Dimensions of psychosocial cure and support

Over the past few decades there has been a shift away from discrete categories to more dimensional ways of thinking about identity, experiences, beliefs, feelings, and activities. The Kinsey scale for sexual orientation, various political compasses, dimensional approaches to mental health difficulties and neurodiversity are some examples. So the idea is that you are neither straight nor gay, left or right, healthy or ill. There are dimensions and features which cut across the categories and vary in intensity. Psychological therapies are often discussed in terms of categories, e.g., CBT versus psychodynamic versus ACT. It has been recognised that there is much overlap in techniques used across the various brands, and taxonomies have been developed to try to dismantle brands. However, an enduring categorical distinction is between professional and non-professional. I’m curious to know what happens if you blur the distinctions further and think instead in terms of how people converse with each other, listen, empathise, and offer practical help. The professional dimension is orthogonal to the various ways of helping, focussed more on how reliable and accountable someone is.

An open non-resignation letter from Andy Fugard

Dear Jeremy,

Stick to your principles. You’re doing the right thing. Seek support wherever you can get it – SNP and Greens; parties from my birthplace, Northern Ireland (thought I suspect not DUP!); organisations fighting for oppressed groups such as DPAC.

There is absolutely no way – no way – you can be held responsible for the EU referendum result. There is simply no argument for that. There is, on the other hand, pervasive evidence that Leave campaigners lied to voters. I don’t know what’s going on with the PLP, but I’m willing to wager once Chilcot’s findings are unleashed that it will be easier to fight much of it off.

Vague complaints about your leadership style are nonsense. The problem is a clash of values. Any complaints I have heard about Labour have been in relation to internal fighting leaking into the press (not your fault) or by people who want a sound-bite spewing authoritarian to order them around and (pretend to) magic everything better (not socialism).

Your message about the need for investment in deprived areas is key; we need to find out more about the reality of people who are struggling and plan ways to help. Show that people are listening. Show that action will be taken.

Free market capitalism drives down wages, not free movement of people. Racism and xenophobia can never be pandered to – there are core values which need to be repeated loud and proud. We are a creative, warm, welcoming, diverse society.

This is a struggle for a socialist Labour Party. The SNP victories show that socialism can win: people want an equal society where everyone does their bit, however small, to help one another. To fight against the greedy minority who use exploitation and an ever widening market to gain profit. Where everyone pays their fair share of taxes.

Keep going. Encourage people to spread the vision of a Labour Party focused passionately on social justice.

Best wishes,

Andy Fugard

Labour and UCU member

Two hundred words two years later

I’d just been to a talk and was trying to decide whether to stay for drinks. I noticed a missed call from a withheld number. Tried ringing the likely caller, but no answer. I decided to go home and wait for them to call again. Later the call came: my dad had died; it was peaceful. I booked a flight and sent emails into work. Next morning, I bought a black tie. I clearly remember arriving at the funeral, walking down the aisle, smiling at cousins and others I hadn’t seen in some time. They looked back with concern, uncertainty. I remembered that this was a funeral. The closed coffin was sitting a little in front me. There’s dad. He’s gone. I could feel the sadness slowly build. The minister described conversations he’d had with dad in the weeks leading up to his death. Dad had requested that we sing his favourite hymn. I felt my face twitching. Floods of tears came in waves. An auntie I hadn’t seen for ages came over to me; we hugged and cried and then said simultaneously, word-for-word, “It’s really good to see you again.” Those few minutes of silence and empathy comforted most.

Mental health and brains, etc. (200 words)

We each differ in terms of how much stress or trauma we can endure before we fall to pieces. If you are fortunate enough to have close friends you trust or you are wealthy, then you can endure more. Even though individuals cope to varying degrees, it does not follow that research should focus on individual characteristics. Too many studies investigate genes, brain chemicals, and personality traits and too few examine social stressors and support. Although twin studies model how much variance is “explained” by the environment, they typically do not uncover exactly what it is in the environment that matters. The very word “environment” obscures what is going on; your family are in there as well as how close you are to a park. There could be more brain imaging studies investigating the neural correlates of, say, solidarity, or receiving adequate welfare support, rather than obsessing over mindfulness training and psychoactive pills. However, it is unclear how brain studies would help improve people’s lives. Allowing that brains and genes play an important role in distress does not imply an individualistic approach. Nor does it imply that psychiatry – or indeed professional psychology – supply the most effective ways to help people.

