Psychoanalysis and Social Theory

Jeffrey Prager. Encyclopedia of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2005.

Freud and Social Theory

Since its origins, psychoanalysis has been inextricably linked with the history of twentieth-century social theory. Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, responded to unprecedented events in his own political culture, particularly World War I, the resurgence in Austria of anti-Semitism, and the rise of Nazism, fascism, and other mass movements, and applied his developing science to a theory of society. Psychoanalysis is predicated on a fully elaborated set of postulates concerning human nature, a metapsychology that describes the inner world of a human being as governed by both rational and nonrational impulses. In various writings beginning in the 1920s, Freud sought to explain the ways in which the psychological makeup of the individual, rather than helping to realize it, limited the achievement of reason in the social world.

The theorist of the unconscious described the special problem faced by “civilization” that required for its survival the thwarting of human instinct. Developing in particular a theory of the death drive, or Thanatos, Freud explored its expression in individuals, its necessary repression by social systems, and the pathology that can derive from it, to explain the mass politics with which he was confronted. Here Freud appears to be a more modern Thomas Hobbes, suggesting that social institutions are required to limit, restrict, and restrain these fundamentally antisocial inclinations of individuals. Consistent with Freud’s elaboration of an individual’s intrapsychic conflict that requires repression of pleasure on behalf of a reality principle, he posits that the social order too insists upon repression of instinct, and as such, society, from the family to the state, inserts itself as the agency of individual domination.

Unlike Hobbes, who posits an identity of interest between the needs of the individual (i.e., to prevent premature death through the war of one against all) and the interests of the sovereign (i.e., in place to preserve the Leviathan), Freud identifies an inherent conflict between the needs or requirements of social institutions and their capacity to distort or pervert individual possibility. Here, more like Nietzsche than Hobbes, Freud insists that society, rather than establishing the conditions for human self-realization, can impede them. While civilization ensures greater happiness for the species, because without it disease, war, and earlier death would be more common, society nonetheless interferes with a person’s pleasure principle, creating a social being at war with authority and, as that authority becomes internalized, at war with itself.

This is the Freudian conundrum: Individuals are dependent upon a social world that makes possible instinctual gratification. Nonetheless, they find themselves in a struggle against social power that requires of them excessive restriction both of libidinal or erotic and aggressive impulses. The result is the internalization of external authority in the form of moral conscience, generating often an overly repressive form of self-discipline and restraint. Because of these contending sentiments and imperatives, the lived experience of individuals is defined by the production of ambivalence and dominated by the experience of guilt. Love and hate coexist, directed at times at oneself, at others, and at the social world that enables those feelings. While the victory of a reality principle over pleasure alone is the aim, the result often is pathology. The individual drive to satisfaction with socially imposed restrictions on gratification defines the dialectical relationship that, for Freud, is a permanent feature of the world in which we live and is always fraught with the possibility for failure. While much of Freud’s career was devoted to exploring the ways in which psychological illness was a product of an individual’s inability to successfully navigate the waters of pleasure and restraint with which he or she was confronted, Freud’s later writings increasingly turned to the inextricable connection between the death drive of individuals and the forces of social order and constraint that colluded in the simultaneous production of excessive repression and pathology.

Freud, in the end, remains agnostic as to whether the emancipatory potential of the individual might ever be achieved despite the requirements of a collectivity that requires a surplus of repression. Writing in Civilization and Its Discontents ([1930]1975), Freud states, “A good part of the struggles of mankind centre around the single task of finding an expedient accommodation—one, that is, that will bring happiness—between the claim of the individual and the cultural claims of the group; and one of the problems that touches the fate of humanity is whether such an accommodation can be reached by means of some particular form of civilization or whether this conflict is irreconcilable” (p. 96). And while Freud, writing in the interwar years, assumes an understandably despairing tone about our capacity to construct collective institutions that balance group needs with personal self-expressiveness, psychoanalysis firmly established its centrality to understanding the relationship between individual and society and, more pointedly, laid the theoretical terms for a twentieth-century preoccupation with the tension between social constraint and human potentiality.

