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Psychoanalysis, as developed by Sigmund Freud and his followers, has had a major impact upon sociological theory and modern sociology. Freud’s central discoveries—the unconscious, sexual repression, the Oedipus complex, and the like—have been deployed by sociologists to interpret and discuss the self and human subjectivity, gender and sexuality, the family and socialization, language and ideology, as well as the formation of cultural identities and forms of political domination. Notwithstanding this impact, sociology as a discipline has long had a diﬃcult, and indeed fraught, relationship with psychoanalysis. Sociologists have criticized psychoanalytical theory on the grounds of its methodology, epistemology, and ontology. Despite these criticisms, many contemporary sociologists remain engaged with, and some strongly committed to, the psychoanalytic tradition in order to conceptualize the relation between the individual and society, especially the complex, contradictory ways that human subjects acquire and reshape the ideas, values, symbols, beliefs, and emotional dispositions of the wider society. This has been particularly evident over recent decades, in which Freudian themes and psychoanalytic motifs have been used to analyze sexual politics, issues of identity and lifestyle, as well as the debate over modernity and postmodernism.
1. Freud And The Sociological Imagination
Freudian psychoanalysis shares with sociology a primary preoccupation with the fate of the individual or self in the context of social relationships and the wider cultural process. While Freud’s own writings were primarily derived from his clinical work with patients, and to that degree are at variance with the core methodologies of mainstream social science, his characterization of human personality and self-identity has clear parallels with, say, Thomas Hobbes’ theory of human nature or Karl Marx’s account of the self-seeking individual in organized capitalist society. Yet whereas both Hobbes and Marx stress the impact of social forms in the constitution of the self, Freud’s methodological starting point is the individual psyche, principally the instinctual impulses and libidinal longings that shape the human imagination. The self for Freud is radically fractured or divided, split between consciousness of identity and the repressed unconscious. The biographical trajectory of the self, according to Freud, is carried on against the backdrop of this radical otherness of the unconscious, a domain of the psyche that infuses three agencies of the psyche: id, ego, and superego. The id, lying at the root of unconscious desire, is that which cannot be symbolized yet constantly strives for expression in our daily lives, manifesting itself in dreams, day-dreams, slips of the tongue, and the like. It is a hidden area of the self which knows no reality, logic, or contradiction; the unconscious is at the root, says Freud, of how people for example can simultaneously love and hate their parents. The superego, as internal anchoring of cultural prohibition, is founded in this id. Desire, according to Freud, inﬁltrates all human intentions, ideals, and imperatives. Similarly, Freud sees parts of the ego as interwoven with the force of the id, the self arising as a product of the unconscious.
While Freud’s writings on human personality and the constitution of the self have proven of interest to sociologists, it is his account of the relations between self and society—primarily his late writings on civilization—that has most inﬂuenced the development of modern sociology. In his late writings, Freud comes to see human beings living under the destructive force of a terrifying death drive, as well as strict cultural prohibitions on sexual desire and enjoyment. These themes are set out in his magisterial books Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) and Civilization and its Discontents (1930). Civilization, writes Freud, is repressive. Society imposes severe psychic demands upon individuals to achieve cultural conformity, demands that produce intense personal misery and neurotic suﬀering. Some sociologists have interpreted this aspect of Freud’s sociology as at one with the conservative social thought of Hobbes, likening it to the theorem that cultural reproduction demands the overcoming of chaotic passion. But it is clear that this involves a radical misunderstanding of Freud’s position. The dualisms that Freud uses to analyze modern civilization (consciousness unconscious, desire repression, the pleasure principle the reality principle, Eros Thanatos) suggests a disjunction between self and world. According to Freud, ambivalence is at the core of the individual’s relation to the self, to others, and to society.
Freud’s writings on the fate of the self in contemporary culture have strongly inﬂuenced sociological debates—from Herbert Marcuse to Michel Foucault. Too much repression, Freud says, leads to intense unconscious anguish, hostility, and rage. At such a point, the intensiﬁcation of unconscious desire can release the ‘mental dams’ of sexual repression in a far-reaching way. The issue of the subjective seeds of social and political transformation are thus at the heart of Freud’s theoretical contribution to sociology and social theory.
