The psyCommoner: Nature vs Civilization

August 9, 2016 § Leave a comment



Guest post by Thomas Allan

Around this time of year it’s common to see newspaper and magazine articles featuring the wild: wild swimming, wild gardens, wild food, wild camping, wild running, hidden beaches and lost lanes.

These representations of a variety of human activities in the wild are usually set against a backdrop of rare spaces of natural beauty. Ancient woodlands with spectacular spreads of bluebells, beautiful lakes and wooded dingles cut into hills, meadows where Owls and Kestrels hunt. These exuberant and fertile landscapes awaken our senses, helping us get back in touch with our selves, with nature and leave the real world behind.

In fact, according to Community Psychologist and researcher Carl Walker, much research demonstrates the curative impact of green and waterside environments on mood, where regular use of the natural environment reduces the risk of mental ill health.

‘Nature’, though, is often represented as much by what it is not, as by what it is. It is places of natural beauty: countryside and rivers, mountains and creeks. It is not production or social organization: towns, roads, cars, offices, airports or factories. One, the profane, implies ‘contemporary sources of unfreedom’; mundane individual and societal problems. The other, the sacred, carries ‘a promising but unspecified sense of an alternative’. Manufactured objects, landscapes and the negotiation of social relations are not part of ‘nature’.

Yet, to a large extent, an individual’s capacity to access ‘nature’ depends on a range of contingencies embedded in everyday social and economic life. You’ll need physical health, mobility, cognition and psychosocial wellbeing (or otherwise access to social support). You’ll need communication, and affordable transportation such as a car, bike or public transport. You’ll need entitlement to time (paid or unpaid leave), money, food, clothes and equipment. You’ll probably want somewhere to stay and perhaps some company.

In our familiar notions of work, production and value, ‘nature’ is produced and repackaged as ‘leisure’ or ‘recreation’: apparently free time spent away from our work organizations, career building, formal education and domestic households. Yet this is a separation that ignores the economic and social forces which capture free time from an individual and sell it back to them as a commodity. Today, zero hours contracts, endless workplace restructures, reduced wages and welfare, anxieties, insecurity and a crisis in public health have left many without the means to traverse ‘real life’ into ‘nature’.

And if you are serious about leaving it all behind? You will need to consider other issues of accessing nature. According to an article in the Guardian, the UK has 60m acres of land; two thirds of which is privately owned by 0.36 percent of the population. The project of living within ‘nature’ is subject to the rules and exclusions of private or state land ownership and management. Historically, Simon Fairlie describes how the enclosure (privatization) of land in the UK over a number of centuries has led to extreme levels of land ownership concentration, depriving most British people of access to agricultural land.

However, many decades living afloat on the Thames in London led to author, activist and group therapist Denis Postle’s extended experience of the wild. For Postle, ‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’: “Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.”

Here, nature and civilization are two inseparable spheres in symbiotic relationship. One may be described as the natural environment, not altered by human intervention. The other as what Castree (2001) and colleagues have termed ‘social nature’, referring to how societies physically re-constitute nature ‘intentionally and unintentionally’ to the point it becomes institutionalised and ‘internalised into social processes’.

The natural environment: climate, weather and natural resources, affects social nature: human survival and economic activity. The ‘economy’, originally conceived of as household management and by extension the commons, relies on nature in the form of resource extraction to produce commodities that we buy and sell in private markets for profit or use; while traditionally the state has harnessed ‘nature’ through investing in infrastructure such as roads, bridges, airports, railways, buildings and power stations to facilitate expansion, employment and ever more production and accumulation (market growth).

Different forms of production and social organization for survival are not unique to the modern era. But the endless drive for strategies of growth in the era of industrialization has fundamentally transformed human geography such as through extensive urbanization and agricultural land conversion, disturbing the ‘metabolic interaction’ between humans and the earth. One ‘nature’ has modified, displaced or diminished the ‘other’.

More reflections from The psyCommoner to follow…

‘Nature’ v ‘Civilisation’ End-Of-Life Notice

April 21, 2016 § 4 Comments


The psyCommons proposal about how around three quarters of the UK population survive and flourish without psyprofessions help and the consequences of this, appears to be unchallenged. A wider political context for psyCommons recently emerged that may account for some of the distress from which the remaining 25% suffer.


