Psychology might be the most pretentious activity that this species of ours, which is well know for its pretentiousness, has ever come up with it. It is going to take a pretty overwhelming set of personal acts to come anywhere near giving it up.
Fred Newman, Psychological Investigations (Routledge, 2003)
Newman founded social therapy as a radical group psychotherapy in the early 1970s. Over the past 40 years, social therapy has evolved into a practical human development methodology with broad application across the life span, cultures and environments.
Social therapy is a rejection-in-practice of 20th century psychology’s presuppositions about persons, therapy, cure, treatment, development and learning. Our view of what it is to be a person is, in the current overly “psychologized” culture, a radical and a profoundly humanistic moral-political-spiritual statement.
Newman was a practicing lay therapist for almost 40 years. As principal trainer at the East Side Institute for Group and Short Term Psychotherapy, Newman mentored and supervised hundreds of practitioners in social therapy. The group-based approach focuses on social growth and collective creativity, not on individualized pathology or particularized problem solving. It is a psychology that relates to all people as active and responsible creators and re-creators of social-cultural-emotional life, or as Newman would like to say, as revolutionary — with a small r — performers.
Social therapy is practiced in social therapy centers across the United States, and by therapists and social workers around the world.
Human Development Methodology
Social therapeutics is a philosophically informed, practically oriented method in which human beings are related to as creators of their culture and ensemble performers of their lives. Located within the postmodern and cultural-historical activity theory movements in psychology, psychotherapy and education, social therapeutics contributes to the theoretical work of scholars and researchers working to create new more humane and transformative psychological practice and method. Its on-the-ground effectiveness in supporting the social-emotional growth of people of all ages and backgrounds is a challenge to mainstream psychological thought and the educational, therapeutic, and youth, community and organizational development practices that are based on it. More broadly, as a method for social-emotional growth and learning, social therapy has had a significant impact on education, including outside-of-school (supplemental) education; on training and practice in medicine and health and in organizational development and executive leadership. At the theoretical level, social therapy engages the key issues of debate for postmodernists, activity theorists and critical psychologists.
The roots of social therapy are in the social upheaval, anti-authoritarianism, creativity and radical humanism of the 1960s. Social therapy was created by Fred Newman, who received his Ph.D. in analytic philosophy and foundations of mathematics from Stanford University in 1962. A passionate and respected teacher, Newman left academia in 1968 after deciding that his protest of the Vietnam War — giving A’s to all his students so that young men could avoid the draft — was not enough to make a serious difference. He became a community organizer, looking to create something — he did not yet know what — that could be of value to people/society as a whole.
In 1970, Newman was working as a counselor in a drug rehabilitation center where his clients were related to as prisoners who had committed a crime — not as people in pain who could help to create their own growth. He wanted to translate the most progressive ideals of this turbulent era — including the contributions of British psychiatrist R.D. Laing (Sanity, Madness and the Family), American psychiatrist Thomas Szasz (The Myth of Mental Illness), Martiniquan psychiatrist Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth) and others — into effective instruments of social and personal transformation. It was in this context that Newman began a therapy practice. He joined a handful of other therapists, activists, educators and therapy patients, to create a new psychology practice/theory — one that wouldn’t seek to “adapt” people to the painful conditions of their lives, but would focus instead on helping them to develop, and to change those conditions.
Later in the decade, Newman met developmental psychologist Lois Holzman, who introduced him to the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky had been a contemporary of Jean Piaget, but his very different views (and historical circumstances) informed his revolutionary work as a psychologist. To Vygotsky, human activities such as learning and development are fundamentally social rather than, as traditional psychology insists, individual. He said that through performing when we are very young — that is, doing things before we know how to — we learn to do new things. He vividly described how babies learn to speak through this kind of play and pretending — they imitate others creatively, and simultaneously perform as (become) themselves.
Social therapy is also influenced by the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his views on language as social activity — a creative process of “making meaning” with others. In Wittgenstein’s view, how we talk and the words we choose has an important impact on what we see and are able to create with other people — it can reinforce our alienation and emotional pain, or free us to develop and grow.
In the 1980s, Newman began working in theater and, together with other artists and activists, started the Castillo Theatre, an experimental theatre currently headquartered on 42nd Street in New York City. Over the following two decades, he wrote dozens of plays, directed most of them, and performed as an improvisational comedian. This experience deepened Newman’s understanding of Vygotsky’s discoveries about learning and development, and underscored the vital importance of performance (both onstage and off) to our emotional, social and intellectual lives. He saw how the social therapy group, in which people come together every week to create a therapeutic conversation, was a kind of “emotional performance,” in which the group provides an environment for people to express their emotionality in new ways.
After four decades, social therapy has emerged as a creative, revolutionary approach to human development that is helping people the world over to find new ways of healing, helping, learning and transforming — for themselves, their families and communities.
Articles by Fred Newman toward a postmodern psychology (NEED NEW TITLE)
Activity and Performance (and their Discourses) in Social Therapeutic Method
Discursive Perspectives in Therapeutic Practice 2012
MOVE TO EDUCATION -- Let's Pretend: Solving the Educational Crisis in America
Special Report 2011
Where is the Magic in Cognitive Therapy? (A philo/psychological investigation)
Against and For CBT: Towards a Constructive Dialogue 2008
All Power to the Developing!
Annual Review of Critical Psychology 2003
Journal of Constructivist Psychology 2003
Vygotsky's Tool and Result Methodology
Chapter 3, Lev Vygotsky Revolutionary Scientist (Routledge, 1993)
Therapeutic Deconstruction of the Illusion of Self
Performing Psychology (Routlege, 1999)
Featured Video: Will We Ever Be Normal Again?
Annual Lecture, March 3, 2004
Kenneth Gergen on Social Therapy
For me one of the chief contributions of social therapy lies in its shift away from the traditional view of the person as living within a private psychological world...Rather, we are invited to see the individual not as separated from the social surrounds, but as integrally interrelated. Drawing sustenance particularly from Wittgenstein and Vygotsky, Newman sees us as intimately tissued with each other; psychology and social practice are one.
From the Foreword to Performing Psychology (Routledge, 1999) Read more