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Psyche and society. Some considerations about an interdisciplinary problem

Author: Frank Schumann


Α few years ago, almost every major magazine in the German-speaking world published a lead story per year on the subjects of burnout or depression. The debate about burnout as a high-performance disease was particularly fruitful  for the uncertainty of the middle classes during the financial and euro crisis [In The online archives of Spiegel and Focus paid paid particularly close attention to the subjects, in which much can be read about the financial markets in 2010-2011 and burnout. See http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/print/index-2011.html (19.02.2019), https://www.focus.de/magazin/archiv/jahrgang_2011/ (19.02.2019)].

This uncertainty was not only about financial matters; the model of a performance and career-oriented lifestyle also experienced some drawbacks s in those years. This has changed in the meantime. Burnout as a symptom of an overachieving meritocracy that can no longer compensate people for their efforts is rarely mentioned in public debates anymore. The difficulty to diagnose it, because it is difficult to distinguish burnout from depression and other fatigue symptoms, also plays a role here. This loss of importance of the subject is also accompanied by a more fundamental shift in public attention.

By this I mean the rise of right-wing populist political styles in Europe and America as well as issues associated with it such as migration, Islam and public safety. When it comes to psychological symptoms of social life, it is now more obvious - according to the current mainstream debate- to think of the psychological peculiarities of right-wing populist politicians or their followers. A great example in this context is Donald Trump, whose obvious narcissistic behavior invites a variety of diagnostic assessments [These are mainly found in the US public. In the German-speaking world these diagnoses were discussed  by Hans-Jürgen Wirth, cf. https://www.tagesschau.de/multimedia/video/video-249271.html (19.02.2019)]. Even his followers beg  the question of whether their motivation can be better explained by psychological rather than political analysis. After all, the orchestrations of right-wing populist politicians as well as the utterances of their followers elude established political patterns of interpretation - and frequently rational explanations.

What’s interesting about these burnout and authoritarianism debates is that they both rely on psychological considerations to explore or explain social phenomena. However, it is also interesting that these two debates are not as new as they seem. Both touch on critical neuralgic points of the modern self-understanding. Therefore, some precursors can be found in a cursory review of the 20th and 19th centuries. Moreover, both times, psychoanalysis played a role. In other words, these are two classical areas of interdisciplinary discussion in which psychoanalytic, sociological, philosophical and political science concepts are combined.

Thus, psychoanalysts and psychoanalytically social theorists, who were influenced by Marxists, probably interrogated the psychological origins of anti-democratic movements. Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm, as well as the popular theorists Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, closely examined the psychological preconditions for the success of fascist politics in the 1930s and 1940s. Their works had a lasting influence on the political and social psychological explanations of future generations. However, a similar motif can already be found in Freud’s work,  particularly in his book Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (Freud, 1921c). Freud´s attempt to elucidate the impulsive and irrational characteristics of crowds addressed a topic that had already circulated for several decades at the time. This does not just mean Le Bon and McDougall, to whom Freud explicitly refers. The question of whether and how far democratic decision-making is compatible with the development of modern "mass societies" was, for example, was already addressed by Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 (see Tocqueville, 1985).

The debate about burnout as a symptom of meritocracy also touches upon a long tradition. Jean-Jacques Rousseau already suggested that modern, urban life has a problematic, alienating effect on people (see Rousseau, 1978) - a motive that was gladly taken up again (see, for example, Simmel 1988). In this tradition, the problematic phenomena of modernity are often explained as consequences of an uprooting and individualization of people, as a reaction to the disenchantment and the loss of holistic interpretations of the world, or as a result of the technological transformation of the reality of life - in other words, as the pathological consequences of the modern world Development itself (see Honneth, 2000). In this context, for example, Carl Gustav Jung wondered why Catholics develop fewer neuroses than Protestants; He seemed to imply that a more traditional way of life, still permeated by religious dogma, was "healthier" (see Jung, 1932). The motif of exhaustion derived from the burnout debates is also linked to modernization-critical considerations, which  still appeared in discussions of neurasthenia towards the end of the 19th century (see Kury, 2013). Finally, yet importantly, Freud too linked his theory of neurosis to critical considerations of cultural development (see Freud, 1930a) and at one point seemed to even suggest a connection with social advancement (Freud, 1908d).

These remarks are intended to illustrate that both lines of discourse - that is, the questions about the psychological conditions of rational politics and the psychological consequences of modern life – are no coincidence and have been, and continue, to be examined by psychoanalytic approaches. While both are actual social developments, they are closely related to mental phenomena. Finally, psychoanalysis distinguishes itself by including social and societal aspects beyond treatment. Therefore, it is not surprising that psychoanalysts use both social scientists and psychoanalytic concepts to interpret social and political events. However, both attempts to find fruitful psychoanalytic explanations for political and social problems involve some difficulties that often limit the range of interdisciplinary approaches.

Generally speaking, the difficulties are result from the object. On the one hand, the discussion is about individual phenomena: experiences that people make in their daily lives, their individual history and how they relate to these experiences or articulate them in public. On the other hand, is the debate deals with social developments, such as the already mentioned mechanization or individualization of lifestyle: These are very general developments that make it difficult to gauge the specific impact they have on the psyche of individuals. The difficulty lies in the fact that the individual and the social psyche  bear no simple ratio.

