Presented at the Association for the Advancement of Gestalt Therapy Conference (AAGT), St. Petersburg, Florida, November 11, 2004.
Victor Daniels
Sonoma State University
  The "Gestalt Social Field Analysis" approach applies insights from Gestalt Therapy, Rousseau's "social contract," and other sources to advancing the kind of large-system analysis of social phenomena begun by Kurt Lewin and Erich Fromm. It is both descriptive and normative in its goals, and both objective and subjective (quantitative and qualitative) in its methodologies. It provides a method of examining what occurs in one relationship, group, or larger social polity over time, and of comparing what occurs in a number of different groups at the same time, from couples and families at one extreme to nations at the other. Fifteen categories of events labeled "social fields" are used as a basis for making such comparisons. A visual model of these fields is presented. Each field is divided into subsidiary dimensions. Then, depending on the situation, from one to eight "layers" of observation may be employed. Each of these reflects a somewhat different way of apprehending the phenomenon it objectively or subjectively describes. Application of all eight provides a remarkably broad and deep understanding of the entire "social Gestalt," which as used here includes its component interacting systems. Historical roots of the approach are described, and next steps in developing it are outlined. The presentation includes two experiential elements. The first is participation by the listeners in applying the eight layers of observation to their own "life-spaces." The second, at the end, asks each of them to use the approach to discover one new insight or methodological innovation that seemspotentially useful in their work.  

Gestalt Social Field Analysis asks "What dimensions of human nature does a peraon, an environment, or a social institution at any level, from a couple to a culture address, need to address, and how are these dimensions addressed by this person or social unit? Which of these ways work well, and which badly? How can the latter be changed?

It examines intrapsychic events and dynamics that can occur in an interaction between two people. Then it does on to examine what additional events become possible in larger groups, and in groups that are more specialized, or differentiated in other ways. As Kurt Lewin noted, such social "fields" can be viewed as force-fields that are in a perpetual process of shifting and movement that is analogous to physical force fields. What are they, and how do they operate? These are the descriptive questions.

There are also normative questions, as raised by Perls, Lewin, Fromm, Pettigrew, and others. What are the dimensions of personal well-being, and what are the dimensions of the well-being of a social group, be it a couple, family, company, or culture? What does one person, or a group of people, do that contributes to the well-being or lack of well-being of another or others with whom that person or group interacts? What does a social group at any level and of any size, from a couple to a civilization, need to do to ensure its continued well-being over an extended period? How can a social group ensure its well being in ways that contribute to enhancing the well being of its members, rather reducing it? And how can a social group ensure its well being in ways that contribute to enhancing the well being of other groups with which it interacts, rather than reducing the well-being of those groups? While these questions themselves are obvious, the present approach addresses them in a unique way.


Gestalt Social Field Analysis includes:

  • Attention to the "whole Gestalt" of a situation, including both objective and subjective elements and their interactions. The "Whole Gestalt" can be grasped through attending to eight "layers" of the situation. It includes the life-spaces (both objective and psychological) of the various participants.
  • A model that divides all social activity into fifteen "fields" in a unique way.
  • A situational emphasis. The social field analysis is carried out in regard to a particular social situation or kind of social situation, like those mentioned in the first point above.
  • An interaction focus, with attention to personal, intragroup, and intergroup dynamics of the social field. What do people do with other people and beings, when and how do they do it, and what are the effects? The life-spaces, schemas, and behavioral tendencies of individuals and groups are examined in relation to their effect on social interaction.
  • Examination of feedback-loop effects of interaction back on the individuals involved in the system.
  • Attention to both descriptive and normative perspectives, as mentioned briefly above and at greater length below.

Two caveats are in order. First, The term "social" is used broadly here, to include relationships with nonhuman inhabitants and objects in the world, such as animals, plants, and places. The approach described here can be applied at any level from an individual person to the ecosphere as a whole.

Second, the term "well-being" used above is vague. For many purposes it must be defined in more differentiated, precise, and measurable terms, and in some cases it must be defined within a broader philosophical and intercultural perspective.

