Therapeutic Dyads and Groups as
Opportunities for the Revelation of Person-Construction*


There is a growing trend in sociological thought, writing, and research that is treating as problematical, and thus deserving of investigation, those area of social life that have previously been considered as everyday, mundane, and common-sensical. In the vocabulary of Gestalt psychology, this approach is changing the relationship between what has traditionally been accepted as figure and ground. As Berger has said, "The fundamental sociological problem is not crime but the law, not divorce but marriage, not racial discrimination but racially defined stratification, not revolution but government."1

Perhaps the most prolific and penetrating observer to utilize and popularize this approach in American sociology is Erving Goffman, much of whose work was stimulated by his own participatory research in mental institutions.2 In these and other unusual and distinctive social settings, Goffman has found "social realities" whose construction has been made visible largely because they contrast so emphatically with the common world of everyday social life. It is this carefully explicated juxtaposition between the bizarre and the mundane that Goffman has exhaustively elaborated to so incisively inform us of the nature of that world we take for granted but which to a profoundly unwitting extent shapes and constrains us all.

While Goffman has made comparative studies, relying upon extreme but "natural" social situations along with everyday experience, a small number of ethnomethodologists have begun to explore this sediment of phenomena experimentally. This more contrived and interventionist approach is well illustrated in a collection of papers published by the prime innovator and perhaps the founding father of ethnomethodology, Harold Garfinkel.3 This experimental or (more accurately) demonstrative procedure is a less comprehensive but more controlled and exact accomplishment of Goffman’s comparative analysis. What both share, and rely on heavily for their heuristic gain, is the examination of social situations in which some normative aspect of behavior is absent or artificially removed. The informing product of this approach is in the precipitated reaction as well as in the violation or removal itself. How the social world is constructed is revealed when a commonly built-in portion of it is removed, both by the way in which it then tends to collapse and by the processes of shoring it back up and "making it over" which suddenly emerge.4

What these studies have revealed is that the social world is a unique and compelling artifact constructed by its constituent membership in a silent and unconscious conspiracy that, at first and second glance, appears imposed from without.5 This is not so only in those formal and often overwhelming labyrinths of rule and regulation which the sociologist designates as institutions, but even in the most casual and fleeting of social happen-stances, what Goffman describes as "social gatherings."6 All the world is a stage; modern consciousness has expanded to include not only intricate Victorian productions, but happenings as well.

Curiously, and perhaps frighteningly, almost every form of human behavior is implicitly bounded by a normative order, a set of guidelines and prescriptive definitions of behaviors which are appropriate and which if, and only if, observed will produce the event in which the actors want to participate.7 Further, the normative order is contained within a meta-normative order, suggesting a sort of semi-conscious social epistemology that is commonly shared, what we might refer to, paraphrasing Berger, as "cognitive conformity."8 Finally, there is the culturally bound existential world of birth and death.9 The nesting quality of these concentric systems poses certain problems; at the very least they are not symmetrical.10

However difficult the full description of this system may be, the immediate significance of the meta-normative order is for our purposes twofold: 1) it gives us a sociological basket in which to collect the rules of assembly of social reality, and 2) it provides a categorical indication of the fact that, as well as the degree to which, some normative order, of necessity, covers all events, even if it is only the normative order of contingent expectancies. Otherwise, for example, there would be no way of talking about the occurrence of surprise. The ubiquitous characteristic of the normative order—or more correctly, orders—thus tells us that we can and should expect to encounter rules for assembling every social situation, occasion, or gathering. Of perhaps even greater interest is the indication that there is also in operation another set of rules—a meta-system—which informs the actors that there is to be a particular type of occasion occurring and which enables them to determine what the appropriate rules are to be.11

Here I would like to focus on a particular type of social occasion and explore the implications of these remarks in specific application. This is the "therapeutic relationship" as it occurs in dyadic psychotherapy and in those small group interaction systems variously labeled as encounter, sensitivity, or training groups. In this discussion I will limit the relationships to those which voluntarily occur between functionally adequate persons who are not "mentally ill"—that is, to persons who are perceived and accepted as being within the range of the normal and who exhibit behaviors within that range, however it may be culturally and situationally defined.

The basic point I wish to make is that these events are more sociological than they are psychological—they are, in fact, essentially sociological. As such, they are a sociologically fertile area of study, rich both in their amenability to explanation in the vocabularies of conceptual sociology and in their potential for producing sociologically relevant knowledge.

