Institutional economics and psychoanalysis: how can they collaborate for a better understanding of individual-society dynamics? Arturo hermann* may 2005


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In this chapter we will develop the previous discussion by outlining some characteristics of the psychoanalytic approach which can help explain the difficulty of understanding the individual’s decision-making process.
In order to illustrate these concepts, the first question we need to answer is: what is psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis can be defined (Laplanche and Pontalis, 1967) as a discipline, founded by Sigmund Freud, in which three levels can be identified:
A) A method of inquiry consisting essentially of explaining the unconscious meaning of speech, actions and imaginative productions of a person. This method rests upon the person's free associations, which guarantees the validity of psychoanalytic interpretations.

These interpretations can also be extended to human activities for which free associations are not available.

B) A therapeutic method based on this inquiry for the treatment of neurotic disturbances and characterized by the controlled interpretation of transfert, defence and desire.
C) A group of psychological theories in which the data provided by the psychoanalytic methods of research and treatment are systematized.
One key question raised by the previous definition is: what is neurosis?

A concise and very effective definition of neurosis — provided by Freud for the first time in 1894 — is that of a defence against incompatible representations.

As observed by Fine (1979), psychoanalytic theory can be considered a development of this first insight.

A broad definition of neurosis is that of a psychological disturbance, where symptoms are the symbolic expression of a psychic conflict, which has its roots in the individual’s infantile life and constitutes a compromise between the desire and the defence12.

An essential feature of neurotic disturbances is that they bring about a hindrance to the normal psychological development of a person. The reason for this is that the neurotic person is, to varying degrees, unable to overcome the conflicts associated with his or her development stages.

A complete discussion of this definition is highly complex; for this reason, we must limit ourselves to a few remarks.

One central insight of psychoanalytic theory is that much of our psychic life possesses an unconscious character.

In psychoanalysis the definition of unconscious assumes different meanings13, one of which refers to the area of mental activity (e.g. feelings, emotions, thoughts) of which the person is unaware as a consequence of the process of "repression".

But, why does a person need to activate such a "repression" process? One answer is that individual's infantile development of a person is a highly complex process that undergoes many conflicts.

The conflict considered central by Freud within the scope of his theory of libidinal stages of development was the Oedipus complex.

In broad terms, the Oedipus complex can be defined as the organized whole of a child’s loving and hostile feelings toward its parents.

In the paradigmatic example, the affective desire and sexual fantasies14 of a child toward the parent of the other sex may trigger intense feelings of jealousy, rivalry and anger toward the “rival” parent. As a consequence of these feelings, the child may fear punishment, also because it may feel guilty for experiencing such feelings. All the emotions associated with this situation can become highly distressing for the child, and, therefore, it tries to repress all related feelings. As a result of the attempt to repress (mostly at an unconscious level) the emotional conflicts associated with the Oedipus complex, much of its contents become unconscious.

Of course, the attempts to repress all the feelings associated with the Oedipus complex cannot be very effective, and so cannot help relieve the emotional distress. As a result of this situation — in which there is a desire, considered “bad”, and a corresponding defence trying to repress it — a neurotic disturbance arises, which may express itself in many different forms of behaviour and fantasies.

The purpose of such a disturbance is, according to the previous definitions, to realize, in a symbolic, distorted and unconscious way, both the instances of the desire and the defence. In this sense, it represents a defence from incompatible representations.

Needless to say, the dynamics of the Oedipus complex are far more tangled than could appear from this brief description. Owing to this complexity, throughout his research activity, Freud identified many aspects and forms of the Oedipus complex and many neurotic disturbances which may be caused by it15.

Freud’s conclusion that the Oedipus complex tends to represent a universal experience for human being has received much criticism16. We will discuss this issue in more detail later on in our analysis of some aspects of object relations and cultural psychoanalysis. At present, we can observe that Freud was well aware that the Oedipus complex involves many aspects and may assume various forms and intensity according to the culture, society and family situations in which a child’s life develops. An interesting analysis of these aspects is contained in Totem und Tabu (1912-1913), Das Unbehagen in der Kultur (1930) and others.

As shown in these studies, the Oedipus complex will assume different forms and intensities according to, among other factors, the personalities and conflicts of the child’s caretakers. Since these individual aspects also depend on cultural factors, the role of culture (and, more generally, of the collective dimension of life) appears clearly in shaping the characteristics of the Oedipus complex. In fact, as observed before, Freud considers individual and collective psychology as two complementary aspects of the same phenomenon—owing to the circumstance, stressed in particular in his Massenpsychologie undIich-Analyse (1921), that in ancient times group life was preponderant in human life and that only subsequently the person has gradually come to assume a more distinct role within the various groups of society.

