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Sociology versus Psychology – The Social Context of Psychological Pathology and Child Abuse

Abstract

What does Psychology, Sociology, Behaviourism, and emotional, psychological, physical, and spiritual abuse have to do with each other? A concern with uplifting the human being, transcending pain and suffering, and moving towards holistic health and wellbeing. Or not. Sometimes it is just about command, control, and fitting people into the System. But not here, and not from now on. The winds of change are blowing, a hurricane is coming, and no amount of self delusion, self deception, or social propaganda are going to turn those winds away.

I started off in psychology. My first few years in university had me studying Freud and Pavlov and Maslow and the like. I was pretty happy with psychology, for a while at least. Then, in about my fourth year of study, the department went “Behaviourist.” At that time humanist and existential psychologists were pushed out of the department and behavioural and cognitive psychologists were hired to replace them. After that I did not last very long. The new focus of the department was distributing to me. It became, as is the nature of behavioral psychology, more about controlling the physical unit with reward and punishment than it was about investigating human potential. I will be honest, I didn’t like that at the time. My idea of working in psychology was more about uplifting the human being, transcending pain and suffering, and moving towards holistic health and wellbeing. The “reward and punishment,” cognitive control focus didn’t fit in with that. So, I left Psychology and moved into Sociology. I have to admit I was much happier in Sociology, not because Sociology had a lot to say about transcending pain and suffering, and moving towards holistic health and wellbeing, but because Sociology had a much better view of the cause of pain and suffering than psychology did (even in its humanistic and existentialist forms). Psychology, for all cognitive and behavioral sophistication, tended to “miss the boat” on a lot of different things. In particular psychology, even in its humanistic and existentialist forms, tends to “individualize” pain and suffering. If you have a problem, psychology looks for the cause inside you. This cause can be many different things like genetic heritage, neurological imbalance, faulty thinking processes, or pathological reward structures. Regardless of what it is though the source is always you.

Of course moving into Sociology I didn’t fully understand the implications of this, but I did become enlightened after a while, especially after spending a couple of years in Sociology. The more time I spent in Sociology the more I realized that you could never just focus in on the individual to the exclusion of the world around. This is because the individual does not ever, ever, ever exist in isolation. From the time we are born we are in interaction with “things.” These things may be human things like parents, siblings, or teachers, or they can be “institutional” things like schools, or churches, or even whole economies. The point, we are not, nor have we ever been, born in isolation. Indeed when you think about it, we are never really alone. Whether we are with people, or with televisions, or with a book, we are always having some form of interaction with some other being. The clearer this became to me, the less sense psychology made. To speak about individual psychology (and pathology) without also having a deep analysis of the social, political, and economic context of the individual just doesn’t make sense at al;.

Which is why I like Sociology so much.

It knows this and builds on this from the very start.

Having said this now however, having made this distinction, there is strong indication that psychology is becoming more “sociological” at last. I have a long time interest in “relational violence.” Relational violence is any form of violence perpetrated on one individual. This violence can be physical, psychological, emotional, or spiritual. I have particular interest in child abuse and intimate partner violence. Since I got into counseling a few years ago, and after listening to people’s horror stories about their childhood experiences, I have come to see child abuse as major precursor to mental health issues. The long and the short of it is simple, the violence we experience in our childhood and early adult lives leads to neurosis and pathology. Put another way I would say that mental illness (even physical illness) of any form is never sourced in the individual alone, but in the relations and context that surround us. Recently psychology has begun to confirm this, and in a big way. Research psychologists are finding that abuse of all forms is associated with disability, decline, and death.

The evidence is overwhelming.