Several decades of living afloat on the Thames in London included extended experience of the Thames as a wilderness. Intimate appreciation of the dynamics of this wilderness led to the realisation that the city surrounding it and urban civilisation in general was also a wilderness and that the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ was a major category error2. Cities, the Internet, aircraft, washbasins and supermarkets are also ‘nature’.

‘Wilderness’ serves as an integrating notion for the split between ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’.

The ‘nature’ and ‘civilisation’ category error is damaging, it leads to ‘nature’ being both idealised and abused. Supreme virtue is ascribed to ‘nature’ but this casts a shadow – the ‘civilisation’ where we live and work is neglected and its aversiveness is regarded as something to be tolerated.

While the global wilderness has civilisation and rural sectors, both are based on similar dynamics, solar energy provides a basis for food chains that are structured by predation. Rural wilderness tends to be self-regulating with surges and decline due to crises of climate, population or reproduction. In urban wildernesses predation as an action and a value has become detached from foodchains, one result is an ideological commitment to economic growth independent of foodchains. Predation freed from foodchains congeals into a belief that that global economic growth is ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’ and also that domination is ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’.

This free predation leads to gross social inequality and resource depletion. Related beliefs for example: that technocratic management is appropriate for wilderness, are fed and sustained by industrial strength trance inductions which blind us to, and marginalise, economic and personal alternatives.

Perhaps the most prominent and damaging of the trance inductions is that capital accumulation is ‘natural’ and ‘inevitable’. Capital accumulation driven by predation detached from foodchains, functions as a cancer driving uncontrolled growth independent of the health of the host and which threatens to kill the host.

Responses to this perspective on the global wilderness include the active development and support of existing social, interpersonal and personal immune systems.  Their task is to encourage social practice and institutions that eliminate interpersonal and inter-institutional dominance and predation, and that prioritise ‘use value’ rather than ‘exchange value’. And parallel with this the immune system would actively puncture trance inductions that idealise the ‘nature’/’civilisation’ split; which celebrate free predation and unlimited growth, while insisting there are no alternatives.

Look out for more on how this supports and extends the psyCommons.

1 End-of-Life a term used with respect to a product [] indicating that the product is in the end of its useful life Wikipedia

2 Category Error A category error, is a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category. Wikipedia



Normal service is about to resume

January 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

Practical householding and other, creative demands, have distracted my attention from psyCommons for a while.

Happily this hasn’t been so for everyone.

Thomas Allan, who has been developing the psyCommons notion with enthusiasm posts  these extracts from a recent conversation.

‘Reaching Sustainable Agreements in Negotiations on Commons’


Brigitte Kratzwald (BK), Thomas Allan (TA), Jed Walls (JW) and Nora Masch (NM) discuss the psyCommons at Leuphana University Online Course “The Psychology of Negotiations –”.

TA: With a background working with people with intellectual disabilities, I’m concerned about the ability of government bureaucracies, markets or some combination of the two to adequately respond to and meet individual and community need. I’m also concerned with issues of social marginality in negotiations. How can we support people who have few resources and little control over their lives to engage? How can we prevent people being excluded from both the processes and outcomes of negotiations? My experience is that negotiations still overwhelmingly happen as a top-down approach which professionals initiate and retain primary control over the processes of planning and decision making. Community members are subsequently invited to join a consultation which is typically a less democratic process as decisions have often already been made by ‘experts’. UK Social Care Researcher Dr Sarah Carr explains:

“Research concerning the involvement of people with learning difficulties indicates that effective interaction within a consultation can only happen when there is an attempt to redress the power balance between managers and policy makers and people with learning difficulties. It is also emphasised that professionals still exercise considerable power over disabled people’s lives. Each profession assumes a language, a set of values and practices that privileges the practitioner. Hitherto, a clear division between the expert provider and lay user has reinforced their enhanced status.”

Secondly, the approach taken on The Psychology of Negotiations is that negotiations on commons happen locally at the level of social networks, groups, small organizations and so on. But marginalization can occur at individual, community, professional and structural levels as well. Interpersonal relationships are ‘nested’ within broader social structures and influenced by issues around ownership and control of land and organizations, public policy, welfare and legal structures, and inequality of income and other resources. This in turn can affect cognition, perceptions, behaviours and psychological processes at the individual level, as explained in influential books such as ‘The Spirit Level’. So I’m also conscious that negotiations are human experiences with human connections and emotion as well as instrumental, material benefits and opportunities.