(Thanks to the wonderful user-led group for mental health survivors and supporters, Recovery in the Bin, for inspiring this post.)

Scrap of writing: Sustainable minds and relationships

I’ve just rediscovered a scrap of a note, which sort of still makes sense – throwing it out here in case it makes sense to someone else too!

“Differential” psychology orders people from clever to stupid (Nisbett et al., 2012; Spearman, 1904). Some have argued that instead of evaluating thinking ability, psychologists should instead study what it is that people care enough to think about and do (Raven, 1988). What might this mean? Perhaps we (social science, broadly?) should study:

  1. What people could think about;
  2. What people are thinking about, i.e., what they make an effort to think about and what thoughts come effortlessly;
  3. Why people don’t think about things that they could think about;
  4. What they can do;
  5. Why they are or aren’t doing things they can/could do.

The goal would be to shift studies of ability as a score to qualitative studies of the nature of what people think, feel, and do. This leads to an interesting set of problems. Let’s define a desired-action as an action which others’ want or need either to do themselves or to delegate to others and a desired-skill is what’s required to do those actions. Even with a qualitative model of thoughts, feelings, and actions, there remains the problem that:

  1. Some desired-skills are in more scarce supply than others.
    1. As a corollary, the abilities and motivations required for scarce desired-skills can be difficult to modify at the population and individual level (high gSpearman’s “general factor in intelligence” – is thought to enable desired-skills; attempts to increase it through, e.g., “brain training” have failed);
  2. Some desired-skills are more in demand than others.
    1. Another corollary: there may be no “good reason” for demand other than that a group of people have arbitrarily come to decide that they want something;
    2. In-demand doesn’t imply “useful” (in any sense) for self or society (see also ideas around social closure and opportunity hoarding; Wright, 2009);
  3. People are rewarded for doing scarce and in-demand desired-actions.
    1. This reward is currently often seen as financial, but there are other ways people can feel rewarded.

One possible conclusion (with a bit of an arm-wave) is that social scientists should be working out how to reduce the set of things that feel scarce. Perhaps it all comes down to human motivation (Maslow, 1943):

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualisation
  6. To know and understand

Another way to think about this is that needs are part of a psychosocial ecosystem. And, much like how – if we want to stop the destruction of the planet – we have to find ways to live in a more sustainable way in terms of the material resources we use, we also – if we want to stop the destruction of our minds and relationships – have to help each other manage our needs. Think about an example of material sustainability. Do we really need to have a new plastic bag every time we go shopping? Are some of our apparent needs which rely on scarce-actions just arbitrarily so?

[And the scrap fizzled out here… Over to you…]


Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50, 370–396.

Nisbett, R. E., Aronson, J., Blair, C., Dickens, W., Flynn, J., Halpern, D. F., & Turkheimer, E. (2012). Intelligence: new findings and theoretical developments. American Psychologist, 67, 130–59. doi:10.1037/a0026699

Raven, J. (1988). Toward Measures of High-Level Competencies: A Re-examination of McClelland’s Distinction Between Needs and Values. Human Relations, 41, 281–294. doi:10.1177/001872678804100401

Spearman, C. (1904). “ General Intelligence,” Objectively Determined and Measured. The American Journal of Psychology, 15, 201–292.

Wright, E. O. (2009). Understanding Class: Towards an Integrated Analytical Approach. New Left Review, 60, 101–116.

Thick description

I love this on “thick description” (p.543):

“Thick description” of social actions promotes “thick interpretation” of these actions, which lead to “thick meaning” of the findings that resonate with readers (Ponterotto & Grieger, in press). I like to use the metaphor of a tree to explain the interconnection of these three concepts. The “thick description” constitutes the roots of the tree that nourish and feed “thick interpretation,” represented by the solid trunk of the tree, which in turn feeds the branches and leaves of the tree,which represent the “thick meaning.” It is the branches and leaves that most capture the viewers’ attention, as is the case with “thick meaning,” which grasps the attention of the reader of the study.

I think it’s fascinating how we use stories to evoke emotion, and stories are an important facet of social research, but this stuff on “thick description” reads (to me) like satire!


Ponterotto, J. G. (2006). Brief Note on the Origins, Evolution, and Meaning of the Qualitative Research Concept Thick Description. The Qualitative Report, 11, 538-549.