In this respect, the concept of the superego represents the psychological instance through which cultural values are internalized by the person and for this reason constitutes a fundamental link between individual and collective psychology.

The Superego can be considered the heir of the Oedipus conflict, as it arises from the internalization of the prohibitions and of the moral and cultural values of the child’s parents—as perceived by the child.

In the early stage of psychoanalysis, many important contributions to these issues were also provided by Abraham, Ferenczi, Jones, Rank.


Freud’s theory has been greatly extended to cover significant aspects of human development. A common pattern of these studies, though widely different in many respects, can be identified in the importance they all attribute to the role played by affective relations in the dynamics of human action and motivation.

Within this ambit, numerous studies have analysed key elements of infantile development and in particular the child-mother relationship in the early stages of infancy. Pivotal contributions were provided by, among others, Erikson (1968), A.Freud (1936), Hartmann (1964), Kernberg (1976, 1992, 1998), and M.Klein (1964, 1975). These authors have cast light on aspects that are crucial for a fuller understanding of human psychology. A.Freud, Hartmann and many others stressed the structure of the ego as a mediating factor between instincts and society, while Erikson adopted these insights for analyzing the role of identity in the formation of personality. In his work, Identity, Youth and Crisis, he considers the concept of identity and the factors which may concur to determine it. Identity is regarded both as an individual and a social concept, for which the analysis of individual behaviour would require a study of the characteristics of social setting in which individual action takes place; relatedly, social analysis should consider important features of the individual mind stressed by psychoanalysis. In this sense, Erikson provides new tools for broadening the scope of psychoanalysis without dismissing its main concepts.

M.Klein17 analyzed, from a new perspective, the mechanisms underlying the child-mother relationship in the early stages of infancy. Particularly important are the mechanisms of scission and projection, through which the child tries to cope with ambivalence and aggressiveness towards its mother. As a result of the scission and projection of the child’s aggressiveness onto her, the mother is divided into “a good and a bad object". This stage is called “the schizo-paranoid position”.

Subsequently, as the child grows up, this stage may be overcome to varying degrees as the child recognizes that the mother is just one person and, as a consequence, tries to compensate for the imaginary attacks made against her. This stage is called “the depressive position”.

Klein’s theory casts new light on many social phenomena because by providing a better understanding of the conflicts that, while arising in the infantile development, may impinge upon the type of relationships adults establish among themselves.

With regard to the issue of choice, Rangell (1969, 1971) observes that, even if psychoanalysis is primarily concerned with the problems of behaviour and choice, this issue is not often explicitly addressed in psychoanalytic work; in this regard, his studies show the intrinsic difficulty of the decision-making process in many individuals.

In neurotic situations this process may be a very distressing activity because in the act of decision-making the person expresses his or her unconscious conflicts and fantasies.

Other important contributions — often denominated as object and interpersonal theories18 even though it is difficult to identify a completely unitary framework — have been provided by the so-called "independent approach" (the former "Middle Group") in British psychoanalysis, whose most important exponents are Balint, Bowlby, Brierly, Fairbairn, Flugel, Glover, Khan, Klauber, Payne, Rickman, Sharpe, Strachey and Winnicott. This approach has many parallels with the American contributions to this field — in particular with the theories of Erikson, G.S.Klein, Kohut, Kernberg, Sullivan, P.Tyson and R.L.Tyson — and also with most of the authors quoted in the next chapter.

Such contributions have been, to varying degrees, critical of both Freud’s and M.Klein's theories on the grounds that, by tending to focus attention mainly on the biological side of instincts, the latter tend not to consider the full importance of the role of affection and object relations in individual behaviour.

Although these contributions have triggered a lively debate, they tend to accept important aspects of Freud’s theories of instinct and libidinal stages of development and, in this sense, try to integrate and deepen Freud's theory rather than dismiss it.

We would like to note that, as mentioned previously, Freud built his instincts theory in order to have a basic interpretative framework of human behaviour but was well aware of the complexity of the issue; indeed, throughout his research activity he continuously enlarged and restructured his theories19. One important reason why he remained attached to a "biological" concept of instinct lies in his purpose of underlining the role of psychosexuality in human psychology. He feared that, were psychosexuality not sufficiently stressed, this concept would be overlooked, or unconsciously "repressed", in the analysis of human psychology.

