As a sexologist, my approach to my work is multi-disciplinary. In other words, I cull from numerous fields, including psychology, human reproductive biology, anthropology, as well as sociology to inform my world view and the way I approach my clients. These days, as part of my writing and research activities, I find myself drawn much more to the sociological side of things, rather than the psychological. There are various reasons for this that I think are important to clarify, not only because it may help prospective or existing clients to better understand how I think, but also to contrast what in essence are very different ways of viewing and understanding human behavior. And when it comes down to it, my overarching point in this article is that any psychotherapist’s training is inadequate without a thorough grounding in sociological theories and principles.
Let’s begin. Sociology is the study of social behavior. Psychology is the study of the individual mind and resulting individual behavior. There is some overlap, for example with social psychology. But the main difference being that sociology focuses on the external forces within society that influence behavior, while psychology’s intent is to keep its focus within the individual. So, sociologists might take a look at how group dynamics shape human interactions, while social psychologists would be more interested in understanding how the individual relates to and processes these groups. This is just a brief and superficial explanation, and I’m sure some PhD student somewhere will want to argue some of the finer points stated here, but my purpose here is just to provide a rough outline of how the study of these two disciplines may result in very different conclusions about human behavior, and how this relates to the practice of psychotherapy.
Because sociology is more focused on the big picture items of society, it is inherently more neutral in its view of human behavior. It views individuals as more rational actors, engaged in a multitude of social decisions that must be navigated in order to achieve certain objectives. Psychology, on the other hand, because of its insular focus on the internal life of the individual, tends to view human behavior more from a medical model of health vs. sickness. Let’s take a specific example to illustrate this point. Let’s say there is an item on the news about a guy who was arrested robbing a bank. In trying to understand the bank robber’s motivations, the sociologist might point to the fact that this bank robber may have felt like an outcast of societal group norms; that according to Merton’s theory of deviance, this bank robber was acting in the role of an “innovator,” accepting societal goals of making money, but rejecting socially accepted means of attaining it. The psychologist’s first instinct would be to most likely look at pathology as an explanation– perhaps this individual is a sociopath, suffering with antisocial personality disorder; perhaps he was the victim of childhood abuse that would explain his aggressive and socially inappropriate actions.
Let’s see how these clashing world views play out in the area of sexuality. How would the sociologist and psychologist view an individual, for example who comes to their office and states that he or she is drawn to heavy participation in a variety of sexual subgroups, such as poly, BDSM, swingers, the leather community, etc? Based on the example above, how do you think the responses would differ? Without knowing a single thing about these subgroups, the sociologist may be more likely to view the individual as a rational actor and inquire what benefit he or she derives from group membership. Does the individual feel more validated and understood within these subgroups? Does the individual derive more of a sense of family from these social units than from his or her own family of origin? The psychologist, on the other hand (without proper training), would wonder what mental illnesses this individual may be suffering from that would make him or her desire nonmonogamy (read: be unable to carry on a healthy relationship with one person) or want to hit or be hit by another person. They may inquire about childhood abuse to explain why this individual may be struggling with an insecure attachment that would make it impossible to attach to one other person, or to find the reasons why this individual must clearly be playing out some sort of traumatic abuse from the past. In other words, even though psychology is a wonderful and necessary field, it lends itself much more to looking at things through a lens of pathology.
This is why, especially in the field of sexuality, any practicing clinician must be well versed in a number of fields in addition to psychology. In my opinion, psychology, on its own presents too skewed of a perspective to truly understand the entirety of human behavior. It must be counterbalanced by other disciplines, such as reproductive biology, anthropology, and neuroscience. And especially sociology. I’ll finish this post with this last and final point. In psychology, the word “deviance” is a synonym for pathology. However, in sociology “deviance” is a neutral word that simply means something that is different from societal norms.
As sociologist Howard S. Becker has written, “Deviance is not a quality of the act the person commits, but rather a consequence of the application by others of rules and sanctions to an “offender”. The deviant is one to whom the label has successfully been applied; deviant behavior is behavior that people so label.” In translation, psychologists view deviance as an internal defect of the individual, while sociologists see deviance as a label created by society. Which is why, as I stated in the very first paragraph, any practicing psychotherapist must be able to see their clients from a multitude of lenses, not just the psychological. If they are to truly understand their clients, they must be able to have their sociology glasses always at the ready.