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.