Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 41, Issue 2, pp 245–266 | Cite as

At the Edge of Safety: Moral Experimentation in the Case of Family Therapy

  • Teresa KuanEmail author
Original Paper


“At the Edge of Safety” argues for thinking of structural family therapy as a “moral laboratory.” Borrowing a trope from Cheryl Mattingly’s recent book Moral Laboratories, the article reconsiders a therapeutic style that was once controversial by analyzing personal stories of supervision—i.e. professional training—in light of Mattingly’s suggestion that a social space in which people conduct experiments on themselves and their lives may be considered a moral laboratory. Family therapy is especially good to think with, because it is simultaneously a real and a metaphorical laboratory, physically lab-like in its use of visual technologies, yet moral in the way it puts the possibility for situational change in the hands of human actors. The technological apparatus stages evidence for sub-visible, interpersonal dynamics, while the provocative quality of not only therapeutic actions, but also of supervision, points to an ethos of experimentation. Stories of supervision reveal how personal of an experience being supervised can be. Trainees are pushed to become something otherwise, in learning to “expand” their styles. Sometimes the push is just right. Sometimes it goes too far. Whatever the case may be, the stories analyzed speak to anthropological questions concerning the uncertainty of human action and the many ways people can unknowingly injure one another with small hurts.


Psychotherapy Family therapy Ethics Morality 



I am grateful to Lone Grøn for her support and encouragement, and for thinking of organizing the AAA double panel on moral (and other) laboratories in the first place, which led to this special issue. Many thanks to Tanya Luhrmann and Cheryl Mattingly, who served as discussants, and to the anonymous reviewers, who gave the manuscript a meticulous read and lent their expertise on family therapy and anthropological theory. All shortcomings are my own.


This study is part of a larger project funded by the Research Grants Council, University Grants Committee, Hong Kong (14610115).

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

Teresa Kuan declares that she has no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

This article does not contain any studies with human participants or animals performed by the author.

Informed consent

For this type of text-based study formal consent is not required.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Anthropology, New Asia CollegeChinese University of Hong KongSha TinHong Kong SAR

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