Critical Theory

Freud’s anthropological claims about the human being were first taken up outside psychoanalysis by members of the Institute for Social Research, later known as the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, a generation of scholars—Max Horkheimer, Leo Loewenthal, Erich Fromm, and Theodore Adorno—interested in breaking out of an instrumental utilitarianism then characteristic of Marxist thought sought to marry the psychology of Freud to the economics and philosophy of Marx. Because of their interest in applying psychoanalysis to social theory, the early members of the school were successful in having an Institute of Psychoanalysis established in Frankfurt in 1929, and created the first formal relationship of its kind between a Freudian training center and a university. The result, for a time, was a vigorous exchange between psychoanalytic practitioners, visiting psychoanalysts, and members of the Institute of Social Research, establishing a model of interaction between clinicians and intellectuals rarely paralleled anywhere since. Throughout the century and currently, those who identify with the Frankfurt School and its intellectual and political legacy, including Herbert Marcuse, Jürgen Habermas, Jessica Benjamin, and Axel Honneth, have been the most insistent interlocutors of psychoanalysis, continuing to critically engage the field for its social and political implications.

Ironically, while Freud in the early 1930s became interested in specifying the contours of the death drive and its collaboration with societal forces demanding excessive restraint, these first-generation Frankfurt school theorists, in a bold effort to wrap anticapitalist, antistatist and antifascist politics around a psychology of human emancipation, were drawn to psychoanalytic ideas that offered a vision of the postcapitalist individual, when alienation—including psychological estrangement—might be overcome. Thus, Freud was criticized for his new emphasis on Thanatos with the critical theorists rejecting this shade of antihumanism in his thought. The presence of the death drive implied that the forces of domination might be justified in demanding its repression. Horkheimer insisted rather that Thanatos was a historically specific expression of impulses existing in modern capitalist society, now carried forth by individuals. While quarrelling with Freud in this regard, he nonetheless embraced fully Freud’s insistence on the nonidentity between society and psychology, the irreducibility of the social to the psychological and vice versa. Freud’s most fundamental contribution, he argued, lay in his demonstration of a stratum of human existence—the unconscious—that was out of reach of the totalizing effects of society. The Freudian unconscious became a theoretical bulwark against a sense of total defeat as the forces of society, through the 1930s and 1940s, seemed to overwhelm any indications of human capacity for resistance. The extent to which individual unconscious stands as a line of last defense against a totalizing system of societal domination remains a central node of contemporary theoretical controversy involving psychoanalytic thinkers, those that identify with the critical theory school, as well as contemporary postmodern and poststructural theorists.

As a result of Nazism, the Frankfurt school was forced to relocate; most of its members moved to New York, renaming the school as the International Institute for Social Research and housed at Columbia University. Other members, while still affiliated, emigrated farther west to California. In America, Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse continued to demonstrate the centrality of Freud to their thinking. Adorno, for example, influenced by the psychoanalytic writings of Fromm and Wilhelm Reich, who were attempting to explain mass support for fascism, turned his attention in the 1940s to a study of anti-Semitism that later expanded to an explanation of psychological authoritarianism. Linking up with empirical researchers at Berkeley, Adorno (1950) published The Authoritarian Personality, where he argued that authoritarianism is a consequence of a publicly expressed ethnocentric ideology overlaid on a conflicted personality structure created by punitive child-rearing practices and inconsistent parental affection. And in a kind of companion piece, Adorno (1951) published “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda.” He argued here that mass movements, in addition to being understood from the bottom up, or from the perspective of individuals’ pathology helping to foster authoritarianism, require an appreciation of the ways in which propaganda skillfully fosters from the top down primitive identifications with the leader and with the group. As political events of the 1940s and 1950s unfolded, the nonidentity principle, while not explicitly abandoned, was being seriously undermined: Was there any aspect of the individual unconscious invulnerable to external manipulation? Adorno and others were finding it more difficult to understand the unconscious as anything more than a function of political and social repression. Adorno was to call both the culture industry and fascist propaganda “psychoanalysis in reverse,” and their capacity to subdue the individual through primitive psychological mechanisms extraordinarily impressive.

