Context and measurement

Concern with context in the social sciences was central to the Geisteswissenschaften and the problem of meaning was discussed widely in Germany in the late nineteenth century.(5) The ideas were introduced into sociology by Max Weber(6) and into psychiatry by Karl Jaspers,(7) although none of these early writers showed how to apply the methods systematically to concrete examples/8) Jaspers, in his Allegemeine Psychopathologie, emphasized the way in which Verstehen, or understanding, on the part of an investigator 'depends primarily on the tangible facts' (i.e. verbal contents, cultural factors, people's acts, ways of life and expressive gestures) in terms of which the connection is understood, and which provides the objective data.(7) While this view influenced the approach to meaning in what follows, there is one major difference. No attempt has been made to extend the method to make a link between a particular set of circumstances so defined and the development of a particular psychiatric episode. The method is restricted to making a judgement about the likely meaning of a set of circumstances in the light of whatever 'tangible factors' about past and present appear relevant. Once this has been established, any link with disorder is explored using established scientific procedures.

As noted by Jaspers, it has been possible to take note of cultural factors; for example, when rating the likely implications of a birth, as part of research among women in a black township in Zimbabwe, we took into account the importance placed on a wife producing a male child for her husband and his family. (9)

A second, more limited, use of context deals with the actual observation of emotion. ^l1) The Camberwell Family Interview, by taking account of verbal and vocal aspects of speech, for example, considers how far a parent's talk about a son or daughter conveys 'criticism' rather than 'non-critical' dissatisfaction. (1,13) The relevant context is here limited to the interview itself and what this conveys about a person's emotional style.(1. I5) In everyday life we automatically make allowances for the fact, say, that some people show warmth in a more open way and even expressed in an extroverted fashion, and, by taking this into account in the rating of expressed emotion, it is possible for quite disparate expressive styles to be counted as equivalent, for example in rating 'warmth'.

Such use of context makes it possible to take account of individual differences even when dealing with core sociological concepts. For example, working-class mothers in North London have been shown to differ substantially in commitment to roles such as 'mother' or 'wife'. This is judged by how enthusiastically activities typical of the roles are spoken about in an interview encouraging them to talk at length about their lives.

Breaking Bulimia

Breaking Bulimia

We have all been there: turning to the refrigerator if feeling lonely or bored or indulging in seconds or thirds if strained. But if you suffer from bulimia, the from time to time urge to overeat is more like an obsession.

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