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The Sociological Imagination of R. D. Laing*

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Abstract

The work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing deserves recognition as a key contribution to sociological theory, in dialogue with the interactionist and interpretivist sociological traditions. Laing encourages us to identify meaningful social action in what would otherwise appear to be nonsocial phenomena. His interpretation of schizophrenia as a rational strategy of withdrawal reminds us of the threat that others can pose to the self and how social relations are implicated in even the most “private” and “internal” of experiences. He developed a far-reaching critical theory of the self in modern society, which challenges the medicalization and biochemical reduction of human problems. Using the case of shyness as an example, the article seeks to demonstrate the importance of Laing's theories for examining the fragility of the self in relation to contemporary social order.
The Sociological Imagination of R. D. Laing*
SUSIE SCOTT
University of Sussex
CHARLES THORPE
University College London
The work of psychiatrist R. D. Laing deserves recognition as a key contribution to
sociological theory, in dialogue with the interactionist and interpretivist sociological
traditions. Laing encourages us to identify meaningful social action in what would
otherwise appear to be nonsocial phenomena. His interpretation of schizophrenia
as a rational strategy of withdrawal reminds us of the threat that others can pose
to the self and how social relations are implicated in even the most “private” and
“internal” of experiences. He developed a far-reaching critical theory of the self
in modern society, which challenges the medicalization and biochemical reduction
of human problems. Using the case of shyness as an example, the article seeks to
demonstrate the importance of Laing’s theories for examining the fragility of the
self in relation to contemporary social order.
INTRODUCTION: LAING AND SOCIOLOGY
Despite the influence of Laing on social thought in the 1960s and 1970s (Howarth-
Williams 1977), his ideas are rarely encountered in contemporary sociology. This
seems odd, considering the recent sociological interest in questions of the nature of
medical power, medicalization, and in social aspects of the self, subjectivity, emotion,
and experience, all of which were central to Laing’s project. Yet in other ways, socio-
logical ignorance or dismissal of Laing is not so surprising. His association with the
counterculture, his view of madness as transformative and healing, and his interest in
eastern mysticism sit uneasily with the secular project of a social science. In addition,
Laing’s existentialism and insistence on an authentic self are in tension with some
underlying sociological assumptions, in particular the suspicion of what appears to
be “asocial” individualism. Laing is a problematic figure for sociology—one who
speaks sociological language but in uncharacteristic ways and for orthogonal pur-
poses, ultimately departing from the strictures of the sociological worldview. It seems
that he has been deemed to break too many of sociology’s tacit codes to be included
in the canon.
Sociological analyses have pointed to the way in which the medicalization of social
issues involves framing these issues in ways that makes them amenable to technical
control, asserting medical power over social groups and families, and depoliticizing
The authors would like to thank Rampaul Chamba, and the anonymous reviewers for Sociological
Theory, for helpful critical comments on this article. Address correspondence to: Dr. Susie Scott, De-
partment of Sociology, University of Sussex, Falmer, Brighton, East Sussex BN1 9SN, U.K. E-mail:
s.scott@sussex.ac.uk.
Sociological Theory 24:4 December 2006
C
American Sociological Association. 1307 New York Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20005-4701
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332 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
social conflict (Conrad 1987; Zola 1990; Kaw 1991; Hughes 2000). These critiques of
medicalization, however, have not provided an alternative sociological understanding
of the phenomena at issue. Laing’s importance is in combining a critique of psy-
chiatric power with a social interpretation of schizophrenia,1applying sociology as
an alternative to biomedical reductionism and biological determinism. At the same
time, he avoids the pitfalls of an “oversocialized conception of man” (Wrong 1961).
In line with sociological critiques of functionalism, Laing’s critique of the language of
“pathology” is rooted in an account of human agency in the individual’s interaction
with the social world.
The importance of Laing is that his critique of the institutional power of psychia-
try is rooted in a fully sociological way of conceptualizing the self and understanding
madness. We analyze the relationship between Laing’s work and both symbolic in-
teractionist theories of the self and interpretivist sociology. In addition, we elicit the
normative underpinnings of Laing’s critique of psychiatry in an ideal of undistorted
communication, and examine the compatibility of this with the critical theory of
J¨
urgen Habermas. Lastly, we will present a defense of the relevance of Laing’s work
for understanding contemporary social problems, despite the social transformations
that have taken place since he carried out his studies of schizophrenics and their
families. The existential and sociological insights that Laing applied to understand-
ing schizophrenia are, we argue, equally relevant for understanding more everyday
“problems in living” (Szasz [1961] 1972), such as shyness.
UNDERSTANDING AND AGENCY IN LAING’S SOCIAL THEORY
The key pillar of Laing’s project is a view of human behavior and experience as
socially meaningful. Against psychiatric mechanism and reductionism, Laing pits a
methodological and ethical commitment to verstehen or interpretive understanding
(Weber 1949; Winch [1958] 1999). What makes his work so interesting is the exten-
sion of verstehen to the experience of the schizophrenic, a domain usually defined
as outside the realm of social meaning and communication. Laing’s critique of psy-
chiatry is based not only on an exposition of the forms of domination and control
associated with its practice, but also more fundamentally on an explication of the
sociality (Mead 1934), the social life, and social experience of the schizophrenic and
the way in which this is ignored and erased by psychiatric knowledge and practice.
Laing suggests that the behavior and thought patterns of the schizophrenic patient
are reasonable and understandable when interpreted in context. Psychiatry’s treatment
of schizophrenic behavior as the symptom of an organic pathology pays little or
no attention to the social world of the schizophrenic. The psychiatric interview or
assessment decontextualizes the schizophrenic patient from his or her social world.
The patient under the psychiatric examination is pulled out of the context of his or
her intimate interpersonal relations in the family and examined as a self-contained
organism. The incomprehensibility of their behavior and utterances, which marks
them out as insane, is to a large degree the result of this decontextualization (Laing
and Esterson [1964] 1970; Laing [1967] 1972:57–76).
1We use the term “schizophrenia” throughout the article and, for the sake of readability, we have
tended not to place it in quotation marks. Nevertheless, the Laingian approach treats the category as in
itself problematic. Over the course of his psychiatric career, Laing came to see this and similar medical
categories as reifying and mystifying human experience.
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 333
Decontextualization is also fundamental to the medicalized understanding of the
patient’s interaction with the psychiatrist. Laing cites Emil Kraepelin’s 1905 account
of one of his patients being interviewed in front of a class of medical students.
When questioned by Kraepelin, the patient began to rant: “You want to know that
too? I tell you who is being measured and is measured and shall be measured. I
know all that, and could tell you, but I do not want to.” When asked for his name,
the patient launched into a long and confusing diatribe. Kraepelin treated all this
as evidence of the patient’s inaccessibility: “he has not given us a single piece of
useful information. His talk was ... only a series of disconnected sentences.” Laing
here points out the peculiarity of the context in which the patient was speaking:
an interaction that was not a genuine interaction, but an attempt to measure the
patient as if he were an object, a demonstration of him as a specimen in front
of the class. “Surely,” writes Laing, the patient “is carrying on a dialogue between
his own parodied version of Kraepelin, and his own defiant rebelling self.” There
are two ways of seeing the patient’s behavior—as expressive of his disease or, as
Laing suggests, “as expressive of his existence.” Laing opts for the latter: “He is
objecting to being measured and tested. He wants to be heard” (Laing 1969a:31).
Laing notes that Kraepelin’s construction of the patient’s behavior as bizarre and
pathological in contrast to his own methodical rationality ceases to be commonsense
when one considers the behavior in context and imagines how the patient himself was
experiencing the interview. Laing argues that it is just as easy to render Kraepelin’s
actions, through decontextualization, as bizarre and even psychotic. He describes an
examination in which Kraepelin tries to force a piece of bread out of a patient’s hand
and sticks a needle into her forehead. “[O]ut of context of the situation as experienced
and defined by him,” Laing notes, “how extraordinary [Kraepelin’s actions] are!”
