Volume 11, 2 (2002)
Volume 11, 2 (2002)
The British Gestalt Journal 2002, Volume 11, 2
Editorial - Malcolm Parlett
Remembering Miriam Polster - Malcolm Parlett
Special Focus on Research:
Gestalt - A Prime Medium for Holistic Research and Whole Person Education - Paul Barber
Childhood Abuse as Experienced by Black Women Living in Britain - Joanna Hewitt Taylor
Psychological Testing - A Place in Gestalt Therapy? - Philip Brownell
Self Under Siege - An Alzheimer’s Case Study - Gordon Wheeler
Special Focus on Research
Readers who read the small print will know from the statement on the inside front cover that the British Gestalt Journal 'appears twice a year for the publication of research and review articles, reviews of books, correspondence, and other material relating to Gestalt applications…’ (italics added). Research comes first, highlighting that the BGJ seeks to 'break new ground', 'extend frontiers of understanding and practice', and be a repository - as well as stimulus - for fresh thinking, unsettling ideas, and controversy.
Conceived in the above light, a great number of articles, reviews, and letters published here might indeed qualify as being 'research'. But it is obvious that the word has acquired a more restricted meaning. The present issue of the BGJ focuses on research in Gestalt - what it is, how it might be, and what the possibilities and problems are. We aim to tackle the questions via differing approaches, holding up some contrasts, and to maintain the usual levels of interest and good writing that have become the hallmarks of the BGJ. Some readers, having read 'research' in the title, may already expect writing that is obscure, arcane, desiccated, and somehow removed from the practical and everyday concerns of therapists and consultants. Not so, as we hope you will find out.
The Culture of Research
In the public mind ‘research’ conjures up something that is specialised and done by people in white coats in laboratories. It is seen as 'quantitative', 'specialised', 'scientific', and 'objective' - in contrast to the lesser realms of knowledge that are deemed to be ‘unsubstantiated' or 'unproven' or 'merely impressionistic'. Crude sloganising of this kind is unhelpful and simplistic.
Questions surround any kind of knowledge acquisition - for instance, regarding definitions of truth, what counts as legitimate data, and whether basic assumptions embedded in research inquiries are defensible. Every discipline, of necessity, has to create its own research tradition and to establish its own brand of rigour. Specialists in geology, biochemistry, history, nuclear physics, or media studies may all do research, but the activities entailed are so different that to lump them all together and call them research obscures rather than illuminates. Data gathering - and most research does entail some of this - is fraught with questions that are subject-specific; it is also a political act (who decides what data is collected and what is done with it?)
Research is replete with hidden agendas. It confers status. More than teaching, research is the trademark of being academic and a favoured route to professional advancement. While the talk is ever of 'extending the limits of human knowledge’ much is trivial in the extreme, ending up as little more than a minor rearrangement of someone else's ideas or insights. Strip away the jargon, go deeply into what was carried out, decode the cautious reporting of results, and the achievement is often very modest, even though the activity may have led to a degree or to another publication. Other research aims to prove a point that has been decided in advance, and needs backing up at all costs - and usually is. Or it is driven by the search for additional resources, or by wanting to triumph over competitors. In short, the Gestalt principle applies - that research, taken as figure, needs to be understood against its ground (the socio-political context and the zeitgeist).
Research in Psychotherapy
About research in general, there are more tangled threads than can be undone here, even in a Special Focus issue of the BGJ. But the advancement of research up the professional agenda of psychotherapy is a phenomenon that we must notice.
We do not believe that passion for deeper knowledge and illumination is what is driving it. Research shows every sign of sliding into the Gestalt world along with all the other appurtenances of becoming a professional, academically-validated, and public policy-led arm of the mental health system. There are more academic practices (and more academic-style manuscripts submitted to the Journal), more Masters degrees, and greater pressure to ‘do' research. There is also the wider movement towards 'evidence-based' practice, targets and outcomes, and greater professional accountability and regulation. Powerful bodies demand that psychotherapists 'show what they do is effective'. We have already published an exchange of correspondence (over the previous two issues) - sadly on the meagre side compared to the Big Debate we intended to foment - regarding the need to 'justify’ the effectiveness of Gestalt psychotherapy.
For Gestalt practitioners (our readers are not all therapists, by any means), there are acute problems, because philosophically speaking Gestalt stands in sharp contrast to the mainstream paradigm of medical and psychological research. The framework is one in which complex systems are simplified, for purposes of investigation. Individuals are regarded as having constituent components - like psychological traits, symptoms, or body organs - that can be isolated and examined as if they existed independently of one another. Nothing goes against the Gestalt grain more. The whole emphasis of the Gestalt tradition is on seeing phenomena as working wholes, in their contexts, and the need to and to the qualities of the gestalt.