Abuse leads to unhealthy and risky behaviours (Annerbäck, Sahlqvist, Svedin, Wingren, & Gustafsson, 2012), depression (Blain, Muench, Morgenstern, & Parsons, 2012; Hosang et al., 2013; Kendler, Kuhn, & Prescott, 2004; Liu, Jager-Hyman, Wagner, Alloy, & Gibb, 2012), anxiety (Blain et al., 2012), eating disorders (Burns, Fischer, Jackson, & Harding, 2012), personality disorders (Wingenfeld et al., 2011), post-traumatic stress disorder (Heim & Nemeroff, 1999; Zanarini et al., 1997) suicide attempts (De Sanctis, Nomura, Newcorn, & Halperin, 2012), non suicidal self injury (NSSI) (Swannell et al., 2012), lower school grade performance (Strøm, Thoresen, Wentzel-Larsen, & Dyb, 2013), lower IQ scores (de Oliveira, Scarpari, dos Santos, & Scivoletto, 2012), and even increased incidence of physical disease (Cuijpers et al., 2011; Hager & Runtz, 2012), angina (Eslick, Koloski, & Talley, 2011), and heart trouble (Fuller-Thomson, Bejan, Hunter, Grundland, & Brennenstuhl, 2012; Fuller-Thomson, Brennenstuhl, & Frank, 2010; Hosang et al., 2013). If our Prozac nations are any indication, we are dealing with rampant levels of psychological dysfunction caused by epidemic levels of child/social abuse.

It is a mental and physical health crises of biblical proportions, and we all experience it! This much recognized in the literature. Annerbäck et al. (2012) note when definitions of abuse are liberal, just about everybody on the planet becomes a victim of abuse at some point. Open definitions unfortunately make research difficult (how do you grouped statistical analysis when you have one group, the abused), are politically explosive, and personally damming. The ugly truth is, we’ve all been abused, and we’ve all gone on to be abusers. So, perhaps to avoid these ugly complications which make us feel bad, more restricted definitions of abuse are typically invoked, focusing only on more serious levels of abuse. But narrowing the window we view through doesn’t change the reality outside. Abuse is a problem and we are the generation that has to deal with it.
It is good to see psychology finally moving towards a more sociologically sophisticated understanding of mental distress and illness. But growing planetary awareness of the profoundly debilitating effects of child abuse (or even adult abuse) means hard questions and hard realizations for the rest of us. For example, the truth is we do not currently live in anything near an enlightened world. Our world is filled with technology, commodities, things, sophisticated Hollywood storytelling,, and fancy Hollywood special effects that make it look like we are all advanced and evolved, but this is just a fantasy. In truth we live in a world lacking in even the most basic spiritual/psychological/emotional sensitivities. We live in a world where our physical unit is set upon from birth, boxed in with prejudice, defined by color, and assaulted over and over and over again, ironically most often by the people who “love us” the most. It begins with parents who heap physical and emotional abuse on their children in an effort to make them fit in and perform. It is continued by schools were teachers rank, order, sort, and reward the few while dismissing the many as losers. It extends into work were the vast majority are exploited in sweatshops and tossed aside when they are old, brittle, and used up. The profound and debilitating effect of years of violent insensitivity pile up, break us down, and kill us off. It is hell on Earth by any accounting, a horror show by any definition, and nothing short of disastrous for us all. You can deny it if you want but as noted above mounting scientific research on abuse of all forms (psychological, emotional, and sexual) is clear. Abuse in all forms is bad, bad, bad.

So, you see the ugly truth of this world and you wonder what to do?

Well, the first thing you have to do is change your ideas. You want to invoke phrases like “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” you want to justify spanking, name calling, yelling, or shaming, you want to tell children to “suck it up” and accept abuse, you can do that if you want. But if you do you are on the wrong side of reality, and the downside of mounting empirical evidence. The truth is it is the rod that spoils the child. Beating, emotional and verbal assaults, shaming, even neglect damage the body and mind and create unnecessary struggle and sometimes a lifetime of disability.

Second thing that has to be done is that we have to change the laws. I know in my jurisdiction it is on-the-books legal to physically abuse your children. And as far as emotional or psychological abuse, that doesn’t even register on the radar. That will have to change not only for moral and ethical reasons, but for social and economic reasons as well. Mounting evidence shows abuse costs. It costs corporations in lost productivity, it costs individuals and governments in higher than necessary medical costs, and it costs society in lost creativity. For the United States alone the estimates for lifetime costs run as high as $585 Billion dollars (Fang, Brown, Florence, & Mercy, 2012). That is a lot of money lost to emotional, psychological, and medical cleanup work.

