To appreciate the true complexity of our social relationships, remember that all the other people indicated in the above diagram are themselves centers of their own social atoms, and each has a different social network, representing different work situations, hobbies, and other associations.  Returning to the woman in Figure 1, above, imagine that we have a "role telescope" to examine the broader network of ordinarily invisible relationships. In contrast to role analysis (See paper on this website), which uses the equivalent of a "role microscope" to examine the intangible components of a single relationship, our progression will be outward to wider perspectives (Figure 2, left).

In this diagram, the individual person will appear to become a smaller--yet distinct and living--component. Let's begin by looking beyond the individual's social atom to the circle of extended family and friends whose joys and sorrows are shared, whose celebrations are attended, and with whom gifts and letters are exchanged regularly. Actually, people have a number of circles of contacts in different aspects of their lives, so that good friends in one context may not know the friends in another facet of life.

The reader could imagine two or three levels of circles within this general figure to the left. Beyond the closer friends are those contacts who are known by name, who are acquaintances. They know a little about each other, greet each other warmly, and make small talk. They are classmates, co-workers, salespeople in the neighborhood, and others with whom one feels some degree of belonging in the sense of being part of a common concern. Out at the periphery are the nodding acquaintances, yet they also give the sense of belonging that comes with simple recognition. Members of a larger class at school, those who attend a class reunion, people in a town who come together in time of crisis, these networks are also vibrantly alive.

Holarchic Embeddedness

The contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber writes about how all of reality is organized holarchically: sub-atomoic particles, atoms, molecules, sub-cellular structures, cells, tissues, etc. And socially, too, we exist as networks within networks, dimensions of overlapping, not-quite-distinct fields of activity. The figute above suggests that, and the figure (3) to the right  puts that field within a larger field. So, this next example applies to all of us: Using our "role telescope," horizons are expanded to include the broader affiliations. The groups to which we belong are often parts of larger groups. Our team is part of a league which is part of a sport. Our church is part of a denomination. Our place of employment is part of a larger industry or profession. And the fans of certain hobbies, art forms, etc., may subscribe to special interest magazines. At this level we are dealing with more general categories. (Explorations here involve more sociodrama than psychodrama.):

We meet only a fraction of these extended groups, perhaps at conferences, conventions, rallies, or performances. However small our influence in these collective endeavors, it is nevertheless real. Through our contributions, protest, attendance, letters, involvement in sub-groups of movements, and possible shifts of allegiance to other, competing groups, we affect the overall evolution and impact of our greater social networks.  These sub-cultural collectives are in turn part of the next level of relational networks: the more general cultural contexts such as language, dress, technology, and so forth.

Considering Figure 4 the left, ordinarily, these categories tend to be taken for granted, and become noticeable when we find ourselves as travelers in a strange land (as tourists, immigrants, refugees); in times of inter-cultural conflict (such as wars); or even in visiting a neighborhood with a different dominant language or religio-ethnic population. In such cases it often seems as if anyone with a similar cultural background is a friend. Because of our new technologies for travel and communications, the entire planet and all its inhabitants are becoming increasingly interdependent. In a survival sense, we are all potential victims of ecological or nuclear catastrophe, and it will serve us well to learn to identify with more than just our tribe or even our species, but with all life on "Spaceship Earth," as the late Buckminster Fuller called it.

 Along with the individual organisms, the complexes of the larger relationships also have been evolving: the sciences, languages, sports, clothing fashions, architecture, cooking, agriculture, religion, medicine, arts, etc. These broader fields of human endeavor have their own inner patterns of birth and death, transformation and obsolescence, wisdom and foolishness--in short, a life of their own. Within these great streams of progress and decay, our own beings are like the cells within a great evolving organism.

The Noosphere

 Furthermore, it has been suggested that in the last thousands of years, coexisting with the biological world, there has been an evolving dimension of relationships among conscious beings. This world of consciousness has been called "the Noosphere" by the philosopher Teilhard de Chardin (1966, p. 233). To the  right is a fanciful view of what that might look like:  Figure 5:


This webpage has been an exercise in imagination aimed at helping you to appreciate the wonderful aliveness of our social being-ness. Not only do relationships between individuals contains components and sub-components, so also the actual psychosocial existence of each individual must be understood as being a part of complex networks of greater relationships. (See the associated paper on Role Analysis.) This chapter attempts to communicate a "telescopic" approach to appreciating our wider social networks, yet this realm cannot be so easily encompassed in diagrammatic form, it is in truth far too multifaceted to even comprehend. Nevertheless, if we can intuitively sense the true nature of our social beingness, perhaps we may begin to relate less as egocentric, ethnocentric individuals and more as the kind of cooperative participants our world needs to engage in the challenges of planetary evolution.  (Also see paper on "The Collective in Psychology")


Blatner, A. (1985). Diagramming our social relationships. In: Foundations of Psychodrama (1st Ed.). San Marcos, TX: Privately produced monograph by author.

Teilhard de Chardin, P. (1966). The Vision of the Past. New York: Harper & Row.

Wilber, K. (1995). Sex, ecology, spirituality: the spirit of evolution. Boston: Shambhala.

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