Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 43, Issue 3, pp 468–495 | Cite as

Technologies of the Social: Family Constellation Therapy and the Remodeling of Relational Selfhood in China and Mexico

  • Sonya E. PritzkerEmail author
  • Whitney L. Duncan
Original Paper


In this article, we investigate how an increasingly popular therapeutic modality, family constellation therapy (FCT), functions simultaneously as a technology of the self (Foucault, Technologies of the self: a seminar with Michel Foucault, University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, 1988) as well as what we here call a “technology of the social.” In FCT, the self is understood as an assemblage of ancestral relationships that often creates problems in the present day. Healing this multi-generational self involves identifying and correcting hidden family dynamics in high-intensity group sessions where other participants represent the focus client and his/her family members, both alive and deceased. Drawing on ethnographic data collected in multiple FCT workshops in Beijing, China and Oaxaca City, Mexico, we show how FCT ritually reorganizes boundaries between self and other in novel ways, creating a collective space for shared moral reflection on troubling social, historical, and cultural patterns. By demonstrating the ways in which FCT unfolds as both a personal and social technology, this article contributes to ongoing conversations about how to effectively theorize sociality in therapeutic practice, and problematizes critical approaches emphasizing governmentality and commensuration (Mattingly, Moral laboratories family peril and the struggle for a good life, University of California Press, Oakland, 2014; Duncan, Transforming therapy: mental health practice and cultural change in Mexico, Vanderbilt University Press, Nashville, 2018; Matza, Shock therapy: psychology, precarity, and well-being in postsocialist Russia, Duke University Press, Durham, 2018; Pritzker, Presented at “Living Well in China” Conference, Irvine, CA, 2018; Mattingly, Anthropol Theory, 2019; Zigon, “HIV is God’s Blessing”: rehabilitating morality in neoliberal Russia, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2011).


Family constellation therapy China Mexico Sociality Self 



Research support for the projects described here was funded by the Wenner Gren Foundation (Grant No. 8855) (Pritzker), University of Alabama (Pritzker), and the University of Northern Colorado (Duncan). Special thanks to Merav Shohet and Paul Brodwin for providing valuable insights to this material at the Society for Psychological Anthropology biennial meetings in 2017. Thanks also to Aerin Dunford for research assistance in Oaxaca, and to FCT facilitators and participants in both Mexico and China for supporting the research on which this article is based.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.


  1. Andrews, Abigail (2014) Women’s Political Engagement in a Mexican Sending Community: Migration as Crisis and the Struggle to Sustain an Alternative. Gender and Society 28(4):583–608.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Argent, Gala (2013) Toward a Privileging of the Nonverbal: Communication, Corporeal Synchrony, and Transcendence in Humans and Horses. In Experiencing animal minds : an anthology of animal-human encounters, Julie A. Smith and Robert W. Mitchell eds, pp. 111-128. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bakhtin, M. M., and Michael Holquist (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.Google Scholar
  4. Basave Benítez, Agustín (1992) México mestizo Análisis del nacionalismo mexicano en torno a la mestizofilia de Andrés Molina Enríquez. México, DF: Fondo de Cultura Económica.Google Scholar
  5. Boal, Augusto 1979 Theatre of the Oppressed (trans. Charles A. and Maria-Odilia Leal McBride). New York: Theatre Communications Group.Google Scholar
  6. Carr, E. Summerson (2011) Scripting Addiction: The Politics Of Therapeutic Talk and American Sobriety. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  7. Carr, E. Summerson, and Michael Lempert (2016) Scale Discourse and Dimensions of Social Life. Oakland, California: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carrillo, Héctor (2007) Imagining Modernity: Sexuality, Policy, and Social Change in Mexico. Sexuality Research and Social Policy: Journal of NSRC 4(3):74–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cohen, Dan Booth (2006) “Family Constellations”: An Innovative Systemic Phenomenological Group Process from Germany. The Family Journal: Counseling and Therapy for Couples and Families 14(3):226-233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. CONEVAL (2012) Informe de la pobreza en Méico. México, DF: Consejo Nacional de Evaluación de la Política de Desarrollo Social.Google Scholar