([1967] 1972:106–07).
Laing counters psychiatry’s focus on organic process by asserting the ways in which
schizophrenia can be understood as a socially meaningful practice. Following from
this, Laing suggests that the “psychiatrist” or analyst needs to learn to interpret
“schizophrenese,” or to become fluent in the language of his patients; in some ways
this is analogous to an anthropologist studying another tribe. Indeed, sometimes
Laing suggests that the patients he studied were hyperproficient members of the
culture of the middle-class, nuclear family. Rather like the anthropologist’s “key in-
formant,” they held a unique position as both insiders and outsiders to their everyday
social world, having a particularly clear perception of the dynamics of that culture
with its secret rituals and hidden mystifications.
Ironically, however, Laing suggests that it is because of their proficiency in de-
coding and exposing the mythic elements of the family culture that the individual
comes to be scapegoated and stigmatized, beginning their path toward becoming a
diagnosed “schizophrenic.” The schizophrenic is an ostracized, estranged member of
the family culture, an estrangement that is formalized by the “degradation ceremony”
(Garfinkel 1956) of the psychiatric diagnosis, but that began before this. Their cul-
tural proficiency within the family, however insightful, was therefore systematically
thwarted and denied. The dynamic is not dissimilar from that mapped out by Paul
Willis in his description of working-class boys’ resistance to schooling (Willis 1977).
Like Willis’s lads, the schizophrenic has only a partial penetration of the prevailing
ideology and relations of domination. In both cases, resistance proves to be self-
defeating, as it ultimately reinforces and even deepens their subordination. This is
clearly the case with the schizophrenic who ends up trading repression within the
family for the extreme depersonalization and subordination in the asylum.
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334 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
While the schizophrenic’s proficiency may be thwarted and his or her resistance
turned against himself or herself, schizophrenics are nevertheless attempting to exert
agency over his or her own fate. Thus by placing the schizophrenic in cultural context,
Laing does not seek to shift his or her status from biological automaton to cultural
dope. Indeed, his critique of biological determinism extends to classical sociology and
functionalism, which based its conception of society on the model of a biological
organism, and imported from medicine the language of pathology. So he notes that
“[j]ust when the sociologists have all but completely abandoned organicism, a new
medical sociology is arising, as the clinician, abandoning his position of a one-person
medical psychologist, is beginning to occupy the old positions of the sociologist with
a curious type of medical organicism” (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:22). The
notion of the “dysfunctional family” or “family pathology” is an example of this
functionalist application of the biomedical model to the operation of social groups
that Laing rejects. Social determinism, like biological determinism, treats human
behavior as a “process,” being driven by impersonal forces operating on a different
level to or behind the backs of actors. Instead, Laing treats schizophrenic behavior as
praxis, that is, in terms of what agents are doing (Laing and Cooper [1964] 1971:153;
Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:22).
Laing’s work can also be contextualized in the movement away from functionalist
sociology in the latter part of the 1950s and the 1960s. This had resulted in various
interactionist and interpretivist critiques, such as George Homans’s (1964) call to
“bring men back in” and Harold Garfinkel’s (1967) rejection of the “cultural dope”
as an unreflexive social actor in Parsons’s normative social theory. Perhaps the clear-
est formulation of this alternative perspective was Dennis Wrong’s argument against
functionalism’s “over-socialized conception of man.” The functionalist answer to the
question of how social order is possible was twofold: first, through the “internaliza-
tion of social norms” and second, by the attribution of a basic social motivation to
human individuals, the view that humans are motivated to seek approval by others.
As Wrong pointed out, these answers destroyed the original question by canceling
out the premise behind that question, namely, the assumption of a basic conflict be-
tween individual drives and social interests. Functionalist sociology had constructed
a model of man as a social being through and through, and had thereby eliminated
any grounds for positing a conflict between the individual and society (Wrong 1961).
However, Wrong constructed this conflict in terms of a fairly simple dualism be-
tween society on the one hand and “human nature” (Wrong 1961:192) or the body
on the other. In Wrong’s emphasis on the body as an antisocial force opposing social
pressures for conformity, there seems to be little room for the self as agent. Wrong’s
Freudian individual appears caught between two competing determinisms: biological
and social. Laing more successfully overcomes this dualism as he seeks to rescue a
conception of human agency and freedom from both biological determinism and a
rigid oversocialized or overenculturated model of man. Laing portrays the self as
being social while also having the capacity for free action in contravention of social
norms and constraints.
Laing emphasizes that while the development of the individual is inherently social,
realizing oneself as an autonomous human individual brings one into conflict with
others’ expectations and demands. The conflict is not (or not only) between society
and animal nature, but rather is contained within the socialization process, which is
a world of conflicting and irreconcilable demands. There is a double bind at the core
of the socialization process: the institutionalized expectation of the development of
autonomous individuality is continually frustrated by countervailing demands and
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 335
expectations of socialization-as-enculturation. As Laing puts it: “Do not do as you
are told. The person ordered to be spontaneous is in a false and untenable position.
Jill tries to comply by doing what is expected of her. But she is accused of dishonesty
for not doing what she really wants. If she says what she really wants, she is told
she is warped or twisted, or that she does not know her own mind” (Laing 1969b:
157–58). If something like this scenario is operating over and over in the “socializa-
tion process,” it provides a way of understanding how the individual is both thor-
oughly social and at the same time remains always potentially in conflict with social
regulation.
If standard sociological theories of socialization are too neat, this is because they
have underestimated the tortured complexity of processes such as “the internaliza-
tion of control.” This critique applies not only to functionalism, but also to key
strands of social psychology. The difference between Mead’s (1934) Mind, Self, and
Society and Laing’s (1969b) Self and Others is that for Mead, the Other (from the
concrete to the generalized) appears to speak with one voice. Hence, for Mead it is
possible to “take on the view of the Other” in a relatively straightforward way. What
is lacking from Mead and other founders of our dominant theories of socializa-
tion is an appreciation of the irreconcilable misunderstandings, conflicting demands,
Catch-22s, knots, and double binds inherent in social experience. Mead underes-
timates or even conceptually dissolves the separateness of persons, the privacy of
experience, and hence the tortured complexity of “taking on the view” of anyone
else. He also ignores problems of power: the fact that the Other (concrete or gen-
eralized) may have an interest in domination, and that, if so, they will be driven
to camouflage this interest in their communications. Mead does not consider that
while the Other says one thing, it may mean another, or if it means what it says, the
problem I may have in knowing this, and the reasons why I may doubt it. What for
Mead is a straight line is exposed by Laing as a cat’s cradle.
THE SOCIALLY MEDIATED WORLD OF INNER EXPERIENCE
In The Divided Self , Laing (1969a) presents an account of the “existential-
phenomenological foundations” underpinning the development of the self. He out-
lines the conditions under which a healthy sense of autonomous independence can
develop, and contrasts this with the schizophrenic’s fragile world. Influenced heavily
by Sartre and the existentialist tradition, he addresses some of the questions they
raised about becoming a person and living “authentically,” but shifts the focus of
these dilemmas from the intra-psychic to the interpersonal level. Sartre (1943) had ar-
gued that consciousness represents only the relation between the self and the outside
world; it was left to the individual to impose meaning on the emptiness of life. To act
in “good faith” was to acknowledge this essential freedom and take responsibility for
one’s attitude toward a situation, whereas to act in “bad faith” was to deny that one
had such a choice. However, Laing shows that under certain social conditions, ac-
tions performed in good faith to preserve the autonomy of the self could be mistaken
for bizarre, self-destructive tendencies. This is the case for the schizophrenic, whose
“good faith” attempts to defend his or her autonomy are discredited by psychiatrists.
