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Mitchell, S.A. (1986). Roots and Status. Contemp. Psychoanal., 22:458-466.

(1986). Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 22:458-466

Roots and Status

Stephen A. Mitchell, Ph.D.

AMONG THE MANY IMPORTANT and fruitful ideas which Sullivan developed, the concept I have found most important in broadening my own perspective and stimulating my own thinking has been the notion of the interpersonal field. The way an observer approaches and defines the object of study, Sullivan argued, goes a long way in determining what sort of data he will come up with and how he will account for them.

For Freud, the object of study in psychopathology is the individual mind. His "intrapsychic" model traces neurotic symptoms back to processes and structures arising within the mind of the patient. Sullivan felt that Freud had incorrectly framed the phenomena in question. Psychopathology is best approached, Sullivan believed, not in terms of one person, but in the context of actual interactions among persons, in terms of what he called the "interpersonal field." Personality and psychopathology do not exist in germinal form within the child, simply unfolding as a bud into a blossom; personality and psychopathology derive from, are composed of, interactions between the child and significant others. To understand the person in a meaningful way, you have to view the person in the context of the field from which he or she emerged and operates.

In my view, this illuminating approach to persons is also usefully applied to the history of ideas.

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