2. The Integration Of Psychoanalysis And Sociology
With regard to social analysis and sociological theory, Freudian ideas have loomed large in the sociological conceptualization of human subjectivity and interpersonal relationships, sexuality and modern culture, as well as the mix of reason and irrationality in politics and history. There have been three key sociological developments in this connection: ﬁrst there has been several early and inﬂuential articulations of psycho-analysis and sociology developed in Europe (particularly as represented in the work of the Frankfurt school of sociology) and North America (especially in the writings of Talcott Parsons); second, structuralist and poststructuralist appropriations of psychoanalysis as refracted in sociological debate; and ﬁnally, feminist and postmodern social theory has been signiﬁcantly shaped by psychoanalysis.
2.1 Early Disciplinary Articulations
In Europe, Herbert Marcuse and Theodor Adorno— leading members of the Frankfurt school of critical theory—turned to Freud in order to reconceptualize the relation between self and society. The political motivation prompting this turn to Freud had its roots in Marcuse’s and Adorno’s attempts to conceptualize the rise of fascism, Nazism, and also the spread of bureaucratic capitalism. From Freud’s theory of the Oedipus complex, and particularly his theorem concerning the repression of infantile sexuality, Marcuse and Adorno developed the notion of ‘the authoritarian personality.’ Driven by a desire for conformity and clear rules, the authoritarian personality was viewed by Marcuse and Adorno as a character type strongly prevalent in the German middle classes, a character type who hungered for strong leadership, social order, and regulation. Not only in Nazi Germany, however, was this personality type to be found; in the advanced liberal societies of the West, tendencies towards authoritarianism and conformism are increasingly evident. Marcuse thus spoke of the emergence of ‘one-dimensional man.’
Marcuse’s radical Freudianism, in particular, won a wide audience in the 1960s—not only in social science circles, but among student activists and sexual liberationists. Arguing that the so-called ‘sexual revolution of the 1960s’ did not seriously threaten power structures of the established social order, Marcuse sought to show how demands for freedom were routinely rechanneled for commercial interests. The core of his analysis rested upon the distinction he drew between basic and surplus repression. Basic repression he deﬁned as the minimum level of psychological renunciation demanded by the social structure and cultural order. Repression that is surplus, by contrast, refers to the intensiﬁcation of self-restraint demanded by asymmetrical relations of power. Marcuse describes the ‘monogamic-patriarchal’ family, for example, as a site of surplus repression. Interestingly, while Marcuse saw signs of surplus repression increasingly everywhere in late capitalist society, he remained remarkably optimistic about the possibilities for social and cultural change.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a diﬀerent approach to the integration of psychoanalysis and sociology was fashioned. The core thematic of this approach concerned social order, socialization, and the reproduction of the social system. The grand theorist of American sociology, Talcott Parsons, employed Freudian ideas to understand how basic symbols and values are internalized by human subjects throughout the socialization process. According to Parsons’s appropriation of Freud for social theory, the structure of human personality is an outcome of an internalization of desired objects, role relationships, and ethico-cultural values that make up the broader social network. In this approach, it is the linkage of personality structure, the social system, and the cultural system that is stressed. Unlike Marcuse’s and Adorno’s emphasis on the social manipulation of the unconscious, Parsons ﬁnds a kind of pre-established harmony between the individual and society.
2.2 Structuralist And Poststructuralist Psychoanalytic Sociology
For many years the integration of psychoanalysis and social analysis developed by the Frankfurt school was commonly regarded as the most sophisticated and important work in this subﬁeld of modern sociology. From the late 1960s onwards, however, the impact of French theory, particularly structuralist and poststructuralist philosophy, became increasingly inﬂuential in terms of theorizing the social dimensions of psychoanalysis. The key ﬁgure in this connection was Freud’s French interpreter, Jacques Lacan. Seeking to rework the core concepts of psychoanalysis in the light of modern linguistics, Lacan argued that the unconscious exempliﬁes key features of language; as Lacan famously argues, ‘the unconscious is structured like a language.’ The subject or ‘I,’ according to Lacan, is not self-transparent, but is rather located in a system of signiﬁcation from which identity is fashioned. For Lacan, intersubjectivity is at the center of psychological functioning and its disturbances; distortions or pathologies at the level of the self are, says Lacan, located in ‘the discourse of the other.’