So is it possible to integrate the idea of the psyCommons (psychological commons) into The Psychology of Negotiations? The psyCommons is explained by Denis Postle on the P2P Foundation as follows: The basis of the proposition of a ‘psychological commons’ is that everyone develops a store of knowledge about all of the key elements that could be called ‘psychological’ – their own and others motivations, recognition of patterned behaviours, how they and others make decisions, and so on. This flux of myriad understandings, insights and expectations forms a resource, a commons – a psychological commons that we are free to tap into and add to. And on occasion to challenge – that’s to say, as with any commons, there are issues of governance.

BK: As far as I understand it psyCommons reminds me of social critic Ivan Illich’s “Entmündigung durch Experten”. I’m not quite sure whether it is “The Age of Disabling Professions” in English, but I think so.

But perhaps we should not have a nostalgic look to the past. In the past many people didn’t have access to psychological support; some didn’t understand their own needs nor learn to express them and to communicate with each other in an adequate way. Many people were not even considered to have their ‘own’ needs, but had to submit to the needs of others and their individuality was broken systematically. Women, children, older people and sick people were mistreated and suppressed. So for some these new psychological professions brought real improvement.

But it’s true that in the last 50 years or so there was a huge emphasis on psychological issues in our societies. A process Michel Foucault called “biopolitics”: how politics aims on the very subjectivity of individuals trying to fit them into the system’s logic. At the same time individuals have become ever more isolated from each other.

The consequences are outlined very well by Denis Postle. Different modes of behaviour or dispositions are turned into “diseases” that require treatment; each problem has its own professional expert and solving problems without experts becomes suspicious. People become dependent on experts and lose the ability to solve problems themselves.

But there is a positive aspect too. In days gone by a child may have been considered to be lazy or not very clever if they couldn’t follow the curriculum at school. Today there are a lot of special programs [and practitioners] to support and encourage children with different disabilities that were not even known some 20 years ago. Or, for example, if you tell your boss you are tired and you need a day off, they may say if you can’t meet the required performance you should look for another job. But if a medical professional states that you suffer from burnout or have a certain condition in need of special support you’ll find understanding and sympathy everywhere – oh, take any time you need to recover!

Also, I think in a time where things change so rapidly and traditional relations and experiences are not working for you, counselling and coaching might be very helpful. The most important thing, I suppose, is whether the ‘experts’ prescribe what is best for you or they help you to find out yourself what is best for you.

I’m not sure how to integrate the topic of the psyCommons into the psychology of negotiations, but I’m curious to find out. Probably in negotiations with ‘shared power’ which value ‘ordinary wisdom’ negotiations are more likely to be successful; but, on the other hand, we know that facilitators can be very helpful in commons negotiations. If the psyCommons can help people recognize their needs, resources and how to match them, a psyCommons could be an additional outcome of a commons negotiation?

NM: Denis Postle broadens the perspective of commons to psychological resources as well. The idea of common sense knowledge and knowledge we gather in everyday interaction with others as commons is interesting. Understanding the world around us is a soft skill crucial for personal and professional development. Postle gives this example:

“A mother and grandmother are walking home with young grandson who is riding his bike. At a pedestrian crossing he appears to be ignoring a bus that is approaching. His mother shouts at him very loudly. He is very upset by this – An hour later the grandson is still very tearful because his mother had been so angry and had shouted at him. His grandmother says – listen, your mother wasn’t angry, she was afraid, she thought you were in danger. Hearing this, the grandson’s distress evaporates.”

I recall that Eric Berne [creator of Transactional Analysis] used a similar example for the common sense of knowledge. He argued that young children are like aliens. They are not “stupid”; they just don’t know the rules yet. If we experience an irritating or frightening situation we can take a step back and view what happened from a distance. Children often cannot distance themselves from their direct (emotional) experience. This leads to problems with understanding and community, because in many situations there is no grandmother to translate the child’s experience. He might get the idea that if he is happy and plays and runs his mother doesn’t like him the way he is. This misunderstanding can lead to greater problems in the child’s behaviour if he understands different situations this way.

For me this creates new questions. Can this knowledge be negotiated? How can one negotiate in their community to lay a good basis for learning and developing?

