When a good label loses its value, or, should we rethink labels altogether?

Ever found a word, term, idea that had great meaning for you become useless or degraded because it became popular? Well, maybe that only happens to academic and clinical types. As a counselor terms like idols of the heart, Biblical counselor, integration, christian psychology all are meant to help individuals identify themselves and shape a conversation. At Biblical Seminary, we are attempting to train students to think “missionally.” When we started down this path, not many were using the word. But now it seems everywhere and used in so many ways that make you question whether the word really has any meaning.

So, I’ve had these thoughts from time to time but last night I was reading Paul Wachtel’s (professor at CUNY) “Relational Theory and the Practice of Psychotherapy” and he had this to say about one of his terms, relational. You could easily replace all the relational words with your own favorite term.

[The relational movement] is a loose coalition that is encouraging a diversity in viewpoint rather than seeking to impose a new orthodoxy. But this diversity of meanings also introduces confusion. Students in particular often are unclear about just what it means to be relational, both theoretically and clinically. Some, for example, (mis)understand being relational as being almost relentlessly self-referentially interpreting everything that transpires as being about the therapist.

In part, the problem lies with the very success of the relational movement. As the term “relational” has come into broader and broader use in recent years, there has been a corresponding decrease in the degree to which it communicates a clear and unambiguous meaning. This is perhaps an inevitable cost of success; relational perspectives have become increasingly prominent in the field of psychotherapy, and we have reached a point where many people want to jump onto the bandwagon. As more and more people use the term, sometimes more as a token of membership in a movement to which they wish to belong than as a substantive reference to a clearly specified set of theoretical premises and practices, the ripple of meanings makes a phrase like relational psychotherapy less than ideally precise.

Labels like relational, object relational, classical, or contemporary Freudian (to use examples from the psychoanalytic realm) often serve less as a medium of illuminating discourse than as a functional activity of boundary making, akin to the way our animal cousins leave their  scent to mark off the boundaries of their territory. “I belong here, you belong there,” may be a sentence; but it is a sentence whose message is not very different from what is conveyed by the glands of our mammalian kin. (pp 7-8)

He goes on to say that words should not merely make boundaries but to “alter and complicate” them through the act of conversation. While there are boundaries, they do move and change and no one human created word will adequately separate the sheep and goats, to mix my metaphors.  

So, what do we do with labels if they lose explanatory power when others find them helpful? Get rid of them? Or, do we use them with greater and greater humility. I like Wachtel’s description of the problem with another set of labels, 1person and 2 person approaches to counseling (1 person refers to analysis where the client monologues and interacts with their own psyche and 2 person approaches tend toward a relational, experiential interaction). Wachtel holds a 2 person theory. But here’s what he says,

To begin with, it is worth noting that the distinction [between the two labels] is almost always employed by putative two-person thinkers, as a critique of one-person modes of thought. There are rather few writers who defiantly proclaim, “I am a one-person theorist and proud of it,” although there are, of course, many writers who declare themselves to be proponents of the models that are called one-person models by two-person theorists. Writing as someone who, if the dichotomy is usable at all, would without question fall on the “two-person” side of the divide, I must say I find it disquieting to be characterizing competing theorists in a way they do not acknowledge as the basis of their own thinking.

This lack of acknowledgment on the part of “one-person” theorists, of course, does not in itself invalidate the critiques. It is certainly possible that critics of one-person models are recognizing something about the theories they are criticizing that their advocates do not. Indeed, in certain respects I myself believe this to be the case. It does, however, raise a question as to whether there might be a way to frame the critique that would be more illuminating and experienced as less of a straw man by more traditional theorists.” (p. 11)

I think Wachtel is helpful here and I have said similar ideas in the past. We need to be willing to come at a situation with differing dividing markers than we may have used in the past. For us Christian counselors, this is especially true. Mark McMinn considers himself to be an integrationist. But, his recent book, reviewed here, shows willingness to describe his model in ways that might make older integrative folks uncomfortable (i.e., giving Scripture trump power). So, we need new ways of looking at the data and less focus on division and more focus on description. Maybe we take a little longer look to see what is shared in our venn diagrams… 


Filed under book reviews, christian psychology, Communication, Cultural Anthropology, Doctrine/Theology, Great Quotes, missional, Missional Church, Psychology

2 responses to “When a good label loses its value, or, should we rethink labels altogether?

  1. Ron

    Cute: your page citation, being left-paren, seven, dash, eight, right-paren, turned into “(7-” followed by a smiley with sunglasses (the “8” and r-parenthesis).

    Other than this: isn’t this what happens to language throughout history? The word “frobozz” (to make one up) has a clear crisp meaning, and refers to one item or class of items. Someone then refers to “those frobozzes over there”, and in the group are 7 of the original frobozzen and 3 similar items imported from Asia (or perhaps published by another author: all depends what a “frobozz” is). Bit by bit, the net widens, and more fish swim in, and “frobozz” loses its meaning (if it at all was a worthwhile term).

  2. Pingback: Data processing « lessons dished out by life

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