However, as also observed by some of these more recent contributions, Freud has always underlined the role of feelings, object relations and cultural factors in driving individual behaviour, providing important contributions in which he stressed that — mostly in an unconscious and sublimated way20 — libidinal relations are the necessary factor for the existence of society. In this regard, as already observed, he employs the term eros or libido as a synonym for love.

Moreover, he stressed that the unconscious is mainly constituted by representations which have been repressed as a result of a neurotic conflict.

Therefore, the objective of the psychoanalytic method is to help turn the “unconscious” into “conscious” - e.g. id versus ego - through the individual’s understanding of his or her conflicts.

Of course, this is not to say that Freud’s theories were perfect and that he considered all the importance of object relations and cultural factors in driving individual behaviour.

As a matter of fact, especially in his later work, he tended to regard instincts as opposing forces which, out of their conflicts, are supposed to shape human behaviour in a rather ineluctable way; this conception, especially as set forth in his theory of death instinct, led him to a pessimistic view of human development, in the sense that little can be done to reduce human aggressiveness21. This rather pessimistic strain in Freud's analysis can be found in works like "Zeitgemässe über Krieg und Tod" (1915d) and "Das Unbehagen in der Kultur" (1930).

In this regard, his formulation of the theory of death instinct — which, it is important to remember, Freud set out with the main aim of providing an explanation of human aggressiveness but was nonetheless always highly doubtful about its real validity22 — triggered many controversies among psychoanalysts and is now largely dismissed chiefly as a result of an increased psychoanalytic understanding of the role played by neurotic conflicts in the formation of aggressive behaviour (Fine, 1979).

In this respect, we believe that Freud’s theory of death instincts hindered him from carrying out a deeper analysis of human aggressiveness and, also for this reason, one important strand of psychoanalytic research after Freud has been to put the interpretation of aggressiveness at the centre of the analysis23.

Thus, aggressive behaviour (including that aimed at causing the death of the person concerned or of others) is not considered as an inevitable expression of "natural" instincts but as a dramatic expression of neurotic conflicts which, as we have seen, have their roots in the infantile life of the person.

Obviously, aggressiveness could not develop without the individual’s inborn ability to develop this sentiment, which can vary from person to person; however, the point is that, given these innate endowments, neurotic conflicts can play a great role in reinforcing aggressiveness, which, for this reason, cannot be realistically regarded as an ineluctable expression of "natural" instincts24.

Considering neurotic aggressiveness only as an expression of natural instincts is tantamount to regarding well recognised neurotic symptoms, depression or phobias for instance, a "natural" expression of human nature simply because man has an innate ability to experience sorrow or fear.

In this regard, it is notable that important studies25 have stressed the role of (mostly unconscious) aggressiveness in causing depression, phobias and virtually any other neurotic disturbance; furthermore, as we will see later on, aggressiveness may play a central role in shaping social and cultural contexts.
Considering the complexity of these aspects, many researchers26 believe that the supposed contrast between instincts and object relations theories is unfounded as these theories are, rather than in opposition, complementary to each other. In this regard, these authors have adopted a more integrated view of the human personality, which more explicitly considers its complex needs and orientations. In this sense, the distinction between “biological”, affective and intellectual needs tends to be considered an expression of the various aspects making up the human personality, which need to be studied in their complex interaction.

On the basis of this approach, it seems reasonable to assume that human needs are complex and interrelated and, as a consequence, a person wishes: 1) to be fed and protected; 2) to establish sound object and interpersonal relations; 3) more generally, to develop in an integrated way all the aspects of his or her personality.

Related to these strands of research, there is the issue of analyzing cultures and societies by employing psychoanalytic concepts.

As already observed, Freud did not take a clear stand on the question of the links between individual psychological disturbances and the characteristics of the ISEF in which these disturbances take place. This may be due to his aforementioned pessimistic view of human nature; another reason for Freud’s hesitance may be found in his desire to not further complicate an already complex issue27.

However, as already observed, Freud and his colleagues were well aware of the importance of the ISEF in explaining the dynamics of psychological conflicts and, relatedly, of the great potential of psychoanalysis for elucidating important aspects of cultures and societies.