TA: Brigitte, I really like the link to Foucault and how you say ‘politics aims on the very subjectivity of individuals trying to fit them into the system’s logic’. I tend to see psyCommons as important to both process and outcome of negotiations. The description of the psyCommons by David Bollier is useful here: “..the realm of the informal, the customary and the local – the social spaces in our lives that are largely exempt from bureaucratic or legal control, the spaces where people can negotiate their own shared understandings of intersubjective reality..”. The intersubjective experience is empathic experience; seeing things from another person’s perspective, which is very important in, say, conflict resolution. Conflict resolution is an important issue in negotiations and emotions play a central role in this. For example, negative emotions may cause conflict to escalate and break down, while positive emotions can facilitate the reaching of an agreement. Negotiating these social spaces is an important aspect of negotiations on commons.

Norah, I see this knowledge as socially constructed: knowledge created through social interaction in everyday contexts. Can knowledge be negotiated in the way that rules are put in place by parents for their children? For example, thoughts, feelings, attitudes and behavioural patterns based on lessons learnt from parents and other ‘parental’ or authoritarian sources. Many might accept negotiating knowledge based on empathic concern for learning and safety, but rule making can also have a negative effect where rules are insisted upon restricting the natural inquisitiveness of the child to grow and flourish, and where adults don’t question the rationale or ethical basis of this knowledge. This can transmit prejudicial views to children regarding the ‘usefulness’ and value to society of people with disability or other disadvantages. I think Transactional Analysis has useful techniques to uncover and understand these dynamics.

NM: A very important part of this question is personal growth and change, and psyCommons are very important for that.

What about the idea of psyCommons? What do others think about the concept and can you think of examples or relevant aspects to this concept?

JW: PsyCommons seems to detail the psychological landscape of cultures in a given environment. If I’m correct in this (and the rest of my comment hinges on that idea being correct) then it is a comment on the makeup of common sense, social representation, and media psychology as it affects cognition. Lots of good authors to explore in that world: Moscovici, Kurt Lewin, Lippman, for starters.

TA: Yes, those are useful connections. Negotiations are not limited to material resources but also cultural meanings. As I understand it, the psyCommons challenges dominant cultural narratives and media representations of mental distress (the ‘dangerous mental patient’) and the stereotyping and stigmatization that comes with this.


Meeting and Greeting… the Psychosocial Field

June 10, 2015 § Leave a comment

First published in Therapy Futures – Obstacles and Opportunities


The core elements of the psyCommons proposal are rapport, the quality of felt contact with others, chat, and learning from experience. This inevitably tentative handle on the human condition accounts reasonably well for our capacity to survive, recover and even flourish as a persons. And yet…

And yet… rapport can dry up, chat can oppress, and experience can teach us to hide.

What we bring to the world of work and living together can be facing the same way as our intentions but sometimes we face west when we intend to move east. And the best of intentions can be in collision with the unforgiving intransigence of time, capital and other people.

Other people. People also with intentions and beliefs, and likes and dislikes. When we sit in a room with a group of other people seeking to sharpen the focus on a task, perhaps a commoning task, what helps and what hinders agreement? Or if it is more relevant, creative destruction?

There is no single or simple answer. Complexity unfolds in both familiar and unexpected ways, can we shake out a few ingredients that go into the group mix? This is what the two images below propose. They present two takes on a psychosocial field.

After we meet and greet, when an event begins, whether it is commoning or a papal enclave or a G7 summit, as we come to order, an instance of the psychosocial field flows out of the ingredients we each bring with us. Each person at the meeting brings with them some version of the basic ingredients. After we turn up the heat in the groupwork and bake ourselves afresh, does the meeting have the aroma of freshly baked bread? If not, why not?

Let your intuition loose on the two versions of the psychosocial field below and see what you find.



The Commons – a new European concept? Inaugural meeting of the European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup.

May 31, 2015 § 2 Comments


As we gathered for it, this European Parliament Common Goods Intergroup meeting, promised to be intriguing… was the Parliament about to embrace the commons as a template for a more participatory politics?

It was indeed a political meeting, with the banners of the four parties who had come together in support of it prominent behind the podium, a coalition that, as Sophie Bloemen details in her excellent account of the intergroup’s formation, had required the mutation (dilution?) in its title, of ‘commons’ into ‘common goods’.

Such concerns were quickly overshadowed by the mix of culture shock, optimism, contradiction and sheer linguistic struggle that Europe-wide mutuality turned out to entail. But then this is 28 nation politics and I was new to it.