Laing reminds us that the mind does not operate in a social vacuum and that the
mutual (mis)percerptions of self and others will have a significant effect upon the
way in which existentialist dilemmas are resolved.
Laing was keen to demonstrate that the self is born into a world of others to
whom one’s action must be orientated, and therefore that the individual’s experience
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336 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
of reality is mediated by social relationships. His theory of interpersonal perception
provides both an insightful theory of the relations between the internal and external
dimensions of experience and a pragmatic method for exploring how this works in
everyday encounters (Laing et al. 1966). For example, in Knots (1970), Laing presents
a selection of tangled thought patterns and mutual misperceptions, characterized by
the feelings of uncertainty he believed pervaded all interaction:
Jill: I’m upset you are upset.
Jack: I’m not upset.
Jill: I’m upset that you’re not upset that I’m upset you’re upset.
Jack: I’m upset that you’re upset that I’m not upset that you’re upset that I’m
upset, when I’m not.
(Laing 1970:21)
Here, Laing is arguing that we cannot ever experience somebody else’s experi-
ence of reality, and so must rely upon what we think they are thinking from the
expressions they convey. In Goffman’s (1959) terms, this may involve a distinction
between the impressions consciously “given” by actors through the manifest content
of their speech and actions, and the impressions they unwittingly “give off,” for ex-
ample, through nonverbal gestures, which may contradict this first appearance. The
meta-communicative commentary that this provides is central to the “double bind”
experienced by schizophrenics and their families (see below).
The socially mediated world of inner experience is therefore central to Laing’s
account of the self, and resonates with other microlevel theories in the interpre-
tivist tradition. For example, the “knots” of mutual (mis)perception he describes are
also suggested by the phenomenological work of Sch ¨
utz (1962, 1964, 1972; see also
Howarth Williams 1977:180–87), who described the problems social actors face in
everyday interaction as they struggle to achieve “intersubjective agreement” between
their streams of consciousness. We are also reminded of Mead’s (1934) conceptual-
ization of the self as an internal dialogue between the “I” and the “Me,” for Laing
is suggesting that the private experiences of the mind will be shaped by an image
of oneself from the imagined perspective of others. Laing et al. (1966) refer to “my-
perception-of-your-perception-of-me” as a meta-perspective that dominates interac-
tion, insofar as we respond to the attitudes we think others have toward ourselves
and construct the self through “meta-identities” that emerge from an awareness of
being-for-the-other.
In symbolic interactionism, too, we see the potential for Laing’s work to contribute
to ongoing sociological debates. For example, his studies of family dynamics showed
that Mead’s (1934) notion of “taking the role of the other” and Cooley’s (1909)
“looking glass self” take on a rather different significance when we consider that there
may not be a unified, unambiguous view from the generalized other’s perspective.
Meanwhile, classic symbolic interactionist theories are replete with discussions about
how social actors try to interpret the symbolic meaning of gestures (Blumer 1969)
and establish a shared definition of the situation (Thomas 1923), which presupposes
that ambiguity and uncertainty are pervasive in everyday interaction. The problems
of creating and sustaining a sense of negotiated order (Strauss 1978) have therefore
been well documented within interpretivist sociology.
The continuity of Laing with interactionist traditions in sociology is perhaps most
clearly evidenced when we compare Laing’s work to Goffman’s. In many ways Laing
made explicit some of the critical ideas about social control that are implicit in
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 337
Goffman’s dramaturgical theory of everyday life. On the one hand, Goffman was
reluctant to pontificate about our “true” interests and authentic selfhood: in a modest
disclaimer to Frame Analysis ([1974] 1986), he tells us that rather than trying to
awaken his readers from the deep sleep of false consciousness, he hopes “merely to
sneak in and watch the way people snore” ([1974] 1986:14). Yet on the other hand,
Goffman’s (1959) remarks about performative identity being divided into backstage
and frontstage regions suggests that “civilized” interaction places oppressive demands
upon the self. If we were not able to relax in the backstage arena and step out of
role, he implies, we would surely become alienated from who we “really” are: the self
as performer might be consumed by the self as performed.
The authenticity of inner experience is also implicit throughout Goffman’s expos´
e
of the precariously upheld rules and routines that characterize team interaction, and
he delights in the dramaturgical techniques of role distance, guile, and contrivance
that appear to protect the actor from self-estrangement. Indeed, Laing (1969b:44)
and Goffman (1959:81–82) both use the same example from Sartre’s (1943) work—
that of the cynical waiter—to illustrate the ways in which we can play one part of the
self off against another. When Laing talks about madness, he sees the “true,” inner
self as functioning almost like Goffman’s backstage region, insofar as it provides a
private, bounded arena in which the actor can knowingly contradict the performance
they give frontstage. However, the two lines of theorizing diverge as they focus on
different responses to this dual existence. Whereas Goffman shows how the “normal”
social actor combines these two versions of the self into one coherent whole and so
manages to live alongside others, Laing concentrates on those whose internal worlds
are so fragmented that their selves cannot be integrated and appear under threat
from the outside world.
Central to Laing’s portrait of the fragile self is a contrast between ontological
security and insecurity. To be ontologically secure is to have an awareness of the self
as a bounded object that is distinct from others: the body shares in the experiences
of the mind and the individual gains a sense of integrity, consistency, substance, and
worth (1969a:40–41). The unambiguous boundaries between self and others allow
these people to engage in meaningful action and observe its effects upon the world,
taking for granted that their perceptions are reliable. In Sartre’s terms, however, we
might question whether the majority of “normal,” well-adjusted people are acting
in good or bad faith, for while it takes courage and resilience to carry on being in
the same world as others, this blind trust also betrays a lack of conscious reflection
upon one’s situation. Laing’s interpretation of madness suggests that he admired the
authenticity of existential rebellion, despite its often self-destructive consequences,
and saw it as a challenge to the definition of reality upheld by “oversocialized”
people.
Laing (1969a) identifies three sources of anxiety that plague the ontologically in-
secure individual. First, the lack of clear boundaries between self and others creates
a fear of engulfment, or being consumed by others: there is a danger that if we
expose too much of our true selves to others they might usurp our autonomous
experience. As Laing puts it, “[t]o be understood correctly is to be engulfed, to
be enclosed, swallowed up, drowned, eaten up, smothered, stifled in or by another
person’s supposed all-embracing comprehension” (1969a:46). Second, the individual
may fear implosion, or the experience of the world crashing in around oneself and
obliterating self-identity: it can seem safer to detach oneself from social experiences
and deny any ties with external reality. Third, there may be a fear of petrification,or
the sense of being frozen, turned to stone, or otherwise immobile. Being caught in
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338 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
the social world but unable either to control it or escape from it suggests a terrible
inner deadness and denial of agency. All of these anxieties revolve around a core
existential fear about being nothing more than an object in another person’s world
and having no experiences to call one’s own. With this in mind, Laing argues, what
could be a more rational and healthy response than to withdraw into the inner world
and preserve the autonomy of the self?
Retreating from the demands of (over)socialization, the ontologically insecure per-
son hides his or her “true self” away in the inner recesses of the mind and presents to
the outside world only a “false self.” Appearing at first to be compliant, this false self
allows the individual to play his or her part in upholding the family’s definition of re-
ality and thus to “live in an unlivable situation” (Laing [1967] 1972:115; Laing 1969a:
82–99). Meanwhile the true self is protected from any further violation from outside,
but at the cost of seeming empty, insubstantial, and unfamiliar to its inhabitant. The
descent into madness occurs as the true and false selves drift further apart and the
false self becomes alien even to the actor who constructed it.