It is perhaps Lacan’s essay ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I’ (1949) that has come to exert most inﬂuence on contemporary sociological theory. In the essay, Lacan conceptualizes the small infant’s initial recognition of itself in a mirror or reﬂecting surface, and of how this generates a sense of identity. Through the mirror, says Lacan, the infant makes an imaginary identiﬁcation with its reﬂected image, an identiﬁcation which the infant reacts to with a sense of jubilation and exhilaration. But the mirror image of the self for Lacan is, in fact, a distortion; the mirror lies. The mirror stage is radically ‘imaginary,’ in Lacan’s theorization, since the consolingly uniﬁed image of selfhood which it generates is diametrically opposed to the bodily fragmentation and lack of coordination of the child. These imaginary traps and distortions are a universal and timeless feature of selforganization, and Lacan sees such illusions as directly feeding into and shaping pathologies of the self in contemporary culture.
Lacan was not especially interested in the social applications of psychoanalysis; it was one of his followers, the French Marxist political philosopher Louis Althusser, who brought Lacanian theory into the center of key debates in sociology. In his important essay ‘Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses’ (1971), Althusser analyzed ideology in terms of the process by which individuals come to understand and relate to themselves in a manner which supports dominant class relations. According to Althusser, ideology provides an imaginary identity, an imagined map for locating oneself in the wider social network. Echoing Lacan, Althusser uses the notion of the mirror stage to deconstruct ideology. There is a duplicate mirror-structure at the heart of ideology says Althusser, a structure that grants to the self an ideological mirror in which it can recognize itself and other people. Althusser calls this process ‘interpellation’—the capturing of the individual within the net of received social meanings.
The Lacanain Althusserian account of the decentering of the subject has been highly inﬂuential in recent sociological theory, and has impacted upon debates concerning agency, structure, class, social fragmentation, and cultural order. The social-theoretical work of Paul Hirst, Barry Hindess, Stuart Hall, Etienne Bailbar, Pierre Machery, Fredric Jameson, and Slavoj Zizek is, in diﬀering ways, indebted to the Lacanain/Althusserian theory of the subject and its ideological subjection.
2.3 Feminism, Postmodernism, And Psychoanalytic Sociology
It is not only in studying politics and social change that psychoanalysis has become an important theoretical tool for sociology, but also in debates concerning gender and sexual politics Freudian ideas have been incorporated into social theory. In the sociology of sexuality, the sociology of the family, and especially the social theory of gender transformation, Freudian psychoanalysis has played a vital role in expanding sociologists’ understanding of the subjective and aﬀective components of human social relationships.
The psychoanalytic perspective made a forceful entry into contemporary feminist sociological theory in Juliet Mitchell’s pioneering book, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974). Mitchell deployed Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalytic ideas as a means of connecting a discussion of gender power with an Althusserian Marxist theory of late capitalist society. Against this theoretical backdrop, she asserted that deﬁnitions of masculinity and femininity are framed through linguistic and historical structures—with man as a self-determining, autonomous agent, and woman as a lacking other. Such gender dualism, according to Mitchell, is highly conducive to capitalist social regulation—the split between private and public, the pathologies of the familial life, and the like. Mitchell’s ideas, while criticized in some feminist sociological circles, had a lasting impact on psychoanalytically oriented feminist sociology. Especially in terms of Lacanain feminist approaches, the writings of authors such as Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jacequline Rose, and Judith Butler have signiﬁcantly inﬂuenced sociological debate in recent years.
In the United States, the feminist theories of Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, and Jane Flax have been inﬂuential in contemporary sociology. These feminist authors draw from the psychoanalytic perspective, but rather than turn to Lacan and French psychoanalysis their work selectively incorporates the insights of Freudian and post-Freudian (especially object-relational) theory. In Chodorow’s work, it is part of an attempt to understand the psychic components of female and male socialization, especially in terms of the unconscious forces that shape gender roles. In Benjamin’s work, psychoanalysis is deployed to rethink the dynamics of domination and submission within the wider frame of gender, society, and history. In Flax’s discussion of psychoanalysis, feminism, and postmodernism, it is primarily a set of philosophical observations about the development of gender relations and the sociology of sexuality and intimacy.
Related to the intertwining of psychoanalysis and feminism, postmodernist appropriations of psychoanalysis have also been inﬂuential in recent sociological interventions. This has been especially true for the contested modernity postmodernity debate, in which sociologists as diverse as Anthony Giddens, Alaine Touraine, and Zygmunt Bauman have drawn from Freud to analyze anew the self and self-identity. In the writings of Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and Jacques Derrida, which have also had a strong inﬂuence on sociological theory, there has been much debate about the fate of the individual or ‘death of the subject’ in postmodernist culture. In all of these discussions, psychoanalysis has provided sociology with conceptual tools for questioning and deconstructing the enlightenment and rationality of progress.
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