If we approach these therapeutic, essentially reconstitutive situations at the behavioral level, unencumbered by an older psychologistic vocabulary, it becomes immediately apparent that they are eminently sociological phenomena. Consider, for example, the sine qua none of Freudian analysis: transference. In sociological terms, this is a role relationship in which one individual (the client) imposes upon another individual (the therapist)—who is behaving in ways conducive to such imposition—a role which in "reality" (i.e., external to the therapeutic relationship) the second individual does not have and which (in terms of that extra-therapeutic reality) may be totally inaccurate, inappropriate, or even impossible. The therapeutic quality—and promise—of this relationship inheres, at least initially, in this very discrepancy—in the ways in which the client is acting and reacting toward the therapist in terms of role behaviors which in "objective" ways are neither called for nor real. What is appropriate and inappropriate within the therapeutic setting must be learned by the client, especially since some behaviors most inappropriate outside the therapeutic world are most appropriate within it. In fact, the client is often encouraged in such behaviors to better effect diagnosis and treatment.

Stated another way, the therapist must introduce the client to enough of the meta-normative order peculiar to this genus of social situation to facilitate his or her ability and opportunity to implement it within the well-defined institutionalized limits of "the fifty-minute hour." A primary method of teaching this information is to present the patient with a seemingly, and hopefully disarmingly neutral, role-other. This "presentation of self" by the therapist is often inscrutable and verbally unexplained, although obviously not completely misunderstood.12 The therapist deliberately allows the client to remain in technical ignorance of the process he or she is participating in and the social event that he or she is unwittingly conspiring with the therapist to produce. That is, common-sense knowledge about psychotherapy notwithstanding, the meta-normative order is relatively uncommunicated and unknown to the client, leaving the client with an "empty occasion" into which he or she will "transfer" the kinds of assumptions, projections, and resulting behaviors that are presumed to have been expressed in other social situations (this according to the meta-normative ideology of psychotherapy). It is the apparent void of the therapist’s role that facilitates the transference; in this sense, the therapist is reminiscent of a "non-person."13 What the client is doing is "defining the situation."14 This enables the client to inform his or her own behavior by determining what expectations both he or she and the other (in this case, the therapist) should have so that conjointly with the other the client can produce the social happening which is expected and desired, even prescribed, by the client’s own internal psychological history. Initially, the therapist is substantively unreciprocal to this effort, since the therapist also is in ignorance and is attending to the information which the client is "giving off."15 In fact, the therapist is learning from the client what the therapist will endeavor to "teach back" to the client. Sociologically then, as a first rudimentary statement, we can describe the client as invoking his or her personal normative order, which may permit of erratic and idiosyncratic behaviors (viewed externally) in a situation in which the role-other (the therapist) is abiding by a more comprehensive meta-normative order.16

Yet two additional points need to be considered. First, the therapist’s role is not and cannot be neutral, in fact, since it is at least supportive and often provocative in eliciting certain kinds of behavior, i.e., the kinds of information the therapist is looking for. Second, and more important from a theoretical point of view, is the fact that this whole occasion is contained within a system which the participants are committed and bound. That is, there are permissible limits for the role of client and therapist beyond which neither can go without "breaking role" and appealing to these bounding norms. Both have agreed implicitly to produce this serial playlet, complex and difficult as it is. Obviously, then, there obtains some sort of "working consensus."17

The characteristics that have just been outlined are equally applicable to the social occasions known as sensitivity or encounter or training groups. Here, however, the meta-normative order is not as fully institutionalized in an intellectualized ideology. Further, these ideologies (of which there are many) seem to be more widely disseminated, at least in popularized (or bowdlerized) forms, among the participants, most of whom, as in therapy, are self-selected into the situation. The greater effect and control which result from whatever notions the total group membership has of "what the name of the game is"18 that they are playing is a function not only of the fact that the group membership outnumbers the leader or trainer (who is analogous to the therapist), but of the less rigid meta-normative order—those ideologically bound, implementable expectations about how the gathering should occur in order to be termed appropriate and successful—of this type of reconstitutive experience. At the same time, these gatherings are as existentially bounded as therapy dyads, perhaps even more so. The concentration on and facilitation of behaviors are the same in terms of theoretical emphasis—for example, such groups often start out with the leader abdicating any leadership in the form of situation-defining behavior, thus leaving the membership to define the situation as they will. The only difference with therapy, limiting ourselves to those persons described earlier, is that, at least hypothetically, only one member of an encounter, sensitivity, or training group is playing a meta-normatively-prescribed functional or instrumental role. The other members are enjoined, by the meta-normative order, to provide "real," i.e., appropriate occasions for individuals to respond to, thus eliminating the functional need for transference, or at least removing it from a subjectively historical context and placing it in the immediately presentational situation of the "here and now."19 Thus, given an adequate mixture of persons in the group membership—a wide enough cast of characters—the expectation is that all the "required" parts will eventually and contemporaneously be played. No one has to adopt a neutral role and everyone, often including the trainer, is encouraged and often enjoined "to be"—to express—his or her real feelings and thoughts in the momentary situation.

