Kearney Anne: Counselling & Politics Undeclared 
Influences in Therapy

1996 PCCS Hooks. ISBN I 898059 09 8.

Although this is only a slim volume, the questions which Anne Kearney is raising in it
 are very important and certainly deserve much thought and discussion. Her basic
 point is that:

“having no political ideology of which we are aware is not at all the same thing as not 
having any political ideology. On the contrary our ‘unaware’ ideology seems to me to 
be the most potentially influential ideology as far as clients are concerned.” In the 
same way that other repressed or denied material, may affect our work, she claims that
 unrealized and unexplored political attitudes “may well be damaging to some clients”.

In her opening chapters, she shows how issues of gender and racism have become 
part of the conscious process of many trainings in counselling, and this she welcomes.
 She demonstrates how, for instance, the feminist analysis of counselling made great 
impact, not only for itself but also in terms of focusing the way in which concealed or 
denied aspects of ideology may be considered ‘natural’ and pass without question 
unless they are actively challenged on training courses and groups. She contends that 
the question of class is still denied and unexamined on most trainings, and following 
that, in most work with clients. Her book sets out the particular ways in which she 
thinks this works.

Her argument is set out most straightforwardly and logically. She begins by defining
 the nature of ‘class’ in the sense that it includes everybody in society and that it also
 allots them a particular position. With great clarity, she explains two particular models: 
the first, classifying everybody into a hierarchy of socio-economic groups familiar to 
us mainly from government economic forecasting and analysis; and the second, the 
horizontal division of society into two classes as per Karl Marx. She makes it clear that 
her own view would be socialist, but states that she has no wish to convert anyone; 
her point is simply that all views of society, take class-structures as basic. In fact, as her
 argument develops, she makes use of both kinds of structure, sometimes recognizing 
the more conservative analysis as relevant (when she compares professional with
 other forms of work), and sometimes relying on the two-part system, as when quoting
 feminist arguments. Interestingly, she has no hesitation in speaking as a feminist as
 well, referring to ‘we’ when discussing the issues. This openness and transparency of
 approach I found very refreshing.

Kearney looks at several specific aspects of counselling work which could be 
contaminated by unaware class bias. Firstly, she looks at the way in which language 
itself is used differently by people from different classes, pointing out that such
 differences may be seen as ‘superior’ or ‘inferior’ by clients themselves. This is not just 
a question of differing accents or vocabulary, rather, the whole way in which words 
are used to communicate may differ according to class conventions. Kearney isolates
 the question of ‘feelings’ as an example:

“Counsellor: What do you feel like when that happens?

Client: Well, you know, I feel bad about it and I don’t like it but I don’t know, what I can do about it

Counsellor: It sounds like you feel, a bit helpless when that happens. Is that right?

Client: Well. yes. I feel bad, and yes, I know I can’t do anything about it.

Counsellor:  What docs it feel like when you fed bad, do you feel angry or sad
 or what?

Client: Yes, like I said I feel really bad.

Kearney believes that the difficulty of communicating evident in exchange, stems 
partly at least from the class assumptions implicit in the counsellor’s questions. She
 says: “There are class differences (as well as gender and other differences) in the extent 
to which people can explore their feelings generally…” if we were to accept her point
 here it would clearly have repercussions at a basic level, and although she does not 
take the issue further here, I fell the problem was lucidly put.

Chapters on ‘Poverty, Class & Counselling’ and ‘Political Socialization & Counselling
’ follow, in which Kearney examines the hidden political agenda in various counselling
 situations, such as in GP practices and schools. Interesting, she also claims that people
 of the same class are more likely to communicate effectively with each other, 
regardless of race or gender, than people from different classes: “I as a white, middle
-class woman am likely to have more common experiences with a black middle-class
 woman than either of us has with either a white or black working-class woman…” Her own agenda, to emphasise the importance of class distinctions, plainly motivates this 
part of her work and I felt a little doubt creeping in as I read it. Given the complexities
 of her earlier analysis (taking in all kinds of social and family patterning) I felt that she 
was beginning to simplify her argument too much. After all, it is surely no guarantee
 of a functional therapeutic alliance that the counsellor has similar experiences to the
 client.

On the other hand, Kearney s criticism of one of the more glib assumptions which 
often inhabits the counselling world was sharp and to the point: the question of ‘
choice’.

“
I want to examine the link between class position and the choices available to clients. 
To do that I want to explore the term as it is used by economists. They make a 
distinction between ‘choice’ and ‘effective choice’, meaning by the latter a choice that
 we actually have the power to implement… I believe that the range of effective 
choices is much more narrow for working-class people than it is for others…

If she is right, there are indeed important questions which need to be considered in 
accepting and working with clients, and further questions to be asked about trainees,
 I suppose. There is something very gritty about the realism of her view, and yet at the 
same time, she holds off from offering any answers until her chapter on ‘Rogerian 
Counselling and Politics’. Here she attempts to offer a solution to the problem she has 
been setting out:

I do not believe that the person-centred focus on the individual necessarily excludes
 awareness of the social constraints on people’s lives in principle, though I do believe 
it may, and often does, do so in practice.” And she goes on: “Rogers himself saw the individual as a socio-political being who pursues both autonomy and correctness, who 
needs independence but also needs to be in a supportive external environment… and
 who, with support, can challenge the external oppressions which constrain him/her.”

Kearney’s last chapter, ‘On becoming Respectable’ is a sustained attack on the
 professional organizations of counsellors (especially the BAC) on the grounds that 
”moves to professionalization are more about gaining market advantage over other 
workers than about clients… Increased levels of accreditation, it seems to me, are more
 likely to inhibit than to facilitate creative and imaginative ways of being with a client,
 they are likely to reduce counselling activities to their lowest common denominator,
 more likely to lead to mechanical strategics than to being ‘transparently real’ to the
 client. They are, then, ‘safe’, but only safe for the counsellor, not the client.” This
 criticism is entirely consistent with her view of the class-bound and biased nature of
 much consulting work. The ‘hidden curriculum’ of trainings under central control and 
accreditation, she believes, is to reinforce the denial of class as a factor in counselling.
 And, as she began by pointing out, It is precisely such denied, repressed and
 unexplored material which is capable of doing so much damage.


Mary Montaut.