Paranoia and the Dynamics of Exclusion

This is the subject of a lecture given by Geoff Sharp in the late 1960s. I dedicate it to his memory.

Paranoia and the Dynamics of Exclusion

Classic “mental illness” explanations and beyond: Edwin M. Lemert was one of the early developers of societal reaction theory. His study of “Paranoia and the dynamics of exclusion” (Sociometry, 1962. 25, 1, pp 2-20) is a pioneering contribution to the social and interactional factors influencing how people become marginalised and excluded.

During the 1960s views of mental illness rapidly changed. Much work was being done by symbolic interactionists, notably Erving Goffman (especially Asylums), Thomas Scheff (Being Mentally Ill) and Anselm Strauss (especially Psychiatric Ideologies and Institutions). But the most radical was done in anti-psychiatry, with authors like Ronald Laing and David Cooper. I have always associated Ivan Illich with anti-psychiatry, though his critique was broader. Medical Nemesis was directed against medicalising society, and even that was only one element of a wider libertarianism in his publications, such as De-schooling Society. Other critics of psychiatry, notably Michel Foucault and Thomas Szasz added to a diversity of radical and critical perspectives on what mental illness is, what its causes are, and how, if at all, it should be handled.

The conspiratorial nature of exclusion: Reading Lemert’s article again, decades later, I am struck by how dark it reads. It is clear that there is group conspiratorial social exclusion going on, as when someone starts humming the opening four notes of the Dragnet theme when the victim appears. Presumably this is done in the company of an “in-crowd” who know the exclusion being enacted and who the excluded victim is (Lemert, 1962 p. 19). For those who don’t know what the Dragnet theme tune is, it can be heard here.

Politically-organised and legalised discrimination: This is another dark side of Lemert’s article, as he also relates paranoia to organised exclusion based on racism and other extremist political forms of exclusion such as anti-communism. His article is worth detailed study for the power dimension of extremist exclusionary behaviour in some cases backed up by punitive laws and regulations, ethnic cleansing, ghettoising or mass murder. McCarthyism comes to mind here, especially the House Un-American Activities Committee as well as antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Forms of Individual Psychoterror: Despite being a universal and timeless characteristic of group-related behaviour, there has been growing awareness of mobbingas a form of persecution in workplaces, in schools, in families, in kinship networks and in informal groups and friendships.

Much of this may be one-to-one mobbing,for which the word psychoterror (German wikipedia) is in many ways more appropriate than mobbing. Psychoterror is best translated as psychological harassment of one individual by another – stalking or other regularly directed actions intended to humiliate or insult the victim, or simply to make her or his life a misery.

Mobbing can also be one-to-one such as a single member of the nuclear family mobbing or dominating another member as in the physical or sexual abuse of a spouse or child, or one-to-one sexual harassment in the workplace or neighbourhood. The sexual harassment of women in workplaces is a timeless problem that causes considerable suffering.

Some kinds of mobbing are common but less discussed, more often found in humour such as in-law jokes or expressed – more ambiguously and open to different interpretations – in folk-tales involving step-relationships such as CinderellaLittle Red Riding Hoodand Hansel and Gretel. It is worth bearing in mind that step-relationships have been especially problematic in societies where death of parents from childbirth or illness was more common and could have dire consequences for children.

Websites on Mobbing: There are entire websites devoted to mobbing and its wider manifestations. Perhaps the earliest is the website of a Swedish professor, Heinz Leymann called The Mobbing Encyclopedia. Other websites include the Mobbing Portal, and workplace mobbing in academe.

That Heinz Leymann is a Swede and that he pioneered research into mobbing is unlikely to be happenstance. It is worth noting here that Scandinavia languages have a special concept for putting pressure on people not to consider themselves in any way better than others, commonly known in Swedish as Jantelagen. There is even an English wikipedia entry on Jante Law, though a better explanation with a history of the term can be found on the blog interestingclouds.

Academic Gangs: Thomas Scheff’s (1995) online article academic gangs provides a useful study of schools of academic thought as a form of mobbing, with their own codes and solidarities, deriving from pressures of career and peer-group mobilisation. Scheff’s article is worth reading for the way he stratifies academic gangs into disciplines, departments and other institutional academic gang-building as well as cross disciplinary schools of thought. For a similar analysis, though with the gang analogy less prominent and applied specifically to housing research see my article “Defining Housing Reality: ideological hegemony and power in housing research” Housing Studies (1987), Vol. 3 No. 4 pp. 205-18. A short summary may be read here.

More Nuanced Understandings: insider-outsider situations: Finally, we need to be aware that any “outsider” status – for example in terms of gender, ethnicity or race – can be experienced as alienating and result in losing contact with issues and on-going debates. Simply being in  a situation which limits the flow of information, being poorly-informed about what is happening in any situation, for whatever reason, can contribute to a sense of alienation, and uncertainty over what, if anything, is being withheld, and why.Being involved in relevant activities only part-time or as a result of lengthy periods of absence from illness may be sufficient. It is easy for almost anyone to experience some form of minor paranoia, so much so that I suspect this, too, is much more widespread than many like to believe.

It is therefore not necessary to think in terms of either mental illness or even conscious exclusion in order to understand paranoia in the dynamics of exclusion. Outsider-status can be enough to create or increase marginalisation that creates a degree of paranoia.

For further reading see Norbert Elias “Problems of Involvement and Detachment” British Journal of Sociology Vol. 7 No. 3 (September 1956) pp. 226-52

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