But with the publication of The Authoritarian Personality, a psychoanalytically informed critical theory became wedded for a time to American empirical social science, and the critical theoretical issues raised by the findings were subsumed to the question of the validity and reliability of its quantitative findings and statistical measures. The controversy over the volume was effectively drained of any political meaning; almost instantly, it was subject to considerable scrutiny, with strong criticisms directed especially at its empirical findings. The result was a setback for the institutionalization of a critical psychoanalytic theory within American social science. The institute reopened in Germany in 1949, and Horkheimer and Adorno returned to Frankfurt.

In contrast to Horkheimer and Adorno, who sought to discover in Freud support for an increasingly pessimistic formulation of the possibilities of social transformation, Herbert Marcuse offered a utopian reconciliation between Freud and Marx. Marcuse, who remained in America, published in 1955 Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud. He argues that the erotic instinct, Eros, has produced the material and technical preconditions necessary to end scarcity in society. But advanced industrial society, characterized by people’s mastery over the natural world, also resulted in their estrangement from nature. For Marcuse, the death instinct expresses this form of alienation, a negation of what he terms the Nirvana principle, that is, the oceanic feeling of oneness with the world. Like other critical theorists’ historicized treatments of Thanatos, Marcuse identifies the death instinct as the source of people’s unhappiness. Yet in contradistinction, he identifies the death drive as a human being’s quest to reunite with inorganic nature, and insists that by re-eroticizing a person’s relation both to other people and to nature it is possible to overcome alienated labor. Invoking a less pessimistic reading of Freud, Marcuse conceptualizes the possibility of a convergence between the pleasure and Nirvana principle. The sexual tyranny of the genitals, Marcuse proclaims, is the expression of a historically specific form of estrangement. Polymorphous perversity, in contrast—the eroticization of all of life itself—constitutes a possibility now, for the first time. The shift from production to consumption in modern capitalism, Marcuse argues, promotes the conditions by which the repressive needs of an industrializing society has given way to a more liberated consumer society. The individual personality has become freed—never before possible in human history—of the requirement of excessive repression. Eros and Civilization,while profoundly utopian, was also inherently political: Overcome the performance principle imposed by advanced industrial civilization, Marcuse proclaims, and a fulfilling, playful, and eroticized life will emerge.

Norman O. Brown (1959), writing Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History shortly after Eros and Civilization, struck a complementary chord. An American scholar who was not a member of the Frankfurt school, Brown nonetheless similarly politicizes Freud by suggesting that human sociability possesses a regressive, backward-looking, death-driven character because of human beings’ unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of mortality. By uncovering the powerful role of the death instinct, Brown argues, Freud now enables a conception of a healthy human being: The human neurosis is now, for the first time, made conscious and, therefore, eradicable. Together, for a time, with Marcuse and Brown its commanding officers, a new American school of psychoanalytically informed political criticism appeared to be emerging.

But psychoanalysis as political critique gave way to a kind of mystical celebration of the erotic and communal. Marcuse’s and Brown’s subsequent writings became read as celebrations for an eroticized collectivity, utopian visions capable of being realized through the strength of communalism. Contributing to an apolitical celebration of the sensuous, Marcuse’s (1964) One-Dimensional Man and Brown’s (1966) Love’s Body in the 1960s were treated as complementary pieces (despite Marcuse’s own efforts to differentiate between them), with each assuming a cultlike status to a countercultural and communitarian politics that was more cultural than political. The identification in public thinking between Freud and claims for nonrepressive sexuality is reminiscent of Freud’s reception in turn-of-the-century Vienna: psychoanalysis as synonymous with free love. Psychoanalysis as political critique was eclipsed. Its fate in America was now tied to that of the counterculturalism of the 1960s.