Lets start with the downside and get that out of the way.ParlPanoDSC07824CC4kpxEuropean Parliament Building Brussels

Shock and awe at the huge scale of the Brussels European Parliament building and the hushed modernity of its vast interior – the Charlie Hebdo effect piled onto the Bin Laden effect meant the whole place seemed imprisoned in that other aspect of modernity, security. There were also the twin Britshocks of realising during the meeting that what I was hearing were the voices of southern Europe, Italy, Spain, Portugal and France, and that of the 50-60 participants, I was apparently the only Brit. Coupled with this was the reminder that however good the four-language interpretation was, it put a huge burden on attention, and being able to grasp what was being said – Italian man speaking in the room – English woman interpreter in the ears.

The meeting started half an hour late, which despite effective facilitation put all the speakers under pressure. And speakers there were in plenty, arrayed in one-to-many conference style. There were repeated calls for ‘the need for debate’ but debate was overwhelmingly subordinate to a series of charismatic and often vociferous presentations mostly from the podium, peppered with multiple exhortations that the commons and common goods ‘were a good idea’, ‘we must…’ ‘we need…’ ‘we have to…’ etc., etc. Lot’s of talk about commons not much apparently from commons. When I spoke to ask the other delegates ‘who we were’ and how many had direct experience of commoning, around a third of the audience put up their hands, an indicator perhaps that less preaching to the converted would have been appropriate.

This was an inaugural meeting, so uncertainty and clumsiness can be excused, however on balance the presentations had a lot to say about common goods resources, i.e. a city’s water supply and much less about commoning, often a fragile flower growing out of peer-to-peer governance, commitment and emotional competence. The meeting certainly seemed in no doubt that a wider extension of the common goods theme might be one way to shape a new and very necessary politics. As Marisa Matias the impressive Portuguese MEP who had convened the meeting said at the end of her introduction, ‘the Left is lost’.

Was this a meeting then, as it perhaps seemed, where the old left was trying to befriend a new and promising flavour of the political month? There was no coffee break and apart from casual chat before the meeting, no interaction between the assembled delegates –the old paradigm of a representative polity?

And yet… in her introductory remarks Marisa Matias outlined two agenda items, ‘how to think outside the logic of the state’ and ‘how to handle the management of the commons’, both radical contradictions of neoliberal preferences. Perhaps this Common Goods Intergroup event was a way of introducing to an old politics, news of political innovation that was proving unexpectedly and improbably successful.

Only days before, Barcelona and possibly Madrid had elected officials with a ‘commons’ agenda; and… Anne le Strat outlined the successful Eau de Paris return of the Paris water supply to municipal ownership (paralleled by at least one other commune I know of in the Ardeche); There were several references to commons rights progress in Spain, and in Italy a supreme court decision had opened constitutional protocols to commons forms of organisation, along with the adoption of ‘beni comuni’ as a legal concept. Alongside this, as Benjamin Coriat outlined, in Barcelona the recovery of the commons appeared to be afoot.

A delegate from Transform made a reminder that there was a continuing need for recovery of the many public goods had been given to exponents of capital, she also argued for the establishment of a federation of commons. Paoli Napoli from CENJ, a French judicial research centre argued convincingly in favour of questioning the validity of state monopolies as a way of discovering commons. Ricardo la Fuente a Portuguese Free Culture activist drew attention to the scale of the capture of the internet commons by Facebook and Google, US dominated vertical monopolies that threaten the integrity and freedoms of the internet. He argued that safe-guarding access to the public sphere of the internet was a vital aspect of the commons agenda.

Michel Bauwens, a long-time peer to peer exponent, spoke about the digital commons, a driver of the unprecedented social change that underlies the commons movement. Bauwens outlined three digital commons institutions, one: the huge numbers of people who are contributors to the building of open public goods such as Linux, Arduino and Wikipedia etc (not to mention the countless millions of blogs like this!); secondly: the digital enterprises that feature peer-to-peer governance and transparency, he gave as examples: Loomio, Inspiral etc.; and third: for-benefit foundations such as the P2P Foundation and many others.