  11. Crowley-Matoka, Megan (2016) Domesticating Organ Transplant: Familial Sacrifice and National Aspiration in Mexico. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Davis, Mark H (2004) Empathy: Negotiating the Border between Self and Other. In The Social Life of Emotions, Larissa Z. Tiedens and Colin Wayne Leach, eds., pp. 19-42. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. De Castro Sánchez, Sergio (2009) Oaxaca: Más allá de la insurrección: Crónica de un movimiento de movimientos (2006–2007). Oaxaca, México: Ediciones Basta!Google Scholar
  14. Desjarlais, Robert, and C. Jason Throop (2011) Phenomenological Approaches in Anthropology.  Annual Review of Anthropology 40: 87-102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dreier, Ole (2007) Psychotherapy in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Duncan, Whitney L. 2016 Gendered Trauma and its Effects: Domestic Violence and ‘PTSD’ in Oaxaca. In Culture and PTSD: Global and Historical Perspectives. Devon Hinton and Byron Good, eds., pp. 202–239. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  17. Duncan, Whitney L. 2017a Psicoeducación in the Land of Magical Thoughts: Cultural and Mental Health Practice in a Changing Oaxaca. American Ethnologist 44(1):36–51.Google Scholar
  18. Duncan, Whitney L. 2017b ‘Dinámicas Ocultas’: Culture and Psy-Sociality in Oaxacan ‘Family Constellations’ Therapy. Ethos 45(4):489–513.Google Scholar
  19. Duncan, Whitney L. (2018) Transforming Therapy: Mental Health Practice and Cultural Change in Mexico. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Duranti, Alessandro (2010) Husserl, Intersubjectivity, and Anthropology. Anthropological Theory 10(1): 1-20.Google Scholar
  21. Evans, Harriet (2012) The Intimate Individual: Perspectives from the Mother-Daughter Relationship in Urban China. In Chinese Modernity and the Individual Psyche, Andrew B. Kipnis, ed., pp. 119–148. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Farley, Brian P. (1998) Anxious Conformity: Anxiety and the Sociocentric-Oriented Self in a Tlaxcalan Community. Ethos 26(3):271–294.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Foucault, Michel (1988) Technologies of the Self. In Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault, Luther H. Martin, Huck Gutman, and Patrick H. Hutton, eds. Pp. 16–49. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.Google Scholar
  24. Gershon, Ilana (2018) Employing the CEO of Me, Inc.: US Corporate Hiring in a Neoliberal Age. American Ethnologist 45 (2):173-185.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Gutmann, Matthew (1996) The Meanings of Macho: Being a Man in Mexico City. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  26. Heelas, Paul (2008) Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism, Religion and Spirituality in The Modern World. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hellinger, Bertold (with Gunthard Weber and Hunter Beaumont) 1998 Love’s Hidden Symmetry. Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Co.Google Scholar
  28. Hellinger, Bertold 2000 Supporting Love: How Love Works in Couple Relationships (ed. Johannes Neuhaser, trans. Colleen Beaumont). Pheonix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Thiesen Publishers.Google Scholar
  29. Hellinger, Bertold 2007[2001] Love’s Own Truths: Bonding and Balancing in Close Relationships (trans. Maureen Oberli-Turner and Hunter Beaumont). Phoenix, AZ: Zeig, Tucker, & Thiesen, Inc.Google Scholar
  30. Herzfeld, Michael 2016[2005] Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and The Real Life of States, Societies and Institutions. Third Edition. ed. London, New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  31. Hirsch, Jennifer S. (2003) A Courtship after Marriage: Sexuality and Love in Mexican Transnational Families. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  32. Huang, Hsuan-Ying (2014) The Emergence of the Psycho-Boom in Contemporary Urban China. In Psychiatry and Chinese History, Howard Chiang ed., pp. 183–204. London: Pickering & Chatto.Google Scholar
  33. Hunger, Christina, et al. (2014) Improving Experience in Personal Social Systems Through Family Constellation Seminars: Results of a Randomized Controlled Trial. Family Process 53(2):288-306.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hunger, Christina, et al. (2015) Mid- and Long-term Effects of Family Constellation Seminars in a General Population Sample: 8- and 12-month Follow-up. Family Process 54(2):344-358.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Husserl, Edmund (1969). Formal and Transcendental Logic. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Illouz, Eva (2008) Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, Emotions, and the Culture of Self-Help. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  37. James, William 1950[1890] The Principles of Psychology. New York: Dover Publications.Google Scholar