In 1971, Jürgen Habermas, a third-generation critical theorist writing in Germany, published Knowledge and Human Interests. He describes psychoanalysis as an exemplar of “undistorted communication,” in which the presuppositions of both parties to a communicative exchange are subject to reflexive examination. Reflecting perhaps a more hopeful climate in Western Europe, Habermas identifies a rationalistic and emancipatory core to the practice of psychoanalysis—”the only tangible example of a science incorporating methodical self-reflection”—and employs it as a normative model for social communication. While criticized for minimizing the significance of the asymmetries of power between analyst and analysand, Habermas nonetheless, on behalf of emancipatory possibility, describes in the relationship between analyst and analysand a model of communicative action demonstrably achievable, capable of challenging systemic structures of power and domination. Habermas’s turn toward communication signaled a broader theoretical reorientation to language that extended beyond critical theory, which included the ideas of the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who described the unconscious as structured like a language. But while Lacan became a central figure in postmodern and poststructural social theory, Habermas stood firm against the deconstructive turn, imagining instead nondistorted communication as a vehicle to transform subjective irrationalities held privately by individuals into an objectively grounded and reflexive radical democracy. By describing a concrete possibility for emancipatory practice, Habermas remains true to his critical theory origins, resisting wholesale abandonment of an emancipatory social project. Indeed, throughout the last several decades, he has been among the most prominent stalwarts against abandoning a commitment toward the realization of reason and promoting Enlightenment ideals in social life.

At the same time, Habermas also makes clear the limits of his interest in aligning his emancipatory interest to psychoanalysis, a discipline that similarly harbors utopian aspirations. He writes pointedly against the psychoanalytic theorizing of Cornelius Castoriadis, a French analyst contemporary with Habermas. Castoriadis (1997) asserts the “monadic core of the subject,” that is, an unconscious untouched by the social world, and identifies the psychoanalytic project of “making the unconscious conscious” with an emancipatory “project of autonomy.” Habermas distances himself from psychoanalysis by insisting on the primacy of the intersubjective—not the subjective—and the sufficiency of knowing the subject through the language being spoken between social members. He disclaims any interest in the Freudian unconscious. There is an irony, as Joel Whitebook (1997) notes, that in a postmodern political environment hostile to claims about reason’s potential for human emancipation, Habermas rejects the substantive claims of a discipline that shares with him a similar belief in the possibilities of reason. Yet Habermas remains consistent with his earlier writings, insisting that psychoanalysis is of interest only for its epistemological stance toward self-discovery and its claims that genuine communication is possible as countervailing possibility despite existing structures of asymmetric power and authority.

More recently, the writings of Jessica Benjamin (1995) and Axel Honneth (1996), in contrast, reveal a substantive involvement with psychoanalytic ideas, ones intended to specify the specific contours of emancipatory possibility in the modern world. Reviving the substantive engagement with psychoanalysis in the early years of critical theory, they each reestablish the link between a progressive social theory and a depth-psychological understanding of the human being. Moving beyond the monistic theorizing of Freud (and Castoriadis, as well), both draw heavily upon the writings of D. W. Winnicott, an English psychoanalyst, writing in the 1950s and 1960s. Winnicott describes the developmental process of the individual as one moving from absolute dependency, at the time of birth, toward independence. This process is not foreordained but is an achievement requiring a good-enough environment that enables the individual to develop “the capacity to be alone.” Winnicott captures the link between healthy individual development and a providing social world, internalized in the person, characterized by a community of loving and caring others.