The approach described here can be used with a couple, family, workplace, company, community, county, state, nation, ethnic group, or even the entire ecosphere. It allows comparing different social units of a given kind (such as neighborhoods) at a given moment in time, or a particular specified social unit over a period of time.

It is actually possible to compare any two-or multiple-variations on a particular thematic event, such as funerals or even beach scenes. In its descriptive sense, with classical scientific impartiality, it lends itself to such comparison for any purpose, even the crassly commercial. A resort hotel, for example, might use the method to make comparisons among the beach scenes in front of several other hotels in order to find out how it might make its own beach scene more attractive. It can be used by agencies as an expanded form of program evaluation research. Some of the possibilities are shown just below:




Gestalt social field analysis has its roots in Gestalt psychology, Gestalt Therapy, Kurt Lewin's Field Theory, Erich Fromm's thories that bridge psychology and sociology, Social Psychology, Humanistic Psychology, General Systems theory, ecopsychology, Mortimer Adler's social philosophy, and other sources. Both Lewin and Fromm attempted to encompass the full horizon of phenomena from the personal-interpersonal to the large-scale sociocultural and political. They tried to conceptualize the larger social field within which we each live, describe the dynamics that operate within it, and ultimately make recommendations about how it can be changed to make the existence of most people whose lives are touched by it happier and more satisfying. Since Lewin and Fromm, this undertaking has largely languished, as psychosocial theory has focused on smaller-scale phenomena.

Although Gestalt Therapy, which developed after Lewin's death, includes sophisticated conceptual analyses and methods for working with both individuals and relationships, no systematic development of a social psychology and philosophy embodying its concepts has been undertaken. Some of Erving and Miriam Polster's thinking has begins to venture in that direction. Social psychologists have given great attention to smaller-scale, rigorously definable phenomena. Individual- and family-therapists and counselors have given careful attention to intrapersonal and interpersonal dynamics and how to improve them. And sociologist and anthropologists have studied the larger social and cultural matrix within which individual and group interaction are embedded. But the endeavor of connecting what happens at personal and interpersonal levels with events in the community, workplace, society, and culture has been largely ignored. A return to the development of this important avenue of thought seems long overdue.

Today we face grave challenges that cannot be fully met by the widespread approach of dividing everything into small pieces, endeavoring to understand each in great detail, and trusting that the result will add up to a meaningful whole. At this point there is no convincing evidence of significant movement toward a such a meaningful whole. Both Lewin, Fromm, and Perls, by contrast, characteristically examined the person in a situation. Social psychologist Harold H. Kelley (2000) described Lewin's approach as having "an interaction focus, which analyzes the interplay of situational and personal factors."

Lewin viewed personality and a person's "life-space" as mutually affecting each other. (We can take a moment here to note that Lewin referred to both physical life-space and psychological life-space. The former consists of the physical places a person actually inhabits or goes into. Psychological life-space also includes the places a person mentally enters history, literature, movies, other people's orally related stories, and his or her personal imagination.

Kelley's phrase, "the interplay of personal and situational factors" also characterizes the process that occurs in the conduct of Gestalt Therapy. A client usually begins with the description of an existential situation, dilemma, or crisis in his or her present life that poses a problem. From that starting point, the psychological work often moves into psychodynamics that involve traumas, conflicts, or other unfinished situations in the person's past. Increased awareness and expressiveness in regard to that old situation is a common result. Then the empowerment that results is characteristically brought back into context of the present situation that served as the starting point for the work. The intrapersonal work is usually social as well, involving important others in the person's past, present, or both.

Or it can work the other way. The person may start, for example, with the highly intrapersonal phenomenon of a dream. But there are almost always other people in the dream, and personal conflicts or dilemmas are enacted in an interpersonal forum, or several. Then often the counselor, therapist, or facilitator teases out the dream's relationship to present or past people and problems in the client's life. So the interpersonal is almost always interpersonal, and vice-versa. In the neo-Freudian tradition Alfred Adler, Karen Horney, and Harry Stack Sullivan held similar views.