Bauwens warned that digital innovation presently tends to be compromised, since to pick up the resources to expand and develop an innovation, means becoming a ‘start-up’ with the likelihood of capture by venture capital. Devising alternative ways of financing commons innovation, he seemed to be saying, will be a vital part of an emerging commons economy. Bauwens left early to talk to the mayor of Ghent about another current proposal – Assemblies of the Commons – he also mentioned generating Chambers of the Commons, mirroring, at least in the UK, the ubiquitous ‘chambers of commerce’ and lastly the need, as he put it, to develop an ‘operating system’ for the commons. All welcome news.

In conclusion: Encouraging evidence from across southern Europe that there were a variety of instances of participatory politics inspired by, or already implementing commons/common goods. Great resources: the whole meeting was streamed live and by the following morning a video of it had been posted by the EFDD group with English interpretation.

And… the meeting had a classroom format – people sitting in rows facing expert speakers. As a groupwork facilitator I long ago learned that such a format inhibits or prevents the kind of face to face (and peer to peer) cooperation and communal knowing that commoning requires. This is not a minor matter, conversations are shaped by context. If this is the only Parliamentary format for commons/common goods discussion/negotiation/interpretation, I’d be concerned that this infrastructure could inadvertently exclude the intended benefits.

And yet… perhaps too much should not be expected from a body such as the Parliament which is devoted to scrutiny and correctivity, not usually a recipe for innovation. The European Parliament is an extant political forum, it mends and bends the proposals of European institutions. Diemut Theato, an MEP I happen to have met, some years ago demonstrated this when, due to her leadership and financial perspicacity, the entire European Commission had to resign. The Parliament’s potential ability to bounce back European legislation that ignores, compromises or damages the common good is very welcome. With regard to the common good, every little helps!

Video of the meeting:
Common Goods Intergroup members: the Greens, the left group GUE, the Social Democrat party (S&D) and the EFDD (joint president Nigel Farage) and which now includes Beppe Grillo with his Cinque Stelle party.

The Common Goods Intergroup and this meeting was facilitated by Elisabetta Cangelosi and Pablo Sanchez Centellas

psyCommons videos

November 1, 2013 § Leave a comment

The psyCommons began as a flicker of intuition.

A decade of necessary resistance to the state’s attempt to capture psychotherapy and counselling in the UK masked a more important perspective – around 75% of the population have no need of ‘mental health’ services. What is it they know and do that keeps them psysavvy?

This video begins to examine and define these capacities – the ordinary wisdom and shared power of the psyCommons. If you have anything to add or subtract, let’s hear it.

The second in a series of videos about the psyCommons looks at how the basic human capacity to resolve and survive the ordinary difficulties of daily life through family, friends and local communities, is undermined by the psychological professions, along with their pharma allies.

The psyCommons and its Enclosures: Professionalized Wisdom and the Abuse of Power

A third video is a bit of a sideways step. Butterfly Therapy builds on some images I made a while back to honour the common sense capacity we have to survive, recover and flourish from many, if not all, of the challenges of the human condition.

The psyCommons and Community Psychology – Thomas Allan

August 23, 2013 § 1 Comment

Rapport is one of the basic elements of the psyCommons

As the psyCommons idea has begun to move out into the world it has set off chat about its value and context. The most recent take on the psyCommons was this article, The richness of everyday relationships in a leading UK Counselling journal, Therapy Today. A handy nudge in the right direction. David Bollier wrote a blog piece about it and so also, in German, did Silke Helfrich and in Spanish, Javier Jiménez Cuadros.

Some of the most valuable support and insight have come from Thomas Allan, and this guest blog entry by him features a collection of four reflections on the psyCommons idea, inspired by his enthusiasm for Community Psychology.


Having recently read “The Richness of Everyday Relationships”, I wanted to put my support behind the ‘shared power’ and ‘ordinary wisdom’ of the ‘psyCommons’. The article prompted me to reflect on the role of the professional in the helping professions, dominant forms of knowledge and language, and on my own values, commitment and accountability to marginalized individuals and groups in various community contexts.

The psyCommons is a name for the universe of rapport – of relationships between people – through which daily life is navigated. But in my view, the psyCommons is also a model for critical thinking and systemic wisdom.

As I read, the notion of psyenclosures became clearer: Psychiatry and Psychology – an enclosure of our ordinary wisdom and shared power? Solicitors and Barristers – an enclosure of our ability to resolve conflict? In our local community, the car garage has enclosed a monopoly market share by accumulating and sequestering expertise in fixing cars. How far does the metaphor of enclosure go? Does the Hairdresser enclose our ability to maintain our personal appearance? At what point is a community service an enclosure and at what point a shared community resource? It seems only a question of management, but it also raises questions of values and power.