The struggle for recognition—being known and knowing others through love, respect, and self-esteem—describes for Honneth and Benjamin an imperative that defines the human project in a social world. Recognition as a concept draws upon both Hegel and post-Freudian psychoanalytic thought, and its achievement can become derailed as a result of interpersonal failures (the focus especially for Benjamin) linked to inadequacies in the social environment. At the same time, recognition also establishes normative criteria upon which contemporary societies and the social relations they engender are understood as deficient. The grounds for transformative political action are defined by the struggle to produce the conditions that enable recognition.

American Structural: Functionalism and Social Science

Among American theorists of the twentieth century, Talcott Parsons, more than any other, has been interested in integrating Freudian thought within a fully elaborated social theory. Parsons identifies as the central sociological question the problem of social order—the Hobbesian problem—or how potentially egoistic and conflictual aspects of human nature are inhibited so as not to destroy stable social relationships. In synthesizing the writings of Weber, Durkheim, Pareto, and other European theorists, Parsons identifies various structural arrangements that function in order to generate order, including the deployment of legal and political authority and the institutionalization of patterns of lawful economic competition. But he argues, in addition, that social order possesses a crucial affective component, a primary attachment of individuals to goals and rules of social action that link them both to the particular social relations of families and to more generalized normative models of rule-governed behavior. Parsons utilizes psychoanalysis both for a “theory of action,” in which individual motivation is understood as intrinsically necessary to social structure, and a theory of how, through the process of socialization, social actors internalize cultural symbols and values. Within social theory, Parsons argues, a remarkable convergence occurs between Durkheim, who, beginning from the social whole, theorizes about the ways in which individuals internalize collective norms and values, and Freud, who, starting from the individual personality and the acquisition of the superego, theorizes about the internalization of collective norms and values in the individual. For Parsons, seeking a grand, synthetic theory of society, the fundamental differences between Durkheim, who denies individual monism, and Freud, who built a science based upon it, are of far less interest than the ways in which the former turned to the problem of individual internalization and the latter moved toward a theory of object-relations to each produce a rendering of the articulation of the social whole through its individual participants.

Writing about psychoanalysis and theory mostly in the 1950s and early 1960s, Parsons offered a complex theory of the interchange between personality and social structure that was far less critical and pessimistic than those writing in the tradition of critical theory. While documenting the sources within the individual personality for social strain, Parsonian theory nonetheless emphasizes the complementarity between individual and society, social institutions as mediating agencies, and the mutually reinforcing forces that produce and reproduce social order. The result is a theory of social structure and function whose analytical focus is to describe the forces that naturally move a society and individuals toward equilibrium and stasis rather than those that account for conflicting interests between individual and society.

Various students of Parsons have built upon his work to further develop a psychoanalytically informed social science. Philip Slater (1963), for example, in an article that appeared in the American Sociological Review, argues that while social systems depend upon libidinal diffusion, social anxiety encourages regressive impulses that threaten the social collectivity. Here he offers his response to Freud’s concern with the power of Thanatos in social life. Particular institutions, Slater claims, like the incest taboo, marriage, and socialization necessarily counteract those threatening impulses and attempt to preserve libidinal attachments to the broader collectivity. And Neil Smelser, Parsons’s research assistant for his most explicitly psychoanalytic book, Family, Socialization and Interaction Processes (1955), undertook a full clinical training in psychoanalysis. During the course of Smelser’s own career as a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, he has considered psychoanalysis and its relation to sociology both in terms of the epistemological and methodological obstacles to inter-disciplinarity and the rethinking of defense mechanisms in light of an elaborated understanding of the social contexts in which they operate. His engagement with these themes culminated in The Social Edges of Psychoanalysis (1998), a collection of his psychoanalytic-sociological essays. In 1997, Smelser delivered as a presidential address to the American Sociological Association, “The Rational and the Ambivalent in the Social Sciences.” Not since 1939 on the occasion of Freud’s death when the American Journal of Sociology devoted an entire issue to Freud and sociology has psychoanalysis been as prominently represented in the field.