Third thing we have to do is learn to protect ourselves. If you are like most people you will currently accept pretty high levels of abuse, especially when it comes to family members. You will put up with physical assault, verbal assault, psychological assault, energetic assault, screaming, yelling, and a whole host of violent behaviors that you wouldn’t think twice about accepting from a total stranger on the street. When it comes to “family” we accept. Perhaps this is because we are afraid of being alone, or perhaps this is because we buy into the social propaganda to “keep things in the family,” or perhaps it is because we feel we have a moral, ethical, or spiritual obligation to open to abuse when we personally know the abuser. Whatever the reason we do it is irrelevant however, because what is important is that we stop. The research clearly shows that abuse at the hands of relatives is just as damaging as abuse at the hands of strangers (and perhaps even more so since the abuse is a profound violation of a protective trust). The research also shows that the more bad experiences you have, the more damaged you become (Moeller, Bachmann, & Moeller, 1993). Open yourself up intimate abuse if you want but know that you will pay an emotional, psychological, and physical price in the end.

Finally, once we’ve changed our ideas, changed the laws, and taken steps to protect ourselves we are going to have to start to heal. This is true no matter how much abuse you have experienced, and no matter who the perpetrator has been. Abuse damages the body and mind and that damage has to be healed. Abuse causes mental and physical illness that much scientists have determined, but I am certain there are more subtle (and currently only dimly perceived) impacts as well. One of the biggest negative outcomes of childhood abuse is the inability to have a close and intimate relationship with another human being. And by this I do not t mean friendships, but close and open relationships with intimate partners. If abusive and neglectful parents (the model for all subsequent intimate relationships) teach us anything they teach us not to get too close to others, and not to trust the ones we love, because eventually we will be disappointed and hurt. The distance we learn to keep in childhood poisons our intimate relationships as adults to the point where many people simply cannot maintain long term marriage (or common law) relationships. It is, at least in our practice, one of the biggest factors in relationship breakdown we see.

Anyway, as always, the choice is yours. You can hold to misconceived notions of discipline, you can shuck off your own damage, you can pretend that you aren’t implicated in hurting others, and you can invoke ideological justifications, or you can face the truth and begin the hard journey home. Of course, I won’t lie to you; it is going to be hard. The truth is it is much easier, at least in the short term, to stick your head in the sand and pretend nothing is wrong. It is much harder to poke your head up, embrace the reality that surrounds you, and begin the process of change. But if you want my advice, time to embrace reality. True you can “go on” just like it is now until you die, but it is a half-life at best, a life of sub-conscious misery and gradual decline. It is no life at all if you ask me and in this world of fancy color TVs and powerful smart phones, totally unnecessary. In this sparkling new 21st century, globalized world, we now have more than ever the tools we need to make the changes we know we need to make. Psychologists, Sociologists, parents, teachers, adolescents, business men, politicians, and whatever, it time to unite and fix that which is broken.

 

References

Annerbäck, E. M., Sahlqvist, L., Svedin, C. G., Wingren, G., & Gustafsson, P. A. (2012). Child physical abuse and concurrence of other types of child abuse in Sweden—Associations with health and risk behaviors. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(7–8), 585-595. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.05.006

Blain, L. M., Muench, F., Morgenstern, J., & Parsons, J. T. (2012). Exploring the role of child sexual abuse and posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms in gay and bisexual men reporting compulsive sexual behavior. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(5), 413-422. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.03.003

Burns, E. E., Fischer, S., Jackson, J. L., & Harding, H. G. (2012). Deficits in emotion regulation mediate the relationship between childhood abuse and later eating disorder symptoms. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(1), 32-39. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.08.005

Cuijpers, P., Smit, F., Unger, F., Stikkelbroek, Y., ten Have, M., & de Graaf, R. (2011). The disease burden of childhood adversities in adults: A population-based study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(11), 937-945. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.06.005

de Oliveira, P. A., Scarpari, G. K., dos Santos, B., & Scivoletto, S. (2012). Intellectual deficits in Brazilian victimized children and adolescents: A psychosocial problem? Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(7–8), 608-610. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.05.002

De Sanctis, V. A., Nomura, Y., Newcorn, J. H., & Halperin, J. M. (2012). Childhood maltreatment and conduct disorder: Independent predictors of criminal outcomes in ADHD youth. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(11–12), 782-789. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.08.003

Eslick, G. D., Koloski, N. A., & Talley, N. J. (2011). Sexual, physical, verbal/emotional abuse and unexplained chest pain. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(8), 601-605. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.04.007

