WTF is psychosocial studies?

Psychosocial studies is at the intersection of arts, psychology, psychoanalysis, cultural studies, social work, sociology.  Actually maybe it’s the set union of those fields (and others too). I think this diagram illustrates the spirit of the relationships (Figure 8 from Simonetto and Auber’s paper on undrawable Euler diagrams):

A very complex Euler diagram of 8 overlapping shapes in multiple colours

Efforts to write manifestos of psychosocial studies as an inter- and/or trans-discipline have accelerated since the 1990s. A common theme is that psychological life (conscious and unconscious) is interwoven with social life. For such a broad programme, there are inevitably rows about what exactly psychosocial studies is, and at times the debates seem to reflect academic power struggles more than substance (not unlike the qual versus quant rows).

Diet or full fat psychosocial?

Sasha Roseneil (2014) took a helpful empirical approach, developing a taxonomy of broad genres of ESRC-funded projects which used the term “psychosocial”.  What did the researchers on these projects seem to mean?

Psychosocial “lite” research uses “psychosocial” as an adjective to describe linking social and psychological variables, like social stressors and individual wellbeing. This seems to fit the study by Barr et al. (2016) which explored the effect of welfare policy changes on mental ill-health (though the researchers didn’t use the term “psychosocial” and the lead author was in a Department of Public Health and Policy).

The “middle ground” of psychosocial research consists of work that takes this a step further to explore (p. 130)

“emotions or emotional life, or had a more expansive sociological/societal understanding of the social than ‘psychosocial lite’ research”

I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to distinguish “lite” from “middle ground” – maybe “thick description” or Verstehen are beginning to creep in? In any case, both stay within or combine ideas from existing disciplines like psychology and sociology.

The “strong” programme differs from these two in that research (p. 130)

“articulated either an implicit or explicit challenge to the disciplinary divisions between psychology and sociology, were concerned with the mutual constitution of the psychic and the social and saw the theoretical/methodological approach that they were taking to the research as ‘psychosocial’ (rather than using the word to qualify other concepts).”

Pledging allegiance to the new discipline is necessary, according to this “strong” account, alongside the need to foreground the “mutual constitution” of psy and social, rather than explaining one in terms of the other. So no explaining social life through Big Five personality scores or IQ.


This “strong” definition reminds me of work by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers (1998) on the extended mind. They begin by arguing that our concept of self “outstrips the boundaries of consciousness”. This is easy to see since, for example, we are only consciously aware of a small number of our beliefs at any given time. We still have those beliefs somewhere, somehow, and they pop into consciousness again when triggered by context. We also scribble in notebooks (and these days tap at apps) so that we don’t forget stuff. Again these memories exist outside consciousness, not unlike dormant beliefs, but additionally the scribbles and app algorithms are “beyond the skin”. These external aids are an important part of us and how we think and act. Hence, Clark and Chalmers argue, selves are “best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources”.

Sounds psychosocial to me, though developed outside a formal psychosocial studies frame. (Maybe it’s more biopsychomaterial studies?)

Another example comes from Kusch (1999, p. 359), writing in a Science and Technology Studies (STS) tradition. He sketches a familiar story of how social processes shape brains and change how we respond to the world, arguing that therefore

“at least some states of the brain might well be called social states. They are social because they are real artefacts of our culture, and social also because they predispose us to differ in the intensity, quality, and duration of some of our sensations” (emphasis original).

Yet another expression of the interwoven nature of psy and social comes from Erich Fromm (originally published 1932):

“The thesis that psychology only deals with the individual while sociology only deals with ‘society’ is false. For just as psychology always deals with a socialized individual, so sociology always deals with a group of individuals whose psychic structure and mechanisms must be taken into account.”

Though perhaps this particular statement isn’t interwoven enough for “strong” psychosocial.


An idea that recurs in psychosocial studies is that researchers should develop critical theories. Taking Nancy Fraser’s (1985) conceptualisation (from outside psychosocial studies), there is no empirical difference between a critical and a non-critical theory. There is a clear political difference: a critical theory clarifies processes oppressing a social group and suggests action. It takes as obvious that doing so is important. Jenkins’ (2018) development of a norm-relevancy account of gender is a good example of this genre of critical theorising. Jenkins begins with a statement of the aims of trans rights movements, but does not attempt to justify those aims (Jenkins, 2018, p. 716):

“Although I am fully convinced of the appropriateness of the aims of the trans rights movements, I make no claim to have justified those aims here. I merely seek to establish the concept of gender identity that is required to advance those aims.”

