WTF is psychosocial studies?


Psychosocial studies is at the intersection of arts, psychology, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, social work, sociology – and a huge number of related fields.  Actually maybe it’s the set union of those fields (and more) too. I think this diagram illustrates the spirit of the relationships (Figure 8 from Simonetto and Auber’s paper on undrawable Euler diagrams):

A very complex Euler diagram of 8 overlapping shapes in multiple colours

Efforts to write manifestos of psychosocial studies as an inter/transdiscipline have accelerated since the 1990s. A common theme is that psychological life (conscious and unconscious) is interwoven with social life. For such a broad programme, there are inevitably rows about what exactly psychosocial studies “is” and at times the debates seem to reflect academic power struggles more than substance (not unlike the qual versus quant rows).

Diet or full fat psychosocial?

Sasha Roseneil (2014) took a helpful empirical approach, developing a taxonomy of broad genres of ESRC-funded projects which used the term “psychosocial”.  What did the researchers on these projects seem to mean?

Psychosocial “lite” research uses “psychosocial” as an adjective to describe linking social and psychological variables, like social stressors and individual wellbeing. This seems to fit the study by Barr et al. (2016) which explored the effect of welfare policy changes on mental ill-health (though the researchers didn’t use the term “psychosocial” and the lead author was in a Department of Public Health and Policy).

The “middle ground” of psychosocial research consists of work that takes this a step further to explore (p. 130)

“emotions or emotional life, or had a more expansive sociological/societal understanding of the social than ‘psychosocial lite’ research”

I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to distinguish “lite” from “middle ground” – maybe “thick description” or Verstehen are beginning to creep in? In any case, both stay within or combine ideas from existing disciplines like psychology and sociology.

The “strong” programme differs from these two in that research (p. 130)

“articulated either an implicit or explicit challenge to the disciplinary divisions between psychology and sociology, were concerned with the mutual constitution of the psychic and the social and saw the theoretical/methodological approach that they were taking to the research as ‘psychosocial’ (rather than using the word to qualify other concepts).”

Pledging allegiance to the new discipline is necessary, according to this “strong” account, alongside the need to foreground the “mutual constitution” of psy and social, rather than explaining one in terms of the other. So no explaining social life through Big Five personality scores or IQ.

Inside/outside

This “strong” definition reminds me of work by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998) on the extended mind. They begin by arguing that our concept of self “outstrips the boundaries of consciousness”. This is easy to see since, for example, we are only consciously aware of a small number of our beliefs at any given time. We still have those beliefs somewhere, somehow, and they pop into consciousness again when triggered by context. We also scribble in notebooks (and these days tap at apps) so that we don’t forget stuff. Again these memories exist outside consciousness, not unlike dormant beliefs, but additionally the scribbles and app algorithms are “beyond the skin”. These external aids are an important part of us and how we think and act. Hence, Clark and Chalmers argue, selves are “best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources”.

Sounds psychosocial to me, though developed outside a formal psychosocial studies frame. (Maybe it’s more biopsychomaterial studies?)

Another example comes from Kusch (1999, p. 359), writing in a Science and Technology Studies (STS) tradition. He sketches a familiar story of how social processes shape brains and change how we respond to the world, arguing that therefore

“at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. They are social because they are real artefacts of our culture, and social also because they predispose us to differ in the intensity, quality, and duration of some of our sensations” (emphasis original).

Yet another expression of the interwoven nature of psy and social comes from Erich Fromm (originally published 1932):

“The thesis that psychology only deals with the individual while sociology only deals with ‘society’ is false. For just as psychology always deals with a socialized individual, so sociology always deals with a group of individuals whose psychic structure and mechanisms must be taken into account.”

Though perhaps this particular statement isn’t interwoven enough for “strong” psychosocial.

Critical

An idea that recurs in psychosocial studies is that researchers should develop critical theories. Taking Nancy Fraser’s (1985) conceptualisation (from outside psychosocial studies), there is no empirical difference between a critical and a non-critical theory. There is a clear political difference: a critical theory clarifies processes oppressing a social group and suggests action. It takes as obvious that doing so is important. Jenkins’ (2018) development of a norm-relevancy account of gender is a good example of this genre of critical theorising. Jenkins begins with a statement of the aims of trans rights movements, but does not attempt to justify those aims (Jenkins, 2018, p. 716):

“Although I am fully convinced of the appropriateness of the aims of the trans rights movements, I make no claim to have justified those aims here. I merely seek to establish the concept of gender identity that is required to advance those aims.”

This is critical theory-infused analytical philosophy – outside psychosocial studies.

So WTF is psychosocial studies?

Psychosocial studies is undefinable, in my view. Any attempt will include a huge number of other disciplines (or at least researchers in those disciplines) using psy and social concepts simultaneously. I don’t think it matters; people seem to be able to do their psychosocial research (or philosophy, sociology, art, etc.) without pledging allegiance to the psychosocial, hand on any of the major manifestos. But researchers who want to, say, reduce all societies’ problems to individuals’ characteristics are more likely to be found elsewhere, so the “interwoven” criterion of psy and social does help eliminate some research from the hyperdimensional Euler diagrams.