Psychoanalytic sociology  

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"Insanity in individuals is something rare—but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule."--Beyond Good and Evil (1886) by Friedrich Nietzsche

"The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane."--The Sane Society (1955) by Erich Fromm

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Psychoanalytic sociology is the research field that analyzes society using the same methods that psychoanalysis applied to analyze an individual. Its common focus are the unconscious mental processes and behaviour of a society. Some sociologists consider the field to be insufficiently empirical and largely pseudoscientific. Similarly, sociatry applies psychiatry to society itself.

The field was arguably started by Freud in 1930 when he wrote in Civilization and Its Discontents that:

"If the development of civilization has such far-reaching similarity to the development of the individual and if it employs the same methods, may we not be justified in reaching the diagnosis that, under the influence of cultural urges, some civilizations, or some epochs of civilization -- possibly the whole of mankind -- have become 'neurotic'?"



Freud (1907-1939)

The desire to establish a link between psychoanalysis and sociology appears very early on in Freud's work. The articles "Obsessive Actions and Religious Practices" (1907b) and " 'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness" (1908d) are evidence of this.

The same mode of approach was also employed by Freud in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921), where he argued that 'crowd psychology, and with it all social psychology, is parasitic on individual psychology'. (Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time). Civilization and Its Discontents in 1930 formed however his fullest sociological study, wherein he 'anchored his analysis of social and political life in a theory of human nature very much his own'. (Gay)

In Totem and Taboo (1912-1913a) and Moses and Monotheism (1939a), Freud analyzed social cohesion, the advent of civilization, and the rise of its contemporary discontents'; while James Strachey described The Future of an Illusion (1927) as 'the first of a number of sociological works to which Freud devoted most of his remaining years'.

Jung: collective neuroses and society

Carl Jung saw the divided psyche in the normal individual reflected in the neurotic nature of global politics, and vice versa.

If, for a moment, we regard mankind as one individual, we see that the human race is like a person carried away by unconscious powers; and the human race also likes to keep certain problems tucked away in separate drawers . . . Our world is, so to speak, dissociated like a neurotic, with the Iron Curtain making a symbolic line of division. . . . It is the face of his own evil shadow that grins at Western man from the other side of the Iron Curtain (Jung, 1964:85).


'Many of the early analysts were Marxists...Reich, Paul Federn and Otto Fenichel the most notable among them', and were fully prepared, in Erich Fromm's words, to at least '"try to explain psychic structure as determined by social structure"'.(Adam Phillips, On Flirtation) Theodor Adorno's essays on psychoanalysis, reappropriated Freud's work and applied it to social phenomena, and in particular in his Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda (1951), he outlined a theory of social psychology.

In 1946, Fenichel considered that '"Comparative sociology of education" is a new scientific field of the greatest practical importance', as well as concluding in general that it is 'experience, that is, the cultural conditions, that transforms potentialities into realities, that shapes the real mental structure of man by forcing his instinctual demands into certain directions'.

From a different angle, the early Lacan argued that 'any "concrete psychology" must be augmented by a reference to ethnology, history and law'; and later drew on 'Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology...[for] what will be termed the Symbolic'. Post-Lacanians would continue to explore such sociological areas as 'the superego as the moment of common cultural binding', or the way 'the social bond, the Law binding us, is...a bond of the impossibility of obedience or disobedience'.

1960s and the Left

The Sixties saw a radical sociopsychoanalysis exert wide popular influence under the guidance of a number of different thinkers. David Cooper attempted to explore 'in terms of Freud's discovery...the social function of the family as an ideological conditioning device'. R. D. Laing 'has adapted Sartre's existential psychoanalysis..[as he] analyzes the concept of alienation': looking at the 'analysis of alienation in sociological and clinical senses', Laing concluded grandly that 'Alienation as our present destiny is achieved only by outrageous violence perpetrated by human beings on human beings'.

Norman O. Brown examined a 'politics made out of delinquency...even as the crime, so also conscience is collective'. Herbert Marcuse explored how in late modernity 'repressive desublimation is indeed operative in the sexual the by-product of the social controls of technological reality, which extend liberty while intensifying domination'.

Feminist contributions

Nancy Chodorow's work has been of significance within feminist understandings, in particular The Reproduction of Mothering and The Power of Feelings. 'Although Chodorow uses a psychoanalytic approach, she rejects the instinctual determinism of the classic Freudian account in favor of a more nuanced, social psychological approach that incorporates recent developments in object relations theory'.

Jessica Benjamin has also been influential in this project of linking social theory to psychoanalysis, as with The Shadow of the Other. Juliet Mitchell however has criticised the way 'Benjamin's injunction is made within a psychosocial, not a psychoanalytical framework'.


Freud early warned of any 'attempt of this kind to carry psychoanalysis over to the cultural community...that it is dangerous, not only with men but also with concepts, to tear them from the sphere in which they have originated and been evolved'.

Others have since observed that 'efforts to link sociology and psychoanalysis have yielded varied results....[some], intoxicated by the success of analysis, have indiscriminately applied psychoanalytic concepts to social reality and have succeeded only in bastardizing psychoanalysis (making it a management tool) and disfiguring social processes'.

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