In fact, as observed before, Freud considers individual and collective psychology as two complementary aspects of the same phenomenon—owing to the circumstance, stressed in particular in his Massenpsychologie undIich-Analyse (1921), that in ancient times group life was preponderant in human life and that only subsequently the person has gradually come to assume a more distinct role within the various groups of society. As noted by Freud (1912-1913, 1921 and 1930) and many subsequent psychoanalysts28, group cohesion tends to be based on the following processes: i) libidinal links among the members of the group; ii) projection of individual aggressiveness towards people and/or institutions lying outside the group; iii) identification with the group leader — who symbolizes the parental instance (typically, the father) — in order to remove the conflicts related to the Oedipus complex.

These processes — which operate in part at an unconscious level — can help explain the scission that often occurs within groups between “the good and right”, lying inside the group, and “the bad and mistaken”, lying outside it.

In their analyses, these authors are aware that such factors may find different expressions in different groups and societies.

By using the Kleinian framework, Bion analyzed unconscious group dynamics by means of “The Therapeutic Group”, while Kernberg made significant contributions to the analysis of group behaviour with his approach based on the object relations theory.

Using a field study approach, important psychoanalytic-oriented contributions have extended their interests to the fields of anthropology and sociology.

In this regard, several authors29 have underlined the articulated role of aggressiveness in institutional and cultural contexts: i) on one hand, it concurs to shape in many ways any given ISEF through the mutual dependent actions of the individuals composing it; ii) on the other hand, cultural values, as perceived by any concerned person, may concur to influence the development of neurotic aggressiveness especially in early stages of individual life—for instance, indirectly through their influence on the child's caretakers and directly through their role of "cultural models" to be imitated and internalized by the child.
A thorough analysis of these contributions is beyond the scope of this work, thus, we limit ourselves to a few remarks. Within anthropology, a strand of research fairly close to classical psychoanalysis has tried to verify the extent to which psychoanalytic concepts can be applied to the study of primitive populations. Pioneering studies were carried out by Kardiner, Malinowski and Roheim. One of their findings has been that psychoanalysis can help explain a number of common patterns in the psychology of these populations, even if their cultures may vary greatly from one another. For instance, regarding the Oedipus complex, these authors find its dynamics in every culture considered, although its expression may vary as determined by the different cultures and family organizations.

A rather common interpretation of the findings of these studies is that they demonstrate the "irrelevance" of the Oedipus complex. However, such an interpretation is not in accordance with the authors' main conclusions and, as shown by, among others, Fine (1979), is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of the Oedipus complex. In fact, this complex — defined above as the organized whole of a child’s loving and hostile feelings toward its parents — may assume many forms and may also involve other caretakers of the child. The "universality" of the Oedipus complex is not a consequence of the operation of some abstract "natural law" but stems from the circumstance that the child — owing to a prolonged dependence upon its caretakers — establishes with them its first significant affective relations, which, in their complex vicissitudes and transformations, will constitute an important model of reference for the child’s future development.

Needless to say, the specificity of every cultural context plays a great role in determining the forms of these early relations of the child. In this regard, the aspect we deem important to point out is that these cultural forms30 do not exist apart from the individuals involved but are partly determined by their thoughts and actions. This implies that the entire set of experiences, orientations, values, needs and conflicts making up the human personality concur to shape the related cultural forms as well. In this sense, as we also see later in the paper, psychoanalytic concepts may help, in an interdisciplinary spirit, to cast more light on the complexity of the relationships between the individual and his or her cultural context.
In relation to these issues, a strand of research has stressed the role of cultural forms in the study of the psychological orientation of society. Leading members of this group are Fromm (1955 and 1970), Horney (1937 and 1939), Sullivan (1964) and Thompson (1964). Although these authors (in particular, Fromm and Horney) were more critical towards the psychoanalytic concepts of instincts and libidinal stages of development and reach different conclusions in their analyses, they all stress the importance of interpersonal relations, culture and society in the formation of personality.

These authors analyze the structure and conflicts of contemporary societies (in particular Fromm and Horney) and the role of interpersonal relations, with their related cultural values, in the formation of psychological disturbances (in particular Sullivan and Thompson).

A lively debate31, still in progress, arose between this group and more “orthodox” psychoanalysts, and in 1956 some “Culturalists” created a new organization — “The American Academy of Psychoanalysis”.

Other fields of social sciences, often related to the Cultural Psychoanalysts, took an interdisciplinary perspective on the studies of cultures and societies. Among these, an important role was played by the "Frankfort School", whose leading members were Adorno, Fromm, Habermas, Horkheimer, Marcuse.

These authors applied a number of psychoanalytic concepts, a neomarxist perspective, and a broad existentialist philosophy to the investigation of the problems of contemporary societies, in particular to the phenomenon of social alienation.

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