Class and Psychoanalysis

Ahead of her upcoming event at the Freud Museum, psychoanalytic psychotherapist Joanna Ryan reflects on the significance of class to the practice of psychoanalysis – and its peculiar absence from discussion.

Everywhere and nowhere

Class is everywhere and nowhere. It largely disappeared from general debate in the recent past, with the supposed era of the classless society. This left a vacuum of thought, because of course it hadn’t disappeared from people’s lives.

Socioeconomic disadvantage and inequality, huge disparities in wealth and life opportunities, have all lived on, exacerbated by the current austerity politics. And these profoundly affect people’s psychological wellbeing, health and sense of themselves, as the old sketch made visible.

Radical potential comes at a price

I show in my recent book, Class and Psychoanalysis: Landscapes of Inequality, how this “everywhere and nowhere” applies to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy.

Despite the radical and progressive potential of psychoanalysis, nonetheless its existence and development has largely depended on expensive work in private practice. Money, though not always the only factor, is key in determining access to most psychoanalytic therapies and to their trainings.

This is a contradiction that many have wrestled with, from the historic free clinics for working-class people, founded by left-wing psychoanalysts, to many similar contemporary initiatives.

Cultural and social factors also affect people, as my research with therapists from different class backgrounds has suggested, in their encounters with the institutions of psychoanalysis.

Class in the consulting room

As well as these important questions of access to psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic psychotherapy, there is much to be gained from looking at how class issues surface within therapy relationships.

This is a little explored area and I have tried to make a start by researching how therapists experience and respond to class matters in their clinical work, as well as looking more widely at the available literature.

I found that class is very seldom talked about, either within therapeutic work or on trainings, even though many therapists of all class backgrounds felt aware of its importance.

A long-held silence

Much of the time my interviews felt like breaking a long-held silence. As one said, class almost seemed taboo, and that it was unanalytic to broach it. Others felt they did not have an available language.

All this suggested to me the importance of initiating discussion and debate about class in relation to psychoanalysis, and exploring the many inhibitions, anxieties and prejudices that surround it.

Class and Psychoanalysis: Landscapes of Inequality provides an overview of all these different aspects, and the historical and theoretical antecedents that have led up to it.

On 22 November 2017 I will be discussing the book at the Freud Museum. We hope to engage as many people as possible in opening up this important topic from many perspectives.

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