Understanding People in Context
Understanding People in Context
Ellen P. Cook
What are human beings, and why do they behave as they do? This question is more than a provocative opener for a philosophy class. It is actually a quite practical question that people ask in various forms throughout their lives: Why do teenagers behave in such maddening ways? Does reading your horoscope every day help you prepare for what's ahead? Just how much control do we have over our lives anyway?
I don't have a definitive answer to any of these questions, but I do believe it is safe to say two things in response. First, if you are reading this book you have likely chosen a career in human services, and so you are probably as fascinated by these questions as I am. Second, how we answer these questions influences our work with people-how we conceptualize our clients' problems, desirable goals for them, and the interventions that we hope will make a difference in their lives.
This book is about both the basic questions we humans all ask about life and the specific answers we human services professionals use as cornerstones for our work helping people rebuild their lives. Based on what professionals have already learned about human behavior, what frameworks can serve as useful guides for our clients and ourselves? What interventions seem most consistent with our current knowledge base and the values that animate our profession?
Problems With Individual Explanations for Behavior
Since their inception, human services professions have envisioned human behavior as a sometimes uneasy reconciliation between individual motivations and social imperatives, although the variables and values embodied in these could vary quite dramatically. Until quite recently, individuals were viewed as solely responsible for their problems, often unintentionally so. Freud and his contemporaries launched a cultural revolution with their groundbreaking ideas about the causes and remedies for human behavior problems. In their view, psychic misery was not caused solely by biological dysfunction or spiritual turpitude but was meaningful in its own right as a coded message about unseen but very real internal conflicts. Each individual stood at a crossroads between individual needs and societal mores and customs. Since the turn of the 20th century, theories about human behavior have proliferated, embracing the brilliant observations of clinicians and the newly developing social sciences, broadly shared philosophical/theological premises about the good life, and transformations in the broader sociocultural context.
Over recent decades counseling/psychotherapy schools of thought mushroomed into the dozens. Although any student in a graduate-level theories class could testify about the mind-numbing diversity in theories du jour, theories generally varied more in terminology than in real substance. Theorists typically agreed that individual characteristics-drives, traumas, beliefs, and so on-caused problems that could be resolved through verbal exploration and emotional expression. This change process was directed by an expert whose professional education equipped him or her to intuit the problem expressed by the client in disguise and then conduct the painstaking excavation needed to unearth and correct it. As theories increased in number, precision, and depth, the precise nature of the individual's problem assumed different shapes and sizes but the birthplace remained the same: the individual and his or her tragedies, deficits, poor choices, and so on.
This focus on the identification of individual causes of problems continues today and certainly has proven its value in ameliorating human misery. In recent decades, however, human services professionals have increasingly spoken about how an exclusive personal focus is limited in the phenomena it can address. This perspective can be insufficient for many reasons we discuss in t