21 December 2007

Heterocultural Psychology

Filed under: Psychology, Reflections — ktismatics @ 1:46 pm

I’ve been having a hard time picturing my psychology practice, which hasn’t gotten off the ground at all since we’ve been back in the States. I’ve been pestered by the sense that there is no framing context in which my practice might make sense to a potential client. I don’t propose to help people adjust to reality, where “reality” holds no ontological primacy beyond its status as an interrelated set of social constructs that happen to have achieved cultural dominance in this particular place and time. I’m not interested in becoming a purveyor of those psychological benefits that society holds forth as most desirable: happiness, success, self-actualization, balance. As a consequence, I’m not attracted to cognitive-behavior therapy, coaching, pharmacotherapy, psychoanalysis, or any of the other paradigmatic praxes for normalizing the outlier with respect to these desired outcomes.

I probably won’t have too many people seeking out my services. The question is: who would? I’m presuming it’s somebody who’s alienated from mainstream society and its cultural norms, or at least someone who’s aware that culture might be a source of difficulty. There will always be workers who are alienated from business, Christians alienated from church, students alienated from school — but how would they ever find me? It’s unlikely that someone who’s in charge of a mainstream social setting would refer someone to me knowing in advance that I’m not committed to keeping that person “in the fold.”

So I’m thinking: what about expatriates? When we lived abroad we were acutely aware of the mismatch between ourselves and the culture in which we were embedded. At the same time we became more alienated from our home culture. Living in a foreign country makes you aware of the ways in which society shapes your own subjectivity. It’s disconcerting, but it affords an opportunity to gain perspective.

Suppose I make my services available to foreigners who are living in the States. This is a university town that attracts graduate students and faculty members who hail from other countries. Would it just exacerbate the alienation to go for therapy to an American? Maybe, but as I’ve mentioned here before, I used to counsel Vietnam vets even though I was never in the military. I had a sense that I offered something different to the vets as a representative of the mainstream cuture who still valued the differences they carried back with them from the war. Couldn’t I do the same thing with expatriates, representing the Big American Other who isn’t just trying to absorb them into the Borg? Together the client and I would occupy some hybrid heterocultural space where the unconscious influences of both the home culture and the foreign culture can be examined.

* * * *

(UPDATE, 22 DEC.) Maybe, if I have this idea of a heterocultural practice in mind as a framing context, I could gain access to other kinds of social settings. I could draw the analogy between an expatriate and someone in a church who has become aware of the way in which cultures conflict, revealing the self as a nexus of cross-cultural conflict and a subject dominated by social forces beyond one’s control or awareness. Even the cultural ideal of individual agency is largely a cultural byproduct by which the self can be unwittingly manipulated. Some churchgoers become aware of Christianity’s conflict with secular culture; others realize that the secular culture is an extension of Christian culture. Some want out of Christianity, while others want to get deeper in: both are thwarted by conflicts with the church culture.

I keep having the feeling that, just because I’m not a Christian, I shouldn’t be barred access to the Christian culture. I recognize that I’m an outsider to that culture, but I’m also an outsider to war veteran culture, or expatriate culture, or school culture, or corporate culture. In practice I position myself in heteroculture — not acultural or supercultural in some transcendent sense, but also neither an advocate nor an adversary of the cultural forces that affect the client, me, the interaction. The question is whether the pastor of a church would get it, would regard my cultural outsider status as critical to my therapeutic position vis-a-vis the client.

The question then becomes: is this framing context that emphasizes the interaction between self and culture, between subjective and intersubjective realities, sufficiently distinctive from the psychosocial space that other kinds of therapists occupy?



  1. You are going to hang out your shingle and some folks will walk in. Perhaps they have been referred, or perhaps they just saw the board, or saw your name in the yellow pages and liked the sound of it. In any case, here’s a potential client. I’d think that a lot now depends upon whether this person thinks that they should explore talking to you some more and that in turn will depend to some extent on whether some sort of mutual interest is evoked in the first meeting.

    Why not just take it from there and see what happens. Where is there a need for you to decide beforehand on a whole bunch of maybe stuff that might or might not have relevance to the real persons who walk in needing anything from a shoulder to cry on to all kinds of more complicated stuff. I daresay that each one will be a totally different type of challenge and none of them can be preordained to follow some script that you have worked out in advance.


    Comment by samlcarr — 22 December 2007 @ 11:25 am

  2. I hear your point. The problem is that I’m not sufficiently motivated to be the shoulder to cry on, or to help someone decide whether it’s okay to have an affair with the mailman, or whether the parents should ground the child for staying out all night with his friends. I’m interested in these sorts of problems, but only to the extent that they reveal an opening between the individual and some cultural phenomenon like law, expectation, power, etc. So the question is how to frame that orientation when everybody wants a quick fix. If you like, I want to establish my specialty in a glutted marketplace.

    One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is how to get referrals from churches and ministers. I don’t intend to proselytize against Christianity, but I’m also not prepared to shore up the person’s faith either. Like for school referrals: it’s not my agenda to get the kid back to being a good student who obeys his/her parents. Or business: not interested in getting the person to return to high worker productivity. So how do I frame my position to people whose job it is to reinforce the cultural standards of these institutions? Can you imagine a minister referring someone to me if they know I’m interested in exploring conscious and unconscious effects of church/Christian culture on the individual churchgoer?


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 December 2007 @ 11:40 am

  3. John,

    The type of practice your seeking I would imagine make take a while to build. It would seem to me to be narrowly focused against tradition types of psychology. How long are you able to give it financially in order to build?



    Comment by Ivan — 22 December 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  4. I’m more comfortable designing things than implementing them. Though I’ve done private practice before, I’ve always known I could never do it full-time. The same is the case now: if I can keep the wolf from the door with say 10-15 clients per week I’d be satisfied, but I’d do it only if the practice is interesting to me and keeps me motivated. I’m not a sufficiently kind-hearted fellow to do it purely for the sake of helping people. And if I could make a living writing books I’d probably quit the practice altogether.


    Comment by ktismatics — 22 December 2007 @ 2:25 pm

  5. America is the place for niche marketing. I think you too can ‘boldly go’ in directions that will frighten most other psychologists and the fact that you are openly hetero and dys will perhaps be a help. There may even be pastors out there who would find the possibilities interesting even tho it sounds like it should not compute. One thought is that there are probably seminaries around where the counseling departments may find it helpful to have someone seminary trained but religiously neutral to send angst filled and conflicted students to…


    Comment by samlcarr — 22 December 2007 @ 7:03 pm

  6. What I’d really wanted was to build a practice around a metaphor not of therapy or analysis but of creation. To what extent are we created by forces outside our control? To what extent do we create ourselves and the realities we occupy? To what extent do we cooperate or hinder the creative forces at work in us and upon us? That’s why this blog is called Ktismatics: Theory and Practice of Creation. I’ve filled several notebooks about what a ktismatic praxis would be like, but for the life of me I can’t imagine where clients would come from and how they’d find me. It seems like I’d need to find an alternate reality where the creation metaphor comes more readily to mind. But in our reality creation is coopted by other themes — religious creationism, creativity as a personality type or a way of designing new commercial products, neocons creating a reality on the ground in Iraq…


    Comment by ktismatics — 25 December 2007 @ 7:50 am

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