Fromm went even farther than Lewin in extending his analysis of such dynamics to the larger society and its historical conditions. He took the whole sociohistorical field as his subject, from its representations within each person at one extreme to such vast interactions as the actions of governments and cultures at the other. A canvas of such scope has the disadvantage of possible looseness of methodology. But as Lewin showed, this can be corrected, by a dialectical movement back and forth between real-world phenomena and laboratory studies. As Perls, Polster, and other Gestalt therapists have shown, using a different epistemology, it can also corrected by a dialectical movement between real-world phenomena and clinical evidence from work with clients in counseling and therapy. And when similar results emerge from all three of these epistemologies-the sociological, the experimental, and the clinical, the findings are powerful. Aurobindo and Gandhi both pointed out that the power of such insights is enhanced still more when we add personal phenomenological data from precisely prescribed yogic and Buddhist meditative traditions. And yet another level of understanding is added when we take the original idea of the Gestalt, meaning the whole pattern and configuration of a situation, and examine the interactive feedback loops that are part of it, as described in Norbert Wiener's cybernetics and Ludwig Von Bertanleffy's General System Theory. The System is a component of the Gestalt Field, but it is not the whole thing, because the Field contains subjective elements not readily accessible to systems analysis. Nonetheless, the system approach has been applied with substantial success by system-oriented family therapies and therapists.


Asking the question, "What dimensions of human nature does a person or social institution at any level, from a couple to a culture, need to address?" opens the door to evaluating what's occurring now in a specified collectivity in relation to one, several, or all of those dimensions of human nature. Previous thinking about human needs has included the ancient yogic Chakra system, Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and philosopher Mortimer J. Adler's list of limited and unlimited real goods necessary for a whole good life. All three focused on a personal frame of reference. The present model, informed by their thinking, explicitly considers both personal and social frames of reference and their interaction. It attempts to identify the principal elements that affect both the long-run survival of a group and the happiness of its members. The fifteen "fields" in the illustration below are not viewed as separate, but rather as interrelated and interacting. The graphic depiction of the "sun" includes a region into which influences from all the fields flow and meet and mingle, according to principles described by cybernetics and general system theory.(Von Bertanleffy, 1967). These fields were identified by intuitive contemplation of the systems mentioned above. (Someone else might well classify them differently.) This classification makes sense to me according to the tests of comprehensiveness and utility.

Read the illustration below by starting in the center, then going clockwise around the sun from "security and safety field" on the upper right to "transcendent spirit field" on the upper left. The fields to the right of the sun are relatively more personal, and as you continue around those on the left become very explicitly social:



The ecological balance field is at the center because ultimately everything else depends on nature's health. Here we ask whether each of many aspects of the ecosphere, or any local place in it, remain at least as able to support all kinds of life in the future as they are today.
The safety and security field comprises the provisions made to keep people secure from injury by others-in any household, neighborhood or countryside at high noon or midnight. This includes protection against physical or legal violence by agents of government, business, or foreign powers. "Injury" ranges from child- and spousal-abuse to assault by thugs to threats from toxic pollution. It includes being secure from attacks by organized groups such as terrorists or our own or foreign governments. Karen Horney and Erik Erikson have both pointed out the importance of such a sense of security.
The survival and livelihood field describes ways in which people can get needed food, shelter, clothing, and health care (usually in exchange for work valued by the community).
The love, respect, and appreciation field examines the degree and kind of love, respect, appreciation, affection, and friendship each member of a family, culture, or other social group can expect to receive, and in what form.
The emotional climate and expression field concerns how and where various emotions may and may not be expressed. It includes examining tolerance, permission, or encouragement for speaking and acting playfully, supportively, aggressively, or in any other affectively tinged manner toward other in-group members and toward specified out-group members.
The freedom, curiosity, and exploration field addresses the degree to which people are allowed and encouraged to be curious and explore varied aspects of their social and physical world. It describes who is free to do what, to or with whom, when, how, under what circumstances. It distinguishes between freedoms guaranteed to a person and those guaranteed to an organization, like a corporation or government agency.
The strength, competence, and self-determination field involves the ways in which people are encouraged to be strong or weak, able or less able, self-determining or submissive to the will of others.
The personal growth and education field examines how and to what degree social institutions help develop our potential, in ways that encourage rather than stifle creativity, personal development, and ability to achieve desired goals.
The self-esteem and satisfaction field has to do with the ways people feel good or bad about themselves, and contribute to others' feeling good or bad about themselves. It includes how they feel about their lives and how they're living them. Obviously, elements of many other fields contribute to this one.
The mutual assistance field examines the ways in which we do and do not assist others in need, and they us, through personal, collective, or institutional means.
The justice and equity field examines the manner in which, and degree to which, we treat each other fairly and equitably in large ways and small. This includes the dimension of mutual satisfaction in relationships and the dimension of equality or inequality in power, privilege, wealth and possessions by people in different sectors of society and on different rungs of the social ladder.
The dialogue and participation field examines the degree to which, and the manner in which, everyone affected by something has or does not have a voice in deliberations and decisions requires it
The honesty and disclosure field addresses the degree to which decisions and actions that have widespread effects are revealed to those they affect or concealed from them. This can be examined in personal relationships, political, and economic realms. It is difficult to achieve justice in the absence of honesty.
The grace and beauty field looks at how we do and do not make beauty and loveliness important in the things we arrange and make and build. It assumes that life is richer and fuller when we can see and feel beauty around us everywhere.
The transcendent spirit field refers to the manner in which the group does or doesn't include a "spiritual" or "transcendental consciousness" dimension that runs through all the other elements. You can feel it in someone who is compassionate, "large-minded," and "openhearted," who engages in "random acts of kindness." You might call it an "altruistic" vs. "self-centered" dimension. (With any given person or group it may or may not be connected with membership in organized religion.)


At first glance it may seem surprising that these fifteen "social fields" omit such conventional categories as politics and economics. This omission is intentional. "Politics" is another term for the exercise of power and influence, and it occurs in diverse settings from a dyadic encounter at one extreme to international organizations of states at the other. "Economics" is an abstraction that includes many different activities related to survival and the allocation and distribution of goods and services. Indeed, when we examine the fifteen fields specified in the present model, we will find that activities that most contemporary cultures define as "political" and "economic" are interwoven throughout many of them. At the same time, a number of these specific social fields are involved in most activities we define as either political or economic.

Fifteen fields is admittedly a lot. Fewer would be easier to grasp. The value of identifying all fifteen is that when we compare different institutions of a given kind, it becomes easier to see what is emphasized and what is downplayed or left out in each. Many political parties, for example, promote the values of some of these social fields and downplay the values of others. An explicit assumption here is that Carl Jung was right in his insistence that a full, rich life involves taking account of all the varied sides of our nature.

The descriptive aspect of Gestalt Social Field Analysis includes attention to how closely the subjective perceptions of the people in a given community or culture correspond to what's actually happening in regard to any specified aspect of social life. When such perceptions are inaccurate, it includes analysis of how the inaccuracy is initiated and encouraged-which may involve the honesty and disclosure field.

We can also look at how a given psychosocial process is similar through varied levels of personal and social discourse and how it is different. For instance, how are such processes as repression, denial, introjection, and projection carried out, and how do they manifest themselves in the personality, the family, a workplace or corporation, a community, or a culture? In examining contemporary thinking in the area of cross-cultural psychology, Thomas Pettigrew (1996) has argued convincingly for careful contemplation and study of "the mediating and moderating processes between individual and cultural variables, between the micro- and macro- levels of analysis."


We move next to the question of how to approach a situation or event and assess what is occurring in one or more of the fifteen fields described above. Think for a moment of an art or photography program on a personal computer that has an option for working on multiple "layers" of an image simultaneously and then putting them together to form a whole. A social system with its constituent personalities-even such a simple system as an interacting couple-is many times more complex than a two-dimensional picture and it has interactive "field" qualities that a picture lacks, but nonetheless, a layer-capable art program provides a useful descriptive analogy for the Gestalt Social Field approach. Imagine a complete real-life picture made up of the following layers superimposed in front of each other. The "layers" considered here are as follows.