Thus Laing did not deny that schizophrenia was a frightening and confusing ex-
perience for those who suffer from it, but he maintained that in its earlier stages,
the creation of a false-self system was a socially intelligible attempt to establish an
inner space over which the actor had control. Rather like Goffman’s backstage actor,
the true self looked on in bemusement while its frontstage counterpart presented a
variety of “faces” to the social world. For example, Laing’s (1969a:72–81) account
of “David” revealed that while acting out the role that his mother expected of him,
the boy was constantly aware that he was playing a part and needed to avoid “giving
himself away” to others. Thus David was always scrupulously honest to himself, and
understood his various “personalities” to be a series of impersonations rather than
any expression of authentic selfhood. “Everyone in some measure wears a mask,”
Laing (1969a:101) argued, and although the schizophrenic’s array of false selves might
not behave in such socially acceptable ways as Goffman’s frontstage performer, these
symptomatic displays were similarly strategic, red herring tactics of “prolonged fili-
bustering to throw dangerous people off the scent” (1969a:177).
Laing wonderd “why these people [‘schizophrenics’] have to be, often brilliantly, so
devious, so elusive, so adept at making themselves unremittingly incomprehensible”
([1967] 1972:102). His answer was that this was the only way in which they could
resist the pressures of oversocialization within the family or other institutions. The
descent into madness, far from being the result of inadequate socialization, is in fact
an attempt to escape the crushing demands of oversocialization. Shifting the focus
from the “sick” individual to the social context in which they come to be seen as
such, Laing and Esterson ([1964] 1970) suggest that it is the distorted patterns of
communication within certain domestic units that create an “unlivable” situation for
the child, who then becomes a scapegoat for the family’s ills. Drawing on Bateson
et al.’s (1962) theory of the double bind, Laing and Esterson present a series of
portraits of schizophrenics’ families, often characterized by a weak and rather passive
father who submits to the stronger will of his wife; this domineering mother imposes
unrealistic demands upon her child and acts reproachfully when the child fails to
live up to them (Sedgwick 1982). Furthermore, the parents seem to oscillate between
competing with each other for the children’s affection and presenting a united front
against them. Frequently, the child feels caught between the conflicting demands
of mother and father, or struggles to reconcile contradictory messages from one or
both parents, leaving the child uncertain of how to behave and what to say to whom.
The experience of the family as a nexus of mystification is further compounded by
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 339
persistent attempts by the parents to undermine the child’s attempts at autonomous
thought and to deny or invalidate memories. By dismissing any versions of events
that conflict with his or her own as simply symptomatic of mental illness, the double-
binding family emerges as a powerful agent of oversocialization. Furthermore, the
unfortunate individual who has been targeted thus may begin to doubt his or her
own perceptions, memories, and definitions of the situation, resulting in a profound
sense of uncertainty about where the boundaries lie between self and other. If “I”
only exist if “you” see me and validate my existence, then I exist in, through, and
for you and not for myself.
The dynamics of the schizophrenic family are first outlined in Laing’s (1969c) es-
say, “The Ghost of the Weed Garden,” in which he presents the case of Julie, a young
woman who had been hospitalized as a “chronic schizophrenic” for nine years. Not-
ing that her symptoms of depersonalization, mutism, auditory hallucinations, and
delusions of persecution could be interpreted from the language of “schizophre-
nese,” Laing examines the patient’s family background to render them intelligible.
He suggests that these family units present an account of the scapegoated member
as progressing through three stages from good to bad to mad. That is, in recalling
their child’s early life, Julie’s parents proclaimed that she was “never any trouble,”
never a “demanding” baby, but that later she became “difficult,” withdrawn, and
uncommunicative. When finally she began “ranting and raving” that her mother did
not want her and was smothering her, Julie’s parents invalidated her accusations as
symptoms of madness: “I knew she really could not have meant the awful things
she said to me ... I’m glad that it was an illness after all” (1969c:197). Here, we
can detect a hint of social constructionism, which runs through Laing’s work. On
one level he is arguing that families construct the “myth of mental illness” (Szasz
[1961] 1972) through the discourses they use to frame their child’s behavior. His own
interpretation of the sanity that lies in madness underlines the point that we can
make alternative readings of the same symbolic gestures. Nevertheless, Laing refuses
to adopt a position of absolute relativism, maintaining that the self has an existential
reality beyond the level of representation. Thus in the case of Julie, Laing suggests
that she was living a “death-in-life” existence and had devised the psychotic strat-
egy of splitting her personality into a constellation of “quasi-autonomous partial
systems” (1969:213) in order to avoid annihilation.
In Sanity, Madness and the Family (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970), we see how
the sanitized versions of events presented by these families conceal an ongoing pattern
of distorted communication within the home. This series of portraits of young women
who have been labeled schizophrenic focuses on the way parents and siblings form
a team of actors, struggling to maintain their definition of reality in the face of
one member’s rebellion. The accounts they present of domestic solidarity, peace,
and cooperativeness can be seen merely as “pseudomutuality” (Wynne et al. 1958),
a collective response to suppress autonomous thought by dismissing it as mental
disturbance. Laing invites us to see from his transcriptions of clinical interviews that
any “madness” lies not in the patients but in the very dynamics of socialization
from which they are trying to escape. We find families denying the reality of the
patient’s perceptions and memories of events and imposing their own interpretations
upon them, while at the same time sending out contradictory messages about whose
accounts can be trusted. Not surprisingly, the individual at the center of such bizarre
patterns of family interaction becomes increasingly confused about these conflicting
accounts of reality, but responds in a way that would seem to be socially intelligible.
Here, for example, we see how Maya Abbott’s parents were convinced that their
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340 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
daughter could read their minds, and so had devised a system of secret, nonverbal
signals—nudges, winking, and nose-rubbing—with which to test out their theory.
Meanwhile, Maya’s perception that something strange was going on in her family
was dismissed as merely the paranoid delusions of her “illness,” an account that
Laing vehemently refutes:
Her mother complained to us that Maya did not want to understand her; her
father felt the same way, and both were hurt that she would not tell them
anything about herself.
Their response to this blow was interesting. They came to feel that Maya had
exceptional mental powers, so much so that they convinced themselves that she
could read their thoughts. For instance,
FATHER: If I was downstairs and somebody came in and asked how Maya
was, if I immediately went upstairs, Maya would say to me, “What have you
been saying about me?” I said, “Nothing.” She said, “Oh yes you have, I heard
you”. Now it was so extraordinary that unknown to Maya I experimented myself
with her, you see, and then when I’d proved it I thought, “Well, I’ll take Mrs
Abbott into my confidence,” so I told her ...one Sunday I said—it was winter—
I said, “Now Maya will sit in the usual chair, and she’ll be reading a book. Now
you pick up a paper and I’ll pick up a paper, and I’ll give you the word and
er ...”—Maya was busy reading the paper, and er—I nodded to my wife, then
I concentrated on Maya behind the paper. She picked up the paper—her em—
magazine or whatever it was and went to the front room. And her mother said,
“Maya, where are you going? I haven’t put the fire on.” Maya said, “I can’t
understand—” no—“I can’t get to the depth of Dad’s brain. Can’t get to the
depth of Dad’s mind”. (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:37—38)
Similarly, when Mary Irwin began to show signs of “independence” from her family
by looking for a job and leaving home, her mother assumed that something must be
wrong. In the following exchange, Mary emerges as a shrewd and insightful observer
of the way in which definitions of reality can become distorted, and consciously
reflects upon her own confusion about whose account to believe:
MARY: When I was coming home for weekends you said that I wasn’t well and
that I was selfish and too full of myself, and all the rest of it.
MOTHER: Well you were selfish then Mary. It was because you were ill.
MARY: Sick.
MOTHER: Well that’s how it appeared to us that you were selfish.
MARY: How was I selfish?
