The Politics of Psychosociality

Shock Therapy is a remarkable ethnography that effectively weaves together new psychological practices, concerns about well-being, shifting modes of power, and the remaking of the self and sociality in postsocialist Russia at a time marked by profound changes, precarity, and social anxiety. Beautifully crafted and written, it brings the readers into vivid and intimate ethnographic settings while offering numerous careful yet provocative insights into the therapeutic turn and its broader sociopolitical ramifications within a transforming society.

Given my own keen interest in almost a parallel universe of the popular psy industry and practices in postsocialist China, I have had some long conversations with Matza over the years about our research. Sometimes, our dialogues make me feel as if I am looking at two mirroring worlds with striking familiarities between Russians and Chinese citizens in the search for success, happiness, connection, and techniques of managing distresses. Yet, as I dive into the ethnographic materials more deeply, subtle differences begin to emerge. Although there are so many aspects of Shock Therapy I find intriguing and want to engage, in this short piece I limit my commentary to one salient issue only–what Matza terms “psychosociality.”

When we think about psychotherapy and counseling, we usually relate it to a private phenomenon based on one-on-one talk therapy (in some cases significant other or family members included). But what is most interesting and distinct about the use of psychotherapy in Russia and China today is not individual talk therapy or the clinical setting dedicated to treating mental illness. As Matza demonstrates, the attraction and power of talk therapy is often derived from a new kind of sociality that allows an alternative form of association to take place. Through collective therapy or training sessions, an intimate yet public form of sociality is created among participants, which he refers to “a form of association and solidarity that took shape in, around, and through psychotherapeutic groups” (2018: 173). Matza argues that this imagined public intimacy, which is rare in everyday life, becomes a cherished ground for people to explore personal problems, social anxiety, and even political traumas. In this vein, the social and the self, the political and the personal are intricately linked together and enable each other. He further shows that the emergence of psychosociality is particularly significant against the backdrop of a society with increasingly fear, anxiety, isolation, and social breakdown under Putin’s rule. I believe that Matza’s detailed analysis of how and why psychosociality arises is one of the most valuable and original contribution of this book. Here I would like to echo and reflect on his account based on my fieldwork experience.

As I write this commentary, I am finishing my own book on the rise of psychotherapy in post-reform China. Like Matza, I find a new kind of sociality formed in therapeutic settings extremely telling about what is going on in society at large. Most Chinese who are drawn to the new psy field do not become therapists or clients in individual treatment, rather they flock to group training workshops (peixun) ranging from twenty to forty participants. Some of them have already passed the national counseling certification exam but want to hone their skills, while others just want to learn psychological techniques to improve themselves and their social relationships. Instead of viewing peixun spaces through a binary lens, they see them as simultaneously personal and social, safe and exploratory. While a great deal of energy is devoted to self-development and self-actualization, it is conducted in a supportive group setting with intimate strangers who share their private feelings and experiences.

While the yearning for new connections through therapeutic intervention is diagnostic of the troubled condition facing many in Russia and China, we must not overlook the limits of this psychosociality. First, it tends to be ephemeral as participants come and go without the capacity to forge a long-lasting social nexus. How can such fleeting support and intimacy they experience be sustained or reproduced in social life is a question worth contemplating? Second, without diminishing the salience of the work by such groups, I cannot help but ask myself: can this form of sociality and feeling being supportive and connected (temporarily) have the subversive potential to challenge the existing sociopolitical order and address pressing existential problems? Or does it end up serving as a coping mechanism to accommodate insurmountable obstacles in the system? Of course, there are no simple answers to these questions, but it is imperative to attend to both the power and limit of psychotherapeutic interventions as they create and enable new things while silencing and evading other issues.

Li Zhang is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California-Davis. She was a 2008 John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and the President of the Society of East Asian Anthropology (2013-15). She is the author of two award-winning books: Strangers in the City (Stanford 2001) and In Search of Paradise (Cornell 2010), and the co-editor of Privatizing China, Socialism from Afar (Cornell 2008). Her current project explores an emerging psychological counseling movement and how it reshapes Chinese people’s understandings of selfhood, well-being, and governing.