The origins of social therapy
The roots of social therapy are in the social upheaval, anti-authoritarianism, radical politics and radical therapy movements of the 1960s. Social therapy was created by Fred Newman, who received his Ph.D. in analytic philosophy and foundations of mathematics from Stanford University in 1962. A passionate and respected teacher, Newman left a promising career in academia in 1968 because he felt that the educational environment in schools and colleges was stifling the capacity of people to create learning and development. He went out to the streets of upper Manhattan with a handful of students and friends to start community organizing. He was looking to create something — he did not yet know what — that could be of value to people and society as a whole.
Newman's community organizing was an improvisational activity of inviting people to work together with him and his colleagues to create new ways of living and of creating community. They began building independent and alternative education, health, mental health, cultural and grassroots independent political organizations. As part of that work, Newman (who was not trained in psychology or psychotherapy) began doing therapy to help people emotionally develop, given the alienated and painful culture in which we live. He began with the understanding that people's emotional pain was not in their heads but that their heads were in the world — that is, their emotional problems were inseperable from the world in which we live. Group therapies of all kinds were flourishing and, like many activists at the time, Newman began leading therapy groups. Increasing numbers of therapists, activists, educators and therapy patients joined Newman to create what became a new psychology practice/theory — one that doesn't seek to "adapt" people to the painful conditions of their lives, but focuses instead on helping them to develop, and to change those conditions.
In the mid 1970s Newman met developmental psychologist Lois Holzman, who introduced him to the work of Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky. Vygotsky had been a contemporary of Jean Piaget, but his very different views (and historical circumstances) informed his revolutionary work as a psychologist. Vygotsky believed that a new psychology had to be created to understand and advance human development rather than using the existing categories of traditional psychology. He made important discoveries about the fundamental socialness of human learning and development and the critical role of play. Together these insights informed Newman, Holzman and their colleagues in creating a social, playful, improvisational and philosophical therapeutic approach which is of enormous help to people in dealing with their emotional difficulties.
Social therapy is also strongly influenced by the work of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein whom Newman had studied. Wittgenstein related to language as social activity — a creative process of making meaning with others. In his view, a great deal of emotional pain is embedded in the language we use to create pictures of the world and then relate to those pictures as reality. Wittgenstein introduced what he called language games to help people create new ways of talking which are less alienated.
In the 1980s Newman began working in theater and, together with other artists and activists, started the Castillo Theatre, a socially engaged, community-based theater that is now an integral part of the All Stars Project on 42nd Street in New York City. Over the following two decades he wrote dozens of plays, many of which he directed in his role as artistic director of the theater. He performed in many plays and in an improv comedy troupe at Castillo. These experiences deepened Newman’s understanding of Vygotsky’s discoveries about learning, development and play. He came to understand that his therapy groups were a form of performance akin to stage performance where people come together each week to create new ways of performing, creating and developing their emotional life together.
Thus was born the social therapeutic practice of people of all ages and circumstances developing by performing collectively ahead of themselves. Today, social therapy is respected as a creative, revolutionary approach to human development that is helping people the world over to find new ways of healing, helping, learning and transforming themselves, their families and communities.