MOTHER: Well I can’t remember now, but I do know that—
MARY: No, you won’t tell me now, so I don’t know how—so if I get better
again I won’t know if I’m right or wrong or when I’m going to crack up again
or what I’m going to do.
MOTHER: Now that’s what I call selfishness, thrusting your opinion on me and
not listening to mine.
MARY: Well you were thrusting your opinion on me and not listening to mine.
You see it works both ways. (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:218)
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 341
LAING, LABELING, AND PROBLEMS IN LIVING: MENTAL ILLNESS
AS DEVIANCE
Being unsure of whether or not their experiences of the outside world actually belong
to them, the ontologically insecure are preoccupied with finding ways to remain
existentially alive and real, independently of others. Here, Laing (1969a) is reminding
us that, rather than helping actors to reconcile their selfish interests with normative
standards, the process of socialization can be powerful enough to annihilate personal
experience and leave the actor feeling alienated from their inner core of being. The
social world becomes a dangerous place to inhabit when relating to others threatens
to destroy one’s self-identity, autonomy, and authenticity. This is not to suggest that
certain family forms cause schizophrenia, but rather that the way in which mental
distress and confusion are experienced begins to make more sense when seen in
the context of the patient’s social environment. Thus when Laing was accused of
not having the control groups of nonschizophrenics in his sample that would have
strengthened his claims of causality (see, e.g., Frith and Johnstone 2003:110–15), he
replied that these critics were missing the point, for he had never wanted to make
such a claim in the first place (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:12).
What Laing does do, however, and what makes his a theory one of critical so-
ciology rather than experimental psychology, is to draw attention to the ways in
which mental illness is recognized, defined, and managed in a social context. This
emphasis on the social production of mental illness points to the role of agents of
social control (namely, psychiatrists and family members) in silencing the voices of
dissenters. By highlighting the way in which patients’ families present accounts that
distort, misinterpret, and redefine challenging behavior as symptomatic of illness, he
demonstrates that it is those with the power to label who construct the entity of
“mental illness” and the social expectations that are tied to the performance of this
role. Here we are reminded of Becker’s (1963) labeling theory, in which he claimed
that “social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infraction constitutes
deviance, and by applying these rules to particular people and labeling them as out-
siders” (1963:9). Shifting the focus from a property inherent in an act or the person
who commits it to the transactions that take place between a rule-breaker and his
or her social audience (Rubington and Weinberg 1996) makes a powerful political
statement against the idea of committing patients to the deviant careers associated
with mental illness and other “master statuses” (Hughes 1945; Becker 1963).
Advocates of the anti-psychiatry movement such as Szasz, Scheff, and, of course,
its figurehead, Laing, drew implicitly or explicitly on labeling theories in their cri-
tiques of psychiatric practice.2In particular, they focused on the uneven balance of
power inherent in the therapeutic relationship, where the emphasis has been on fit-
ting the patient into the “grid of perceptions” (Foucault [1963] 1997) displayed in the
criteria of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) and other diagnostic clas-
sifications. In his influential critique of the psychotherapy industry, Masson (1989)
identified victim-blaming as the hallmark of contemporary psychiatry, and ques-
tioned the expertise claimed by therapists to understand another person’s subjective
2Laing was himself somewhat uncomfortable with the term “anti-psychiatry,” coined by his sometime
collaborator David Cooper. Nevertheless, he did say, “I agree with the anti-psychiatric thesis that by and
large psychiatry functions to exclude and repress those elements society wants excluded and repressed”
(Laing 1985:8–9). We think the term does provide a useful shorthand for indicating the rejection of
institutional psychiatry in the 1960s and 1970s, despite the heterogeneity of the ideas and movements
associated as “anti-psychiatric” (see also Boyers and Orrill 1971).
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342 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
reality. He also raised the question of how and why we may come to trust those
in positions of authority and how this power can be abused. By contrast, Kingsley
Hall and other therapeutic communities were intended to eliminate these inequali-
ties of power through more democratic systems of self-management. The terms in
which the anti-psychiatry movement presented a “counter-discourse” of resistance
(cf. Foucault [1976] 1980) to the dominant practice of psychiatry as a form of social
control were therefore implicitly sociological. Meanwhile, we can also see that the
sociological theories of mental illness that developed in the late 20th century were
implicitly anti-psychiatric, in that they questioned the idea of understanding deviance
(whether as madness or badness) independently of its social context. This confluence
of sociology and anti-psychiatry indicates that Laing was both informed by and
an influence upon sociological theory and so should be located in the sociological
tradition.
There are perhaps three main critiques that appear at this juncture of sociology
and anti-psychiatry. The first of these is a critique of biomedicine as the dominant
mode of understanding and treating mental distress. This is exemplified in the work
of Szasz ([1961] 1972), who proclaimed that the label of “mental illness” was nothing
more than a metaphor applied to social deviance. If insanity was only like illness but
not actually an illness, then the diagnostic process obscured moral judgments about
appropriate and desirable behavior, which served to legitimate the removal and con-
finement of nonconformists. Szasz’s distinction between organic brain diseases and
these everyday “problems in living” makes a powerful case against the medicalization
of mental illness as a form of social control.
Second, there is a critique of the way in which psychiatric treatments deny the
autonomy and selfhood of the patient. We find this originally in Goffman’s (1961)
Asylums, where he documents the stages through which new inmates are stripped of
their previous identities and equipment for self-presentation, and suggests that they
are “mortified” by the regimes of total institutions until they lose sight of the person
they once were. As Goffman argues, staff in these hospitals have the unquestionable
power to define what is real, what is right, and what will be tolerated, because any
challenges from the patients can be dismissed as symptoms of illness. The only way
to escape from this world is to comply with the rules and routines that sustain it:
“The patient must ‘insightfully’ come to take, or affect to take, the hospital’s view of
himself” (Goffman 1961:143). This critique of psychiatry as an instrument of social
control is of course also apparent in Laing’s work. While decarceration (Scull 1984)
has reduced the frequency of confinement of the mentally ill, Scheff (1999) makes a
similar argument about the “tranquilizer revolution” that characterizes contemporary
psychiatry, whereby psychoactive drugs perform the same function of silencing dis-
senting voices with a “chemical straitjacket.”
Scheff’s earlier work exemplifies the third sociological/anti-psychiatric critique: it
challenges the way in which the “problem” of mental illness comes to be located in
individual minds rather than social processes. In Being Mentally Ill (1966), Scheff
uses the labeling perspective to redefine madness as a deviant role, arguing that it
is the social reaction to “residual rule breaking” that leads to the identification of
offenders. Residual rules are those that ensure the smooth flow of interaction but
are so taken for granted that they are never explicitly acknowledged. Individuals
who appear either unwilling or unable to fulfill these obligations of turn-taking in
conversation, respecting personal space, and so on, pose a threat to the interac-
tion order and so tend to evoke morally indignant responses, as Garfinkel (1967)
so clearly demonstrated. The application of the language of “pathology” to social
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 343
deviance involves mystification because it masks the true concern of the psychiatric
establishment, which is to maintain order and conformity.
Laing’s studies are in large part expos´
es of distorted communication patterns and
the ways in which these result from and reinforce domination. Psychiatry’s reduction-
ist and instrumental forms of knowledge of and intervention in the family merely
serve to further mystify these interpersonal power relations. Laing argued famously
that psychiatry collaborates in maintaining intact the family’s view of itself by offi-
cially scapegoating members of the family who challenge or threaten the group cul-
ture. This can be seen in the case of the Danzigs, whose daughter Sarah’s schizophre-
nia consisted in her being a “breaker of the family front.” Laing and Esterson write:
“Much of what they called her illness consisted in attempts to discuss forbidden is-
sues, comments on their attempts to keep her in the dark, or to muddle her, and angry
responses to such mystifications and mystification over mystifications” (Laing and
Esterson [1964] 1970:117–18; see also Esterson 1970:110–21, esp. 112). The psychi-
atric labeling of Sarah gave official sanction to the family’s maintenance of parental
power and its accompanying falsifications.
