To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Essex Department of Sociology, we are publishing a short blogpost series on books published by members of the Department. The series showcases the diverse and rich research legacy and traces an engaging history of the Department.

Book cover The Importance of DisappointmentThe Importance of Disappointment
by Ian Craib

I was a relatively new member of the Department of Sociology when The Importance of Disappointment was published in 1994, and as an historian with an interest in psychoanalysis, found myself in a minority among my colleagues. Indeed, Ian had helped pique my interest in psychoanalysis in the first place, through the experience of being in one of his therapy groups as a PhD student in the late 1980s. Because of this, the book had a profound personal and intellectual impact at the time and continued to do so. When Ian died in late 2002 from a re-occurrence of the lung cancer whose personal impact he reflects on in the preface of the book, I read this extract at his memorial: ‘life is immensely precious and the links we have with other people, in all their dreadful complexity, are all that we have, and if there is such a thing as evil it lies in the deliberate breaking of those links’ (vii).

This statement may appear romantic, but Ian was a disputatious colleague, and the book eschews easy recipes for life. On the one hand he was a social theorist and teacher of sociology; on the other a practising group analyst and psychotherapist, but he would never declare himself entirely in either camp, and used insights from each to critique the other. The central argument of the book was that social developments in what Ian termed ‘late modern’ societies such as Britain and the USA had ‘contributed to a society in which disappointment and the necessity of disappointment are denied’ (11). In the face of structural pressures towards fragmentation of the self, professional experts from psychotherapists and grief counsellors to sociologists and social campaigners peddled illusions of personal coherence, proposing that grief could be contained within stages, that a ‘true self’ could be discovered, that identity politics could bring about personal liberation from unhappiness, and that the ‘pure relationship’ was a worthy or viable aspiration. His targets include the helping professions of which he was a part, and there are criticisms of psychoanalysts and therapists ranging from Carl Rogers and Heinz Kohut to Donald Winnicott and Susie Orbach, whose leanings toward therapeutic omnipotence (and suspected fantasies of being ‘The Great Therapist’) are revealed while simultaneously their insights are drawn upon. The therapeutic ambition to free people from unhappiness is a mistake. Too often the patient, having learned a language of feeling in therapy, hopes that the ‘ability to articulate and understand feelings should mean that the feelings do not occur, just as somehow finding the causes of the feelings should mean they disappear’ (104).

The book is particularly informed by Ian’s work as a group analyst, with detailed examples from group encounters that demonstrate the illusory nature of the late-modern search for unalloyed happiness. The British object relations tradition informs the commentary throughout, in particular, Melanie Klein’s notion, drawn from her study of early infancy, of two constitutional psychic positions which we traverse throughout life, the ‘paranoid-schizoid’ and ‘depressive’; the former characterised by to a tendency towards fixed thinking and the splitting off and projection outwards of intolerable impulses, particularly aggression, the latter on the capacity to tolerate the pain of guilt and a desire to make good. Ian had an unerring capacity to spot black and white thinking in his clients, colleagues, social theorists, and psychoanalysts, against which he invariably puts the case for grey.

I hadn’t re-read the book since Ian’s death, but the Department’s 60th anniversary, which coincides with the book’s 30th anniversary - the exact half-way point in the Department’s history – gives me reason to return to it. I am struck by how difficult it is now to re-imagine the intellectual habitus of the mid 1990s, and I am struck too by the moral drive of a book that is at the same time profoundly wary of overarching values and sentiments.

I recall a conversation with Ian once he had been diagnosed with cancer a second time and knew he might not survive. Despite having written many books after The Importance– including a classic text with Ted Benton on the philosophy of sociology and a primer on psychoanalytic theory – the legacy that he claimed mattered most to him was that of teacher. ‘How long does a book last’, he asked, ‘ten, twenty years at most?’ Indeed, there is a discussion in the book about the seductions of being a writer, and the fantasies of immortality that come with creating an artefact that will exist in the world beyond one’s life. At one point he remarks a sociological text ‘is as much a symptom of the society it studies as it is a way of producing knowledge’ (87). So, can the book speak to the contemporary world beyond the decade or two that Ian imagined for it?

Ian addresses the reader as ‘we’ throughout, acknowledging that ‘we’ is a selective audience of largely middle-class educated people, but largely unabashed about his assumption that in late modern societies people share emotional predispositions, are subject to similar social pressures, and adopt the same illusions in their struggles against the fragmentation of self. This is a bold stance, and colleagues challenged him about it at the time. Today, however, in an era that is highly sensitive to intersectional differences, it would be very difficult to adopt such a tone. Re-reading the book, I was uncomfortable about being included in this supposed ‘we’, a form of address that undermines the book’s determination to eschew – as the title of Chapter One put it - the ‘Cutting out [of] ginger-bread people.’ When it comes to gender, Ian is trenchant in his criticisms of the perceived determinism of sociologists who look no further than social explanations for what it means to be a man or woman. ‘We are not formed in outline and in detail by cultural stereotypes or socialisation practices: they provide more or less flexible spaces or channels through which we move (139)’. Following Freud, he stresses the polymorphous nature of sexuality, though he also insists on a biological foundation to sex that some sociologists today would question (40). He is critical of identity politics, which he believe tend to lapse into self-reflection rather than achieving change in the world and will not make people happy: ‘it is as if the more narcissistic aim of finding a sense of oneself becomes more important than the altruistic aim of bringing about a desirable social change’ (102).

Institutional politics, politics with a capital ‘P’, are strangely absent from the discussion, and yet as I re-read the book current examples kept coming to mind. Ian speaks powerfully to the present when he urges the reader to resist the seductiveness of perspectives that claim false coherence and sweep the messiness of life under the carpet.’ Let me be clear’ is a phrase often uttered by Conservative politicians, offering the listener an illusion of clarity that fails to acknowledge the intractability and complexity of social issues. Shrill pronouncements about immigration, asylum seekers, climate change activists or trans issues appeal to paranoid-schizoid thinking, they identify internal social threats and enemies which must be banished from the body politic.

Thirty years on the therapeutic culture looks profoundly different, and I wonder what Ian would have made of it. Psychotherapy and psychoanalysis were then more central to mainstream practise but have been marginalised by the growing power of psychiatry to create diagnoses, the demand for ‘evidence based’ methodologies, the popularity and economy offered by shorter-term talking cures and behavioural treatments, and the resort, often for short-term cost reasons, to medication. Ian’s close interrogation of psychoanalytic thinkers, and his criticisms of tendencies toward illusion within psychoanalysis now seem minor quibbles when the ambition to foster intimate helping relationships and work with the deepest levels of human consciousness is even more a minority privilege now than it was then. Yet at the same time, the book’s message about disappointment is perhaps more important than ever. Today psychiatric labels such as ADHD, autistic spectrums, neurodiversity, PTSD and complex PTSD are freely bandied about, and are often embraced because the diagnosis seems to offer certainty and sometimes a promise of identity too: this is who you are, this is why you feel different from others. The message of Disappointment however is that the anxieties and difficulties in life that most of us experience are not illnesses, they are a normal part of the human condition and cannot be wished away through medical diagnoses or therapeutic techniques. The best that can be achieved is a state of what Freud termed ‘ordinary unhappiness’, or Ian describes as being ‘sadder but wiser’. In so far as there is such a thing as a talking cure, it lies in the realistic recognition of what therapy cannot achieve.

By Professor Michael Roper
May 2024