The back, or "ineffable" layer: an objectively existing situation that cannot easily be described in words, or readily measured, including subtle interactions among elements of the whole system-Gestalt. This layer may have both visible and hidden elements. Either we have no instruments to measure them, or measurement would be too costly or difficult. The light-spectrum effects of a sunset during a five-minute period, together with its effects on clouds and other atmospheric phenomena, are an example.

The second layer, just in front of the back layer: "The descriptive layer." This is verbal description of the situation as seen by the observer, such as an anthropologist or novelist might proivide. Our description includes characteristics of natural and human-made environmental features, objects, people, events, movement, procedures, and rules that govern behavior.

The third or "objective" layer: measuring quantifiable elements of an existing or unfolding situation or event. In this layer, measurements of real things or movements or energies that have an objective existence add to the ineffable and descriptive layers behind, and help us make sense out of them. This is a realm where natural scientists spend much of their professsional life. Often, numbers can help us perceive changes and differences that description alone overlook. Examples include reaction-time on a word association test, and number of fish going up a fish ladder during a given period.

The fourth or "surface subjective" layer: subjective reactions and observations that can be quantified. "Surface" refers to subjective responses such as attitudes, opinions, or values that can be readily tapped by immediate or almost-immediate responses to questions, or groups of questions such as those included in surveys. This level is widely used by social scientists, and often plays a substantial role in program evaluation research.

The fifth "deep subjective"or "narrative" layer. "Deep" refers to thoughts, feelings, sensations, or actions that a person may not reveal in response to simple questionnaire items, or even know about. They can be accessed by an observer through a phenomenologically-oriented interview-that is, an attempt to fathom the respondent's full experience of a place, situation, event, or less tangible phenomenon as it is for the respondent. Qualitative research, and forms of interviewing that often occur in counseling and clinical settings, and deep conversations among trusted friends, are doorways to deep subjective reactions. In conversation this layer tends to take the form of stories, or narration. In therapies like Gestalt Therapy and Psychodrama it often takes the form of enactments. Deep subjective reactions may have a historical dimension, as people tell what led up to what's happening now. They may include "tension systems" or "unfinished situations" like traumatic old events that continue to influence a person's present reactions even without the person's recognition of it. This approach embraces the postmodern insight of listening to different people's varied experiences of a situation without thinking that one of them has to be "right" and others "wrong."

The sixth or "observer's phenomenology" layer. In one approach to organization development, the consultant's first act after getting the job is to spend several days wandering around in the company-in the hallways, the break room, the production facilities, the loading docks, the accounting department, everywhere. The consultant uses himself or herself as a "measuring instrument," sensing and feeling what's going on, listening to what employees say, and assessing the emotional tone of their responses. You can do this by walking along a block or two in each of several different neighborhoods and feeling how they seem different to you. There is special emphasis on the emotional and intuitive dimensions of the observer's response. This can be very informative.

The seventh, or hermeneutic, layer. This involves discovering the history that led to the present situation, reading and listening to the kind of sense others have tried to make of it, and of similar situations in history or literature, and contemplating it in the light of that expanded knowledge.

The eighth layer: taking note of what happens when an attempt is made to change the system or any part of it. The change attempt may be a therapeutic maneuver, an experimental intervention, "action research," legislated or decreed new rules or procedures, or unilateral attempts at persuasion or coercion. How the person or group reacts to this intervention react may tell us something that none of the other layers do.

Taking all these layers into account is obviously a complex undertaking. But real life, including personal events and interactions with others in sometimes-concrete and sometimes-ambiguous situations, is even more complex. Taking a series of "pictures" at each of these eight levels and putting them together can give us at least an approximation of the whole Gestalt of what's occurring. Or if we use the term as a verb, as is often done in German, it can help us "Gestalt" the situation. Further, recognizing how they can all contribute can help us let go of the parochial epistemological biases in which some investigators believe that they're doing "real" research and others' efforts are less worthy.