THE FOUNDATIONS OF LAING’S CRITICAL THEORY
The critical dimension of Laing’s work can be seen clearly by comparing his ap-
proach with J¨
urgen Habermas’s project of critical theory. Anti-psychiatry can be
seen as an example par excellence of the type of new social movement emerging
in the 1960s, which Habermas saw as constructing a new politics, aimed at de-
fending the lifeworld against the enroachment of scientific-instrumental-economistic
rationality or “system” (Habermas 1981; Scambler 1987). Laing’s thought can be
understood as a critical theory of the psychiatric colonization of the lifeworld. His
analysis of schizophrenia places the phenomenon firmly in the world of symbolic
interaction, and he defends it against the technocratic reductionism of biomedicine.
Taking schizophrenia as the “hard case” (i.e., one usually assumed to be outside the
world of social meaning) he presents a far-reaching critique of scientistic attempts
to reduce human life and experience to mechanistic causal models. “Human beings,”
he asserts, “relate to each other not simply externally, like two billiard balls, but by
the relations of the worlds of experience that come into play when two people meet”
([1967] 1972:62–63). The extension of the natural science model to the domain of
human interaction transforms the person into a mere object. For that reason, Laing
writes, “[i]f human beings are not studied as human beings, then this once more
is violence and mystification” ([1967] 1972:63). Laing’s commitment to hermeneutic
methodology therefore expresses a Kantian commitment to treat human beings as
ends in themselves.
In Habermasian terms, Laing advocates a shift from the “technical” human interest
in controlling, predicting, and monitoring natural processes, toward the “emancipa-
tory interest” in freedom from domination and the opportunity to engage in critical
dialogue (Habermas 1987). Laing alludes to the difference between an approach that
takes human beings as ends in themselves and the objectifying and depersonalizing
approach of psychiatry, when he reminds us of the different meanings of the word
“treatment”:
Psychiatrists say I am kidding myself, or that I am one of them [schizophrenic]
anyway, or that I am trying to make out that these people do not need treatment.
They do indeed “need treatment”. Whatever treatment they get, first and last,
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344 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
“we” should not forget to treat “them”, however strange “they” are to “us”, as
“simply human” like ourselves. (Laing 1985:6–7)
Like the Frankfurt School, Laing attacked the claims to neutrality and objectiv-
ity of scientistic framings of human behavior. Laing achieves this by showing how
social scientific and psychiatric jargon actually relies for its sense on the concrete,
descriptive, ordinary language of the lifeworld, to which it claims superiority:
Schizophrenia is a failure of ego-functioning. Is this a neutralist definition? But
what is, or who is, the “ego”? In order to get back to what the ego is and what
actual reality it most nearly relates to, we have to desegregate it, de-depersonalize
it, de-extrapolate, de-abstract, de-objectify, de-reify, and we get back to you and
me, to our particular idioms or styles of relating to each other in social context.
([1967] 1972:67)
If the language of science does not serve to illuminate or make sense of human
experience and behavior, what function does it serve? Like the Frankfurt School,
Laing suggests that it serves an ideological function in depoliticizing and normal-
izing dominant social forms. Laing’s argument is that the framing of the problems
of the family and the schizophrenic patient in the terms of psychiatry serves to up-
hold domination within the family and the mystification of the family’s relations.
The medicalization of mental distress in this way retards the rationalization of the
lifeworld, in the sense that psychiatry operates to perpetuate what Laing called the
“family phantasy system,” operating to stigmatize and punish members who chal-
lenge the prevailing family group-think. Psychiatry leaves unchallenged the distorted
patterns of communication that both enact and conceal forms of domination within
the family.
In this way, Laing’s political critique of the family goes beyond that of Habermas,
who has been criticized by feminists for failing to critically examine the oppressive
relationships that operate within the family. For example, Nancy Fraser (1989:120–
21) has argued that Habermas’s focus on the uncoupling of system and lifeworld
obscures the economics and power relations within the nuclear family. Furthermore,
Fraser argues that Habermas’s view of welfare capitalism as an example of the col-
onization of lifeworld by system not only fails to grasp how the family already
has important “system” elements, that is, strategic power relations, but also fails to
understand the way in which welfare institutions (which we assume would include
medicine and psychiatry) work not to undermine but to reinforce family patriarchy
(Fraser 1989:133). Laing’s work fills precisely those lacunae highlighted by Fraser,
by demonstrating that the superficial consensus of the family is a product of power
relations that are systematically masked. His work provides a highly rich resource
for analyzing the more subtle ways in which the dialogic structure of family rela-
tions institutionalizes forms of domination. Laing’s work similarly demonstrates how
the medical-psychiatric colonization of the family lifeworld in fact prevents the com-
municative rationalization of family relations, upholding forms of domination and
mystification that support patriarchal family structures. He shows how problems of
the colonization of the lifeworld are interrelated with problems of the rationalization
of the lifeworld. His rigorous attention to the politics of everyday life, including the
politics of the family, overcomes Habermas’s weddedness to the public-private split.
For Laing, something like the ideal speech situation, an ideal of communication
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 345
undisorted by power, provides a test of legitimacy not only for the “public sphere”
but also for intimate interpersonal relations.
An ideal of undistorted communication provides the normative basis for Laing’s
critique of the family and of mainstream psychiatry. For Laing, genuine consensus
based on undistorted communication could only be accomplished by making explicit
the residual rules underlying everyday family life, which are systematically denied
even as they are enforced. Laing formalizes one kind of structure for these types of
rule, “Rule A: Don’t. Rule A.1: Rule A does not exist. Rule A.2: Do not discuss
the existence or non-existence of Rules A, A.1, or A.2” (Laing 1971:113; see also
Friedenberg 1973:13). It is such internally contradictory sets of residual rules that
schizophrenics break and expose and that their ostracism and degradation accom-
plished by psychiatry serves to uphold. In this way, the instrumental rationalization
accomplished by psychiatry serves to perpetuate highly irrational social relations
within the family and society. Far from being irrationalist, Laing’s project is based
on a normative ideal of communicative rationality, or, of human relationships undis-
torted by power and its accompanying mystifications. His work clearly shows how
the study of social interaction is a way of examining and exposing politics and power
(Hoggett 2004:77–78).
Consequently, anti-psychiatrists have attempted to find ways of treating mental
distress that do not involve the exercise of illegitimate power. If the schizophrenic is
engaged in a willful act of agency or praxis aimed at defending his or her autonomy,
then anti-psychiatry must facilitate this act. Laing ([1967] 1972) argued that the
therapist should enable the individual to freely embark upon an existential voyage
of self-discovery and “hypersanity.” The therapeutic community that he set up at
Kingsley Hall was intended to provide a supportive environment in which this two-
way journey “into madness and back again” could be nurtured. Similarly, Laing’s
erstwhile colleague Joseph Berke (1979) likened his own establishment, the Arbours,
to a chrysalis into which the metaphorical butterfly could retreat to go through a
transformative episode of insanity. Nevertheless, Laing did not (and nor does Berke)
valorize madness as a pleasant or desirable state of mind; indeed, he was keen to
impress upon his audiences the depth of distress and confusion that schizophrenia
entailed.
