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

Abstract

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).

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Notes

  1. Hellinger has been somewhat inconsistent in his writings about what are most often presented as the “natural laws” of love in families in terms of gender roles. On one hand, he often writes confidently about how the natural laws of love, for example “are usually well served when a woman follows her husband…[and] when their husbands lead with heartfelt concern for the family’s well-being” (Hellinger 1998:51–52), and he claims that these laws “nourish love” universally (1998:47). On the other hand, Hellinger occasionally acknowledges that cultural differences and changes may affect the so-called “natural” order of gendered relationships (Hellinger 1998:47, 52).

  2. As Ulsamer (2005) puts it, “[t]hese statements strengthen, release, and reconcile. After saying them, the representatives stand straighter, or they exhale in relief, or they look at others in a friendlier way. The statements are chosen with this outcome in mind and they are judged by whether or not they achieve this positive result. What counts in the constellations is the effect they have—an effect that is visible in the posture, on the faces and in the breathing of representatives (121).

  3. Resolution does not always occur immediately, however, or even with the representatives and elements who were originally set up. During the constellation, the facilitator will also commonly choose new representatives to play the roles of people or elements that were previously unknown. As we saw above, the notion that seemingly inconsequential information such as the kinds of relationships one’s father had with previous partners is taken quite literally in FCT. Siblings who were aborted with or without the client’s knowledge thus also sometimes make an appearance in constellations as they develop, as do people who a distant relative may have hurt or been hurt by, for example through the violence of war. Some kind of resolution does usually occur usually within 20–30 min, though sometimes it takes much longer and involves the addition of many other participants.

  4. This quotation, and especially the reference to “we,” raises complex issues around ethnic dynamics, racism, coloniality, and erasure in contemporary Mexican and Oaxacan society and in this particular therapeutic practice. The “we” that this practitioner seems to refer to is the mestizaje, which in much of Mexico and Latin America refers to those who identify as having a blend of indigenous, European, and sometimes African ancestry, explicitly distinguished from “indigenous” [indígena] populations who are understood as native (for a notable exception in the use of the mestizo category, see Reyes-Foster 2019) and who, throughout Mexico, are disproportionately likely to be marginalized economically and otherwise. There is not space here to detail the complicated history and contemporary valence of these racial-ethnic categories Mexico, but readers may consult Basave Benítez (1992), Crowley-Matoka (2016), Duncan (2017a, 2018), Lester (2005), Norget (2010), Reyes-Foster (2019), Rivera-Garza (2001), Stepan (1991), Vasconcelos (1997), and Wentzell (2015), among others. Notably, FCT facilitators and participants in Oaxaca tend to be non-indigenous and to live in the greater Oaxaca City metro area, although some practitioners reported offering FCT in rural indigenous communities. Participants represented a range of socioeconomic statuses, however, and the “temas” people raised ranged from rural land disputes to small business managerial conflicts to depression and infertility.

  5. The modality is also largely heteronormative, rarely tolerating non-traditional family structures (Duncan 2017b).

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Acknowledgements

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.

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Pritzker, S.E., Duncan, W.L. Technologies of the Social: Family Constellation Therapy and the Remodeling of Relational Selfhood in China and Mexico. Cult Med Psychiatry 43, 468–495 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11013-019-09632-x

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Keywords

  • Family constellation therapy
  • China
  • Mexico
  • Sociality
  • Self