4 MAY 2009
Bruner (1990) has argued for what he has called "folk psychology"; the "system by which people organize their experience in, knowledge about, and transactions with the social world" (p. 35). He argues that in every culture there exists such a folk psychology and that it is this system which forms the particular frame for people to understand and guide their behaviour and within which meaning is given to actions. Within a particular folk psychology system, for example, actions come to be symbols that represent certain meanings and in essence form an "interpretive system" (p.34). In order to understand the meaning of a particular action, one must understand the interpretive system, therefore, which frames it. In simple terms, while in one culture the gesture of offering help may be interpreted as a gesture of caring, in another it may be interpreted as a sign that the person needing help is seen as weak. There is then, a cultural meaning to actions and words, and we need to understand the cultural meaning that the young person brings to any interaction.
While the culture forms the framework for interpretation, the individual brings to the meaning-making process their own particular idosyncratic orientation (Pharis, 1993). While two people raised in the same culture will have a tendency to give the same meaning to an action, the individual influence will determine the final meaning. Thus, again, while within a particular culture the gesture of offering help, in general, may be seen as a statement that the individual needing help is seen as weak, a person's individual experience may lead her to interpret this gesture differently. If, for example, a young person who received help was at the same time appreciated for her strengths and abilities, she may have learned to see helping as a form of support. We need, therefore, not only to know the individual's culture, but the individual.
One could argue equally for the existence of a family folk psychology - an interpretive system of values and beliefs which operate in a family and serve as the frame for meaning making in that particular family which may be different, in ways dramatic or subtle, from the frame which operates in other families. This 'family frame' may help us to understand why it appears that young people tend to recreate in the group care situation or the foster care situation the problems and dynamics which are present in their life outside of care (Yalom, 1990). If, for example, certain gestures or actions in the young person's family were associated with caring, the young person may try to evoke these actions from the foster parent, in order to be convinced that the foster parent actually does care.
A young woman came from a family where the parents, whenever they were angry with one of the children, raised their voices loud, yelling at the youth. Afterwards, the parents and youth would come closer together and the youth were constantly told that 'daddy yells at you because he loves you and worries about you'. When she moved in to a foster home where the caregivers did not raise their voice or yell, she was convinced that this meant they did not care for her. As a result, and because she wanted to know that they cared about her, she kept doing things to make them more angry hoping that eventually they would yell at her.
This thinking could also help us to understand why it is that a behaviour which a foster parent finds unacceptable may not be seen as a problem by someone else, especially the family of the young person. Given that a family is, for most family members, a validating context and that behaviours within a family serve an, individual function (Garfat, 1991, 1998), the actions of a family member which we, as professionals, find unacceptable, may be valued by the family within a different "meaning frame", and thus be acceptable to them. For example, while the foster parent may interpret the use of a swear word to be rude, the young person's family may simply see it as a symbol of normalcy or even of belonging. Thus we see the same action interpreted differently because of the family culture from within which it is being interpreted.
A young boy was admitted in to care because of difficulties he was having at school. He was, among other things, always swearing - using inappropriate language even when he was not angry. He would, for example, look directly at a teacher and say, "l have to go to the fucking bathroom." This behavior was seen as unacceptable and a sign that he was socially incompetent and provocative. Part of the initial treatment plan included the elimination of such expressions from his repertoire. As part of the helping process a worker went to the family home one evening. She arrived as the family was sitting at the table for dinner and so she joined them. After a few minutes of small talk, the father looked her straight in the eye and said "Pass the fucking salt, will you." A few minutes later, the other son said that he thought the meal was "fucking good". The worker quickly realized that, in this family, the use of such language was the norm. If anything, it seemed to signal belonging.
Garfat, T. (2002). 'But that's not what I meant':
Meaning-making in foster care. Irish Journal of Applied Social
Studies, 3, 1. pp. 116-117.
Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Cambridge, Mass. Harvard University Press.
Garfat, T. (1991). SET: A framework for supervision in child and youth care. The Child and Youth Care Administrator, 4, 1. pp.12-18.
Garfat, T. (1998). The effective child and youth care intervention. Journal of Child and Youth Care, 12, 1-2. pp. 1-168.
Pharis, M.E. (1993). The creation of meaning. Social Work, 38, 3. pp. 354-355.
Yalom, I.D. (1992). When Nietzsche Wept. New York. Harper.