Not all situations and purposes require gathering information from all eight sources. Sometimes just one will do. A single objective or subjective measurement may convey the essential information that we need to understand what's going on, or what we may need to change. Gestalt Therapy teaches us to use our intuition in paying attention to what Polster calls "neon arrows" that tell us which dimensions or layers are most important to pay attention to in a given case.

Lewin developed his "Field Theory" partly as an extension of a concept from physics into psychology and social psychology. It is interesting that he did so before the development of modern subatomic physics, which now tells us that many of our ideas about what occurs at subatomic levels are no more than metaphors for events whose precise nature we can never truly comprehend. The same is true of our use of the front three levels of a social-environmental field to tell us about some of the events that are occurring in the field itself. Some of those events are unobservable, consciously hidden, or too complex for us to grasp in their entirely. Nonetheless, we can discover a great deal about what's going on.



Suppose, as a simple and very obvious example, we begin with the Survival and Livelihood field and the Justice & Equity Field. We could make both objective and subjective assessments such as these:

a. Percentage of population who wish to be employed at least half time who are actually so employed (correcting for those who have given up looking and dropped out)
b. Percentage of population with earnings in each of ten specified salary groups
c. Average earnings of those in each of the above ten specified groups
d. Income of the lowest ten percent of wage-earners expressed as a fraction of the income of the highest ten-percent of wage-earners.

f. Surface subjective: Degree of perception that the perceived distribution of earnings among people in the various categories is equitable, in light of their contributions.
g. Surface subjective: Degree of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the perceived distribution of earnings.
h. Deep subjective: Qualitative comments about items f and g and any related items that respondents bring up in the course of extended discussion.
The starting points will depend on the kinds of information that are readily available, the background and expertise of the principal investigator or investigators, and the situation itself.

Now I would like each of you to take a piece of easel paper and a marker and set the paper on the floor or table where you can draw on it. You may recall that Lewin distinguished between the objective "life space," or actual places where a person goes, spends time, and acts; and the psychological life space, or all the places where he or she goes mentally. The latter includes all the places and historical areas that the person has read about, or seen in movies, or been told about, and even imaginary places such as those in novels and science fiction. If we had a lot of time available, I would ask you to make a drawing of your complete physical life-space, and another drawing of the principal features of your psychological life-space. Such drawings differ radically. One student in my class, for instance, might draw a physical life-space that exists almost entirely within two miles of the university campus. Another might draw long lines that represent freeways, with just small jogs off at different off-ramps, one to a friend's house, one to her hairdresser, and so on, with the map extending across two thirds of the metropolitan area.

Since our time here is limited, I'm just going to ask you to draw your physical life-space here at the conference. First draw a vertical line from the top to the bottom of the page about halfway across it, to divide it into two sections. Then on one side, draw a map, in whatever fashion it exists in your mind, of everywhere you have been since you arrived here, and include the Sirata Beach Resort as one place on your map. For example, you may have begun at the airport and visited Busch Gardens in Tampa and the Salvador Dali museum at the St. Pete's waterfront, and have visited a friend and a doctor and been to a pharmacy and a supermarket. You can make some kind of drawing of each place, or just a small oval with a label. Lewin called each of these places in the life-space "capsules." For each place where you have any trace of a positive or negative feeling, however slight, put a plus or minus-small if the feeling is slight and larger if it is strong.

When you've done that, on the other side of the page make a larger scale drawing of just the conference hotel here at Sirata beach and any area just around it you want to include. Again, your drawing doesn't have to be accurate, but rather it shows how it is for you. It may have your room and a dining room and some conference rooms and hallways and rooms of friends and other features that may be unique to your map. Again, put pluses or minuses at each spot to indicate the kind of affect it has for you. Since I love to swim, my map would have big pluses by the swimming pools, but another person's map might not even show them. Now go ahead and make your drawings. You'll have about ten minutes to make both of them. When you're done, please lay your marker down so I can see when everyone has finished. . . .

Now please get together with two or three other people, and take turns describing your life-spaces to the others. As you do, you may wish to refer to one or more of the fifteen fields in the sun diagram where they seem relevant, describing what aspect of that field is or is not present in a given place in your drawing, and how it is or is not satisfying. You'll have about four minutes each to explain your drawings to the others. Notice that as you do, you'll find yourself drawing comparisons of how the different people's life-spaces and the social fields that are involved in them, including your own, are similar and how they're different. . . .