Like therapy, as previously indicated, this constructed reality is also bounded, bracketed off from other realities.20 Yet, again like therapy, its intent is to break down those boundaries to some extent—to develop, modify, or replace behaviors which can be adopted and transported into other "realities," other spheres of the individual’s life, principally that sphere which Schutz described as "the world of daily life which the wide-awake, grown-up man who acts in it and upon it amidst his fellow-men experiences within the natural attitude as a reality."21 However, in many of these kinds of groups, there is a more interested and more efficacious attempt to communicate and export the ideology upon which such occasions are based. There is less of a vested interest in keeping the ideology professionally restricted and exclusive. Often there is less complexity and opaqueness to the ideologies themselves, although this has created problems of another sort. One observes leaders and trainers not only wanting to be able to express themselves as fully and behave as freely as other group members, but also attempting to achieve egalitarian rank as well, often by disavowing any claim they might have to privileged status (e.g., that based on access to restricted knowledge or expertise. It may also be well to remember that given any approximation of equality in terms of power, the leader cannot match the reality-defining potency of the total group membership, at least within the confines of the group itself.

As much as both of these two types of therapeutic sociological situations are intended to be reconstructively self-revealing, they remain heavily bounded—both contained and constrained by social realities (or even fictions) which, apparently, all of us are either unable or loath to fail to construct. Even in the most supportive, permissive, and intimate of situations, we seem to be busy maintaining ourselves as persons in some minimal sense. Once assembled through the arduous and still little understood process of socialization, we seem to be able to disassemble ourselves only so far, and no farther.22

While our sociological terminology has run out as this point (perhaps happily), it remains a critical level of investigation and understanding for sociologists. Because of their informality and the absence of an absolutely binding ideology, the social occasions of encounter, sensitivity, and training groups may provide the strategic sites at which the limits of personal disassembly may be available for study.

What would result would be an "intra-ethnology" of person-construction. This can be defined as the attempt to answer the question "What behaviors are required on the part of individuals in order to maintain themselves as "persons-in-general?" Stated another way, by what behaviors are we able to—and do in fact—distinguish between whatever we mean by "child"—a yet-to-be-person—and whatever we mean by "adult"—a fully functioning person—independent of chronological and physiological data such as size, proportionality, voice pitch, secondary sexual characteristics, etc.?

A subsequent and more practical question should follow: In order to effectively complete some behaviors, i.e., to have them accepted by others as appropriate and unquestioned, is more effort required to maintain oneself as a person, and, if so, what kinds of efforts seem required, practiced, and successful? Another way of raising this latter question is, would a more rigorous form of person-maintenance help counteract skeptical responses to the behavioral expression of a questionable role?23 Note that the role of "person-in-general" is a generic one, that of a fully-functioning, adult person, what Schutz calls "the wide-awake, grown-up man in daily life."24 What these role requirements are, and that they even existed were not apparent until such researchers as Goffman and Garfinkel demonstrated their absence in individuals who had met chronological and physical requisites for full-person status but who no longer or never had demonstrated certain social requisites.

We move here very close to a dangerously disequilibrating "Catch-22"-like world in that there seems to be a final and at least culturally pervasive normative order that must be implicitly unquestioned and explicitly obeyed and into which there is no readmission once one withdraws.25 The paramount rule of being a fully-functioning adult person may well be that one cannot behaviorally admit of any alternative without forever after being suspect—undeserving of unqualified social trust at an ontological level—in a way which disqualifies one from really being a fully-functioning person. This lack of social trust which would attach to a person exhibiting such behavior might not come so much from an insidious anxiety regarding the unpredictability or recurrence of violations of the normative order, but from a tacit understanding that to reaccept such a "deviant" as a fully-functioning adult person would be to reduce to relativity what must be retained as a final and inviolate parameter of social reality.