It might be argued, however, that Laing’s framework does not go far enough as
a critical theory. Marxist critics of Laing, in particular Peter Sedgwick (1982), have
argued that Laing fails to adequately account for broader structures of inequality and
domination, in particular class. It has to be said that Laing did not give sustained
attention to social structure per se. However, as we have argued, his studies do
illuminate the complex ways in which domination is realized in interaction. This can
be clearly seen in the case of gender domination, for which the micropolitics of the
family is a key locus. The case studies in Sanity, Madness and the Family all involve
women suffering intimate oppression within the nuclear family. The gendering of
domination in the family is further revealed in the case of David (discussed in The
Divided Self and elsewhere) whose fear and powerlessness in relation to his father is
experienced as the fear of turning into a woman (Laing 1985:135–36). While Laing
did not specifically analyze gender as a category in itself, there is plenty of room
for a feminist development of Laing’s understanding of relations of domination and
resistance within the family.
The class dimension is arguably more problematic in relation to Laing’s work.
His case studies tend to feature upper-working-class or lower-middle-class families,
but the significance of class to their styles of interaction remains unexplored. And he
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346 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
explicitly rejects statistical representative sampling as being in appropriate to the ques-
tions explored in these case studies The questions Laing was asking about schizophre-
nia were quite different from the questions and assumptions that would motivate a
statistical exploration of the comparative socioeconomic position of schizophrenics
and their families (Laing and Esterson [1964] 1970:12).
There has been long-standing interest among psychiatric epidemiologists (particu-
larly in Britain) in the “effect” of social class on the “incidence” of schizophrenia
and it is widely noted that schizophrenia is more likely to be found among lower
socioeconomic groups, particularly the inner-city poor. But psychiatric epidemiology
is unclear over whether this is caused by “environmental breeding” (deprivation in
some way “producing” schizophrenia) or “selective social drift” (educational and
social problems associated with the onset of schizophrenia leading to downward mo-
bility) (Cooper 1961, 2005; Goldberg 1963; Harrison 2001). Recently, there has been a
revival of interest in “environmental factors,” particularly as studies have shown high
rates of psychotic illness among black immigrants in the United Kingdom (Cooper
2005). The causal model employed by this sort of statistical social and psychiatric
epidemiology of schizophrenia is, however, open to certain Laingian and social con-
structionist criticisms (Chamba 2003). Like the rest of psychiatry, it tends to reify
schizophrenia as an object in the world, treating it as process rather than praxis. If
the category of “schizophrenia” as a “thing” is deconstructed, it becomes problem-
atic, to say the least, to carry out a comparison of the rates of “incidence” of this
“thing.” Nevertheless, Laing’s emphasis on praxis and understanding how people go
about living in unlivable situations would seem to have clear relevance to the subjec-
tive and phenomenological aspects of class and race: how people live and experience
these forms of inequality and domination.
At the same time, Laing was inclined to see unlivability not just in the situation of
particular oppressed groups, but more subtly across the spectrum of life in modern
societies: in the webs of distorted communication and alienation that characterize not
just the family, but state bureaucracy, the workplace, and so on. In this orientation
(and as evidenced by his participation in the 1967 “Dialectics of Liberation” con-
ference (Cooper 1968)), Laing’s critical theory had affinity with Sartrean humanist-
existential Marxism, the New Left, and Marcuse’s critique of “one-dimensional so-
ciety.” In the 1970s, Laing distanced himself from Marxism and increasingly faced
criticisms such as those made by Sedgwick that he had drifted into apolitical and
nonsociological mysticism. We have suggested, however, that Laing’s work does con-
tain powerful intellectual tools for the critique of quotidian and pervasive forms of
domination.
LAING FOR TODAY: SELF AND SOCIAL ORDER IN AN
INDIVIDUALIZED SOCIETY
Laing’s critique of the family might seem less pressing or relevant in an age char-
acterized by high rates of divorce, family breakup, and rootless individualism. Most
of Laing’s case studies in Sanity, Madness and the Family carried out between 1958
and 1962, involve a woman in her 20s or 30s trapped into living at home with
her parents in large part because she is unmarried. The context is before the sex-
ual and cultural revolutions of the 1960s. Arguably, far from being universally ap-
plicable, Laing’s studies are instead a detailed anthropology of the social anxieties
and neuroses of the British lower middle classes and upper-working-class strata in
the immediate postwar period (Friedenberg 1973:19–20; cf. Gouldner 1971). These
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 347
case studies, it might be said, do not have such clear applicability to what Zyg-
munt Bauman has called contemporary “liquid modernity,” a world of “privatised
singles” characterized by the breakdown of community, family, and of bonds of
caritas (Bauman 1994:25; Bauman 2000, 2003). The neoliberal decarceration of the
insane, critics have argued, has made Laing, Goffman, and other critiques of the asy-
lum both less relevant and politically irresponsible (Sedgwick 1982; Scull 1989:279,
297–99).
However, we would suggest that Laing’s work should still be of considerable con-
temporary interest. Most importantly, social change since the 1960s does not affect
Laing’s fundamental argument that “schizophrenia” can be understood as praxis or
socially meaningful action. This theoretical point has crucial contemporary relevance
as the foundation of a more general critique of medicalization and medical reduction-
ism, including the current influence of biochemical explanations of social deviance
(cf. Conrad 1987).
Intriguingly, Anthony Giddens (1984, 1991) has suggested the general importance
of Laing’s concepts of ontological security and insecurity for understanding the ex-
perience of the contemporary lifeworld. In the cultural climate of “late modernity,”
he argues, it has become difficult for us to bracket out existential questions about
our place in the world and proceed about our daily lives with the “natural attitude”
(Sch¨
utz 1972) of indifference. For Giddens, ontological insecurity is a result of so-
cial changes on a global level rather than the dynamics of interpersonal perception.
The distanciation of time and space and consequent “disembedding” of social rela-
tions have, he suggests, made individuals increasingly self-reflexive, introspective, and
anxious. The self is then forced into a state of “discursive consciousness” whereby
accounting for one’s action becomes as important as the action itself, and this creates
existential uncertainties about one’s place in the world. Thus for Giddens, ontologi-
cal insecurity is no longer something that afflicts an unfortunate minority (such as
“schizophrenics”), but rather it is a more generalized social condition that affects us
all.
We can find an example of the continued and wide-ranging relevance of Laing’s
ideas in the recent work of one of the authors of this piece on the sociology of
shyness (Scott 2004). In the psychological literature, shyness has been theorized as a
property of the individual mind: a personality trait (Cheek and Briggs 1990), tem-
perament (Kagan 1994), or cognitive bias (Clark 2001). While such research has illu-
minated many of the mental, emotional, and behavioral “symptoms” of shyness (see,
e.g., Zimbardo 1977; Crozier 2001), it has neglected to consider the social context
in which such conditions are created, defined, and managed. Thus like schizophre-
nia, shyness is a label that encourages us to think in terms of individual pathology
rather than social reactions to deviant behavior. Scott (2004) therefore conducted a
qualitative study of 40 self-defined “shy” people in the United Kingdom in order
to explore the social processes through which they had come to see themselves in
such terms and the meanings that the “shy” label held for them. The study drew
heavily on both symbolic interactionist theory and anti-psychiatry, for it was argued
that shyness is not simply a cognitive aberration or trait inherent in the individual
mind but rather an emergent property of interaction, whose meaning is negotiated
between social actors. Scott argues that the shy self is experienced as both a privately
felt state of mind (in Mead’s (1934) terms, a Shy “I”) and a publicly recognized
social role (the Shy “Me”). That is, while shy people do feel anxious, inhibited, and
extremely self-conscious about performing in public, lest they reveal what they see
as their own interactional incompetence, this experience cannot be separated from
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348 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
the way in which they see themselves (as potentially discreditable actors) through
the eyes of the generalized other. For example, one informant, Georgia, explained
that she would freeze under the spotlight of the social gaze, which seemed harsh and
unrelenting:
there’s that feeling where people are looking at you ... I always feel as if they’re
waiting for me to mess up.