Now let's hear briefly from each of the groups. What emerged that was interesting for you?
Obviously this was just a brief demonstration. When you're undertaking a Gestalt social field analysis on your own, one kind of starting point is to identify a specific subfield of interest to you, then search for objective or survey information about it that is already available, and tabulate it in an easily examined form. For example, with the personal security subfield there is a wealth of statistics on varied kinds of crimes, number of prisoners, gun ownership, number of police, firefighters, doctors, nurses, and paramedics per thousand people, and similar objective variables.

A quite different starting point is a phenomenological one. The investigators might walk into the neighborhood streets, cafes and bars, beauty parlors, police stations, jails, and other settings, and strike up conversations with whoever they meet, listening to their subjective realities in regard to personal security. They take full note of their own feelings and reactions as they do. And of course they record their experience of each outing either immediately or as soon as possible afterward. (In a sense, this is analogous to family therapy that takes place in the home rather than in the consulting office.)

A situationally- or topically-appropriate methodology or methodologies from among the eight layers of observation might be selected.You might want to fully grasp the physical and psychological life-spaces of the participants. A sociologist might want to include sociometry. An organizational consultant working from a Sociotechnical Systems Perspective might want to gather a vertical slice of personnel from every level of the organization (from a janitor to the President, or in the example above, the Warden) in a room, put them to talking on a specified topic, and hear what emerges. A different organizational consultant might want to run focus groups consisting of people from each level or branch of the organization. In regard to security, for example, we might have a focus group of victims of property crimes, one of victims of violence, one of prison guards, of short-timers, of lifers without parole, and of prison administrators. There is no specified "right" or "wrong" method to carry out the analysis, so long as the methods used are operationally defined and described. They should also present a picture of as much of the social field as we are interested in understanding, in as much breadth and depth as we need. They should be adequate to show perceptual gestalts, belief and attitude systems, "culturally shared pathologies," and feedback loops among the above, rather than relying on the kind of simple cause-and-effect thinking that is so often tragically mistaken. The embracing epistemology is to gain as full a picture of what's occurring as is needed to discern what the essential variables are and how they operate. A "wrong" approach is one that overlooks or excludes important information.



The tradition of action research initiated by Kurt Lewin asks essentially, "Where and how do our social and cultural arrangements interfere with human health and happiness, and how can we modify them to increase health and happiness instead? Kelley's slant is to ask what people can do to make their relationship "viable, stable, and optimally satisfactory." Now as we move toward a more ecologically conscious age, we can add, "Where and how do our social and cultural arrangements damage our planet 's living systems, and how can we transform them so that they contribute to restoring and enhancing its health instead?

Anthropologist Ruth Benedict's interest in the question of which ways of organizing our social life enhance a people's well-being and happiness led her to the important concept of synergy. In her field work, she found that some societies were organized in such a manner that pursuing one's individual interest also furthered the interests of the larger social group, and other cultures were so organized that individual and group interests were antagonistic. She termed the former high-synergy societies and the latter low-synergy societies. One of her students, psychologist Abraham Maslow, implicitly identified potential feedback loops within that question when he asked how healthy personalities could contribute to creating a healthy culture and how a healthy culture could help foster healthy personalities.
The matter is tricky, because what's best in one cultural and environmental context may not be best in another. Also, even within a culture there is often lack of consensus about what kinds of change are desirable. Given that reality, logical starting points for normative applications of Gestalt Social Field Analysis are to:

1. define areas of process that are of critical interest,
2. assess as fully and precisely as possible what's going on right now in a given place and institution in regard to those areas, and
3. structure a forum in which informed investigation and debate about what's desirable in regard to each of them is possible. Then the stage is set to
4. Introduce an intervention process to bring about the desirable change.