These metathemes of civilization, Thanatos, and guilt have not been the only ones in which social theory has engaged psychoanalysis. Since the 1913 publication of Totem and Taboo, where Freud declares the birth of culture as a result of the killing of the primal father, anthropologists have been in dialogue with psychoanalysis, at a more microlevel, concerning culture, its meaning, and the relation between cultural forms and its carriers. The dialogue, at times, has paralleled that of metatheory, especially as it has focused on issues, for example, of the universality of the Oedipal complex and other bioevolutionary and instinctual universals underlying culture. But less controversial for psychological anthropology are the Freudian-inspired ideas of the pervasiveness in all cultures of sexuality, aggressivity, attachment, and loss, and the interest in understanding their cross-cultural variation. Significant debates are ongoing about the interrelation between individual personality and cultural forms. Do socialization practices reflect the disciplining of individuals to conform to specific cultural or social forms? Or does the reality of instinctual needs driven by the individual—even the child—require a more complex understanding of the dynamic relation between personality and culture? How might one better understand the interpenetration of conflictual intrapsychic patterns alongside the presence of a multivalent culture? These themes have been explicitly explored in, for example, Jean Briggs’s (1998) Inuit Morality Play: The Emotional Education of a Three Year Old. A Durkheimian-inspired understanding that social and cultural organization precedes the individual and creates and shapes the individual’s worldview and orientation to social action, in short, vies with a Weberian nominalist effort to characterize individuals ideal-typically. As Gannath Obeyeskere (1990) in The Work of Culture observes in support of this latter rendering, anthropology is an enterprise that, in order to explain cultural forms and their transformations over time, requires holding an idea of the interpenetration between a personal symbol—based on the personal life and experience of individuals—and the cultural symbol that helps to shape for individuals their experiences of social reality. Here, external reality and individual perception are not easily parsed, an insight profoundly indebted to Freudian psychoanalysis and one that requires the anthropological quest to generalize ideal-typically about the “native’s point of view.”

Poststructuralism, Postmodernism, and Feminism

The publication in 1974 of Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism: A Radical Reassessment of Freudian Psychoanalysis marked the resurgence of psychoanalysis as political critique, and psychoanalytic ideas now remain as an integral component in contemporary feminist criticism. Indeed, through feminist discourse, psychoanalysis persists as a key contributor to contemporary social theory. Psychoanalysis and Feminism signaled to those interested in feminism, by a writer whose credentials were already well established as a feminist, that psychoanalysis could not be ignored in a social analysis of the sources of sexual oppression. The broadly based receptivity of contemporary psychoanalytic writings, as in the works of Nancy Chodorow, Jessica Benjamin, Jacqueline Rose, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva, and Judith Butler, were enhanced by Mitchell’s assertion of the significance of psychoanalytic thought in feminist social analysis.

Mitchell reinterpreted Parsons’s model of unconscious identifications and gender roles as fruitful difference and complementarity to be, rather, a description of socially enforced deficit and inequality. She is a British socialist influenced by Lacan and the French Marxist Althusser, who argued that Freud, despite clear evidence of his own misogyny, nonetheless provided the theoretical basis to understand how masculinity, femininity, heterosexuality, and gender become deeply inscribed in the individual psyche. Psychoanalysis demonstrates the cultural basis of patriarchy, not its naturalness; it also explains, Mitchell argues, the reasons for its deep resistance to change. At the same time, the psychological basis for sexual domination provides a theory for its radical undoing, though mindful of the power of the idea in reproducing gendered inequality.