So what can Gestalt contribute to research? This question is addressed by Paul Barber in his exciting review article, the first of our Special Focus articles. He paints, with bold strokes of his brush, an optimistic and confident picture of Gestalt in relation to recent developments in qualitative and action research. That his thinking is based on years of experience as an applied researcher and university teacher, lends additional strength to his thesis.
The current issue of the BGJ is not the first to relate Gestalt with research, at least of the qualitative variety. Some time back, in 1997 (Vol. 16, No 1.), we published two ground-breaking articles. Petruska Clarkson's review 'Gestalt Therapy is Changing: Part II - Which Future?’ (pages 29-40) drew a comparison between Gestalt and qualitative research. She suggested that 'Gestalt is concerned with the quality of practice, of learning, of making sense of experience; so is qualitative research' (p35). The same issue included Paul Barber's account of a 5 year therapeutic journey entitled 'The Client-Therapist Relationship: An Action Research Approach’ (pp 49-57). Barber worked alongside his client as a co-researcher, and posed the question: 'What is it like for therapists to view what they do as research?’
Both of the earlier themes - the research-mindedness of Gestalt, and the experience of the therapist as a practitioner-researcher - are taken further in the current issue of the BGJ. Joanna Taylor's research into abuse criss-crosses between therapeutic and research zones in ways that are exciting to read about, even though - for the researcher - it proved an uncomfortable place. To illuminate data, while feeling and experiencing suffering central to the human condition, is doubly demanding. Such can be the cost of qualitative or action inquiry, where practitioner-researchers themselves are subject to as much scrutiny as their subjects. Taylor’s account represents excellent and respectful human inquiry - something a non-therapeutic researcher would be hard pressed to recreate.
The third article is by Philip Brownell. This is a provocative article, in that he suggests that Gestalt practitioners may be misguided in their opposition to psychological testing. Not only does he find it has clinical usefulness but it might also open a door to collaboration and investigation, that could bring Gestalt and other forms of inquiry into more alive contemporary contact.
The last paper in the Special Focus section is by Gordon Wheeler. His is an intimate piece of writing, part autobiographical part neuristic inquiry, in which he documents the decline of his very elderly aunt, who had Alzheimer's. It is a case study, full of interesting textured description and anecdote, and leads to questions about the Gestalt theory of the self. As research it represents the antithesis of the type that divides people up into parts and seeks generalised conclusions. Wheeler is documenting a single instance - a unique whole, replete with all the subtleties and depths of intense study.
The contrasts and issues between the various papers are differentiated well. Together they raise critical and important questions about the pursuit of Gestalt research and what it addresses.
Following the four lead articles, and the Memories of Miriam Polster (as promised in the last issue), come letters from, first, Dan Bloom and Susan Gregory - replying to Dan Rosenblatt on the New York Institute, and second, Judith Hemming, responding to Bob Resnick's Opinion in the last issue. These are followed by three excellent book reviews. The first is from Gaie Houston, who is full of customary practical sense and good humour, in this instance on the ever-important subject of supervision. Roderick Beasley follows this with a review of a book on adolescents, and Glenys Jacques writes about Joseph Zinker and his newly published collection.
Finally, there is an Opinion, written by Bruno Just. The topic is Authenticity, which is not a theme we have published much about. Unsurprisingly, Bruno goes in search of Fritz Perls, who valued authenticity perhaps more than any other.
Altogether, we are pleased with the mix and the contrasts in this issue; including the presence of new and younger writers (Joanna Taylor and Roderick Beasley) and of two editors of other Gestalt journals (Philip Brownell edits the on-line journal Gestalt! and Bruno Just the Australian Gestalt Journal). As always we dedicate the British Gestalt Journal to its contributors (who work very hard), to all our subscribers and readers across the world, and to all who support the work of the Journal, especially its staff and Friends of the British Gestalt Journal who are honoured on the inside back cover.
There are copies of many previous issues of the BGJ still available. A Back Issues order form appears at the end of the Journal, along with a Subscriptions Form and a form for those wishing to become a Friend of the BGJ.
Letters to the Editor:
A Response to Daniel Rosenblatt on The Other Jubilee - 50 Years of the New York Institute - Daniel Bloom and Susan Gregory
A Response to Robert Resnick - ‘When “Other” is Less Than…’ - Judith Hemming
Supervision in the Helping Professions by Peter Hawkins and Robin Shohet (2nd Edition); Psychotherapy Supervision by Maria Gilbert and Kenneth Evans - Gaie Houston
The Heart of Development: Vol.2. Adolescence, Edited by Mark McConville and Gordon Wheeler - Roderick Beasley
Sketches: An Anthology of Essays, Art, and Poetry by Joseph Zinker - Glenys Jacques
Authenticity - Towards a Perlsian Stance - Bruno Just