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 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

The psyCommons and the richness of everyday relationships

April 22, 2013 § 1 Comment

The psyCommons notion is a statement about the ordinary wisdom and shared power of our daily relations with others. it is about recognizing and valuing the myriad forms and instances of these relations as a commons resource in company with the air we breathe, the rivers, the oceans and the radio spectrum.

The psyCommons is alive and well. It is a wilderness reverberating with the ironies and contradictions, the delights and derelictions of the human condition. And, as throughout history, it is perpetually under threat due to distortion  and exploitation from enclosures, the capture and sequestering for profit or advantage of various forms of our wealth.

The psyCommons blog aims to give attention to both of these dimensions of the psyCommons it provides a space for inquiry, for work in progress. Contributions are invited.

Recommended as a way of getting to know the psCommons, is a recent talk I gave, reprinted in the April 2013 issue of Therapy Today, entitled the ‘Richness of everyday relationships’, podcast

The psyCommons – further ferment

December 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

The psyCommons is work in progress, it is not a thing, or a settled perspective, it is more an intuition that might or might not settle as relevant or useful or accurate.

Since I posted the previous material, quite a few developments have occurred that have both shaken and consolidated the notion of a psyCommons.

The School of Commoning hosted several days of commons workshops and meetings in November. I showed up at the opening meeting in the House of Commons (a curious irony there, I felt) followed by a whole day on commons healthcare, and a half a day on commons economics. James Qilligan was a key feature of all of these events; he brought a presence and perspectives on the commons that nourished the psyCommons notion, though I had very little opportunity to speak about it. His take on healthcare commons is here.

Showing up is essential, and these occasions bore fruit right away. I realized that while there was a lot of talk about how this or that possibility of a commons might be worth pursuing, I was a participant in three actual commons. The Alliance for counseling and psychotherapy is a commons, the Independent Practitioners Network is a commons and I have lately been part of an intense family healthcare commons. Ring a ding! This was exciting.

While there was no space at these events (or I didn’t take space) for the psyCommmons notion) what did bite was what I had to offer about civic accountability – a virtual product of participation in the Independent Practitioner Network commons. I had written this up as a possible offering for a commons conference in Berlin in May 2013, you can find a copy of it in the pageshere.

This cluster of commons related events and awakenings was being fed by two other initiatives: one, publication of my book Therapy Futures: Obstacles and opportunities – introducing the psyCommons, and secondly, a conference hosted by the Alliance for counselling and psychotherapy that explored future trajectories and current concerns of psychological therapies. My talk for this event is the latest iteration of the psyCommons notion, you can read it in the pages here, or listen to the podcast (not yet).

The last in this autumn cluster of public commons related events was a book launch hosted by the ever-diligent School of Commoning. Advance copies of The Wealth of the Commons: a world beyond market and state edited by David Bollier and Silke Helfrich, Levelers Press, were for sale and the evening featured David Bollier in person.

While the commons form of human relating is rooted in open grassroots participation and horizontal governance, this doesn’t mean that hierarchies of experience (and courage) are not also valuable and David Bollier, along with James Gilligan in the previous week, contributed essential international global perspectives. A necessary accompaniment to what I suspect will often necessarily be local commons initiatives.

When I finish it, I’ll try to post a review of The Wealth of the Commons, a collection of 90 contributions from a Berlin 2011 international commons conference.

How has the psyCommons notion been shaken by any of this? Principally discovering that some of the language lacked precision and I’ll end this post with a heads up call that I have picked up from David Bollier. In a chapter from the above Wealth of Commons book entitled Global enclosures in the service of empire pp. 212-3, and, see this commons definition, he makes a request for a clarification in how we talk (and think/approach) the commons. I began to understand that we must distinguish, as Eleanor Ostrom does, between ‘common pool resources’ such as air and oceans and forests, and reserve ‘commons’ for specific instances of the structuring of common pool resource usage.

I understand this now in the following way: The River Thames can be seen as a ‘common pool resource’ – suppose that users of the river – for recreation, sport, transport, fishing and education plus houseboat owners and mooring landlords – had collectively developed a mission/agreement such as ‘Love the Thames’ – this could lead to the formation of a group structured as a commons to pursue/sustain this agenda.

More on recipes for commons structures another day. ­

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The psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

A beginning

December 16, 2012 § Leave a comment

After 27 years as a psy practitioner and something like ten years as an activist in the task of confronting the micro-fascism of therapy professionalization in the UK, my attention shifted. Too much ‘against’, too much ‘they’re terrible’, not enough ‘what do we want’, not enough ‘big picture’.

And then I fell upon a big picture, or rather it fell upon me, the institutions that we had been opposing were offensive because they were fencing in, making enclosures, of a field of mutual caring, rapport and cooperation that belonged to all of us, a commons, the shared power and ordinary wisdom of the psyCommons.

I realized recently that I had written several separate introductions to the psyCommons, (see pages left) it was time to broaden the enquiry and to reach an audience outside the therapy world.

Welcome to the psyCommons blog.

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The psyCommons blog by Denis Postle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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