Fang, X., Brown, D. S., Florence, C. S., & Mercy, J. A. (2012). The economic burden of child maltreatment in the United States and implications for prevention. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(2), 156-165. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.10.006

Fuller-Thomson, E., Bejan, R., Hunter, J. T., Grundland, T., & Brennenstuhl, S. (2012). The link between childhood sexual abuse and myocardial infarction in a population-based study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(9), 656-665. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.06.001

Fuller-Thomson, E., Brennenstuhl, S., & Frank, J. (2010). The association between childhood physical abuse and heart disease in adulthood: Findings from a representative community sample. Child Abuse & Neglect, 34(9), 689-698. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2010.02.005

Hager, A. D., & Runtz, M. G. (2012). Physical and psychological maltreatment in childhood and later health problems in women: An exploratory investigation of the roles of perceived stress and coping strategies. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(5), 393-403. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.02.002

Heim, C., & Nemeroff, C. B. (1999). The role of childhood trauma in the neurobiology of mood and anxiety disorders: Preclinical and clinical studies. Biologial Psychiatry, 46(11), 1509-1522.

Hosang, G. M., Johnson, S. L., Kiecolt-Glaser, J., Di Gregorio, M. P., Lambert, D. R., Bechtel, M. A., . . . Glaser, R. (2013). Gender specific association of child abuse and adult cardiovascular disease in a sample of patients with Basal Cell Carcinoma. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(6), 374-379. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.09.018

Kendler, K. S., Kuhn, J. W., & Prescott, C. A. (2004). Childhood sexual abuse, stressful life events and risk for major depression in women. Psychological Medicine, 34(8), 1475-1482.

Liu, R. T., Jager-Hyman, S., Wagner, C. A., Alloy, L. B., & Gibb, B. E. (2012). Number of childhood abuse perpetrators and the occurrence of depressive episodes in adulthood. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(4), 323-332. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.11.007

Moeller, T. P., Bachmann, G. A., & Moeller, J. R. (1993). The combined effects of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse during childhood: Long-term health consequences for women. Child Abuse & Neglect, 17(5), 623-640. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/0145-2134(93)90084-I

Strøm, I. F., Thoresen, S., Wentzel-Larsen, T., & Dyb, G. (2013). Violence, bullying and academic achievement: A study of 15-year-old adolescents and their school environment. Child Abuse & Neglect, 37(4), 243-251. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.10.010

Swannell, S., Martin, G., Page, A., Hasking, P., Hazell, P., Taylor, A., & Protani, M. (2012). Child maltreatment, subsequent non-suicidal self-injury and the mediating roles of dissociation, alexithymia and self-blame. Child Abuse & Neglect, 36(7–8), 572-584. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2012.05.005

Wingenfeld, K., Schaffrath, C., Rullkoetter, N., Mensebach, C., Schlosser, N., Beblo, T., . . . Meyer, B. (2011). Associations of childhood trauma, trauma in adulthood and previous-year stress with psychopathology in patients with major depression and borderline personality disorder. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(8), 647-654. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.04.003

Zanarini, M. C., Williams, A. A., Lewis, R. E., Reich, R. B., Vera, S. C., Marino, M. F., . . . Frankenburg, F. R. (1997). Reported pathological childhood experiences associated with the development of borderline personality disorder. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(8), 1101-1106.

 

 

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I'm a sociologist at Athabasca University where I coordinate,amongst other things, the introductory sociology courses (Sociology I and Sociology II). FYI I did my dissertation in the political economy of scholarly communication (you can read it if you want). It's not that bad. My current interests lie in the area of scholarly communication and pedagogy, the sociology of spirituality and religion, consciousness research, entheogens, inequality and stratification, and the revolutionary potential of authentic spirituality. The Socjourn is my pet project. It started as the Electronic Journal of Sociology but after watching our social elites systematically dismantle the potential of eJournals to alter the politics and economies of scholarly communication, I decided I'd try something a little different. That something is The Socjourn, a initiative that bends the rules of scholarly communication and pedagogy by disregarding academic ego and smashing down the walls that divide our little Ivory Tower world from the rest of humanity. If you are a sociologist or a sociology student and you have a burning desire to engage in a little institutional demolition by perhaps writing for the Socjourn, contact me. If you are a graduate student and you have some ideas that you think I might find interesting, contact me. I supervise graduate students through Athabasca Universities MAIS program.
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