This is critical theory-infused analytical philosophy – outside psychosocial studies.

So WTF is psychosocial studies?

Psychosocial studies is undefinable, in my view. Any attempt will include a huge number of other disciplines (or at least researchers in those disciplines) using psy and social concepts simultaneously. I don’t think it matters; people seem to be able to do their psychosocial research (or philosophy, sociology, art, etc.) without pledging allegiance to the psychosocial, hand on any of the major manifestos. But researchers who want to, say, reduce all societies’ problems to individuals’ characteristics are more likely to be found elsewhere, so the “interwoven” criterion of psy and social does help eliminate some research from the undrawable Euler diagram.

Mr Justice Mostyn vs. vague, rhetorical applications of theory

A court case (GM v Carmarthenshire County Council [2018] EWFC 36) has ruled that a social worker’s “generalised statements, or tropes” based on attachment theory are not admissible evidence.

The full judgement by Mr Justice Mostyn has interesting thoughts on the valid application of theory and balance between theory and observation.

“… the local authority’s evidence in opposition to the mother’s application was contained in an extremely long, 44-page, witness statement made by the social worker […]. This witness statement was very long on rhetoric and generalised criticism but very short indeed on any concrete examples of where and how the mother’s parenting had been deficient. Indeed, it was very hard to pin down within the swathes of text what exactly was being said against the mother. […] [The social worker] was asked to identify her best example of the mother failing to meet L’s emotional needs. Her response was that until prompted by the local authority mother had not spent sufficient one-to-one time with L and had failed on one occasion to take him out for an ice cream. […] A further criticism in this vein was that the mother had failed to arrange for L’s hair to be cut in the way that he liked.”

There is also a detailed section on attachment theory:

“… the theory is only a theory. It might be regarded as a statement of the obvious, namely that primate infants develop attachments to familiar caregivers as a result of evolutionary pressures, since attachment behaviour would facilitate the infant’s survival in the face of dangers such as predation or exposure to the elements. Certainly, this was the view of John Bowlby, the psychologist, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst and originator of the theory in the 1960s. It might be thought to be obvious that the better the quality of the care given by the primary caregiver the better the chance of the recipient of that care forming stable relationships later in life. However, it must also be recognised that some people who have received highly abusive care in childhood have developed into completely well-adjusted adults. Further, the central premise of the theory – that quality attachments depend on quality care from a primary caregiver – begins to fall down when you consider that plenty of children are brought up collectively (whether in a boarding school, a kibbutz or a village in Africa) and yet develop into perfectly normal and well-adjusted adults.”

Much to discuss!

On programs to help disadvantaged children

“… what actually happens in the course of many programs that claim to set out to remedy disadvantage is that target children are forced to spend time doing things they are not good at and deprived of opportunities to practice doing things they are good at. This is bad enough by itself. But the seriousness of the problem is exacerbated by the fact that most of the talents they might have developed cannot … show up on most of the tests developed by psychologists and are thus unable to register in most of the evaluation studies conducted by psychologists. Worse, these evaluations are largely framed and conducted within a reductionist, single-outcome focus rather than a comprehensive or ecological evaluation framework. In the end, this whole network of interlocking activities contributes to the autopoietic process that is heading our species toward extinction.”

Raven, J. (2005). More Problems With Gap Closing Philosophy and Research. American Psychologist 60(9), 1041–1042.


I like this, but the analogy is a bit… crude.

“Zoos display an irresistible passion for the preservation of endangered species. A number of these are being protected, later to be released back into the wild. In the meantime, however, ‘the wild’ has disappeared! It is the same with human beings: ideally, they are recycled in human isolation cells (thalassotherapy, psychoanalysis, luxury health clubs, hospitals or asylums), and later released back into social life — in the meantime, however, the social environment has disappeared!”

—Jean Baudrillard, in Fragments