Such an intervention process is more complex than individual therapy partly because in the latter, the client's dominant interest is in his or her own personal well being. In the kind of social process just described, different stakeholders have different personal interests that may be at cross-purposes. In such situations, notes Bertram H. Raven (1990), "Motivations to influence and to resist influence determine choices of influence strategies, selection of bases of power or more complex strategies, and how power is exercised or resisted." Here we are in three realms: the interaction among personalities (to the degree that different personalities are animated by different configurations of motives), the character of the other person with whom one is in interaction, and realm of the constraints of the situation

Even though the resolution of such conflicts is inherently different in some ways than the resolution of internal conflicts, we can reasonably nonetheless expect that a powerful intrapsychic approach such as Gestalt Therapy should be able to contribute valuable insights and methods for working with social conflicts as well, just as psychoanalytic object relations theory was extended to analyzing and improving the quality of social interaction in families by Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy.

In reflecting on the insights that have emerged from such sources as the Prisoner's Dilemma game and the social exchange theories of Thibaut & Kelley (1959), and Homans (1961), Thomas Pettigrew points out that there are many social dilemmas in which individuals may gain more from making selfish choices, but everyone is better off if all cooperate than if all defect. In Ecology, Garrett Hardin phrased this as the "problem of the commons," in which while individuals gain by running as much livestock as they can on the common pasture, the whole community loses when the pasture deteriorates from overgrazing ( 1969).

The process of psychotherapy, however, teaches us that comprehending that lesson may require deep relearning and the resolution of old complexes. A Gestalt Therapy perspective constantly reminds us that complex internal perceptual and motivational systems are part of the externally observable interactive system (Perls, Hefferline, & Goodman, 1951). An apparent simple change in one person's behavior in response to the other's action may result in a deep change in feelings that will profoundly influence future actions. If, for instance, a parent is coercive and abusive toward a child, the latter might shrink inward and become shy and introverted, or might take a turn toward being coercive and abusive toward others. In many cases, cognitive relearning based on rational appraisal alone may be wholly inadequate to the challenge of making such changes.


There are several logical next steps in the development of the approach I have described today. They do not have to take place in the order described below.

The first step is to evaluate the model itself. Does it make good sense? Is it useful? How might it be modified to make it more so?

The second step is to select specific fields, and consider the various dimensions that comprise each one.
Another step is to gather deep-subjective data. This will both help refine the measures and the dimensions, and in some cases immediately provide information that is potential useful for design and policy purposes

Yet another step is to select or devise appropriate means to measure or otherwise appraise both the objective dimensions and the surface-subjective dimensions. Gathering some of this data may precede the step described just above. The situation and our purposes will determine which comes first,

A fifth step is to use the information that has been gathered for lateral and logitudinal comparisons. Laterally, for example, what degree of dialogue and participation do employees in several comparable companies (or citizens in several comparable towns) feel? What are the effects of this? Longtitudinally, what is happening with the various dimensions of water supply and water quality in a given community? Subjectively, how do residents feel about the actions of community decisionmakers in regard to water allocation?

The sixth step, when appropriate, is to make changes based on the information gathered in earlier steps, in system- and gestalt-oriented ways that consider the total configuration of forces in the situation. These changes should involve finding out what works, making refinements that the original results suggest, and then repeating the process. An experimental orientation will often prove useful here, trying and perfecting a new policy or procedure on a small scale before adopting it systemwide.

When existing social forces and inertia tend to push people's actions back toward the way they were, Lewin's concept of "unfreezing," changing to a new procedure, and "refreezing" is relevant, so that procedures and behavior are "locked into" a new procedure and can't easily slide back into the old one.

To move from theory to putting the model into practice is a large undertaking that can only succeed if many people take part. One test of the approach, therefore, will be whether it inspires such enthusiasm. If you yourself would be interested in some kind of application or other involvement, please let me know at <>


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© 2004 by Victor Daniels. Quotations from this paper are permitted without restriction until August 15, 2005. Please check the author's website regarding quotations after that date, due to possible revision. (If you forget the url to this page, to get badk here just put my name into a search engine, and my website will probably be the second one on the list that comes up. Look for "Gestalt Social Field Analysis" on my home page.)