Selected Readarounds in Child and Youth Care

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'Role' interaction and 'person-to-person' interaction

Separating out 'interview' situations and 'life space' situations poses another problem which must, I believe, be tackled in the whole of social work and education but which becomes particularly sharp in the residential setting.
From the point of view of the worker as a professional person the problem is whether he or she should be primarily a systems expert (i.e., sensitive to and able to manage a complex small or larger scale social system of interactions and relationships) or a dyadic interaction expert (i.e., sensitive to, and able to manage the interactions and relationships carried on in various two-person interactions).

From the point of view of the child the problem becomes whether it is more important for him to discover various effective sets of roles (i.e., ways of behaving with other people more or less in accordance with social expectations) or to discover an identity (i.e., a ground of ways of behaving with other people which derives from, and contributes to, his sense of himself as a whole unique person).

In fact, of course, neither kind of solution to either statement of the problem is complete in itself. But because the two kinds of solution are conceptually tied to two different theoretical frameworks – sociology or social psychology at the system/role end, and individual and 'depth' psychology at the dyadic/identity end, some compromise or integration between them is difficult to achieve, at least at the conceptual level.

In the concrete life situation the problems are sometimes acute but in general can be resolved because, in this respect as in others 'life is a swallow and theory a snail'. In applying relatively powerful but still painfully inadequate theory to actual practice we must respect swallow and snail, neither allowing theory to cramp or weigh down life experience, nor allowing life situations to fly on regardless of steadily won theory.

An example of the complexities of 'role' and 'person to person' interaction in a residential setting may help here. A worker taking a meal with a group of children is operating within a small-scale social system which includes not only the group of children at his own table but other groups of children and adults at other tables and in the servery and kitchen. However, that worker by talking to a particular child, or serving his food, may be operating very personally with that child. So the worker may be doing two quite different and equally complex things at the same time, or switching rapidly from one kind of interaction to another.

It is often not clear how much the children recognize these two kinds of interaction as different. One child, lan, may discriminate clearly and know when he is interacting with Mr. Otherego, the Deputy Warden, or when he is in contact with 'my Mr. Otherego', a person who knows about his feelings and has shown himself able to deal with them.

Another child, Sarah, may only have experienced Mr. Otherego as Deputy Warden or only as 'her Mr. Otherego'. Another child, William, may be unable to distinguish the subtleties of these interactions and only be able to interact with a Mr. Otherego who is a strange and unpredictable figure in his world (even though Mr. Otherego may be quite predictable to some).

Mr. Otherego then, at his table, is dealing not only with a mixture of ways of operating (as a representative of the social system and as a 'person') but also with several different kinds of perception of 'himself' by the children at his table. This whole problem is mentioned here in a necessarily speculative way because it seems to be a real problem arising in the work and a problem to which, as yet, theory has little to contribute.

Some questions arising from it, and some possible ways of exploring it further may be briefly mentioned now.

  1. Sociology and psychology as conceptual systems do not of course 'reduce' people in any way. But as they influence action they may, through the way in which they are used, incline workers to think, and behave as if, in 'sociological' terms individuals were merely interchangeable units in a social system, or, in depth psychology terms individual's were the puppets of unconscious forces within them uninfluenced by social systems in which they live. Conceptually at the border line between social psychology 'which takes into account the effects of the interaction of others for the purpose of understanding the individual' and sociology 'which is concerned with social interaction itself' (Leonard, 1966) the distinction may be clear. Operationally it is difficult to maintain. This may be more difficult if, as seems possible, particular people for reasons not fully known tend to work from one conceptual system rather than the other.
  2. It is at least arguable (and testable) that psychology and sociology are non-reducible conceptual systems not only intellectually but because they represent two different ways of organizing personal experiences of the world of others. These ways are inherent in human development and exist prior to their conceptualization in the two disciplines.
  3. This, if accepted, raises questions of immense theoretical and practical importance e.g.:
    (a) How do individuals come to perceive the actions of others as 'role' behaviour or 'person' behaviour (i.e., as derived from a social system or from 'internal' dynamics)? What makes people perceive interactions as being within one or other frame work? How much is a sequence of interaction perceived as all of one kind, or a mixture, or an alternation of both kinds!
    (b) How are perceptual habits related to other personality dimensions – introversion / extroversion (in C. G. Jung's sense) or other-directedness/inner-directedness (in D. Riesman's sense)?
    (c) What meaning has this got for individuals (i.e., how do we, if at all, put together our notion of 'identity' derived from membership of a particular social system and our notion of 'identity' derived from our relationships with particular individuals)?

These may seem rather obscure theoretical questions and in part the non-reductiveness of sociology and psychology does not matter greatly unless we try to fit all human behaviour to the conceptual systems and do not accept the inevitable gap between what the system can explain and what we experience. However, in the residential setting, these queries are expressed in real feelings of uncertainty. Mr. Otherego at his table may well wonder quite who he is from time to time. Is he Ian's 'my Mr. Otherego', Sarah's 'my Mr. Otherego' or William's plain 'Mister'? More difficult, but still pressing, who are the children to him and he to each of them?


A brief extract from a chapter entitled 'Residential work problems with wider implications' in Beedell, C. (1970) Residential Life with Children. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

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