An insight that struck me was the reference to the boundaries between the psyenclosures and the psyCommons; a kind of socially determined ‘mental illness’ that divides and alienates. In this context, boundaries signify inclusion or exclusion and, rather than being fixed, obvious and natural, are a human constructed limitation on what is the acceptable extent of responsibility and participation. It implies that some are able to participate in a given system, but others are not, and those who are not have been dispossessed of the reciprocal social ties and psychological supports necessary for their well-being. For me, it evoked Michel Foucault in Madness and Civilization of how society constructs diversity as deviance using ‘totalizing’ discourses that reflect the power of one group over another, where ‘psychiatry provides the grand narrative..’ (Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010).

Boundaries then, when used as a control mechanism, can also lead to social marginalization; economic and social disadvantage where individuals and communities are systematically blocked from rights, opportunities and resources (e.g. housing, employment, healthcare). It is possible to reduce what is from what is not in the medical world mainly through cause and effect relationships (Virus = Illness, Vaccine = Prevention, Treatment = Cure), but in the social world we need to contextualise in order to understand why or how something has happened. In the absence of objective certainty, the decision to boundary between social in-group and social out-group is not a scientific act of discovery but an act of power. The same kind of power is exercised by anyone who comes to control a jointly used resource where the right of others to use it is lost; a boundary or limitation has been established seen typically in the case of property rights and land ownership e.g. colonisation, enclosure of common land or corporate land grabs. In the context of the psy professions, Community Psychologists Carolyn Kagan and Mark Burton (2010) refer to this deeply problematic, simplistic and reductionist process as the ‘ideological definition of one’s identity in the interests of dominant groups’:


I find much in common in the psyCommons with Community Psychology (CP), a sub discipline of Psychology that seeks to understand people in context with communities and the wider society. It’s a values based approach that draws especially (but not exclusively) from constructivist and transformative paradigms. There are many practical applications and interventions but in brief CP has an ecological theme (the fit between people and their environment), stresses the importance of cultural relativity and diversity so that people are not judged by one single standard or value, and a focus on social change ‘towards a maximally equitable distribution of psychological as well as material resources’ (Rappaport 1977:3). A very useful quote by Community Psychologist Ed Trickett appears to link this approach to the psyCommons concept: “Human activity is not situated within a social vacuum; it is situated within a socio-historical and cultural context of meanings and relationships” (Trickett 1996; Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010). CP also promotes principles such as ‘Sense of Community’ and ‘Social Capital’, both of which I would suggest are principles shared by the psyCommons:

Sense of Community: Community Psychologist Seymour Sarason described it as ‘the sense that there is a network of and structure of relationships that strengthens rather than dilutes feelings of loneliness; the sense that one belongs in and is meaningfully part of a larger collectivity’ (Sarason 1988:41)

Social Capital: Speaks of the potential of communities to improve the well-being of their members through the synergy of associations, mutual trust, sense of community and collective action (Hooghe, 2003; McKenzie & Harpham 2006).

CP makes visible the dominant cultural narrative of ‘blaming the victim’: “What typically seems to happen is that the situation of marginalized persons is portrayed as result of their own characteristics. What is essentially a social and historical phenomenon is presented as a biological or an intra-psychic event” (Kagan & Burton 2010). Linking this to the psyenclosures, this creates demand for experts who are employed to define the reality of individuals by reducing their personal experiences to a set of pathologies with technical names and treatments.

According to this view, the existing social reality internalizes the ideological narrative (such as the stereotyping of the mentally ill or indeed the unemployed, elderly or the disabled – consider the TV comedy ‘Little Britain’ whose basis for humour was a set of sketches based entirely around poking fun at the victims of this process of marginalization) and ‘reality’ is then seen as a natural rather than socially determined state of affairs. Kagan and Burton’s view is that “psychology has often colluded with ideologies that blame the victim by offering endogenous ‘causes’ of the situations in which oppressed people find themselves”.

But by drawing from the value of holism and using an ecological metaphor, CP provides an effective antidote to medical model reductionism. An example of this is understanding mental illness not only at the level of individual characteristics, but as relating to other factors such as unemployment and debt, lack of social support networks or discrimination. This perspective provides a different lens through which to understand reality and implies that changes in human behaviour are possible when boundaries of the social and organisational environment can be changed. As the network of shared power, rapport and relationship between individuals in current and historical system dynamics, this theoretical approach shares a common principle with the psyCommons.