This understanding of shyness being at least partially defined by the reactions of
others is also reflected in the way the research participants viewed the shy role as
a deviant identity. Their accounts suggested that, whereas in some cases an episode
of shyness could be normalized by reference to a stressful situation, in most cases
shyness would be seen to break a residual rule of interaction (Scheff 1966) and thus
evoke a morally indignant social reaction. The failure of shy people to “pull their
weight” in encounters by maintaining eye contact, reciprocating in conversation, and
presenting a cheerful countenance means that they are often misperceived as rude
and aloof. When we listen to their own versions of events, however, we find that
these actors are in fact highly committed to the idea of sustaining interaction order
but simply feel ill-equipped to do so. Here, for example, is Etta demonstrating a
clear understanding of why her shyness had been misconstrued as bizarre rudeness,
whilst giving an articulate and socially intelligible account of how she was actually
feeling:
By standoffishness I mean that people have seen me as not wanting to chat to
them, when in reality I have been feeling too inferior to think anyone would
choose to talk to me, that they were doing so out of pity. For example, when I
travelled by bus, I’d avoid sitting near anyone I knew might start a conversation
and the whole bus could listen in. One particular lady with a loud voice shouted
one day at me, down the length of the bus, “Who do you think you are tossing
your head at? You think you are too good to sit near me”. I was mortified, as
all I’d done was scuttle past her, pretending not to see her!
In this respect we can recognize shyness as a socially intelligible response to the
dramaturgical stress (Freund 1998) that any actor might feel in a social situation. If
we perceive those around us to be relatively skilled and poised for interaction (to
adapt another Meadian term, they become the “Competent Other”) and anticipate
that they will not perform acts of protective facework (Goffman 1967) to repair
the blunders we might make, it is perhaps not surprising that we will approach the
encounter with a sense of trepidation. Like Laing’s schizophrenic patients, the shy
give accounts of their experiences that make absolute sense when seen in the social
context of their everyday lives and yet can be defined by those around them as sick
or strange behavior.
In the most extreme cases of persistent residual rule-breaking, shy people may be
seen as having a mental disorder such as social phobia, and subjected to regimes
of drug treatments and cognitive-behavioral therapy (Scott 2006). However, this psy-
chiatric diagnosis serves to medicalize what we might understand to be just another
Szaszian “problem in living,” and so in anti-psychiatric terms it can be seen as an
efficient means of social control. For example, a whole industry of “shyness clinics”
has developed in the United States and United Kingdom, which claim to restore
individuals to a level of what Henderson and Zimbardo (2004) call “social fitness.”
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THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION OF R. D. LAING 349
The treatment regimes in these clinics use a form of disciplinary power (Foucault
[1975] 1977), as clients are drilled through exercises,
to convert maladaptive thoughts, attributions and self-concept distortions to
more adaptive cognitive patterns, and training in effective communication skills,
including healthy assertiveness and negotiation. People move from social dys-
function, withdrawal, passivity, and negative self-preoccupation to adaptive func-
tioning, increased social participation, a proactive orientation, and empathy and
responsiveness to others. (Henderson and Zimbardo 2004:14)
If, as this kind of discourse suggests, the real problem of shyness is that it is
socially disruptive, difficult for others to deal with, and threatening to the interac-
tion order, then we might question whether there is really anything wrong with “shy
minds” at all. While there is a painfully private sense of social inadequacy in the
feeling of shyness, this can be understood as a socially intelligible response to dra-
maturgical stress and so it is nothing more than a normal “problem in living.” The
construction of “shyness” as a distinct identity that betrays difference and other-
ness, meanwhile, has emerged from the way in which contemporary Western cultures
have established a set of normative rules about assertiveness and self-expression; those
whose behavior deviates from this standard are labeled as deviant outsiders (cf. Becker
1963).
This example demonstrates that the contemporary relevance of Laing’s work ex-
tends far beyond the scope of psychiatry and extreme mental distress. If even such
everyday “problems” as shyness can be medicalized, then the types of conflict that
Laing was describing are today found more pervasively throughout society. Thus
more than ever, it is important to develop a humanistic sociological account of
the self in its lifeworld and to defend this against the dominance of biomedical
presuppositions. Indeed, as psychoanalysis has been more and more eclipsed by the
pharmaceutical revolution and the rise of cognitive-behavioral therapy, the reintegra-
tion of sociology with the liberatory agenda of anti-psychiatry might prove increas-
ingly important as the basis for a voice of dissent.
CONCLUSION
We have sought to demonstrate the sociological relevance of R. D. Laing’s work and
have highlighted the junctures between interpretivist sociology and anti-psychiatry.
Influenced by key figures in the existentialist, phenomenological, and symbolic inter-
actionist traditions, Laing emphasized that the self was born into a world of social
actors to whom one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions must be oriented, and that the
intra-psychic processes of the mind could not exist in a social vacuum. However, he
was also careful to avoid presenting another version of the “oversocialized conception
of man” that had plagued the sociological tradition. One of Laing’s most original
contributions to social theory was to point out that “taking the role of the other”
may not be as straightforward as Mead and the interactionists had assumed, insofar
as the messages that these others give off can be confused, ambiguous, or contradic-
tory. By shifting the focus from the schizophrenic patient to their his or her nexus,
Laing’s theory resonated strongly with labeling theories of deviance and sociological
accounts of mental illness, without denying the private pain and suffering that these
individuals experience.
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350 SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY
Meanwhile, Laing remained committed to both an ethical and a methodological
practice of verstehen. By listening to and taking seriously the accounts schizophrenic
patients gave of their experiences, this new theory of mental illness championed the
cause of the “underdog” and reminds us how important it can be to “take sides” in
social research and give a voice to those who would otherwise be unheard (cf. Becker
1967). Laing’s belief in the social intelligibility of schizophrenic lifeworlds led him
to assume an almost anthropological role as he encouraged these “key informants”
to provide an insight into their family cultures. However, his analyses of these cul-
tures were not simply descriptive, for Laing presents a critical theory of psychiatric
power as a product of the collusion between the medical profession and agents of
(over)socialization like the nuclear family.
We have emphasized that Laing’s work should be seen as a critical theory, with
problems of power and domination as its key preoccupation. Like Foucault, Laing
located power not at the level of abstract social structure such as statistical con-
ceptions of class stratification, but instead in the specifics of everyday life and in
the penetration of everyday life by expertise and power/knowledge. But instead of
Foucault’s phrase “the micro-physics of power,” Laing may be seen as illuminating
the microinteraction or microcommunication order of power: for it is in commu-
nication, or rather miscommunication and misunderstanding, that Laing locates the
dynamics of power at the interactional level. A holistic conception of social power
and domination, integrating structure and interaction, continues to be occluded by
the micro-macro distinction, which, though much criticized, proves hard to dissolve
(cf. Knorr-Cetina 1981; Mehan 1991). But in the face of criticisms of Laing’s lack of
structural sociological analysis (e.g., of class), we would suggest that the importance
of Laing lies in his illumination of the everyday, face-to-face, microcontexts in which
power is enacted, experienced, and realized.
Finally, we want to argue that Laing’s work has the potential to enlighten current
debates within sociology. His critique of the medicalization of interpersonal and so-
cial problems can be applied to everyday “problems in living,” other than schizophre-
nia, that affect the members of contemporary Western societies. We illustrated this
through the example of shyness, which can be theorized in Laingian terms as a so-
cially intelligible response to dramaturgical stress, the accounts given by self-defined
shy people providing a refreshing rejoinder to psychological theories. More generally,
Laing’s account provides a key resource for making sense of the fragmented, hyper-
reflexive self of post- or late modernity, while avoiding the pitfalls of strong social
constructivism and discursive reductionism. By developing the idea of a self that is
at once existentially alive and socially shaped, Laing provides a unique contribution
to the sociological tradition that deserves greater recognition.
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