The implications of this can be understood easily by looking at typical diagnoses - and at  the people who are diagnosing them. The treatment of burnout highlights a one-sidedness, which mainly concerns sociological contributions. These diagnoses mainly address social developments and, in most cases, especially developments of working life and the welfare state. This is not surprising, considering these are classic sociological fields of work. Therefore, the work is also valid in terms of structural changes of the social. The problem often arises when conclusions are drawn from that and applied to the individual ways of processing changes. Because, taking the consideration of social change processes into account, very little can be said about how individuals deal with the changed working conditions and how they deal with them. Sociological diagnoses, therefore, often give the impression that they merely impose a socio-structural explanation on people´s often quite individual stories of suffering, but fail to clarify the interaction between the two (see Rosa, 2011, Neckel, Wagner, 2014).

The sociological diagnoses too often remain stuck in macroscopic developments, and therefore cannot adequately grasp the psychological consequences thereof. Vice versa, assessments of psychologists are characterized by a close proximity to the individual cases that is often detrimental. This can be seen, for example, in the diagnoses of Donald Trump. Regardless of how believable remote diagnostics ultimately are, the phenomenon as such seems insufficient. The statement that Trump has narcissistic traits, and that this displayed narcissism that attracts his followers; says little about how right-wing populist movements succeed, and how they achieve such broad and enduring support. It also remains unclear why the political goals and content of right-wing movements are so well received. In other words, a political and social movement is reduced prematurely to a psychological relationship. 

In the first case, there exists something akin to a sociologism by which the individual history is understood merely as a reflection of a general social development, in the second case it is reversed, the general development is understood as the reflection of an individual dynamic - that is to say, a psychologism. However, how can we succeed in bringing both perspectives together in such a way that these biases can be avoided?

It makes sense to ask therapists to get out of their therapy rooms and for sociologists to leave the campus. Now demands for inter- or transdisciplinary research are nothing new; in a way, they underlie the just described one-sided bias. The reference to psychological findings should allow sociological approaches to make statements about psychological relationships; in return, the reception of sociological concepts seems to enable psychological explanations for social phenomena. Both times the inclusion of each other discipline should exceed the limits of their own; on both occasions, however, this tends to overstretch the respective approach – which leads to sociologism or psychologism. How difficult it is to overcome one’s own discipline, therefore, is seen by many interdisciplinary projects, which seldom offer more than the individual disciplines on their own could, due to the rather disparate specialist cultures. Instead, I would conclude by suggesting an alternative understanding of interdisciplinarity that may be more suited to clarify the issue raised by the psychological conditions of life in modern societies. It is more a reflective idea of interdisciplinarity. This aims to raise awareness within the divergent approaches to each other and to discover the other in their own work subject. In other words, sociologists should be open to the psychologically induced momentum in social interactions and their social effects. If, for example, from a sociological perspective the increased demands on people are addressed - even in the form of an intensified, condensed time - then it does not mean that social acceleration is necessarily experienced as an acceleration in people´s everyday lives and as if they equal an overrun machine on the verge of burning out. Equally, it is conceivable that accelerated social change leads to experiences of dissolution and anomaly - that is, that social acceleration expresses itself in a sense of structural loss. This would have to be clarified with a psychologically informed view of how people with frequently changing and increased demands handle them and not by analogy. Conversely, it would make sense if psychological expertise is not simply transferred to the social, but instead the social is reflected in that experience. So, Trump´s narcissism says nothing about the social and societal backgrounds of right-wing movements, but at best something, about why he - and not another person - is so successful. It therefore seems necessary to consider which ideas of the community or of the collective are mobilized by right-wing movements and which social realities correspond to them. It would clarify the question of why the social soil is so fertile for the narcissistic staging of right-wing politics.

In other words, an interdisciplinary research is necessary, but it is based on the premise that two disciplines are not only added together with their respective tendencies to one-sidedness, but that they rediscover the respective other discipline in their own research subject - and thus aspects of what they themselves are not able to explain in their own field. Thus, regarding Trump the question arises: What is the social in an apparently narcissistic catalyzed policy? And regarding burnout: How do people experience social (mis-) developments?

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- Freud, S. (1921c). Massenpsychologie und Ich-Analyse. GW XIII, 71-161.
- Freud, S. (1930a). Das Unbehagen in der Kultur. GW XIV, 419-505.
- Jung, C. G (1932). Die Beziehung der Psychotherapie zur Seelsorge. Zürich: Rascher und Cie.
- Honneth, A. (2000). Pathologien des Sozialen. Tradition und Aktualität der Sozialphilosophie. In A. Honneth (Hrsg.), Das Andere der Gerechtigkeit. Aufsätze zur praktischen Philosophie (S. 11-69). Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp.
- Kury, P. (2013). Von der Neurasthenie zum Burnout. Eine kurze Geschichte von Belastung und Anpassung. In S. Neckel, G. Wagner (Hrsg.), Leistung und Erschöpfung. Burnout in der Wettbewerbsgesellschaft (S. 107-127). Berlin: Suhrkamp.
- Neckel, S., Wagner, G. (2014). Burnout. Soziales Leiden an Wachstum und Wettbewerb. WSI-Mitteilungen, 67 (7), 536-542.
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- Tocqueville, A. d. (1985). Über die Demokratie in Amerika. Ditzingen: Reclam.
- Rousseau, J.-J. (1978). Abhandlung über den Ursprung und die Grundlagen der Ungleichheit unter den Menschen. In K. Weigand (Hrsg.), Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Schriften zur Kulturkritik (S. 77–267). Hamburg: Meiner.
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