  38. Jankowiak, William, and Xuan Li 2017 Emergent Conjugal Love, Mutual Affection, and Female Marital Power. In Transforming Patriarchy: Chinese Families in the Twenty-First Century, Gonçalo D. Santos and Stevan Harrell, eds., pp. 146–162. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  39. Keane, Webb (2016) Ethical Life: Its Natural and Social Histories. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Keefe, Susan, Amado Padilla, and Manuel Carlos (1979) The Mexican-American Extended Family as an Emotional Support System. Human Organization 38(2):144–152.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kipnis, Andrew B. (1997) Producing Guanxi: Sentiment, Self, and Subculture in a North China Village. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Kleinman, Arthur, Yunxiang Yan, Jun Jing, and Lee Sing (2011) Deep China: The Moral Life of the Person: What Anthropology and Psychiatry Tell Us About China Today. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  43. Kuan, Teresa (2015) Love’s Uncertainty: The Politics and Ethics of Child Rearing in Contemporary China. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  44. Lave, Jean (2015) Afterword. In A World of Work: Imagined Manuals for Real Jobs, Ilana Gershon ed., pp. 221–27. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  45. Leander, Kevin M. (2004) “They Took Out the Wrong Context’’: Uses of Time-Space in the Practice of Positioning. Ethos 32 (2):188–213.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lempert, Michael, and Sabina Perrino (2007) Entextualization and the Ends of Temporality. Language & Communication 27 (3):205-211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lester, Rebecca (2005) Jesus in our Wombs: Embodying Modernity in a Mexican Convent. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  48. Libby, Lisa K., and Richard P. Eibach (2002) Looking Back in Time: Self-Concept Change Affects Visual Perspective in Autobiographical Memory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 82(2):167-179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Martínez Luna, Jaime (2010) Eso que llaman comunalidad. Oaxaca, Mexico: Culturas Populares, CONACULTA/Secretaría de Cultura, Gobierno de Oaxaca/Fundación Alfredo Harp Helú.Google Scholar
  50. Mattingly, Cheryl (2014) Moral Laboratories Family Peril and The Struggle for a Good Life. Oakland, California: University of California Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Mattingly, Cheryl (2019) Defrosting Concepts, Destabilizing Doxa: Critical Phenomenology and the Perplexing Particular. Anthropological Theory. Scholar
  52. Moore, Joan W., and Alfredo B. Cuéllar (1970) Mexican American. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  53. Norget, Kristin (2006) Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Norget, Kristin (2010) A Cacophony of Autochthony: Representing Indigeneity in Oaxacan Popular Mobilization. Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 15 (1): 116–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Nussbaum, Martha (2009) Bernard Williams: Tragedies, Hope, Justice. In Reading Bernard Williams, Daniel Callcut, ed., pp. 213-41. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  56. Matza, Tomas (2018) Shock Therapy: Psychology, Precarity, and Well-being in Postsocialist Russia. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  57. Polsky, Andrew Joseph (1991) The Rise of the Therapeutic State. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  58. Pritzker, Sonya E. (2016) New Age with Chinese Characteristics? Translating Inner Child Emotion Pedagogies in Contemporary China. Ethos 44 (2):150–170.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Pritzker, Sonya E. 2017 Family Constellation Therapy and the Ethical (Re)construction of Relational Intimacy in Contemporary China. In Paper presented at the Biennial Meetings of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, New Orleans, LA.Google Scholar
  60. Pritzker, Sonya E., and Kiki Q.Y. Liang 2018 Desire with Chinese Characteristics: Scaling Intimacy in Narratives of Personal Psycho-spiritual Development (心灵成长xinling chengzhang). In Presented at “Living Well in China” Conference, Irvine, CA.Google Scholar
  61. Pritzker, Sonya E. 2019 Narrative Possibilities: Reconfiguring Caultural Models in Space and Time. In Paper presented at the Biennial Meetings of the Society for Psychological Anthropology, Albuquerque, New Mexico.Google Scholar
  62. Pritzker, Sonya E., and Kiki Q.Y. Liang 2018 Semiotic Collisions and the Metapragmatics of Culture Change in Dr. Song Yujin’s ‘Chinese Medical Psychology’. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 28(1):43–66.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Reyes-Foster, Beatriz (2019) Psychiatric Modernities: Madness and Modernity in Yucatan, Mexico. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers U. Press.Google Scholar