The significance of therapy and sensitivity or encounter or training groups here is that throughout the necessarily intricate normative and meta-normative orders that apply, there is an overt attempt to strip away the social roles to discover the role of the self—or of the person—and its elaborations. This requires a mutual effort, but it necessarily involves an implicit recognition of absolute limits beyond which transgression is dangerous, likely unethical, and ultimately, perhaps, existentially immoral.

* Presented at the annual Alpha Kappa Delta Sociological Research Symposium, Richmond, Virginia, April 21-22, 1972, and subsequently published in the Proceedings of the Alpha Kappa Delta Research Symposium, 1972.


1 Peter Berger, Invitation to Sociology.  Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1963, p. 37.

2 Erving Goffman, Asylums.  Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1961.

3 Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology.  Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, 1967.

4 A recent illustration of this approach is a suggested exercise--the attempt to purchase one of each of two different pairs of shoes--appearing in a workbook that accompanies an introductory sociology text: Inge Powell Bell & Marilyn Lester, Involvement in Society Today. Del Mar, California: CRM Books, 1971, pp 39-41.

5 This view is central to the Durkheimian tradition in which social facts are characterized by externality and constraint.  Much of Berger's writing extends and qualifies this tradition, especially Behavior in Public Places, pp. 66-121.

6 Erving Goffman, Behavior in Public Places.  Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1963, pp. 13-30

7 Aaron Cicourel, Method and Measurement in Sociology.  New York: The Free Press, 1964, pp. 203-209; Alfred Schutz, Collected Papers, Vol. I.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1967, pp. 27-34

8 Peter Berger, A Rumor of Angels.  Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1970, pp. 1-27

9 Schutz, op. cit., p. 228

10 Ibid., pp. 134-135, 207-259

11 The more general activity of which this may be a specific type is brilliantly articulated by Michael Polanyi, The Tacit Dimension, Garden City: New York, Anchor Books, pp. 66-121.  Also see Stanford M. Lyman and Marvin B. Scott, A Sociology of the Absurd, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970, p. 9; Jack Douglas, Deviance and Respectability, New York: Basic Books, 1970, pp. 16-17; Herbert Blumer, "Sociological Implications of the Thought of George Herbert Mead," American Journal of Sociology 71 (March) 1966, pp. 535-545.  

12 Peter Berger, "Towards a Sociological Understanding of Psychoanalysis."  Social Research 32 (Spring), 1965, pp. 26-41

13 Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.  Garden City, New Jersey: Anchor Books, 1959, pp. 151-153

14 Peter McHugh, Defining the Situation.  Indianapolis, Indiana: Bobbs-Merrell, 1968

15 Goffman, 1959, op. cit., pp. 1-16; Ernst G. Beier, The Silent Language of Psychotherapy.  Chicago, Illinois: Aldine, 1966

16 Alan Blum, "The Sociology of Mental Illness," in Jack Douglas (ed.) Deviance and Respectability. New York: Basic Books, 1970, pp. 51-56

17 Goffman, 1959, op. cit., pp. 9-11

18 Cicourel, op. cit., p. 204

19 It is interesting to note that a primary distinguishing feature of sensitivity training philosophy is the injunction to focus on the "here and now," a phrase which is often heard in training circles.  The compellingness of the "Here and Now" is also an essential quality of that "We relationship" which Schutz (op. cit., pp. 3-96) describes as central to sustaining the "Paramount Reality."

20 Sensitivity training practitioners often set up week-long workshops and retreats under partially isolated conditions which they refer to as "cultural islands."  This practice resonates strikingly with Schutz's theoretical discussion of "multiple realities" (Ibid., pp. 207-259).

21 Schutz, Ibid., p. 208

22 The limiting case would seem to be some extreme form of mental illness, usually labeled schizophrenia.

23 This suggests that one strategic site for research into these questions might well be the practiced behavior of successful imposters.

24 Schutz, Ibid., p. 223

25 The practice of "outlawing"--declaring certain deviants outside the boundaries of human designation--may be the limiting case.  In literature, the Edward Everett Hale's story of "The Man without a Country" (1917) is relevant, as in law are those cases in which the U.S. Supreme Court has held that the attempted removal of American citizenship falls under the prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment" of the Eighth Amendment.