Social Ecological Model: pays explicit attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations. This perspective emphasizes the multiple dimensions (example: physical environment, social and cultural environment, personal attributes), multiple levels (example: individuals, groups, organizations), and complexity of human situations (example: History: cumulative impact of events over time?)


What can be done in practice? Well, this needs further exploration, but by asking different questions; questions that prompt critical reflection rather than the questions that propose there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer. And rather than critique, as intriguing as it is, what would be useful is critical thinking in practice, prompting people to reflect on questions such as those proposed by Flyvbjerg (2001) ‘Where are we going?’ ‘Is this direction desirable?’ ‘Who gains and who loses?’ ‘By which mechanism of power?’, thus, we are now concerned with ‘how values and power play out in social change processes in various contexts’ (Prilleltensky & Nelson 2010).

I would also emphasise bringing a sense of shared history such as that of the Commons to the foreground. Smith (1999) states “to hold an alternative history is to hold alternative knowledge. The [learning to be had from] access to alternative knowledge is that they can form the basis of alternative ways of doing things.” I think developing learning towards a critical understanding of dominant cultural narratives, and developing alternative forms of knowledge alongside new structures of governance and processes of civic accountability is crucial. In particular, the work cooperative: “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise”(ICA), which explicitly embodies the values of self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity and solidarity, is particularly suited to meet these objectives as an alternative to the dominant bureaucratic organisation.


Other areas for exploration that came to mind when reading “The Richness of Everyday Relationships”:

Empathy: the need to reconnect to others through thought, feeling, listening, talking, deed, gesture, planning and action.

In an economics of enclosure, the psyCommons are fragments: fragments of thoughts, fragments of ideas, fragments of feeling, fragments of communications, fragments of understanding, fragments of the whole.

Empathy is a vital connecting quality enabling those who empathise to understand what they have in common as opposed to emphasising differences. It provides understanding of a diverse range of experience and it is this diversity that makes up the picture of the whole. Moreover, listening to the stories of others can make them real for those who care enough to listen, validate their experiences, help guide people towards their own solutions and empower people to re-claim their history.

Culture: Culture = Commons, Enclosures = Control of Culture?

Culture can be defined as ‘the knowledge, language, values, customs and material objects that are passed from person to person and from one generation to the next in a human group or society..’

The Commons is about culture and cultural change. What is needed is the reclaiming of culture, both economic and psychological, from an oppressive norm or societal status quo; e.g. enclosure, (monopoly) capital.

Discourse: Discourse Analysis is a useful way of theorizing culture, and “social processes operating in contested terrains, in which different voices become hegemonic” (Bratton 2010).

Metaphor: The importance of using metaphor to link social constructs to concrete things. “Metaphors reveal alternative ways of thinking about the origin and nature or organizing, its processes and the constructs that form its ontological roots” (Bratton 2010). Thus, using the enclosures as a metaphor, an historical antecedent and a current reality, in this sense, provides an alternative lens through which to understand reality (ontology).

Aristotle: ‘Midway between the unintelligible and the commonplace it is Metaphor that produces the most knowledge’

Organisation: Organisations and organizing play a central role to both the health of the psyCommons and the process of enclosure. The dominant metaphor as applied to organisations is overwhelmingly the machine metaphor and fits the objectives of the bureaucratic organisational form: ‘organisations were viewed as the primary vehicle through which lives were rationalised, planned, articulated, scientized, made more efficient, orderly and managed by experts’ (Bratton 2010).


Bratton, J. 2010 Work and Organizational Behaviour

Carter, P. & Jackson, N. Re-thinking Organizational Behaviour: A Poststructuralist Framework

Flyvbjerg, B. 2001 Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and how it can succeed Again

Parkhurst, J. The Social Side of Health (Blog)

Prilleltensky, I. & Nelson, G. 2010 Community Psychology: In Pursuit of Liberation and Well-being

Rappaport, J. 1977 Community Psychology: Values, Research, & Action

Restakis, J. 2010 Humanizing the Economy: Cooperatives in the Age of Capital

Smith, L.T. 1999 Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples

Sarason, S. 1988 The Psychological Sense of Community

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