  64. Rivera-Garza, Cristina (2001) Dangerous Minds: Changing Psychiatric Views of the Mentally Ill in Porfirian Mexico, 1876–1911. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 56 (1): 36–67.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Rose, Nikolas S. (1996) Inventing Our Selves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Sabogal, F., G. Marin, R. Otero-Sabogal, B. V. Marin, and E. J. Perez-Stable (1987) Hispanic Familism and Acculturation: What Changes and What Doesn’t. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences 9:397–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Sahlins, Marshall (2013) “What Kinship Is (Part One).” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17(1): 2-19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Santos, Gonçalo D., and Stevan Harrell (2017) Transforming Patriarchy: Chinese Families in the Twenty-first Century. Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  69. Smith-Morris, Carolyn, Daisy Morales-Campos, Edith Alejandra Castañeda Alvarez, and Matthew Turner (2012) An Anthropology of Familismo: On Narratives and Description of Mexican/Immigrants. Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences. Scholar
  70. Smith-Oka, Vania (2013) Shaping the Motherhood of Indigenous Mexico. Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press.Google Scholar
  71. Stein, Edith 1989 On the Problem of Empathy (trans. W. Stein). Washington, DC: ICS Publications.Google Scholar
  72. Stepan, Nancy Leys (1991) The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.Google Scholar
  73. Stephen, Lynn (2002) Sexualities and Genders in Zapotec Oaxaca. Latin American Perspectives, 29(2): 41–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Stephen, Lynn (2013) We Are the Face of Oaxaca: Testimony and Social Movements. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Sutin, Angelina R., and Richard W. Robins (2008) When the “I” looks at the “Me”: Autobiographical Memory, Visual Perspective, and the Self. Consciousness and Cognition 17:1386-1397.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Teo, Thomas (2018) Homo Neoliberalus: From Personality to Forms of Subjectivity. Theory & Psychology 28 (5):581-599.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Turner, Edith L. B. (2012) Communitas: The Anthropology of Collective Joy. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Turner, Victor (1985) On the Edge of the Bush: Anthropology as Experience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  79. Ulsamer, Bertold (2005) The Healing Power of The Past: The Systemic Therapy of Bert Hellinger. Nevada City, CA: Underwood Books.Google Scholar
  80. Vasconcelos, José (1997) The Cosmic Race: A Bilingual Edition. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  81. Wentzell, Emily (2015) Medical Research Participation as Citizenship: Modeling Modern Masculinity and Marriage in a Mexican Sexual Health Study. American Anthropologist 117(4):652–664.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Weinhold, Jan, et al. (2013) Family Constellation Seminars Improve Psychological Functioning in a General Population Sample. Journal of Counseling Psychology 60(4):601-609.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  83. Wolynn, Mark (2016) It Didn’t Start with You: How Inherited Family Trauma Shapes Who We Are and How To End the Cycle. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  84. Wright, Kate (2010) The Rise of the Therapeutic Society: Psychological Knowledge and the Contradictions of Cultural Change. Washington, DC: New Academia Pub.Google Scholar
  85. Xiao, Hui Faye (2014). Family Revolution: Marital Strife in Contemporary Chinese Literature and Visual Culture. Seattle and London: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  86. Yan, Yunxiang (2009) The Individualization of Chinese Society. Oxford and New York: Berg.Google Scholar
  87. Yan, Yunxiang (2016) Intergenerational Intimacy and Descending Familism in Rural North China. American Anthropologist 118:244-257.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Yan, Yunxiang (2017) Doing Personhood in Chinese Culture: The Desiring Individual, Moralist Self and Relational Person. The Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 35(2): 1-17.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Yan, Yunxiang (2018) Neo-Familism and the State in Contemporary China. Urban Anthropology 47(3,4): 1-43.Google Scholar
  90. Yang, Jie (2018) Mental Health in China: Change, Tradition, and Therapeutic Governance in China Today. Cambridge, UK: Polity.Google Scholar
  91. Zhang, Everett (2015) The Impotence Epidemic: Men’s Medicine and Sexual Desire in Contemporary China, Durham: Duke University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Zhang, Li (2017) Cultivating the Therapeutic Self in China.  Medical Anthropology 37(1):45-58.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  93. Zigon, Jarrett (2007) Moral Breakdown and the Ethical Demand: A Theoretical Framework for an Anthropology of Moralities. Anthropological Theory 7(2):131–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  94. Zigon, Jarrett (2008) Morality: An Anthropological Perspective. Oxford and New York: Berg.Google Scholar
  95. Zigon, Jarrett (2011) “HIV is God’s Blessing”: Rehabilitating Morality in Neoliberal Russia. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Northern ColoradoGreeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations