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Sociometry and Social Work Theory

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Part of the Psychodrama in Counselling, Coaching and Education book series (PCCE,volume 1)


The congruence of sociometry theory and social work theories is covered in detail in this chapter. The social atom, cultural atom, and sociogram are described with visual depictions. Moreno’s theories of interpersonal connection, social networks, and society are depicted while introducing sociometry terms such as the sociodynamic effect, tele, and the organic unity of mankind. Sociometry’s connection to social work’s person-in-environment theories is emphasized while also considering the shared concern for how social forces impact individuals and groups.


  • Social work
  • Sociometry
  • Social atom
  • Social network
  • Person-in-environment

The term sociometry is derived from two parts—“socius” and “metrum.” As its etymology suggests, sociometry is concerned with the assessment of groups, social circles, and social networks. Moreno suggested that other social fields were too focused on measurement or too focused on social phenomenon without balancing and integrating a focus on both. He promoted sociometry as a field of its own that explores the sociodynamics within groups and society. Sociometry is a system composed of three parts: a theory of the structure of society and interpersonal relations, a research method for studying that structure and relationships, and the clinical practice for reorganizing groups for optimal functionality (Hale, 2009; Nolte, 2014). This section will orient itself on the theoretical aspects of sociometry as they relate to social work.

Moreno reflects on the foundational role of sociometry for group psychotherapy in the 25th anniversary edition of his First Book on Group Psychotherapy:

Group psychotherapy, sociometry and psychodrama are like three sons born from one another. They grew together and nourished each other. Group psychotherapy may never have succeeded had sociometry not followed immediately and spread the news about the group and the dynamics of group structure… All three developments are the products of a single germinal idea. (Moreno, 1957, p. xxiv).

This passage underscores the relationship between sociometry and group psychotherapy from Moreno’s perspective. Founder of the Sociometric Institute and trainee of Moreno, Bob Siroka notes how Moreno used to remark that “I use psychodrama to get people in the door so that I can teach them sociometry” (personal communication, May 9th, 2020). While his most known contribution comes from psychodrama and role playing techniques, he frequently reminds us of the essential nature of sociometry for both group work and psychodrama practice.

“A true therapeutic procedure cannot have less an objective than the whole of mankind,” this is the motto of the American Board of Examiners in Sociometry, Psychodrama, and Group Psychotherapy and the first sentence of Moreno’s 1934 Who Shall Survive? (p. 3). They are arguably Moreno’s most famous words but are almost always detached from the sentence that follows—“But no adequate therapy can be prescribed as long as mankind is not a unity in some fashion and as long as its organization remains unknown” (1934, p. 3). A psychiatrist by training, Moreno argued that assessment always needed to precede intervention—even with group therapy and society. His sociometric system is the means by which he believed we could uncover the organization and dynamics of groups and society so that they could be improved and enhanced. The quote from Who Shall Survive? was inspired by the story of a traveling doctor who travels to meet a patient but comes across many others with the same malady suggesting “no man can be treated singly but all men together” (Moreno, 1953, p.426).

5.1 Sociometric Theory and Research

Sociometry is defined by Moreno as “the inquiry into the evolution and organization of groups and the position of individuals within them” (Moreno, 1953, p. 23). Moreno suggested that sociometry bridges the gap between psychology and sociology, offering a functional theory for exploring interpersonal relations (1949). He referred to sociometry as a science by, for, and of the people (Moreno, 2014); it is both the quantitative and qualitative exploration of the interrelations of humans. Moreno states that the study of sociometry resolves the quantitative versus qualitative dichotomy as “the qualitative aspect of social structure is not destroyed or forgotten, it is integrated into the quantitative operations, it acts from within. The two aspects of structure are treated in combination and as a unit” (p. 23). He writes that the primary task of sociometry has been “the reorientation of the experimental method so that it can be applied effectively to social phenomena” (Moreno, 1948, p. 121).

Sociometric research was first adopted by the sociologists and social scientists who Moreno criticized as being too detached from the lives of the communities they were studying.

…the most important influence which sociometry exercised upon the social sciences is the urgency and the violence with which it pushed the scholars from the writing desk into actual situations, urging them to move into real communities and to deal there with real people; urging them to move in personally and directly, with a warm and courageous heart, implemented with a few hypotheses and instruments, instead of using go-betweens as translators and informants; urging them to begin with their science now and here (action research), not writing for the milennium of the library shelves. (Moreno, 1949, p. 244).

Sociometric research is action based and participatory (Moreno, 1942). It insists that research in the social sciences cannot take place within a sterile laboratory or clinic; instead, it must be conducted in real-life situations (1931). In group therapy, Moreno elevated each group member to that of a patient–therapist; in the classroom, students were considered student-teachers; and in research, participants are subject-researchers. Likewise, the leader is considered a part of the group, not a person on the outside. In 1943, he writes, “sociometry has taught us to be pessimistic, critical of all enterprises which try to solve problems of human relations without the most intensive participation of the people involved, and the most intensive knowledge of their psycho-social living conditions” (p. 344).

The social work profession’s orientation to social science and research seems highly compatible with sociometry in that it merges the qualitative with the quantitative and considers participants as the experts. In this way, the dehumanization of research participants is avoided, and the communities studied are involved in the design, implementation, and distribution of the research. The social work researcher recognizes their role responsibility of conducting research to empower communities and assess the needs of different social groups—rather than simply for academic prestige or self-promotion. Social work research, like sociometry research, integrates both psychology and sociology into a more complete exploration of the individual within their social environment and of groups within society. “Social work, like sociometry, has its major focus upon those interpersonal and social processes that determine human behavior and make for human adjustment” (Deutschberger, 1950, p. 8).

J.L. Moreno ’s book, Who Shall Survive? (originally published in 1934), provides an in-depth description of his sociometric theory with a large collection of sociometric research, mostly conducted at the New York Training School for Girls, a reformatory school in Hudson where Moreno was invited to serve as the Director of Research. Through the course of his sociometric studies of various communities and groups, he uncovered and labeled multiple social phenomena including the social atom, the cultural atom , social networks , tele, and the sociodynamic effect.

5.2 Moreno’s Interpersonal Theory and the Encounter

A meeting of two: eye to eye, face to face And when you are near I will tear your eyes out and place them instead of mine and you will tear my eyes out and place them instead of yours then I will look at you with your eyes and you will look at me with mine. (Moreno, 1914).

This quote from Moreno’s 1914 poem, An Invitation to an Encounter, conveys the basis of his interpersonal theory, his psychodramatic theory, and his existential philosophy. He writes that the concept of “encounter” (Begegnung) does not translate well from German into English. That, in English, it loses its depth and becomes sterile, a vague interpersonal relationship. His intended meaning is of a much more meaningful encounter.

It means that two or more persons meet, but not only to face one another, but to live and experience each other, as actors each in his own right, not like a “professional” meeting (a case-worker or a physician or a participant observer and their subjects), but a meeting of two people. In a meeting the two persons are there in space, with all their strengths and all their weaknesses, two human actors seething with spontaneity…” (Moreno, 1943, p. 310).

Moreno describes this poem as the simplest definition of interpersonal relations (1955). He writes that only through authentic meeting of others do natural groupings and actual societies emerge (1946). Through a genuine encounter, both individuals are changed and impacted by the other. Nolte describes an encounter as “two active individuals who live and experienced each other” (2014, p. 19). Each participant in the encounter comes to a deeper realization of self through total reciprocity with the other while intuitively reversing roles in full spontaneity and autonomy in the here-and-now (Moreno, 1960). He goes on to write that “encounter is also the real basis of the therapeutic process” (1960, p. 16). It is through this lens that Moreno’s sociometric and psychodramatic theories developed.

Moreno’s interpersonal theory and Martin Buber’s I and Thou concept (Buber, 1923), published 9 years later, have much in common. Interestingly, Moreno and Martin Buber worked together on the editorial team of a literary journal called Daimon in Vienna and clearly had a significant influence on each other’s thinking (Moreno, 2019). Moreno’s work influenced many others, and because he published his work anonymously for nine years, his name has become distant from many of his creations. Regardless, few would argue against the statement that “Moreno was a pioneer in the exploration of human connection” (Hale, 2009, p. 356).

5.3 The Social Atom

As the individual projects his emotions into the groups around him, and as the members of these groups in turn project their emotions toward him, a pattern of attractions and repulsions, as projected from both sides, can be discerned on the threshold between individual-and group. This pattern is called his asocial atom. (Moreno, 1941, p. 24).

Moreno described human society as having similar properties to the atomic structure defining matter. He saw that a person is defined by their social relationships and conceptualized this network of close interpersonal relations as one’s social atom (Ridge, 2010). The social atom is similar to and influenced the creation of social work’s genogram and the ecomap (Dayton, 2005). It can be used to map an individual’s perception and experience of the nature of their familial relationships, their social relationships, their relationships to collectives or organizations, their relationships to objects or behaviors (especially in addictions treatment), their desired relationships, and/or the nature of their relationships at different points in time (Hale, 1981). The social atom not only depicts one’s relationships, but also the nature of the relationships—attractions, repulsions, indifferences, and the reciprocities of (Hale, 1981). Moreno (1939, p. 3) indicates that an individual’s social atom begins as a dyad between self and mother and grows to include “persons who come into [the] child’s orbit.” He hypothesizes that:

a) An individual is tied to his social atom as closely as to his body; b) as he moves from an old to a new community it changes its membership but its constellation tends to be constant. Notwithstanding that it is a novel social structure into which he has entered, the social atom has a tendency to repeat its former constellation; its concrete, individual member have changed but the pattern persists. (J.L. Moreno, 1953, p. 703).

As such, the social atom often provides an object relations map for working with clients which can be used to help both the client and clinician understand transference (Dayton, 2005). J.L. Moreno understood the social atom as the smallest of social structures—one that is actively changing as individuals attempt to maintain sociostasis, or social balance characterized by an ease of socio-affective experience (1947). Moreno’s social atom theory argues that there are few things more important to humans than their position within groups and how others feel about them; thus, the patterns of attractions and repulsions within one’s social atom may be responsible for the intrapsychic tensions and problems that human’s experience (1941).

Social work’s person-in-environment theory reflects the position of the social atom—which visually depicts the individual within their interpersonal environment. Moreno articulates social work’s person-in-environment philosophy in the following quote, “every individual man functions in a system which is confined by two boundaries: the emotional expansiveness of his own personality and the socio-emotional pressure exerted upon him by the population.” (1953, p. 316). The centrality of human relationships is given significance through the social atom and sociometric theory (Giacomucci, 2018a; b). Moreno’s 1950 article, The Sociometric Approach to Social Case Work, urges social workers to utilize the social atom, the cultural atom, and the sociogram to develop a clearer social understanding of the individual client.

The social atom is “the sum of interpersonal structures resulting from choices and rejections centered about a given individual” (Moreno, 1987, p. 239). Moreno conceptualized society and the social network as an innumerable series of interlinked social atoms (Moreno, 1937a, b; Nolte, 2014). The social atom is primarily created through a written exercise. It can be used as an assessment tool throughout treatment to measure changes in a client’s relational life. It is commonly used as a warm-up for psychodrama and can even be put into action with group members holding the roles of other individuals on one’s social atom (Dayton, 2005).

A social atom is created by drawing one’s self in the center of a page, surrounded by one’s closest relationships. Circles are used to represent females, triangles for males, and squares for non-human entities or objects. In the course of teaching the social atom to social work students, this writer’s student (Jordan Briem) suggested the use of a star for transgender or non-binary genders rather than using a square, circle, or triangle. Or, to permit participants to use whichever shapes that they want to use to represent each person on their social atom. A dotted outline of a shape indicates that the person is deceased. Shapes are drawn in proximity to the self on the social atom to represent closeness or distance in the relationship. Finally, lines are drawn between the self and the person or object to represent the nature of the relationship. A solid line represents a secure, connected relationship, dotted line indicates a lost relationship, and a squiggly line depicts a conflicted relationship (see Fig. 5.1 with key).

Fig. 5.1
figure 1

Social atom example with key

5.4 Cultural Atom

The cultural atom exists within each social atom. While the social atom depicts the most significant interpersonal relationships within an individual’s life, the cultural atom depicts the many roles and role relationships within each of these relationships (Moreno, 1943).

The pattern of role relations around an individual as their focus is called his cultural atom. Every individual, just as he has a set of friends and a set of enemies, -a social atom- also has a range of roles facing a range of counter-roles. (Moreno, 1943, p. 331).

The role dynamics and role relationships within the cultural atom can take multiple forms including formal or informal, symmetrical or complementary, reciprocal, triangulated, and/or conflicting (Daniels, 2016). Each individual’s personality develops and exists within a matrix of role relationships that give expression to the various aspects of the self.

While the social atom received considerable attention in Moreno’s work, the cultural atom has been given very little attention and only a handful of articles exist about it beyond Moreno’s original writing. The cultural atom is depicted through first drawing one’s social atom and then drawing lines to reflect the role relationships between each individual (see Fig. 5.2). Between the protagonist and each individual in their social atom, there are role relationships that exist and give deeper meaning to the interpersonal relationship while also explaining the patterns of attractions and repulsions between individuals (Moreno, 1941). Moreno considered the social atom to be the smallest functional unit of society and the cultural atom to be the smallest functioning unit of culture (Nolte, 2014). Societal and cultural values are transmitted through the social atom, cultural atom, and role relationships within them. Roles are socially constructed and held, existing in a state of reciprocal interaction between the culture, society, and the individual (Nolte, 2014).

Fig. 5.2
figure 2

Cultural atom example with key

5.5 The Sociogram

While the social atom depicts the attractions and repulsions of individuals within one person’s life, the sociogram depicts the interpersonal dynamics within a specific group. The sociogram was one of the first instruments of sociometry to be developed through his work in Mittendorf refugee camp around 1915. He later created sociograms depicting the interpersonal relationships within various groups including prison blocks in Sing Sing Prison, students in classrooms, actors on the stage, military divisions, and organizations. Some argued that with the invention of the sociogram, the first scientific basis for group psychotherapy was born (Renouvier, 1958). Individual psychotherapy techniques are not adequately translatable into group psychotherapy—“a group structure which is more than the sum of the individuals participating in it” (Moreno, 1948, p. 123).

The sociogram made it possible to scientifically assess the sociodynamics within a group in order to appropriately prescribe interventions for better functioning. The functioning of a group, just like an organism or organization is strongly influenced by its structure. “The core of a social structure is the pattern of relationships of all the individuals within the structure” (Moreno, 1941, p. 19). A sociogram is constructed through the data collected by a sociometric test. A sociometric test measures two-way relations based upon a specific criteria. A simple example of a sociometric test is depicted through the teaching of a psychodrama elective at Bryn Mawr College’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research. As the instructor, I asked each student to email me the names, in order of preference, of the three classmates that they would most prefer to co-facilitate a class warm-up with later in the semester. Upon receiving the data of this sociometric test, I input it into an online computer system that draws the sociogram for me based on the distribution of choices, the attractions and repulsions, within the classroom based on this criteria (see Fig. 5.3).

Fig. 5.3
figure 3

Sociogram from a graduate social work classroom

The resulting sociogram visually shows the choices and preferences of each student. In analyzing the sociogram, we can see that student 11 is the star of the group based on these criteria as they were chosen by five of their peers, more than anyone else. Students 2, 10, and 8 were each chosen four times. Two students (1 and 12) were chosen by three of their peers; four students (3, 4, 5, 7, and 9) were chosen by two classmates; and student 6 was chosen once. Previously, sociograms were drawn by hand, but modern technology has given way to multiple computer programs that can quickly create a sociogram image.

Sociograms can be created for small groups or large groups and give us significant information about the invisible dynamics within the group and between group members. Moreno suggested that the number of mutual choice s within a group sociogram is an indicator of its health (Hale, 2009). The organizations of the group, communities, organizations, and agencies could be restructured based on sociometric analysis to determine the best fit for individual members—this was Moreno’s original recommendation based on his Mittendorf experience. Through the use of sociograms for sociometric research, it became clear that the social wealth within groups is unequally distributed—there are social stars and social isolates within each group which reflects the structure of society-as-a-whole.

5.5.1 Sociodynamic Effect

The unequal distribution of preferences within a group is a result of the sociodynamic effect which “underlies the development of leadership and isolation” in groups and society (Moreno, 1943, p. 305). Moreno suggested that the sociodynamic effect was the underlying dynamic responsible for every social problem known to humans. The sociodynamic effect “is universally present, appearing like a halo effect, inherent in every social structure” (1941, p. 126).

It was through his systematic study at the Hudson girls reform school that he became more fully aware of this underlying social force. He conducted a sociometric test during which the 505 residents were asked to write down their top five choices of other girls that they would like to live with. It was expected that the distribution of choices would create a normal probability curve where most participants would receive an average amount of choices, few participants would receive above the average, and few participants would receive below the average number of choices. Instead what was found, and replicated in nearly every sociometric test since, was that a handful of girls received many of the choices, the largest number were unchosen or severely under-chosen, and the rest received an average number of choices. The sociodynamic effect is clearly depicted in the sociogram graphic above where a few of the graduate students received an overwhelming majority of choices by the group while others were less chosen.

Social workers are tasked with promoting and developing a more inclusive society where the vulnerable and oppressed are not isolated or unchosen. The creation of a socially just society must take into account the sociodynamic effect and its pervasive impact upon society and groups within society. Many have suggested that the sociometrist and group worker’s role responsibilities include reversing the sociodynamic effect (Giacomucci, 2017; Giacomucci et al., 2018; Korshak & Shapiro, 2013; Moreno, 1934; Schreiber, 2018). While a case worker orients around reversing the sociodynamic effect’s impact on their client, a social group worker is concerned with reversing the sociodynamic effect in their group, and a macrosocial worker is primarily focused on reversing the sociodynamic effect within society.

This underlying social dynamic which impacts the distribution of social choices leaves many unchosen while others are sociometric stars, is called the sociodynamic effect (Hale, 1981; Moreno, 1934). At the same time, he noticed significantly more mutual choices within his groups than expected. “The trend towards mutuality of attraction and repulsion many times surpasses chance possibility. The factor responsible for this effect is called ‘tele’” (Moreno, 1941, p. 24).

5.5.2 Tele

“We could observe that some individuals have for each other a certain sensitivity as if they were chained together by a common soul. When they warm-up to a state, they ‘click’” (J.L. Moreno, 1924, p. 57). This quote from J.L. Moreno ’s Das Stegreiftheater (Theater of Spontaneity) describes the concept of tele nearly a decade before later naming the term through his sociometric research. The term tele is derived from the Greek word meaning “far” or “at a distance” (Moreno, 1934). J.L. Moreno states that “every wholesome human relationship depends on the presence of tele”; he defines tele as “insight into,” “appreciation of,” and “feeling for” the “actual make up” of the other person. (1959, p. 37). It is “the socio-gravitational factor, which operates between individuals, drawing them to form more positive or negative pair-relations…than on chance” (J.L. Moreno, 1947, p. 84). Tele may be conceptualized as two-way empathy (J.L. Moreno, 1953). The progress of therapy and the development of any group depend on tele as a foundation to its advancement (Moreno, 2000). “Tele conveys the message that people are participants in an interpersonal phenomena whereby they contact and communicate and resonate with one another at a distance and that they send emotional messages projected across space” (Kellermann, 1992, as cited in Dayton, 2005, p. 53). Dayton (2005) suggests that the tele phenomenon operates through what neuroscientists describe as “affectively charged, facially mediated right brain-to-brain communications, at levels beneath awareness” (Lazarus and McCleary, 1951). Similarly, Yaniv (2014) presents a neuropsychology conceptualization of tele as being related to the orbitofrontal cortex’s function of tracking emotional valence.

Tele is not transference or countertransference (J.L. Moreno attempted to dismantle the “patient–therapist” power dynamic by referring to countertransference as transference). Transference is a one-way process—a distortion of tele, but tele is a two-way accurate knowing of one another. Both transference and tele are often present in relationships, and the goal over time is to replace transference with tele (J.L. Moreno, 1959). “By definition, transference tends to produce dissociation of interpersonal relations. In contrast, tele strengthens association and promotes continuity, security, stability, reciprocity, and cohesiveness of groups” (Moreno, 1983, p. 164). J.L. Moreno distinguishes tele from transference in the following passage:

Transference, like tele, has a cognitive as well as a conative aspect. It takes tele to choose the right therapist and group partner; it takes transference to misjudge the therapist to choose group partners who produce unstable relationships in a given activity. (1959, p. 12).

He argued that transference is a fantasy (surplus reality) based on the past experience, while tele is based on feelings into the actuality of another. Transference is based on one’s inner psychodynamic experience; tele describes the sociodynamics between two individuals (1959).

The presence of tele within psychodrama groups is often highlighted when a protagonist chooses another group member (often not knowing their history) to play a specific role—only later to find out that the role directly coincided with that group member’s personal work (Nolte, 2014). Tele is at the basis of an individual’s ability to fully role reverse with another person (von Ameln & Becker-Ebel, 2020). Tele exists within all groups, and all sociometric, psychodramatic, and group psychotherapy sessions. It is most evident in group sociometry through the development of reciprocal choices or when one’s perception toward another matches that person’s experience of self (Hale, 1981).

5.6 Social Networks and Society

Moreno’s sociograms and sociometric theory serve as the basis for modern social network theories (Moreno, 2014). He suggests that “the discovery that human society has an actual, dynamic, central structure underlying’ and determining all its peripheral and formal groupings may one day be considered as the cornerstone of all social science” (Moreno, 1941, p. 15). Within human society, there are “channelized formations, so-called ‘psychosocial networks SeeSeesocial networks ’ which bind individuals and groups together” (1948, p. 125). These social networks are described by Moreno as “the river-bed through which psychological currents flow,” and the process by which people educate and impact each other (1943, p. 306). Knowledge and awareness of the structure and organization of human interrelations is an essential foundation for the planning and construction of human society (Moreno, 1941). Society is made up of numerous social networks; social networks are composed of various social atoms; and within social atoms exist a multitude of interpersonal relationships and even more role relationships. “Sociometry, because of the unity of the human group, studies the human group as a totality. It studies every part with a view to the totality and the totality with a view to every part” (Moreno, 1943, p. 317).

In his work at Hudson Valley’s girls reform school (1934), Moreno used sociograms to map out the social networks within the community of several hundred girls. He tested his theories and assessments in various ways included spreading information through the community and assessing which sociograms and social networks the information had spread through (Nolte, 2014). His theories of psychosocial networks emerged in the 1930s–40s, decades before social networks became popularized through online social network sites such as Facebook.

Moreno believed in the therapeutic potential of one group member helping another and of one group helping another (1963). Through this framework of mutual aid, he glimpsed the potential of a therapeutic society and healing of all of society. He called this vision Sociatry. With an adequate understanding of sociodynamics , social networks, and the social atom, Moreno believed that the assessment and thus enhancement of society were now possible. He places Sociatry, sociodynamics, and sociometry under the umbrella of socionomy—which encompasses the science of social laws, sociodynamics, social measurement, and healing society (Hare & Hare, 1996). Like the social worker, Moreno challenged us to create change within the larger social systems which are the source of many interpersonal and emotional problems that we help our individual clients and groups grapple with. He writes “the old adage ‘Physician heal thyself’ was replaced with a new one ‘Community heal thyself’” (1956, p. 24).

5.7 Organic Unity of Humankind

“Mankind is a social and organic unity.”—JL Moreno.

The Organic Unity of Humankind refers to the shared humanness and that binds humanity together as a single group or a single entity. Moreno sometimes called this our primordial nature. Moreno extended his group-as-a-whole approach to the whole of the human species. He writes that the unity of the human group organizes and distributes itself based on a multiple social phenomenon and definite social laws (1953). These social forces are characterized by the systems of attractions and repulsions that exist within all social groupings related to biologic, psychological, and social factors. Considering mankind as a unity, Moreno writes that there are tendencies between parts of mankind which draw it together into unity at times and pull it apart at other times. These integrative and disintegrative forces are detectable within the system of attractions and repulsions within social networks, groups, social atoms, and relationships—“the human group has a science-configuration of its own” (Moreno, 1943, p. 303). He suggests that there exists a common core to all groups or societies that transcends culture or language (Giacomucci, 2018c).

Moreno ends his book Who Shall Survive? by proposing over a hundred hypotheses for future sociometric research which are structured in his 1943 Sociometry and the Cultural Order, as eight hypotheses about the organic unity of mankind: (1) Sociogenetic Law, (2) Reality Testing of Social Configurations, (3) Reality Testing of Cultural Configurations, (4) The Sociodynamic Effect, (5) The Social Atom, the Smallest Functioning Unit of the Human Group, (6) Psychological Currents and Networks, (7) The Law of Social Gravity, and (8) The Psychosocial Organization and Function of Groups.

(1) The Sociogenetic Law describes the idea that the human social structure has evolved from a mostly undifferentiated form at its birth to a more complex and differentiated system of social configurations which correspond to the growth of individuals within society (Moreno, 1943). This law suggests that the complexity of society’s evolution and the formation of sub-groups within society will continue to become more differentiated and complicated as society evolves. The sociodynamics within a sub-group of adults will be much more complex than the dynamics within a sub-group of adolescents or children. Just as each individual’s socio-emotional expansiveness increase with age, so too does society’s (Moreno, 1934). Moreno argued that just as each physical organ evolves and takes on more complex structure and function, so too does society as an organic unity (Moreno, 1953).

(2) The Reality Testing of Social Configurations hypothesis states that the social groups formed by humans will always be much more complex and differ from social structures formed by chance, predicted by computer, or imagined. Moreno labeled the socio-gravitational force that underlies this social reality as “tele.” (3) Similarly, the Reality Testing of Cultural Configurations hypothesis states that the role is the vehicle for cultural exchanges, and that within each relationship within each group, there is a range of role relationships creating a complex web of role relationships within groups which will also be more sophisticated than what would be predicted by chance. (4) The fourth hypothesis is that of The Sociodynamic Effect, which describes the preference system within human groups and society. This underlying social force is the cause of the unequal concentration of social choices which results in social leaders, stars, and isolates. Moreno even states that if we are to change our economic structure, we must take into account the sociodynamic effect because it “effect is underlying unequal distribution of wealth and power” (1943, p. 305).

(5) This hypothesis indicates that the Social Atom is the Smallest Functional Unit of the Human Group and that society “consists of an intricate web of social atoms” (Moreno, 1943, p. 305). (6) The idea of Psychological Currents and Networks describes the presences of invisible sociometric connections within larger groups of people within which information flows and impacts each member of the group. (7) The Law of Social Gravity declares that there is an intimate relationship between physical proximity/distance and psychological proximity/distance. In the absence of more sophisticated social organs such as technology or even language, social groups are highly characterized by physical proximity (Moreno, 1953). (8) The Psychosocial Organization and Function of Groups hypothesis indicates that group dynamics and structures directly impact the behavior of the group and can be measured through sociometric means. Group structure has a determining influence on group functioning and leadership (Moreno, 1943; 1953). Moreno argued that these eight hypotheses were measurable and testable through scientific research and that they would provide proof of an organic unity of mankind.

5.8 Social Work and Sociometry

“There is a striking agreement between the operational framework of theory in social work and the hypotheses basic to sociometry” (Deutschberger, 1950, p. 8). Deutschberger suggests that in both: The focus is on relationships and their impact on individual characteristics, the worker emphasizes the therapeutic relationship, problems are contextualized through a social lens, the process is client-centered and self-determination is emphasized, and the work with an individual also involves working with the larger social systems that they are a part of (1950). Green (1950) also argued that sociometry was a “highly valuable tool for the social worker in the intergroup situation,” working at the intersection of different groups.

Sociometry and democracy are intimately connected. Years ago, J.L. Moreno stated that “sociometry can well be considered the cornerstone of a still underdeveloped science of democracy” (Moreno 1953, p. 113). While more recently his son Jonathan echoed his father’s words indicating that sociometry is a science by, for, and of the people (Moreno, 2014). A democratic procedure is, in essence, a sociometric exercise. In order to establish a truly democratic society, all voices must be heard and considered—especially oppressed, underserved, and vulnerable populations. J.L. Moreno ’s methods give us the potential to explore the sociodynamics within society and its sub-groups, reverse the unequal distribution of social wealth, and provide a deeper understanding (and encounter) of difference through the application of Moreno’s methods.

In 1950, J.L. Moreno wrote an article titled The Sociometric Approach to Social Case Work in which he attempts to integrate sociometric theory into social work practice:

Man does not live alone and does not get sick by himself. His problems develop in groups…. the mental and physical equilibrium of an individual depends to a considerable degree upon the dynamic interplay of these various individual and social forces. (p. 173).

These words echo social work’s person-in-environment theory. He goes on to suggest that “It is obvious that without the knowledge and ability to mobilize the sociometric matrix on behalf of an individual, adequate social case work is not possible or at least greatly handicapped” (p. 173). Moreno’s 1934 text Who Shall Survive?, outlines much of the micro- versus macrosocial work dichotomy that would play out in the years to follow, “The premise of scientific medicine has been since its origin that the locus of physical ailment is within an individual organism. Therefore, treatment is applied to the locus of the ailment as designated by diagnosis.” (p. 60) He goes on to discuss that ailments which arise from within the context of interpersonal relations require interventions on a structural level and/or a group treatment approach (1934). There are countless reflections of social work’s person-in-environment perspective in Moreno’s writings including the following statement in the foreword to the launch of the 1937 journal Sociometry: A Journal of Inter-Personal Relations:

It becomes evident indeed that the biology of man is, in a thousand ways, a reflection of his surroundings, that human evolution is going on apace, that variation, selection, differential fecundity and differential death rate are biological realities affected by the social situation.... Civilized man is an organism forced to make a very exceptional and special type of adaptation, and no physiologist, no psychologist, can study man as an organism except in the light of his ecology, and his broader social antecedents. (Moreno, 1937a, b, p. 5).

This is perhaps the strongest connection between the field of sociometry and the social work profession.

5.9 Conclusion

One of the J.L. Moreno ’s colleagues, Helen Jennings, wrote that the task of sociometry is “transforming society to fit man, rather than transforming man to fit society” (1941, p. 512). As indicated by Becker & Marecek (2008), “rather than locating the sources of well-being solely within the individual, the discipline of social work studies individuals in the context of the social environment” (p. 597). This is precisely what sociometry achieves—a contextualization of the individual, and the experience of “mental illness” or “mental health,” within the social context. Here, we find a sturdy bridge between clinical social work practice and community praxis of social work. Moreno’s work could be seen as an attempt to bridge the gaps between micro-, mezzo-, and macrosocial work (Giacomucci, 2019; Giacomucci & Stone, 2019).


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Giacomucci, S. (2021). Sociometry and Social Work Theory. In: Social Work, Sociometry, and Psychodrama. Psychodrama in Counselling, Coaching and Education, vol 1. Springer, Singapore.

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