Yet the widespread invocation of psychoanalysis on behalf of a feminist social analysis implied no unanimity in terms of its application: It has rather helped to define the terms of the debate. On the one side, engaging directly with Mitchell’s work are feminists, largely in Europe, who understand sexual domination as a function of language and discourse and as hinging on the perception and acceptance of unequal genital difference: the phallus and its lack. Building upon Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan, the prism of explanation for domination is the historical development of gender dualism in which man is viewed as self-determining and autonomous and woman as Other. Language itself encodes definitions of gendered identity; as Lacan argues, entry to the symbolic realm is subordination to a structure of distinctions that position individuals almost irretrievably in a cognitive prison in which only certain thoughts and desires are thinkable. Psychodynamically, the Oedipal father is decisive in reinscribing sexual difference and establishing phallic primacy from one generation to the next. The works of Irigaray, Cixous, and others are reactions against the formulation of women as lack, but they nonetheless provide an alternative linguistic rendering to account for gendered difference. Still interested in the Oedipal triangle and the failure of mothers to resist the passing on of male domination, these authors assert nonetheless the possibility for “women’s language” and “writing the body” that valorizes feminine experience and the female body.

North American feminists provide an alternative theory to explain gender domination, though one no less inspired by psychoanalysis. But unlike the Lacanian and neo-Lacanians described, these writers rely on Freudian and post-Freudian insights on the pre-Oedipal object relations ties, especially between child and mother—”the first bond,” to help explain gendered inequality. Nancy Chodorow (1978), in The Reproduction of Mothering, describes the intense identification that occurs, in isolated middle-class mother-dominated child-rearing families, between mothers and daughters, creating in girls a more fluid and relational sense of selfhood, as compared to boys, and establishing in girls the capacities and desires for mothering. Boys tend to more sharply individuate themselves against their mothers, simultaneously becoming more autonomous and emotionally constrained. Jessica Benjamin (1995) in The Bonds of Love, Psychoanalysis, Feminism and the Problem of Domination similarly focuses on the pre-Oedipal experience, emphasizing the writings of Winnicott rather than Freud’s, to explore the psychological persistence of gendered inequality in a social environment that, in all other respects, celebrates formal equality. Domination, she argues, is a complex social process deeply intertwined in family life, sexual relations, and other social institutions, and has it roots in the earliest patterns of relatedness between mothers, fathers, and boys and girls. Dorothy Dinnerstein and Carol Gilligan too share in this perspective in which pre-Oedipal gender relations are identified as crucial dimensions of social inequality.


The relation between psychoanalysis and contemporary social theory remains a vexed one. In one respect, postmodernism and poststructuralism reject a conception of a generalized human nature, the idea of an immutable psychic structure, a sense of the “knowability” of an individual, as well as a concept of the singularity of the self. But while in certain ways Freudian psychoanalysis has been an easy foil by which to articulate a more relativistic, contextually based, skeptical, and multivalent understanding of the person and his or her relation to the social world, it has not withered in the face of its detractors. In fact, it has demonstrated over the last century a rather remarkable resilience, revealing a dynamic capacity to address similar challenges within its own discursive frame. Thus, an emphasis on a one-person psychology has given way to elaborated conceptions of inter-subjectivity, drive, or instinct theory to object-relatedness, the primacy of the Oedipal triangle in defining the parameters of the adult personality to pre-Oedipal dyadic patterns. To current epistemological challenges about historical objectivity and certainty, it has offered its own reformulations, inspired by Freud himself but also employing post-Freudian analysts, about memory and the reconstruction of the past. In sum, as a result of its own adaptability to new understandings and sets of concerns, psychoanalysis has proven to be an inestimable resource for present-day social theory. Indeed, as contemporary theory increasingly turns toward issues of self-hood, identity, intimacy, and sexuality in the postmodern condition—questions that directly engage the relation of the individual to the social world—it is now no longer conceivable to consider social theory without psychoanalysis as a dimension of it. Beyond that, psychoanalysis helps frame the question that has organized theoretical argument throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first: Is the individual unconscious a deposit of the cultural and social world that surrounds it, or does it possess imaginary possibility, relatively immune to social determinations, that is capable of transforming the social world on behalf of the human being? This is the question Freud originally posed, and in various respecifications, it continues today to structure theoretical controversy.